Public Privacy

Wayne Huang

With the Internet enabling voyeurs and exhibitionists to indulge in their mutual delights with complete anonymity, Shelley Jackson's piece, My Body, comes off as voyeuristic and exhibitionistic, but not in the traditional senses of these words. Like a voyeur, visitors of the site can see Jackson's "body" without her knowledge, undressing her with a simple click of the mouse and gaining intimate knowledge of her experiences with her body. Like an exhibitionist, Jackson can expose her body for all the world to see, albeit without complete anonymity.

Perhaps it is a funny coincidence that her first name is eponymous with the last name of Mary Shelley, the author of Frankenstein, because Jackson connects the various parts of her body with as many links as the Frankenstein monster was connected with sutures. She even refers to herself as not that far off from appearing like the Frankenstein monster or a hermaphrodite.

In my mind's eye I was a leering giant, gesticulating and capering around the little people, making them laugh, just one jot off a Frankenstein monster. My parts didn't match; I couldn't even make them move smoothly together when I thought I was being watched. I scrutinized myself in the shop windows on my way home from school and cringed at my hustle, the way my butt stuck out so I could take big steps, the way my jeans strained over my thighs, the funny bulge someone might take for a penis where my jeans bunched up in front.
However, Shelley's work was fictional, but Shelley Jackson's work appears ambiguous because we have no visual verification of her body as we do with a real exhibitionist. What we get instead is Jackson's drawings of her body and textual claims.

For example, Jackson says that she has a tail, known for violating herself when she's asleep and also involved in a "lesbian" experience. This claim is harder to accept because the stories and experiences surrounding the other parts of her body are believable or seem so. Can we accept her stories of her childhood and this jarring detail about her body? Even more unbelievable is her "phantom limb," a mischievous little member, more so than a penis.

However, some of her experiences are perhaps better left private, like some parts of the body, but this would violate the instincts of an exhibitionist. On the other hand, a voyeur does not get excited if he or she sees something that is public because there is no challenge. Jackson solves this problem with her interface: The viewer has to click on a server-side imagemap, so he or she cannot see if there is a real link from a position on the image until it is actually clicked and the viewer can only see some parts of the website if he or she clicks on a link from within one of the documents linked from the main interface. This provides a challenge to the viewer to see every detail of Jackson's body and returns the thrill to the voyeurs among us.

Jackson's work reinforces the idea that you can pretend to be whatever you want on the web due to its complete anonymity and its lack of verification. I will never know if she really has a tail or not, or whether the experiences she relates are true. So even if she tells the world her most intimate secrets, she will never be able to violate her own privacy completely because of the ambiguity involved on the web. Thus, she can never be a true exhibitionist and we can never be true voyeurs.

Discussion of Patchwork Girl Patchwork Girl Overview Screen for Website Body and Self