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The Body and the Screen: Theories of Internet Spectatorship

Author: Michele White
Publisher: Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2006
Review Published: January 2008

 REVIEW 1: Jessica Brophy
 REVIEW 2: Gabriel Jones
 REVIEW 3: Adi Kuntsman
 REVIEW 4: Kelly McWilliam
 REVIEW 5: Alison Miller

Spectatorship studies have traditionally examined the relationship between the cinema and "the spectator" (or the subject position constructed in the film, which is, for most scholars, quite distinct from "the viewer" or the actual person watching the film and courted to take up that subject position). Based in part on the early work of Jean-Louis Baudry (1970), who saw the cinema as an ideologically loaded apparatus, spectatorship has been one of the central preoccupations of film theory for almost four decades, and of feminist film theory in particular for almost three decades. It has also been one of the discipline's most controversial preoccupations. Judith Mayne, in her landmark study Cinema and Spectatorship (1993), described spectatorship as both the "most valuable area" in film scholarship and the "most misunderstood," the latter because of the tendency for much of this work to be "obsessed" with "dualistic categories" like "critical versus complacent spectatorship" (4).

Early studies of film spectatorship were initially taken up through the twin disciplinary lenses of semiotics and psychoanalysis, two early examples of the new discipline's attempt to bolster its own credibility through disciplinary association. From work that sought to problematise and reroute discussions around the heteronormativity of existing conceptions and practices of the cinema, especially around the gaze (Laura Mulvey (1989) the most famous to do so), to an increasing engagement with notions of embodiment and fantasy, feminist film theory has consistently approached spectatorship studies as an important part of the larger cultural negotiation over subjectivity in politically-charged social and cultural contexts, particularly for women and other marginal groups. But while much has changed in the questions we ask about spectatorship, it seems little has changed, since Mayne expressed such concern over binaristic scholarly tendencies in the early 1990s, in the answers we're producing. For example, more than ten years after the publication of Mayne's study, Michele Aaron's Spectatorship: The Power of Looking On (2006) similarly argues that spectatorship has always cast "what happens to the individual in the cinema" as a "negotiation of the spectator's activity or passivity, manipulation or resistance, distance or implication" (1). But rather than see this dualistic dependence as a telling theoretical shortfall, Aaron instead casts these decades of negotiation as the very reason that spectatorship continues to be a "crucial issue" not only within the discipline, but, in a digital age, well beyond the discipline, as well.

Indeed, Michele White takes up feminist film theory, among other (mostly cinematic) methodologies, to examine spectatorship in select Internet case studies in her recent book, The Body and the Screen: Theories of Internet Spectatorship. Throughout the book, White is interested in how particular Internet sites and settings construct and frame certain spectator positions, including what can and cannot be accessed on the Internet, the kind of power available to certain spectators (but not others), and the range of engagements of Internet sites with spectator bodies. White argues that spectatorship represents a "significantly different" engagement with "Internet and computer technologies," which are often examined as "unbiased tools, which are directed by individuals and always under their control" (5). But, as White compellingly argues, the Internet is an ideologically loaded network; it is no more an "unbiased" technology than mainstream cinema and, as such, is a productive site upon which to develop "hybrid" conceptions of spectatorship. White does, however, take the perhaps surprising step of rejecting the (for me, quite useful) distinction between "spectators" and "viewers," because the differences between the two have, for White, never been adequately "resolved." In doing this, she is following Mayne, clearly a key influence of White's and a touchstone for The Body and the Screen, who advocates an incomplete separation of the terms in recognition of their slippery interdependence, but also as part of both authors' broader desire to complicate traditional binary-based approaches to spectatorship. An exciting side effect of this approach is White's concomitant consideration of the equally slippery interdependence between the "the digital" or "the virtual" and "the real."

The Body and the Screen is divided into five chapters. Chapter 1 provides an overview of the relationship between the construction of spectator positions and Internet settings (including standard icons like the hand-pointer) and associated academic debates to ably set up the parameters of the study. Chapters 2 to 6 apply a particular methodology (or methodologies) to a particular Internet case study. Chapter 2 uses feminist film theory analyses of the gaze to examine the centrality of gazing, or looking, at MOOs (multi-user object-oriented settings, like LambdaMOO, the oldest MOO still in operation) and, in Chapter 3, webcams. Chapters 4 and 5 consider how spectators engage with Internet art: in Chapter 4, White looks at the work of artists like Peter Luining to consider how an intentional aesthetic of technological "failure" can encourage a critical form of Internet spectatorship, while in Chapter 5 she considers how spectators are invited to read avatars in Virtual Places (VP) chat settings as both "bodies" and works of art. Chapter 6 looks at the digital photography of Carol Selter, Ken Gonazales-Day, and Susan Silton to investigate the fraught relationship between the presentation of photographs online as authentic depictions of reality, and their often elaborate production processes (revealed by phrases like "computer-facilitated imaging"). White argues that these processes, in a chapter she has unambiguously titled "This is Not Photography," may produce a kind of "fragmented" spectatorship. And finally, in the Afterword to the text, White pursues the idea of "embodied" spectatorship, by linking together the case studies she has discussed in previous chapters into a larger discussion that recognises that while Internet spectatorship is far from simple, coherent, or ideal, there are nevertheless sites that offer nuanced challenges to existing stereotypes and may even begin to point the way forward for alternative models of spectatorship.

White, an Assistant Professor in the Department of Communication at Tulane University, has been teaching and researching the Internet and new media studies, and film and television studies, for the past decade. Her significant engagement with these media shows: The Body and the Screen is a valuable and accessibly written resource for readers interested not only in developments in Internet studies, or the application of spectatorship studies to the Internet -- though these are both areas that this book substantially contributes to -- but also in how these discussions may equally advance understandings of film spectatorship in a digital age.

The Body and the Screen, White's first research monograph, is an insightful and sophisticated text that deserves a wide audience.

Aaron, M. Spectatorship: The Power of Looking On. London: Wallflower Press, 2006.

Baudry, J-L. "Ideological Effects of the Basic Cinematic Apparatus." In P. Rosen (Ed.), Narrative, Apparatus, Ideology. New York: Columbia UP, 1986 (1970).

Mayne, J. Cinema and Spectatorship. London: Routledge, 1993.

Mulvey, L. "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema." Visual and Other Pleasures. London: Macmillan, 1989. 28-40.

Kelly McWilliam:
Kelly McWilliam is an ARC Postdoctoral Research Fellow (Industry) in the Creative Industries Faculty at Queensland University of Technology (Australia). She is the co-editor of and a contributor to Story Circle: Digital Storytelling around the World (Blackwell, 2008 -- with John Hartley) and the co-author of Screen Media: Film and Television Analysis (Allen and Unwin, 2008 -- with Jane Stadler).  <k.mcwilliam@qut.edu.au>

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