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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
 AUTHOR RESPONSE: Michele White

The Body and the Screen: Theories of Internet Spectatorship, by Michele White, is a groundbreaking analysis of Internet spectatorship, offering new ways of interpreting and analyzing how the Internet is utilized in our society. This book analyzes how Internet and computer spectators are created, and places these spectators within the frames of different theories in order to better understand the place of the spectator within the world of the Internet. Each chapter of this work takes the reader into a different component of the Internet world. From webcams to game playing, Internet art to photography, the text is rich with examples of the spectator, spectatorship, and how each subgenre of Internet use can be viewed from various theoretical lenses.

The introductory chapter highlights the prevalence of the spectator, and how this term is used throughout the remaining text in regard to other scholars' approaches to the Internet or computer "user." Though the argument could be made "user" and "spectator" are interchangeable terms, White clearly distinguishes the terminology for the reader. White defines the user as an empowered individual in control of the Internet interface through utilization, whereas spectatorship "affects how settings and interfaces are understood and helps to shape larger conceptions of self and society" (1). Further, spectatorship is differentiated from merely using the Internet in its ability, for example, to perpetuate societal stereotypes, particularly of women and people of color (14). White previews each chapter of the text from these perspectives on "user" and "spectator."

The first chapter of the text, "Making Computer and Internet Spectators," defines how the computer and the Internet create spectators out of consumers, and White first tackles the importance of personalization within the Internet setting. It is particularly interesting how White offers examples of how gender representations are utilized within this realm of spectatorship, noting "gender is essential to the engagement" (29). For example, certain websites limit the option of gender disclosure to male or female, thus limiting the realm of personalization to only those who fit within clearly defined gender norms or categories.

White moves on to discuss Multi-user Object-Oriented settings, or MOOs. In this chapter, White begins the theoretical discussions within the book, utilizing feminist and gender scholarship to analyze MOOs and how spectators look or gaze upon others in the Internet setting. While this chapter first covers interesting ground in the theoretical application of well-known scholarship (e.g., Mulvey's analysis of gaze and narrative cinema), White then argues these theories to be less useful in the discussion of MOOs. For example, gender boundaries are easily manipulated in these settings, as inter-gender characters might receive more harassment than traditional gendered characters (51).

White begins the discussion on webcams by noting women's webcams offer disempowered positions for the spectator as well as promote a restructured way of looking and gazing (57). For example, whereas MOOs most often reproduce and sustain traditional positions of gender, webcams offer women the opportunity to have power over their images and authority over their own representations and objectification. In essence, White argues webcams frustrate more than enlighten, and these cameras can provide a mirror more than a window when considered as a form of spectatorship.

White furthers the discussion on gaze and viewing in the next chapter concerning aesthetics and Internet art, or net art. Net art is a growing field of spectatorship on the Internet, and viewers are able to view and, in certain cases, reproduce the artistic images found on the web. White notes net art is closely linked with an aesthetic of failure, and net artists exploit the cultural fascination with technology and its failures by producing art which is created using strategies similar to popular entertainment (e.g. disaster films involving technological failure). For example, one net artist project is focused on finding different types of the 404 error messages to display. Further projects use unclear links and glitches to display their rendering of technology at its worst.

In the remaining two chapters of the text, White expands the theoretical base from feminist and film scholarship to include the critical leanings of Barthes, Eco, and Foucault. White covers virtual places (VP) and setting-specific meaning from the standpoint of these critical theorists, and discusses virtual places from the spectator's interactivity with these websites (e.g., avatar production). Whereas the participants in the MOOs setting described characters in text, spectators utilizing a VP browser employ more graphic elements in their communication, specifically the utilization of avatars. Interestingly, White points out that these avatars are a representation of the fragmented society which produces them, as spectators spend ample time creating a multitude of avatars for one user. White also discusses theories of Internet authorship, as VP painters rely on creativity and individual authorship to create these various avatars for the VP spectator.

Finally, White moves from VP to digital photography and fragmented spectatorship. The purpose of the chapter is to identify the differences between photography and the digital images used on the Internet, and to propose ways of looking at digital imagery for web. For example, although Internet spectators view the digital images as realistic, there are decided differences between these images and photography (148). One of the main differences the Internet spectator should be aware of is the ability of the digital image to be easily manipulated. According to White, these differences in visual representations are best explained by Barthes, who noted the immobility of photography versus the movements of film (175).

White concludes the text with a final section titled "Afterword: The Flat and the Fold" that concerns the spectator as a individual entity engaging with the screen. Though previous chapters focused solely on spectatorship within various interfaces from theoretical frames, the final section seems disjointed from the original narrative. The transition from theories of Roland Barthes to a discussion on feminist science fiction, physical pain and such male body image discussions as "man breasts," seems odd and out of place (192).

The Body and the Screen: Theories of Internet Spectatorship is an interesting analysis of the Internet spectator, and is a reminder of the ever-changing and quickly evolving world of the Internet. This text, as a whole, covers a wide range of topics concerning Internet spectatorship, and provides a more than useful starting point in the analysis of spectatorship from a theoretical standpoint. Though the work is thorough, at times the less than savvy Internet reader or theory oriented student might have difficulty getting through some of the more complicated ideas within the text. Overall, however, the text offers detailed, fresh insight into the hidden and underlying aspects of the Internet spectator.

Alison Miller:
Alison Miller (Ph. D., The University of Southern Mississippi) is an Assistant Professor of Mass Communication at the University of Louisiana at Monroe.  <amiller@ulm.edu>

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