March 30, 2014
University of Toronto
From the colloquia series “Feminist & Queer Approaches to Technoscience”
This talk is an earlier version of “Keep on Copyin’ in the Free World? Genealogies of the Postcolonial Pirate Figure,” published in Postcolonial Piracy: Media Distribution and Cultural Production in the Global South, ed. Lars Eckstein and Anja Schwarz (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2014).
Nicole Charles: Hi, everyone, welcome again. So, as Patrick said, my name is Nicole Charles and I am a PhD student at WGSI here at UofT and it’s truly a pleasure to introduce Professor Kavita Philip as part of the iSchool Colloquium Series today. Professor Philip is a professor of history at the University of California, Irvine, where she teaches graduate-level courses in feminist technosciences and the politics of information, as well as undergraduate courses in feminist theory, biology, and biomedical ethics. Professor Philip is the author of the book Civilizing Natures and co-editor of several volumes, including Multiple Contentions, Homeland Securities, and Tactical Biopolitics. Her current book—in progress—is called Proper Knowledge: India’s Science, Technology and Postcolonialism, and her articles have appeared in prominent journals, including Cultural Studies, Postmodern Culture, and Environment and History. From 2008 to 2011, Professor Philip also served as the director of the Critical Theory Institute, where she was involved in the authorship, coordination, and editing of the document Poor Theory: Notes Toward a Manifesto. Poor Theory crafts a political intervention of sorts, inviting us to do theory for an internal multiplicity of issues, many of which might typically never cohabit within the space of theory. Professor Philip embodies Poor Theory in her own work and engages with issues of postcolonial technopolitics, nature, transnational knowledge, and lived histories of difference. Apart from technoscientific practices in the developing world, Dr. Philip’s interests range from Jungian theory to gender and globalization, and, of course, transnational technocultures and the history of STS, to which she will be speaking in today’s talk.
Professor Philip joins us here today with glowing reviews from our own professors here at UofT—Dr. Philip is touted here as one of the smartest people in STS, and Professor Murphy has said that she thinks that Kavita is absolutely brilliant generally. Indeed, her thought-provoking work consistently points to the trouble between culture, science, technology, and commerce; she has an affinity for bringing and mixing seemingly diverse concepts like piracy, authorship, and national security with coloniality and even politics. In one of her well-known articles, entitled “What is a Technological Author?,” she stirs some of these more familiar issues and sites in theory with less engaged sites, in an attempt to rethink commodity and modes of reproduction amidst forms of piracy and hacking and these stigmatized technical practices today. For interdisciplinary students such as myself, interested in questions surrounding biomedical technologies and postcolonial biopolitics, much of Professor Philip’s work offers a wonderful model of the importance of uncovering and grappling with frictions in an effort to theorize the development of science and technology in postcolonial societies. Her work on biopolitics, for instance, pushes me to contend with the ways in which postcolonial politics are not only integrated and connected to but bound up in science and technology, and it reveals unprecedented relationships between technological innovations and imagined postcolonial futures. In this way, she reminds us all of what we must engage in today, in an age of transnational technological simultaneity, to think the racialized, gendered, and perhaps caste contours of technological orders. As well as activists, she says, we must persistently question whether historical modes of domination are not messily and perhaps contradictorily implicated in new technological ways of being and in a current state of being regularized as citizen subjects. What an absolute pleasure it is to have her here with us today. Please join me in warmly welcoming Dr. Kavita Philip.
Kavita Philip: Thank you, Nicole. That was a wonderful introduction. Well, I don’t know if I can live up to that—I’m going to fall on my face right now. So thank you so much, Nicole, for that introduction, which I can barely recognize myself in, and thank you, Patrick, for organizing this, what sounds like an amazing series all year. So my title has changed, but I’m talking very much in continuity with a conversation that includes several people beyond this room, most immediately a group of people we call the Labor Tech Reading Group, the place for which was supplied by the Intel Center for Social Computing at UCI, but much more broadly and transnationally, people like Lawrence Liang in India and Brian Larkin, who’s worked on Nigeria, and a whole set of discourses that now goes under the name of postcolonial piracy. Since I wrote that piece on the technological author in 2005, it’s been almost a decade and the discussion about postcolonial piracy has sort of matured and even gone into a second wave, if you like, even though we abjure the language of waves for what it implies, but what I’m talking is very much in medias res. It’s in the middle of a conversation, so if there are parts that you need me to fill in, I’m happy to go in at the end of the talk, and I’m also doing this in sort of two parts.
Today I’m going to talk about cultural theory, and the ways in which I want to frame this kind of come back to a question that many of us thought of ten years ago. One might think of today’s talk as a cultural reframing, or a cultural-theoretical materialist reframing. And tomorrow, to your graduate student group, I’m going to talk about economics, political economy, and infrastructures. And that requires us to look at charts and things, and I figured for a smaller group we could look at those PowerPoints in more detail.
But to get started, we all know the cultural weight of piracy today. “Piracy’s the new radio, that’s how music gets around,” said Neil Young in 2012. Now in 1989, the same rock icon had sung “Keep on Rocking in the Free World.” That song’s lyrics, which was voted by Rolling Stone as one of the 500 most famous rock anthems of all time, had suggested a link between the rhetoric of the Reagan/Bush years, the gutting of the welfare state, and the ways in which the American dream of unlimited consumption and mobility depends on the expansion of exploitation and deprivation. You might think of this, in a way, as the pop-culture equivalent of what academics had just started, in the ’80s, talking about as neoliberal cultural domination, right. But the refrain repeating the now classic title line was an ironic doxology marking the realm of rock music as a space of freedom—this was from his album with that title—even while implicating the Western consumer in a global geopolitics of expropriation. So two decades later, Neil Young controversially yokes music production itself with a new story of globalization, we see here, reshaped by the phenomenon of peer-to-peer sharing. The connections between these two moments are, of course, larger than the biography of one musician, and I’m not going to do that biography here because “Keep on Rocking in the Free World” belongs in the context of over a century of American activist folk music—from Lead Belly, born in 1888, to Ani DiFranco, born in 1970—calling attention to the ways in which patriotism and profits are dependent on a hidden calculus by which the freedoms of some are won at the expense of the liberties of others. For much of the twentieth century, the realm of culture had stood rhetorically outside the realm of economics and politics, its real or imagined autonomy—and I would question the putative realness of that, but that’s another story—offering provisional space from which to mount a critique of US social norms. Musicians, writers, and visual and performance artists appeared to live in a public sphere rich with alternative social commentary and creativity, countercultural practices, and a set of imaginative resources shared in a global commons. In the twenty-first century, this picture started to dissolve.
From the late twentieth century, as culture itself had increasingly become a target for direct capture by capital, the producers of cultural value and knowledge noticed the ways in which their work was being valued differently and circulating in apparently changed commodity circuits. Cultural critics described this moment as marking various kinds of watersheds. It was identified as the historical moment when knowledge became a production, labor became immaterial, and intangible things became property. World trade conferences and global treaties on customs and tariffs were no longer left to economists and lawyers. Cultural theorists poured over TRIPS, WTO, and GATT documentation. As “intellectual property” became the favored tool for the capture of cultural value by capital, the resistant analysis of property rights, too, exceeded the writ of legal analysis. And I was very much part of this kind of move by cultural and historical theorists.
In a historical period that seemed to respond to the sedimentation of modern disciplines which happened in the eighteenth century, humanities and social-science scholars in the late twentieth century precipitated, then, the emergence of spaces of inquiry. These new knowledge formations were fundamentally interdisciplinary, marking a shift from the disciplinary thrust of eighteenth-century scholarly institutionalizations. And that previous disciplinarization had actually been incredibly powerful. The field formations around law, economics, politics, and culture that had thus far shaped the legibility of some questions about human society—and all disciplines do silence other questions—began to be seen through their constituent contradictions, rather than as transparent repositories of objective knowledge. So in a sense, the function of disciplinization and the accumulation of positive objective knowledge seemed to be coming into a different phase. Some of the key contradictions in this discourse now revolved around fraught questions of power, race, class, and sexuality, issues that had silently shaped every key event in the intellectual, political institutions of modernity itself. Fault lines around these questions had become increasingly visible over two centuries of anti-colonial, anti-racist, working-class, and regional or identity-based movements.
In these new discussions, then, several figures emerged as standard-bearers for resistant visions of anti-, post-, or alternative modernities. The Third World woman, the indigenous person, the global activist, and other figures crystallized these emergent critiques of modernity. All these figures showed continuities and resonances with older histories of oppression, but re-emerged in specific ways in the late twentieth century, bridging the gaps between the state, multilateral institutions, academia, policy, and activism, bearing the anxieties and hopes that no disciplinary formation could contain and that no single disciplinary critique could articulate. Each of them carried divergent semiotic readings and political tendencies, including revolutionary promise, reformist hope, and romantic nostalgia. The figure of the Third World woman, for example, could index the gaps in social-scientific theorizing about unmarked male subjects, spurring theoretical and policy revisions, but it could also devolve into an abstract signifier of pathos, losing the specificity of embodied women’s histories. The figure of the indigenous person, too, is fraught, walking the fine line between the political power of solidarities from below, on the one hand, and the romanticist construction of premodern authenticity and the noble savage, on the other. Perhaps the most intriguing and controversial figure to emerge out of the critical political ferment of the late twentieth century has been that of the pirate. Unlike the woman and the indigenous person, the pirate has never been honored by the United Nations with an “International Year” of concern and attention. Unlike the “girl child” or the “tribal,” the pirate figure has not been taken up by states or by corporations as an object of charitable intervention. More intransigent and harder to sentimentalize than most resistant archetypes, the pirate figure seems to offer a nuanced and extensible critique of modernity.
By the beginning of the twenty-first century, the pirate figure moved from margin to center, looming as a larger-than-life political threat to state and capital and becoming a resistant popular cultural figure for anti-capitalists and libertarians. In a simultaneous replay of physical maritime piracy and a virtual property appropriation that juxtaposed historical memory and future anxieties, pirate figures as diverse as Somali sailors, Swedish hackers, and a German political party constituted some of the most compelling public spectacles of the century’s first decade. This malleability also constitutes some of its most perplexing characteristics. On the one hand, the implied continuity between maritime piracy and information piracy rests on a strained metaphor, the theft of the former involving intangible goods and labor, the latter being digital and therefore infinitely reproducible. So one can see the ways in which this metaphor serves the purposes of anti-piracy efforts strategically. Classifying information copiers with robbers, thieves, and anti-state actors could serve a particular political purpose in that labeling. Historians have been resilient and earnest in pointing out that lack of metaphorical overlap, but we’re to understand that it’s served a political purpose. Anti-copyright and pro-commons activists inverted this political valuation, radically challenging the legal system itself, its inadequacies and inefficiencies exposed, they argued, by information piracy. And that sort of move to expose ideology has been an important part of that resistant mode, right—the sort of unmasking of ideology. The politics of the pirate accusation were inverted in a different way again in the charge of biopiracy, in which Western states and corporations were represented as the robbers, taking indigenous knowledge and intangible goods and biological resources away from developing countries, profiting illegitimately by appropriating the common property of mankind. We see here a glimpse of the myriad ways in which the ethical charge carried by the pirate figure was subject to constant contestation and shapeshifting at the turn of the twentieth century.
The first decade of the twenty-first century, then, was characterized by a contest that occurred on multiple fronts—rhetorical, political, economic, and technological—to redraw understandings of property. Many commentators observed that the redrawing of property on such a scale had not happened since the eighteenth century: the enclosure and privatization of rural land, the transformation of agrarian commons to estate property, and the growth of factory labor. The historical continuities and structural similarities we can read in the transformations of property, a category at the heart of modern capitalism, are indeed startling, and I’ve spent a lot of my time excavating these as a historian. But the historical particularities of the twenty-first century and the ways in which property comes to turn on legal and social understandings of the digital drew attentive analyses as well. And I was constantly torn between a kind of structuralist historical impulse to see continuities and patterns and a kind of impulse toward novelty and this moment as being unique.
The choice to emphasize either capital’s continuities or digital difference often masks underlying disciplinary and ideological divides. Historical materialists tend to dwell on continuity and structure, while anarchists and technological enthusiasts tend to celebrate rupture and the digital age’s radical novelty. Rather than adjudicating between the two today, or advocating a balanced middle ground—like Fox News—I think of the relationship between them as a dynamically modulated articulation of different modes of economy. So rather than writing from the point of view of particular pirate actors, my inquiry is structured around a methodological question: what insights emerge from tracing the historical and political functioning of the figure of the pirate as a constitutive element in the knowledge economy? One benefit of this analytical move—tracing structure and genealogy, rather than beginning from advocacy on behalf of individual actors like pirates—is that it acknowledges the fuzziness of the ethical charge and the fuzziness of the metaphoric reference in all pirate discourses. If you actually get into the piracy literature, which is now voluminous, you’ll notice that people are constantly trying to draw differences and say, well, this metaphor refers to this and that one to that, right. But I want to actually work with the fuzziness. So while not denying the political urgency of many pro-commons discourses in defense of piracy in the global South, which I have been part of before, this methodological approach seeks modes of analysis that sidestep the now common modes of theorizing pirates such as—and I’m going to quote Epstein and Schwartz, who list some of these—the corporate criminalizing of postcolonial piracy, which is by transnational lobbying agencies who continue to advocate that particular line; “the scapegoating of ‘Asian piracy’ to profile a more enlightened free culture”—we see this in the Lessig followers; or “the celebration of postcolonial piracy as anti-capitalist resistance”, and we see this in many activists in the global South. A Southern regional emphasis, in fact, was very important in the first wave, if you will, of pirate discourses, in that they did bring underrepresented case studies to the attention of metropolitan readers and policymakers.
But to some extent, all our metaphors of globalism are in need of revision. Global South and North, center and periphery, First and Third Worlds, Western and Non-Western—these categories are all useful to mark historical divisions, but inadequate to the analytical task of gaining understanding of the rapidly changing present and shifting futures of information cultures and economies. Reading pirate narratives from the former margins of empire, in what are now the emerging power centers of the global market, genealogical readings insist on doing more than simply adding these to an understudied topics list in the roster of pirate studies. In the task of rewriting pirate histories and futures, rather, we must also rethink the language of global analysis itself.
So what are these genealogies of the pirate figure? Scholarly work on information sharing among the economically marginalized has now brought postcolonial pirate studies to a global audience, and that’s where I got these analytical frames that I just quoted: Lars Eckstein and Anja Schwartz from Potsdam University in Berlin put together several conferences and now an edited volume on that. How might we acknowledge both the importance of historical continuity, then, as I’ve argued, in the populist politics of piracy, as well as account for the novelty of digital copying? Avoiding this binary of rupture versus continuity in pirate studies, a genealogical approach beginning from the economic, political, philosophical, and academic margins of informational discourses can productively shape our forms of attention to practices that are constitutive of the global knowledge economy, is what I’m claiming. As many writers from the global South have argued, the “improper,” or criminalized, sharing that happens in industrializing economies has many historical precedents. The copying and distribution of information and culture in all forms, from paper to digital, from music to film, can be seen as a response from the global South to centuries of unequal taking and sharing resources of all kinds. It could also be seen as a continuation, in the global South, of practices that until recently were common in the North as well. For example, “improper” sharing practices recall forms of appropriation that American book publishers practiced in the nineteenth century, when they took content protected in Britain and reproduced it without permission or fees for American consumers—and that’s obviously from Adrian Johns’s work. There are other historical precedents for the taking of resources from one part of the world for the benefit of another, and economic hegemonies of the future will be shaped, of course, to a significant extent by the outcome of the pirate wars of the early twenty-first century. So there’s a sense in which the historians and sociologists of today are also theorizing the ways in which we think of or conceive the future.
At the same time, the pirate figure, who has become a popular children’s hero in North America, functions within diverse US multicultural subcultures as a raced, gendered subaltern who effects the inversion of hegemonic power relations. The pirate has, of course, commonly spoken for power’s others. In 1995, Jo Stanley’s popular history of women pirates located pirates’ resistant appeal in their direct challenge to the state, a feature that made them attractive to libertarians as well as leftists. Pirates, Jo Stanley suggested, foreground the “existence and reality of [the state’s] political power as fiction, a powerful insubstantiality.” It may be this implicit critique of the state and its management of the global market that links the heroic image of maritime pirates with the more recent anarchist aura of digital pirates.
The swashbuckling pirate figure has a pop-cultural history that has inspired numerous modern books, from the scholarly Many-Headed Hydra (Linebaugh and Rediker, 2002) to the populist Outlaws of the Ocean (Mueller and Adler, 1985). But their popularity and influence goes further back. Daniel Defoe, author of Robinson Crusoe, was fascinated by all manner of vagabonds and rogues and especially pirates. His 1724 book A General History of the Pyrates—which was for over 200 years attributed to a fictitious pirate author, Captain Charles Johnson—was actually based on Defoe’s contacts in the commercial and naval maritime world. On stage, the Gilbert and Sullivan classic Pirates of Penzance premiered in New York in 1879 and remained popular for over a century. On film, the first decade of the twenty-first century was filled with versions of the fantasy adventure series Pirates of the Caribbean. By this time, pirates had become such a staple of American popular culture that the film, itself inspired by a theme-park ride, featured self-referential pop-culture jokes and allusions; Johnny Depp played the pirate hero Captain Jack Sparrow with an ironic populist version of Brechtian alienation.
Pirates have long had a marginal, but persistent, presence in counterculture narratives of modernity, rising to the foreground in particular moments and fading to the background in others, but never quite disappearing. Towards the end of the twentieth century, I’ve argued, they once again took center stage in a number of both official and resistant discourses. Unlike the nostalgic and politically harmless portraits of tenderhearted pirates in American popular culture, the new millennium brought with it pirates from the dark side of globalization and digital culture, threatening the merging architectures of world trade. Somali fishermen who lived in the ruins of colonial legacies of uneven development, reportedly displaced from their livelihoods by war and neoliberalism, took to literal piracy, robbing ships in the Indian Ocean. In response, the US government sponsored talks to build links between commercial shipping and naval power of the kind not seen since the days of early modern piracy. And you actually see a buildup of a kind of former war economy in the face of this supposed maritime threat. Roughly contemporaneous with the re-emergence of maritime piracy was the naming of a new form: digital piracy. It had no relation to robbery on the high seas; rather, it seems a practice more akin to copying than to traditional robbing. At first it seemed limited to a small, specialized group of computer users; it wasn’t that easy to copy in the early days. Occupying an economic and material sphere far removed from both seventeenth-century sea pirates and from contemporary Somali fishermen’s lives, its only similarity to their struggle was in its close fit with the argument in Augustine of Hippo’s famous epigram about Alexander and the pirate. In both cases, governments engaged battle by deploying the full range of the powers of the state against the threat, while pirates fought for their autonomy with fugitive, guerrilla-like tactics.
At the beginning of the twenty-first century, this young, computer-literate population—with its initial roots in technologically elite institutional contexts in the 1970s, such as MIT, but diversify and spreading over the next four decades—found itself at the helm of a new technology. To many in these circles, the conditions seemed right for a global “reboot.” Knowledge and power could, it seemed, easily be passed to groups that aspired to change everything about the enunciative conditions and destructive constructs of knowledge itself. Even as digital technology promised unprecedented creative agency to a multitude of globally dispersed social formations, its ownership was being refigured by states and corporations. So you see, at every turn we have this kind of dialectic between state power, corporate power, as well as resistant formations. And I think the problem I’ve been having with the standard pirate discourse is they tend to sediment around one of these. In the four or five decades since computations started to centrally shape technoscientific and economic activity, the stakes have shifted from the control of hardware and software to the imbrication of culture itself with the power of state and capital. State- and corporate-led anti-piracy crackdowns grew increasingly successful in reclaiming the new digital spaces with the play of commodified consumerism, rather than of free exchange, which was, say, Stallman’s early dream. Pirates of different kinds struggled to stay current. As anarchist literary critic Chris Taylor argues, “the growth of signifying practices”—this is Chris Taylor—“in spaces formerly understood as ‘private’ or ‘cultural’ domains now marks the new ways in which state and capital enhance their mutual imbrications, and develop their power relations, with/through our network subjectivities.” And of course Chris Taylor writes this on his blog, so it’s sort of occasional and activist-based observations, but in a broad sense piracy as a metaphor is now understood beyond the literal meanings of copying. Chris Taylor, for instance, is not concerned with digital copying itself; rather, it’s a phenomenon that in its largest sense is best understood in dialogue with a range of political meanings of data. From the libertarian discourses associated with networks of criminality, such as those associated with Dread Pirate Roberts of the Silk Road to the discourses of leaked information and state secrets associated with the global media storm around Julian Assange and Edward Snowden, projects of citizen security and state consolidation of emerging forms of property often provoke taxonomies, as I’ve said, of the pirate.
In such taxonomies, students who create music mashups are different from Chinese street hawkers ripping film copies. Corporate office-software theft is different from outsourcing, which is different again from geek leakers in private–public partnerships with the state—like Snowden. Taxonomies then provoke analytical searches to delineate precisely where the fuzzy overlaps are among pirate categories, so as to know what kinds of pirates one might guard against and which kinds of technological precautions should be used. But a genealogical approach to pirates differs from both taxonomies and chronological histories of information, theft, and appropriation.
The third millennium’s pirate is both a medieval throwback and a contemporary figure. She is a “barbarian” at the civilized city’s gates, as well as an “asymmetric threat”—this is a term used in security discourse now—to the global future of the rule of law and free markets. This pirate traffics in both goods and services, engages markets and materials, and deploys know-how and networks. Rather than taxonomies, a genealogical approach observes the ways in which this pirate has come to shape the border between legal and criminal attitudes towards property. Materially, discursively, and conceptually, the “pirate function” is embedded in the textual and economic practices of transnational circuits of the late twentieth century.
So how do we understand the resurgence of the pirate figure, and how might we read pirates within their political context rather than as historical outliers or marginal figures? Pirates have recently occupied a structural position in the digital economy corresponding to the threatening, constitutive outside of digital optimism. The political consequences of the digital revolution are thrown into relief by focusing on the role of this dark outside and its role in undergirding the standard optimistic claim of global connectivity and economic development popularized by global development agencies and philanthropists. The pirate as boundary object is a key feature of the twenty-first-century political economy. Despite the global nature of the economy, though, both academic and activist analyses of the pirate still seem to cluster in ways that keep the Euro-American pirate separate from the pirate of color. The Western and the postcolonial pirate haunt each other in ways that seem to recall center–periphery models of global economies and subjectivities. But this historical figuration of an unmarked center and a racialized outside, in which the rational, technical worker is haunted by the notion of the irrational savage, does not entirely predict or encompass the scope of this emergent, tech-savvy, recalcitrant figure who evokes the histories and figures of anarchism. In other words, I became unsatisfied with that sort of mode that we get from, say, a 1980s model of cultural studies analysis. But rather than simply internationalizing the figure of the pirate, a move that employs an additive logic, we might notice the necessity of the outside or alien figure as a border that constitutes the recalcitrant but reformable pirate on the inside of the same border.
The constitutive role of the figure on the other side of a border has most commonly been analyzed in philosophical analyses of desire and recognition. In this sense, the pirate might be seen as the other of the disciplined consumer of corporate information, psychically figuring both the threat of the outside and the feared or desired subject that shapes the legally bound, repressed bourgeois self. The notion of the regulatory boundary was famously framed for contemporary political analysis, of course, by Judith Butler, describing her own work this way as a reframing of these Hegelian questions: “What is the relation between desire and recognition, and how is it that the constitution of the subject entails a radical and constitutive relation to alterity?” The bourgeois self has been radically challenged by much of the new critical humanities of the late twentieth century. The pirate figure offers a way to track the ways in which neoliberal governmentality has reshaped the subjects of technology and of modernity at the turn of the century.
The genealogical study of the pirate figure that I’m advocating would draw from work that philosophers have done on subjectivity and desire, but in addition, it would need to draw from the sphere of social science as well as the historiography of technology, which this work doesn’t necessarily engage with. A historiography of technology in this context might draw, of course, on STS, but also on Foucault’s notion of biopolitics and governmentality, which have already been key to humanist theorizing. To read the pirate as boundary object and border figure is to invoke a range of analytic registers which cross the so-called humanist social science/digital sort of way in which schools are divided up. So how do we actually cross those frames? We all call for interdisciplinarity, right, but what are the kind of methods that we might use? Here are three conceptual frames borrowed from social and historical disciplinary conversations that I think most of us are part of: the sociological, the cartographic, and the critical-historiographic.
We know, probably all of us, that the sociological notion of boundary objects has widely been used by scholars in STS—obviously, Susan Leigh Star is one of those who worked on this most productively. The approach starts, then, by seeing all concepts and objects as embodying dynamic, shifting significations—being, as Star and Griesemer put it, “weakly structured in common use” rather than set in eternally static essences. In other words, what Star and other showed us is that boundary objects shine not primarily as themselves, but as a means of translation. Seeing pirates as boundary objects helped bring into focus the fields stabilizing on all sides of the pirate and thus to see as co-emergent the pirate figure along with the fields with which this figure is always imbricated. And that’s a great help because if you’ve been part of these pirate discourses, you know how anxious the identifications are with these kind of heroic or transgressive figures. The pirate is a weakly defined figure to me, and yet in every period during which the figure has been crucial to drawing the line between law and criminality, order and anarchy, it has been redrawn with obsessive clarity by all sides.
For instance, when I present some of this work to the law school—we have an emerging law school in UCI—they get very anxious about making it fuzzy because what lawyers do is they delineate precisely, right? The pirate figure’s definition in cultural history is undermined early, as in this epigram of Alexander and the barbarian pirate, which invoked power as a relevant structuring field and called the definitions of both sovereign and pirates into question. So there’s a kind of early invocation, and it’s often invoked, as we see in the constant flux in the representation of pirates as heroic, criminal, abject, noble, etc., over these centuries. Early modern pirate chroniclers like Daniel Defoe searched for every detail of pirate life—literally ran around the country interviewing everybody he could find that even knew somebody who knew somebody who knew a pirate. Right. Just as more recent feminist pirate historians have extolled cross-dressing tough girls as gender-bending role models, and modern digital pirate hunters as well as their defenders strive constantly to delineate, clarify, and analyze pirate practices, natures, and functions. The notion of boundary objects gives us a way to track this interpretive flexibility in the pirate figure, which is key to following its otherwise seemingly haphazard history.
It is analytically productive to see the pirate figure as a means of translation, rather than fetishizing a stable notion of the pirate itself. The fetishized pirate, even at its most entertaining—and I have been entertained—allows an implicit assumption that the pirate has become the new heroic or destructive subject of history, depending on your politics. And it paints a picture of associated fields—this fetishized figure, that is—it gives this picture of law and criminality, developed worlds and developing worlds, each of these as clear, static domains, among which dart these tricksters-sans-papier. They don’t have their papers, but they’re darting between these clearly defined fields—they become the problem. The boundaries between state and civil society, corporate and social media, legal and illegal activity, advanced and backward economies have all been radically called into question by the histories of advanced capitalism and postcolonialism. So thinkers such as the irreverent copier, the information thief, the data outsourcer, or the anarchist code sharer help us understand anxieties about the fields coalescing around them. Tracking boundary objects has always helped us trace these anxieties, reminding us that the analytic queries most appropriate to our historical moment are about the fuzziness of these fields and their political consequences, rather than about the policing of these in-between, anxiety-provoking figures.
So the cartographic, then—drawing not from cultural studies, but instead from geographers. Geographers work with notions of borders and boundaries as political and physical features of the world that must be inscribed onto our representative mappings. In many ways, the postcolonial pirate has emerged as the representative figure of a border, inscribing onto new digital cartographies the legacy of colonial knowledge formations. As new media theorist Terry Harpold pointed out in his study of early maps of the internet—and that’s an old paper, but worth looking up for these incredibly beautiful but disturbing maps from the 1990s of the internet—mapmakers’ self-referential insights and geographers’ theoretical discourse were often lost in the euphoric age of digital mapping in the 1990s. Harpold showed how 1990s internet maps obscured transnational historical complexities, reified certain kinds of political hegemonies, and revealed neocolonial aspects of popular network discourse. In other words, critical histories of borders seemed to drop away in the new discourses of digital totality. And for those who haven’t seen that paper, he actually showed early digital maps in which Africa was called the Dark Continent by a mapping of the places where the hubs at the port cities rendered the margins lit up and the interior dark, and so he’s tracked those discourses of political economy in the maps. So how do we understand that? It was very disturbing, the 1990s, because of the force with which colonial stereotypes seemed to return unchallenged in digital discourses. The metaphors of criminality applied to postcolonial pirates recall the anxieties that colonial administrations expressed about nomadic tribes and the tangled socialities of colonial geographies. Entire tribes in India were declared inherently criminal under the Criminal Tribes Act of 1871. At least part of this anxiety can be traced to the late-nineteenth-century need for stable sources of labor in the “tribal” tracts of India’s resource-rich hill areas. In other words, why were they criminal? Why were the nomadic tribes criminal? Partly because they’re moving; their mobility prevented them from being stable sources of labor. Anthropology, religion, and geography formed a nexus of knowledge practices from which the criminal tribal emerged as a subject of law in the late nineteenth century. Tracing the figure of the tribal has been a productive way to reveal the practices of the colonial state and its interfaces with the knowledge practices of the time, of which anthropology and geography and resources and religion were some. Analogously, tracking postcolonial pirates as symptoms of geographic and political borders can be analytically productive, as a method to reveal the ways in which nation-state distinctions are being re-sedimented even while popular discourses of culture proclaim the end of borders.
A third aspect, then: we can understand the pirate figure as border troubler by critical theory. Borders and boundaries do more than represent embedded historical geographies, they play a part in constituting the entire range of human experience, from the development of the individual self through a distinction from an other, to the experience of national identity as forged through its difference from outsiders that we know through decades of studies of nationalism. Humanist theory has elucidated what we might call the subjective life of these borders. The fiction of an autonomous self or a nation or agency begins with, and is constantly reconstituted by, an imagined boundary with an other. Insofar as pirates constitute borders between good and bad citizens as they relate to property, their shifting historical roles help us track not only the social life of objects and their owned, shared, or ambiguously circulating status, but also the corresponding subject positions. And this is key, I think, in the emergence of property as a new subject of anxiety in late capitalism, right. We are urged by the new focus on things to focus on those things and how they circulate, but simultaneously we have the corresponding subject positions. The tracking of these subject positions corresponding to the proper ownership of objects—and this is where I draw my book title in progress Proper Knowledge—the proper ownership of objects helps us recognize the good subject as one who both consolidates not only her products but her own proper self as her own property and respects the proper ownership subjects in her community, which is another properly constituted entity. And here the kind of resonance of the word proper in French with the word for “clean” and also the term in German, eigen, and the ways that it’s used in, say, quantum mechanics, eigenvalues, for me has enormous resonance with the emergence of the proper subject and property. So proper citizenship and subjectivity implied participation and exchange in the chain of properly constituted communities, agents, and objects. It is the shifting constitution of these subject–object assemblages that are of most interest to the critical theorist who traces the genealogical flux of histories of the past, present, and future that pirate figures co-constitute. This shift cannot be described synchronically, and the problem with a lot of pirate studies is they try to describe the now.
A critical theoretical approach that is psychologically and philosophically astute but not historically attentive would miss the ways in which the underlying domain of capital and transnational geopolitics changes the terrain on which subject–object assemblages engage in this chain of exchange. Shifts in the nature of capital flows and productivity are widely acknowledged to be part of the technological landscape in which the contemporary pirate figure operates. But we have yet to see nuanced analyses of the pirate and capitalism that can do more than just posit the pirate as the twenty-first century substitute for the heroic proletarian figure resisting nineteenth-century industrial capitalism. Capitalism has changed since the nineteenth century and so have the figurations of resistance to it. Michel Foucault has sketched a figure of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century agency that offers a more complicated picture than that of the heroic proletarian. Correspondingly, he has helped us understand the state as neither a monstrous Leviathan nor a withering-away sovereign, but as a “co-relative of a particular way of governing.” That way of governing is negotiated in each historical moment, with some periods, of course, being characterized by ruptures. Like the notion of paradigmatic incommensurability in Thomas Kuhn’s work, the notion of rupture in Foucault has often been overdrawn by both supporters and critics. There is both continuity and change in Foucault, and there is much to be gained by reading the present moment, as I would like to, both in continuity with the political economy that emerges in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, but at the same time with many, many deep tears in the fabric of that economy that perhaps tend towards a technological–social rupture in modes of selfhood and governance. Perhaps—because I haven’t figured that one out yet.
But Evgeny Morozov, for instance, has argued that the problem of digital information is too important to be left to experts on technology. Our current period, because of its technological re-shapings of social, legal, and economic behavior, is one in which the contest over civil society—its shape and the nature of the power it wields—are once again dramatically, obviously in play, more radically than at any time since the eighteenth-century shifts that Foucault identified. Through social media it seems that global citizen networks have unprecedented power to shape the course of history, as many elaborations and celebrations of the Arab Spring observed. Through corporate and state deployment of conventional surveillance techniques, as well as novel “big data” analyses, however, it seems to many other, more pessimistic commentators that the powers of surveillance and the efforts to create sovereign, state-regulated communication networks bring the policing powers of the state to unprecedented heights. The swings of global recession and state economic collapses have brought the specters of mass unemployment, immiseration, starvation, and deprivation, as E.P. Thompson talked about, back to everyday experience, in demographic patterns that cross over conventional borders of developed and underdeveloped. Questions of who will live and who will die are posed in ways that the recent histories of liberalism have not prepared us for. In many ways, academics are still reacting to a set of past moments of liberalism and expansion.
The political economy of this technological moment is shifting. From some perspectives, it looks like the renewal of a Bretton Woods–type pact to form new political groupings; at other times it appears that we have entered the era of radically decentered, nonstate, transnational power. Civil society is in the process of being redefined, as everyone—from National Security coders to teenage skateboarders—shapes and is shaped by the surveillance state’s nodes. “Big data” efforts do not have the individuated focus that most associate with the god-like stereotype of the Big Brother surveillance narratives. On all sides of these power equations, everyone is still figuring out what the state, corporations, and activists can do with data and its networks. In this process, the state, civil society, and subjectivity are being reconfigured. The street configuration is not a simple rupture between putatively pre-technological humanist and technologically saturated or posthuman eras. Neither is it a continuous universal dialectic of state versus people power. The ways in which we define civil society will be part of how we shape developments in governmental technology, as we literally design those. We are part of this discussion, and we are shapers of contemporary governmentality, not simply as passive targets of coercive power. “Instead of turning the distinction between state and civil society into an historical universal, enabling us to examine every concrete system,” Foucault reminds us, “we may try to see in it a form of schematization peculiar to a particular technology of government.” “Civil society,” he said, “is like madness and sexuality”—what he called transactional realities:
That is to say, those transactional and transitional figures that we call civil society, madness, and so on, which, although they have not always existed are nonetheless real, are born precisely from the interplay of relations of power and everything which constantly eludes them, at the interface, so to speak, of governors and governed. Civil society, therefore, is an element of transactional reality in the history of governmental technologies, a transactional society which seems to me to be absolutely correlative to the form of governmental technology we call liberalism.
And, in fact, my colleague Julia Elyachar has argued that the word neoliberalism is entirely wrong; she argues we’re still in the period of what Foucault would refer to as liberalism. As Foucault saw madness and sexuality as transactional interfaces that allow us to see the hinges in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century shifts to modern forms of governmentality, I suggest we see piracy as a transactional reality. Rather than investigate specific pirate figures as heroic subjects of the new millennium, we can draw together, out of this rich domain of pirate studies that now exist, a genealogical understanding of how piracy stands at a new set of intersections of knowledge and power: between surveillance and participation, between coercion and consent, between centralized and distributed systems. In the same way that social media participants today are shaping and being subject to emerging technologies of government, pirate scholars, too, are part of the deep shifts in civil society. The future directions of pirate studies are embedded in, shaped by, and co-constituted with the structures of power-to-come—these will define, in a sense, the next steps in pirate studies.
I am almost done here.
These three modes of inquiry I outlined, the sociological, the cartographic, and—the one on which I spent more time—the critical-historiographic are reminders that pirate scholarship is now at a point where we need to move beyond the Bildungsroman with the pirate as hero and toward an understanding of pirate figurations within larger historic and social shifts that have been occurring contemporaneously. These modes of inquiry, in other words, remind us that we need to frame new questions, seeking to understand not so much the characteristics and the motivations of the pirate as a character, but the states and consequences of different mappings of the pirate figure.
The pirate per se, congealed or conjured in its present forms, fascinating though she is, is less interesting as hero, as archetype, or as role model than as discursive trace or genealogical device. While the mapping of the pirate figure itself as a legal, political actor is an important and fascinating study, the mapping of the boundaries between pirates and property-respecting citizens, among well-intentioned, innocent, righteous, or malicious pirates, all of these allow us to map the ongoing constitution of emerging subject positions, technical-cultural objects, and their shifting political-economic habitats. How does the pirate figure come to be rendered a challenging, threatening, or archetypal figure of the time? What transactional realities does it elucidate? Detailed histories of the pirate in each period, including the twenty-first century, are already available, and we can map the enunciative conditions by which the pirate figure comes to act in the world. In recognizing the constitutive role of the outside and in combining that theoretical insight with sociological insights into organizational behavior and technical devices of transnational data sharing, the pirate figure comes into focus, but as a transitional nexus rather than an essence. The next steps in pirate studies might proceed, then, not by a deeper understanding of the pirate figure in itself, but by observing the civil, societal flux and the political and economic conditions which constitute and are constituted by it.