Thursday, February 12, 2009

"A New Epoch of Piracy"

The recent "Pirates of the Caribbean" films provided much fodder for discussing the subject of 'piracy' in the classroom. What does it mean to 'copy', 'cut', and 'paste'? (Are these mere aesthetic metaphors, or real acts of violence/creativity?) How does one come up with 'original' ideas out of a common language? Can an iPod distinguish between legally and illegally downloaded tunes? (Can the ear?) Personal computers and similar technologies allow networked citizens to hold a double status as everyday pirates. A modern mise en abyme: someone burning pirated DVDs of "Pirates of the Caribbean."

Today we read in the Times:
More than 100 ships have been attacked in Somalia’s pirate-infested seas in the past year, but no hijacking has attracted as much attention as this one, in large part because the freighter was loaded with arms, including tanks. It stirred fears of a new epoch of piracy and precipitated an unprecedented naval response. Warships from China, India, Italy, Russia, France, the United States, Denmark, Saudi Arabia, Malaysia, Greece, Turkey, Britain and Germany have all since joined the antipiracy campaign.

Meanwhile, a history class at George Mason University created a brilliant collaborative hoax called "The Last American Pirate." Part of their assignment was to compose a fictitious Wikipedia entry that would make it past the surveillance of the notoriously scrupulous (if also occasionally arbitrary) Wikipedia editors. (It passed, for a while—but now is prefaced by a meta-critical disclaimer of sorts.)

I would like to design a course in which we would confront the myriad specters of piracy that haunt the discipline of English—such as plagiarism, pastiche, and dissemination, to name a few. Are writers always pirates? Or, is writing automatically on the side of "the antipiracy campaign"? Either way, English classrooms would seem to be, unavoidably, "pirate-infested seas" indeed.