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Getting It On Online: Cyberspace, Gay Male Sexuality and Embodied Identity

Author: John Edward Campbell
Publisher: Binghamton, NY: Haworth Press, 2004
Review Published: August 2005

 REVIEW 1: Adi Kuntsman
 REVIEW 2: Nina Wakeford
 REVIEW 3: Monica Whitty
 AUTHOR RESPONSE: John Edward Campbell

Getting It On Online: Cyberspace, Gay Male Sexuality and Embodied Identity by John Edward Campbell is a good addition to the growing body of empirical research on GLBTQ (gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgendered, and queer) issues in cyberspace. Based on several years of observations of chat conversations, interviews and personal experience, Getting It On Online presents a careful examination of "discussion, exploration and eroticism of the male body" (6). The book takes us to three sites: gaychub -- a chatroom dedicated to celebrating male obesity; gaymuscle -- a chatroom for gay bodybuilders; and gaymusclebears -- a chatroom for admirers of obese and muscular ('bear') gay body. The book is written in a very clear languages (and even the sophisticated theories of such heavyweights as Foucault and Butler are described plainly, albeit sometimes too simplistically), and the personal voice makes it engaging and a good read for researchers, students, and non-academics alike. The main strength of the book is in its careful and sensitive ethnographic account of the daily interactions, desires, and friendships that took place in these three chatrooms. On a theoretical level, the book proposes a refreshing view of the body in cyberspace, as well as offering some insights into the practice of online ethnography. However, the book has several conceptual shortcomings which I will describe later. I will first present the main themes of the book and the insights offered by the author.

Campbell's book revolves largely around three main themes: online community, (cyber)body, and the "gay male beauty myth." In his discussion of community, Campbell explores the construction of what he calls "real communities" in cyberspace. For example, contrary to those who suggest that cyberspace interactions are often based on playing with one's identity, and in particular, on gender-bending, the chatrooms he observed all shared a strong and unquestioned sense of maleness and masculinity. Campbell analyzes chatrooms as "virtual gay bars," suggesting that like off-line bars, the chatrooms are "queer havens" -- "spaces where gay and lesbian individuals can congregate, affirm their identities, and safely explore their sexuality" (83). However, he suggests a more complicated approach to the notion of safety. While safety is often linked to online anonymity, Campbell shows that anonymity in itself is not enough. For example, he describes his own visit to a non-gay chatroom of bodybuilders, where he was offensively called a "fag" because his profile showed that he was at the same time registered in a gay chatroom. Thus, while the off-line identity of the chatter may be hidden, his online gay identity can be easily subjected to homophobia. Virtual gay bars have their gay bashings, too.

The main argument of Campbell's discussion of (cyber)body is that the "online disembodiment thesis" should be problematized. By the online disembodiment thesis, Campbell refers to the "demarcation between cyberspace and the physical world . . . based on a certain binary logic" (11.) where the physical world is seen as real and cyberspace is imagined as its opposite -- virtual, body-less, and liberatory. Campbell suggests that the "body" should be understood as a more complex set of physical, imagined and discursive components, and that all these are present -- rather than absent -- in online interactions and, in particular, in the gay chatrooms that he studied. In the chapter "Singing the Body Cybernetic," Campbell presents his detailed examination of the ways the physical body is incorporated in online interactions. For example, he notes users sharing images of muscular bodies and using specific words that describe the body (beefy, huge, ripped, freaky) that receive unique meanings in each of the chatrooms. He also describes how each chatroom constructs the 'types' of bodybuilders, musclebears, and chubs. Campbell concludes that "it is through their performative engagement with the discursive apprehension of the physical that interactants on these channels effectively integrate the body into their online activities" (145). Here, Campbell adopts Haraway's concept of a cyborg, as a figure that transgresses the boundaries between the organic and the technological.

And last but not least, Campbell discusses the formation of the gay male beauty myth. Using Naomi Wolf's work on the ideal of female beauty as a form of patriarchal control, he interrogates the ways the dominant idea of male fitness and beauty affect gay men. Campbell suggests that "American society has become permeated by an idealized image of the male body that is just as restrictive and just as impossible for most men to achieve as that idealized image of the female body imposed on women" (163). So what happens to those images in cyberspace? The men participating in gaychub, gaymuscle, and gaymusclebears identify with -- or desire -- different kind of bodies, and often speak of their frustration with the marginalization of such bodies in the mainstream media. Sadly, the gay community (and its own mainstream media) do not provide affirmation for 'big' desires. It is, according to Campbell, "the multiplicity of social scenes in cyberspace" (171) that allows formulating communities around particular and diverse bodies and desires. The chatrooms can therefore be viewed, Campbell suggests, as "resistive efforts to broaden cultural understandings of what constitutes the attractive, the healthy and the erotic male body" (164). Interestingly, these spaces, too, create their own "beauty myths." For example, the author notes extremely muscular bodies created by morphed pictures that are impossible to achieve in real life.

So far, so good. The book is an excellent and enjoyable read that covers some important aspects of online gay sociality. It is a significant contribution for those interested in online manifestations of queer desires, and it provides a good addition to the growing body of studies skeptical of the liberatory powers of supposedly disembodied cyberspace. It also contains a literature overview of the field of cyberstudies (in particular with relation to embodiment and online interactions) that at the first glance seems very useful for students new to the subject. On closer examination, however, the use of literature is more problematic. I will address here two aspects that seem particularly troubling to me.

One of Campbell's main aims is to interrogate the "online disembodiment thesis" and to show how discursive formations of gender, sexuality, and race are constituted online. In order to do so, Campbell describes a wide range of studies that idealize cyber disembodiment, and celebrate online playfulness (the most well known among these are Turkle and Danet) and freedom from 'embodied'/off-line oppressions. However, he almost completely ignores those critical discussions that show that many cybercultures differentiate between those who can be free from their physical bodies and those who are doomed to be marked by them. This is true for both the questions of gender and race (see, for example, Lisa Nakamura's (2000) concept of "identity tourism" and racialized embodiment).

Speaking of race... Campbell admits that the majority of participants in his study are white. He even attempts to interrogate the invisibility of whiteness as an unmarked category, taken for granted and normalized by many in his study. But his discussion of whiteness (see, for example, pages 79-82) completely lacks references to any theories on race, in cyberspace or elsewhere. His brief reference to Kendall, who also notes that the participants in her study see whiteness as a default category, and to Dyer, who notes the difficulty in recognizing whiteness as privilege, only come to emphasize this lack.

In "The Unbearable Whiteness of Being," Kalí Tal (1996) notes that cyberspace not only seems to be predominantly white, but that cyberstudies continuously ignore African-American theorists and their usefulness for understanding cyberspace. Even though Tal's article was written nearly a decade ago, Campbell's disregard of theorizing race sadly continues this trend. What is more, it reproduces the dominant (albeit widely criticized) voice of cyberstudies where the questions of difference and dominance continue to be ignored, and erases those internet scholars (Radhika Gajjala (1996, 2002), Kalí Tal (1996), and Lisa Nakamura (2000), to mention just a few) who critically examine race and gender.

To continue with the problem of theoretical absence, I would like to mention Campbell's use of anthropology and the related concept of fieldwork. In order to describe his work across the ambiguity of the familiar (not having to leave the house and go to far away places, hoping "to discover others like myself," p. 25) and the strange (being new to the IRC chats, and to particular chatrooms), Campbell refers to one of the earliest anthropologists -- Bronislaw Malinowski. Malinowski can be seen as the father of the colonial enterprise of the European fascination with the distant and exotic Other. Campbell notes that unlike Malinowski's call for objectivity, "the work of feminist and poststructuralist thinkers led some cultural anthropologists to reject the notion that a researcher can truly assume an 'objective' position in relation to the subject" (38). None of these are ever mentioned, nor do they really affect Campbell's perspective. A close(r) examination of the critical debates that took place in anthropology over the last two decades would have shown that their contribution lay not only in challenging that objectivity, but rather in questioning the very power of ethnographic epistemologies, that distinguish between Self and Other, here and there, home and the field, natives and anthropologists. Scholars such as Kirin Narayan (1993), Leila Abu-Lughod (1991), Smadar Lavie and Ted Swedenburg (1996), and Kamala
Visweswaran (1997), to mention just a very few, have long been addressing the ambiguous position of those for whom 'the field' is at the same time their home. These debates, and in particular the contribution of the so-called 'native' or 'halphie' anthropologists, to use Abu-Lughod (1991) terms, are again being written out when the idea of online ethnography is discussed. With the one notable exception of Radhika Gajjala's (2002) work on "an interrupted post-colonial cyberethnography," today's debates on online research often adopt the concepts of ethnography and fieldwork, ignoring their legacy and erasing their critics. The image used is often one of a semi-exotic place (as if the ethnographic work has to be justified by the subjects' exoticism), and Campbell's "virtual tents on cyberbeaches" (24) and reference to "natives" of cyberspace (182) is no exception. To do him justice -- he indeed tries to break away from such exotization, and address his own subject position extensively. Throughout the book, Campbell's presence is well felt, and indeed moving. But the conceptual erasure threatens to fail his mission. In the concluding chapter of the book Campbell returns to "natives in cyberspace," referring to Weston's point that queers who study queers receive less academic credibility than heterosexuals studying heterosexuals. He expresses his hope that his reflective writing would do the work, and points out the tentativeness of his membership in the communities studied, since he came there "not out of some essential elements of my character but out of my exploration of my own erotic desires and interests" (185). More importantly, he notes that the very concept of "native" embodies the colonial legacy and signals lack of agency. Unfortunately, simply saying that is not going to do the work Campbell hopes for -- just like his noting of default whiteness doesn't. Even more unfortunately, his disregard of those critical voices undermines his very attempts to understand cyberspace critically.

Abu-Lughod, L. (1991) "Writing Against Culture," In Fox, R. (ed.), Recapturing Anthropology: Working in the Present, Santa Fe: School of American Research, pp. 137-162.

Gajjala, R. (1996). "Cybor Diaspora and Virtual Imagined Community: Studying SAWNET."

Gajjala, R. (2002) "An Interrupted Postcolonial/Feminist
Cyberethnography: Complicity and Resistance in the 'Cyberfield,'" Feminist Media Studies, 2(2):177-193.

Lavie, S. and Swedenburg, T. (1996) "Between and Among the Boundaries of Culture: Bridging Text and Levied Experience in the Third Timespace," Cultural Studies, 10 (1), pp. 154-179.

Nakamura, L. (2000) "Race in/for Cyberspace: Identity Tourism and Racial Passing on the Internet," in Bell. D. and Kennedy, B.M. (eds.), The Cybercultures Reader, London and New York: Routledge, pp. 712-720.

Narayan, K.(1993) "How Native is a 'native' Anthropologist?" American Anthropologist, 95, pp. 671-686.

Tal, K. (1996). "The Unbearable Whiteness of Being: African American Critical Theory and Cyberculture."

Visweswaran, K. (1997) Fictions of Feminist Ethnography. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Adi Kuntsman:
Adi Kuntsman lectures part time in the Department of Sociology at Lancaster University where she is also a third-year Ph.D. student. Her research on Russian-speaking GLBTs in Israel explores the relations between nationalism, ethnicity, and sexuality and the ways they constitute an on-line community. Her work brings together anthropological research on violence, post-colonial and feminist theorizing of nation and nationalism, and gay and lesbian studies.  <kuntsman@exchange.lancs.ac.uk>

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