Kavita Philip: Piracy and Biopower

Associate Professor of Women’s Studies at UC Irvine Kavita Philip situates her research at the intersection of “science, technology, history, and theory.” Possessing an M. S. in Physics as well as a Ph. D. in Science and Technology Studies, Philip adopts an interdisciplinary methodology in much of her research. Her most recent work focuses on technology’s relationship with a postcolonial worldview and feminist implications for the formation of new technological subjectivities. Her latest book, Tactical Biopolitics, co-edited with Beatriz da Costa, stresses the importance of cross-disciplinary “knowledge-making in the context of resistant practice” (4). The book highlights the ways in which artists, scientists, activists, and theorists use technology to destabilize “basic concepts such as scientific truth, race and gender identity…personal choice, social freedom, and civilizational progress” through experimental discourse (6). Working from a Foucauldian model of biopower, the book examines the strategies and practices of isolated pockets of resistance that act to reorganize and regroup discursive cultural categories.

In “Of Bugs and Rats: Cyber-cleanliness, Cyber-squalor, and the Fantasies of Globalization,” Philip takes up the place of the human body and subjective signifiers such as race, class, and gender within a globalized narrative of modern technology. She argues that the image of technological innovation as belonging to an imagined sterile, flawless, and bodiless universe should be understood “in relation to long-standing western narratives associating figures of horrific materiality with fantasies of the uncontrolled primitive and technological cleansing” (4). Within digital technology’s pure realm of mechanized progress and efficiency, the messy, organic physicality of the human body is figured as a potential contaminant. Philip analyzes the commercial production of microprocessors in hermetically sealed “cleanrooms,” focusing on the elaborate methods human workers must observe in order to avoid introducing any hazardous foreign material into the production chamber. Shrouded in enormous “bunny suits,” the workers themselves are in fact minimally protected from potential toxins harbored by the microprocessors’ raw materials; the suit and the complicated cleansing ritual each worker must perform before entering the production area are designed instead for the protection of the technology (14). Philip further argues that the “bunny suits” act to suppress bodily signifiers such as race and gender: not in the interest of a “progressive social policy, but in the interest of eliminating every troublesome aspect of the body” (18). In the material world, these “troublesome aspects of the body” are ultimately impossible to disaggregate from the body itself. This specter of abject imperfection thus contributes to an understanding of one’s subjective position and ability to affect change within the global economy of technology.

Philip continues an examination of subjective autonomy and authorship in the digital realm in “What is a Technological Author? The Pirate Function and Intellectual Property.” She confronts what she poses as a specifically “western” anxiety regarding online knowledge-sharing and intellectual copyright laws: a belief that “the very technologies that appear to embody post-Enlightenment modernity and progress seem to facilitate the destruction of western civilization by those who ‘hate our values and freedoms’” (201). In the United States, this anxiety has popularly produced a two-sided view of online piracy: “good” piracy refers to an artistic or culturally creative process by which users “transform” publicly available content new and potentially progressive forms, whereas “bad” piracy (often dubbed “Asian piracy”) pertains to the unaltered copying and distribution of original content deemed “inexcusable…because of its flouting of…the laws of the free market” (211-2).

Philip rejects this binary vision of “good” and “bad” piracy, which she argues serves to perpetuate a colonial worldview. The particular brand of “creativity” lauded by proponents of “good” piracy is fundamentally “depend[ent] on bandwidth” and essentially excludes individuals in less-developed regions who may depend on the workings of “bad” piracy in order to gain access to the global economy of technology (214). What is central for Philip is the question of who is practically capable of speaking “as an author” through technological “creativity” if we envision authorship as emerging “as an attribute of autonomous subjects” (207). Within a western conception of piracy, she argues, only “certain kinds of difference are permitted in the enforcement of legal equality,” and the “difference” associated with “not-yet” fully “mature” former colonies is not accepted (216). She argues for the recognition that the “aims” and “tactics” which motivate an individual’s subjective relationship with technology are specific to one’s “geo/cultural/political location,” and that these “aims” and “tactics” in the West have been particularly molded by a colonial power narrative.


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