The Gaze and CU-SeeMe
Imagine you are Norm Peterson from the TV show Cheers. You are grossly overweight. Your marriage is in a rut. You have spent the entire day at work unsuccessfully trying to find a 17-cent accounting error. Work is over, so you head your local bar--Cheers. Immediately after you enter the bar, everyone yells, "Norm!" and they are glad to see you. You sit down and have a frosty cold one where, as the theme song to the show states, "everybody knows your name." Suddenly, it does not matter that you are fat, have problems at home, or are lousy at your job.
Cheers´s popularity has it´s roots in a fundamental psychological phenomenon that most people can relate to--we go through life as insignificant or invisible travelers on this earth, who are desperately looking for somebody to look at us and make us real. In a city the size of Prague, people run around everyday avoiding each other´s glances. On the trams and Metro cars, we "stare" at people we find interesting out the corners of our eyes and quickly avert our eyes when they look at us looking at them. In fact, in many cultures it is considered very rude to look directly at somebody. There is power in a stare.
This avoidance of the gaze makes us feel insignificant, detached and impotent. However, when we go to a place where people help us to "construct" ourselves (or at least our ego-ideals), we feel important, connected to others and powerful. Why, by merely walking into a bar, Norm Peterson can force everybody to stop what they doing, look at him and call out his name; thus, re-constructing Norm from the boring accountant into a lovable comrade-in-beer. By watching Norm and friends each week, North Americans also found a place where they could sit back, relax and be loved--the great illusion of many popular sit-coms in America.
Here in Prague, pubs have served a similar function to the bar Cheers. They are places where people go to hang out with people that help validate and often create the existence of their lives. In pubs, people can look at each other approvingly or disapprovingly, with passion or with indifference, while laughing or while crying. Pubs are places where our egos are filled with the pleasure of just being someplace where everybody knows our names, where everybody knows who we are because they helped create us.
What does this have to do with CU-SeeMe?
Although this is rapidly changing, the Internet is largely populated by "Computer Geeks," especially when using special equipment and software, such as, CU-SeeMe. Computer Geeks are, generally, even more invisible than other subcultures in our society, because they fail to play the games that invite the gaze of the Other. They don´t wear fashionable or anti-fashionable clothes that would make them "stick out" in a crowd. In fact the "average" Computer Geek dresses afashionably, as Geeks are a true non-conformist subculture (when it comes to fashion at least). Although, I´m reinforcing a stereo-type, from my experience the stereo-type fits--Geeks are hermetic, non-social beings who may yearn to metaphorically shout "Look at me!" by talking to a stranger on a subway car; however, they almost never overcome their shyness to even glance at said stranger let alone talk to them. Instead their body language, style of dress and appearance combine to form a cloaking device that protects them from the gaze of the Other.
These geeks are the primary users of CU-SeeMe (although there are really all types of people using the software). They don´t go to pubs, but to the Internet for a safe place where they allow the Other to gaze at them. Here is CU version of Cheers: You are TS Fulk. You are short, pale and geeky (the exact opposite of the North American ideal "tall, dark and handsome"). You have no significant other; in fact, you´ve spent most of your life making sure that this remains a constant. At work, you´ve spent hours trying to teach 18-year-old brats the proper use of the infinitive and then you tried in vain to figure out why your Linux server keeps losing it´s connection to your LAN´s gateway. You give up on work, turn on CU-SeeMe and enter the Dream Train Internet [DTI] reflector. Immediately in the chat box you see, MIYA, Arf!, Pearl and others typing "wb [welcome back] TS" or "hi TS!" You then sit back, relax, and enjoy looking at (and being look at by) others via the great "buffer-zone" known as the Internet.
This summer I found myself logging into DTI almost everyday, despite the fact that DTI´s reflector is terribly slow and most of the chat is in Japanese, which I do not know. I tried many other faster and "more" American refs, but I never felt the power of the gaze on those refs. Instead, I would login, say "Howdy everyone," and then watch everybody chatting with their friends and ignoring me--no different then my normal experiences on the trams (minus the "Howdy everyone"). So I keep going back to DTI, where everybody knows my name.
Now what about those FUNGi and sharks? Why would these otherwise normal men, with normal jobs, normal families, etc. come on-line and ask someone if they´d like to watch them cum?
Let´s suppose that most of the FUNGi are people that find little ego validation in their normal lives. Their self-esteem is so critically low that they are able to step outside of societal rules in order to find some way to feel important--to be "alive." They may be Computer Geeks who want desperately to shout at pretty girls, nice couples, children--"Look at me! Make me whole!" Their ego-ideals at work, home, etc. are not "correct" enough to make them forget the Lacanian separation (the separation between the signifier and the signified, between the body and the soul, between the conscious and the unconscious). This painful gap grows more and more irritable each day. Then they found a way to receive some ego validation--by being nude and masturbating in public.
When you are naked and doing a sexual act in public, people have a hard time ignoring you. You become someone worthy of attention. The gaze hits you in full force. Perhaps on CU-SeeMe, everyone has your video turned off and are truly ignoring you, but in your mind you feel their gaze (either scornful or supporting--it does not matter). Every time somebody calls you a jerk or asks you to DC (direct connection) with them, you feel the power that comes from your act. This power becomes addicting (just like Norm was addicted to going to Cheers and I´m addicted to DTI). You like how you feel when you think of others watching you masturbate. It becomes a powerful drug that helps you escape the reality of the Lacanian gap.
This is no different than the addiction that can occur with men visiting strip-clubs or using prostitutes. For these are two phenomena that also rely heavily on the power of the gaze. In both cases, the men know that the women are strangers or only really like them for their money; however, in their unconscious minds they desperately hope that these women truly like them, and the gaze of the Other helps to propagate this fantasy. In reality, the women are truly interested in the men (perhaps as a friendly regular at a strip-club or just simple capitalistic interest) which only serves to make the gaze more powerful and the experience more addicting.
The FUNGi are men who are making a desperate cry for help. Their lives seem pointless, and they are trying to force the Other into recognizing them (and thus help themselves to recognize who they really are). When being a CU-SeeMe wanker losses it´s potency for these men, what will they turn to for their validation rush? The answers that come to mind are not pleasant.
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