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    husband, dad, teacher, filmmaker, writer, film geek, musician, DIYer, vegetarian, Bulldog, Buckeye, Nighthawk

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Lindsay Lohan: Star of the Synopticon

Lindsay Lohan’s career is, well, barely existent at this point. The little girl once hailed as the most promising actress of her generation has crashed and burned in legendary fashion, and continues the slimy slide into self-destruction at this very moment. (It’s funny enough for her to mock the shoplifting allegations on the Oscars, but that doesn’t erase the overwhelming likelihood that she’ll be found guilty.) Yet there’s still one sector in which Lohan has more than reached her potential: as the biggest star of the synopticon.

Now for the explanation…

The ancestor of virtually all surveillance theory is Michel Foucault’s notion of the panopticon. He used a prison diagram originated by Jeremy Bentham (there’s an illustration of it to the right) to conceptualize the ways modern surveillance allows the few to watch the many and to make the point that constant monitoring has become a means of social discipline (the means of social discipline, in fact). A guard tower in the center of the prison allowed a few guards to see into prisoners’ cells around the outer ring of the prison. The prisoners, however, couldn’t see into the guard tower. So even when no guards occupied the tower, the prison design produced the same disciplinary effect: the prisoners obeyed the rules merely because there might be someone in the tower. Foucault claimed, quite rightly in many situations, that modern surveillance disciplines the objects of its gaze in the same way.

Thomas Mathiesen is one of many theorists to expand on Foucault’s work (many scholars have pointed out the numerous flaws with Foucault’s theories, too, but that’s another discussion). Mathiesen calls his concept the synopticon and in a sense, he reverses the panopticon by pointing out that modern mass media allows the many to watch the few. Nor is surveillance used for disciplinary reasons in the synopticon.

Mathiesen, writing in 1997, referred mostly to the way television allows tens of millions of viewers access to a relatively small number of celebrities on a consistent basis, in addition to following their highs and lows in traditional news media. Fast forward some 14 years, and the Internet has exponentially magnified the synopticon.

Right now, no single celebrity (except maybe Kim Kardashian?) personifies or capitalizes on the synopticon as clearly as Lindsay Lohan. Even though she has next to no credibility as an actress left, her exploits are consistently reported by every news organization in America. And very often, the art accompanying the article is captured from surveillance footage or a paparazzi camera, which is, of course, a form of synoptic surveillance.

Lohan not only seems aware of all this, she uses it to her advantage. The way to stay famous is to merely stay in the public consciousness, and without celebrity surveillance, would Lohan have remained on anyone’s mind the past few years? Without images like the one above, Lohan’s career would be dead by now rather than just moribund.

But the hand that feeds can also bite, and the latest updates about Lohan’s necklace theft report that she is caught red-handed on…surveillance footage. Read about it here. Right now it’s only anonymous sources describing the footage, but don’t be surprised when the footage is leaked for us all to gawk and mock.

And so the thing that has kept her at least moderately famous is likely to send her to jail. Don’t worry, though, Lindz. I’m sure there are surveillance cameras in prison.

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2 Responses

  1. Thanks for the interesting post on synopticon. Even when trying to avoid certain celebrities, they tend to be unavoidable – Lindsay and Charlie Sheen right now. Yet, they did have careers (or budding careers). To me, the Kardashians and Paris Hilton are individuals that seem to have emerged as celebrities almost out of thin air. However, I’m getting away from the point I’d like to draw out.

    I wonder how much the synopticon impacts the people who are in view- I mean this beyond just their awareness of it. Instead, how much does Lindsay buy into the narrative that is now written about her. Or, as in another example, Miley Cyrus’ attempt to break out of the mold about her. Others, many others, end up defining or trying to define who they are. I can only imagine how difficult that would be, particularly for young stars (often female). And, if those stars show any mental weakness or bad judgment, the skewering is often quick and merciless. All of this is not to deny Ms. Lohan’s responsibility for her actions. Ultimately she did decide to shoplift. But the synopticon moves very quickly and likes fresh blood. While it may be true that the synopticon does not discipline, it does define.

  2. Interesting comments, Allen. Part of what you’re saying is a significant topic in surveillance studies – the fact that we all have unprecedented access to public figures of all kinds. Some of it is initiated by the public figure (Twitter, blogs, etc.), but so much of it is this big enterprise that Mathiesen dubbed the synopticon. The entertainment press has always placed celebrities – especially young ones – under enormous scrutiny, but now we all participate much more directly in that.

    Celebrities buying into their own press is nothing new. Look at how John Wayne and Ronald Reagan both bought into their cowboy personas. They were directing their personalities according to a public relations- and press-generated image. But now, synoptic surveillance generates, magnifies, or otherwise shapes the image. Another scholar (whose name escapes me at the moment) has come up with the notion of surveillance-directed behavior. At times, many people alter their behavior in response to an awareness of being surveilled, and I think you’re talking about a particular instance of surveillance-directed behavior.

    I’m glad someone else is interested in this. I find it all fascinating. Thanks for writing.

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