Media Theory for the 21st Century

February 12, 2008

Jonathan is a rich white American male….

Filed under: Discussion — dfratini @ 3:42 pm
Tags: , , , ,

Jonathan was having trouble with his login, so I’m posting this on his behalf:

In the provacative introduction to The Body and the Screen, Michele White goes to great lengths to explain her desire to use the term “spectator” to describe a computer “user.” While she pays lip service to Clement Greenberg and other art critics and historians, she seems to want to whole-heartedly embrace psychoanalytic (and perhaps phenomenological) film theory’s various interpretations of this term. She does this in order to counter the idea of the “computer user,” the “active and empowered” person who is in complete “control of the interface” (1). While I have certain fundamental problems with theorists who make distinctions between active and passive viewing, I certainly think she is making a valid point. It is easy to forget and neglect the various levels of signification and identification that exist in a computer-mediated environment when theorizing them.

However, it is problematic to try to import psychoanalytic film theory to other types of media. Much of this theorization can only be related to the cinematic experience, as it is dependent on a large screen, a darkened room, and in general a type of engrossing environment that does not currently exist in home computing. While it is also problematic to make such an opposition between cinematic and computational environments, psychoanalytic film theory tends to rest on such oppositions, and I do not think White does enough to convince me of their applicability to online spaces. She might have done better to think about theories of television spectatorship, which is often said to be more glance than gaze oriented. While this is a more than somewhat vexed term, it might have made more sense to think about the multi-tasking spectator as someone who more often glances than gazes. The gazer is someone who is “distracted” and while they may be confronted by masculine forms of identification, they are confronted by so many that instead of making their presence invisible, these images are seen as even more obviously apparent. While I think White does a very good job of pointing out how computer producers construct their operators as white American rich men, I am not convinced that this identification is actually taken up by people without resistance, as she herself seems more than able to put out a plethora of examples. Or, my lack of understanding may also be attributable to my position as a rich white American man.

Being a rich white American man, I am also reminded of William Gibson, who shows up in the conclusion of White’s opus. In an interview he gave a number of years ago, he admitted that at the time he wrote Neuromancer, he had never actually seen a computer in person. He imagined that they were somehow more perfect, crystal clear, and stainless. He noted that if he had known then how messy and drab they actually were, he would never have written the novel. It struck me that many of the comments White made concerning the types of body images that computer users idealize and/or internalize are also the images that they value in their computers themselves. As cyberpunks try to escape their earthly and corporeal realities, they instead gravitate toward tiny computers without chords, like the MacBookAir. CloudWare also seems to be another obvious instantiation of such imposing metaphors. It is not until the very end of the book that White seriously references the body of the computer as actually being just as messy, dangerous, and gaseous as those who use it. While she neither explicitly nor implicitly makes this connection, I see it as perhaps a hopeful moment, in which White offers new metaphors that make the computer and human body comparable vis a vis their lively mess and waste instead of their ethereal prismatic sheen.

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