the suburban panopticon

I think I may’ve posted about this subject a while back, but anyhow…

I’d say I’m one of the people in this community who spends the most time outside, usually walking my dog, but also sunbathing shirtless on my balcony, sitting outside the front door reading or writing on our ”porch,” or even, some years back, chalking all over the pavement (which you can imagine went over hella well with the powers that be).

I realized that in this type of 3-story suburbia, where the pavement between any one side of apartment buildings and the covered carports, is super-North American (no less than 4 cars-wide) and everyone has a dog, it’s almost an unassumed rule not to hang around the complex. You’re either busy walking your dog, going to or from your car, or maybe riding your bike (if you’re progressive).

It’s a strange sensation here in this suburban apartment complex, the very human action of simply being outside. It feels like you’re always being watched, and if you dally or loiter at all in any one spot, you start to feel uncomfortable. I hypothesize that this is due to very prominent hyper-individualistic and sedentary elements of American culture, aspects that have combined to produce the perfect storm of vitamin D deficiency (from being inside too much), social isolation, depression and overeating.

Admittedly, in any city or community, the effect of feeling like you’re being watched without your knowing does exist. In this particular suburban setting, however, it feels way amplified.

This reminds me of what the French philosopher Michel Foucault said about modern societies, that they needed a non-violent way to regulate their citizens. See below an image of the Panopticon structure, and a description of it by Moya Mason (my emphasis added):


The Panopticon, which was originally the design for a prison, offered a powerful and sophisticated internalized coercion, which was achieved through the constant observation of prisoners, each separated from the other, allowing no interaction, no communication… Constant observation acted as a control mechanism; a consciousness of constant surveillance is internalized.

When I think about my experience in Shadow Ridge Apartments, this fits the bill well, but in a slightly different way. Whereas in the original panopticon the single guard had the power to monitor all prisoners simultaneously, violating their privacy, in the SRA model, all of the residents have monitoring power over everyone who dares tread outside of their home – constantly. Additionally those who monitor may do so from the well-guarded privacy of their own home. Also, as opposed to fear-based panopticons (prisons, the army, and schools), I’d say this one is more eery or creepy. It’s a milder emotion I wouldn’t quite call fear, but let me tell you, is it ever present.

For example, once I took my dog walking around the backpaths of the complex. He did a number 2, and I didn’t clean it up, which is admittedly unsanitary and irresponsible. But I found the reaction from a resident the next day to be peculiar: she was uptight and seemed a bit exasperated. I was definitely in the wrong, but all the same, she had clearly observed the error, moving in to enforce the community rule of cleaning up after your canines.

What was most intriguing was that it felt as if I’d broken some kind of sacrament, stepping out of the rigid social order, rebelling against society’s immediate control. And she, without really being aware of it, was society’s automatic harbinger of that power, her enforcement the invisible hand of society giving me a juicy slap across the face.

*       *        *

When interviewed about the importance of community, a semi-known local named Bo remarked, “Who needs neighbors? I haven’t met mine in 19 years and I’m still chill.”

Fine, Bo. Fine. Be that way.

*       *       *

Another peculiarity about this place is that people here just don’t identify strongly with where they live, as is done in other parts of California and seemingly everywhere in European countries. If my intuition serves me, this is just another miscellaneous suburban conglomeration, without much character. It feels more like a cram-hotel in Tokyo, where people go to sleep in honeycomb-style beds to regenerate for the next day of capitalist servitude. But then again I haven’t lived here for extended periods (no more than 3 months at a time), so perhaps my view is poorly informed.

From the panopticon to the dog-shit trash cans, Shadow Ridge pretty much encapsulates modern American new money society, the kind of society that probably won’t last another half-century of climate disruption and fuel shortages if it doesn’t develop a stronger sense of community.


A building in Shadow Ridge Apartments, Oak Park, California


1. Mason, M. Foucault and his Panopticon. (Internet) Available from:


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