- The Body and the Screen: Theories of Internet Spectatorship
In The Body and the Screen, Michele White sounds a clarion call to alert us to the things we mostly [End Page 655] take for granted in our interactions with computers, including the metaphors that encourage us to think of the computer screen as a window that provides access to a “place” in which we can be who we want to be and experience full mastery of our environment and destiny, our tendency to think of computers as animate beings, and the insignificance of that little hand-pointer that, as she shows, is actually coded for race and gender. Borrowing liberally from film, media, and feminist theory, White positions the human being at the computer as a spectator who is constructed by the apparatus of the computer and Internet in much the same ways as the film spectator is said to be constructed by the cinematic apparatus. White employs the term “spectator” rather than “user”—the more common designation—because she wishes to counter the dominant, unexamined portrayal of the person at the computer as empowered and in command by looking at “the passive aspects of engagement and the mediation of the screen” (9). The person at the computer does not just “use”: he or she also looks (and is surveilled) and, like the film spectator, is structured as a subject of ideology through the ways his or her spectatorial position is defined by the discourses with which he or she engages.
White’s salutary message is that we should not relax our critical facilities when we are on the Internet, but be alive to the ways we are and are not permitted to interact and the ways the Internet repeats and perpetuates dominant ideologies and codes even as it is frequently said to be a “place” outside of such systems. After a serviceable introductory chapter in which White defines a concept of spectatorship derived largely from film theory and argues for its value to studies of the Internet and computer use, she scrutinizes a varied selection of sites and practices to be found in the Internet, with an eye both toward unpacking the ways the spectator is positioned and constructed by them and toward assessing whether they allow room for spectatorial resistance.
White looks first at the text-based environments known as MOOs in which all objects, characters, and actions are described verbally. She insists that, even though looking in MOOs exists only in textual form, it nevertheless can be understood through theories of the gaze. She further points out that although MOOs are environments in which, in principle, anything is possible in terms of self-representation and social interaction, the conventions surrounding them tend to reinforce the real-world power relations that also inform the cinematic gaze. She indicates, for instance, “that female characters often ‘reply’ to empowered gazes with ‘sleep in [their] eyes,’ ‘an innocent look,’ or downcast eyes. This suggests that the mastering gaze also produces a corresponding passive female model” (55).
White next examines women’s webcams, arguing that although they are frequently associated with pornography and voyeurism, they frustrate scopophilic desire more than they satisfy it, in part because the “brief and often unidentifiable glimpses of women webcam operators [they offer] prevent the spectator from gazing upon the desired body and gaining control” (77). White is fully cognizant of the ways webcams objectify women, but she sees them not just as instances in which women do or do not control the gaze, but also as significant instances of women using and controlling technology and making decisions concerning their own visibility.
Having examined Internet practices that make no specific claim to being critical, White turns her attention to one that does: net art. By making websites that intentionally court glitches and errors and create unexpected results or dead-ends for their audiences, net artists claim to be drawing critical attention to the technologies with which they engage, though White raises significant questions about these practices. Originally, net artists positioned...