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The Journal of the Lincoln Heights Literary Society
Miscellanea and Ephemeron

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09/14/2007 Archived Entry: "Revessay: The Body and The Screen review (of sorts)"

The Body and the Screen
by Michelle White
Published by MIT Press, 2006

Review by Ginger Mayerson

I finally finished "The Body and The Screen" and even though it didn�t wow me, it did make me think a lot. Don't get me wrong, this is an extremely well-researched book, but if it was supposed to give me some feminist or other -ist insight into how I, or others, interact with the internet, it didn't make much of an impression. Now, I know it's a big internet and I am small, but most of what I read about in the book was not really on my radar. Internet time moves fast, this book was published in 2006, much of what Ms. White is writing about has been swamped by YouTube and...well, mainly YouTube. But any pseudo-anarchistic online video alleged collective that is owned by a corporation, like Google, really takes the whole "free" internet gloss off it, because how can it truly be free if it's owned?

Anyway, I'm feeling obliged to review this book because it is a very nice book and the good folks at MIT Press very kindly sent me a copy when I asked for one. Moreover, feeling that I absolutely must say something interesting, if not intelligent about it caused me to have a conversation and finally finish a book I hadn't been able to get through before. And for those two things, if nothing else, I am extra grateful to Ms. White and MIT Press.

Not so long ago, I was aimlessly talking on the phone to my pal K, who is a Ph.D. in communication studies at a university in Texas and I asked her: if post-modernism was over, what theory era were we in now? She said she wasn't sure because she hadn't gotten the memo yet, but she thought we might be in the post-literacy era. I said, tosh! People are reading and writing more on the internet than ever before. She said, maybe, but was I sure? Wasn't it more likely that the majority of interaction of the majority of internet uses were just watching the pictures going by? I said I'd have to think about that after we hung up. And so I have thought about it and it does seem that I spend a lot of time clicking on icon links, interacting with avatars, often just reading photo captions instead of the accompanying story, and watching, often blogging, YouTube at least four or five times a week. To my credit, I have never used the "TLDR" for "too long, didn't read" when leaving a comment while skimming through Live Journal entries. Yes, we are reading and writing, but are we really doing any thinking with it? And is there some larger reason for that?

And this leads me to the book I read, "The Society of the Spectacle," by Guy Debord, that I had to actually do some serious thinking about for this review. I've had this book for a while but could never get past the first chapter. After reading "The Body and the Screen" and having that brief chat about post-literacy, and also reconsidering Debord's book as a giant prose poem on submission, instead of a political theory book, I was able to finish it. I got a little bogged down at the end because it delves into Marxist theory as if everyone has read and understood Hegel, which, alas, I have not. But I found many parts of the book chilling, even with my Hegelian limitations:

"1. The whole life of those societies in which modern conditions of production prevail presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles. All that once was directly lived has become mere representation."

"4. The spectacle is not a collection of images; rather, it is a social relationship between people that is mediated by images."

"105. ... Ideology was no longer a weapon, but an end in itself. But a lie that can no longer be challenged becomes a form of madness. Eventually both reality and the goal sought dissolved in a totalitarian ideology proclaiming that whatever it said was all there was. ... The ideology that took on material form in this context did not transform the world economically, as capitalism in its affluent stage has done; it succeeded only in using police methods to transform perception."

"172. ... ...Lewis Mumford, in 'The City in History' points out that with the advent of long-distance mass communications, the isolation of the population has become a much more effective means of control. But the general trend toward isolation, which is the essential reality of urbanism, must also embody a controlled reintegration of the workers based on the planned needs of production and consumption. Such an integration into the system must recapture isolated individuals as individuals isolated together. ... ...the spectacle's message ensures that his (the worker's) isolation is filled with the dominant images ' images that indeed attain their full force only by virtue of this isolation."

"The Society of the Spectacle" offers no solutions; I cannot imagine how it described the world when it was published in 1967 because it describes our dawning post-literate present so well. The ideas of "The Society of the Spectacle" allegedly underpin the May 68 uprisings, punk rock, and AdBusters, and all things related to them. I might do some reading on May 68; I was a punk for only two weeks in 1977, but I was there and I think that punk rock as a political movement died snarling, but grateful, when The Clash made punk easier to listen to (I'm probably going to get some hate mail for that, but those of us who were in our teens in the mid 70s who looked at the world of the mid 70s and figured that was our only future, knew we'd have to fight with whatever and however because the fucking hippie goals and methods of the 60s were useless shit and no help to us at all. And the real truth was that all the flailing around just didn't matter ' pogoing, violence, self-mutilation, drugs, liquor, sex, more violence ' the whole thing was fucked anyway. And then things changed and changed more, which is something angry teens don't know will happen); and I had a subscription to AdBusters once, but it reminded me too much of performance art, which pisses me off so much I'm grinding my teeth just thinking about it. But nothing, I mean nothing, is more the realization of M. Debord's observations than the internet. The internet is the acme of The Spectacle thus far. And how Debord knew this forty years in advance is nothing less than miraculous and equally bizarre. But does it matter? No, not really; we're in it, we must do the best we can with it.

However, it is a shame Guy Debord committed suicide in 1994, on the eve of the internet outbreak or revolution or whatever it is; we could have used his big French brain to explain a few things. But perhaps he saw what was coming - his thesis realized with a vengeance - and decided to check out before living any longer in the post-literate world.

But back to "The Body and the Screen." In the first chapter, Ms. White has images that insist the default setting of the internet is male. She then spends the rest of the book dismantling this concept. However, in the afterward, Ms. White explores how the physical body is deformed in relation to the physical screen. How bodies are deformed sitting at a computer for hours and hours for days and days. But all the subject examples are male. I found it interesting that in this final part of a book informed by feminist theory thus far, it was all about men, mainly programmers, bitching on message boards to other male programmers about how they never get any exercise and how fat they are because they're on the computer all day and night. Some of these men were even in considerable arm and hand pain (presumably the rest of their bodies had gone numb). Now this confused me a little, because up to this point the book had had a discernible feminist feel to it, but in the end it's all about men. No women programmers/gamers/designers/whatnot in this section, just men. At least some of these men are spending some of their computer time actually working, and not just playing video games and whatever else they do online.

I read on the internets that modern men are angry about a lot things. I don't understand most of them and, in many respects, I think men don't understand themselves either. But I do have a hypothesis on the root of why our males are so angry. The developed world lives on computers and to work on computers it's necessary to assume a passive, seated position. Not unlike the seated positions women have assumed: seated at a spinning wheel, nursing a child, sewing, knitting, reading, etc. Not that men never spun wool, sewed, read, whatever, but prior to the post-industrial era men were usually on their feet doing upper-body strength things. Other than moving the computer or the computer desk now and then, upper-body strength isn't as much of an asset as it was 50 years ago. The theoretical playing field between men and women has leveled: it's now more cerebral power than muscle that defines who dominates whom. And in the real world, the world where women make less than men, wives and daughters are abused by husbands and fathers, this has created a level of rage in men they don't begin to understand. Not all men, but the ones who hate feminists, hate liberals, hate Jimmy Carter, hate people who disagree with them, hate hate hate and all they can do is hate. As a prime example, I give you the Keyboard Kommandos - those young men, mainly men, of military age who, from the safety of their ergonomic desk chair, get off, perhaps sexually, on the spectacle of the soldiers they cheered into battle, but would not join them for anything on earth, dying in Iraq and Afghanistan. Like vampires, these male and some female, no doubt, spectators fuel their vicarious bloodlust on the spectacle of military might, as if somehow they are nobler for another person's sacrifice, the same sacrifice they are unwilling to make themselves. They revere the spectacle presented to them, completely disconnected from the reality of it. This is the world-once-removed these angry hate-filled men live in, while completely convinced they are as macho as any soldier on their LCD.

Ms. White does not politicize her book or speculate on anyone's motivation for doing anything on the web. It is as if all her subjects are on the web because they can be. There is a small section on fanfiction and fan communities, but Ms. White doesn't explore the community building, user interactions, and offline user interactions in those communities. That could be an entire book in an of itself. I know this because not only have I heard of friendships being forged in those communities and fans safely and productively meeting in real life at conventions, I'm one of those fans (I'm a Star Trek fan, but not a scary one). In Ms. White's examination of internet spectatorship, she tells us a lot about male and female webcam sites, but never what might be driving the voyeurism and exhibitionism. Are we that lonely and alienated? Why is that? The internet is fascinating, but so are real people and real interpersonal interaction. The difference is control: humans are, to some extent, unpredictable. But on the internet, one can always surf up a new experience if the current one gets stale, or tense, or annoying. A mediated reality is one that can easily be adjusted for levels of comfort or discomfort while the world beyond the screen spins on and on. The images on the screen allow the spectator have the illusion of control, up and including the most outrageous action possible: the internet can even be turned off. As if.

The Body and the Screen, Michelle White, 2006, ISBN 026232499

The Society of the Spectacle, Guy Debord, 1967, ISBN 0942299795


Note: My my how things change in 10 years. In 2006 Michelle White publishes on internet spectatorship. In 1996, Lynn Cherny edits a book, Wired Women, about women participating on the internet. Are we going backwards or forwards? I'll have to look that up on Wikipedia. GM

Another Note!: y!sctp translates as "Yes! Skippy (the Bush Kangaroo) coined that phrase." That phrase being Blogtopia for the left/progressive blogs and bloggers. So now you're in on the joke, too. Yay!

And one last Note!: I'll just say this: Intenet time is very very fast. I tried to go to a few of the urls in the book. I'll put them here so if you are so inclined, you can try them, too: (pg 18) Still there. (pg 76) Timed out in Firefox. (pg 100) I think it's supposed to look like that as part of the art of failure so popular in the early 90s (see J Koons and his grimy stuffed animals [or rather don't]). (pg 130) Not there anymore. (pg 171) Still there. (pg 181) Still there.

And there you have it!

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