Heterotopia (space)

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Heterotopia is a concept in human geography elaborated by philosopher Michel Foucault to describe places and spaces that function in non-hegemonic conditions. These are spaces of otherness, which are neither here nor there, that are simultaneously physical and mental, such as the space of a phone call or the moment when you see yourself in the mirror.

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. Foucault uses the term heterotopia to describe spaces that have more layers of meaning or relationships to other places than immediately meet the eye. In general, a heterotopia is a physical representation or approximation of a utopia, or a parallel space that contains undesirable bodies to make a real utopian space possible (like a prison).

Foucault uses the idea of a mirror as a metaphor for the duality and contradictions, the reality and the unreality of utopian projects. A mirror is metaphor for utopia because the image that you see in it does not exist, but it is also a heterotopia because the mirror is a real object that shapes the way you relate to your own image.

Foucault articulates several possible types of heterotopia or spaces that exhibit dual meanings:

  • A ‘crisis heterotopia’ is a separate space like a boarding school or a motel room where activities like coming of age or a honeymoon take place out of sight.
  • ‘Heterotopias of deviation’ are institutions where we place individuals whose behavior is outside the norm (hospitals, asylums, prisons, rest homes, cemetery).
  • Heterotopia can be a single real place that juxtaposes several spaces. A garden is a heterotopia because it is a real space meant to be a microcosm of different environments with plants from around the world.
  • 'Heterotopias of time' such as museums enclose in one place objects from all times and styles. They exist in time but also exist outside of time because they are built and preserved to be physically insusceptible to time’s ravages.
  • 'Heterotopias of ritual or purification' are spaces that are isolated and penetrable yet not freely accessible like a public place. To get in one must have permission and make certain gestures such as in a sauna or a hammin.
  • Heterotopia has a function in relation to all of the remaining spaces. The two functions are: heterotopia of illusion creates a space of illusion that exposes every real space, and the heterotopia of compensation is to create a real space—a space that is other.

Human geographers often connected to the postmodernist school have been using the term (and the author's propositions) to help understand the contemporary emergence of (cultural, social, political, economic) difference and identity as a central issue in larger multicultural cities. The idea of place (more often related to ethnicity and gender and less often to the social class issue) as a heterotopic entity has been gaining attention in the current context of postmodern, post-structuralist theoretical discussion (and political practice) in Geography and other spatial social sciences. The concept of a heterotopia has also been discussed in relation to the space that learning takes place in (Blair, 2009). There is an extensive debate with theorists, such as David Harvey, that remain focused on the matter of class domination as the central determinant of social heteronomy.

Foucault's elaborations on heterotopias were published in an article entitled Des espaces autres (Of Other Spaces). The philosopher calls for a society with many heterotopias, not only as a space with several places of/for the affirmation of difference, but also as a means of escape from authoritarianism and repression, stating metaphorically that if we take the ship as the utmost heterotopia, a society without ships is inherently a repressive one, in a clear reference to Stalinism.

The geographer Edward Soja has worked with this concept in dialogue with the works of Henri Lefebvre concerning urban space in the book Thirdspace.

In Utopia and The Village in South Asian Literatures, Anupama Mohan extends and reworks Foucault's concept of heterotopia as a way to understand the impulses of 21st century literatures of South Asia that are focused on the village or the rural as a literary trope. Mohan revives the conceptual ambivalence latent in utopia as good-place and no-place in order to theorize key ruptures within Foucault's explanations of heterotopia. For Mohan, heterotopia helps to recuperate as well as distinguish utopia from what she calls homotopia, or visions of social collectivization whose claims to utopia are built on homogenizing features or bases such as a common religion, language, or culture.

Heterotopian Studies is a website launched May 2012 and devoted to exploring Foucault's ideas on heterotopia.

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