Symbolic and Structural Approaches to Place

Michel Foucault: "Of Other Spaces"


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Heterotopias are "other spaces", which people may inhabit at particular times, or (as Foucault argues in the modern era) inhabit as a result of being regarded as deviant. Foucault is concerned about how we define the places in which we live. They are not just empty containers - we live in space that has already been defined as a set of relations. Foucault contrasts the Utopia (a place that is no place, which is defined as the inversion of our current place) and the Heterotopia. The heterotopia is also an inversion, but an inversion of the other sites it refers to, not an inversion of our current place.

The mirror is both a utopia and a heterotopia:

The mirror is, after all, a utopia, since it is a placeless place. In the mirror, I see myself there where I am not, in an unreal, virtual space that opens up behind the surface; I am over there, there where I am not, a sort of shadow that gives my own visibility to myself, that enables me to see myself there where I am absent: such is the utopia of the mirror.

But it is also a heterotopia in so far as the mirror does exist in reality, where it exerts a sort of counteraction on the position that I occupy. From the standpoint of the mirror I discover my absence from the place where I am since I see myself over there. Starting from this gaze that is, as it were, directed toward me, from the ground of this virtual space that is on the other side of the glass, I come back toward myself; I begin again to direct my eyes toward myself and to reconstitute myself there where I am.

The mirror functions as a heterotopia in this respect: it makes this place that I occupy at the moment when I look at myself in the glass at once absolutely real, connected with all the space that surrounds it, and absolutely unreal, since in order to be perceived it has to pass through this virtual point which is over there.

Foucault, "Of Other Spaces"


1. Where are our heterotopias? Where are the "other spaces" in our city, our university, our culture in general?

2. In what ways are our spaces "discursive", that is, brought about by the narratives we have about them? Are there spaces that have different, even contradictory discourses?

3. What does Foucault mean when he says that the mirror (or the "other spaces") make this place both absolutely real and absolutely unreal?

From Ernest Soja on Heterotopia (from
Thirdspace, 159ff), with some notes by me. The six principles are in Foucault's essay itself.

Principles of "ordered surfaces"

1. Heterotopias are found in all cultures, every human group, although they take varied forms and have no absolutely universal model. However, two main categories of heterotopias are identified, one of "
crisis" and the other of "deviation."

In the so-called primitive societies, there is a certain form of heterotopia that I would call crisis heterotopias, i.e., there are privileged or sacred or forbidden places, reserved for individuals who are, in relation to society and to the human environment in which they live, in a state of crisis: adolescents, menstruating women, pregnant women. the elderly, etc.

In out society, these crisis heterotopias are persistently disappearing, though a few remnants can still be found. For example, the boarding school, in its nineteenth-century form, or military service for young men, have certainly played such a role, as the first manifestations of sexual virility were in fact supposed to take place "elsewhere" than at home. For girls, there was, until the middle of the twentieth century, a tradition called the "honeymoon trip" which was an ancestral theme. The young woman's deflowering could take place "nowhere" and, at the moment of its occurrence the train or honeymoon hotel was indeed the place of this nowhere, this heterotopia without geographical markers.

But these heterotopias of crisis are disappearing today and are being replaced, I believe, by what we might call
heterotopias of deviation: those in which individuals whose behavior is deviant in relation to the required mean or norm are placed.

Cases of this are rest homes and psychiatric hospitals, and of course prisons, and one should perhaps add retirement homes that are, as it were, on the borderline between the heterotopia of crisis and the heterotopia of deviation since, after all, old age is a crisis, but is also a deviation since in our society where leisure is the rule, idleness is a sort of deviation.

Note that place and identity construction come together here. Think of

Which kind of heterotopia are each of these? Are there other places you can think of that are either crisis heterotopias or heterotopias of deviation?

2. Heterotopias can
change in function and meaning over time, according to the particular "synchrony" of the culture in which they are found. E.g., the cemetery

As an example I shall take the strange heterotopia of the cemetery. The cemetery is certainly a place unlike ordinary cultural spaces. It is a space that is however connected with all the sites of the city, state or society or village, etc., since each individual, each family has relatives in the cemetery.

In western culture the cemetery has practically always existed. But it has undergone important changes.
Until the end of the eighteenth century, the cemetery was placed at the heart of the city, next to the church. In it there was a hierarchy of possible tombs. There was the charnel house in which bodies lost the last traces of individuality, there were a few individual tombs and then there were the tombs inside the church.

These latter tombs were themselves of two types, either simply tombstones with an inscription, or mausoleums with statues. This cemetery housed inside the sacred space of the church has taken on a quite different cast in modern civilizations, and curiously, it is in a time when civilization has become 'atheistic,' as one says very crudely, that western culture has established what is termed the cult of the dead.

Basically it was quite natural that, in a time of real belief in the resurrection of bodies and the immortality of the soul, overriding importance was not accorded to the body's remains. On the contrary, from the moment when people are no longer sure that they have a soul or that the body will regain life, it is perhaps necessary to give much more attention to the dead body, which is ultimately the only trace of our existence in the world and in language.

In any case, it is from the beginning of the nineteenth century that everyone has a right to her or his own little box for her or his own little personal decay, but on the other hand,
it is only from that start of the nineteenth century that cemeteries began to be located at the outside border of cities. In correlation with the individualization of death and the bourgeois appropriation of the cemetery, there arises an obsession with death as an 'illness.' The dead, it is supposed, bring illnesses to the living, and it is the presence and proximity of the dead right beside the houses, next to the church, almost in the middle of the street, it is this proximity that propagates death itself. This major theme of illness spread by the contagion in the cemeteries persisted until the end of the eighteenth century, until, during the nineteenth century, the shift of cemeteries toward the suburbs was initiated. The cemeteries then came to constitute, no longer the sacred and immortal heart of the city, but the other city, where each family possesses its dark resting place.

The heterotopia is capable of juxtaposing in one real place several different spaces, "several sites that are in themselves incompatible" or foreign to one another. Here Foucault looks at places where many different spaces converge and become entangled, jumbled together, using as his model the rectangular stage of the theatre or the cinema screen as well as the oriental garden, the smallest parcel of the world that has, since antiquity, been designed to represent the terrestrial totality.

Thus it is that the theater brings onto the rectangle of the stage, one after the other, a whole series of places that are foreign to one another;

thus it is that the
cinema is a very odd rectangular room, at the end of which, on a two-dimensional screen, one sees the projection of a three-dimensional space,

but perhaps the oldest example of these heterotopias that take the form of contradictory sites is the
garden. We must not forget that in the Orient the garden, an astonishing creation that is now a thousand years old, had very deep and seemingly superimposed meanings.

The traditional garden of the Persians was a sacred space that was supposed to bring together inside its rectangle four parts representing the four parts of the world, with a space still more sacred than the others that were like an umbilicus, the navel of the world at its center (the basin and water fountain were there); and all the vegetation of the garden was supposed to come together in this space, in this sort of microcosm.

As for
carpets, they were originally reproductions of gardens (the garden is a rug onto which the whole world comes to enact its symbolic perfection, and the rug is a sort of garden that can move across space). The garden is the smallest parcel of the world and then it is the totality of the world.

The garden has been a sort of happy, universalizing heterotopia since the beginnings of antiquity (our modern zoological gardens spring from that source).

4. Heterotopias are typically linked to slices of time, which "for the sake of symmetry" Foucault calls heterochronies. This intersection and phasing of space and time ... allows the heterotopia "to function at full capacity" based on an ability to arrive at an "absolute break" with traditional experiences of time and temporality. In the modern world, many specialized sites exist to record these crossroads of space and time.

In opposition to these heterotopias are those more fleeting, transitory, precarious spaces of time festival site, fairgrounds, vacation or leisure village. Both forms increasingly converge in "compressed, packaged, "invented" environments that seem both to abolish and preserve time and culture, that appear somehow to be both temporary and permanent."

First of all, there are heterotopias of indefinitely accumulating time, for example museums and libraries. Museums and libraries have become heterotopias in which time never stops building up and topping its own summit, whereas in the seventeenth century, even at the end of the century, museums and libraries were the expression of an individual choice.

By contrast, the idea of accumulating everything, of establishing a sort of general archive, the will to enclose in one place all times, all epochs, all forms, all tastes, the idea of constituting a place of all times that is itself outside of time and inaccessible to its ravages, the project of organizing in this way a sort of perpetual and indefinite accumulation of time in an immobile place, this whole idea belongs to our modernity.
The museum and the library are heterotopias that are proper to western culture of the nineteenth century.

Opposite these heterotopias that are linked to the accumulation of time, there are those linked, on the contrary, to time in its most flowing, transitory, precarious aspect, to time in the mode of the festival. These heterotopias are not oriented toward the eternal, they are rather absolutely temporal [chroniques].

Such, for example, are the
fairgrounds, these' marvelous empty sites on the outskirts of cities that teem once or twice a year with stands, displays, heteroclite objects, wrestlers, snakewomen, fortune-tellers, and so forth. Quite recently, a new kind of temporal heterotopia has been invented: vacation villages, such as those Polynesian villages that offer a compact three weeks of primitive and eternal nudity to the inhabitants of the cities.

You see, moreover, that through the two forms of heterotopias that come together here, the heterotopia of the festival and that of the eternity of accumulating time, the huts of Djerba are in a sense relatives of libraries and museums. for the rediscovery of Polynesian life abolishes time; yet the experience is just as much the rediscovery of time, it is as if the entire history of humanity reaching back to its origin were accessible in a sort of immediate knowledge,

Heterotopias always presuppose a system of opening and closing that simultaneously makes them both isolated and penetrable, different from what is usually conceived of as more freely accessible public space. Entry and exit are regulated in many different ways: through rituals of religious purification (Muslim hammam) or hygienic cleansing (Scandinavian sauna); but also through more subtle enactments, such as the illusions of freedom and openness that hide closure and isolation (the "famous" bedrooms that once existed on "the great farms of Brazil" to welcome the uninvited traveller for a night's sleep or the equally "famous" American motel rooms "where illicit sex is both absolutely sheltered and absolutely hidden")...

Are there places you know of that are regulated? How are they regulated? How do you know when the regulations have been violated? Are there places you know of that seem to be open, but in fact "hide curious exclusions", as Foucault puts it (below)?

heterotopia takes on the qualities of human territoriality, with its conscious and subconscious surveillance of presence and absence, entry and exit; its demarcation of behaviours and boundaries; its protective yet selectively enabling definition of what is the inside and the outside and who may partake of the inherent pleasures.

In general, the heterotopic site is not freely accessible like a public place. Either the entry is compulsory, as in the case of entering a barracks or a prison, or else the individual has to submit to rites and purifications. To get in one must have a certain permission and make certain gestures. Moreover, there are even heterotopias that are entirely consecrated to these activities of purification -purification that is partly religious and partly hygienic, such as the hammin of the Moslems, or else purification that appears to be purely hygienic, as in Scandinavian saunas.

There are others, on the contrary, that seem to be pure and simple openings, but that generally hide curious exclusions. Everyone can enter into the heterotopic sites, but in fact that is only an illusion - we think we enter where we are, by the very fact that we enter, excluded.

I am thinking for example, of the famous bedrooms that existed on the great farms of Brazil and elsewhere in South America. The entry door did not lead into the central room where the family lived, and every individual or traveler who came by had the right to open this door, to enter into the bedroom and to sleep there for a night. Now these bedrooms were such that the individual who went into them never had access to the family's quarter the visitor was absolutely the guest in transit, was not really the invited guest.

This type of heterotopia, which has practically disappeared from our civilizations, could perhaps be found in the famous American motel rooms where a man goes with his car and his mistress and where illicit sex is both absolutely sheltered and absolutely hidden, kept isolated without however being allowed out in the open.

6. Heterotopias have an even more comprehensive function, in relation to all the space that remains outside of them. This "external", almost wraparound function is described as unfolding between two extreme poles:

Either their role is to create a space of illusion that exposes every real space, all the sites inside of which human life is partitioned, as still more illusory (perhaps that is the role that was played by those famous brothels of which we are now deprived). Or else, on the contrary, their role is to create a space that is other, another real space, as perfect, as meticulous, as well arranged as ours is messy, ill constructed, and jumbled. This latter type would be the heterotopia, not of illusion, but of compensation, and I wonder if certain colonies have not functioned in this manner. In certain cases, they have played, on the level of the general organization of terrestrial space, the role of heterotopias.