Media Theory for the 21st Century

February 12, 2008

Jonathan is a rich white American male….

Filed under: Discussion — dfratini @ 3:42 pm
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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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February 5, 2008

Pondering White’s spectator: Poser and the male gaze

Filed under: Discussion — dfratini @ 8:24 pm
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A caveat first: I has always struck me as one of the super-cruel twists of cinema theory history that aligned feminism with Lacanian-Freudian psychoanalysis. I agree with Michele White, that some very valuable analytical tools have come out of that era in feminist film criticism, but I also agree that “psychoanalysis can be problematic and reproduce these underlying myths” (of desire and belief in Western industrial countries).

Having said that, I think I have an anecdote from my misadventures in multimedia design in the 1990s that illustrates some of the issues she’s driving at….

I had been dabbling in desktop 3D software for about 2 years by 1996. It is still true today that humans in particular, and all things organic in general, are notoriously hard to model in 3D. There is no gravity, mass, or even texture in the computer void. So in 1996 everyone was delighted with Fractal Design’s software, Poser which modeled humans exclusively. Unlike other 3D programs that build with “primitives” (box, sphere, cylinder) or complexities of point-line-surface constructs, Poser had four basic human figures which one could then alter and animate – sort of according to the laws of human movement.

I was half of a two-woman design team at that moment, and while we loved Poser, we were both really irked by Poser’s adult female figure which was something like 5’11” tall, 40,” 22,” 28” proportioned. Slightly more “natural” looking than Barbie.

I ask you – in this scenario – who is the spectator? Certainly Poser’s gaze was constructed as male, and their designers must have imagined male spectators happily viewing the resulting animations. Where do the animators fit into this? We were the authors of our multimedia project, but not the software. Clearly Fractal’s programmers imagined the animators as male also. They certainly didn’t reckon on two over-educated feminists from film studies….

… who turned up at the Fractal Design booth of the MacWorld convention that year. The rhetoric of the convention was overwhelmingly “empowerment,” “freedom,” “create.” So the enthusiastic, young, white, blond barker at the Fractal Design booth was not expecting two short cranky ladies pointing out how the Poser female was anatomically impossible. He insisted that they had used a “team of experts” to come up with the “ideal, average female” figure. I did not even have to balk at that. The crowd did it for me. I did wish to know what kind of “experts” these were, exactly. “Artists.” The crowd roared. The young man turned red and hostile.

Less than a year later, the next generation, Poser 2.0 came out. Low and behold, you could (and still can) alter, via “spinner wheels” the size of different sections of the figures which were divided much like a butcher’s chart. The female figure had a “chest” dial that not only resized her breasts but her ribcage at the same time, with alarming results. Chalk one up for the feminist, I guess.

But way more intriguing in Poser 2.0 was the addition of “genitals” to the male figure! Because, to my mind, this signaled an acknowlegement that there might be female spectators out there somewhere who would want to see this. Never minding that notions of spectatorship in this realm seem to be too closely aligned with pornography.

The genitals, I should note, were not, alas, subject to a resizing spinner dial. I pictured the all-male program team at Fractal making a conscious decision that that would be going too far. The genitals had only a check box: on or off. Yes that’s right, you could turn the male’s genitals “off” which made them vanish. Castration fears aside — this was actually a good thing because in Poser 2.0, the figures’ “clothes” were merely “painted” on and therefore wouldn’t hide — would in fact emphasize — the genitalia.

There was, I soon discovered, a bug in those genitals. I had “clothed” a male figure, and animated him running. Animating a human figure is incredibly complex, so Poser had animations like “run” already pre-keyed. When I rendered my male and watched the animation, I saw a funny visual glitch which I could only identify when playing it frame-by-frame. The genitals I had turned off, came back on in the middle of his stride — between key frames — and then vanished again at the next key frame. After much struggling and emailing Fractal tech support it was determined there was no way around this. Between key frames, the repressed male member always insisted on returning…. Calling Dr. Freud!

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