- 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 child sexual abusers to
stimulate and whet their own sexual appetites, and as a model for sexual
acting out with children; such use of child pornography can desensitize
the viewer to the pathology of sexual abuse or exploitation of children,
so that it can become acceptable to and even preferred by the viewer
One wonders whether "the viewer" in question here is the same
"unsuspecting viewer" to be protected from the burden of virtual
indistinguishability, and by extension whether members of Congress who
were initially able to tell actual children from virtual (if only then to
deny the distinction) were themselves subject to the insidious
desensitization of which they warn. The wording of the findings would
seem to demarcate "pedophiles and child sexual abusers" as a discrete
unit of pathological individuals, one which maintains some exclusivity
over such "use of child pornography." If, however, the material in
question is able to "desensitize" its viewer, and if such images are
ineffably capable of transmuting appetite into conduct and also of
"seducing other children into sexual activity," might such slippages be
as logically applicable to determining who is susceptible? In other
words, if such material is as contagiously effectual as these findings
imply, why are only "pedophiles and child sexual abusers" incriminated?
The possibility of desensitized viewing is opened to those for whom child
pornography has not yet "become acceptable [...] and even
preferred," where this is apparently a desire that might be learned by
effectively anyone who comes into contact with the material.
Also in 1996, Congress passed a similarly censorious legislative act,
framed more specifically around prohibiting the provision to minors of
"indecent" material on the Internet. The Communications Decency
Act (CDA) sought to incriminate anyone who "knowingly"
initiates the transmission of [...] any comment, request, suggestion,
proposal, image, or other communication which is obscene or indecent,
knowing that the recipient of the communication is under 18 years of age
as well as sending to a minor via "interactive computer service"
any comment, request, suggestion, proposal, image, or other communication
that, in context, depicts or describes, in terms patently offensive as
measured by contemporary community standards, sexual or excretory
activities or organs. (§223(d)(1)(B)
The act was successfully challenged in a district court by the American
Civil Liberties Union, and this decision was later appealed and affirmed
in the Supreme Court in Reno v. ACLU (1997). That court
ruled the act unconstitutional on the grounds that the above provisions
inhibited free speech. Where the constitutional legalities of this bill
were informed by precedent cases that had defined current understandings
of "obscene" and "indecent" and the relationship of these terms to
freedom of speech, the more significant elements for my reading are the
cultural implications that derive from the terms "transmission" and
"communication." I am suggesting these terms render more explicit an
anxiety about the contagious effects of "patently offensive" material,
especially when that material describes a corporeality centering on the
contentious zones of "sexual or excretory" organs. As Judith Butler
argues in Gender Trouble, these anatomical parts and their
function as orifices of sexual and excretory activity locate points of
weakness in the fictional seamlessness of the body as a discrete subject,
the maintenance of which serves the political imperatives of a larger
social body (14ff).
The open textuality of the Internet as a literal web of image and
information availability suggests fertile conditions for a promiscuity
that incites the spread of moral panic. Particularly, as the above cases
demonstrate, the Internet provides a freedom deemed too dangerous in
proximity--the proximity of transmissible contact--to society's
putatively vulnerable populations. In these specific ways, the charge of
"knowingly" transmitting obscene material implicitly tropes the
vindictive homophobia inherent to certain AIDS panics: namely, that
HIV-positive gay men might target "the general population" for deliberate
infection; or, relatedly, that HIV transmission establishes categories of
innocent reception and, therefore, of guilty perpetration (see Watney;
That Ashcroft v. Free Speech Coalition and Reno v.
ACLU were decided according to legal precedents around speech, and
its protection under constitutional amendment, offers further instances
of what Butler (in her later work Excitable Speech) terms
the law's "catachrestic extensions of ordinary understandings of speech"
(72). Butler's context is the performativity of speech into action, and
she discusses examples of the transitive relations between the two: where
an act (placing a burning cross on an African American family's front lawn) may be
legally protected as speech, or where utterance (members of the U.S.
military announcing their homosexual identity) may be construed to be and
punished as conduct. The cases she explores hinge on the arbitrary
placement of limits to self-expression, and the political negotiations
around the purported freedom thereof. According to her sustained analysis
of the U.S. government's policy on gays in the military, in which the
verbal self-expression of homosexual identity becomes a punishable
offense, the word "homosexual" becomes a medium of contagion, "whereby to
hear the utterance is to 'contract' the sexuality to which it refers"
(113). It is this conceit of contagion, in which homosexuality is
"figured implicitly on the model of AIDS," that allows Butler to
elaborate meanings of "communication": the utterance of speech--of a
particular word laden with contagious cultural implications--is received
as having communicated "along the lines of a disease" (110).
The concept of moral panic was elaborated by Stanley Cohen in this
now-famous opening passage to his 1972 study of "deviant" youth culture
and conflict in Britain:
Societies appear to be subject, every now and then, to periods of moral
panic. A condition, episode, person or group of persons emerges to become
defined as a threat to societal values and interests; its nature is
presented in a stylized and stereotypical fashion by the mass media; the
moral barricades are manned by editors, bishops, politicians and other
right-thinking people. (9)
Where Cohen highlights the role of the mass media in "defining and
shaping social problems" in such a way as to generate "concern, anxiety,
indignation or panic," I am concerned to identify more complexity in the
role of mass media in the contemporary context: as the site of the threat
itself, where media representations are regarded to be as dangerous as
that which, previously and concurrently, the media merely reported to be
dangerous (17). A central feature of moral panic in this context is that its
own defining dynamic echoes that which provokes its outrage. Panic
spreads in proportion to the epidemic social ills whose momentum and
dispersal it fears. Curiously, while in the legislation I have discussed
speech is figured as the performance of dangerous acts, these laws are
themselves prohibitions of speech by acts of Congress. Indeed,
the name Congress might be said to perform the very same communicative,
infectious dynamic that its acts wanted to prohibit.
For Simon Watney, writing of media representations of AIDS in the 1980s,
moral panic theories fall short in that they are "always obliged in the
final instance to refer and contrast 'representation' to the arbitration
of 'the real'," overlooking the workings of ideology "within all
representational systems" (41-2). In other words, an oppositional politics
of dismissing the ideologically panicked inaccuracies or
misrepresentations of a verifiably "real" situation (such as an
overrepresentational link between AIDS and homosexuality) must still
recognize that this position of dismissal is no less discursively
constructed and dependent upon its own biased representations. Where
media representation is the source of moral alarm (Internet
obscenity, virtual child pornography) as well a site for the
sounding of this alarm, the very nature of representation
becomes ever more contentious. As Watney reminds us, representation
locates a "permanent ideological struggle over the meaning of
signs. A particular 'moral panic' merely marks the site of the current
front-line in such struggles" (42).
In the panic I have been discussing, it is the particular kind of media
representation that lends itself to an increased struggle for meaning,
precisely as conventional holds on "the real" fall away. The censorious
legislative attempts of both the CPPA and the CDA constitute anxious
responses to the disappearance of the real into the virtual, a terrain in
which existing legal sanctions (as the Supreme Court affirmed) fail to
apprehend the representational relations that are ruptured and renewed in
digital and online technologies. The specific virtualities named by
Congress's acts of censorship are recent technological developments:
digital enhancement, alteration, or fabrication of images, and the
Internet's networks of teleconnectivity in which identities as well as
images may be subject to enhancement, alteration, or fabrication.
Concrete framings of law are clearly challenged by the inherent
immateriality of these new modes of representation.
The concept of virtuality itself is not exclusive to the late twentieth
century and the postmodern cultural frame as innovations such as virtual
reality might have us believe. New media parlance has appropriated the
word "virtual" as a prefix, akin to "cyber" or "hyper," denoting the new
ontologies of digital experience. Margaret Morse discusses virtuality as
"the present subjunctive mode of a fictively shared present," a
definition which might encompass, as Morse outlines, the collective and
yet individuating address offered by radio and television, or even less
technologically advanced forms of interaction:
Cultural forms from television graphics and shopping malls to the
apparatus of virtual reality, as well as practices from driving to
conducting a war to making art employ various forms of engagement to
construct a virtual relationship between subjects in a
Virtual relationships exist between reader and fictional character,
spectator and film or theater character; between shoppers in the
fictional enclosure of a mall, tourists mediating their presence at a
tourist attraction, and computer users communicating in an online
chatroom. Internet users worldwide are engaged in a shared fiction, built
around a joint practice that resembles the common experience of TV
viewing. Even on a basic level, the computer screen deliberately remodels
the design and function of the TV screen and relies to some extent upon
our familiarity with these features. The virtuality of the Internet,
however, lies more fully in the fictions of connectivity that its
networking function allows: the various forms of physical and
interpersonal telepresence promised to anyone who gains access to its
web. The Internet creates the ability to achieve virtual contact with
virtually any person, image, or information where optical and aural
contact stand in for the tangible, which cannot cross (but can equally
pertain to) the mediating apparatus. In this sense, it brings together
and capitalizes on other virtualities (including tourism, television,
shopping malls) with a much greater technological capacity and a much
increased aptitude for the elaboration of its fictional ontologies.
In what ways might these notions of the virtual imply the viral? How are
virtual relationships, which theoretically do not require actual contact
or proximity between subjects, deemed to be viral relationships in which
dangerous or unhealthy matter might be communicated? The textuality of
the Internet permits anxieties of authentic subjectivity to surface,
where the coherence of the individual subject and the body to which it is
believed intrinsic are superseded by relationality: the network of
possibilities in which the subject might find multiple connection. This
form of interaction marks not the loss of subjectivity but the appearance
and reproduction of new, posthuman, noncorporeal subjectivities that can,
nonetheless, be launched from the corporeality of computer users who
might only be connecting, in actuality, with their interface. As several
scholars including Sherry Turkle have noted of their own interface
connections, the relationship between computer user and the apparatus
itself should not be overlooked. Emotional and physical responses to the
apparatus, attached to which users may frequently spend many hours a day,
constitute moments of actual, corporeal tangibility that not only shadow
but precede any instances of virtual connection within the cyberspatial
In the rest of this essay, I will focus on a mode of constructing online
identity that, while ostensibly received by users through a relationship
of telepresence, significantly foregrounds its own mediating apparatus.
Where personal webcams intend to engage the ontology of transparent
surveillance available through user screens, I will suggest that in
effect they offer a representation of life (after Turkle) very much
on the screen.
- Personal webcams are a genre of Internet sites devoted to the
broadcasting of live, digital video images, captured by a web camera
itself, from inside private homes and workplaces. Such sites, which are
also known as "homecams," "livecams," "girlcams," "gaycams" and so on,
have exploded in number and popularity since the late 1990s, partly for
their ease of operation: the operator need merely attach a relatively
inexpensive webcam to his or her personal computer and, having met
specific hardware and software requirements, upload its images on to the
Internet. When images appear on viewer screens, they are usually still
and will "refresh" (update) with a regularity that varies from site to
site--generally within a range of once every 30 seconds to once every 15
minutes. Few sites have an increased capacity to provide "streaming"
images, like video. The formal defining features of personal webcams are
liveness and constancy, creating the effect of an ongoing and
indiscriminate visual record of everything taking place within the
camera's field of visibility while it takes place. If not for physical
distance, we understand, the viewer could be overcoming barriers of
privacy to witness everything taking place firsthand.
Unlike the significant raft of outdoor webcams (whose framing of scenic or otherwise notable sites provides universalized
views of nothingness), domestic webcams offer at a basic level the conceptual titillation of access to private space, and
an apparently uncomplicated fulfillment of peepshow voyeurism. Numerous webcam sites capitalize on this specific market
potential, some allowing viewers to pay for increasing levels of access to variously sexualized or pornographic displays.
Other similar sites offer the viewer an interactive role in requesting the details of such displays: a kind of sexual
"telerobotics" that conflates the performativity of computer command with sexual command. Many noninteractive webcams feature generic disclaimers about sexual content, as a
acknowledging incidental nudity or sex. The now-defunct Sean Patrick Live! (formerly www.seanpatricklive.com),
the webcam of a young gay Washington D.C. man, featured a common version: "There is no planned
nudity or 'shows'. However, as this is a candid view into another persons life, it is not intended for children [sic]." Interestingly, Williams's appearances on cam were
frequently nude, and his site's selective archive of previous cam shots (also available for purchase) contained a high
proportion of nudity and some sexual activity. The cam shot, in its commodifiable format, here converges with the
pornographic "cum shot" or "money shot" (Williams). The archive is a display of highlights to advertise what was only
rarely visible, and would not necessarily
Jennifer Ringley, a pioneer of personal webcams through her site
JenniCam, continued to display herself on camera for over
seven years, "not because I want to be watched," she wrote on her site,
"but because I simply don't mind being watched" (<www.jennicam.org>). Her rationale addresses a common
anecdotal belief that webcams are borne necessarily of simple
exhibitionism, and by extension that the basis of self-display is sexual
exchange. Visitors to JenniCam were greeted with two viewer
category options: member or guest access, where members were required to
pay a subscription fee for images that refreshed more frequently (every
minute rather than every 15 minutes). Membership also afforded access to
a fuller archive of previous JenniCam image galleries,
whereas guests could only view a selection that the site nonetheless
called a "pretty comprehensive overview." Notions of member and guest
access encapsulate the entirely ambiguous relation between publicity and
privacy that the Internet inheres. Member and guest status both connote a
minimum of invitation and discrimination, a limited accessibility that
the promiscuous nature of Internet browsing denies in advance.
JenniCam's constancy of access and complete lack of visitor
discrimination subverted any attempt at exclusivity that notions of
membership, and even access to private space, might hope to offer. The
extra level of access afforded members compounded the site's knotting of
privacy and publicity: while members were permitted the privilege of
increased privacy, or access to 14 images per 15 minutes that remain
private to others, what was actually offered to members was an increased
unveiling or publication of private space. More of the private equates
with more of the public. Any seeming opportunity to attain proximity to
Ringley through the financially driven priority access on which her site
literally traded needed to be content with her simulation projected on
that which separated her from us. JenniCam's seduction into
increased privacy encouraged viewers to overcome the surveillance
apparatus--to look through the obstacle of the screen--but only by
focusing on the textuality of this very apparatus and the finite
potential that it offered.
In an article purportedly analyzing the post-feminist implications of the
increased number of young women and teenage girls operating personal
webcams, Susan Hopkins arrives at some ideological difficulty absorbing
the practice among these "Camgirls" of posting "wish lists" on their
sites. As a form of online gift registry, often linked to sites such as
the Internet-based bookseller Amazon.com, the posting of
wish lists is a phenomenon not exclusive to webcam operators or even young
female webcam operators. For Hopkins, wishlists are "the most
controversial feature" of camgirl sites, whose operators "encourage their
fans to buy them books, CDs and other gifts." Despite warning against
generalizing about the vast range of these sites, Hopkins goes on to
claim that it is "no surprise that the most attractive Camgirls--with
exhibitionist tendencies--tend to receive the most gifts." Aside from the
simplifying assumption that webcams are necessarily
exhibitionist--manifesting what she calls "the urge to be on camera 24
hours a day"--there is little understanding in Hopkins's observation of
the pragmatic utility of the wishlist. Rather, she focuses on an
unsubstantiated dynamic of transactional expectation, of some moral
concern, which she considers to be "virtual prostitution."
The term "virtual" here interfaces two connected meanings: the current
synonymity with "online" I have already mentioned, connoting a digital or
specifically Internet-based status; but also a more general sense of
adequate approximation, the tantamount. "Virtual prostitution" stands as
a brisk conclusion, then, to Hopkins's own virtual analysis, which
discerns and then appears to ignore that online relations--not to mention
post-feminism--discourage being described in oppositional binaries:
Men have been exploiting and objectifying women in cyberspace for years.
What's new is that the Camgirls have taken control of this process--and
cut out the middleman. So the line between victim and perpetrator is
blurred. These young women offer only their image, while lonely
(typically male) spectators send fan mail, gifts and cash "donations."
Well might we then ask, who is exploiting whom?
In a similarly pitched article in online magazine Salon
(which Hopkins refers to), Katharine Mieszkowski attempts vernacular
detachment to disguise her suspicious unease, suggesting webcam-based
wishlists as "an online beg-fest that makes it easy to take candy from
strangers on the Internet." While
being sure to deny the false representation of the Internet as "one big
cesspool of pedophiles and pervs searching for unsuspecting and underage
kids to prey upon," Mieszkowski nonetheless finds this profile hard to
ignore, presuming to universalize what is merely her own distaste: that
"the spectacle of teenagers displaying themselves online in exchange for
material favors is something that could make anyone a little queasy."
Mieszkowski shares Hopkins's eventual, conceptual approval that camgirl
sites, and their posting of wishlists, represent an empowering set of
self-determining practices for young women. It is their contextual
ambiguity that remains of inexplicit concern to her, however. She argues
that "the Web has a way of making even the most straightforward picture
of a 14-year-old caught on her webcam into a pornographic image," a claim
that appears to refer to the practice of various other websites of
archiving a mixture of camgirl shots with unrelated pornography, and
perhaps to the potential for digital alteration of images.
The anxiety these writers share seems to derive less from a view of webcams as morally suspect or of wishlists as an
incitement to predation than from vaguer but deeper insecurities of unknowing that are inherent in these media. Both
articles operate, albeit with considerably less rhetorical outrage, on a similar conceptual plane to the semantic and
legislative flounderings of Congress's attempts to criminalize what was, by its own logic, entirely imprecise and perhaps
even unrecognizable. Ambivalent charges of "virtual prostitution" and of the susceptibility to exploitation of images
amidst the Internet's virtuality of relations point to the failings, for these writers, of conventional epistemology and
the insidious treachery of telepistemology. To reiterate Morse's definition, virtuality operates in a "subjunctive" mode,
implying a grammar of conditional, hypothetical, or contingent relations to a predominant ontology. That which is subject
to this mode (uncertain relations between camgirls and their fans; images that "appear to be" of children engaging in sex
acts) refuses to make its status known, or even knowable, forcing a continuous hedging of bets. The virtual occupies, then,
the indefinable and liminal space on the threshold between known and unknown, knowing and unknowing. The disquiet that
preoccupies the above accounts of virtuality focuses, I propose, on the presumed and inexact performativity of the virtual;
the failure of the threshold of knowing to contain the flow of the unknowable. At the same time, it is this very
imprecision that renders the virtual so compelling.
In a discussion of her acquiescence to the "holding power" of personal
computers, Sherry Turkle notes it is "striking that the word 'user' is
associated mainly with computers and drugs" (30). The trope of addiction
that she acknowledges would figure computer use as an everyday dependency
or habit. Turkle prefers to articulate her own use in terms of
"seduction" rather than the "cliché of addiction," and locates her
attraction in the "possibilities of 'conversation' among the multiple
windows on my screen and the way an instantly responsive machine allays
my anxieties about perfection" (30). A sense of relationality with her
computer seduces Turkle, and not the machine's external agency, like that
of a drug acting upon her. What she shares, then, is the virtuality of
fictional presence. And in the fact that seduction operates at least
initially on the level of appearances, the virtuality that seduces Turkle
is (as she affirms) that between herself and the interface, and not
between herself and what this seductive surface claims to disclose. For
Jean Baudrillard, seduction is that which challenges the order of
production; as a strategy of pure surfaces, it battles our cultural
impetus "to produce meaning, to make the world signify, to render it
visible" (63). Seduction is complicit in the fabrication of the
fulfillment of its own goal: it champions the attraction of a surface
that promises and ultimately outshines a cache of meaning beneath.
In that the personal webcam is formally structured by a continuous visual
unfurling, it resembles a kind of striptease: the very topos of seduction
whose narrative at once manufactures a secret of invisibility and
continuously reproduces its own narrative process toward this goal. The
webcam more closely approaches Baudrillard's notion of seduction in that
its seductive effectuality is to deny the teleology of the striptease
narrative. The webcam's resolute and noninteractive performance of
everydayness perverts this teleology entirely by failing even to
fabricate a secret of invisibility. Rather, it enacts a counternarrative
of unlayering and relayering, a continual promise and denial of
fulfillment. Paradoxically, this counternarrative is based on the
narrative of temporal routine; and in that the mechanical process of
image refreshment constitutes, by technological default, only an
approximation of the moving image of film or video, we read the images as
a narrative sequence. Just as the continued use of a drug of dependency
gradually fails to provide the satisfaction inherent in its initial
seductiveness, the personal webcam may recreate an analogous pattern of
habituation. Seducing the user by the interface's promise of access to a
deeper level of fulfillment--beneath the surface, through the window--the
webcam encourages habitual viewing by appearing with every new image to
come closer to spectatorial satisfaction but simultaneously deferring to
the potential of the next image.
But how satisfying can the seduction of constant deferral be? The webcam
frame need not and frequently does not contain any evidence of its
subject. Hours may pass in which the camera captures an empty room. And
even if its operator does appear in the frame, she may not be doing
anything more "performative" than sleeping, possibly turning over in bed
every now and again. Given that these hours constitute a significant
proportion of available viewing, why do we still bother to watch?
Moreover, if the seduction of the webcam interface is that it promises to
disclose a kernel of identity, in a regulated and iterative
process, are we really coming closer with each image to gaining insight
into webcam operators' lives and identity? Are we really seeing
through the screen?
In their use of the transparent window device, webcams most obviously
demonstrate their lineal connection to television, and especially to what
Jane Feuer calls "the ontological glory of [that] medium" (15).
Television relies partly upon a perceptive agreement to the transparency
of its screen, where the screen is merely a frame through which the
viewer is able to see events that are, ideally, taking place
instantaneously. Rather than exploiting a viewer's naïveté,
according to Morse, the transparency effect of television entails
viewers' "willing collusion in rituals and conventions" that comprise the
televisual experience: a process of disavowal of what may defy logic or
fact (18). Viewers agree to suspend disbelief in the unknowable
virtuality of television's liveness and its direct mode of address to
them: to incorporate the televisual interface's imposition of various
intermediary devices, such as the graphics and multiple viewing frames.
Raised on television, Internet users approach the webcam frame with the
same split belief system. The webcam's interface both encourages and
discourages the transparency effect of its post-televisual surveillance
function. Arguing that panoptic societies manufacture the illusion of
privacy and secrets as accessible realities behind screens of
surveillance, William Bogard questions the conceptual validity of
disclosure in telematic societies. "There, if we can still speak about
the secret at all," he writes, "it is only in relation to a private
space, a private person, that has been absorbed into the screen itself"
(126). The personal webcam's hyperreal body is not so much beyond or
behind the screen as on the screen. The screen defines and
sustains it. In Bogard's terms, webcams simulate the surveillance common
to earlier screen forms, such as closed circuit TV. Where surveillance
unmasks the presence of the real, Bogard argues, simulation masks its
absence. The surveillance apparatus attempts to
render the mediating surface of the screen transparent; simulation
dissolves the surface as a medium of appearances to provide immediacy,
not to the real but to the hyperreal (19-21). The seductive impetus of
telepresence in this technology--to achieve mutual proximity with a
remote body or location--becomes irrelevant in that the remote bodies of
webcam operators are immutable. Rather, simulated versions of their
authentic identity are all that is available to viewers, and these exist
solely on the interface that claims to make visible their
The interface and its various formal features, however, remain constantly
present and tangible to the viewer. When Turkle writes that we have
"learned to take things at interface value" (23), she is drawing an
explicit link between users' increasing comfort
with the multiple-windowed interface of current computer technology and a
broader cultural shift toward the acceptance of simulation and away from
the epistemological impetus of transparency. "We are increasingly
accustomed to navigating screen simulations," she claims, and this is
part of a reduced "modernist desire to see beneath the surface into the
mechanics of the operating system" (41-2). The ongoing popularity of
personal webcams attests to the continuance of a not insignificant desire
in our culture to see through various screens of interpersonal
separation. My argument, however, shares Turkle's belief in interface
seduction: there is a major and even defining sense of tactility to
webcam use, based not simply on the thrill of technological innovation
but also on the seamless integration of this technology into our everyday
experiences and practices.
While the imposition of multiple interface elements aims, like broadcast
TV, to assist a project of transparent transmission, it is these elements
(and not what they make visible) that form the means to compel the webcam
viewer. If the webcam window provides an automated oscillation between
the spectacle of nothing and the promise of something, it is in this
formal process (and not in its dubious content) that lies the webcam's
narrative. And while the regulated rhythms of image refreshment render
this process strictly mechanical, the seconds taken for each new frame to
open simultaneously locate the spatial compression of narrative
contingency. The intervening download time while each image discloses
itself offers the webcam's only limited opportunity for the viewer to
interpret the hypothetical and unexpected nature of its virtuality.
Sometimes known as "Reload," "Refresh" is a standard command on web
browsers, allowing the user to recommence or update the downloading of a
site. The image or site is at its most fresh during this
process, given that it may be refreshed again at any time after the
download. If the webcam image refreshes itself every time it updates,
during the very moment of changeover, what happens to it in between? For
the image to require refreshment implies its gradually decreasing
freshness and, therefore, its gradually increasing staleness. Replaced
with a fresh image after a programmed delay, each previous image is
deemed to have gone stale, no longer fresh with narrative possibility.
Marina Grzinic's comments on the frustrations and imperfections of
telepresent technologies are resonant here. Drawing on Walter Benjamin's
famous theory that an object's aura--its "unique appearance or semblance
of distance" (cited Grzinic 215)--is destroyed by its reproduction,
Grzinic attempts to recover aura in telerobotic technologies. She
proposes transmission time as the digital media counterpart to
photography's exposure time, which she discusses, after Benjamin, as
allowing the spatio-temporal specificities of the object to be traceable
in its image. Where the transmission time of telerobotic (and by
extension webcam) technologies manifests in download delays, it "forces
us to think about the network of modems, routers, servers, and telephone
lines that the image must travel in order to get to us" (221). Time delay
confirms both the spatial and temporal distance of the object.
Furthermore, Grzinic continues, these technical practicalities tend to
produce discontinuities in the image, such as the "choppy and unnatural"
motion of objects hopping that slow image refresh rates generate (221).
Grzinic's argument for the compelling visual quality--the aura--of these
imperfections supports my contention that the potential for narrative
involvement in webcams lies in the textuality of their interface. Jon
Dovey has commented on the perplexing realist authority invested in the
aesthetic of "wobblyscope" video images, particularly in conjunction with
surveillance media and home video (64). By the same token, the
imprecision of unclear image quality and delays in the unfurling of
webcam images provides the very points of interest for viewing in that
they necessarily leave room for epistemological frustration. Grzinic
likens transmission delays and slow refresh rates to "a fingerprint on
the film, a drop of water on the lens": they are "evidence of the image"
(224). To my analysis, they are also evidence of virtuality and a
tantalising, compelling hindrance to visual certainty. They offer viewers
recourse to narrative precisely where the image content deters narrative.
Nonetheless, the webcam image's random availability makes available
inferred narratives of sexual promiscuity--sexual freshness--as
well as questions of its cleanliness. One critical incident in the
JenniCam history reverberates with the ambiguous charge of
promiscuity. In July 2000, the webcam both lost and gained
viewers when Ringley's sexual propriety was called into question. She was
accused, according to one report, of "stealing her best friend's
boyfriend in full view of thousands of outraged fans" (Lipowicz). Some
boycotted the site, while others--40 percent more viewers than
usual--logged on in anticipation of increased sexual activity, the report
implies, allowing the further inference that Ringley would knowingly
trade on this express traffic to garner relief from financial debt. One
of Ringley's online journal entries at the time playfully masked her
knowingness with a barely euphemistic image of performative fluidity:
"JenniCam, instead of being a window into my regular boring
life, will be a window into love. I'm convinced it will utterly ooze
through the Internet" (cited in Lipowicz). Where the electronic display
of an image of identity via promiscuous contact is figured as
transmission or communication, the narrative of sexualization accrues
intensity by the associative anxieties of contagion. The exponential and apparently unintentional growth in the number of
visits to JenniCam--its "catching on"--is a cellular instance
of what is figured as the Internet's promiscuous transmissibility.
Several scholars have noted the common application of discourses of contagion to the transmission of computer viruses. In
particular, the success of this metaphor draws on the shared unknowing of epidemic danger that exacerbated public
misperceptions of AIDS at its most prolific and the contemporaneous phenomenon of computer hacking (Lupton; Kember). I
began this essay with a reading of two pieces of U.S. legislation born from this exact fear: the harmful performativity of
viral attacks on those points of the body (the human, social, and political body) deemed
most vulnerable. Like the
uncontainable damage caused by the electronic letter bomb, benevolently disguised and voluntarily received, exploding on
arrival in the host's email inbox, the Child Pornography Prevention Act imagined the desensitized catching on
to dangerous behaviors by mere transmissible contact with unrecognizable agents of harm. The Communications Decency
Act rendered the metaphor more explicit still, hoping to outlaw similar "transmission" and "communication"
specifically centering on the body's sexual and excretory orifices. As enactments of the state's legal and political
subjection of its citizens, the penetrating gaze of these bills aims to bring into visibility certain deviant behaviors,
and to demarcate a sterilized zone from which contagion may be expelled. The surveillance of the U.S. military by the
military, a surveillance that, as Butler discusses in Excitable Speech, aims at abjecting by "discharge" the
"dangerous fluid" of homosexual communication, marks an analogous production of a purified body (110).
In his condemnatory discussion of the Supreme Court's striking down of
the CPPA (in another of its "extraordinarily permissive rulings"), Robert
H. Bork writes that "it would seem merely common sense to think that
graphic depictions of children in sexual acts would likely result in some
action by pedophiles," but he stops short of considering the "likely
result" of virtual or less obviously fictitious depictions. Bork's position itself lacks mere
"common sense" in its failure to specify beyond the likelihood of "some action" by presumably all "pedophiles." Indeed, for
Bork, child pornography--virtual or otherwise--exists in the same
reprehensible category as all pornography, along with "nude dancing" and
"raw profanity," around which there has been "no good reason to throw
free speech protections" as guaranteed by the First Amendment of the U.S.
Constitution. Pornography of any kind should not be available even to
adults, he opines, and therefore the question of virtuality--of whether
actual children are involved in any way--is irrelevant to his argument.
Nonetheless, Bork subscribes to Congress's series of easy elisions--of
sexual imagery with sexual conduct, of pornographer with pedophile, and
of pornography viewer with pedophile--arguing for a clear, performative
link between virtual representation and imagined actions upon unrelated
In an effort to analogize this causality, Bork draws on another, more
literal form of speech "exempt from regulation": the broadcasting of "the
rawest forms of profanity" on television.
Cable television is saturated with words never before used in public, and
the broadcast networks are racing to catch up. [...] The industry response
to criticism on this score is that such words give the programs
authenticity because this is the way people talk. In reality, however,
the arrow probably points in the other direction.
Aside from the contention that both have been overlooked by the Supreme
Court, Bork chooses not to trace the steps taken in his equation of
profanity with child pornography. He also chooses not to entertain the
question of how "sanctions for profanity" might be policed, let alone how
they might actually function. His interpellation of a helplessly
impressionable viewer, however, is clear and stands in accord with
Congress's equally monologic version of image reception. Like members of
Congress, Bork fails to elaborate on his own apparent immunity to
television's believed contagious performativity, even as he concludes by
acknowledging that "destroying limits to speech [...] progressively
liberates the worst in our natures." Profanity, though, is apparently not
in "our" nature: "never before used in public" and simply contracted from
television. Having bundled profanity and pornography into the same basket
of evil, Bork then applies different standards to each. His refusal to
accept that representations of profanity can be authentic contradicts his
understanding of pornography and its supposed performative function: that
representations of child sex, even of the least "actual" authenticity,
are "likely" to offer a template of behavior for real abuse.
People increasingly talk this way because they hear the
words on television, and they hear the words on television because the
Supreme Court's rulings have deprived the government of any effective
sanctions for profanity.
Where Bork's article is particularly useful is in its propulsion of a
familiar anxiety around the uncontrollability of representation and the
channels of its circulation. His expedient conflation of photographic,
televisual, video, and digital technologies disallows any discernment of
epistemological nuance among these media. This slippage operates in
service of a simplistic, oppositional image/reality binarism, and is
fuelled by an inflated apprehension of immorality and harm. Paranoid
voices like Bork's and those of congressional legislators manifest a
moral panic that the means of representation--the mass media
generally--are disseminating contagious, dangerous matter.
Just as Bork sees profanity spreading without regulation across the
airwaves and into the public lexicon, images that merely "convey the
impression" of involving children in sexual conduct are deemed capable of
transmitting an infectious agency among susceptible individuals, and possibly
further. Congress identified, for instance, the affective contagion that
it imagined would endear children to images of other children "having
fun" in even completely contrived "depictions" of sexual activity: a
contagion of victimhood. And yet at the same time, a contagious
perpetration was imagined by the congressional findings, where a
desensitized predilection for the offending material might "catch on"
among, we presume, not-yet-pedophiles in the same manner as it infects
existing pedophiles with appetite-whetting stimulus. The projected sweep
of the contagion is as oddly broad and indiscriminate as it initially
seemed specific. The language of the CPPA bill--intended to serve a
specific legislative function by closing what it perceived to be a
representational loophole in opportunities for exploiting
children--enacts a similar performativity to the contagiously regarded
criminality of its content. This is not to say that its wording performs
the abuse it names, but rather that its attempts to delineate with more
qualitative focus its legislative domain (even if that domain was to be
quantitatively expanded) resulted in a slippery imprecision and
indiscrimination, ruled by the Supreme Court to be "overbroad."
Despite the presumptuous evocation of community that subtends Bork's
calls for legislative stricture, his phrasing points more to contempt of
an inadequately regulated public, to whose putative "common sense" he nonetheless
defers. Further presuming moral
commonality, his argument against profanity and the appearance of
pornography alike yearns to reinstall a less "permissive" Supreme Court.
Bork's retrospective imaginary may find solace in that court's landmark
Bowers v. Hardwick ruling, the "inflammatory force" of which
illustrates Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick's broader elaboration of ignorance and
its ambidextrous availability to the regulation of public and private
spaces. Harnessing "an insolent display of legal illogic," the
Hardwick decision, Sedgwick writes, made "obtuse" and
"contemptuous demonstration" of the court's power to ratify homophobic
discourse (6-7). Specifically, Justice White's opinion found particular
legal claims to a right to engage in sodomy--in one's own bedroom--to be
"at best, facetious" (qtd. in Sedgwick 6). Bork's opinion, that for virtual child pornography
to "likely result" in pedophilic activity is "merely common
sense," establishes by inversion a self-evidence of equal "mock-ignorant
mock-jocose threat," as Sedgwick describes White's facetious "at
best" (7; emphasis added). However, Bork's prima facie
condemnation of virtual material ignores the facetiousness of its
avoidance of the categorical signifiers of actual pornography: that at
best, virtual facetiae are merely euphemistically pornographic.
Likewise, the virtual body of the webcam operator exists only on the
screen that makes it visible, and from which it is indistinguishable. The
screen represents a sustaining membrane without which that body would
cease to exist. To puncture the screen, for that body to become merely
flesh, would destroy the transparent seal of surveyed sterility that the
webcam simulates as a means to making the body visible and, in viewer
imaginations, variously sexual. The webcam enacts, then, what Bogard
calls "the elaborate artifice of penetration" (38). This artifice
manifests in the complex of interface features that encourage webcam
viewers to believe they can telepresently "get hold of [the] object," in
whatever means they desire (Benjamin 217). In its automaticity, the
webcam's seductive main feature of image refreshment marks a constant
reiteration of the screen as a seal of freshness: a continuous promise of
the image's availability, but of the body's uncompromised prophylaxis.
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1. "Telerobotics" is the technological
capacity to control a robot or other machine from a distance. One famous
example is Ken Goldberg's Telegarden, an art installation
allowing remote Internet users to tend an actual garden, first located in
the Ars Electronica Center, Austria. <http://www.usc.edu/dept/garden/> See Goldberg.
2. In late December 2003, without
public explanation, Ringley ceased operation of the JenniCam
website. Internet news reports suggest the decision may have come in
response to online payment company PayPal's cancellation of Ringley's
account because of the site's supposed violation of PayPal's non-nudity
3. This ease was demonstrated by
Save Karyn <http://www.savekaryn.com>, a
website audaciously (and successfully) dedicated to erasing Karyn's
$20,000 credit card debt. The site's operator transparently acknowledged
that she offered nothing in return for donations, which included money as
well as all manner of other goods.
4. A former judge and acting Attorney
General under President Nixon at the height of the Watergate scandal,
Bork's own nomination to the Supreme Court by President Reagan in 1987
was lobbied against strongly by the American Civil Liberties Union and
rejected by the Senate.
5. "Overbreadth" is ascribed to legislation whose proscriptive sweep effectively covers that
which is protected by the U.S. Constitution, namely freedom of speech,
press, and assembly.
6. Respondent Michael Hardwick had been
arrested in his bedroom, where police found him engaging in the criminal
act of sodomy with another adult male. He sued the state of Georgia for
infringement of his fundamental rights, initially losing and later
winning on appeal. The Supreme Court, in Bowers v. Hardwick
(1986), ultimately upheld the constitutionality of the Georgia statute
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