Monday, 25 January 2016

'Heterotopias' - Foucault's Description of 'Other' Places

An interesting youtube video created by architecture student Gladys Eugenia Tena Ley, "Public Spaces: Heterotopia, Places and Non-Places".

So, what is a 'heterotopia'? -

"Heterotopia follows the template established by the notions of utopia and dystopia. The prefix hetero- is from Ancient Greek ἕτερος (héteros, "other, another, different") and is combined with the Greek morphemes οὐ ("not") and τόπος ("place") and means "no-place". A utopia is an idea or an image that is not real but represents a perfected version of society, such as Thomas More's book or Le Corbusier's drawings. As Walter Russell Mead has written, "Utopia is a place where everything is good; dystopia is a place where everything is bad; heterotopia is where things are different — that is, a collection whose members have few or no intelligible connections with one another." From the Wikipedia article "Heterotopia (space)".

The term was created by Michel Foucault in his article "Of Other Spaces: Utopias and Heterotopias" 1967, as a way to describe places of difference, "espaces autres", "other spaces". A heterotopia can be real and/or unreal a place or space that appears to be one thing but is actually something else. A space of change and ambiguity. Possibly a space of control, deception, or subversion. Possibly a space of escape, and release. Think of a theatre stage, during a play the space transforms often - You are no longer in a theatre you are in a forest, in a city, on the sea, in a motel room. A mirror is a heterotopia - you can see a space that doesn't physically exist yet for all intents and purposes it is there. Facebook can be considered a heterotopia. It uses the language of space - groups, walls, pages - yet all of it is virtual, unreal.

Before I go further a brief warning about the term heterotopia - the term is not an "either/or", as in a didactic "that, is a heterotopia" versus a "no, it's not" set of statements. Foucault leaves the term open in its bounds. If you can imagine a space, of whatever kind, as being a heterotopia, then essentially it is one. I would also suggest to not get too obsessed by the exoticsm of the term heterotopia, I find using "other space" when getting bogged down in the philosophical use of language helps free up the topic immensely.

Foucault develops his idea by advancing 6 principles of heterotopia. (The following list is a reconfiguration of the points in the Wikipedia article as after reading the original Foucault essay I found the list to be at fault. Also, with Foucault himself I have a problem. Though he lists 6 principles it is difficult to discern whether only one principle needs to apply or if all six do in some way to define something as a heterotopia, I'm going with the 'one principle' view. If more principles relate then all the better.)

  • 1) A ‘crisis heterotopia’ is a separate space where behaviours of change take place out of sight. In Foucault's words "there are privileged, 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." Examples - boarding schools, military training schools, honeymoon suites, plastic surgery retreats. Foucault suggests that crisis heterotopia are being replaced by 'deviation heterotopia’ which are institutions where we place individuals whose behaviour is outside the norm. Examples - rest homes, psychiatric hospitals, prisons. Retirement homes and hospices fall under both deviation and crisis heterotopia definitions.
  • 2) Heterotopic spaces are hugely flexible in how they are related to and how they are used and because of this reflect changes in society and societal belief. Foucault focuses on cemeteries as an example for this principle and points out how societal changes in relation to religion have reflected in changes with how cemeteries are approached and considered. "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 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 [...] 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 [...] it is only from the 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 Second Principle" from Foucault's article.
  • 3) 'Contradictory heterotopia' which is a single real place which is composed of and/or juxtaposed by several other real/unreal spaces. Examples - a theatre stage (as mentioned above in it's ability to transform and flip into a variety of represented spaces), the cinema, a stately home garden, an art gallery, a TV screen.
  • 4) 'Temporal heterotopia' a place that provides an absolute break from the present that the viewer currently inhabits. Places that exist in time but also exist outside of time. This principle has two sub categories
    i. Places of infinite timelessness - e.g. ruins, cemeteries, museums.
    ii. Places of time "in it's most flowing, transitory, precarious aspect" which ironically exist outside of time - e.g. festival spaces, fairgrounds, holiday homes, skiing villages.
  • 5) 'Heterotopia of ritual or purification' are spaces that are isolated yet penetrable but not freely accessible to everyone unlike public places. To get in one must have permission and make certain gestures. Examples - temple, church, sauna, nightclub, masonic lodge, music concert.
  • 6) Heterotopia has a function in relation to all of the remaining spaces. The two functions are:
    i. A 'heterotopia of illusion' creates a space of illusion that somehow exposes structures that exist in every real space outside of itself. The 'heterotopia of illusion' of the brothel can point to the moral and ethical restrictions that are imposed everywhere outside of that space. I suggest that gay clubs exist in this category too as they allow for a freedom of behaviour that for a long period of time was deemed unsavioury to culture as a whole. For some cultures this is still very much the case.
    ii. A 'heterotopia of compensation' where the space's "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." Foucault considers "the first wave of colonization in the seventeenth century, of the Puritan societies that the English had founded in America " are perfect examples of 'other places' of this second function.
For me, all of this gets me thinking about mundane spaces in the everyday. What urban/suburban spaces have the possibility to become heterotopic "other spaces"? Abandoned factories, car parks, bus stops, empty streets, closed shops. In what way do these spaces fit with Foucault's principles?

(Having written all of this there is a side of me that is wondering if this is all a load of deliberate intellectual bull on Foucault's behalf. *ponder ponder* Is this one huge Foucault mindgame?)

Websites of interest:

The Heterotopian Studies website develops Foucault's ideas

Books of interest:

Dehaene, M. and De Cauter, L. (eds.) (2008) "Heterotopia and the City"

Ritter, R. and Knaller-Vlay, B., (eds.) (1998) "Other Spaces: The Affair of the Heterotopia"

Hetherington, K. (1997) "The Badlands of Modernity: Heterotopia and Social Ordering"