Pirate Party!!! Also DEATH OF THE AUTHOR (no really, I’m very sick)

October 14, 2011 § Leave a comment

Adrian Johns, “A General History of the Pirates,” Piracy: The Intellectual Property Wars from Gutenberg to Gates (2009)

Piracy isn’t just about piracy, that is, intellectual property, that is, the law. It’s also about knowledge and authority and creativity and commerce, both above and below ground. Unsurprisingly, the term is difficult to define — the EU once described the practice as “whatever the knowledge industries said they needed protecting from,” thus framing the nominative “pirate” as a thing you call a guy who you don’t want to touch your shit. There are limitations to these sorts of half-facetious non-defintions, but they do help situate “piracy” as an embedded and highly contingent cultural phenomenon. Take Don Quixote, which is all about piracy, at least what would have been considered piratical back then. Or the idea that piracy emerges alongside (not just in reaction to) conceptions of “official” culture, and legal jurisdiction generally.  In conclusion, this is a very cool and smart book that certain editors don’t have time to read all of (at least not right now), which is both a shame and the nature of the exam beast.

You're a wizard, Barry

Adrian Johns’ book is like 7 million (read: 519) pages long, and if I had more than one day for each batch of selections, I’d never leave my chair till I was finished the whole thing. He had me at “not just about piracy” — normally this discussion does the same thing to my brain as the alleged “ZOMG IS IT A MEMMAY OR IS IT A VIRAL VIDEO” debate, which is to say it makes it go to hopping monkey land. Not that the stakes aren’t high, not that definitions don’t matter, not that it’s not a Thing to Deal With Basically in Today’s Society. But that doesn’t mean I have to get excited about it, except to the extent questions of legality sometimes dovetail into questions of online authorship and ownership generally.

Johns takes that to the fifteenth power by suggesting that anxiety surrounding “piracy” — whatever that even means — is actually anxiety surrounding something bigger and badder, with much wider cultural implications. Namely information, and the reliability of similar. Given that we’re cresting the wave of the techno-info revolution, as my coke-addled high school civics teacher used to call it, this is about as crippling an anxiety as you can imagine. What do we know (and more abstractly, what do we have) if we can’t always or easily be sure that what we’re looking at is the actual, or an actual, thing?

This isn’t even a philosophical question, though you could easily spin it in that direction. Because think about it — at any point pre-Web 2.0 can you ever remember someone chuckling at a statistical or anecdotal reference and saying “oh, you read that in a book? Then it must be true,” which is a something I either hear or catch myself saying at least five hundred times a week. This isn’t “piracy” per se, but what piracy does, and which Johns brilliantly highlights, is call into question the authenticity of our data. Questions of piracy can therefore be understood –at least in part– as questions of subjectivity (the relationship between who we are and what we do with what we have), questions of control and authority (quite literally, who gets to say whose thing this thing is) as well as questions of cultural literacy (our ability to distinguish the “real” from the “fake,” in themselves historically contingent).

And yet piracy is most frequently framed as “just” an economic and legal (and if you’re Jack Valenti and insane, a life-or-death moral) issue. Of course, it is those things (and there’s nothing “just” about them, although they mostly bore me personally which is neither here nor there), but the fact that piracy exists in the way it does, across the political and economic and social sectors it does, suggests that “piracy” as we currently understand it tugs, however indirectly, at what it means to live in a world dependent on the containment, yet subject to the fundamental intractability, of data.

Also, I’ve apparently been infected by some undergraduate murder-plague and am not sure I’ll be finishing today’s selections due to I’m feverish and not thinking straight. I was pissed a bit earlier but now am too tired. So………I guess I’ll just lie here, until Jesus cures me.


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