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‘We must think that what exists is far from filling all possible spaces’  (Michel Foucault)

‘In the places where thought has not yet been, it is difficult to think’  (Michel Serres)

 The site is devoted to Michel Foucault’s ideas on heterotopia. Foucault outlines the notion of heterotopia on three occasions between 1966-67. A talk given to a group of architects is the most well-known explanation of the term. Overall, Foucault attempts to describe various relational principles and features of certain social, institutional and discursive spaces that are somehow ‘different’:  isolated, concentrated and incompatible. In a nutshell, heterotopias are worlds within worlds, mirroring and yet distinguishing themselves from what is outside. Foucault discribes a bewildering set of examples, including utopian communities, ships, cemeteries, brothels, prisons, gardens of antiquity, fairs, Turkish baths and many more.

Foucault presents a few thumb-nail sketches which he never develops into a coherent idea. And yet his tantalisingly brief words on the subject have provoked a cottage industry that has generated  hundreds of interpretations and applications. For example, in relation to studies of literature and film, on average two or three articles referring to heterotopia are published each week. Artists, film makers, performers, academics and many others have been drawn to this elusive concept.

From series 'Heterotopia' by Fiona Ackerman (2011)
From series ‘Heterotopia’ by Fiona Ackerman (2011)

Some applications of heterotopia are gestural and unconvincing. The technical term slips easily into a plethora of post-graduate studies, offering a semblance of conceptual underpinning.  The irony arises that a notion that is above all about  ‘difference’ becomes repeated or copied endlessly. However, there have also been a range of thoughtful and helpful explorative studies and reflections, taking the idea to new spaces of thought and representation.

I have wrestled with the notion of heterotopia for some years. The interpretation that I have consistently contested views heterotopias as fundamentally resistant to dominant values and practices, as essentially transgressive. Hetherington’s influential study argued persuasively against such a dualistic conception of heterotopia in his book published in 1997, but it continually resurfaces.

As Hetherington confirms, heterotopias’ heyday was in the nineteenth century. I would argue that since then these spaces as described by Foucault  have been in decline except for a few disciplinary spaces such as prisons which have tended to intensify. There are a few remnants of ‘old’ heterotopias but their significance as offering a fundamental difference to the rest of space has deteriorated. The emergence of advanced communication technologies, the internet and social media has further transformed traditional heterotopias. (I develop this argument in relation to brothels in a chapter of a book to be published in 2021). The emerging ‘network’ society also prompts us to rethink forms of heterotopia well beyond Foucault’s conceptions. (This theme will be developed in a chapter to be published next year by Routledge – in print, see Bio).

With recent prompts and signposts from reading the work of Michel Serres, I have come to the conclusion that just at the time Foucault was thinking about heterotopia (1966-67) the world was starting to change fundamentally, as Foucault  himself presciently indicates at the beginning of his lecture. A new global. digital era was dawning, transforming our experience of space and time.  In the contemporary epoch the whole world is fast becoming a “different space”. For heterotopia to be relevant today, it has to be rethought entirely through our present global-digital era.

Above all I hope the website prevents a too easy assimilation of the idea, a recognition that heterotopia is as problematic as suggestive.

The site is self-funded, so any financial contributions from individuals or organisations would greatly help to sustain the site and develop its potential.

Peter Johnson

Updated October 2019

35 Comments

  1. Peter Johnson
    June 8, 2019 @ 2:40 pm

    The second exhibition at the 2019 Venice Biennale with the subject as heterotopia. Malta’s pavillion: Maleth / Haven / Port – Heterotopias of Evocation

    Dr Hesperia Iliadou Suppiej (lead curator), Vince Briffa (artist), Klitsa Antoniou (artist), Trevor Borg (artist) and Perit Matthew Joseph Casha (architect/designer). Borg, Briffa and Antoniou

    https://www.aestheticamagazine.com/heterotopia-today/

    Reply

  2. Peter Johnson
    April 13, 2019 @ 11:41 am

    26 February – 9 July, 2019. San Francisco Airport, Terminal 1 (post security)

    https://www.flysfo.com/museum/exhibitions/karine-laval-heterotopia

    In her series, Heterotopia, Brooklyn-based artist Karine Laval produces dreamlike images that challenge and transform our experience of the natural world. The series’ title is borrowed from French philosopher Michel Foucault, who used the word to describe places that exist in the world, but are “neither here, nor there,” explains Laval. And while her source material may be recognizable—various private and public gardens throughout the United States and Europe—the resulting images are abstracted, distorted, and shifted into another realm altogether.
    Utilizing two-way mirrors and Mylar sheeting, the artist uses the natural environment as both subject matter and plein air studio, transforming ordinary landscapes into a series of kaleidoscopic composites that oscillate between the real and the imaginary. Riding a fine line between representation and abstraction, Laval’s images challenge our perception and highlight photography’s ability to simultaneously reveal, conceal, and distort reality.

    Reply

  3. Mariana Jorge Lozano
    September 24, 2018 @ 1:21 pm

    Hello everyone,

    My name is Mariana and I am currently working on my PhD thesis South African Gay Narratives, Michel Foucault and the Un-queer politics of Apartheid: Panopticism in the Age of Homophobia. I am finding this web site very interesting, as I use the concept of heterotopia often in my thesis. I am interested in the educational space (i. e. the boarding school) as a place of sexual dissidence and as a heterotopia. Any thoughts on that? Any bibliography that you can suggest? Thank you and keep up the good work!!

    Reply

    • Peter Johnson
      September 25, 2018 @ 10:06 am

      Hello Mariana
      Thanks for your interest in the website. In terms of literature, I cannot think of anything beyond the references in my bibliography, particularly under the topic headings of ‘Education and Health Studies’ and ‘Gender, Sexuality and Queer Studies’. There’s quite a lot that overlaps with the themes you are studying. In relation to South Africa generally I would also look at:

      Villet, C (2018) ‘South Africa as postcolonial heterotopia: The racialized experience of place and space’, Foucault Studies 24: 12-33.

      https://rauli.cbs.dk/index.php/foucault-studies/index

      If I come across anything else I will let you know.
      all the best
      Peter

      Reply

  4. Jetteke de Vries
    August 24, 2018 @ 8:59 am

    Hi Peter,

    This is such a wonderful site! This would have helped me a lot while I was writing my Masters dissertation about dislocation of cultural identity and the emergence of a third space which functions as a heterotopia. Foucault is difficult to wrap your brain around!

    I am investigating possibilities for my PhD at the moment, I’m still in the beginning stages, but I would like an opinion about one of my research topic ideas…

    Since completing my Masters in Fine Art I have become an art teacher at high school level. I am currently playing with the idea of the art studio functioning as a heterotopia and how visual arts learners differ from other learners in their development and growth as individuals because of their exposure to the Visual Arts curriculum. There are obviously broader concepts of pedagogy and psychology at work here and I will link this to my masters research into identity. I can’t stop thinking about studio practice and how the art studio is seen as this mysterious place that is part of, yet completely separate from, the rest of the school. Similarly Visual Arts learners perpetuate the stereotype of being “arty” by elevating the studio to this magical place where non-creative learners are barred access. Its like a VIP club of their own making.

    Am I on the right track in arguing that a space like an art studio can function as a heterotopia within the broader scope of Visual Arts education?

    I’ve included the link to my Master’s dissertation because I discuss the link between identity formation and heterotopic spaces.

    https://openscholar.dut.ac.za/bitstream/10321/1434/1/DE%20VRIES_2015.pdf

    Any advice or input would be greatly appreciated! 🙂

    Reply

    • Peter Johnson
      August 24, 2018 @ 1:30 pm

      Hello Jetteke

      I am pleased that you have enjoyed the website. I certainly think your idea is worth exploring. I have worked in various colleges of further and higher education (as they are called in the UK) and know what you mean about art students (and staff) and their often rather ‘special’ view of themselves as well as their work environment. Perhaps there is a tension here with the trend to try and make art more ‘accessible’ and ‘relevant’ and also an interesting juxtaposition with the use of art as therapy in prisons, hospitals, care homes etc.

      The artist Fiona Ackerman has explored the notion of the art studio as heterotopia in some of her work (2012). http://www.fionaackerman.com/work-avenue/#/heterotopia-2012/

      With regards to your Masters and changing subject identity in South Africa have you come across articles by Charles Villet published in a recent special issue of ‘Foucault Studies’ devoted to Foucauldian Spaces.

      Villet, C (2018) ‘South Africa as postcolonial heterotopia: The racialized experience of place and space’, Foucault Studies 24: 12-33.

      I have not looked closely at the question of identity in relation to heterotopia but it is an interesting avenue to explore. My ‘topic’ bibliography does not have a separate section for it (as yet) but it does surface especially in relation to themes of migration.

      Do keep in touch with your progress and good luck!

      best wishes
      Peter

      Reply

  5. Benjamin Riley
    May 30, 2018 @ 9:28 am

    Hello Peter,

    My name is Ben Riley and I am currently an international PhD student and researcher at the Institute of Humanities in Yeungnam University, South Kroea.

    Currently our institute is expanding research around the topic of “Heterotopia in East Asia” and we found your website to be unique and insightful in the promotion of research on heterotopias. For this purpose, and at the request of the senior researchers in our institute, I am reaching out to suggest future collaboration/academic exchange with you and your associates, as we believe that the concept of your website has the potential to grow into a meaningful international platform with publications and symposiums.

    Our interest in this topic has been constantly increasing since our institute held a national symposium that invited experts and research institutes from around Korea in 2014 titled “Heterotopia in Mancuria”. This symposium brought scores of Korean presenters, researchers, and participants together to discuss various topics from Heterotopia and Colonialism, Heterotopia in Manchurian Subcultures, etc. Since this symposium, our interest in heterotopian research has greatly expanded and has shifted our research efforts to other East Asian regions such as the Demilitarized Zone(DMZ) of the Two Koreas, Hong Kong in China, Okinawa under Japan, etc.

    We wish you the best of luck with your research and your website and we look forward to hearing from you.

    Sincerely,

    Ben Riley

    Reply

    • Peter Johnson
      June 5, 2018 @ 9:37 am

      Thank you Ben for this informative and encouraging message. I am certainly interested in your project -as it happens I have just returned from a few weeks in Japan (a place with so many varied heterotopias, in many respects very unlike those in Europe. I will write more to you in an email soon.
      best wishes
      Peter

      Reply

  6. Esteban Sánchez Oeconomo
    March 31, 2018 @ 2:27 am

    Hello Peter,

    Thank you for this amazing site. I’m finishing a master in history of science in EHESS and look forward to pursue this themes in a doctoral thesis.

    I’ve just finished reading all of the ressources you published here, in order to ask for some advice.
    Concretely, I would like to know your opinion on the efficacy of the concept for analyzing World’s fairs. I need concepts that help me understand the complexe spatio-temporal configurations of these events.

    In all the bibliography you gathered, I see only one reference : “Managing the Lady Managers: The Shaping of Heterotopian Spaces in the 1893 Chicago Exposition’s Woman’s Building”, Wood A.
    I also know that Guido Abbatista has mentioned the interest of heterotopia for ethno-exhibitions at Worlds fairs (he also speaks about Bahktin’s chronotope, as suggested by Alexander Geppert)

    I study the Mexican Pavillon at the Paris 1900 Exposition Universelle. I feel that heterotopia is a fruitful instrument to understand it’s spacio/temporal dimensions (it projected a national image of Mexico trough a scientific, historic and artistic discourse). Only, there may be some major flaws… the pavillon was designed by Mexican elites and hence, it lacks the disruptive/transgressive element, as well as the utopian (transformation) dimension.
    Still, I think it comports a lot of compatible elements : it juxtaposes in a single space several incompatible spatial element. It is, as the persan garden, a microcosm that aims to represent the entirety of the Mexican Nation (as a space, as a nation with a history). it also encapsulates temporal discontinuity or accumulation (very closely to Foucault’s example of fairs and museums).
    The only compatibility with utopianism seems to be in Harvey’s notion, since it would be a static and normative spatial fantasy of the ideal Mexico. But I know you are reluctant to his views.
    It’s not a space of transgression, but it surely creates spatio-temporal configurations that contrasts with the exterior and creates all sort of complex relations with the space of the exhibition, witch itself seeks to be a representation of the world by modern criteria.

    Would it be incorrect to call heterotopia a place of material disposal of the dominant ideology ?

    Reply

    • Peter Johnson
      April 3, 2018 @ 1:08 pm

      Hello Esteban
      I am glad you found the website helpful and thanks for your thoughts and questions. I will get back to you shortly.
      best wishes
      Peter

      Reply

    • Peter Johnson
      April 6, 2018 @ 11:23 am

      Hi again
      Here are a few thoughts. I certainly think that a world fair could be usefully analysed through the notion of heterotopia. As you say there is overlap with Foucault’s examples of spaces drenched in time – both the accumulation of objects of the museum and the fleetingness of the fair (and I like the reference to gardens and incompatible spaces too). As you know, I do not think that heterotopias are necessarily about transgression/disruption or resistance in any simple way. There may well be a utopian element but not transformative. I don’t think Harvey is much help here. There is no ideal type of a heterotopia. As Hetherington says, heterotopias are relational; in some sense they don’t exist except in relation to other sites.

      You ask: ‘Would it be incorrect to call heterotopia a place of material disposal of the dominant ideology?’ As one aspect of your example, perhaps, but not overall; the space needs to be seen in context of the tensions of the other principles involved. Heterotopia is not a settled concept of space/time. (Foucault did not like the notion of ideology, as it suggests there is something opposite IE truth).
      For a non-Foucauldian perspective (although he uses term heterotopia) you might try looking at Lefebvre’s ‘The Urban Revolution’, where he mentions the exhibition space in Montreal (Expo 67?) – see section 6 Urban Form.

      Let me know if you have any other thoughts/questions.
      Peter

      Reply

  7. Peter Johnson
    March 21, 2018 @ 4:26 pm

    Thanks to Helen Meads for the following list of literature related to heterotopia and religion:

    Carrette, Jeremy R. 2000. Foucault and Religion: Spiritual Corporality and Political
    Spirituality. London, Routledge, 58 & 107.

    Meads, Helen Claire. 2011. ‘”Experiment with Light” In Britain: The heterotopian nature of a contemporary Quaker spiritual practice.’ Phh.D. Thesis, University of Birmingham. http://etheses.bham.ac.uk/3076/1/Meads11PhD.pdf, accessed 3 March, 2018.

    Pilgrim, Gay. 2003a. ‘Contemporary British Quakerism.’ Paper presented at the
    Woodbrooke Sunday Lectures, 29 June 2003.

    ———. 2003b. ‘The Quakers: towards an Alternate Ordering.’ In Predicting Religion:
    Christian, Secular and Alternative Futures, edited by Grace Davie, Linda
    Woodhead and Paul Heelas, 147-158. Aldershot, Ashgate.

    ———. 2004. ‘Taming Anarchy: Quaker Alternate Ordering and “Otherness”.’ In The
    Creation of Quaker Theory: Insider Perspectives, edited by Pink Dandelion,
    206-225. Aldershot, Ashgate Publishing.

    ———. 2008. ‘British Quakerism as Heterotopic.’ In The Quaker Condition: The
    Sociology of a Liberal Religion, edited by Pink Dandelion and Peter Collins,
    53-67. Cambridge, Cambridge Scholars Publishing.

    Shackley, Myra. 2002. ‘Space, Sanctity and Service; the English Cathedral as
    Heterotopia.’ International Journal of Tourism Research 4, 345-352.

    Smith, Simon Gareth. 1997. ‘Buddhism and the Postmodern: The Nature of Identity
    and Tradition in Contemporary Society.’ Unpublished Ph.D. Thesis,
    University of Leeds, 24, 106 & 158.

    Reply

  8. Peter Johnson
    September 13, 2017 @ 10:53 am

    Just a quick response for now – I think with the contemporary campus the question is whether they are becoming more similar to, or different from, the rest of space IE what’s outside. I can see arguments both ways with arguments backing the former pretty strong EG becoming more inclusive. Perhaps the closest link with heterotopia surrounds time and rites of passage. Like a prison or an old people’s home (in some respects!) you go there for a set time, a concentrated period with certain rituals attached. The other avenue to explore might be the relationship with utopia – to what extent are these campuses fleeting, concrete utopias? My bibliography under education topic should help.

    Not sure how Lefebvre’s version of heterotopia would fit. What are your lines of enquiry here?
    Peter

    Reply

  9. Ana Grynbaum
    August 10, 2017 @ 12:25 pm

    Dear Peter,
    I hope you are very well.
    I am writing again to let you know that I have published an article about the swimming pool as a hetherotopy. I leave the link to my blog: http://lissardigrynbaum.blogspot.com.uy/2017/08/ana-grynbaum-la-piscina-como-heterotopia.html
    Kindest regards,
    Ana.-

    Reply

    • Peter Johnson
      August 10, 2017 @ 3:27 pm

      Dear Ana
      Many thanks for the link to your article.
      best wishes
      Peter

      Reply

  10. Ana Grynbaum
    March 11, 2016 @ 9:51 am

    Dear Peter,
    Thank-you for the so interesting and delightful site you are developing.
    It was really useful for me to think about what I call erotopia, meaning a certain kind of subjective utopian space, in the work of a Uruguayan writer called Ercole Lissardi.
    I leave the link to the entry of my blog where I develop the concept of erotopia in connection with the concepts of heterotopia, pornotopia, utopia and dystopia.
    http://lissardigrynbaum.blogspot.com.uy/2016/03/ana-grynbaum-la-erotopia-melomana-de.html
    Kindest regards,
    Ana Grynbaum.-

    Reply

    • Peter Johnson
      March 11, 2016 @ 12:43 pm

      Thank you Ana. I am pleased that you have found the site helpful and stimulating. Thanks also for the link to your blog. I find the connection with Piranesi’s Carceri works particularly fascinating and one that I would like to explore further with student architects.

      best wishes
      Peter

      Reply

  11. Johnny
    November 11, 2015 @ 12:19 pm

    Hi Peter, I was just wondering if you could help me with the whole concept of Heterotopia. I have to connect the notion of heterotopia with a dystopian novel 1984, so if you could just tell me something that could connect them on any level, I would appreciate it very much.
    Thanks!

    Reply

    • Peter Johnson
      November 11, 2015 @ 4:04 pm

      Hi Johnny
      My thought is that the world presented in 1984 is almost the exact opposite of heterotopia. As far as I recall, 1984 is about a movement to sameness, to conformity, a sort of homotopia. In contrast heterotopias are small worlds within worlds, reflecting, contrasting, inverting and so on. So for me the connection is one of contrast: the loss of and the desire for difference. As Foucault says at the end of his talk on heterotopia, “in civilisations without ships (ie heterotopias of some sort) the dreams dry up, espionage takes the place of adventure, and the police that of corsairs”.

      1984 is a place without heterotopias – discuss!!

      Good luck with your studies and feel free to get back.

      Peter

      Reply

      • Johnny
        November 16, 2015 @ 7:14 am

        Wow, thank you very much, I hope this will be helpful and of course, I appreciate your help. As much as I understood, the professor asked from us to find heterotopia in the novel, but I guess your answer will be good. If you have time to write something more about it, I would be very thankful, and this site is great by he way.

        Cheers!

        Johnny

        Reply

        • Peter Johnson
          November 18, 2015 @ 9:37 am

          Johnny
          All I would add is that you should avoid the trap of binary thinking here. It is not heterotopia v homotopia, but heterotopia opens up invention (good and bad), difference, experimentation, new connections, hidden worlds. You will find these in the novel but those in control are stamping them out. It’s been put to me that Room 101 might be a heterotopia……

          all the best
          Peter

          Reply

  12. chady waked
    September 26, 2015 @ 7:52 am

    Hello there ….

    Thank you peter for this amazing website.

    I am currently studying the relation between Heterotopia and Prisons,i am trying to design a prison or best to call it a -rehabilitation center, I was wondering if you could help me out here with some ideas that best help me to understand the concept more and dive into my design concepts that would be derived from Heterotopia.

    Reply

  13. Judy
    September 3, 2015 @ 1:55 pm

    Hey Peter,
    I came across your site by accident and i have been greatly inspired by your thoughts and the resources you have provided. I am currently doing research for my master thesis and I decided to write about heterogenous urban space, since heterotopia itself has such rich meaning and is inevitably linked to philosophy, and I feel in the context of urban studies, maybe the philosophical aspect of the term could be somewhat simplified, so I have been thinking of using heterogenous space instead. Because heterogeneity is one of the most important features of postmodern urbanism, I intend to explore the relationship between spaces produced by social norms and those produced by other forces, and explain the way that these heterogenous spaces construct themselves and be constructed by the outside world. I wonder if this is possible, since I am not sure whether this term could be applied on a much larger scale, which is the urban scale. I would really like to hear your advice.Thanks a lot

    With best regards
    Judy

    Reply

    • Peter Johnson
      September 7, 2015 @ 2:15 pm

      Hi Judy
      Yes, to use heterotopia does come with a weight of perspectives linked to philosophy and many other academic disciplines. Heterogeneity is a much wider term which would seem to fit well with your research focus.

      best of luck
      Peter

      Reply

  14. Late utopian
    April 23, 2015 @ 4:35 pm

    Just found your really interesting website. I am currently constructing a sail for my Foundation a Studies Utopian project- my idea was the sail as an embodiment of the Utopian impulse. Linked with this I have become interested in the various Welsh migrations around the globe & their various motives & outcomes. Your site is helping clarify some of those ideas. Thank you.

    Reply

    • Peter Johnson
      April 24, 2015 @ 11:22 am

      Glad you found the site helpful. The utopian sail sounds fascinating. Keep in touch and perhaps send some images if possible to heterotopianstudies@gmail.com

      best wishes
      Peter

      Reply

  15. stud-student
    January 4, 2015 @ 6:20 pm

    Thnak you.

    Reply

  16. Sean Mayl
    January 2, 2015 @ 8:08 pm

    Hi Peter,

    Wonderful forum you have going on here. I am in my final year of architecture. I am currently researching for my dissertation. The title is going to be along the lines of “Sketching Heterotopias- A study of the spaces in Game of Thrones”. Basically, through the written text of Game of Thrones, I am analysing the spaces created in them, and interpreting them in the form of sketches. I was wondering if you have any idea of any similar books whereby spaces in literature are interpreted by artists.( I guess when books become movies this happens always) but I was wondering if you knew of any relevant books or information on the topic. Thanks so much in advance,

    Sean

    Reply

  17. Brian Frederick
    September 12, 2014 @ 12:12 am

    Hallelujah. I have been attempting to deconstruct this concept for quite some time now… on my own, as it were. It’s somewhat of a blessing (and a curse at times) that Foucault left us with something so open to interpretation.

    Thank you for the ‘space’.

    Reply

  18. Stacey W.
    September 1, 2014 @ 2:54 am

    My profound gratitude to you, Peter, for putting together this wonderful forum…it has proved to be an invaluable tool in assisting my PhD research. Thank you.

    Reply

  19. KDavies
    October 22, 2013 @ 12:07 am

    Hi Peter,

    Great site, thank you!

    I am currently writing my dissertation about play worlds and the importance of play. Heterotopian spaces are still somewhat hazy for me. Perhaps I haven’t delved into enough research on it! But I was wondering, would the theatre be described as a heterotopic space? I have also heard that ritual is often needed (or effective?) upon ‘entering’ a heterotopic space – like a heterotopic transition. If this is so, could you explain this and/or give and example of this? Would an art gallery be considered as a heterotopic space? And would it be the journey to the gallery, or something of that nature, as the ‘heterotopic transition’??

    Thank you! 🙂

    Reply

  20. Wislaine Carneiro de Oliveira
    March 25, 2013 @ 4:51 pm

    hello, I’m glad to find this site, I’m from Brazil and researching cemeteries by theoretical bias of Foucaut and heterotopias, there is someone more than your research topic is similar?

    Reply

  21. The Global Perambulator
    June 3, 2012 @ 11:02 am

    This looks like a wonderful project.

    Reply

  22. Russell
    May 22, 2012 @ 4:12 pm

    Nice to find a ‘different space’ on the web to enjoy.

    Reply

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