Something about me: each apartment I’ve lived in, I’ve taken sight unseen.
And I’ve been lucky in that regard—so far, it’s worked out. I haven’t landed in a dungeon or any place you’d be tempted to describe as a murder house. This serendipity is second cousin to the magic my mom possesses; she can find parking spots and good diners that look bad.
My current apartment is on the eighteenth floor of a 26-story building. The town around me is flat and low. The apartment is a white cement box in the sky with wall-to-wall windows. It’s completely institutional, completely devoid of personality. It’s like living in the tallest Days Inn you can imagine. You walk in my front door and—in typical motel fashion—the bathroom is immediately to your left. Every time I shower, I think I will emerge to find one of those sawed-off hair dryers adhered to the wall.
I took the apartment, of course, sight unseen. I had no choice: I was moving from Brooklyn to Ann Arbor for grad school, and by March, I was already a latecomer to the apartment rental party. In New York, I didn’t know anyone who lived on the eighteenth floor, but I knew that people did live on eighteenth floors—the NYC skyline was proof of that—so it didn’t occur to me that my new place would be all that unusual.
But when I moved to Michigan in August, I discovered just how wrong I was. For in this small city in the Midwest, this configuration of geography and architecture resulted in something I had not previously conceived of: the fact that the north half of Ann Arbor would be entirely at my optical disposal. Think Rear Window, but on a larger scale. In other words, I moved in and my life became sightseeing—”site seen.”
Or to put it another way: I live in a panopticon.
Anyone who’s read Foucault’s chapter “Panopticism” from Discipline and Punish will know a panopticon is an uncomfortable place to find yourself casually inhabiting. For one thing, it’s the centerpiece of a prison designed to enforce, through the threat of constant surveillance, the good behavior of its inmates. Those inmates are housed in perfectly backlit cells, arranged in a circle around the central tower. The person manning the tower is both unseeable and all-seeing. Furthermore, Foucault will argue, that person need not even exist; the “triumph” of the panopticon model is that its inmates eventually internalize the threat of surveillance and police themselves. So if you live in a panopticon—actually, I guess the point is, you might as well just not.
Obviously, my living situation differs in the particulars. I’m not a warden. The people outside my window aren’t prisoners—they come and go. Unlike the panopticon Foucault considers, the tower I occupy wasn’t designed to discipline others. And my voyeurism can’t possibly be corrective, because the people outside my apartment don’t know they’re being observed, while the prisoners inside the panopticon don’t know when they’re being observed. But in one important aspect, these situations are not that different: Foucault’s discipline and my daily tower life revolve entirely around the construction of narratives about the people outside, the people who can’t see back through the window.
OK, OK. This is looking bad for the tower inhabitants, of which I am now one. But in revisiting Foucault’s essay for this post, the thing I found most interesting is how he repeatedly locates the panopticon’s power in its ability to observe and then to translate that observation first into language:
“in which all events are recorded, in which an uninterrupted work of writing links the centre and the periphery.”
And ultimately into narrative:
“who he is; where he must be; how he is to be characterized; how he is to be recognized.”
In fact, Foucault’s take on the disciplining project often sounds like the work of a novelist. Elsewhere, he conceives of that project as “the ultimate determination of the individual, of what characterizes him, of what belongs to him, of what happens to him.”
It’s what humans do every time we tell a story.
It’s a weird thing—moving to a place you don’t know at all, only to discover that you are positioned to know it in an unusually thorough way. Because of this tower, the things I’m observing about Ann Arbor are expansive and exhaustive, and I want to tell that story.
So here is a typical day in my panoptic life: I get up, and it’s still dark out though it’s not that early—this is the incredible thing about being poised on the western edge of the Eastern Time zone. I look out the window. The light is just beginning to break over a mountain twenty (fifty?) miles to the northeast of us—it’s hard to gauge distance when you can see such a long way. I consider, for a moment, whether that mountain might actually be a landfill. I mean, it’s the lone curve on the horizon, and don’t mountains usually come in chains?
By 10:00 AM, the parking structures are beginning to fill up all over town. I notice for the first time that they are shaped like squashed ziggurats. In the one closest to me—immediately below my windows—a dark blue SUV gets the last spot on the top level. Its driver prances to the stairwell. This, I imagine, is the best thing that will happen to her today. The driver in the car behind her, realizing what has just happened, shoots the entire parking garage (and unknowingly, me) a bleak, bleak look. The woman who took the last spot sees his face too—and, yes, she smiles! And she is not sorry! Ok, this is certainly the best thing that will happen to her today.
Because it’s still warm out, my windows are open. The troubadour who hangs out in front of Walgreens is singing Oasis. I close my window. Good thing—because a thunderstorm is rolling in. Weather here moves always west to east. This is unlike where I’m from, where storms seem to blow themselves into being from any direction and with the energy of a dying sun. I sit down to work. I open a blank Word document and start a new story: “Where she was from, storms blew themselves into being from any direction and with the energy of a dying sun.”
I read that sentence over and delete it. I consider, instead, embarking on a novel project in which a young woman living in an apartment tower in an unnamed Midwestern town accidentally witnesses a murder outside her window (Monday morning, last parking spot) and then solves it with the help of the guitar guy who hangs out in front of the unnamed but nationally-branded pharmacy on the corner.
Then I decide, nah, too close to home.