Toshiya Ueno on Thu, 15 Oct 1998 15:40:47 +0200 (MET DST)

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<nettime> Piracy Now and Then

Piracy Now and Then
Toshiya Ueno

What is the first impression or association for us when we hear the term
piracy or pirates? One can easily think of pirate radio or TV, the pirated
editions or versions of any kind of media (music tapes and records,
computer applications, books or brochures, etc). Generally this term is
used in contexts opposing capitalism or commercialization. But if you just
look back at the history of capitalism itself, you can see the close
connection between piracy and capitalism. Although this essay deals with
one aspect of capitalism, its aim is not necessarily to focus on the
economics and politics of money and commodities, but rather is an attempt
to elaborate cultural politics in the age of information capitalism
through a tactical way of thinking.

In discussing the relationship between piracy and capitalism, I wish to
begin by referring to Robinson Crusoe. Robinson Crusoe is an important
reference point for analyzing the relationship between piracy and
capitalism. In Daniel Defoe's story, Robinson resisted his father's
opinion and Protestant ethics and did not trust the Christian God of
Protestantism. Robinson was longing for his brother, who had become an
adventurer seeking property and treasure in the other unknown world,
either Africa or the West Indies. Robinson also tried to do the same. But
in his first navigation, he was caught by the Moors and became their
slave. Eventually, he escaped from slavery, bought land in Brazil, and
managed a huge plantation. However, just as he failed to succeed with his
plantation, Robinson again began navigating the seas in order to get
African slaves. But his ship sank, and he alone survived to live on a
desert island. Despite this miserable situation, he appreciated and
blessed God. Robinson had reformed and returned to Protestantism. On the
island, he made an effort to make an enclosure just as the gentry (early
bourgeoisie) established them in England. In other words Robinson repeated
the Protestant ethic and the spirit of capitalism. As you may know, this
interpretation is derived from Max Weber. But it is already obvious that
the human type of Robinson - a person who acts rationally and productively
on the basis of "innerworldly asceticism" - is a sort of fiction.

If you read _Robinson Crusoe_ carefully you come to understand that his
behavior on the island was not at all "rational" and "productive." Instead
his activities depended on monstrous excessive desires. For example, when
he attempted to salvage many materials useful for survival from the
shipwreck on the island's coast, he wanted to get "everything" without
considering whether or not all these things would be useful. His desire to
get as many things as conceivably possible was absolutely unlimited. It is
especially clear in his obsession with his fort's construction, for he did
not know the exact aim of the fort. That is to say, Robinson does not know
what he does. (This is the definition of the ideology by Marx). His
behavior and mentality were never based on "value-rationality." So the
human type of Robinson was not nearly as ascetic and rational as the
bourgeoisie in England were, but rather he resembled the type of humans in
the contemporary world.( As is known, the phrases "type of human" or
"human type" are technical terms in the sociology of Max Weber. One can
understand them as an ideal embodiment of type of each class.) As a
character, Robinson is very similar to us in his purposeless and excessive
production and consumption. Even though we would define Robinson as the
human type of Protestant, the theoretical framework making this definition
possible is already problematic and dubious. In response to the question
"Why did capitalism first arise in England, and not in other places?" the
most general reply has been as follows: "It is because the bourgeoisie
possessed the Protestant ethic that capitalism developed in England before
its advent in other places." But now this interpretation is radically
changing from its bottom. For example, according to the point of view of
Immanuel Wallerstein's "world system theory," the response should be: "It
is because capitalism appeared in England that in other areas and
societies Capitalism didn't appear." The world system is just one system
and has a structural totality. Actually the shift in point of view made by
world system theory has to do with the problem of colonialism. Since 1492
capitalism has always been synchronous and cooperative with colonization
and colonialism. It should be noted that Robinson proceeded with his
navigation in order to get slaves for his Brazilian plantation. However,
in his life on the desert island, he encountered Friday as a "coloured
native other." Friday as a slave could be defined as the other and as the
object for the enlightenment of Western (European) reason. Recently, on
the basis of the paradigm of world system theory or Braudelian
historicism, many theoreticians have become very interested in the
transportation and communications aspects of sea trading. It should not be
forgotten that Robinson was a sailor. In a certain sense, the type of
human epitomized by Robinson was found not in yeomanry (or the middle
bourgeois) but in sailors and colonizers in the 17th century. In this
context, some theoreticians might talk about a change of paradigms, from
the history of the land to the history of the sea. For example, Venice in
the middle ages, Spain in the 16th century, the Netherlands in the 17th
century, England in the 18th century - all were examples of sea empires,
with the state having sea hegemony. History can be understood by studying
the sea, not just by studying the land and the continents. In 1492 -
needless to say the same year that Columbus found America - Islamic Moors,
exiled from the Iberian peninsula, became Barbarian pirates and assaulted
Christian ships. In turn, Christian states permitted many Christians (and
hence Europeans) to become pirates by granting them letters of marque to
attack other nation's ships. It seems that the post-Columbus age was an
age of pirates.

_A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious
Pirates_ (1724) is a very strange and good book which deals with the
history of the pirates and includes the stories about Captain Kidd and
Teach and female pirates Mary Lead and Ann Bony. It was written by Captain
Charles Johnson. This book has influenced countless novels and fictions
about pirates. In reading this book, we might argue about the relationship
between the invention of nation-states and pirates and capitalism. One is
tempted to ask, "Who was Charles Johnson?" Hakim Bey has already discussed
this problem in _T.A.Z._ According to him and according to recent
influential opinion, Charles Johnson is said to be the pen name of Daniel
Defoe. It would be a tremendous story if the author of the mythical text
about the rise of capitalism was also the author of a history of pirates.
However, this is not simple coincidence. Hakim Bey began the most
important chapter of TAZ by titling it "Pirate Utopias." As you know,
Temporary Autonomous Zones are not concrete and realized societies or
fixed spaces, but autonomous chronotopes that vanish after being
temporarily realized by independence and autonomy. Bey recognized such a
type of zone in the activities of 17th and 18th century pirates, and said
that the pirates and corsairs already had formed a sort of information
network by creating a global web connecting islands and continents.

Historically speaking, many pirates founded small communities or utopian
societies in Morocco or the Caribbean islands, communities that were quite
different and independent from the early power politics of nation-states
in those days. These communities made by pirates already composed
Temporary Autonomous Zones. Bey took as an example Bruce Sterling's famous
novel _Islands in the Net_ and pointed out the overlapping relation
between islands (or archipelagos) connected through pirates and the
rhizomatic nets of transnational corporations. Hakim saw a model of data
pirates in Sterling's novel; like huge corporations, many hackers and
small high-tech manufacturers are operating on information and
transforming its quality and the meaning of property or ownership itself.
It is worth referring to another text, _Pirate Utopias--Moorish Corsairs &
European Renegades_ (Autonomedia, 1995) by Peter Lamborn Wilson. This book
focuses on the Muslim corsairs and the pirate utopias where thousands of
Europeans converted to Islam and joined the pirate "holy war." According
to his analysis, the pirate utopias were formed by a community of
renegades who converted beliefs, ideologies, and political or religious
identities. The Pirate Republic of Sale in Morocco in the 17th century is
the representative model. This independent and insurrectionary community
was constituted by corsairs, sufis, adventurers, etc. I wish to say in
passing that Robinson was the captive of this republic. It seems important
that in the history of pirates, there have always been renegades and
dropouts from any closed community or dogmatic party. So the term renegade
does not mean negative escape but rather self-expression in the form of
betrayal (Although Peter used the word _renegadoes_, this is a old version
of the word renegade. So in this essay, I use the term renegade. But of
course the meaning is completely the same). "Renegade" suggests a movement
toward heresy or paganism and also any cultural traveling in general. For
example, when a religion or one belief system moved from one culture to
another, heresy and paganism can be considered renegade. One should
remember the relationship between Celtic culture and Christianity or that
between Islamic, Jewish, and Christian religions. In addition, renegades
are always the resisters in a society or community. In fact, America was
originally founded as a land of dropouts (Peter Lamborn Wilson, "Lost
Ancestors: An Introduction to Pooch Van Dunk's "Indian Heritage" in _Gone
to Croatan, Origins of North American Drop Out Culture_, edited by Ron
Sakolsky & James Koehnline, 1993). Paul Gilroy, a scholar of cultural
studies, also used this term to explain the fact that black or ethnic
musicians appropriated the cockney dialect for white English in their
expressive cultures. He called it the Cockney Translation and also used
the term renegades (_There Ain't No Black in the Union Jack_, Routledge,

In order to analyze pirate cultural politics further, I would like to
refer to the novel _Moby Dick_ by Herman Melville. Of course, Captain Ahab
and his crew in the ship Pequod were not pirates, but they were another
type from the tribe of sea workers. Ahab has aspects in common with
Robinson, because for Ahab the activity - the vengeance against Moby Dick
- also was filled with self-purpose. I summarize the important points in
this novel as follows. First, Melville's writing about whales was very
paranoid and maniacal. It can be immediately sensed in the encyclopedic
descriptions of whales, "cetology," that there are strange passions
involved in classifying the tribes or lineages of whales. Moby Dick, as a
big white whale, existed at the top of these tribes. Ahab, haunted by
vengeance, and his crew were occupied with taking the invisible power of
life from Moby Dick.

The big white whale seems to be almost immortal. Even though in one
incident, Moby Dick is wounded by a whaler's harpoon, he appears in other
scenes without any scar. Moby Dick's immortality derives from his
omnipresence in the sea. The white whale is immortal because it can go
beyond the limits of time-space zones. In other words, Melville (or
Ishmael, the narrator) says that the whales know the secret "web" and
routes in the sea. However, not only do the whales have information about
networks in the sea, but they are themselves a corpus of strange
information. What does it mean? In _Moby Dick_ , Melville's narrative
subject compares the patterns on the whale's skin with the designs of
primitive Indian art. At the same time, he also emphasizes the flowing and
moving of the whale's tail and likens it to the symbols and signs in
freemasonry. In such a way, for Melville, the whales themselves exist as
information and as text for human perception. Secondly, there are so many
races on the Pequod. Around the figure of Ahab as a white, one could
easily find overlapping of marginal natives and tribes - for example,
Caribbean, American Indian, African blacks, and European whites. Hakim
(and Peter also) have often mentioned the "tri-racial community" in
Croatan as well as in dropout America. I'm tempted to call the tri-racial
community on the Pequod the creole and hybrid community on the ship. In
that sense, the name Ishmael is very symbolic because in the Bible it
meant the exile.

I wish to say in passing that whale catching in Japan has had a very
special meaning and history. Japanese whalers have also known the
about informatic nature of whales. The whales are very sensitive to
peculiar sounds and therefore they possess a harmonic unity with the
sea. For whales, the sea originally contained networks and matrices of
information. Whaling was not simply hunting in general but a very
unique technique of searching the invisible and uncontrolled zones of
the sea. Through fighting the whales, the whalers could enter unknown
and hidden elements in nature. In Japan, pirates and whalers had a
close relationship each other. In the late 16th century, Hideyoshi
Toyotomi persuaded the political and military hegemony in Japan to
force people to disarm in order to keep peace in his regime. In those
times, the pirate operations were also forbidden by Hideyoshi. Since
the pirates in Japan in the 16th century were a special military group
dedicated to fighting on the sea, the pirates who lost their jobs as
soldiers became whalers. Consequently, in Japan, the origin of whaling
was profoundly connected with piracy. In 1606 the technology for
whaling was invented by Yolimoto Wada in Kumano Taich in western
Japan. Yolimoto also was a samurai (soldier) and pirate, so he
appropriated the war-technology of the sea for whaling. He organized
his village and community as a war machine for whalers. Actually, it
was one of the first models of manufacturing in Japan and so set the
stage for the rise of capitalism. Because there are so many
procedures, rituals, and technologies for whale catching, the Japanese
model of primitive capitalism originated in the whalers' communities.
This interpretation has been elaborated by Shinichi Nakazawa, an
influential post-structuralist in Japan. But this organization and
mobilization in the whalers' communities did not depend on
European-type rationality. For them the whale was not a simple object
of exploitation. Competing and fighting with whales served as a means
to discover the physis and God, invisible forces in nature. If piracy
only concerned the exchange of material and merchandise, then whaling
concerned the symbolic gift economy via nature. Is this vision very
particular to Japanese thought? I don't necessarily think so.
Certainly, there are some peculiar cosmologies among Japanese whalers.
They desperately tried to distinguish the nature from the artifact,
physis from nomos, mutual exchange from exploitation, etc. These
dichotomies are often easily reduced to stereotypes about the
character of the East. And the cultural singularity of whale catching
could even be projected on geographical positions. But I'm very
skeptical about such analysis. Probably one could more or less suppose
that there was a cultural singularity in the technology of Japanese
whalers. However, what should be avoided for our thinking is any form
of reductionism to real geography. Instead it is possible to extend
and appropriate the singularity of whalers' technology and cosmology
into other contexts.

For that purpose it is useful to refer to the works of a German political
philosopher, Carl Schmitt. Although he is very notorious for his
involvement in and commitment to Nazi politics, after the second world
war, he tried to grasp and define human history as the struggle between
nation-states whose power was based on the land and those whose power was
based on the sea. Particularly, in his work _The Land and the Sea: On a
Historical Analysis_, he emphasized the importance of the sea as being a
more fundamental element than others (air, fire, and land) in his
political theory. For him, history meant the endless fight between
Behemoth, the monster on land, and Leviathan, the monster in the sea. What
is interesting for us is that Schmitt repeatedly mentioned Melville's
_Moby Dick_ to explain the political meaning of navigation, sea-power
politics, and the peculiar technology of whalers. As he says, this novel
is "the epic about the sea as a fundamental element for a human world."
And one anecdote could be added. Schmitt remarked that he compared himself
to Captain Cereno, a character in another of Melville's novels, _Benito
Cereno_. In this novel, Captain Cereno was forced to be a pirate because
his ship was seized by black slaves after an insurrection. Since the
slaves killed all the sailors in this ship, Cereno reluctantly committed
pirate activities. This story reminded Schmitt of his own unwilling
collaboration with the Nazis. Of course, it is only a pretext. In fact, in
Schmitt's theory after the war, the term pirate was not used as a mere
metaphor. In his works from _The Land and The Sea_ (1947) to _The Partisan
Theory_ (1962), the pirate had an important position in relation to his
major concept of "the political." Moreover, it could be said that the
concept of the pirate was extended to include all travelers on the sea.
Provided with the official mission papers, the "lettres of marque,"
pirates_ took the sea as their main field, just as the early bourgeoisie
in England made enclosures in order to develop the wool industry. For
pirates, the sea became the field for the primitive accumulation of
wealth. Schmitt says "thousands of English people became the corsairs of
capitalism." Schmitt had already acknowledged the presence of pirate
capitalism. This development via the sea through pirate activity carried
Protestantism as well as capitalism around the world. In addition,
missionaries were also often sea passengers and were the agents not only
of Christianity but also of colonialism and capitalism. Then, why is
Schmitt interested in _Moby Dick_ and whalers?  What meaning did he
associate with whalers? According to him, the whalers are not merely the
catchers or the slaughterers but the true hunters. As Schmitt says,
"Through fighting with the creature in the sea, humans were seduced to
going into the deep element in the sea." Schmitt thought that after
Columbus and Captain Cook and those navigators prior to them, whales and
whalers effectively charted the globe. Whales liberated humans from the
land when they became whalers, and through following the travels of
whales, humans found the tidal currents in the sea. Also in this context,
whales have been the vehicles of unknown information. In Schmitt's theory,
the essence of the political consists in the distinction between the
friend and the enemy. He remarks in this distinction that the relationship
between the friend and enemy sometimes becomes ambiguous. The main
characters in this novel, Ahab, Starbuck, Queequeg, Ishmael, etc., all
have such relationships with the big white whale. Of course they are not
pirates, but what should not be neglected is that they are always somehow
castaways in the sea and dropouts from ordinary society. At least, Schmitt
found pirates as well as in whalers to be outlaws. In his political
theory, he defined such outlaws or drop-outs as "partisans." As far as the
activity of the partisan is always insurrectionary and establishes an
antisocial hierarchy, the partisan's behavior is concerned with the
gesture of the "renegadoes."

In Schmitt's book _The Partisan Theory_ published in 1962, the concept of
the partisan referred to those who were out of the framework (Hegung) of
ordinary warfare. The partisan tends to depart from conventional warfare
and social mobilization and attempts to move toward another, alternative
type of warfare and political relations. In that sense, the pirate is a
kind of partisan. The pirate has the pleasure-mind in his activity and
therefore is capable of conducting guerrilla war and realizing
unconventional (or battle) situations. According to Schmitt's definitions,
the partisan unfolds and invents new spaces; formation of these spaces has
strongly depended on the technology and the industry of each age. One is
reminded of how war machines have been invented to provide new space for
war. Both the pirate frigate ship in the 17th century and the submarine in
the 20th century unfolded new war spaces. If the principle of the partisan
consists of maneuvering to force one's enemy into another unknown zone,
then the whales and the whalers are opposing parties of partisans. And
whales, ships, and submarines are also kinds of Leviathans. Transformation
of space by the partisan has expanded to a global scale in this century,
to include the invention of mechanisms to secure the advantage in the
struggle for control of outer space. But it should be noted that Schmitt
had thought about these transformations and extensions before Apollo or
the space shuttle. In his book, Schmitt already suggested the possibility
of "space pirates" and "space partisans." Now one can imagine the
extension and explosion/implosion of wire and optical fiber cables into
the information sea beyond physical spaces. (Needless to say, even in the
information age, the whale has been a very important creature for several
researchers like Timothy Leary and John C. Lilly.)

I'm not sure whether or not it is true that Robinson's desert island was
in fact Tobago. From Tobago one can see Trinidad. I want to add another
name to the theoretical constellations or archipelagoes in this paper. As
you may know, C.L.R. James was born in Trinidad and worked in England. He
wrote about cricket, popular cultures, and was a literary critic as well
as a Trotskyist and political activist. He was also interested in
Melville's works, including _Moby Dick_. The title of James' book which
deals with the work of Melville and Shakespeare, _The Sailors, the
Renegades, and the Castaways_, is derived from passages in _Moby Dick_.
The key word, renegade, is also used in Peter Lamborn Wilson's book. In
one chapter in another book _American Civilization_, (Blackwell, 1993)
James analyzed _Moby Dick_ and defined the story as being that of American
society itself. Through his interpretation, Moby Dick should be seen not
as an allegory but as a symbol. He says, "This legitimate activity
symbolizes the perpetual relation of civilized man with Nature. The whale
was the most striking of living things which man had to subdue in order to
have civilized lives. The whale is not a mere fish. The conquest of the
air, the mastery of atomic energy, all these are symbolized by the whale."
_Moby Dick_ is not an allegory about undomesticated and violent nature,
but rather symbolizes industrialization, colonization, imperialism, and
the class struggle to reach the density of hyper-space that is beyond
ordinary space. But the meanings of this symbol are not only singular. It
functions as a meta-symbol that spins out thousands of references and
interpretations. That is why for James, the whales and the sea were very
secular materials and subjects, and consequently, he based his strategy of
analysis on politics, not on rhetoric. He saw in the fighting within _Moby
Dick_ the real struggles within society. He says, "Melville knows and says
repeatedly that the conflict is between human and Nature, the demonism
that is in Nature. Melville knows also, however, that the struggle with
the demonism in Nature involves a certain relation between man and man."
The human desire to go beyond the limit is overlapped with the constant
border-crossing between the sea and the land. On the one hand, Moby Dick
is an active element of the sea, itself, and unknown nature, which is set
in an endless struggle with human beings. On the other hand, this struggle
simultaneously suggests conflicts among humans themselves. Fighting with
the whale, like Hegelian philosophy, is a model for human history. This
novel and its narrative of the fight with the whale suggest an awful,
sublime nature but are, in fact, an inverted image of social relations,
because the fight with the whale here does not mean the struggle with
nature. In other words, the ship Pequod is already a sort of industrial
factory populated by Ahab, the human-type of modern man in industrial
society, and Ishmael, the narrator as a model of modern intellectuals.
James concluded that Ahab is very much like Hitler or Stalin because of
his ability to mobilize people and amass unique will and power. _Moby
Dick_ was the Leviathan of the 19th or 20th centuries.

You may be aware of correspondences between the activities and communities
of pirates and the culture and movement of the black diaspora. In turn, do
not the theoreticians concerned with the black diaspora have an interest
in pirate culture? It is best to see the argument elaborated by Paul
Gilroy. He is the author of _Black Atlantic_ (Verso, 1993) and was
inspired by C.L.R. James. Actually, Gilroy often used the metaphor of the
ship: "The image of the ship - a living, micro-cultural, micro-political
system in motions - is especially important for historical and theoretical
reasons. Ships immediately focus attention on the middle passage, on the
various projects for redemptive return to the African homeland, on the
circulation of ideas and activists as well as the movement of key cultural
and political artifacts: tracts, books, gramophone records, and
choirs"(ibid., p.4). According to him, the ship is a medium, a living
means connecting nodes in the Black Atlantic world, and is one of the
moving elements in cultural exchanges and traveling. He regards books,
texts, music tapes, and records as such tools, much like the "cut'n mix"
and sampling technology developed from dub and reggae music. This music
organized particular chronotopes and virtual public spaces. It goes
without saying that we are now faced with broader cyberspaces through
network technology. Not only due to computers but also due to radio and
telephones, the field and sea of information have been expanding. It is
possible to discover many TAZs in the activity of pirates, from pirates in
the 16th century to radio pirates to data pirates in cyberspace. Though
these media sometimes are commercialized and commodified, we could invent
another style of pirates, because piracy and capitalism have always been
two sides of the same token. Information capitalism is not exempt from

[Edited by Hope Kurtz.]

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