Hating Habermas: On Exhibitionism, Shame & Life on the Actually Existing Internet

Theresa Senft

When critics rail against “shameless exhibitionism” on social media these days, I find myself confused. [1] Besides sociopaths, is anyone actually shameless? People call me exhibitionist, but I’ve spent nearly every moment of my life negotiating with one form of shame or another. When I was young, I was diagnosed with a mental illness that seemed render everything about me difficult for people to manage. Once, I joked I was going to give my parents t-shirts that read, "What now?" For years, I was the girl who was just too much. I thought I was alone in this, but as I grew up, I saw others struggling: other kids, other women, queers, people of color, people practicing religions that weren't about Jesus, old people, blind people, dyslexic people. So many that I began to think: Maybe we were the majority?

Even when I was sophisticated enough to understand I was not alone, shame continued to fuel my ambitions, my creativity and my beliefs. One example: I identify as feminist; I have since the day I had my one and only abortion. I can’t remember the procedure well, but I do recall that when the woman next to me asked for more pain medication, she was told, “We don’t want to make things too easy for you, do we?”

Writing about political organising in media space, Jodi Dean speaks of “reflective solidarity”: a commitment to share the struggle of another, based on an imagination of their pain, or their shame.[2] My politics tend to go like that. For instance, I like to think the title of this essay, “Hating Habermas,” constitutes a political act of sorts. It is meant to signify my solidarity with a certain class of persons living their lives online today: the so-called “shameless.”

Of course, I don’t hate the actual Jürgen Habermas—I don’t even know the man—but rather, what his name has come to signify in conversations about the Internet today. Ironically enough, twenty years ago, I used his work to convince my university advisers that I should conduct doctoral work on a New York City computer bulletin board service called Echo.[3] Armed with my copy of The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere I argued that Echo was a new sort of eighteenth-century coffee house, where people could speak as equals, and arguments could win on merit.[4] To this day, Echo remains the closest thing to an Enlightenment public sphere I have ever known, centred around conferences with titles like movies, books, gay and lesbian life, and so forth.

On Echo, every time you wanted to do or read something, you responded to a prompt that read: “And now?” I loved that. It was so much better than my parent’s “What now?” To me, “and” seemed to say that the system’s hard drive was entirely capable of taking in whatever I could dish out, ad infinitum.[5]

By 1996, I had spun my time on Echo into an edited issue of Women & Performance devoted to the topic of sexuality and cyberspace.  Although nearly all our reviews were glowing, one called my writing “as pedestrian as the Jennicam”.[6] At the time, I was mortified. The Jennicam was one of the Web’s first personal webcams, featuring a blonde American girl named Jenny Ringley. Although I have long believed the dictum, “show, don’t tell,” the Jennicam seemed an exercise in showing and little else. Most days, the camera seemed to feature Jenny’s empty couch.

According to sociologist Thomas Scheff, shame usually takes one of two patterns.[7] In the first, shame grips an individual into silence and she has difficulty expressing herself. In the second, she attempts to bypass the pain caused by the shame by increasing speech or action. Guess which way I went?

Even though I began my work on camgirls fueled by the shame, over time, I felt myself in solidarity with them. How could I not? I was looking at an entire category of people deemed “too much” by everyone around them. First, they were held responsible for inciting a new form of meditated voyeurism (even though all parties were aware they were being viewed.) Next, they were accused of exhibitionism (even though many of them never took off their clothing in the early days.) Often, they were seen as narcissistic (even though nearly all them knew all the users in their chat rooms long before ‘social networking’ became a buzzword.) Always they were considered emotionally unstable (although no more so than say, your average guy in a band.) Absolutely, they were seen as too privileged (although many of them routinely dealt with being called white trash whores.)

And then there was that word: shameless. Ironic, since nearly everything camgirls did appeared to me to be about easing feelings of shame. At the time, “sharing” wasn’t the commodity buzz-term it is today, but camgirls were full of it. I began to wonder: was it possible that the two most reviled modalties of women’s over-share — camgirl broadcasts and feminist consciousness raising—were somehow related?

I quickly realised that my question was one that I wasn’t ever really going to understand, unless I started webcamming myself. And I did, for a year. My “walk the talk” got me press interest, which was exciting at first, until I figured out that every exchange from them would be a judgment masquerading as a question. “Why would someone do that?” they asked, so often, in exactly the same way. With more and more frequency, my shame shifted to anger. “Why do you do your job?” I would ask. “Does it feel…empowering?”

Eventually, I avoided emails from reporters entirely, and focused on critiques of the psychoanalytic language being used to discuss camgirls. Given how often they swapped their broadcaster/audience roles with one another and with fans, I realised I needed to speak about the circulation of camgirl images less in terms of a traditional filmic gaze and more as a series of “grabs”.[8] I chose this word because of its relation to skin: grab means to grasp, to seize for a moment, to capture (an object, attention), and perhaps most significant: to leave open for interpretation, as in the saying “up for grabs.”

Grabbing also has overt political dimensions: consider the expression “screen grab,” in which an image, sound, or line of text is excised out its original context and often sent traveling the internet, spinning into what Danah Boyd calls the “super-public” sphere, beyond geography, intention, and even time.[9] I also think it is also fair to say that historically, certain bodies have been the grabbers, and others the grabbed.

Grabbing matters because it has overt ethical implications regarding what we do with what we see. In a culture trained to gaze and glance at movies and television, nobody believes they actually have the power to alter the actions transpiring in front of their eyes (and only the delusional fear that what they see on their screens will actually affect them at the level of materiality.) In a culture raised on the Internet, these beliefs must be re-thought, as lives can and often are changed by what happens onscreen. That said, although skins can be screens, the opposite is not true: no matter how powerful technologies of co-presence are, screens neither contain nor connect actual living bodies in any way beyond metaphor.

I learned this the hard way the day one of the camgirls I was studying attempted suicide on camera. [10] Although thousands were watching her that day, I was the only one at the time with her home address. While I was at the hospital watching this woman vomit charcoal (she had overdosed) others were busy doctoring a screen shot of her passed out in her bathroom, remaking it into a parody about attention starved-camgirls faking their own deaths, and circulating it online. On message boards, people were urging her to finish the job, even though she had been quite public about her struggle with bipolar disorder. Just because nobody used terms “online bullying” back then, doesn’t mean it wasn’t happening.

The more I realised how pivotal the politics of grabbing were going to be online, the more trouble I had with conceptions of the Internet as a public sphere dominated by Habermasian rational subjects. Reading more deeply in philosophy and history, I learned that the eighteenth century was actually full of competing notions of how a proper citizen should behave: for every Edmund Burke, there was a Thomas Paine or a Mary Wollstonecraft. I also took note of Nancy Fraser’s point that that women were largely excluded from the coffee houses and salons of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.[11]

At different times, I have conceptualised camgirl life in terms of Fraser’s public and counter-public spheres [12], Sayla Benhabib’s friendly public spheres [13], and Michael Warner ’s notion of counter-public performativity [14]. I finally wound up jettisoning the idea of spheres altogether, and begin thinking in terms of networks.[15]

All the while, I felt caught in what Schiff describes as a “triple spiral” of shame/anger/shame. As an academic, I felt responsible for explaining why the rational subjects of cyberspace I had celebrated in places like Echo didn’t seem to be part of camgirl spaces (or any parts of the Internet that later became known as social networking platforms.) As a feminist, I was angry that people believed everyone using these spaces was inherently shameless, because I had enough personal and social knowledge to know otherwise. However I was, though, it never matched my feelings of shame. To this day, I write, I publish, I am cited by others, and still, Habermas still haunts my thoughts like some scary Dad of sorts.

When I began my work on camgirls in the late 1990’s, webcams were scarce and bandwidth was expensive. Today they are ubiquitous, embedded in all our devices, and cheap. Today, more than half the Internet users in the United States are women, and a fair amount of Internet researchers are as well. When I began studying camgirls, nobody could imagine a time where you could use the phrase, “brand me” and not burst out laughing. Today I theorise on micro-celebrity for advertising clients like Saatchi and Saatchi. The but why refrain hasn’t disappeared as much as it has become racialised, reflecting the new demographics of the Web. Why do Muslims rage? Why can’t they allow free speech like we do? Why Black people gotta talk so funny on Twitter? Why are Asians so loud in the library?

Of course, exhibitionist over-sharing continues to be discussed as if it were a national pandemic, especially when we are talking about female children doing it. Consider the case of Amanda Todd, a fifteen year-old American girl who recently committed suicide as a result of a combination of sexual harassment, continued blackmail attempts, school-based bullying, and in-school physical assaults.[16]

In a YouTube video posted a few months before she died, Todd confounded my earlier distinctions between ‘quiet’ and ‘speaking’ shame by telling her story in silence, using flash cards on screen.[17] As each card was held up, we learned more. Someone saw her on her webcam and was kind to her. Told her she was beautiful. Asked her to lift her shirt. She was flattered, happy, thrilled. She got caught up in the moment. She did it.

The viewer took a screen grab of her exposed breasts and threatened to circulate it around her school if she didn’t start giving him on-screen sex shows. She refused. He circulated the photos to students in one school, and then another, and then another, as her parents tried to move her, presumably out of harm’s way.

In the YouTube video, Amanda’s cards move from this story to a new one. There was a boy at one of the schools, who had a girlfriend, but paid attention to Amanda. Was kind to her. Said she was pretty. She went to his house. She had sex with him. The next day, she became the object of a bullying campaign organised by the boy’s girlfriend and her friends. She was beaten up. Called names. Whore. Bitch. Slag. That photo? It continued to circulate, according to the logics of the grab.

Despondent and friendless, Amanda attempted suicide by drinking bleach. By the time she returned from the hospital, people had posted images bleach bottles online, joking that she should have done a better job. On her third attempt, Amanda successfully killed herself, but still attacks continued. Photos of her nude showed up on Facebook pages where people discussed her death. Children continued to joke about how she finally got it right. Don’t want to make things too easy.

Because she was so very young, it makes sense that Amanda died believing there was something about her that was too much, that provoked other people. “I don’t want the attention,” she wrote on one of her cards. “I just feel things so deeply…” My question isn't how a girl like this can be made to feel suicidal. My question is, under these conditions, howany thinking, feeling, empathetic and sexually expressive female wouldn’t feel that way. Some of us thrive in this structure of sexism, some of us survive, and many of us die.

In case you think this is a story about bad choices made in youth, you might be interested to know that in October of 2012, New York City public schools fired a female guidance counsellor who five years prior had told her employers that she had done some lingerie modelling in her past.[18] Now the photos are circulating online, (and her tenure is pending), so they’ve decided to fire her. She’s hired a lawyer, in part because the images circulating on the net are Photoshopped. These are not even photos of her body. Welcome to the rational public sphere.

And now? Recently the Internet group Anonymous announced that they had discovered the identity of the individual who had been blackmailing Amanda online.[19] This story, as well that of the unmasking of the sexist and racist “Reddit troll”, tends to focus on culprits and scapegoats.[20] The problem here is that more women die over ‘pranks’ that ‘ get out of hand’ than they do from solitary psychopaths.

Do women bring negative attention on themselves with their behaviours at times? I suppose I do. I have a freaking Ph.D. and should know better, but I’ve burned entire days wondering whether I’ll ever be normal enough to find a life partner. Sometimes I feel like a failed feminist because I still have trouble believing my best friend when she tells me, “Honey, you are just whelming enough.” Then I think of Amanda, and realise just surviving adolescence means in some ways, I’ve already won.

The halcyon days of Echo might have been full of communicative rationality, but I have to say it: in this day and age, talking about Habermas when discussing ordinary life online feels like a sucker’s game. Amanda’s deeds may have been irrational, but her words were not. She made her videos to share what was happening. She communicated, and to what end?

What’s more, I couldn’t have communicated with Amanda about sexual matters even if I wanted to. Yes, I am an educator, but according to U.S. law, I am not legally entitled to speak about sex online about to a girl under the age of eighteen who is not my child. This rule has been set in motion through a system that treats children as the property of their parents, incarcerates them within the walls of school environments hostile to their safety, and subjects them to the message that their desirability and their rape-ability are linked.

And it’s not just children who are spoken for, rather than with, in the so-called rational public sphere. Remember those women everyone celebrated during Arab Spring? Those Egyptians on the front lines and running the Twitter feeds, communicating with reason for a democratic future? Now they get stopped at borders for hymen checks. I can’t wait until someone markets a full-body scanner just for that job. It seems that around the world, the Internet is helping introduce women to the public sphere, where they are increasingly welcomed — as long as they agree to stay ashamed.

Personally, I’m not sure if I can live entirely without shame. At this point in my life, it feels like a structural element of my writing process — no shame, no gain, so to speak. Contrary to what Dan Savage advocates, I don’t believe “it gets better,” if by it, we mean patriarchy. I do believe it gets different, and there is more room to breathe, when you use communication as a way to push through shame, not to reason, but to find better allies. "Write for the person who agrees with you," a friend once told me. It has probably been the best advice I've ever been given, and it runs counter to nearly everything about Enlightenment discourse I can think.

Write for the people who agree with us. Earlier, I said I was interested in a politics of reflective solidarity. These days, I’m wondering if it isn’t time to start networking that solidarity through subtle co-branding efforts designed to reach audiences we cannot, or are not allowed to speak with directly. For example, while it is true that I’m not legally supposed to speak to young people about sex online, it is also true that social media spaces today are dominated by mechanisms like hash tags, likes, and up-votes designed to connect like-minded people with one another without every introducing them directly. If I believe what I say when I argue the personal is political, why aren’t I spending as much time spreading my thoughts as I spend writing them?

The answer, as usual, is shame. I’m ashamed my actions won’t be seen as acts of solidarity, but as forms of self-promotion, and I’ve studied Internet life way too long to believe all publicity is good publicity. I am an educator in a private university, and I have a public persona to consider. I’m no longer in my twenties (or even thirties), I no longer spend every hour of my day online, and to be perfectly honest, I don’t know if I have the stamina needed to counter public harassment or abuse for my thoughts the way many people I admire online do. These are real worries, and yet, I know for a fact that at times, something I’ve written could have been a lifeline for someone feeling desperately misunderstood, alone, or beleaguered by authorities. I know, because at times in my life, other people’s words worked this way for me.

“That was brave," is a comment I get a fair amount. As if when I write, I'm only writing about myself. I don't think that's true. I have a community online and off, we constitute a materiality, and in this political moment, our views matter. True, we have been bred to be ashamed and afraid, but for those of us who feel ready, the time has come to feel the fear and do it anyway, as the self-help books say. It’s time to spread our thoughts online as if the lives of others depended on them. Because for all we know, it does.

No shame, no gain.



Footnotes

  1. This essay began as a speech delivered to the Association of Internet Researchers Conference in Salford, UK, October of 2012. The language of my title is meant to echo Nancy Fraser’s, “Rethinking the Public Sphere: A Contribution to the Critique of Actually Existing Democracy”, Social Text 25/26 (1990), pp. 56-80 back
  2. Jodi Dean, Solidarity of Strangers: Feminism after Identity Politics, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1996 back
  3. Echo still runs a bare-bones service to this day, and you can still become a member for $15 per month, provided you are comfortable dialling in or using Telnet (no Web interface, still): www.echonyc.com. back
  4. Jürgen Habermas, The structural transformation of the public sphere,  Polity Press, Cambridge, 1989. back
  5. Senft, 1998 back
  6. Bryan Alexander and Debra Deruyver, “Teresa (sic) Senft and Stacy Horn, editors, Sexuality and Cyberspace: Performing the Digital Body (Special issue of Women & Performance: A Journal of Feminist Theory, 1996.)”, Resource Center for Cyberculture Studies, March 1999: http://rccs.usfca.edu/bookinfo.asp?ReviewID=43&BookID=42 back
  7. Thomas J. Scheff, “Shame and Conformity: The Deference Emotion System,” American Sociological Review 53:3 (June 1988), pp. 395-406 back
  8. Theresa Senft, Camgirls: Celebrity & Community in the Age of Social Networks, Peter Lang, Bern, 2008, p. 46 back
  9. Danah Boyd,  “Super Publics,” Apophenia (personal blog), 2006: http://www.zephoria.org/thoughts/archives/2006/03/22/super_publics.html back
  10. Senft, Camgirls, p. 67 back
  11. Nancy Fraser “Rethinking the Public Sphere: A Contribution to the Critique of Actually Existing Democracy,” Social Text 25/26 (1990), pp. 56-80 back
  12. Fraser, pp. 56-80. back
  13. Seyla Benhabib, “The Pariah and Her Shadow: Hannah Arendt’s Biography of Rahel Varnhagen,” Political Theory 23 4 (February 1995), p. 17. back
  14. Michael Warner, “Publics and Counterpublics,” Public Culture 14.1 (2002). back
  15. It is hard to overstate my indebtedness to Jodi Dean here, particularly her 2001 essay, “Cybersalons and Civil Society: Rethinking the Public Sphere in Transnational Technoculture” in Public Culture 13 (2001), pp.243–265. back
  16. For an example of early mainstream media coverage of this story, see Ryan Grenoble, “Amanda Todd: Bullied Canadian Teen Commits Suicide After Prolonged Battle Online And In School.” The Huffington Post (11 October 2012): http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/10/11/amanda-todd-suicide-bullying_n_1959909.html back
  17. Amanda Todd,) “My Story: Struggling, Bullying, Self-Harm, Suicide.” YouTube video (2012): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vOHXGNx-E7E back
  18. Jill Edelman, “Manhattan Guidance Counselor Stripped of Job Over Steamy Photo Past,” New York Post (7 October 2012): http://nypost.com/2012/10/07/manhattan-hs-guidance-counselor-stripped-of-job-over-steamy-photo-past/ back
  19. Patrick McGuire, “Tracing Kody Maxson, the Online Blackmailer Alleged to have Tormented Amanda Todd,” Vice (2012):http://www.vice.com/read/tracing-kody-maxson-the-online-blackmailer-alleged-to-have-tormented-amanda-todd back
  20. Adrien Chen, “Unmasking Reddit's Violentacrez, The Biggest Troll on the Web,” Gawker (12 October 2012)http://gawker.com/5950981/unmasking-reddits-violentacrez-the-biggest-troll-on-the-web back
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