Blog Post

Blog Diss: LTP Chapter Description (Chapter Three)

This is the final version (for draft one) of my chapter three description.

Revision history, thus far: Minor stylistic and mechanical changes


In my third chapter, I will consider digital piracy, or the illegal circulation of intellectual property online. Piracy communities respond to many of the same concerns as fandom, and have been subject to similar criticisms (particularly for their ‘derivative’ use of others’ property). However, I am interested in how the affective labour of pirates is also conceived of and represented differently from that of fans, due in no small part to the disproportionate presence of white, straight men within many Eurowestern piracy communities.

I begin the chapter, then, by tracing the figure of the pirate in popular discourse—or rather, what has often been a lack of direct engagement with pirates as material rather than allegorical or symbolic entities. While there is a wealth of academic and para-academic discussions considering digital media and copyright, or more specifically, digital media’s ability to challenge copyright structures and reinvigorate the conception of the cultural commons, Lawrence Liang (201) argues that pirates themselves pose a “representational problem” (355). While popular usage of property pirates as the ‘bad guys’ would seem to suggest this problem is one of “overrepresentation”, Liang notes that the role of the pirate as a figure in the “debate on intellectual property and the public domain” (356) has consistently been neglected.

Daniel Heller-Roazen offers what I will argue is a similar, or at least complimentary account in his 2009 monograph, The Enemy of All: Piracy and the Law of Nations. “Piracy,” he writes, “involves an agent who, committing deeds in such an unusual legal space, displays an antagonism that cannot be defined as that of one individual with respect to another.” This antagonism, he adds “appears not as particular but as general” (11). Heller-Roazen’s work suggests that the specificity of the pirate is not only absent from contemporary discussions of digital media and copyright, but that this absence of the specific is a fundamental trait of the pirate more broadly. By this account, then, the power of pirates’ antagonism is rooted in their specifically totalizing force.

The materialist commitments of my project are influenced by Fredric Jameson’s claim (1981) that to think at the level of the total does not preclude an analysis of differential experiences of marginalization. In other words, I do not reject an analysis of piracy (or anything else) at the level of totality. My concern is with how attention to pirates as primarily or exclusively totalizing figures has thus far served to locate the radical potential of the Eurowestern intellectual property pirate within a subject presumed to be white, male, and heterosexual. 

After tracking these historical problems of representation, then, I will turn to critiques of the pirate figure’s gendered, racial and sexual implications, particularly Kavita Phillip’s (2005) article, “What is a Technological Author? The Pirate Function and Intellectual Property”. Here, she likens discussions of piracy to Foucault’s notion of the author function, arguing that the recognition of some types of piracy as legitimate rests on their supposed opposition to the ‘illegitimate’ forms undertaken by racialized and gendered bodies. In order for “20-year-old hacker boys in technological universities” (214) to be recognized as “technological authors” (imbued with traits such as creativity, and capable of transforming rather than copying), Phillip notes how writers like Lawrence Lessig rely on a racialized “limit case”—in Lessig’s case, “Asian pirates” (212). She later adds that, in keeping with colonial discourses which deny “full masculinity” to post-colonial sites like India, these representations are also gendered, with the pirate functioning as the “general figure of effeminate/mysterious difference…outside of first world rationality” (215).

Following her analysis, my interest in this chapter is shaped by two interrelated questions: how do many of the factors Phillip describes as determining the recognition of pirates as authors also determine their recognition as labourers? And how does this vindication of white, male piracy via the disavowal of gendered and racialized pirate labour occur at the level of affect?[1]

I am currently in the early stages of determining the archive from which I will approach these questions. My original intent was to explore piracy communities using ethnographic methods. However, recent legal action against many prominent hackers and pirates makes me concerned that, regardless of how stringently I follow regulations from the University of Alberta ethics board, as well as organizations like the Association for Internet Researchers, I may not be able to keep potential research subjects safe. Instead, I am considering whether I might track the pirate figure within the context of publically circulating documents[2], and through discussions of openly available and well-known sites such as Pirate Bay. 

[1]The latter question will be shaped both by post-colonial and critical race discussions of affect (O’Riley, Ahmed, Robinson), as well as by Gabriella Coleman’s (2012) ethnographic study, in which she emphasizes the importance of pleasure and technological mastery in open-source, hacking and piracy-based communities.

[2]Such documents may include the “Pirate Wheel” (Falkvinge), a document produced by the Swedish Pirate Party, which importantly names affect (or “sentiment”, to be precise) as a site of production and knowledge that must be free of commodification and regulation. I would also turn to various how-to guides and editorials on digital piracy found online.


No comments