Saturday 25th March 2017,
Televisual

Michele White, The Body and the Screen

The first First Encounter! This is a small reading, Michele White’s chapter on webcams, “Too Close to See, Too Intimate a Screen,” from her book. For a review of the whole book by people more attentive than I see RCCS. (the Resource Center for Cyberculture Studies is a brilliant resource regardless).

White’s chapter will be invaluable to all the papers I’m writing now — two on YouTube, and one on mumblecore. What works best in her argument is her suggestion that traditional critical scholarship doesn’t really work online. The deconstruction/psychoanalytic paradigms of the 60s–>80s often cannot take into account the complexity of online spaces and the power the individual (yes, the individual) has over his/her own representation. Moreover critical scholars fail to realize that theories about media arose during the mass media model, which we’re still under today, but which is being challenged as we speak. It was once assumed that no one deconstructed or thought critically about the media, academics had to do it for them. With websites like Obama Messiah, I think a lot of people — not all but a lot — have the agency to break down representations themselves (PS – I heart Obama).

This is exactly what my YouTube art project is about. What happens to critical theory when a person, long thought to be powerless, can deconstruct, construct and reconstruct their own self-image? Michele White says we need new theories. I think she’s right, though some good theories are out there (including classics like Michel de Certeau).

HIGHLIGHTS:

– White calls webcam broadcasters “operators,” to imply that they have some control. She then goes on to show how women empower themselves, by revealing themselves in ways they think are appropriate, by refusing to be identified in the audience’s terms, and even by insulting the audience, “resisting” representation — or construction by others. [This is, in fact, subject of a talk I’m giving this summer in the Hague: see paper here (on top, “Agency…”)]

-Operators often “don’t really care what anyone else thinks,” the kind of positive solipsism explained well, in my opinion, by Geert Lovink (chapter 1).

-Webcam operators talk about their own and other webcams in terms of them being “real,” “live,” etc., dismissing the mediated nature of it al;: “Webcam sites rely on our willingness to connect digital images with photographs and to believe that we are receiving unmediate traces of the real or a virtual body that is still made of flesh.” (74). I don’t see any problem here, and it’s not specific to webcams! In studying anonymous blogs that were only text, there were still efforts to “embody” the text. But our physical reality can be just as fake, so we should stop mourning the real. Everything is open to interpretation, so we can be free! Let it be, I say.

-Viewers can be seen as props of the person broadcasting him/herself (79). So “to be looked at” is not the same as “to be disempowered.” An important point. In my own study, bloggers really treated the audience ambivalently, using them when necessary to make points but disregarding them when they disagreed.

– Visual media do not need to be part of an objectifying process. The binary can sometimes break down.

CHOICE QUOTES:

“The privileging of a distant male subject position, which is figured in such media as traditional Hollywood film, is becoming less viable as computers and close viewing experiences are increasingly incorporated into varied situations.” (58.)

“The webcam spectator is situated in a place where voyeurism is constantly promised and yet theoretically unattainable because there is no distanced position.” (84) In other words, you’re too close to the object of your viewing to objectify them. Profound!

I glossed over a lot of things, so I apologize. But I liked White’s chapter. It proves that theories often don’t reflect lived experience (Hello Geertz!), that ethnography can have redemptive power and the Internet is complex thing.

My only minor problem is her — only sometimes! — insistence that this is a distinctly gendered experience. I think, in fact, this is how it is for almost every Internet producer* (except you, Kathy Sierra). White nods at this occasionally, but I would’ve preferred it be part of her larger point.

*PS – obviously we can critique whether or not online producers (or users, or prosumers, or produsers) are a biased sample, that diswwww.empowered people — disempowered for whatever reason — simply don’t produce online. I think that’s a fruitful question.

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About The Author

Aymar Jean Christian is assistant professor of communication at Northwestern University. He writes about media and society for a number of publications. For more information, click the "About" tab at the top of the page.

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