Encountering heterotopias

‘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  encounters with heterotopias – cemeteries

Of the many examples I could recall, I think especially of exploring 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.

Louis Aragon’s encounter with heterotopias – public baths

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…..

The recently restored Piscine Pailleron in the 19th arrondissement, Paris.

 Georges Simenon’s encounter with heterotopias – brothels

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.”


Jean Genet’s encounter with heterotopias – penal colonies

In Miracle of the Rose, Genet castigates certain liberal journalists for suggesting that all penal homes for children should be closed:

…. they fail to realise that if they were, the children would set them up again. Those inhuman kids would create courts of miracles… and perform their secret, complicated rites in the teeth of well-meaning journalists .

Genet even suggests that the Mettray penal colony was a ‘paradise’.

Genet did in later life come to view Mettray as exploitative, but he was also reported to have said to Jouhandeau, the diarist and novelist:

…. prison isn’t prison, it’s escape, it’s freedom. There you can escape the trivial and return to the essential.

As Genet recounts:

The prison lived like a cathedral at midnight of Christmas eve. We were carrying on the tradition of the monks who went about their business at night, in silence.


Marge Piercy’s encounter with heterotopias – ‘mental hospitals’

Connie in Woman on the Edge of Time:

At odd moments, the better days, the mental hospital reminded her of being in college those almost two years she had before she got knocked up. The similarity lay in the serious conversations, the leisure to argue about God and Sex and the State and the Good….Outside, whole days of her life would leak by and she wouldn’t have one good thoughtful conversation.



Clive Barker’s encounter with heterotopias – carpets

In ‘Weaveworld’ – Barker’s dark  adult fantasy (in widest sense of word) –  a carpet comes to life, opening up a world with puzzling juxtapositions, throwing together geographical zones:

… in defiance of all laws geological or climatic, as if by a God whose taste was for contradiction.

From one perspective it is just an ordinary carpet, but the space has been made to conceal and protect a gate into a garden of memories, of dreams, of enchantment, of imagination… where ‘nothing was fixed: where magic ruled’ .

Why a carpet?

What’s more easily overlooked than the thing you’re standing on.

Clive Barker says the novel captures the sense:

…..that there is a home which is even more fundamental than the home where you were born, that maybe we have, prenatally, an image of Eden, or of a perfect place, or a place where we may be perfectible.

It is a place where the conventions and clichés of our world, for example the binaries of gender, are thoroughly undermined.


Michel Serres’ encounter with heterotopias – back to cemeteries

The philosopher recounts his visits to Notre Dame des Neiges Cemetery, Montreal, Quebec.

‘In large cities made infernal by the motors and the crowds, only cemeteries give peace, silence, and a space where one can prepare one’s thoughts. I went there seeking calm and work. Generally, I arrived in Canada during the harshest time of the cold season, and the snow had transformed the vast necropolis into an immaculate park, tranquil and soft, the way in Paris, sometimes, severe winters transformed the gardens into solitary cemeteries, black and white.

Image: Martin New (Notre Dame des Neiges Cemetery).

Michel Serres ‘Drifting in the Cemeteries’ in Statues: the second book of foundations (2015 [1987]) translation Randolph Burks.



October 2018


  1. diego
    October 13, 2019 @ 1:10 pm

    Hi Gabriele and Peter,

    Three years ago I started a research project on food and spaces. It was presented at a conference two years ago.

    And to share an example Gabriele, I reflected on the food table as an heterotopia of juxtaposition. It functions as a theatrical space to me, as it suffers continuous transformations and is capable of containing different scenarios… depending on the meal, right?

    You are welcome to have a read (please share your comments and reflections):


    PS. I have actually referenced your work and research Peter. I must say thanks for the extensive and comprehensive research around this topic 🙂


    • Peter Johnson
      October 15, 2019 @ 10:25 am

      Many thanks for this. Will share and have a read and get back with any reflections.
      best wishes


  2. Gabriele
    September 3, 2018 @ 11:14 pm

    Hi ,

    I would really appreciate some examples of the 3rd principle of hetrotopias – juxtaposition .



    • Peter Johnson
      September 7, 2018 @ 11:15 am

      Hi Gabriele
      Thanks for getting in touch. Foucault mentions the space of the theatre and cinema as well as Persian gardens of antiquity, Persian carpets and (in his initial radio broadcast) magic carpets! Where to go from there? The thing to remember is that each principle should not be seen in isolation; they all relate to the others to different degrees. As it happens, I have just read a pasage from Michel Serres’ popular book Thumbelina that illustates this:

      How can we transform the space of the campus, which mimics the space of the defensive camp of the Roman army, both of which are traversed by the usual paths, and divided up into juxtaposed cohorts or lawns? (Serres, 2015: 38)

      It is noteworthy, I think, how he links the campus, military camps and gardens in terms of a regulated order. The cemetery is perhaps the best example of a heterotopia that in Foucault’s words’has the ability to juxtapose in a single real place several emplacements that are incompatible in themselves’, even more so today as they become ecological sites, places for school visits, historical museums, cruising sites etc., as well as all the traditional symbols of both permanence and transience.The computer screen might be a contemporary example too ….? What do you think?


  3. Peter Johnson
    July 20, 2018 @ 11:36 am

    I would welcome any more examples of spaces and places from experiences or in literature that conjure up a sense of heterotopia.




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