‘More often than not, heterotopias are connected with temporal discontinuities; that is, they open onto what might be called … heterochronias. The heterotopia begins to function fully when people are in a kind of absolute break with their traditional time…’
My journey to heterotopia
The notion of heterotopia prompted me to reflect on places that I had experienced and also made me alert to the potential heterotopian aspects within social and cultural spaces that I came across on my travels. Of the many examples I could recall, I think especially of the small, compact Cimetière Marin on the promontory of Bonifacio at the southern tip of Corsica. Perched on the cliff’s edge, the cemetery appears like a small town, containing immaculate family mausoleums, like small houses or villas, with doors leading onto narrow enclosed streets.
The similarities between a city and the grand cemeteries of Paris, such as Père Lachaise, have often been reflected upon, but here the similarities and differences were more intense, exacerbated by the cemetery’s positioning on the edge of an island and its miniature scale. I once caught a family having a picnic just outside the main gate, a temporary emplacement, outside the permanent monuments to the dead. The mirroring of death and life seemed to encapsulate an aspect of what Foucault calls ‘heterochronia’, emphasising both the accretion and precariousness of time. I felt that heterotopia might be as much to do with time as space.
Another fascinating space that I encountered was Derek Jarman’s garden set on the shoreline of Dungeness in Kent (UK). The garden has been created within a most unpromising environment, amongst desert-like shingle and open to biting winds. It is overlooked by two huge nuclear power stations. And yet to step into the garden is to step into another world, a precarious enclosure of stone circles and magical sculptures formed from debris washed up on the shore.
In particular, the space seemed to capture what Schama calls the two sustaining aspects of arcadia: the ‘shaggy’ and the ‘smooth’ or a site of both ‘bucolic leisure’ and ‘primitive panic’. The spatial ambivalence here rather than the temporal ambiguity found in the cemetery fascinated me. But I also became attentive to gardens and other spaces that grew up in the most unpromising and unexpected places. Jarman recalls a fantastic garden he came across in Baku, Azerbaijan. The gardener had built a memorial for his daughter amidst bleak housing blocks: ‘one hundred concrete animals, exquisite leaping deer, leopard sand lions, as well as leafy bowers and a ziggurat with a spiral staircase’. The Eden Project in Cornwall, South England, is another example here: science fiction green houses built inside a derelict crater. Foucault suggested that gardens were ‘the oldest example of heterotopia’.
But perhaps the most striking experience of encountering a ‘different space’ that seemed to reverberate with Foucault’s principles and features of heterotopia occurred when attending various music festivals, in particular the now hugely celebrated Glastonbury Festival. Since its inception in 1970, Glastonbury has become the biggest green-field music and performing arts festival in the world and a template for many other festivals. Similarities with Foucault’s brief sketch of heterotopia seemed to include how the vast, teeming space grows. suddenly and then disappears each year; how the space marks both a temporal and spatial break, how it features a play of the ‘transient and precarious’ as well as a ‘system of opening and closing’, how it involves a series of rituals and, finally, how it incorporates various utopian themes. The festival might seem a rather clichéd example, but it struck me that taking Foucault’s spatial precepts threw a new light on how it functions without drawing upon two standard and opposing interpretations: a Bakhtinian example of the ‘carnivalesque’, expressing a utopian space that utterly disrupts the usual hierarchies of power, or an example of Adorno’s notion of reification, where modern ‘culture impresses the same stamp on everything’.
Foucault’s approach seemed to not so much attempt to synthesise these opposites in some dialectical process, but take a different direction altogether, an analysis that captured a certain ambiguity that belies the perennial complaints that the festival is ‘not like it used to be’. The festival is a hugely successful and thoroughly organised event that provides glimpses of a different world, disrupting for a short while the familiar landscape. The organiser, Michael Eavis, hesitantly suggests that it might sound ‘corny, (but) well, it’s a kind of utopia, really, something outside of the normal world we live in’ (an image taken from my tent at the Glastonbury Festival 2010 is therefore the banner image for this site).
Louis Aragon’s encounter with heterotopia?
In Louis Aragon’s early work Le Paysan de Paris (1926) he observes places and spaces of a soon to be demolished Passage de l’Opéra. These ‘secrets’ of Paris include hairdressing salons, tailors, curious shops and so on but what is striking is how many of the places that he particularly dwells upon relate to Foucault’s account of heterotopia, including: public baths, theatres, brothels and later in the book, gardens and parks. Here he is on Baths:
A strong bond exists in our minds between Baths and sensual pleasure: this immemorial notion contributes to the mystery of these public establishments which many would never venture to visit, so great is the superstition of contagious diseases, and so widespread the conviction that the bathtubs prostituted here are dangerous sirens luring visitors into their traps of leprous enamel and stained tin-plate. Thus, the atmosphere of these temples devoted to a dubious cult is partly that of a brothel, partly that of a place where magic rites are performed.
He evokes enchanted worlds that mark out a certain family of heterotopia that may have not completely disappeared…..
Georges Simenon’s encounter with heterotopia?
A passage from Georges Simenon’s Les Fiancailles de M. Hire (1933,) translated by Anna Moschovkis as The Engagement, seems to chime with Faubion’s description of heterotopia as both brighter and darker than other spaces. Here a space of illumination, enchanted and unreal, holding dark secrets:
Men loitered alongside fence, mostly Arabs, all of them looking in the same direction, toward a glow that illuminated a rectangle of side-walk It was the only glimmer of light on the street, which made it seem enchanted. It shone out of a large, unusual house covered entirely in glazed tiles, like the ones at delicatessens. It was white, and glimmered in the moonlight.
A second door opened automatically; with a click he was transported into a fully lit room, into a veritable bath of light – so vivid, so abundant, so radiant that it didn’t seem real.
Brassaï At Suzy’s, rue Gregoire-Tours. 1932.
Photograph by Brassai of the Latin Quarter bordello in Paris called “Suzy”. Brassai says it “was one of the discreet houses that guaranteed the anonymity of its guests. Even priests got in and out without being recognized.”
Magritte’s encounter with heterotopia?
James Harkness, the translator of Foucault’s essay on Magritte, This Is Not a Pipe, suggests that both Foucault and Magritte were ‘cartographers of Heterotopia’. Harkness refers to Foucault’s use of Borges’ strange encyclopaedia to illustrate the disruption of textual heterotopia in the Preface to Le Mots et les choses (The Order of Things):
‘there is a worse kind of disorder than that of the incongruous, the linking together of things that are inappropriate; I mean the disorder in which a large number of possible orders glitter separately, in the lawless and unchartered dimensions of the heteroclite; and that word should be taken in its most literal etymological sense; in such a state things are “laid, “placed”, arranged” in sites so very different from one another that it is impossible to find a common place beneath them all’
Both Magritte and Foucault enjoyed the subversive play of objects, words and images in the dance of resemblance, sameness and identity.