Foucault’s Heterotopias

reproduced from http://www.uni-weimar.de/projekte/isp-gjk/index.php?id=80


Michel Foucault. Of other spaces (1967), Heterotopias

The present epoch will perhaps be above all the epoch of space. We are in the epoch of simultaneity: we are in the epoch of juxtaposition, the epoch of the near and far, of the side-by-side, of the dispersed.

Foucault begins his lecture describing the importance of space. In his eyes our experience of the world is that of a network which connects points and elements. Although the net or the network is more than ever a metaphor of contemporary times, this idea of space already has been discussed in the 1960s. Foucault was associated with the structuralist movement in those times and he defines Structuralism as the effort to create an ensemble of relations between single elements which have been spread out in time and space to make them appear as connected, contrasted and implicated by each other. In the broadest sense this is what Foucault aims on by discussing about “other spaces”: The space we live in today, in which our time and history occurs, is heterogeneous. We do not live in a kind of void in which we can place individuals and things, moreover we live in a set of relations which define places or sites. These sites are not connected to each other and can not be combined. But among these sites, Foucault is interested in certain ones. Namely sites or places which have the strange property of being in relation with all other sites, but in a way that they neutralize or inverse relations the other sites happen to reflect. That means spaces which are linked with all others but which contradict all other sites. Of these spaces are two main types: utopias and heterotopias.

Utopias are sites with no real place. They are sites that have a general relation of direct or inverted analogy with the real space of society. They present society itself in a perfected form, or else society turned upside down, but in any case these utopias are fundamentally unreal spaces.

But how can heterotopias be described? What meaning do they have? To answer these questions, in order to analyse heterotopias, Foucault gives six principles.

  1. Almost every culture in the world has made its own heterotopias. There is no certain universal heterotopia norm. But they can be classed into two main categories: First are the heterotopias of crisis. They are privileged or sacred or forbidden places, reserved for individuals who are, in relation to society, in a state of crisis: menstruating or pregnant women, the elderly, etc. But these heterotopias of crisis are disappearing today and are being replaced by the second category: The heterotopias of deviation. Places like rest rooms, psychiatric hospitals and prisons.
  2. In one society, any existing heterotopia can be practised in different ways in certain historical periods, for example cemeteries. “Consequently cemeteries lost their function as holy and immortal centre of the city and became the other city.”
  3. Heterotopias can combine several spaces, which actually can never be together. Thus it is that the theatre brings onto the stage, one after the other, a whole series of places that are foreign to one another.
  4. The fourth principle is related to time and the first examples given by Foucault are the museum and the library, which are heterotopias of collected time. The past is reduced to a representation organized as display of artefacts (books, paintings, relicts, etc.) and the will to enclose in one place all times, all epochs, all forms. The idea of constituting a place of all times that is itself outside of all times, belongs to our modernity.
  5. A heterotopic space is not a freely entering place as public spaces. Either there is an obligatory entering as for prisons, or individuals have to submit to rites or purifications for religious or hygienic reasons.
  6. This principle concerns singular spaces within some given social spaces whose functions are different or even the opposite of others. To Foucault some 17th century puritan societies in America are the most extreme example of other spaces, a realized utopia, a very strict planned settlement that symbolizes the sign of Christianity and a mechanized order of communal life.

The reason why I introduce Foucault’s concept of heterotopias into the topic “Worlds of image” is to bring this concept to contemporary times especially in the context of the text “Anime, from Akira to Princess Mononoke” by Susan J. Napier and an interesting theory within the discussion of this text: The expansion of anime (utopia) into the real world. The city started to copy the structure of virtual sites of the internet, which creates a new, unprecedented city. At this point would be to discuss, whether the internet, the cyberspace is an utopia (which it rationally is) or an heterotopia, which also could be possible because the cyberspace does have certain rules and logics as well as borders and limits. Thus there is the creation of a new type of heterotopia: It is the mixture, the joint experience between utopia and heterotopia. Also Foucault described such a mixture: The mirror. Because the mirror is an utopia, since it is a placeless place. “In the mirror, I see myself where I am not, in an unreal, virtual space (…).” But the mirror also is a heterotopia, since it really exists. It makes the place that I occupy, at the moment when I look at myself in the glass absolutely real, it is the reflection of something really existing: utopia and heterotopia. In contemporary times not only the mirror confuses the distinction of utopia and heterotopia and moreover the distinction between the usual “places” and the “other spaces” in the sense of Foucault. These contradictions fade away in the context of the cyberspaced world.

Here is a video, to bring the point home! –MP


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This entry was posted on November 17, 2013 by in post.


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