The Sociological Quarterly, Volume 43, Number 3, pages 439-445.
We appreciate the suggestions Keith Bybee Douglas Goodman, Karen McCormack, and Joseph Swingle provided on these brief comments.
University of Massachusetts at Boston
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
(Direct all correspondence to: James Willis, Department of Sociology, University of Massachusetts at Boston, 100 Morrissey Boulevard, Boston, MA 02125-3393. E-mail: email@example.com).
There is much to admire about Thomas Voire. At a time when many contemporary observers express concern about increasing crime rates, an economic downturn, xenophobia, and political apathy, Tom is presented as a law-abiding and hard-working citizen. We do not use the word “citizen” lightly. Born in 1966, Tom has lived peaceably, stayed gainfully employed, served his country, explored non-U.S. cultures in libraries and museums, and, most laudably, demonstrated a willingness to articulate and defend nationally cherished and constitutionally protected personal freedoms. In Thomas Voire, Gary T. Marx provides us with an archetype of the postmodern democratic man--educated, tolerant, worldly, and a staunch believer in equality under the law.
Tom is a product of much that is good about a nation devoted to preserving and enhancing individual liberties. The fact that Tom is a voyeur who collects personal data on unsuspecting women, tapes his consensual sexual relations with them, and spies while they disrobe does not challenge or undermine the nation's or Tom's foundational principles--it merely extends them. Marx shows how mass media and visual and communication technologies, omnipresent elements of postmodernity, 1. have constructed a fragmented and alienated self. Tom is a contemporary everyman whose freedom to engage in voyeurism represents the triumph of universal, abstract individual rights over the particular, real-life social relationships that constitute his actions as harmful. He is entirely dependent on collective discursive and material practices, yet denies his interdependence through the invocation of a radical individualism. 2.
ready access to the enabling tools--remote cameras, hidden microphones, the
World Wide Web, and personal computers--Tom can live independently from others
yet enjoy as much of others as he desires.
occupies a moral and legal safe house. By appealing to both contemporary
discourses of freedom and individualism and traditional ideals of equality
under law, he tries to persuade us that his private fantasy
harms nobody and is perfectly legal. Tom's actions are mediated
through electronic artifice and protected by the law in its "majestic
equality." It is a world without obligation or constraint to the degree
that reciprocity is mechanical and transactions are virtual. Isolated in his
electronic anonymity, he can focus on his personal feelings--his only sensate
experience--and reasonably disassociate his actions from understandings of power,
gender, and privacy that suffuse everyday interactions. Without a social
context to define and provide meaning, Tom has no sense of the harm that his
actions cause. In denying the consequences of his behavior, Tom
is appealing to one of law's grandest principles--it
applies universally. Just as the law claims to disengage itself from context,
history, and intersubjective connections, Tom's virtual world is similarly
disconnected from everyday life. If "the rich and poor alike are
forbidden to sleep under the bridges of the Seine,
presents Tom’s history of sexual dysfunction and voyeurism as a fictional
clinical case study. Early on, we find out that for the first seven years of his
life Tom was entombed in a body cast, the result of a rare bone disorder.
Rendered immobile and interactionally isolated, Tom observed life by reading
comic books, watching television, eavesdropping on family members, and aiming
his boy’s telescope at neighbors’ apartments and windows. At twenty he joined
the military but was discharged when the Navy, unable to locate his records,
accessed his Internet account and discovered that he had listed his marital
status as gay. Later we learn that his therapist suggested that he record his
sexual encounters to improve his technique. While applying this advice, Tom
quickly develops his fascination for secretly videotaping women. (Due to
feelings of embarrassment and a fear of rejection, Tom ignores his psychiatrist’s
advice to seek permission.) When he is
eventually discovered, he promises his partner that nobody else would ever see
to mail unsuspecting women letters requesting companionship. (He argues that by
honing his computer skills and fostering community he was rehabilitating
himself.) Before the file’s end, we
read that Tom has achieved his ultimate fantasy. He has fabricated a long-term
relationship with a woman he has technologically composed through pictures
(video camera, electronic scanning), sounds (laser listening device, answering
machine, speech synthesizer), life-size mannequins (3-D computer modeling), and
personal identifying information (public records, databases, trash receptacles)
abstracted from the visual, oral, and documentary representations of a real
woman he has never actually met. Collecting detailed and intimate knowledge of
his “girlfriend’s” apartment, work, friends, thoughts, and habits, his virtual
relationship is testimony to his technological wizardry and sociopathic
In therapy, Tom’s imagination is ignited and his narcissism exacerbated when his psychiatrist’s recommendation leads him to tape his own sexual encounters. Despite a cursory nod to obtaining consent, the therapist ultimately encourages Tom to focus on his own self-development, rather than the consequences of his actions. Tom does not regard his voyeurism as destructive because he considers himself to be a moral individual who intends no harm. At this point, therapy as an exploration of oneself, one's desires and emotions, becomes a metaphor for an ethic of intentions. Object(ive) relations become submerged within a totalizing emotional and moral subjectivity. Rather than bridge the distance between self and other, Tom erases the distance in a world of nonintersecting selves imagined as sets of internalized systems of neuroaesthetic signals (i.e., feelings). According to Tom, if women are put off by his behavior and “feel badly,” then they must deal with their feelings rather than use him as a scapegoat. Both Tom and his therapist elevate his individual needs and desires over any explanation of the social conditions that encourage voyeurism. Furthermore, the fact that Tom’s peeping destroys the trust indispensable for making and sustaining social relationships is never addressed.
justification for examining Tom’s file, counseling him as a patient, and
monitoring him in the workplace rests on our professional authority. As
experts, we appeal to higher purposes for reading Tom’s confidential medical
records because, after all, by examining his file without his permission we are
violating the same privacy rights that Tom’s disturbing behavior compels us to
defend. As therapists we are attempting to change Tom’s behavior; as employers
we are using video monitoring to watch and regulate his behavior to improve
employment conditions. Unfortunately,
our knee-jerk fears of the repressive effects of power and knowledge prevent us
from explicitly recognizing the social context of these unequal relationships
By failing to explain to Tom how we are using our socially constructed
authority to invade his privacy, it is understandable that he is confused about
why his actions are deemed more harmful than ours. He may be
an employee and a patient, but how does that justify our invasions of his privacy? By failing to
come up with any explanation for why
some types of secret surveillance are preferable to others, we are effacing the
distinction between invasions of privacy for purposes of social control and
medical treatment and invasions of privacy for sheer self-gratification. His argument that as a “professional”
security guard his action is similar to a male doctor watching a female patient
allows Tom to exploit the postmodern sensibilities of a self-centered culture.
He is not guilty of peeping. He is the real victim.
But Marx exposes the frailty of our moral claims.
For one thing, as a society, we are responsible for creating “Peeping
Tom,” especially those of us with professional and technical expertise that has been fashioning this “open” egalitarian society, a world where all
distinctions (of social status, of truth, of gender, of
subjectivity/objectivity) are elided and commodified for profit taking. Tom is a utilitarian consumer of the popular
market as well as a good student of our expert knowledge. He
broadens his knowledge of surveillance techniques in mainstream institutions
(the military, jail, and college) rather than in extremist survivalist groups
or illicit chat rooms. Tom’s
voyeuristic tendencies are nurtured by
ubiquitous mainstream media (e.g.
'reality'“” television) that blur the
distinction between fact and fiction. He
relies on the pop psychology of supermarket magazines to reason that his
leering at young women fulfills their need to feel attractive and better about
themselves. The line dividing unwanted and threatening sexual attention from
harmless flirting is as unclear to Tom as the difference between supermarket
tabloids and college classrooms. Thus, Tom learns to articulate antisocial
reasons for his behavior while taking college-level courses in criminal justice
and women’s studies. He explains that he was in the department store
video-monitoring room while conducting research for a paper on shoplifting
(personal edification). Referencing a phrase he encountered in his women’s
studies class, he argues that he was not “cowardly or exploitative” because he
was not gaining any sexual gratification from his voyeurism
We want to
protest (surely Tom’s actions are more deplorable than ours?), but Marx
suddenly startles us with a
thunderclap. Perhaps there is no
distinction between our surveillance of Tom and his voyeurism. No matter how
laudable our reasons, our actions constitute an invasion of privacy and are
equally destructive in their cumulative effects. Marx’s critique of the
conditions that elevate the individual over the social remain, but he also
troubles our understanding of social context. Is it sufficient? Might not our
critical self-reflexive practices, operationalized through the ethical
procedures for engaged consensual research, provide a ground of differentiation
between Tom and ourselves? Does an awareness of the fuzzy boundary between self
and a sensitivity to the authority and power of professional knowledge help us
monitor and hopefully contain the possible violence and coercive tendencies of
our own research? And might not our research surveillance expose relationship of
inequality and subordination whose otherwise relative invisibility helps sustain a kind of sacrifical
positioning in the collective social structure.
seems to suggest
that perhaps an understanding of social context does not provide us with
sufficient means for evaluating social or legal harm. If social meaning varies,
depending on who acts, against whom, at what time, and whereabouts, there are
no universal standards for evaluating behavior or intentions. Marx demonstrates this limitation by showing
how socially constructed rules and meanings impact differentially on men and
women. For example, Tom complains that female correctional officers are able to
watch him dress, shower, and use the bathroom, but female inmates are not
subjected to the same humiliation since male guards cannot conduct similar
surveillance in women’s prisons. He argues that this violates his right to
practice Christian modesty, and is also an example of employment discrimination
based upon gender. It is, of course, possible to argue that this unequal
treatment is reasonable given that women have been, and continue to be,
disproportionately victimized by men. Nevertheless, this does not provide a
particularly clear and consistent refutation of Tom’s argument. Isn’t it
possible that Tom feels unfairly victimized and debased in this situation? Why
does gender trump Tom’s freedom to exercise his religious beliefs? To make such
an argument--about the weight of historic discrimination and
subordination--requires an abandonment of that cherished legal equality.
Moreover, it would require some notion of aggregate effects that modern society
is unable to grasp epistemologically and morally. The therapists, lawyers,
workers are unable to explain to Tom why he
cannot do to women what they can do to him because at the heart of modernity is a political, moral, and
philosophical reductionism (individual freedom, equality, subjectivity) that
has not yet found the grounds to explain or justify human aggregation or social
that laws are too general and social norms too capricious for defining and
preventing antisocial behavior, just as they are inadequate for explaining and
justifying sociality. They fail to
provide rational, defensible, and consistent criteria for condemning (and hence
discouraging) actions that are destructive on both individual and social
levels. Perhaps the impossible
justificatory burden derives from the desire for consistent criteria. Perhaps the seductive qualities of
increasingly sophisticated technologies render us insufficiently pragmatic in
the face of technologies’ instrumental, positivistic epistemologies. Here, Marx
suggests that perhaps sociology can help us resolve this conundrum by more
clearly establishing the nature of the relationship between society and self,
by creating the bridge that Tom Voire denies. Marx
valorizes C. Wright
claim for the sociological imagination: to connect biography and history.
Marx has already laid this foundation by introducing us to Cooley’s observation that part of our sense of self is constructed through interactions with other people. Unfortunately, Tom has already used this knowledge, gleaned from a social psychology class, to his advantage. When Tom argued that by staring at attractive women he was helping them feel good about themselves, he was relying on Cooley’s concept of the “looking-glass self.” It is only when Tom reads a copy of Erving Goffman’s The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life that Tom reassesses his behavior and seeks therapy. In acknowledging the effect of Goffman’s rather profound concept of the performed self, Marx suddenly reveals a compelling sociological argument for why invasions of privacy are invidious and, more generally, for why the surveillance society is no society at all. Even though a sense of self does rely on the perceptions of others, taken out of context, off the stage of ongoing social transactions, the looking-glass self can be interpreted in a reductionist manner. This is exemplified by the solipsism of Tom Voire. By looking at the surface, or only the image in the glass, Tom fails to understand the importance of preserving the individual self’s personal borders and back-stage regions from assault. If these are invaded, social relationships and appreciative illusions, in our own eyes and the eyes of other people, can no longer be sustained.
provides Marx with his critical wedge against epistemological and moral
nihilism. Tom is irretrievably split between his surface, front-stage behavior
and his back-stage subjectivity. He is unable to bridge these seemingly bounded
terrains perhaps because the same "positivistic" 3. and reductionist logic that justifies formal legal
equality in the face of social inequality ("The rich and poor alike are
prohibited from sleeping under the bridges of the Seine") also produces the abundant
technological marvels that populate the material front stage of Tom's life.
From this individuated reductionist logic, there is no need to consider how
front and back stage are related. At the same time, we note that Tom is not
insensitive to the power of internalized subjectivity, the back stage of desire
and need, an immaterial although equally real world to his front stage of
technological wizardry. Moreover Marx describes the transactions across
these terrains for Tom-- -his
desires propel his technological mastery and his technological mastery
satisfies his emotional needs. Despite the permeability and exchanges across
these terrains, however, the discourses Voire mobilizes (individualistic
psychology, legal rationalism, consumer utility, freedom, equality) do not,
until he encounters Goffman, explain the mutual constitution of the front and
back stages. Without Goffman's recognition and explication of the intimate
connection between subjectivity and performance, Tom, like many postmodern
selves, remains fragmented, unmoored, and alone (with his virtual girlfriend).
invocation of Goffman’s sociology as a framework for overcoming both empiricist
reductionism and affective solipsism, Marx offers us grounds for moral judgment
as well as epistemological critique. In recognizing that these personal, yet
socially constructed, boundaries are sacred and central to human dignity, Marx
circumvents the failure of moral relativism and identity politics to protect
our right to privacy. He replaces the unfair outcomes of discriminatory laws
and inconsistent social meanings with the universal principle of the performed
self. It is the application of this
standard that protects Tom’s right to maintain personal fantasies and,
simultaneously, provides us with reasonable, equitable, and defensible criteria
to judge when his actions constitute an invasion of privacy. Tom’s actions are
reprehensible when his imaginary world depends on his violation of another
personal borders. Similarly our
actions, if nonconsensual and unreflexive, are indefensible when we violate his.
Goffman. Erving. 1959. The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. New York: Doubleday
Marx, Karl.  1978. “On the Jewish Question.” Pp. 26-52 in The Marx-Engels Reader, edited by Robert C. Tucker. 2nd ed. New York: W. W. Norton and Company.
Sutton, John. 2001. Law/Society: Origins, Interactions, and Change. Thousand Oaks, CA.: Pine Forge Press.
James Willis is an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Massachusetts at Boston. His primary research interests are in the area of social control, more specifically, policing and punishment. Currently he is working on an NIJ-funded project examining COMPSTAT in American policing. His other research focuses on examining penal change from an historical and cultural perspective.
Susan Silbey is professor of sociology and anthropology at M.I.T. She has written extensively about the role of law in popular culture, alternatives to law and litigation, and the regulation of business. She is currently engaged in a study of the role of law in expert communities, specifically, the ways in which environmental and health regulations affect research practices in scientific laboratories.
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