11 June 2012
Much of my thinking has been an attempt to undermine the use of heterotopia as a handy, simplistic device to discuss various forms of resistance. Here is a typical example taken from Werbner’s introduction to Debating Cultural Hybridity:
Modernist hybridity theory looked to sites of resistance and exclusion, as in Foucault’s analysis of heterotopic spaces. Similarly, (my italics) Barthes, Bourdieu and Bakhtin analysed popular mass culture and carnival as subversive and revitalising inversions of official discourses, high-cultural aesthetic forms or the exclusive lifestyles of dominant elites (1997:2)
The assumption here is that Foucault’s ‘different spaces’ are sites for resistance to the dominant culture. This may be one interpretation, but where is the evidence? Who has actually argued for this ‘reading’ of his lecture? Hetherington makes a case opposing this interpretation, but what is he arguing against?
In general, the term (heterotopia) has been used to try and capture something of the significance of sites of marginality that act as postmodern spaces for resistance and transgression – treating them in many ways as liminal spaces (see van Gennep 1960; Turner 1969)
What is curious here is that the two references provided do not relate directly to Foucault’s concept. They concern liminal spaces but it is Hetherington who links them before arguing against the link. No one has made a sustained argument for the ‘transgressive’ position. Genocchio, whose paper is often cited as a key text about heterotopia, again makes the same assumption by stating that many of the new theorists of space have applied the term heterotopia to expose “counter-sites embodying a form of ‘resistance’ to our increasingly surveyed, segregated and simulated socio-spatial order” (1995:38). This time, although Genocchio goes on to critique such a position, no references to those who might hold it are given at all.
The perpetuation of this mythical notion about Foucault’s work seems endless but one more example must suffice. Don Mitchell’s chapter in Postmodern Geography presents a coruscating attack on Soja’s notion of ‘Thirdspace’ (Mitchell, 2001). However, he misrepresents Soja as urging political activists and theorists to seek a ‘Thirdspace’, aligned to heterotopia, for “resistance and transgression”. There may be many problems with Soja’s notion of Thirdspace based on his reading of heterotopia, but overall he avoids coupling the term with aspects of resistance and transgression, apart from the very last page of the book where he presents a “prose poem” which looks forward to his forthcoming book entitled Postmetropolis. This is where Mitchell finds his quotation, but it is out of context and not at all within the main arguments of the book.
How is it that ‘heterotopia’ has become a shorthand device, and often a rhetorical technique, for bundling up a range of misconceptions, which are then often set up to be argued against? A number of factors seem to come into play. Firstly, there is the general context of coupling Foucault with postmodern thought. This allows his thought to be part of the narrative of the postmodern and be associated with all the bewildering contested and contradictory notions and connotations of the term. Secondly, Foucault’s preoccupation with questions of power, in what might be called the middle period of his career following the events in Paris in 1968 are often served as an inappropriate backdrop to his provisional outline of heterotopias. Thirdly, the terms themselves, ‘heterotopia’, ‘other’, ‘difference’ have connotations that easily lead to misinterpretation, particularly if one relies on general notions of what Foucault’s thought is about, rather than the lecture itself.
In some ways the misapplication of the notion of heterotopia parallels the wider misuse of the term ‘panopticon’. The latter term appears frequently, even in Foucault’s life time (much to his annoyance and frustration) as a way of reducing his analysis of power relations to a simplistic figure (Foucault, 1989:183).
However, having worked against these casual assumptions about the link between heterotopia and transgression and resistance, I am open to projects that may substantiate such a link. Recently, there has been a number of articles and research papers that argue for a transformative approach to heterotopia (see bibliography and the recent work of Freerk Boedeltje). Let me know of other work and I will add it to the site.