Television’s New Publics and Privates: From Mobile Privatization to Trans-Spatial Publicity?

Curator's Note

Ads for emerging technologies often trade in utopian rhetorics when reaching out to audiences. Consumers are courted via fantasies of space; ads for a variety of products proffer notions of “gadget-enabled mobility” that promise the merging of spaces for the purposes of publicness. I unpack one example here in order to nuance recent scholarship on television in the age of digital. Raymond Williams coined the term “mobile privatization” to describe the paradox of modernity in which he saw subjects as increasingly mobile in societies that valued home-centered living. He named television as a primary site for this paradox’s negotiation, providing users a “window on the world” with the comfort of privacy. In her analysis of 1960s advertisements promoting portable television sets, Lynn Spigel uses “privatized mobility” to describe how they promised new experiences with the medium, as if it was “a mode of transport in and of itself that allowed people to take private life outdoors.” This concept has, in turn, informed much scholarship on small screen technology like iPods and cellphones. Yet scholars like Anna McCarthy and Marsha Cassidy have charged that media scholarship is too often predicated on a “privatization thesis” that elides the often public uses of and pleasures in visual media. When considering things like reality programming and YouTube, it seems that many of the pleasures of visual media in the digital age might even be categorized as exhibitionist, even “hyperpublic”. Unreflexive deployment of “public” and “private” in scholarship on TV in the digital age can reify the gendered, raced, and classed assumptions that so frequently attend technology and the exclusionary suppositions that have, for centuries, characterized the public sphere. Under what circumstances are users considered “public”? What kinds of content is deemed “private,” and by whom? These are ideological questions central to the study of media and culture, and they’re deeply imbricated in larger matrices of knowledge and power, and desire and identity. Even though developments in technologies and cultural practices have complicated what we mean when we say “television,” the critical apparatuses scholars use to study these things can occlude some of the political questions endemic to these developments. Television in the age of the internet involves a wide array of texts, technologies, and experiences—scholarship on the medium needs more reflexivity as to the ways in which these things traverse that long irksome public/private binary. I want to raise the possibility that “trans-spatial publicity” is not necessarily a better term, but an additional frame that can help unpack the fantasies of connectivity and publicness in marketing media to various publics. This advertisement promotes a media service to queer publics promising, quite clearly, little in the way of privacy but several fantasies of publicness. Here, webcams are devices that link consumption to mobility, interpersonal connection, and sexual publicness. Tellingly, by illustrating how users can consume in these highly public ways, the ad engages in some problematic politics regarding the inclusion and exclusion of both certain users and various texts/practices. Alas, the more things change, the more they stay the same.


Hollis, I appreciate your desire to problematize (or replace) Williams' theorization of "mobile privatization." As you point out, Williams' thesis described a particular mode of television viewing in a particular historical context. But mobile privatization, as you point out, obscures particular modes of viewing. I also think it's incredibly difficult to talk about portable technologies such as the iPod, since the term tends to obscure just as much as it clarifies. I also like the term trans-spatial publicity, but I'm wondering if it also privileges space at the expense of time. What your example seems to do, in a way that online dating sites and social networking sites often don't, is to privilege a simultaneity of experience. Sure, the webcam is involved, but it's the immediacy (or hypermediacy) of the experience - knowing that the chat and the images are being streamed in real time - that the site is marketing.

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