07 febbraio 2006

Organized crime: Mafia symbolism and "branding"

Much of the Mafia image revolves around symbols associated with mysticism (symbols borrowed from religious orders, secret societies, military history), mystification (unique bits of terminology, coded language) and styles of self-presentation (a reciprocal cross-feeding of local and global cultural resources with images borrowed from literature and art). There is drama associated with Mafia identity and Mafia activity, even if much of the actual activity of people involved in such groups is in fact quite unglamorous and dull.

There are two ways of dealing with this complex of symbolism. One is to take it all at face value, and to understand the mythology of the Mafia as a (realistic) representation of the actual thing. The other is to disregard the whole complex of symbols as an elaborate fiction. Gambetta opts for a middle path, arguing that the myth lends force to a reality which would not otherwise be able to manifest itself (129), that is to say that the image of organized crime is both related to reality (even if this relation is in many ways distorted or instrumentalized) and useful in constructing reality (in the sense that real mafiosi draw on and take advantage of myths).

The use of symbols is related to the maintenance of secrecy. It allows communication to take place by suggestion rather than directly, and the lack of detail plays a role in maintaining a menacing atmosphere (131), which may allow for threats to made more successfully than they might be if they had to be made directly, or if they had to made in such a way that the content of the threats was clear. The point: even if symbols are not true, they are not meaningless either.

A good number of the images associated with organized crime in popular thinking (a style of dress, sunglasses, paricular types of coded speech and gesture) come from popular film. Here the influence can be reciprocal: mafiosi may model styles of presentation after images in film, and in some cases (Gambetta cites news reports indicating that the Japanese yakuza does this, 135) may actively participate in the promotion and production of some of these images.

Symbol Number One: the name Mafia. It is not a word native to the Italian language or to Sicily. Gambetta's best guess is that it came through the Arabic language by way of slang. See his linguistic-historical discussion (136-137). He suggests, the very word mafia was generated externally from a fictional source loosely inspired by the real thing, but that also the word can be said to have created the phenomenon (137). Organized crime groups existed, but a playwright (probably inadvertently?) created a collective label and a brand name for them. Similarly with the popular label cosa nostra (literally: our thing), which seems to have made a journey from an informal expression of evasion (one of many) to a semiofficial label (the FBI capitalizes it as La Cosa Nostra and abbreviates it to LCN).

So in a sense Mafia or cosa nostra are corporate names. But they are different from the corporate names of legal corporations, because they cannot be promoted through advertising or protected by trademark. This means that any kind of advertising, which creates a resource of identity on which mafiosi can draw, relies on informal cultural means of diffusion. One implication of this is that usages by people outside the group are at least as important as usages by people inside the group (140). Insiders have a role, however: a successful trademark works if 1) it is adopted by them, and 2) if there is some means of maintaining exclusivity over it (141).

So how consistent and stable are the rituals by which possession is maintained? Any semireligious people in here: in my experience, when my family tries to do a religious ritual, we are always faced with the problem of people who are familiar with different versions of it, or who do not know it, or who know only parts of it. My favorite sentence in Gambetta's trademarks chapter is his quotation of a newspaper report from Hong Kong: When police raided a Triad initiation ceremony recently they discovered that celebrants were conducting the ritual by reference to a description in the police manual (149). This tells us two things: 1) as with other kinds of rituals, mafia rituals suffer from the erosion of content, meaning and knowledge that happen over time, and 2) the existence of the ritual itself may be as important as any content of the ritual; this is what maintains the collective identity of the group. Perhaps more importantly, the mystical (or mystifying) elements of the ritual establish the uniqueness of the world that has been entered by means of it.

What to conclude from this:

1) fiction contributes to the creation of reality;

2) one of the contributions of fiction was to establish a valuable trademark in the form of the mafia name and image;

3) the trademark is maintained on the one hand by successfully preventing others from making use of it;

4) and on the other hand by a system of mutual recognition of the right to use it.

This helps us in a couple of ways: it explains some of the interaction between fact and fiction in the social life of illegal organizations, and it also explains how a collective Mafia identity can be maintained, regardless of how loosely interconnected the groups of people involved in it might be.