Has the Personal Computer Become the Contemporary Peep Box?
1. A Medium for Satisfying Voyeuristic Desires
The peep show has its origins in the 15th century European invention of a box for viewing pictures through a peep hole. This was called the Peep Box. The practice spread throughout the world in the 19th century, appearing as far afield as China and the Middle East. It was most often used as a means of showing a series of explicit photograph, a machine to peer through a small hole at a series of sexually explicit images. The peep box thus became one form of adult entertainment, along with the strip club or vaudeville sideshow. But unlike these more communal activities, the peep box also offered the users the more private pleasures of withdrawing from the crowd and engaging in a solitary and secretive act of looking.
Around the start of the 20th century the peep box began to disappear, as this space of voyeuristic desire had shifted to the cinema hall. Early cinema up to this point had focused on providing spectacles meant to astound the general public - purely technical feats like trick photography and moving trains.
With the rise of narrative film, however, cinema began to explore the pleasures of secretive scopophilia. In the darkness of the cinema hall the audience could merge their bodies with the characters onscreen, while at the same time maintaining their safe position of invisibility and anonymity. Many critics have written on the connection between film and this type of voyeuristic desire. Laura Mulvey's "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema" (1975) famously argued for the gendered structure of film spectatorship, oriented towards an active male spectator consuming objectified female bodies. But as the title implies, Mulvey's more basic assertion here is the connection between film narrative and scopophilic pleasure.
In the catalogue to the 2002 ZKM exhibition CTRL [Space] Rhetorics of Surveillance from Bentham to Big Brother
, Thomas Y. Levine describes how the camera used to shoot the film combines with the viewed image of one character looking at the body of another, with this displacement satisfying the spectator's voyeuristic desire to merge with the camera.