Sunday, January 29, 2012

Force Majeure

I know, I know--hardly a phrase you are likely to use in conversation on any given day. But it did come up in  a group discussion the other evening, and since I had thought I knew what it meant, and was pretty much totally wrong, it seemed fair game for a blog post.

Let's start with the misconception. If I had been asked to guess what force majeure meant, I would have said that it meant something like 'the upper hand'. In fact, I would have thought it came from the realm of card games, and meant a serious hand, or some sort of decisive superiority of resources, such as in a military victory.

It turns out, though, that force majeure is a legal term and a fairly technical one at that. It refers to an inability to fulfill a contract due to an unpreventable and unforeseeable event, like a hurricane or a flood (though not all hurricanes or floods, because some are predictable or at least foreseeable). "An act of God" is one of the situations it covers, but war and unanticipated failures by third parties also fall within its purview. As you can imagine, there are a lot of legal battles over whether force majeure is really at play in a given circumstance. Wikipedia cites a couple of cases in French law, for example where the reason of force majeure was denied, once for a flood because a flood had occurred in the same area 69 years before, and once for an avalanche that occurred in the same area as one fifty years before. It would be interesting to know if American law has as long a memory on such things.

The reason this all came up at the Penny University the other night, though, had nothing to do with contract law. When I walked in, late as usual, there were a couple of guest speakers up front. These turned out to be Newton and Helen Mayer Harrison, who currently have a post in the Digital arts department up at UCSC. I hadn't heard of them before but they are apparently internationally acclaimed eco-artists. The list of projects they've worked on since the seventies is vast and impressive.

One of the projects they worked on recently is called "Force Majeure". Here is how they explain the use of the term in word:

We developed the name “the Force Majeure” to explain the accelerating transaction between aspects of the Global Warming phenomenon and their interaction with the many ecosystems that are under stress or in actual turbulence from over-demand by human activity. This work envisions a counter to the reduction of production and consumption due to market contraction and turbulence that mirrors the shrinking productivity and wellbeing of the world ocean and many, many other overstressed planetary sub-systems.

I have to admit that this is not the easiest text to parse, but they are a lot more down to earth in person. Here is a link to the project on their website at The Harrison Studio , and here is a link to the first section of their keynote speech at UCSC.

12 comments:

  1. Glad to learn of all this. And to learn about the legal meaning of the phrase. I can spring it on the lawyer bro someday!

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  2. Kathleen, it would be interesting to find out whether he has ever been involved in a case arguing it.

    The Harrisons are a very interesting couple. I'm not sure entirely what I thought of them, but they have really been everywhere and worked on a lot of projects in a lot of places. It must have been and continue to be a fascinating life for them.

    And the fact that they were able to hodl their own against some of the blowhards at the Penny says a lot for them.

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  3. I'd have been clueless on this one. Thanks.

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  4. You, Peter? That surprises me.

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  5. Absolutely bloody clueless, except for a guess that it denoted something large and powerful.

    You might have something to add to this discussion.
    ================================
    Detectives Beyond Borders
    "Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"
    http://www.detectivesbeyondborders.blogspot.com/

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  6. Kelly's blog looked interesting. I'm sure I have something I could contribute to that discussion, but it's the kind of thing that's hard to dredge up on command.

    I haven't ever heard that question "Who wrote Dante's Inferno?" by the way. But it doesn't seem that stupid a question, given that there are books called Schindler's List, Carlito's Way and Charlotte's Web, which weren't written by Schindler, Carlito or Charlotte.

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  7. Well, I once asked an Amtrak police officer, “How do I get to Carnegie Hall?” and it was neither a stupid question nor a joke.

    And do you remember the unedifying tale of Terri Schiavo, whose parents, Robert and Mary Schindler, fought a legal battle to keep her on life support when she’d been in a coma for years and had no hope of recovering? Every time a legal ruling went against them and they reacted angrily, I wanted to write the headline “SCHINDLERS PISSED.” Sadly, I never did.
    =================================
    Detectives Beyond Borders
    "Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"
    http://www.detectivesbeyondborders.blogspot.com/

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  8. And if we include the unapostrophed, Finnegans Wake has pretty conclusively been proven not to have been written by Finnegan.

    Speaking of pissed, you might enjoy my recent post on our last meeting here. It doesn't require a Joycean scholar's understanding, to put it mildly.

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  9. I tried to will a definition of Force Majeure to come to me by repeating it out loud with a French accent. No go!

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  10. also this link takes you to a post explaining the term "tender" among other things. have you seen it?

    http://www.3quarksdaily.com/3quarksdaily/2012/01/given-tender-on-naming-in-a-bi-cultural-family.html

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  11. Hmm--that always works for me.

    Well, really it just means greater force, if we're going to get literal about it, which I'm sure you do know, Sheiler.

    I either forgot or was two lazy to mention that there are two films as well as several books that use Force Majeure as titles. I looked into this, because I was sure I had come across it through literature or the arts in some form, but I was unsucessful in tracking it down.

    However, there is an Alan Bates film, which you can only get throught the Alan Bates archive for some reason, and it's not cheap.

    And there is a French one involving young Frenchmen in Southeast Asia. Kristin Scott Thomas is also involved. Might be worth checking out.

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  12. Very nice article at 3 Quarks. I'll make the link to it in case that makes the difference between "I can't be bothered" and checking it out for anyone.

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