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 takes on an important and ambitious task -- to present an innovative conceptualisation of the use of the Internet in terms of spectatorship. White takes the reader through different types of computing and Internet communication -- commercial websites and sites for net artists, webcams, synchronous MOO settings, and graphic "virtual places." Her approach "is significantly different from engaging with Internet and computer technologies as unbiased tools, which are directed by individuals and always under their control" (5). Instead, she focuses on the idea of spectatorship in order to examine how users are rendered and regulated by technologies. The book engages with a wider spectrum of theories ("apparatus and feminist psychoanalytic film theories, art history, gender studies, queer theory, race and post-colonial studies, and other theories of cultural production," p. 1), in order to examine how the Internet spectator is constructed, how the representations of bodies work in computer-mediated environments, and what forms of looking and being looked at are produced and negotiated.
The book begins with a theoretical introduction where White sets up the terms of her discussion of spectatorship. Chapter 1, "Making Computer and Internet Spectators," looks in more detail into academic and popular discourses of Internet use and engagement. Those discourses, the author suggests, often narrate the websites as spaces which one can enter and move through. Metaphors of place, movement and materiality (such as the Internet as "populated," "the electronic frontier," etc) suggest that Internet is a tangible space through which the spectator can travel. Such narratives displace the chair, the sitting in front of the screen, and the computer interface, while at the same time create an illusion of the spectator as an active agent.
Chapter 2, "Visual Pleasures through Textual Passages: Gazing in Multi-User Object-oriented Settings (MOOs)," examines text-based settings and the way they construct modes of looking and gazing through gaze-oriented commands. White suggest that gaze "must be radically rethought in Internet settings because the traditional understanding of subject and object, which explains how viewers look at things, does not easily apply to those settings" (35). She shows that despite the fact that they operate in a textual environment, MOOs construct virtual "sight" and corporeal spectators by creating a world where everything seems to be visually available. By using feminist theories of the gaze, White demonstrates how power works through looking.
Chapter 3, "Too Close to See, Too Intimate a Screen: Men, Women and Webcams," explores how ideas about body and identity are played out in webcams -- a medium that is particularly influenced by the belief that what we see are "real" bodies and "unmediated" environments. Here, White continues her engagement with cinematic traditions and feminist theories of spectatorship when she analyses how women webcam operators -- such as www.jennicam.com, www.theworldiknow.com, www.summer-web.com, www.acamgirl.com, and www.camgirls.com -- act in the context of voyeurism and the objectifying gaze that positions women as erotic objects for men. White suggests that the medium of webcams offers a possibility of resistance not only because women webcam operators can make themselves visible in a controlled way, but also because "the spectator is too close to the screen and the image is too fragmented for voyeurism to operate properly" (59).
Chapter 4, "The Aesthetic of Failure: Confusing Spectators with Net Art Gone Wrong," takes a close look at the work of several net artists -- in particular, their engagement with Internet and computer technologies. Despite the dominating narrative of the Internet's functionality, it is in fact full of errors, malfunctions, and crashes. The chapter explores the ways net artists "maintain a sort of dialogue with technology when they render Internet and computer failures" (85) and addresses in detail the work of three artists: Jodi (a collaborative project of Joan Heemskerk and Dirk Paesmans), Peter Luining, and Michaël Samyn. White discusses the status of net art and analyses the aesthetics of failure by addressing aesthetics as spectatorial positions. She also identifies some key problems of the artwork discussed. First of all, the "art going wrong" sometimes becomes an aesthetic in itself. And secondly, those spectators who lack the necessary knowledge in computing mistake the art for "genuine" error messages; those who know how to engage are, paradoxically, most safe from the destabilising effects the artists intend to make.
Chapter 5, "Can You Read Me? Setting-specific Meaning in Virtual Places," continues the discussion of artwork on the net. In this chapter, White looks at graphic chat settings, know as VP (virtual places), and in particular, at the use of avatar images -- images that aim to "represent" the participant. She explores the notions of art and authorship in the process of making the avatars, while also discussing how virtual places "produce spectators who look at, evaluate, and erotically enjoy visual material" (115). White links the galleries of avatars displayed on the net to the colonial legacy of viewing and collecting, and addresses the commodifying practices of making avatars (turning actual bodies/body parts into icons). She also examines the role of gender, race and sexuality in making avatar images.
Chapter 6, "This is Not Photography, This is Not a Cohesive View," looks at digital imaging and its production and delivery. Looking at the works of Carol Selter, Susan Silton, and Ken Gonzales-Day, White discusses the ways digital photographs can become conflated with the images they present, what kind of viewing positions they present, and the ways individuals do or do not follow the spectatorial directions. Engaging with Barthes' (1977, 1981) work on photography as well as theories of cinema, White raises questions about the ways identity, embodiment, and representations are produced through computer mediated imaging.
The book ends with an afterword, "The Fat and the Fold: A Consideration of Embodied Spectatorship," where White turns away from the screen to the embodied person behind -- or rather, in front -- of the monitor. She notes that while scientific narratives of cyberspace and artificial intelligence are dominated by the desire to leave the "meat" behind when moving into what is seen as the terrain of the pure mind, many programmers are in fact obsessed with their bodies, with the discomfort of folding for hours in front of the screen, and with the materiality of embodied pain. Turning the gaze to the materiality of the flesh can lead us, White suggests, into a different understanding of computer use, challenge utopian narratives of the Internet and critically address the role of technology in our lives, locally and globally.
Despite being theory-oriented, the book is clearly written and accessible, which makes it a good read and useful teaching material. The main strength of The Body and the Screen is its combination of the overall theoretical shift -- the introduction of theories of visual arts and cinema into the analysis of Internet use -- and the range of topics discussed as case studies. As a result, the book will be particularly attractive for those working on visual cultures as well as for those interested in on-line sociality and the role of Internet in everyday lives. Both will especially appreciate the book's analysis of gender in relation to the Internet, White's extensive references to feminist theories of spectatorship, and her nuanced examinations of gendered practices, embodiments, and representations.
At the same time, the treatment of other differences, such as race and ethnicity, is rather disappointing. The book begins with a promise of an innovative and careful analysis of Internet's racialisation, when in the introduction White describes the ways computer technologies address users as white heterosexual men, and depict women and people of colour as "the other." The promise is carried on to the first chapter, where White invites the readers to critically examine the interface of, for example, the white hand of the cursor which produces a setting of unmarked maleness and whiteness that discourages others from engaging, and when she notes: "the accompanying indication that certain spectators have license to touch, view and acquire [which] is particularly disturbing when using the pointing and grasping hand to engage with images of women and people of colour" (19).
Indeed, there is much to be said about the racialisation of the interface, its disturbing effects, and the forms of dis/identification it produces. Unfortunately, the book leaves them at the level of "stating the problem" but does not adequately conceptualise spectatorship as not only gendered but also racialised. Part of the problem, it seems, is the author's over-reliance on theories that position gender as their main focus of analysis. The discussion in the book, therefore, focuses on "males" vs. "females," thus failing to theorise other differences beyond their description. True, the author mentions race and ethnicity several times throughout the book, but never fully engages with them. White only returns to a detailed discussion of "gender, race, sexuality" in chapter 5, but even there she does not say much beyond stating the obvious. In her discussion of avatars she notes that "the organization of women's bodies into available types, including mappings of skin and hair color, too easily evokes a history of racial and ethnic intolerance in which the charting and mapping of bodies were used as scientific proof of differences" (138). She then cites Jennifer Gonzalez (2000) who situates avatars in the history of colonialism and collecting and encourages us to ask "'who is collecting whom' (Gonzalez in White) and what kind of bodies are put on display" (139). Gonzalez's question is the best part of the analysis here, which never goes beyond asking the question, because White's discussion slides back to gender differences. Her reference to post-colonial theories (as, for example, Edward Said (1979) and Trinh Minh-ha (1995) at the end of the chapter is superficial, to say the least. What's more, it seems that race and coloniality figure as marginal additions which are only useful insofar as they illuminate other issues, such as gender or the relations between those more and less computer savvy.
Another unfortunate shortfall of the book is the lack of context when discussing particular case studies. There is very little background information on most of the people depicted in the book -- the netartists described in chapter 4, for example, or the webcam operators presented in chapter 3. The reader is left to wonder who they actually are, where they live and work -- in other words, what is the cultural and political contexts of their performance? Further, the websites discussed in the book are all English-speaking. Are they all US-based? Their geographical and linguistic locatedness is seldom addressed. This locatedness is important for artists/spectators/participants themselves. For example, in chapter 4, White describes a network of artists, Rhizome, which included several Russian artists. She then mentions a conflict that occurred in Rhizome: one of the Russian artists accused it of being American-centric and, as such, contradicting the very idea of rhizome as dispersed network without a center.
The geo-political locations of the artists, operators, and spectators is meaningful not only to those who participate in on-line interactions. In the case of the Internet -- which is simultaneously transnational (in its networked structure) and local (in its practices of use, cultural and economic contexts and the actual bodies behind screens), poly-lingual, and English-dominated -- Donna Haraway's (1988) call for "situated knowledge" is more relevant than ever. Contextualising the material is also crucial for the kind of feminist theorising that White aspires to when she wishes to challenge the universalised notions of computer/Internet users as white, male, and heterosexual.
Despite these shortfalls, however, I think that White's The Body and the Screen is an excellent contribution to the field of cyberculture studies, and it will be of great interest to researchers as well as lecturers and graduate students. It is my hope that in the analysis of Internet spectatorship that will follow the directions set by White, both racialisation and geo-political location will get the theoretical attention they deserve.
Barthes, Roland (1977). Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes, trans. Richard Howard. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
_____ (1981). Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography, trans. Richard Howard. New York: Hill and Wang.
Gonzalez, Jennifer (2000). "The Appended Subject: Race and Identity as Digital Assemblage," in Beth E. Kolko, Lisa Nakamura and Gilbert B. Rodman (eds.), Race in Cyberspace. New York: Routledge, pp. 27-50.
Haraway, Donna (1988). "Situated Knowledge: The Science Question in Feminism as a Site of Discourse on the Privilege of Partial Perspective." Feminist Studies 14(3): 575-99.
Minh-ha, Trinh T. (1995). "No Master Territories," in Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths, and Helen Tiffin (eds.), The Post-Colonial Studies Reader. London: Routledge, pp. 215-218.
Said, Edward (1979). Orientalism. New York: Random House.
Adi Kuntsman is a lecturer of Internet and Communication in the Department of Media and Cultural Studies at Liverpool John Moores University. Her research interests include violence, war and colonialism, gender and sexuality in the former Soviet Union and the post-Soviet diaspora, and on the Russian-language Internet. Adi is currently working on hatred and diasporic attachments in Post-Soviet blogosphere. Adi reviewed Getting It On Online: Cyberspace, Gay Male Sexuality and Embodied Identity for RCCS. <email@example.com>
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