‘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 notion is open-ended and confusing, with the latter often becoming exacerbated. There have also been a range of thoughtful and helpful explorative studies and critical reflections.
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.
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 he presciently indicates at the beginning of his lecture. A new global ‘network’ era was dawning, transforming our experience of space and time. His examples of heterotopia are historical tracing back to antiquity but mainly focussing on the 18th and 19th century. In the contemporary era the whole world was fast becoming a “different space”. For heterotopia to be relevant today, it has to be rethought entirely through our global era.
Above all I hope the website prevents a too easy assimilation of the idea, a recognition that is as problematic as suggestive.
Aiming to be the hub of a network of contributions, please add comments to individual pages and my blog and send in your own text and suggested links.
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 July 2019