The topics of pirates and piracy has been on my mind a lot as of late. In the Early American Criminal Narratives class I have been talking about at length in other places on this blog (see here, here, here, and here) we have come across a few Pirate narratives that have raised some really fascinating discussions in regards to our own understanding of this term at the dawn of the 21st century. Why has the collective fascination with all things piratical been exponentially magnified recently? Can we blame Disney, Johnny Depp, and The Pirates of the Caribbean film franchise? Or do other traces like the international Talk Like a Pirate Day phenomenon (which is September 19th), and the accompanying “How-To Talk like a Pirate” video (watch it below, thanks for the link Scott Leslie) suggest broader trends beyond the merely commercial? Is there any simple way to explain the re-emergence of countless pirate-inspired clothing, T-shirts, toys, and paraphernalia for adults and children alike? There is no one single origin for such a fascination and to be fair, a broader interest in the lives and exploits of pirates is by no means entirely new. However, I do think we live in a cultural moment wherein the internet more generally, alongside the increased access to exponentially increased bandwidth, storage, and decrypting/cloning technologies more specifically, frame the emerging struggle over the broader questions of property, copyright, ownership, digital rights management, and a more pervasive notion that corporations and interest groups are increasingly accusing their consumers of being pirates. Piracy as a threat to the economy, and by extension some more abstracted notions of property and welfare, have become ubiquitous at the moment. So much so that we are almost to the point where the mention of the term immediately suggests that there is always already “a pirate in our midsts.”
Warnings against piracy of music and movies is nothing new, but the presentation of the message has become somewhat interesting. How have we moved from what, in retrospect, seems like the good old days of static anti-piracy FBI warnings to the much more propagandistic filmic construction of today’s pirates? The rapscallions are no longer portrayed as peg-legged, eye-patch wearing caricatures, but rather as teenagers in their comfortable suburban homes who, like a common thief, rapes and pillages the coffers of the entertainment industries. Hmmmm, a very interesting message, and even more so because of the insistence in this pre-movie trailer that in fact what you are doing is a crime! This may, at first, seem fairly straight-forward, right? Of course they have to re-iterate its a crime using MTV style editing and blaring music to communicate to a generation of perceived threats that don’t seem to understand this fact (see a video example of such a warning below). Yet, like all good propaganda, it is not premised on a discussion of the existing laws and their uses (or even their potential problems -how might that look?), but an attempt to reform and correct through fear and terror of being “disciplined and punished” (something the RIAA is making an art of recently). This is a perfect example of a forceful internalization of a logic that is still unclear as we move into an age where access to digital media has become far more efficient, and at times more effective, than the measures some companies have taken to manage your digital rights for you (think of the SONY copy protection scandal in 2005) which makes the distinctions between pirates and corporate privateers all the more ambiguous. But I am not an copyright expert, nor can I pretend to follow these issues as closely as folks like Cory Doctorow at Boingboing (who recently taught a class on these very issues at USC) that do a phenomenal job of following these issues on a daily basis.
Nonetheless, the pirates we are reading about in class are not the 21st century scallywags who have become the new poster children of crime (though many students in University might to identify with this representation given the RIAA’s relentless targeting of them), rather they are of the 17th and 18th century variety that often represented as heretical and unrepentant thieves and murders whose life of crime defies the structures and logic of nations, churches, and hierarchies more generally. Marcus Rediker has written extensively on pirates and their trans-Atlantic exploits as watery circuits of nation-less subversives. Motley crews (or many-headed hydras) of resistance that might be read as alternatives to some of the dominant power structures of Empire that controlled the seas through the regulation of mobility, trade and commerce. His most recent book, Villains of All Nations: Atlantic Pirates in the Golden Age argues that “At their best, pirates constructed their own distinctive egalitarian society, as they elected their officers, divided their booty equitably, and maintained a multinational social order.” So how much of our contemporary fascination with Pirates is born out of a desire to see the current systems of control and order equitably managed? How much might an examination of the “romanticized vision” of Atlantic pirates during the 17th and 18th century tell us about our own particular moment wherein the valences associated with digital piracy seem fluid, uncertain, and up for a more protracted public discussion? What do you think? Would a freshman seminar that examines the Pirate narratives from the 17th and 18th centuries (the Golden Age of Pirates) tell us something about our contemporary struggles with the pirate in all of us (real or imagined)?