15 May 2013
A recent email has prompted me to think again about Foucault’s fascination with mirrors and the links with his concept of heterotopia. The brief reflection draws upon Foucault’s analysis of Velasquez’s painting Las Meninas in the opening chapter of The Order of Things ; Foucault’s reference to heterotopia in the Preface to that book; his lecture on heterotopias ; and his analysis of Manet’s Un bar aux Folies-Bergère .
Put very simply, in The Order of Things, Foucault argues that before the end of the 18th century ‘man’ did not exist. As examples, he details how the Human Sciences had yet to delve into the ‘potency of life, the fecundity of labour and the historical destiny of language’. In other words, at the start of the 19th century, the new ‘sciences’ of biology, political economy and philology transformed notions of Classical representation found in the study of natural history, the analysis of wealth and general grammar.
In the first chapter of The Order of Things (following his Preface which introduces the notion of heterotopia), Foucault provides the now famous ‘reading’ of Velasquez’s painting Las Meninas. This chapter illustrates how the painting may form the ‘representation of Classical representation’, an essential void which is far removed from a previous era based on ‘resemblance’, and our later modern era that established the richness, productivity and depth of knowledge about ‘man’– which he mischievously indicates at the end of his book may itself disappear.
Such a simple summary does nothing to capture the complexity of Foucault’s argument, but returning to the piece on Las Meninas, it is striking how his deconstruction of the work includes what might be called certain heterotopic aspects centring on the spatial features of mirrors. The mirror represented in Velasquez’s painting is dwelt upon by Foucault but the painting as a whole also involves a complex play of gazes, mirroring and doubling which both reveals and conceals. For example, the painter represented in the painting is somewhere between ‘the visible and the invisible’. Our relationship with the painter’s gaze involves a ‘complex network of uncertainties, exchanges and feints’. The observer and observed take part in a ‘ceaseless exchange’, subject and object reversing their position to’ infinity’. A lit window in the painting opens up a space as manifest as other images in the painting are hidden. The actual mirror in the painting (traditional in Dutch painting of the time) provides a complex duplicating role, repeating the ‘original contents of the picture ‘inside an ‘unreal, modified, contracted, concave space’.
During this period (1966-71) Foucault seems fascinated by mirrors. In Las Meninas , the mirror hides as much as it reveals, but is also described as producing an ‘irruption rather than a reflection’. The mirror disturbs different relations between subjects and objects. It leaves a central void, leaving the Classical representation of representation. A few years later, in a lecture on Manet , he analyses Un bar aux Folies-Bergère, a painting representing a woman with a huge mirror behind her, reflecting her back and the occupants of the bar. Here Manet presents a puzzling series of spatial incompatibilities or distortions, a ‘place at once empty and occupied’. In particular, the place of the viewer is destabilised. Again, in his account of heterotopia , Foucault places the mirror between utopia and heterotopia. The latter offers placeless places, reflecting what is here and not here:
the mirror functions as a heterotopia in the sense that it makes this place I occupy at the moment I look at myself in the glass both utterly real, connected with the entire space surrounding it, and utterly unreal…
Heterotopia, in many different ways, both mirror and disrupt our surrounding space. It is this disruptive element that is the thread that joins the two main accounts of heterotopia: the elusive link between Borges’ radically unsettling heterotopic textual spaces that he introduces in his Preface to The Order of Things  and the various social sites described in his later lecture .
The series of spatial incompatibilities in the Manet painting produce for Foucault a feeling simultaneously of ‘enchantment and malaise’. Something similar might be said about our feelings when confronted by heterotopia as a whole: strangely interconnected, troublesome, uneasy and alluring.