Ned Rossiter on Piracy, Anonymity, and Parametric Politics

In their collaborative research efforts, ICS researcher Professor Ned Rossiter and Dr Soenke Zehle (Saar College of Fine Arts) discuss piracy, anonymity, and parametric politics with Daniël de Zeeuw for Krisis: The Journal of Contemporary Philosophy

de Zeeuw: Pirate practices often involve theft and property violations without clearcut ideological motives, as is the case with most torrent trackers. For this reason they are often dubbed apolitical, in a pejorative, delegitimizing sense, namely as 'merely' criminal, directed towards private gain and against the public interest. More often than not, repression of what is deemed private is much stronger than what is said to be of public significance, making this repression less contested as well. Similarly, hackers' targeting of information and communication infrastructure is depoliticized, or delegitimized under criminal conspiracy acts. Instead you claim that contemporary forms of piracy involve both contestations of ownership, new forms of use and an alternative politics of the common. Does this mean you reject the above framing of piracy as apolitical? Under what conditions may pirate practices involve genuine political acts? Or should they be evaluated according to other norms and categories altogether?

NR & SZ: To talk about how such framings operate as devices of depoliticization, we should perhaps revisit the distinction between politics and the political that also informs reflections on piracy. As Derrida has noted in his reading of Schmitt's account of the friend/enemy distinction as an existential antagonism – implying the ever-present possibility of physical killing – that is constitutive of the political, Schmitt's attempt to deduce the political from a place where it did not yet exist requires a definition of the enemy as such, one that is linked to the possibility of a proper war – that is, an existentially political war. It is a distinction whose disappearance in the wake of modern warfare Schmitt both acknowledges and resists. It should be noted that in his post-war writings, Schmitt has discouraged readings of this distinction that stress annihilation as the inevitable telos of such an antagonism, but affirmed the need to think the 'enemy' as that which binds any one sphere of the political as an ethico-political space. Schmitt's desire for distinction is alive in contemporary legal orthodoxy. The prosecution of piracy as a crime (rather than an act of war) has been lamented by current adherents of Schmitt such as John Yoo, for instance, Deputy Assistant US Attorney General in the George W. Bush Administration, who would like to see the public enemy status extended to terrorists (i.e. combatants that are 'illegal' in that they do not act on behalf of a sovereign state) more generally. But the definition of piracy that opens Daniel Heller-Roazen's (2009) genealogy of the 'enemy of humanity' also echoes Schmitt's attempt to deduce the political from non-subjective, nonanthropological categories.

This question is not limited to piracy, of course; it is one of the characteristics of the current conjuncture that statelessness, a key concern in the political philosophies of Hannah Arendt and Giorgio Agamben, is once again considered an instrument of governance (take the call to revoke the citizenship of jihadists, coming, needless to say, mainly from states who are signatories to the two UN conventions on the reduction of statelessness). So, the political character of piratical practices refers to the ways in which they modify the conditions of possibility for politics and political action. In this sense there is some correlation here with hacker practices, frequently subsumed under the governance meme of 'cyberterrorism'. While following this line of thought leads us beyond the terrain of this interview, it should be noted that the association of piracy with terror is itself in need of a conjunctural explanation.

What interests us here is the scope available for tinkering with social and technological systems, the linkages that are foregrounded by reapproaching the question of piracy in terms of the infrastructural implications of its practices. The centrality of infrastructural and logistical registers to piratical practices cuts across public/private distinctions and calls for a parametric sense of the political, rather than the fall-back on a public sphere model that always-already depoliticizes piratical practices as private acts of appropriation without authorization. There is no necessarily progressive vision in the political dimensions of piracy. This is of course also true for any politics organized around the principles of identity and representation, but it nevertheless bears repetition. The point of departure for our reflections on piracy is not the romance of disruption, but a sense that piracy offers a particularly useful point of departure for analyses of the varying perspectives in the way we delineate the boundaries of the political.

For instance, we do not think of piracy primarily in terms of property violations. Such a framing is of extremely limited analytical reach. Instead, we want to know what is left of piracy when it is not exclusively understood in relation to property. There is a sense of piracy that simply involves illicit changes in ownership. But we are more interested in how piracy opens an exploration of the boundaries of sovereignty. Historically, the idea of a contiguous space of sovereignty (where one boundary touches the next, without non-sovereign territories in between) is rather recent, and in many parts of the world does not exist in practice – permanent policing of these boundaries is needed to produce them as boundaries, and pirates play a key role in how the predictive policing strategies of these semi-open spaces are determined and designed by public (states) and private actors (Private Military Corporations, NGOs). Within such a geopolitical imaginary, we move instead to practices of anonymity as exemplary acts of piracy situated within logistical worlds, whose techniques and technologies of governance seek to extract value through the capture of experience. With such a movement, we register the extent to which the infrastructural dimension of digital economies demands analytical attention, from the shift to low-latency networks and centralized storage systems (e.g. data centres) to the logistical technologies ensuring the synchronization of networked activities across the topologies of these new economies of capture.

1 May 2005