The Pirate Myth: Genealogies of an Imperial Concept

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Routledge, Jan 9, 2015 - Law - 266 pages

The image of the pirate is at once spectral and ubiquitous. It haunts the imagination of international legal scholars, diplomats and statesmen involved in the war on terror. It returns in the headlines of international newspapers as an untimely ‘security threat’. It materializes on the most provincial cinematic screen and the most acclaimed works of fiction. It casts its shadow over the liquid spatiality of the Net, where cyber-activists, file-sharers and a large part of the global youth are condemned as pirates, often embracing that definition with pride rather than resentment. Today, the pirate remains a powerful political icon, embodying at once the persistent nightmare of an anomic wilderness at the fringe of civilization, and the fantasy of a possible anarchic freedom beyond the rigid norms of the state and of the market. And yet, what are the origins of this persistent ‘pirate myth’ in the Western political imagination? Can we trace the historical trajectory that has charged this ambiguous figure with the emotional, political and imaginary tensions that continue to characterize it? What can we learn from the history of piracy and the ways in which it intertwines with the history of imperialism and international trade? Drawing on international law, political theory, and popular literature, The Pirate Myth offers an authoritative genealogy of this immortal political and cultural icon, showing that the history of piracy – the different ways in which pirates have been used, outlawed and suppressed by the major global powers, but also fantasized, imagined and romanticised by popular culture – can shed unexpected light on the different forms of violence that remain at the basis of our contemporary global order.


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While most books on the history of piracy provide the usual historical narrative based on well-known biographies and events, the book explores the history of piracy in order to reflect and illuminate much larger political and historical issues as the nature of European imperialism, fundamental transformations in the nature of capitalist exchange between the eighteenth and the nineteenth century, fundamental shifts in the history of international law and the constitution of the modern international order. In short, the book shows convincingly why piracy is an important subject to consider when reflecting upon the history of our contemporary globalized world. One one hand, it shows how critical theory may be used to better understand the history of piracy and imperialism. On the other, it shows how the history of piracy may help us to understand - and sometimes criticize - the work of authors such as Karl Marx, Carl Schmitt, Michel Foucault, Giorgio Agamben etc.
Personally, I am writing a dissertation on British imperialism in South-East Asia, and the subject of the book was only secondary to my research topic but it really helped me to think about much wider issues. It is a really enjoyable, highly intellectual read and I strongly recommend it.

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I have just finished reading this... and it is quite simply the best book on pirates I have read since The Many-Headed Hydra. It is a huge relief since most of the stuff on pirates out there is so disappointing. This is a book that makes you think and smile. It covers a huge historical timeframe - from Roman times until today - and it is at once a book of history, a cultural studies masterpiece, and a deep philosophical reflection in the tradition of people like Agamben, Negri etc.
I don't know what it is, but it is really good.


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About the author (2015)

Amedeo Policante is based in Department of Politics, Goldsmiths College