Clarifying the Heterotopic

Heteropia is a word which originates with Michel Foucault, derived from the Greek héteros (other) and tópos (place). Its meaning is most concretely delineated in his essay “Of Other Spaces: Utopias and Heterotopias” (from the French “Des Espace Autres,” March 1967), though the phrasing “concretely delineatedmay be overly generous. Foucault’s own definition of the heterotopic varies from lecture to lecture, and the aforementioned paper contradicts itself both inter- and intra-paragraph. Yet the term’s formulation has touched some nerve in academia, leading to a wide range of scholarly implementations which somehow must be reconciled and dealt with.

I write in “Post-Ritual Space: Berghain,”

Heterotopia, in the wake of Foucault’s influential coinage, has been so broadly interpreted, adapted, and reimagined that it lacks much definition today beyond being an “other place” bearing some relationship to both 1) the existing and/or hegemonic order, and 2) said order’s utopic vision.

These spaces appear to be of two general types, though they can also often be classified as being in either category simultaneously, depending on one’s framing. This page is a brief attempt to clarify and/or ossify the meaning of this term, at the very least as is used throughout this site.

One brand of heterotopia is socially mandated; it includes spaces such as prisons where a popular majority, government, or hegemonic order has sequestered undesirable peoples in an attempt to make society at large closer to its utopic vision. This can be dangerous:

Once the dream of paradise starts to turn into reality… here and there people begin to crop up who stand in its way, and so the rulers of paradise must build a little gulag on the side of Eden. In the course of time, this gulag grows ever bigger and more perfect, while the adjoining paradise gets ever smaller and poorer.

— Milan Kundera, Book of Laughter and Forgetting

The specificities of the heterotopia, then, serve as a reflection of its society’s deepest fears, desires, and longings. Nostalgia is a sort of heterotopic sentiment among such pastoralists as believe Eden both existed and was lost.

Heterotopias can also be spaces to which people voluntarily escape, often temporarily and often in order to perform illicit acts which, if performed inside the larger social structure, would somehow threaten it. Heterotopias thus are both outside and inside the system depending on how one defines “system; they may function as a sort of Saturnalian pressure valve, which through purging are in fact acts of preservation. Foucault himself uses the honeymoon hotel as an example, however dated, of such a space.

Obviously these boxes are not tidy, and one can see a way in which the honeymooner is both forced outside society while also leaving of his own volition.

Heterotopias are inherently relational. In theory, as Chris Beiser has argued, almost anything can be considered heterotopic in relation to something else. A psychedelic headspace is conceivably heterotopic to sobriety, in that it allows otherwise illicit thoughts to unfold (thoughts not allowed or capable of arising within a sober mindset). This moves the sober mind arguably closer to a utopic version of itself, perhaps helping contain certain dangerous thoughts or else allowing repressed emotions depending on the individual. Still, such an implementation borders on an abuse of the spirit of heterotopia, in that the utopic or anti-utopic qualities are not of primary concern.

Jameson McBride’s penetrating essay on the rise and fall of the group Post Aesthetics interacts profitably with the concept of heterotopia. The narrative McBride crafts, which does surprising justice to the group’s (subjectively and personally experienced) reality, is of a virtual space starting out as an other place, quickly becoming a “the” place, a system which purged and exiled members in order to preserve some utopian vision of a perfectly just or at least self-correcting world. The way in which Post Aesthetics’ splintered, and the very concept of an “a ‘the’ place” to begin with, are equal indicators of counter-culture’s binary obsolescence. It evidences a world in which there are a plethora of examples and varieties of heterotopia, each conditional instead of absolute.

In any formulation then, the heterotopic is not so far from Turner’s idea of the antistructural: any and all set of alternatives to the current social system. Any and all counter- or subcultural arenas which exist in dialectic with “the” culture can therefore be seen as heterotopic.

Examples of Heterotopias:

1 Comment

  1. I find it so fascinating how texts say different things to different people. This in particular is constructed out of categories and concepts that just don’t gel at all with what’s installed in my brain. As a result, the abstractions stay abstractions and no examples are automatically conjured in the back of my head, making everything sound nebulous and meaningless. Half the time I don’t understand what things are referring to, and when I do my response is a simple shrug of “eh so what, that’s not interesting”.

    Foucault and his general type are such writers, and the more I read about him the less I seem to like him and his writing/thinking (but I’m drawn towards this stuff too, thinking there must be something there I’m not getting – which of course is intolerable). It’s interesting to contemplate that many of the texts I find the most insightful and revelatory probably feels similarly “off” to people with highly different mind-architectures.

    I wonder if it’s possible to produce some textual “mind-altering drug” that can make you feel like you’re coming from a different intellectual background.

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