In “Windows: Of Vulnerability,” Thomas Keenan examines the role of windows in society and in the face of new media. Windows (or at least the metaphor of windows) are found frequently in modern technology; pages on the Internet, TV screens, and webcams and global news streams all make use of the “window.” Keenan discusses the architectural functions and aesthetics of windows in order to relate the physical window to the figurative window. Windows are two-way ports that act as both boundaries and openings between different domains (such as public and private) while also being both viewpoints to the outside and gateways to the inside.
When thinking about windows, most people only consider them as apertures for looking outside. They forget about the important function of a window that is to let light in so that vision is even possible. This is one of the ways in which windows allow for communication between two parties. Information, or “light,” enters from one side and lets the other side “see” their partner’s (or opponent’s) point of view or message, then in return they can “illuminate” the opposite side. This idea of connection via the window is important as our society becomes less about face-to-face and more about screen-to-screen (examples being Skype, text-messaging, and AIM).
Keenan argues that one of the main functions of windows is “the more violent opening of the distinction between inside and outside, private and public, self and other” (124). Windows are the breaches between different spheres in society, like the "self" and the "other". By opening a window, you are putting yourself at risk by exposing what you understand to be the essential uniqueness of you to the outside, the different. But it is through this interaction with others that people reaffirm their humanity and who they are. Although the window “tears a hole in…the protective covering of the private person” (126), it is also how people come to see themselves in relation to others and better envision their place in the world (this is the driving force behind social networking sites such as Facebook and Myspace).
The other two societal distinctions that are brought together because of windows are the public and the private. The traditional image of “public” is that which is outside, open, and shared amongst everyone, while “private” is inside, closed, secret, and hidden. Windows represent the “erosion of the security of the private sphere” (135). The “windows” presented by new media completely mix the two by making what were once personal knowledge and feelings available to basically anyone who looks for it. Very little information is sacred anymore due to the expansion of windows, both digital and actual, in our culture. These windows are both access points for viewing the outside and intrusions into the privacy of the home; they are “facilitating the arrival of the image and the other,” (130) or in other words, allowing the public to invade the private and the two to irrevocably mix. However, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The greater sharing of ideas and data relates to a more democratic system of exchange and could be indicative of a democratic shift in our society.
Keenan’s theory about windows and politics is that depending on your position relative to the window, you change from being a public subject to a private one. He says, “Behind [the window], in the privacy of the home or office…the individual is a knowing- that is, seeing, theorizing- subject. In front if it, the subject assumes public rights and responsibilities, appears, acts, intervenes in the sphere it shares with other subjects” (132). In Liz Canner’s “Symphony of a City,” one of the subjects that wears her camera is a prominent businessman and politician, Alan D. Solomontis. His experience with her project is much different than say, the homeless man’s experience. Solomontis is someone whose character and life are probably presented to the public in a very specific way, to create a certain image of him in the eyes of consumers and voters. He is used to the separation of private and public. The sudden opening of this window onto his world is a frightening thing, because now he is much more exposed to the public than he had ever been, even though he must be accustomed to being on display and addressing large groups of people. This project breaks down the barriers between Keenan’s behind the window/in front of the window dichotomy and destroys the “variable status as public or private individual” (132).
While “Symphony of a City” is ambitious in sharing the everyday lives of people with the public, the windows it provides are not as complete as Keenan’s windows of vulnerability. Since the camera shows basically what the person is looking at, certain aspects are lost. The viewer never sees the actual person (except maybe in a mirror) so the person’s appearance, facial expressions, body language, etc. aren’t factored into the picture of his/her daily life. These are important features that help illuminate other’s opinion of the “self” and supply a link into the person’s private thoughts. That is another thing missing, the interior of the person’s mind, which is something we can catch a glimpse of from his/her words but can’t really see like you could from blogs and social networking sites. The “exposure to the light” that Liz Canner intends for these people is really only the revelation of their sight.
To conclude, this painting by Rene Magritte sums up the questions of Keenan’s argument.
Is a window inside or outside? What boundaries does it break/create? Does what it shows reflect reality? Can we be sure?