‘you want to see, but not to feel’
Henry James, The Portrait of a Lady (1880-81)
What does my dissertation topic and current celebrity gossip have in common? Aside from despair and the need to make tenuous links, it’s women. Naked women to be precise. One strand of research I’m chasing is the bright idea of the stereoscope industry to use nude and erotic images of women at the end of the nineteenth century to make more money. The stereoscope was a kind of goggle/box you could peer through with a different image in each lens, fusing together to create one 3-D scene. They were wildly popular, offering spectators an intimate glimpse for an economic exchange.
So what? I hear you and my dissertation supervisor call. The particular story that I’ve been unable to avoid in my procrastination in the last twenty-four hours is the shambolic ramblings of Rob Kardashian on social media. For those of you luckily not in-the-know, one of the Kardashian clan went on an all out rampage against his ex-fiancé, Blac Chyna. He filled his Instagram and twitter accounts with explicit, once private photos of Chyna amidst a flurry of accusations and baying observers.
Besides the fact that Rob committed a criminal act – revenge porn is a crime in California – the proliferation of the images in the media and web is an unsettling, age old tale. The voyeuristic possibilities of the internet were exploited by Rob to slut-shame the mother of his child, in the full knowledge that these intimate photos would be impossible to retrieve.
These images survive. They damage lives. The proliferation of revenge porn is shocking in all levels of society. Schools, colleges, universities and even the workplace are hotbeds for this violating act. A moment of intimacy hurtled through wires all over the world translates to pixels filling the screens of onlookers, at the expense of an individual’s privacy.
Sex sells. It always has. The stereoscope industry wasn’t the first to figure this out and it was undeniably the last. However, the images which have survived from what might appear a curious nineteenth century quirk confirm that privacy can be bought, exchanged and commodified.
We might not view our media through stereoscopes anymore, physical photographs are few and far between but the fact remains that these images persist. The element of trust in such exchanges of intimacy, once damaged, will always be lost.