What classic voyeurism is is espial, i.e. watching people who don’t know you’re there as those people go about the mundane but erotically charged little businesses of private life. It’s interesting that so much classic voyeurism involves media of framed glass—windows, telescopes, etc. Maybe the framed glass is why the analogy to television is so tempting. But TV-watching is different from genuine Peeping-Tomism. Because the people we’re watching through TV’s framed-glass screen are not really ignorant of the fact that somebody is watching them. In fact a whole lot of somebodies. In fact the people on television know that it is by virtue of this truly huge crowd of ogling somebodies that they are on the screen engaging in broad non-mundane gestures at all. Television does not afford true espial because television is performance, spectacle, which by definition requires watchers. We’re not voyeurs here at all. We’re just viewers. We are the Audience, megametrically many, though most often we watch alone: E Unibus Pluram….
For Emerson, only a certain very rare species of person is fit to stand this gaze of millions. It is not your normal, hardworking, quietly desperate species of American. The man who can stand the megagaze is a walking imago, a certain type of transcendent semihuman who, in Emerson’s phrase, “carries the holiday in his eye.” The Emersonian holiday that television actors’ eyes carry is the promise of a vacation from human self-consciousness. Not worrying about how you come across. A total unallergy to gazes. It is contemporarily heroic. It is frightening and strong. It is also, of course, an act, for you have to be just abnormally self-conscious and self-controlled to appear unwatched before cameras and lenses and men with clipboards. This self-conscious appearance of unself-consciousness is the real door to TV’s whole mirror-hall of illusions, and for us, the Audience, it is both medicine and poison.