Bert Olivier
Bert Olivier

The question of heterotopia and/as dystopia

The term, ‘heterotopia’, was used by Michel Foucault in a brief text – titled ‘Of other spaces’ – published in Architecture /Mouvement/ Continuité (October, 1984; translated from the French by Jay Miskowiec). It is a richly suggestive text, although academics who can’t deal with poststructuralist thinkers’ complex writings have generally derogated it with all kinds of inanities. In it, Foucault juxtaposes the 19th century – as one preoccupied with history (that is, time) with the present epoch that is above all preoccupied with space, and gives a brief introductory overview of consecutive conceptions of space.

The Middle Ages had a hierarchical notion of space, followed by the time of Galileo, who substituted space as ‘infinite extension’ (confirmed as such by Descartes) for the medieval conception of space as ‘emplacement’. This 17th-century concept of space was replaced, in our own time, says Foucault, by the idea that space equals ‘site’, which is understood by way of different ‘relations of proximity between points or elements’. Hence, space, for us, amounts to certain ‘relations among sites’, and Foucault claims that ‘the anxiety of our era has to do fundamentally with space’, rather than with time – a claim corroborated by many other theorists in their own distinct manner (including Deleuze and Guattari, Julia Kristeva and Manuel Castells).

I believe that one can find confirmation of this in contemporary (popular) art as well, as I shall try to show briefly below, but first one should take note of Foucault’s elaboration on a number of ‘sites’ that are irreducible to one another, for example sites of transportation, of rest, and of relaxation. However, he singles out what he calls ‘other spaces’/’spaces of otherness’, or ‘heterotopias’ (literally ‘other spaces’), of which there are two types, namely ‘utopias’ and ‘heterotopias’.

Utopias, for Foucault, are ‘unreal spaces’, or ‘sites with no real place’, and are either directly, or inversely, analogous with extant society, except that they represent some kind of societal perfection. He grants the possibility that there are also in every society real ‘counter-sites’, or ‘effectively enacted utopia[s]’ where the real social sites are ‘simultaneously represented, contested, and inverted’. It is these places, which are different from all extant sites, that Foucault calls ‘heterotopias’, to distinguish them from (unreal) utopias, while admitting that there is a curious, ‘mixed’ relationship between them, like a mirror (which is at once an unreal utopia insofar as I see my own visibility in it, in an unreal, virtual space, and also a really existing thing functioning as a heterotopia that directs my attention back to myself).

To facilitate the description of heterotopias, Foucault proposes what he calls a ‘heterotopology’, or a number of principles for understanding them as contestations of our living spaces, which I shall refer to briefly below.

– First principle: Heterotopias are probably encountered in every culture, although they are quite diverse, with no absolutely universal form. As examples he mentions the ‘crisis heterotopias’ of ‘primitive societies’(forbidden, sacred or privileged places for people in a state of crisis), such as places where menstruating or pregnant women were isolated. These are disappearing today, although some remain, like those where young men do their military service. They are being replaced, Foucault believes, by ‘heterotopias of deviation’, like psychiatric hospitals and retirement homes.

– Second principle: As history unfurls, existing heterotopias can be made to function very differently by societies, for example the cemetery.

– Third principle: Heterotopias can juxtapose several different, incompatible sites in one real place, for instance the contradictory sites of the stage, the cinema, or (its oldest example) the garden, with its ‘microcosmic’ collection of diverse vegetation from different geographic areas.

– Fourth principle: Heterotopias are connected to ‘slices’ of time, that is, they correlate with ‘heterochronies’ as breaks with customary time, for example the cemetery, which starts with the heterochrony of life lost and the semi-eternity of physical disappearance. Then there are museums and libraries, which have evolved into sites where time ‘never stops’, but continues accumulating things in a ‘general archive’. (Foucault’s description [dating back to 1967] of these as ‘a place of all times that is itself outside of time and inaccessible to its ravages’ seems to me to fit the world-wide web, or the internet, even better than traditional museums and libraries.) Alternatively, heterotopias could link with time as transitory, such as the Mardi Gras festival.

– Fifth principle: Heteronomies involve an opening and closing-system that isolates them and also makes them accessible (on condition of certain permission or sanction), for example a prison, or a Scandinavian sauna. Foucault also mentions the American motel, heterotopia for illicit sex, where entry entailed temporary exclusion from society – something that makes me think of Korean ‘love motels’, used explicitly for this purpose.

– Sixth principle: Heterotopias have a twofold role in relation to all the rest of space. Either they create an illusory space that exposes all other spaces as being even more illusory (think of the intensification of this – what Baudrillard wrote about Disneyland; that it exists, in order to hide the fact that all of America is Disneyland). Or they construct a compensatory, real space in which all the imperfections of our usual real spaces are replaced by their meticulously arranged counterpart. (The latter strikes me as a ‘real’ utopia.)

Foucault concludes his reflection on heterotopias by suggesting that the ship, or boat – ‘a floating piece of space, a place without a place’, is the quintessential heterotopia, and he cautions us that ‘dreams dry up’ in societies without boats (which he seems to mean metaphorically, too – in other words, can we still imagine societies other than our own neoliberal ones?).

The genius of Foucault’s description of ‘other spaces’ is its meticulous articulation of the poststructuralist logic of ‘both/and’: instead of claiming (as structuralism had done regarding various underlying cultural ‘structures’) the universal validity of the ‘principles’ applicable to these heterotopias, he deftly combines universality and particularity: the principles do, indeed, operate in all cultures, but in every specific cultural or social domain they manifest themselves differently.

The question I want to raise briefly pertains to a possible emendation (presumptuous though it no doubt is) of Foucault’s distinction between two types of heterotopia – utopia and heterotopia – by adding ‘dystopia’ to it. Consider that a ‘dystopia’ – a place of dehumanisation and misery (such as that depicted in George Orwells’s 1984, or the recent films, Fury Road and Blade Runner 2049) – is usually imaginary, like its antithesis, a utopia. Add to this that Foucault likens the relationship between heterotopia and utopia to the function of a mirror – ‘mixing’ the unreal and the real – then it seems to me that one could say the same of the relationship between a dystopia and a heterotopia, insofar as it also amounts to a ‘mixture’ of sorts; of spaces that exist and non-existent ones, ‘mixed’ in an ‘inverse’ compensatory manner.

For instance, Blade Runner 2049 (Denis Villeneuve, 2017 ) – a fictional dystopia where different, incompatible sites are juxtaposed (as in Foucault’s third principle) – as well as the television series, Westworld, instantiates a dystopian space that interacts with the real spaces of the present in such a manner that, instead of ‘compensating’ for the defects of extant social spaces by constructing a perfect space of sorts, it inverts the compensatory gesture. In other words, it reflects back upon extant society the latent, or virtual, possibility that it could, in fact, develop in the direction of the dystopian space held up to it as in a distorting mirror, unless compensatory steps were taken to prevent this.

After all, although dystopias are usually, like utopias, unreal spaces, what greater nightmare is imaginable than the prospect of actually living in a real dystopia of which the imaginary ones are mere mirror-extensions? There are indications that this is exactly what we are witnessing today.

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