HTNM Lecture — Kavita Philip, “The Pirate Function”


The Pirate Function

See below for our Revisited post of this event!
Pirates who threaten to invert power relations through appropriating things less tangible than ships and bodies have become a growing concern for the managers of twenty-first-century economic globalization. Appropriating, modifying and sharing a range of less concrete but equally crucial objects, intellectual property “robbers” today traffic in images, music, and software. Although business analysts regard this as a novel problem, supposedly precipitated by the unprecedented importance of “knowledge” as a force of economic production, historians of science and law tell stories of intellectual property theft that predate the current IPR discourse by two centuries. Anti-piracy discourses now frequently intersect with anti-terrorist security discourses, where both pirates and terrorists function as threats to free markets and civilized nations. Clearly, even while it participates in a longer history, the current discourse of piracy is specific to our present historical and economic moment, and illuminates particular characteristics of the emerging forms of global informational capitalism.

What forms of globalized citizenship and personhood are being shaped via the emerging legal discourses of intellectual property, on both sides of the struggle for access to new forms of information? In this paper I read the 21st-century debate over “sharing,” “openness,” and “freedom” in software, music, and film not as an entirely unique and unprecedented moment, but rather, via a genealogical understanding of its legal, cultural, and political economic conditions of enunciation.

thumbnail Kavita Philip is Associate Professor of History with affiliate faculty positions in Anthropology and Informatics at UCI, and a 2014-2016 Visiting Scholar at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, Berlin. She has worked in environmental studies, colonial history, postcolonial studies, history of technology, global political economy, and science fiction studies. She is author of Civilizing Natures (2003 and 2004), and co-editor of four volumes, curating interdisciplinary work in radical history, political science, art, activism, gender, and public policy. She has a Ph.D. in Science and Technology Studies from Cornell, an M.S. in Physics from the University of Iowa, and a B.Sc. in Physics (with Chemistry and Mathematics minors) from the University of Madras, India.

The History and Theory of New Media Lecture Series brings to campus leading humanities scholars working on issues of media transition and technological emergence. The series promotes new, interdisciplinary approaches to questions about the uses, meanings, causes, and effects of rapid or dramatic shifts in techno-infrastructure, information management, and forms of mediated expression. Presented by the Berkeley Center for New Media, these events are free and open to the public. For more information, visit:


Miyoko Conley (TDPS) recaps an amazing talk by Kavita Philip in the History and Theory of New Media Lecture Series.

The Spring semester of the History and Theory of New Media Lecture Series began on March 2, 2017, with a talk by Kavita Philip entitled “Ripped Off? Pirate Technologies, Jugaad Politics, and Postcolonial Modernities” (previously titled “The Pirate Function”). Philip is Associate Professor of History with affiliate faculty positions in Anthropology and Informatics at University of California, Irvine, and her talk illustrated the large scope of her new book on piracy, particularly in relation to India’s late-twentieth century economic and technological takeoff.

Phillip first located her study in our contemporary moment, where there is a simultaneous anxiety about piracy and intellectual property theft on the one hand, and on the other, a blasé attitude toward copying in a Western, industrialized context. However, rather than focusing solely on the present, Philip deployed a multinodal method to think about piracy postcolonially, drawing together strands of various historical vignettes and events involving the meanings of science, technologies, and economic development, in order to make visible the “seams and points of articulation” among these discourses. For example, Philip cited both the discourses on piracy and Jugaad, a practice of “doing more with less” and recently hailed in business magazines as the secret to successful innovation, as dependent on traditional, 19th-century narratives of “backwardness” and “primitiveness” (Philip also sees Jugaad as modeled after piracy, hence drawing economics and piracy closer together). Her project asks why and how it has seemed necessary to look at spaces of decolonization through spaces of science, politics, and economics, and what politics become thinkable or unthinkable through these practices.

Moreover, through historical vignettes that stretch from the 18th century to the present, Philip’s talk located some points of discomfort and disruption in these traditional stories about postcolonial technology in general, and piracy in particular. Philip presented two ends of the spectrum of thought regarding piracy; one seeing piracy as a threat to the state, to law and order, etc., and the other end being a celebration of the utopian promises of pirate society (admittedly mostly fictitious, not matter the era). Though it may seem like a (humorous) stretch to talk about literal pirates from the 18th century in relation to technological piracy today, Philip’s example of the laws passed against white pirates in Madagascar opened up broader themes surrounding technological piracy, and how the anxiety around piracy stems from its intimate generation, its “calculus of unauthorized production,” whether that production is “ungoverned, stateless copies” in regards to literal pirate children or technological goods.

Lastly, through an anecdote about how Spider-Man 3 opened in China before it did in the United States due to fears of piracy, Philip showed how pirates, though often thought to be outside figures in our economy, are central figures in opening up new geographies of development, and how their uneven use of the law indicates the uneven movement of the law. While arguing against both a curtailment of piracy and its uncritical celebration, due to the ease with which a “sharing economy” is appropriated and exploited by capital, Philip ended her talk and the Q&A by inviting us to think about how pirates enable a fuzzy world, where boundaries and traditional narratives are not easily defined.

2017 HTNM: Kavita Philip