The Body and the Screen: Theories of Internet Spectatorship
Author: Michele White
Publisher: Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2006
Review Published: January 2008
In his recent academic bestseller The Stuff of Thought, psychologist Steven Pinker argues that human language articulates our fundamental conceptions of space, time, and causality; through our ways of talking about things, we assert a particular way of structuring and ordering our sense of the world. Falling in love, taking a leap of faith, or jumping to conclusions indicates how language represents abstract concepts as concrete, spatialized reality. Michele White argues similarly in The Body and the Screen that the ways we engage and interact online with images, texts, and each other contain complex -- and often complicating -- ideas of embodiment and empowerment in cyberspace. Her book offers a series of close critical readings of several "spaces" of online interactivity -- MOOs (text-based online virtual reality communities), webcams, art web sites, the web-based graphical chat environment Virtual Places, digital imagery, and Internet forums where (male) programmers discuss their own body image -- that collectively add up to a sophisticated case for the use of theories of spectatorship to make sense of how we live online, and of how the relationship between object and spectator is renegotiated within new media.
White shows that the rhetoric and iconography of embodiment on the Internet do not merely reproduce and represent the Web as a physical environment, as with the AOL instant messenger (AIM) logo depicting a briskly moving figure -- underscoring the idea of motion and activity in online chat, rather than our actual immobility as we type and stare at the screen -- or the ubiquitous welcome messages of various shopping sites that act as if we have entered an actual store and are interacting with actual people; they also rearticulate certain codes of race, gender, and sexuality as well, from the use of a white hand as the standard cursor image to the frequent relegation of women to social, gossip-oriented activities on company web sites to the basic requirement on many sites to identify gender (with the choice almost always limited to male/female, with "male" almost always placed first). By marginalizing or subordinating women and minorities, the Internet reproduces racial, gender, and sexual privilege at the very same time its rhetoric suggests the empowering, liberating potential of new media.
Web sites, then, act essentially as go-betweens for users, setting the terms of interaction and partly engineering the exchanges themselves, and thus embodying and codifying gender, race, and class ideology, although often in ways that complicate traditional ideas of power in the negotiations between spectator/subject and spectacle/object. White's focus in this book is in demonstrating the value of spectatorship to explain these interactions and exchanges, and she presents an exceptionally powerful critique of both the promise and reality of empowerment online. Her account would benefit from some analysis of class and capital, however, since the web is an economic as much as it is a social space. With sites with such enormous power as Amazon organizing entire communities around consumerism, the Internet often just serves the longstanding needs of capital to produce subjects within easily defined and easily targeted categories; difference is silenced, less because it is socially destabilizing or disruptive than because it does not ostensibly offer a growth market. Once subjects are rendered and positioned within this system, however, they themselves often police its borders to prevent the disruption of their own off-the-rack sense of coherence. As White notes, there is a price to be paid for not participating in traditional gender roles, and there is a continuum between the seemingly idle and inconsequential comments and harassment people face when they present non-traditional identities online and the violent and brutal treatment of "passing" individuals such as Brandon Teena, who was raped and murdered for transgressing traditional gender lines.
Nonetheless, White also presents a substantial corrective to the narratives of disempowerment through surveillance suggested by Foucauldian readings of spectatorship, and also critiques the extent to which the concept of the "male gaze" in traditional feminist film theory plays out online (Foucault, 1995; Mulvey, 1975). To a considerable degree, the object on the computer screen can now look back at her spectator, or at the very least renegotiate the terms of her surveillance and reframe the conditions in which she's represented. In what White calls "the politics of being seen," female operators of web cam sites can often turn the idea of spectatorship back on the spectator; as one operator writes, "what u see at my site and your reactions to it say everything about YOU" (83). Rather than reproducing the traditional voyeuristic relationship, web cam sites empower women to offer their own rhetorical and visual representations of themselves and of women's bodies and lives in general, and also to recontextualize hostile or sexual comments from users from their own perspectives. Thus, as White points out, "the Internet and computer spectator is literally mirrored, doubled, and confused with the screen" (84); the spectator is often compelled to view himself at the same time that he is watching the screen, and the positions of both spectacle and spectator run both ways. This repositioning of the gaze is particularly clear in White's engaging analysis of web forums in which male programmers discuss their own body images -- the long periods they spend inert in chairs staring at screens, their soft and often flabby bodies folded and sitting. As she notes, "male programmers' overt fascination and concern with their own flesh contradicts cultural presumptions that the body is a woman's issue" (178).
White's book persuasively shows that the screen as a fundamental site of interaction and conceptualization has reframed human relations and self-image, and the concept of spectatorship is an effective guide to sort through these renegotiations of subjectivity and objectification. Even in a purely textual environment like LambdaMOO, for example, the logic of visual display and performance governs how participants interact -- the practice of "looking" at another character, for example, is fraught with hazards; the would-be spectator is often met with considerable scrutiny, and often hostility, himself. The gaze, traditionally reserved as a male privilege, can be turned back on the one gazing; thus new media, even in highly abstract form, both articulate a strong sense of materiality and spatiality and assert the sense of both spectator and spectacle on all participants. The interactivity of online environments enables a considerable degree of resistance at the same time as it seemingly perpetuates traditionally gendered power relations, as on women's webcam sites, and also allows web artists to rework the protocols, structures, and images of the Internet in ways that compel viewers to rethink their own place in the spectator-object relationship. Yet, as White's chapters on commercial web sites and on the graphical chat environment Virtual Places demonstrate, new media can just as easily reinscribe hierarchical power structures and traditional concepts of the body. In an environment that makes possible a reimagining and reworking of the ideas and power relations that structure our sense of the world, then, we have to be especially attentive in making sure the ways we've been conditioned to think by traditional representations of spectatorship aren't merely reproduced on new screens.
Foucault, M. (1995). Discipline & Punish: The Birth of the Prison. Vintage.
Mulvey, L. (1975). Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema. Screen, 16(3), 6-18.
Pinker, S. (2007). The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Nature. Viking.
Gabriel Jones is a Ph.D. student in cultural studies and sociology of education at the University of California, Los Angeles. His research focuses on mass media and digital culture as forms of popular pedagogy. <firstname.lastname@example.org>
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