‘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.
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.
Updated October 2019