To arrr is human

Why are pirates not just fascinating but downright charming, at least in the abstract? Why is it so tempting to think that the solution to our culture’s embarrassing pirate fetish is to rename what we call piracy as something different: “software bootleggers”; “Somali ship-jackers”? Why is the idea of “International Talk Like an Armed Robber Day” unthinkable? Put another way, why did the Jolly Roger fly from the flagpole at Apple Computer’s headquarters while inside they were creating the first Macintosh? Why is the best way to get kids to attend an after-school program to hide its classrooms in the back of a pirate supply store?


There is another aspect to our fascination with pirates. It is existential rather than political. It is about civilization and its limits, about our need for a sense of home versus a need to break those boundaries altogether. The sea has always played a big role in that dialectic. The sea is, potentially, an avenue for intercommunication and exchange among men. It is, in short, a vast shipping lane. But it is also an outer boundary. The land stops at the sea. The city stops at the sea. We human beings have conquered this earth, mostly and swiftly, but the sea is still unnatural territory for us, we aren\’t as sure on its surfaces as we are on those harder surfaces more suited to bipeds.

The pirate takes that insecurity and runs with it. Indeed, the word pirate can ultimately be traced back to the ancient Greek word “peira,” which means trial, attempt, experiment. To have peira, to posses peira, is to have gone through an experience. If I try something, I get to know it. In fact, it is out of the collecting of peira that a person constructs the greater web of experience (ex-peira) that makes one person, one person, and another, another.

The pirate is, quite literally, taking a chance. In doing so, pirates reenact the basic process that everyone goes through in becoming a person. You start out with very little sense of the world, and you gradually gain experience and put it all together. Pirates are simply less complacent than the rest of us. For reasons specific to historical circumstance and the accident of birth, some people decide to take that ultimate chance and continue to push the boundary of peira, to become a peirate — a pirate. Such figures dive back into the chaos of the sea, the edges of civilization, the end of the world. That such a journey is wrapped in physical danger, violence, moral ambiguity, cruelty, and heroism is only natural. Things are messy at the limits. Sureness dissolves at the boundaries.

from “Bootylicious,” by Morgan Meis, The Smart Set, 16 April 2009 :: via 3quarksdaily

Originally published at

Add Your Comments