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HTNM Revisited: Kavita Philip

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

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