Negotiating Crisis and Legitimacy: Atlantic American Narratives of Piracy, 1678-1865

Elise-Richter Project, FWF (2015-2018), Project-No.: V-396-G23



Interdisciplinary Conference "Maritime Mobilities: Critical Reflections from the Humanities", Feb. 1-2, 2016, University of Vienna

Fields of Research

The project traces the construction of the pirate in transatlantic North American literature and culture from the late 17th century to the Civil War, exploring in what ways the cultural imaginary teased out the pirate’s ambivalent potential as a figure of identification and Othering, and how it has been used to articulate and negotiate crisis scenarios by invoking discourses and ideas of (il)legitimacy.

Historically, pirates were marked by their shifting national, racial, and at times even gender affiliations; because of this semantic mobility, s/he also became a literary trope which allowed for a symbolic negotiation of various identity constructions (such as British colony versus independent Republic; or United versus divided, slave-free or slaveholding States during the War of Secession) that had come into crisis in the (post-)colonial history of the United States and the Anglophone Caribbean. The project recasts piracy as a discursive category moving in a continuum between the propagation of (post-)colonial adventure and accumulation on the one hand and critical commentary on exploitation and colonial oppression on the other.

Reading narratives of piracy as symptomatic of various crisis scenarios, the project examines how the pirate was imbued with (de)legitimatory meaning during such periods and how popular cultural texts interpellated a non-elite readership to reflect on pressing issues of legitimacy—and thus on the future of American national identity.

Positioning of the Research within Mobility Discourse

The project traces mobility on two levels: on the level of representation by shedding light onto the ways mobility discourses are negotiated in the construction of pirates as mobile maritime figures (the texts under consideration are examined with regard to their enactment of mobility discourses); and on a categorical level as literary and cultural discourses present pirates as bare of ontological substance and charged with meaning only in the context of various scenarios of crisis due to their crucial role in their cultural articulation of ideas of political (il)legitimacy.