Pirates, Zombies, and P2P….Oh My!

zombie_pirateI’ve had an idea brewing for a little while, and I think I might finally try and act on it.  I have missed the classroom a bit recently, but not so much the physical space and grading and all that.  But just the organization of a series of texts and ideas around a more coherent theme. So, I just commented on Philipp Schmidt’s Sharing Nicely about a course for P2P University. The course would center around the history of pirates, zombies, and our current explosion of these two figures as popular, iconic metaphors for the read/write web. I’m fascinated by the moment of 1710-1726, often referred to as the Golden Age of Piracy, as a lens for thinking about the current economic and cultural convulsions we’re going through at the hands of the internet. I’ll blog more about by reading of Marcus Rediker’s Villians of All Nations shortly, but the idea was to trace the cultural history of Pirates and Zombies (particularly through a historical/literary exploration of colonization, the slave-trade, and the merchant-marine economy in the Americas of 18th and 19th centuries) as a way to think through copyright, intellectual property, and piracy in our current moment. It would be a blast to read and think through this somewhat methodically, and it would be a course dedicated towards thinking critically about the cultural, legal, literary, and economic forces at work currently as the relate to the history of nation-building, capital, and empire. But I imagine any projects emerging from such an experiment will focused on how to re-imagine and re-present the conversations though a wide range of modes and media both individually and/or collaboratively produced (hence the artistic/creative element of the course).

I’m currently working on the syllabus, and I’ll actually be reading and writing about the idea all Summer. If P2P University likes the idea as a kind of exploration of the possibilities, I will try and bring some of the Connectivism logic and UMW Blogs mojo to the course. And if they don’t I’ll just blog it regularly here (which, in truth, will actually happen either way 🙂 ). I guess the attraction is having some loosely structured space to interact and discuss something other than technology through technology as well as to build on the work Gardner Campbell has always dowe with his courses, and thinking about the institutionally un-anchored logic behind what Stephen Downes and George Siemens have done with the Connectivism course (and while it was hosted through the University of Manitoba, it seemed to be a rather distinct entity somehow outside of any specific institutional association).

Moreover, I’m kinda tired of always blogging about the tools and the possibilities, I think it’s high time for me to return to a closer look at what is emerging in our culture through, not of, these tools—the need for a critical, cultural studies reading of all this stuff is quite appealing, especially by way of pirates and zombies 🙂

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14 Responses to Pirates, Zombies, and P2P….Oh My!

  1. Sign me up. I’m ready to hit the high seas.

  2. Reverend says:


    That would be exciting especially given your background in both art and theory—and I guess it would suggest that this class should have no one “teacher,” and perhaps the syllabus should be wikified so that people can add resources from around the web as well as primary and secondary sources. Hmmm, a wikified syllabus is something that would allow for all kinds of ongoing possibilities and resources, which would be one of many documents/resources for the course. And whether or not people contributed is purely option, and could ultimately be used and abused as they see fit—it is what the MozOpenEd course did, and I think it worked rather well. I have also done something this for a similar course on Early American Crime Narratives a number of years ago here. I like it. Thanks for spurring the without-a-cluetrain on 🙂

  3. Scott Leslie says:

    Here’s one for the course reading list http://vecam.org/article694.html

    Watched “Rip! A Remix Manifesto” today (a must see!) Cory Doctrow riffs on how, when the US was a ‘developing’ nation (17th and 18th century, roughly contemporary with much of the ‘classic’ piracy you refer to) it basically had no copyright laws and indeed used the piracy of works by foreign authors like Charles Dickens to subsidize the development and publishing of local writers like Mark Twain. Wish I had a specific reference for that kind of activity, definitely worth pursuing.

    Sign me up Captain, I’ll sail the seas on yer crew any day.

    • Reverend says:


      Absolutely, the whole period between 1760 and almost 1900 in the colonies and the US was fascinating in terms of copyright and questions of authorship and some sense of genius and being rewarded for that (which reminds me a lot of Chris Lott’s recent posts and wonderings). In the Crime Narratives class (specifically here) a while back one of the fascinating shifts in the narratives post1750 was not only how much more sensational and removed from any kind of religious doctrine they became, but also the explosion of narratives about counterfeiting identities, intellectual works, and particularly money. The whole emergence of a kind of identity theft and counterfeit culture was concomitant with the publishing explosion post 1760, and the questions of republishing copyrighted material was imported by the Irish and Scottish who had made a mint on it up and until 1801. And what Doctorow says is fascinating because the copyright laws in the US barring re-publishing foreign works (particularly British) didn’t really come into being until the late 19th century. Very similar to what china has done for decades with US culture, and it is fascinating how we are so quick to frame and battle that piracy so ideologically while forgetting our own history along those lines. So thanks for the works, and I know your a busy man, so don’t feel compelled if I go through with this—but damn isn’t this a cool opportunity to focus, frame, and think about the “Golden Age of Piracy” we are going through right now and what that means. especially given that post1726 the backlash against pirates in the sea was as harsh and brutal as anything we could imagine—a very focused form of state terrorism.

  4. Philipp says:

    Needless to say, but I’ll say it anyway, we are extremely excited to be setting sails together Reverend.

    The title of your course reminded me of a presentation at the iSummit in 2007 “The Pirates of The Pirates of the Carribean” by Bodo Balazs. The best I could find online was a newer version of his slides, which are here: http://www.warsystems.hu/wp-content/uploads_bodo/The%20Pirates.ppt

    I met him after the presentation and am happy to introduce you if you’d want more input from him.

  5. Martin says:

    I’d sign up for it. The social/cultural history of 1760 (particularly US) isn’t my area so I’d learn something, plus it’ll be a gas.
    Couple of other doubloons for your treasure chest:
    1) What are the cultural similarities with the current piracy around Somalia?
    2) Are zombies currently popular because they make good horror, or because they act as better social metaphors than other classic ‘monsters’ (there was a proliferation of vampire movies when AIDS was new and the source of much fear, for example).
    I think the idea of doing something totally unrelated to technology or pedagogy is a really good idea – it will in fact tell you more abut both probably. I’d do it if I had the faintest level of knowledge about anything else.

  6. Mike Bogle says:

    On the topic of pirates, I’ve noticed there has been a number of mentions of piracy in the news the last few months – at least here in Australia. One incident that comes to mind involved the hi-jacking of an oil freighter and taking of hostages as I recall.

    I would imagine that these sorts of activities have been going on for some time (perhaps have never stopped) yet have only just begun to get media attention again. That said, maybe not – do you think there are any correlations between the increase of reported incidents and economic downturn?

    In fact a quick search of the Sydney Morning Herald yielded quite a few recent reports, these three in the last 3 days alone:

    Italian navy scares off pirates: report, May 6, 2009

    The day pirates homed in on the wrong target – a French warship
    , May 5, 2009

    Somali pirates hijack Greek-owned bulk carrier, May 4, 2009

    Interesting topic! All the more fascinating to learn where and how the metaphors of piracy and zombies are based in real-life events!



  7. Scott Leslie says:

    Another thing brought to mind by your reply is Bruce Sterling’s superb 1988 book “Islands in the Net” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Islands_in_the_Net) in which (if I’ve got my recollection of his books right, I sometimes mix them up) intellectual property piracy by the Chinese is a major piece of tactical warfare in destabilizing the US economy. Highly recommend it, both for this theme but also for the really interesting re-envisioning of corporate democracy it contains.

  8. Reverend says:

    Like I said to Scott a few comments ago, no pressure I know you are a busy, busy man, but how fun would it be to have a place to think about this stuff in some kind of organized fashion. What I was thinking was having a group of works people come up with, like the novel by Sterling Scott mentions, and then maybe see if we can’t talk to these people. Someone try and get an interview with Sterling after we write/discuss the novel, I am going to contact Marcus Rediker and see if he would be willing to discuss Piracy then and now, and treat it like a weekly radio broadcast/Ustream, but then work towards a a class driven mashup as a project. What’s more, have different people conduct the interviews, write the posts about particular works, and kind of spark the discussion, topics and issues. This way the work is distributed and the commentary becomes either on a particular persons post, or as a trackback, or recommendations that move beyond a central, expert lead model. This would also allow for an aggregation of these posts and resources with a return to the original on the persons own space. I also think it would be cool to encourage people to go out and create primary documents like interviews, or search for stuff out there already on the web and bring into a kind of loosely coupled archive. A group effort that need not be about reading everything or coverage per se, but focus on something that may interest you and bringing some things forward and engaging the dialogue without feeling overwhelmed necessarily about having done all the work, rather imagining a different kind of work that we all do anyway.

    The recent media explosion about piracy is fascinating to me because in many ways it’s quite different from the distributed, multi-national piracy we are seeing with media and copyright. it has, at least in the US News, very specifically branded with a nation of pirates in Somalia. And, ironically enough, after the brief American military occupation there (think Blackhawk Down) that went so badly, that nation has fallen every deeper into political and economic turmoil, basically giving rise to a whole class of folks who see piracy as one very lucrative alternative to the absolute chaos all around them. In fact, from what I have been reading in the NYTs, piracy is kind of a celebrated occupation that–when successful–leads to wealth and status within Somalia.

    What is fascinating is the Rediker makes the argument that piracy from 1716-1726 was a multi-racial and national contingent of folks who were in many ways directly challenging the power structure of imperial nations like Britain, Span, France, etc. The understood themselves as somehow outside of national boundaries, and the sea defined a new space for them. One where the hierarchical controls and powers of the seafarer’s life in navies and as merchant mariners was challenged. And given this was the crux of the early modern, colonial economy, they did some real damage over the course of that time. But what was important is that these pirates were not necessarily abject others, as we are seeing now with how Somalian pirates are portrayed—very much a product of Western Europe and the US ravaging of African for more the four centuries.

    Even just 60 years after the Gold Age of Piracy, in the 1790s, there was another Piracy threat to the newly formed US by what were termed the Barbary Pirates.This was a group of pirates that kind of fit the “abject other” logic more akin to the Somali piracy reported now. The North African nations of Algiers, Tunis, and Tripoli were state sanctioned pirates that actually used piracy to get ransoms from the European powers as well as the US. And the first declaration of war against another nation was in fact against pirate nations: The First Barbary War. Where the pirate became framed not as an outlaw westerner or multi-national rogue, but a swarthy Arab stealing from the rich Western world. Such a different view, that suggests just how we understand piracy in any moment is premised on the political and historical context. I mean the Barbary War was invoked again and again in recent literature and conservative scholarship as a way to define and defend the reasons for the Iraq War (if obliquely) as well as the longer crusade of Christians against Muslims, piracy is very much anchored in a US/Western tradition of emerging nation states and convulsions in economic systems.

    Man, I am sorry for such a long comment 🙂

    Consider it on the list. Sounds amazing, and the CyberPunk is a genre I have to get far more familiar with, and Sterling is just awesome in my mind. After hearing him speak at SXSW, I was all the more convinced of his place as an unwilling clairvoyant for much of the issues we are struggling through.

  9. Jim,
    Wiki sounds like fun whether as syllabus or separate entity. I’ve found WetPaint pretty useful lately.

    As far as theory…I usually end up seeing things through the lens of Deleuze & Guattari. It’s been awhile since I’ve used their ideas explicitly….though I feel like something from them is implicit in most of what I do. Anyways, I see the Pirate / Zombie framework as echoing their two extremes of Desiring Machines -identified with Schizophrenia (Pirates) and Bodies Without Organs identified with paranoia(Zombies). In a strange way that type of psychological grouping seems to dovetail with your recent rhetoric.

    Peter Lanborn Wilson /Hakim Bey writes a lot about pirate utopias. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peter_Lamborn_Wilson He needs to be on your reading list.

    Sterling is fine stuff indeed….somewhat akin in importance to someone like Marshall McLuhan.

  10. Brian says:

    I was about to recommend Hakim Ney’s book Pirate Utopias – which strikes me more as literature than history, but is a great read – but Justin beat me to it.

    This would be fun!

  11. Pingback: Zombies and Pirates: Let’s begin at bavatuesdays

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