Pirates and Piracy: Broadly Conceived


Introduced and Edited by Alexander Sebastian Dent

Volume 85, #3

Summer 2012


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Volume 85, #3 • Summer 2012



Pirates and Piracy, Broadly Conceived



Understanding the War on Piracy, Or Why We Need More Anthropology of Pirates

Alexander Sebastian Dent, The George Washington University

ABSTRACT — Would the Real Pirates Please Stand Up?
What is piracy? Is it an occasional immoral tear in the fabric of an otherwise harmonious market? A justified critique of a coercive labor system or pricing scheme? Both? Or something altogether different, such as Johnny Depp channeling Keith Richards (with permission, one hopes)? One of the problems with answering these questions is that the term “piracy” can polarize any discussion into which it is introduced. But this polarization only increases the urgency of answering the questions. Due to the increased policing of intellectual and material properties on the part of corporations, governments, and law enforcement agencies both public and private, we are all (yes, all) pirates. We all have truck with “stolen” music and movies, text-artifacts (perhaps including these very words you’re reading, you thief), or own a pair of fake designer sunglasses and a knock-off soccer shirt. So as we begin, we should probably all admit that this special collection is partly an exercise in self-analysis. Dawdy and Bonni (this issue) admit as much when they engage in some lighthearted soul-searching over the popularity among undergraduates of a course they taught which explored the possibility that pirates might form “a culture.”


Towards a General Theory of Piracy

Shannon Lee Dawdy & Joe Bonni, University of Chicago

ABSTRACT — The current appetite in popular culture for the “pirates of the Caribbean” is paralleled by what appears to be a worldwide outbreak of intellectual piracy. What, if anything, links the classic Caribbean pirate to these latter-day phenomena? We argue that compelling parallels exist between the early modern conditions that produced Blackbeard and today’s world of virtual monopolies. Out of this comparison, we attempt an anthropological definition of piracy. Pirate cultures are organizations of social bandits, in the Hobsbawmian sense, who appear on the scene as folk heroes when contradictions and inequalities built into a political economy peak to the breaking point. [Keywords: piracy, intellectual property, biopiracy, popular culture, biopiracy, intellectual property, intellectual property issues, protecting intellectual property, intellectual piracy]


Counterfeiting What? Aesthetics of Brandedness and BRAND in Tamil Nadu, India

Constantine V. Nakassis, The University of Chicago

ABSTRACT — This article investigates the circulation and production of branded apparel consumed by lower and lower-middle class young men in urban Tamil Nadu, India, focusing on garments which exceed the authorized brand: export surplus, duplicates, hybridized branded forms, and fictive branded forms. I argue that the circulation and production of such brand surfeits is governed by the (dis)articulation of global brand logics and local aesthetics of brandedness. The interlinkages between this aesthetics and the logics of export-oriented and local (“counterfeit”) production result in the bracketing of brand image and identity, even as particular aspects of the brand are reproduced. The article concludes by critically interrogating the analytics “brand” and “counterfeit” as naturalizations of particular frames of commodity intelligibility. I argue that the coherence of commodity classifications like brand and brandedness is contingent upon the regular regimenting of excesses of brand materiality and intelligibility across moments of production, circulation, and consumption. [Keywords: brand, counterfeit, piracy, fashion, youth, Tamil Nadu, India, brand counterfeiting, anti counterfeiting and brand protection, brand in Tamil, counterfeit apparel]


Artists, Music Piracy, and the Crisis of Political Subjectivity in Contemporary Mali

Ryan Thomas Skinner, The Ohio State University

ABSTRACT — Music piracy, or the unauthorized commercial reproduction of musical works, evokes a strong negative sentiment in the Malian public sphere. Yet, its routine place in the culture economy makes it an ambivalent category for many, who regularly consume, and even produce, pirated media. For musical artists, however, the subject of piracy is anything but ambivalent. In perceived mercantile exploitations of creative labor and persistent state failures to regulate economic informality, artists experience a crisis of professional status and identity. In this essay, I suggest that artists’ concerns about piracy have more to do with their position as political subjects than they do with lost revenues or infringed rights. My argument is that concerns surrounding the economics and legality of music piracy are symptomatic of a broader crisis of political subjectivity and that “piracy” as such is epiphenomenal to a fragmentation of state-subject relations in the political society of neoliberal polities. [Keywords: music piracy, political, subjectivity, neoliberalism, postcolonial studies, neoliberalism policies, political subjectivity, postcolonial studies, music piracy issues, effects of music piracy]


Caribbean Piracies/Social Mobilities: Some Commonalities Between Colonial Privateers and Entrepreneurial “Profiteers” in the 21st Century

Anne M. Galvin, St. John’s College, St. John’s University

ABSTRACT — Order created by illegal but licit activities including piracy and organized crime has been used in the colonial and contemporary Caribbean to maintain social control. The thin line of intentionality between “outlaw” and “hero” creates a platform for people engaged in illicit activities to officialize actions as for the public good. Legal demystification was initially introduced to the Atlantic with British jurisprudence. Strategic attainment of social mobility through wealth accumulation during colonial era piracy is situated within the same legal space as contemporary mobility strategies utilized by poorer Jamaicans.  Working class Jamaicans struggle against gate keeping ideologies maintained by creole elites through social and economic strategies. Officialization facilitates strategic manipulation of localized values like reputation and respectability for status attainment. The Caribbean, therefore, continues to be a unique space of mobility despite efforts by the traditional creole elite to maintain status differences grounded in social hierarchies established by the British. [Keywords: Jamaica, piracy, social mobility, organized crime, governance, gender, Caribbean piracy, social mobilities, Jamaican organized crime, governance]


Intellectual Property Law and the Ethics of Imitation in Guatemala

Kedron Thomas, Washington University in St. Louis

ABSTRACT — This article examines the cultural and moral context of trademark piracy in Guatemala. In particular, I analyze what accusations of envy among small-scale Maya garment manufacturers who participate in trademark piracy reveal about two aspects of the social field: first, the changing economic and cultural conditions following waves of neoliberal reform including the criminalization of piracy; and, second, the nonlinear reproduction of forms of moral and legal reckoning at the margins of the global economy. I examine how practices of copying and imitation among manufacturers and competitive behavior more generally are evaluated locally in light of kin relations that promote the sharing of knowledge and resources within a somewhat loose property regime and given ideologies of race and nation that encourage class-based solidarity among Maya people. I find that the normative models and business practices evident among these manufacturers parochialize official portraits of progress, business ethics, and development promoted in neoliberal policy agendas and international law.[Keywords: intellectual property, brands, piracy, legal pluralism, apparel industry, Guatemala, intellectual property law, neoliberal reform, Guatemala trademark piracy, legal pluralism, apparel industry, neoliberal policy]


Piracy in the Offing: The Law of Lands and The Limits of Sovereignty at Sea

Jennifer L. Gaynor, University at Buffalo, State University of New York

ABSTRACT — This article uses the offing as a metaphor to theorize piracy in relation to pivotal moments in Southeast Asia’s maritime engagement with the world. “In the offing” usually indicates that something is about to happen. This figurative meaning derives from a literal one that refers to the visible sea beyond inshore navigational hazards. Nautically apt, the offing’s literal sense also provides a useful metaphor for analyzing piracy. Like the physical location of the offing, piracy entails both an embodied orientation as well as a more general relation of structured perceptions between those aboard ship and those on shore. Yet shore-based political authorities have had an inordinate power to define what counts as piracy and who is determined to be a pirate. While designations of piracy illuminate the efforts of states to manage the limits of their sovereignty, the boundary between legitimate plunder and that which is not has often been negotiated across social arenas in which legal (and other) legitimacies are differentially acknowledged. Like the space of the offing, acts that might be considered piracy and those who do them thus entail questions of definition, visibility, and point of view—matters that for piracy unfold in relation to particular configurations of politics, power, and cultural comprehension. The question of piracy comes under scrutiny here in three such configurations: first,  in the relations between Southeast Asian polities and between them and China during the 15th century; second, in the context of early 17th century Dutch trade in Southeast Asia along with the European political and legal setting; and third, in connection with 19th century views on piracy’s proliferation in the region and inter-colonial attempts to curb it. This analysis informs a discussion of infamous ethnic names that signified “pirates” in colonial European and Southeast Asian discourses. It then also anchors critical observations about contemporary piracy and the notion of failed states. [Keywords: piracy, maritime history, Southeast Asia, sovereignty, law, deixis, Southeast Asia maritime, Southeast Asia piracy, sovereignty at sea, Southeast Asia maritime, maritime piracy]


Gutenberg and the Samurai: Or, The Information Revolution is History

Adrian Johns, The University of Chicago

ABSTRACT — This paper explores the relation between history and information revolutions, in particular the most recent such revolution, that of digitization. I argue that information revolutions are shaped by protagonists’ efforts to reshape history itself, on a range of scales from the very small and contemporary to the very large and long-term. Making a digital revolution involved reconceptualizing the deeper history of print and other media, and also rethinking the local cultural processes that allowed for digital media to take effect. Reconstructing history in such ways is hard work and is always liable to foment confrontations, which often take the form of contests over prized entities like property. These contests, the paper argues, provide points of access, thanks to which we can grasp what otherwise tend to be elusive and complex cultural processes. To make my case, the paper concentrates on an attempt in the 1980s-2000s to digitize Japanese. A company named NIC (later Foursis) tried to produce a digital system that would incorporate the entire kanji character set, intending to integrate this within a broader vision to democratize the design and production of the page itself. The effort led to a catastrophic piracy case, which prompted the articulation of the historiographical claims, perspectives, and stakes in the bid to transform print practices into digital.[Keywords: digital, information, print, revolution, history, Japan, piracy, Japanese piracy, digitization revolution, information revolution]