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Dissertation

Dissertation Abstract | Defense Remarks | Synopsis

I defended my Ph.D. dissertation in October of 2004, under the direction of Dr. Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett at NYU's Department of Performance Studies. The title of the dissertation is Camgirls: Webcams, LiveJournals and the Personal as Political in the age of the Global Brand.This manuscript will be published as part of Peter Lang's Digital Formation series (Steve Jones, ed.) in 2005. For review copies of the book, please contact me email at terri.senft@nyu.edu

Dissertation Abstract

This dissertation is a critical and ethnographic study of camgirls: women who use webcams and interactive journals for autobiographical purposes over the Internet. While conducting this research, the author also lived as a camgirl herself. The dissertation's over-arching question is, "What does it mean for feminists to speak about the personal as political in a networked society that simultaneously encourages women to 'represent' through confession, celebrity and sexual display, and punishes too much visibility with conservative censure and backlash?"

The camgirl phenomenon is sometimes described as a new form of "mediated voyeurism," a term that depends on cinematic gaze theory as its reference point. Yet on the Web, the term grab (with all of its connections to temporality, embodiment, power and politics) more accurately describes the dynamics of spectatorship and participation. In a psychoanalytic sense, Web grabbing represents not voyeurism, but commodity fetishism with its attendant click-and-surf compulsion to "shop for truth." On the surface, it would seem that camgirls enable this compulsion, serving as brands capable of pleasing all viewers all the time. Yet the many-to-many nature of the Web communication quickly forces camgirls into the dynamic of micro-celebrity, which depends on connection to, rather than separation from viewers. These connections lead to moments of tele-ethicality (decisions to risk engagement in social contracts with people who may or may not be true, or even real, over one's networks) and sometimes, networked reflective solidarity (a commitment to use networks in order to seek out others who may not yet acknowledge themselves as connected to our communities.)

In an age when pundits warn about spectator numbness in the face of mass-mediated global suffering, this dissertation argues that "impossibly intimate, necessarily distant" camgirls can teach feminists lessons about reaching its forgotten cyborgs: migrant female laborers who work in front of our in-home cameras as nannies and elder-care givers; women virtually lionized in literature as 'mad' but shunned in everyday life as 'crazy'; and women virtualized through the language of exhibitionism and voyeurism because they happen to stand on brink of public and private space in our society.

Dissertation Defense & Synopsis

Click here to read my dissertation defense opening remarks (which describe how I came to this topic, what I tried to do, what I think I contributed to my field, and where I'd like to go from here.)

Click here to see a chapter-by-chapter synopsis of the dissertation.

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