Men With Modems

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Men With Modems

E-Male: Netscape and the Promise of Homosocial Utopia

In a recent issue of The New Yorker (March 15, 1999), Netscape ran an advertisement that seemingly targets an international, all-male audience. In a series of interlacing photos, a crowd of casually dressed men in a soccer stadium cheers for their team. Their intense, sometimes grim faces illustrate the seriousness of the match and the emotional investment they have in it. In a show of team spirit, a cadre of unidentifiable men lift up an enormous national Eurocup banner (the nationality is also unidentifiable). Unlike the banners and placards occasionally captured by bemused television cameramen during Monday Night Football games in the United States, this one betrays no ironic distance, no self-reflexive gestures. In fact, the banner holders show no interest in being photographed for the media; they wish to be seen by opposing fans, probably across the stadium. Netscape reproduces these soccer photos with the eerie blue and black with which they inscribe their corporate logo. By contrast, in apposite frames, male dancers, naked to the waist, hover in space in their skintights. Reproduced in the black and gray that lies at the bottom of the Netscape logo, these dancers perform a minimalist ballet that emphasizes the natural lines of the male body. There are no props, no sets, no scenic backdrops, nothing to distract the eye from pure male musculature. In addition, both the soccer fans and the ballet dancers evoke a ghostly, denuded performativity, one without the expected furore that accompanies either sports or dance performance–a stadium without noise, a ballet without music. Glossing the photos of both soccer fans and ballet dancers is the advertisement’s headline (with the ubiquitous Netscape logo off to the side): “Bring soccer hooligans and men in tights together in harmony.” Below the photos, the ad-copy, highlighted in white, continues: “Netscape Netcenter is one place on the Internet where all your interests come together.” The implied “harmony” of the side-by-side male figures not so subtly point to two sexual stereotypes that Netscape exploits throughout the advertisement: the hyermasculine heterosexual male body juxtaposed with a highly eroticized, homosexual male body. Netscape hints that their bodies can (and I think the sexual pun is present) “come” together, despite the radically different desires (and markets) that each of these male populations ostensibly represents.

That such extremes might live “together in harmony”–“soccer hooligans,” whose notorious testosterone rushes have frequently led to riotous violence after highly contested soccer matches, and “men in tights,” whose deliberately homoeroticized bodies flout the conventions of the soccer hooligans’ hetero-culture–may seem an idealistic fantasy. That Netscape believes it not only can simultaneously cater to heterosexual and homosexual markets but harmonize radically opposed consumers through the Internet appears even more astonishing (and sinister), for to accomplish this goal Netscape must establish itself as the “one place”–a cyberagora–where one male group does not remain alien to the other, yet where the male body still constitutes the essence of both. In effect, Netscape promises a homosocial utopia from which it will profit by configuring, managing, and replicating an imagined polyerotic, promiscuously dis-seminated male body throughout the Net. By interconnecting its male consumers “from Baltimore to Budapest,” Netscape can then powerfully socialize them into believing that they have transcended the limitations of bodies that inhabit real space in order to embrace a newer, more flexible, cyber-body.

But Netscape’s intentions are far from rhetorical; in fact, Netscape embeds the pleasure principle of the male body within the rigid confines (and conditions) of the ad’s heterosexual and homosexual photocel(l)s. The photos not only indicate the restrictions placed upon the male body as well as how the body manifests its desires publicly, the photos also reify the (false) promise of freedom for the new male cyberbody that will transcend such restrictions and redefine male desire.

Netscape can make this utopian promise to its male subscribers because it manifests itself as a purely dis-embodied location where the male user forgets the unchangeable specifications of his own body, in particular his physical contours and overdetermined sexual proclivities; instead, he accepts the newer version not constrained by any conventional boundaries. Inasmuch as men can exuberantly abandon such corporal (if not corporate) limits through Netscape, it is not coincidental that The New Yorker advertisement fails to reproduce a single ‘whole’ male body, intimating that the male body is malleable, that it can be contorted or refashioned to suit the “interests” of both the Netscape corporation and its consumers. Consequently, the photographs, in a noir evocation of the brutal power of sports and the erotic play of dance, cut up soccer fans and ballet dancers alike, impressing the reader with a melange of limbs twisting through yet suspended in space and deemphasizing their apparent connection to specific bodies, even as they clearly allude to bodily desire.

Despite the apparent symmetry between the “soccer hooligans” and the “men in tights,” Netscape represents them differentially. The “soccer hooligans” remain sports voyeurs, vicariously living out hypermasculine fantasies through the soccer players on the field. Unlike the male dancers, the fans do not perform. But the “men in tights” do dance. The dancers publicly enact their desire, albeit through the screen of women partners. This differential helps to explain why the photographs have been reproduced to resemble bars, metonymically representing the stripes adorning soccer uniforms and the bars guarding prison cells. Thematically, then, the fans watching the soccer game are trapped within a repressed homoeroticism, projecting their love of men through raucous cheering. The battling soccer players, men we do not see yet whose power drives the fans into a state of ecstatic, orgiastic frenzy, become the objects of the fans’ sublimated desire. The fans and the players become each other’s “locus of embodiment” (Elaine Scarry’s term) for their homoerotic propensities because each side performs a socially sanctioned role. 1 The fans enact their homoeroticism by cheering for “their” men while the soccer players may touch one another in full view of “their” fans. The social role of the fan validates the soccer players’ gamesmanship; the social role of the soccer player affirms the identity (however collectively constructed) of the fan.

Yet the dancers, too, are trapped within a bounded format. For example, the central male dancer lifts the androgynous ballerina up, yet he seems to be glancing down (perhaps longingly?) at the young man in the photograph to the left who has lifted up his fist in a defiant, sneering fashion at the opposing team. Imprisoned within his photo cel(l). The dancer cannot break out of his frame and join the other because social and cultural norms proscribe a co-mingling of hetero- and homo- formats; in short, heterosexual and homosexual men cannot inhabit the same geographic space and express at the same time what they both share: a love of men. The heterosexual man can express his love of men through routinized violence against other men; the homosexual man can only express his love of men through artistic self-expression. But neither can publicly formulate that desire. Fear of public exposure forms the basis for their bodily dissimulations and sublimations, and Netscape’s imagined simulacra of those dissimulations and sublimations exploit that fear, transforming Netscape Netcenter into an apparent (and only apparent) refuge from the real, a virtual sanctuary against the social and cultural norms that circumscribe and divide public and private space.

Netscape constructs another differential that would disappear in a homosocial, polyeroticized cyberspace–social class. Though the OED cannot pinpoint an etymological origin, the term ‘hooligan’ implies a hoodlum or street thug, linking the term to criminal violence. 2 Its common application to those of Irish descent resonates strongly with men belonging to a lower social class than the English officers who first called them ‘hooligans’ in their police reports. In other words, these “soccer hooligans” are not only trapped by the rigid parameters of a heterosexist culture that sublimates a sexual love of men into violent sports competition, they are enmeshed (and quite often engaged) in class warfare. The line between riotous cheers and riotous street violence has become increasingly ambiguous. By contrast, homosexual men must display their bodies to a high-brow public that can afford to watch a cultural event like the ballet. Imprisoned on a stage of cultural prostitution, the ballet dancer can only postpone the public’s disapproval of his sexuality; his artistic self-expression cannot weaken or alter the sexual values of the ‘body’ politic. Furthermore, the patrons of the arts and the owners of the sports teams reinforce class and sexual difference by suppressing intimacy between heterosexual and homosexual men by corralling the “soccer hooligans” and the “men in tights” into their respective prisons–the soccer fans in stadiums, the ballet dancers in performance halls– and forcing them to fulfill the social expectations that impinge upon the activities of their bodies. The bodies of both heterosexual and homosexual men become pawns to a social, cultural, and political status quo. This is not to say that there are no gay men in the soccer stadium or straight ballet dancers on the stage. Far from it. Rather, the public display of men loving men has been ruthlessly submerged, either into an ideology of hypermasculine sports competition or an aestheticized ideology of artistic expression.

And, at first, Netscape’s utopian vision of male togetherness through a polyerotic cyberbody seems to solve the problem of the sex and sexuality of men in real space because the conventions by which men traditionally relate to one another have been obliterated. “Soccer hooligans” and “men in tights” can log onto Netscape Netcenter without revealing their ‘real’ differences. They can hyperlink “in harmony.” Ironically, however, Netscape’s avid pursuit of male subscribers not only fails to broaden the definitions of sex and sexuality that would guarantee such “harmony” within Netscape’s promised cybertopia, its obsession actually transforms men into pornographic objects, for the imagined polyerotic cyberbody reifies the market logics that drive Netscape’s advertisement. Whereas the photograph absolutely separates the public and private spaces for and expressions of sex and sexuality, Netscape’s advertisement conflates them, making the utopian virtual body pornographic. With the language of desire, Netscape allures its male subscribers, suggestively urging them to “head out into unexplored territory” and seize the objects of their various affections: “Where you get all the tools you need to do all the things you want online” and “From news to stocks to weather, you’ll always get what you want, the way you want it.” Netscape promises efficacious (phallic) “tools” so that men can seemingly navigate Netscape’s “unexplored” territory and map it, colonize it, fashion it after their will. This mapping, however, does not result in masculine liberation from the rigidities of the bodily real, but an inscription of new codes and restrictions that primarily serve to construct the new male body (this time a virtual one) within the market logics. These logics exist prior to this virtual colonization, and thus they function as what Baudrillard has called the “precession of the simulacra” (2). Even as it promises utopian freedom, Netscape disguises this “precession” in order to successfully manage male desire on the Web, networking and systematizing virtual male bodies within the burgeoning field of transnational capital. The “soccer hooligans” and “men in tights” become ‘pornographs’ of Netscape’s promised homosocial utopia. Their imagined polyerotic transformations within Netscape’s Netcenter are finally diminished to promiscuous simulations within “transborder data flows [which] have become increasingly central to the international business operations of transnational corporations” (Schoonmaker, 173).

Men with modems may have the illusion of privacy and freedom as they migrate through public space with their imagined virtual bodies, bodies that supposedly have shed the hetero/homo duality. But Netscape’s advertisement reduces them into depersonalized datastreams; the utopian “harmony” ironically depends upon the dissolution of the real, private body and the construction of a virtual, public one that Netscape can contort, deform, and manipulate. For Baudrillard, the loss of those private figurations and private spaces constitutes the pornographic, with the result that Netscape’s homosocial engineering lapses into the “plethoric” and the hypertrophic” (Baudrillard, “Fatal Strategies,” 186). 3 In effect, Netscape may promise a utopian release from socially constructed versions of the real male body, ’em-bodied’ in the photos of “soccer hooligans” and “men in tights,” but it delivers a virtual body that only manages to reify corporate business practices that “come together” in an orgy of buying, selling, and “customizing” the male body. As Netscape’s ad-copy coyly concludes: “And isn’t that what the Internet is supposed to be about?”

Notes

1. In her book Resisting Representation, Elaine Scarry speaks of television and magazine advertisements that deliberately “speak about the problematic contingencies of the body (aches, pains, stiffness, physical discomfort) without representing the human body itself” (27). Because there is no “locus of embodiment,” companies can disguise the fact that real bodies have real pain. One can easily apply Scarry’s realization to pleasure as well as pain. Advertisers may well want to diguise the real sources of pleasure, just as they wish to hid the real sources of pain. Consumers find such reality uncomfortable, discouraging them from purchasing the product.

2. The Compact Oxford English Dictionary reports: “The word hooligan first appears in print in daily newspaper police-court reports in the summer of 1898. Several accounts of the rise of the word, purporting to be based on firs-hand evidence, attribute it to a misunderstanding or a perversion of Hooley or Hooley’s Gang, but no positive confirmation of this has been discovered” (783).

3. For an excellent discussion of Baudrillard’s notion of the pornographic, as well as his relationship to Frederic Jameson, see Allison Fraiberg’s essay, “Of AIDS, Vyborgs, and Other Indiscretions: Resurfacing the Body in the Postmodern.” Postmodern Culture 1 (3). May 1991.

Works Cited

Baudrillard, Jean. “Fatal Strategies.” Selected Writings. Ed. Mark Poster. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1985: 185-206.

—-. “The Precession of the Simulacra.” Simulations. Trans. Paul Foss, Paul Patton, and Philip Beitchman. Semiotext[e] 1983: 1-79.

“Bring Soccer Hooligans and Men in Tights Together in Harmony.” Advertisement for Netscape. The New Yorker. 15 March 1999: 11.

Fraiberg, Allison. “Of AIDS, Vyborgs, and Other Indiscretions: Resurfacing the Body in the Postmodern.” Postmodern Culture 1 (3). May 1991.

Scarry, Elaine. Resisting Representation. New York, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994.

Schoonmaker, Sara. “Capitalism and the Code: A Critique of Baudrillard’s Third Order Simulacrum.” Baudrillard: A Critical Reader. Ed. Douglas Kellner. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1995 (1994): 168-188.

The Compact Oxford English Dictionary. Second Edition. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1994 (1991).

Jeffrey Cass is an Associate Professor of English at Texas A & M International University. He specializes in nineteenth-century women’s fiction and twentieth-century popular culture. He recently published an essay on Paul Verhoeven’s film Starship Troopers (Studies in Popular Culture).