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  • Introduction:Understanding the War on Piracy, Or Why We Need More Anthropology of Pirates
  • Alexander Sebastian Dent

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)?1 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." [End Page 659]

While Dawdy and Bonni start off with comedy, however, they conclude in decidedly less funny territory with the argument that monopoly capitalism in the present may have much in common with its predecessors in the days of the classic Caribbean pirates of the 17th and 18th centuries. For them, piracy is the lens through which to see the modernized mercantilism in which we currently live. So deciding who the real pirates are is not just a question for our memoirs. Exploring the topic of piracy is anthropologically significant for a series of reasons, among them, because pharmaceutical companies, fashion designers, NGOs, football players, and tribes, to name just a few, are increasingly appropriating the concept of "intellectual property." From the perspective of those claiming to own the infringed ideas, violators of such properties are most assuredly pirates.2 Piracy is also important to anthropology because our status as consumers lies at the core of neoliberal economic and social practice, and the complementary opposition between fully "consummated" (Dent 2012) consumption and degenerate knock-offs orients that status. Contemporary ideologies surrounding brands, trademarks, copyrights, and patents, provide the ground upon which our appropriations become either moral lapses, victories over oppression, getting a good deal, or just plain stylish (see Nakassis, this issue). Corporate dictums say that piracy in its intellectual and more material forms clearly leads to an inadequate form of consumption, and the repercussions for diverse forms of self-awareness and self-definition are immense. Piracy becomes a way of fashioning subjectivities that draw on local histories (benevolent Jamaican gangsters for Galvin, this issue) and mechanisms of social control (envy for Guatemalan clothing producers for Thomas, this issue). Piracy has also become an increasingly important way for developmentalists of various stripes to evaluate the success or failure of "states;" indeed, what "the state" might be in the first place: think Somalia, most obviously, though as Skinner reveals in his treatment of music piracy (this issue), postcolonial African countries such as Mali should be included here, too. In such contexts, successful states are able to curtail the naughtiness, while unsuccessful states seem to live by it.

But what becomes clear in the context of a collection in which contributors juxtapose varied geographies and histories is that while some of this discourse associated with piracy is brand new, other elements are decidedly not. As Gaynor shows in a detailed historical account (this issue) piracy has been at the center of debates over boundaries between [End Page 660] oceans, polities, castes, dynasties, and even religions for quite some time. Indeed, one of the primary reasons that piracy is simultaneously au courant and passé is that it seems to have arisen at moments when boundaries have not been quite clear, and those moments abound. Today the term pirate is levied at (or awarded to, depending on your perspective) those...


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