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  • Virtually: The Refreshment of Interface Value
  • Robert Payne (bio)

This essay examines virtual representation as a source of anxiety—moral, cultural, and epistemological. By first analyzing two failed attempts by the U.S. Congress to apply legislative closure to the admitted epistemological uncertainty of virtual child pornography, the question of performativity is raised. The Congressional Acts’ contradictory logic imagined a contagion of harm emanating from digital material and attacking actual, uninvolved children, but also a contagion of perpetration to “desensitize” potentially any viewer. The essay pivots on Margaret Morse’s definition of the virtual as the “present subjunctive mode of a fictively shared present” and goes on to examine the equally uncertain performativity attributed to the virtual relationships between personal webcam subjects and their viewers. Charges of “virtual prostitution” against some female webcam subjects recall Congress’s moralist fears of infectious “transmission.” As a device of perceived telepresence and telepistemology, webcam representation is discussed as the reiteration of interface simulation, where the continuous, mechanical “refreshment” of this mediating device itself becomes an object of attention. The necessary imprecision and epistemological frustration of the virtual has become a compelling narrative of its own. —rp

In April 2002, the Supreme Court of the United States handed down its ruling of Ashcroft v. Free Speech Coalition, a case in which a certain semantic specificity seemed ultimately to take precedence over the moral and emotional imperatives that propelled the central argument of the petitioner. The U.S. government (nominally represented by Attorney-General Ashcroft) was seeking to overturn a Court of Appeals ruling against the constitutionality of its Child Pornography Prevention Act (1996), which had greatly—through a significant conceptual leap—expanded the category of what would count as child pornography. As cited in the Supreme Court ruling, the bill (CPPA) now prohibited not only pornographic images produced using actual children, but also “any visual depiction” that “is, or appears to be, of a minor engaging in sexually explicit conduct,” as well as any sexually explicit image that is “advertised, promoted, presented, described, or distributed in such a manner that conveys the impression” that it depicts a minor engaging in sexually explicit conduct (1).

These qualifying phrases (which I have emphasized), designed to make child-harming pornography harder to produce and distribute, opened the frame of prohibition to extremely nebulous territory. In so doing, they curiously destabilized a conventional application of visual epistemology: one based on the evidentiary function of photographic and video images, of the kind frequently upheld in legal contexts. A distinction between the actual and the virtual was inscribed in the bill and instantaneously erased. The government’s petition to the Supreme Court describes Congress’s findings that it is possible to produce pornographic images of “what appear to be” children “that are virtually indistinguishable to the unsuspecting viewer from unretouched photographic images of actual children” (4). In their zeal to speak for and to protect the unnamed and “unsuspecting” viewer, the legislators of the CPPA betrayed their own oversuspecting unwillingness to tell actual and virtual children apart, and transposed this into both an assumed inability on the part of their constituents at large, and a projected criminal exploitation of the potential representational ambivalence that is permitted by new media technology.

In ruling against the government’s petition, the opinion of the Supreme Court delivered by Justice Kennedy questions the logic of the CPPA’s definitional expansion, noting that the production of virtual child pornography can scarcely harm children if none are involved in the process. It is here that the government’s position makes a further leap of presumption, now explicitly naming its legislative target and the kinds of harm that might be inflicted by pornographic images of “what appear to be” children. In its Congressional Findings, supplementary to the CPPA, the government claims that

child pornography is often used as part of a method of seducing other children into sexual activity; a child who is reluctant to engage in sexual activity with an adult, or to pose for sexually explicit photographs, can sometimes be convinced by viewing depictions of other children “having fun” participating in such activity

and furthermore that

child pornography is often used by pedophiles and...

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Launched on MUSE
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