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  1. 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).
  2. 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.
  3. 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 (n.3, 4).

    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.
  4. 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 (§223(a)(1)(B)(ii))

    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).
  5. 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; Sontag).
  6. 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).
  7. 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.
  8. 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).
  9. 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.
  10. 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 here-and-now. (4)

    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.
  11. 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 network.
  12. 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.
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  14. 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.
  15. 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.[1] Many noninteractive webcams feature generic disclaimers about sexual content, as a counterpoint to acknowledging incidental nudity or sex. The now-defunct Sean Patrick Live! (formerly, 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 be again.
  16. 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" (<>).[2] 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.
  17. 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, 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."
  18. 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."[3] 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.
  19. 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.
  20. 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.
  21. 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.
  22. 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?
  23. 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.
  24. 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 reality.
  25. 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.
  26. 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.
  27. 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).
  28. 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.
  29. 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).
  30. 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.[4] 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 children.
  31. 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.

    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.

    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.
  32. 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."[5]
  33. 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).[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.
  34. 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.
  35. School of Humanities
    University of Western Sydney

    Talk Back




    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. <> 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 policy.

    3. This ease was demonstrated by Save Karyn <>, 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 criminalizing sodomy.

    Works Cited

    Ashcroft v. Free Speech Coalition. No. 00-795. 535 US 234. U.S. Supreme Court 2002.

    Baudrillard, Jean. The Ecstasy of Communication. Trans. Bernard and Caroline Schutze. New York: Semiotext(e), 1988.

    Benjamin, Walter. "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction." Illuminations. Trans. Harry Zohn. London: Fontana, 1992. 211-44.

    Bogard, William. The Simulation of Surveillance: Hypercontrol in Telematic Societies. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1996.

    Bork, Robert H. "The Sanctity of Smut." Wall Street Journal 27 Apr. 2002. 22 Aug. 2002 <>.

    Butler, Judith. Excitable Speech: A Politics of the Performative. New York: Routledge, 1997.

    ---. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York: Routledge, 1990.

    Child Pornography Prevention Act of 1996. Pub. L. 104-208 30 Sep. 1996. 110 Stat. 3009.

    Cohen, Stanley. Folk Devils and Moral Panics: The Creation of the Mods and Rockers. London: MacGibbon and Kee, 1972.

    Communications Decency Act of 1996. Pub L. 104-104. 1 Feb. 1996. Title V.

    Dovey, Jon. Freakshow: First Person Media and Factual Television. London: Pluto, 2000.

    Feuer, Jane. "The Concept of Live Television: Ontology as Ideology." Regarding Television: Critical Approaches--an Anthology. Ed. E. Ann Kaplan. Frederick, MD: University Publications of America, 1983. 12-22.

    Goldberg, Ken. "Introduction: The Unique Phenomenon of a Distance." Goldberg 2-20.

    Goldberg, Ken, ed. The Robot in the Garden: Telerobotics and Telepistemology in the Age of the Internet. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT P, 2000.

    Grzinic, Marina. "Exposure Time, the Aura, and Telerobotics." Goldberg 214-24.

    Hopkins, Susan. "Camgirls: Live on the Net." Sydney Morning Herald 10 Aug. 2002. 21 Aug. 2002 <>.

    Kember, Sarah. Virtual Anxiety: Photography, New Technologies, and Subjectivity. Manchester: Manchester UP, 1998.

    Lipowicz, Alice. "Jenni's in Love." Salon 4 Aug. 2000. 21 Aug. 2002 <>.

    Lupton, Deborah. "Panic Computing: The Viral Metaphor and Computer Technology." Cultural Studies 8.3 (1994): 556-68.

    Mieszkowski, Katharine. "Candy from Strangers." Salon 13 Aug. 2001. 21 Aug. 2002 <>.

    Morse, Margaret. Virtualities: Television, Media Art, and Cyberculture. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1998.

    Reno v. American Civil Liberties Union. No. 96-511. 521 US 844. U.S. Supreme Court 1997.

    Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. Epistemology of the Closet. Berkeley: U of California P, 1990.

    Sontag, Susan. AIDS and Its Metaphors. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1989.

    Turkle, Sherry. Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1995.

    Watney, Simon. Policing Desire: Pornography, AIDS and the Media. London: Methuen, 1987.

    Williams, Linda. Hard Core: Power, Pleasure, and the "Frenzy of the Visible." Berkeley: U of California P, 1989.

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