The Body and the Screen: Theories of Internet Spectatorship
Author: Michele White
Publisher: Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2006
Review Published: January 2008
Michele White's The Body and the Screen: Theories of Internet Spectatorship is a text of particular interest to scholars well-versed in visual methodology, though its insights are not limited to visual methodology and questions of spectatorship. Despite White's tendency to assume reader familiarity with a depth of literature, her case studies and development of theoretical concepts are of use to any scholar of the Internet interested in the visual, and specifically the spectatorial.
Indeed, White's introduction, first chapter, and her theoretically rich afterword expressly address and emphasize the role of the body in relation to the Internet and the technologies used to access the Internet. This is an often-overlooked area of study by some Internet scholars, who prefer to conceptualize a user's interaction with the Internet as an "utterly fleshless process" (Waskul, 2005: 55) or as leaving "behind the physical nature with which we are, in reality, burdened" (Paterson, 1998). White's rejection of this "cyberlibertarian" rhetoric and her emphasis on the role of the body, though sometimes under-articulated in her chapter's case studies, is a valuable step towards re-centering discourse about the Internet where it belongs: in relation to the lived body.
White's text begins with an introduction and first chapter clarifying her conceptualization of Internet users, referred to as "spectators" to indicate the role of looking and how technologies of the Internet address users visually. White also identifies the theoretical tack of the book, which includes apparatus and feminist pschyoanalytic film theory combined with other critical models. White's ability to merge disparate critical and postmodern theories and their attendant vocabularies is a major strength of this text, though her application of these combined perspectives is not always uniform.
The second chapter details the primacy of vision and visual language in Multi-user Object-Oriented (MOO) settings. Despite the somewhat outmoded use of MOOs as a model, the chapter does raise useful questions about the nature of looking, and of being looked at, in online environments. White argues that MOOs "produce empowered spectators because of the ways textual looking is made into a culture where everything seems to be visually available" (40). White's account of spatiality, the role of looking and of "the gaze" in this chapter offers new insight into the practice of gendered gazing in such environments. The need, as White argues, for a reconceptualization of "the gaze" in online settings becomes obvious as White illustrates the weaknesses of applying feminist film theory wholesale to new visual settings such as these.
In her third chapter, White argues that users (spectators) are too close to the screen to possess and dominate the image as in film theory catalogued and explored by feminist film theorists such as Mulvey. She argues that this, coupled with the (usually female) webcam operators' control of the webcasted image and technology, empowers rather than subjectifies these female webcam operators. The spectator is then positioned as feminized, enmeshed with the screen and unable to attain the "voyeuristic position ... and sexual gratification" (78) that (presumably) he seeks.
However, White's argument fails to sufficiently address the possibility that the "unfinished and incomplete aspects" (77) of webcam spectatorship give the spectator the opportunity to furnish their own interpretations and meanings of, as well as uses for, the images supplied by these webcam operators. This option would indeed allow voyeurs to function precisely as White argues against. White does bring in Barthes' argument about moments of exposure as pleasurable (99) in her fourth chapter but does not address this in relation to webcams.
In this fourth chapter, "The Aesthetic of Failure," White discusses issues of authorship, noting that "net art" destabilizes work and applies a critical evaluation of the concept of universal pleasure. The aesthetic of failure is linked to disorientation, wherein constructed breakdowns of technology render the technology visible -- as White argues, net art is "as much about blindness as it is about visibility" (97). Net art, White argues, disrupts Internet spectatorship and challenges users to acknowledge their spectatorial position and their own reliance on technology. White offers a thorough account of the "balancing act" of net artists disrupting the "normal" function of Internet technology as "wrongness" (113) while also becoming institutionalized and normalized into the larger art community.
In her fifth chapter, White explores virtual places and spectators' "productively articulated visual experiences and viewing positions" while also taking into account "the ways that spectators are acted upon, produced by varied settings, regulated, and sometimes even rendered passive" (116). Drawing on theorists from Barthes and Foucault to Hartsock and Minh-ha, White interrogates the meaning and enactment of "authorship" in virtual places, illustrating connections between avatars and fragmented selves as well as the role of avatar artists in these online places. White brings the work of Benjamin on mechanical reproduction into conversation with avatar artists who primarily draw from already-extant digital imagery and mark their productions as "original."
In her chapter "This is Not Photography, This is Not a Cohesive View," White discusses the nature of computer-facilitated imaging, noting that spectators are encouraged "to view realistically rendered web site images as if they were photographs, a trace of the real, or a doorway to the natural world" despite the "deeply constructed aspects" (147) of such images. White's investigation of how such imagery addresses and positions the spectator draws upon the works of digital artists Carol Selter, Susan Silton, and Ken Gonzales-Day, whose art functions as "deliberate acts against the wholeness of the represented subject" (173). In this way, White argues, such art renders visible the subject-positions of Internet spectators.
Whether one's interest lay in visual methodologies and Internet spectatorship or elsewhere, White's afterword, "The Flat and the Fold: A Consideration of Embodied Spectatorship," is a theoretical goldmine that specifically addresses the body. Thorough and well-constructed, White's argument attempts "to uncover the desires, visions and disparate cultural forces at work on the body" (180). Using Delueze's concept of the fold, White explores the relationship of cyberpunk fiction with its consistent desire to leave the body behind. White then applies the concept of the fold to (often male) high-use computer users, such as industry employees and programmers, and their concern with their bodies as fleshy, soft, and feminized.
This case study offers a rich discussion of gendered bodies in relation to technology, addressing the lived bodies of such Internet users, their physical experiences and the attendant repercussions on identity. As White concludes, the "narratives about Internet and computer use, which indicate that they empower individuals and free them from unpleasant material conditions, are contradicted by the ways that some workers must engage" (194). White's afterword calls on scholars to address the Internet and its various technological configurations in a way that engages with the "so-called mindbody, identities that emerge from complex technological systems and computer facilitated interactions while interrogating rather than accepting the narratives that accompany such positions" (197). White's call to adopt the fold as a critical model for further research is one that should not be taken lightly; as she demonstrates, it offers a gap in existing understanding of the Internet and other communication technologies for critical and fruitful scholarly engagement.
Paterson, N. (1998). Cyberfeminism. Available online at http://internetfrauen.w4w.net/archiv/cyberfem.txt.
Waskul, D. (2005). Ekstasis and the Internet: Liminality and computer-mediated communication. New Media & Society, Vol. 7 (1), p. 47-63.
Jessica Brophy is an interdisciplinary PhD student at the University of Maine in Communication and Gender Studies. Her primary research focus is cybertheory, particularly that of Donna Haraway, Elizabeth Grosz and N. Katherine Hayles, though her academic interests run the gamut from progressive comedy to nissology. Her sporadic attempts at blogging can be found here. <email@example.com>
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