I have been asked by the publishers to write a review of the new collection of essays: ‘The globalization of space: Foucault and heterotopia’.
Editors: Mariangela Palladino and John Miller
Publishers: Pickering and Chatto (London)
Publication date: 2015 (March)
This group of essays complements two previous collections edited by Ritter and Knaller-Vlay, Other Spaces: The Affair of the Heterotopia (1998) and Dehaene and De Cauter, Heterotopia and the City (2008). All three present a strikingly diverse set of engagements with Foucault’s tantalisingly underdeveloped and frequently contested spatio-temporal concept. The introduction underlines that all the contributions have a critical and political motivation and ‘share an ethical commitment towards exploring and valuing other spaces as productive forces in generating novel conceptualizations of im/material space’. The collection is divided into four sections: (I) State and Hegemony (II) Movement, Marginality and Containment (III) Seas and Ships and (IV) Animals, Energy and Ecology. The majority of the contributions stem from cultural, literary and post-colonial studies and, as the title indicates, engage with heterotopias in the ‘context of that most unwieldy and hotly contested of historical process, globalization’ (5).
The editors claim that heterotopia is presented as a ‘dissoluble part of homogeneous global spatiality, but also a deviating energy which spins away from it’ (6). However, it is the latter deviating energy, a force of resistance, which dominates some of the chapters. For example, in an essay ‘An Occult Geometry of Capital: Heterotopia, History and Hypermodernism in Iain Sinclair’s Cultural Geography’, Tom Bristow critiques the urban developments that took place to stage the 2012 London Olympic Games. For Bristow, the Games are a manifestation of the ‘global capitalist culture industry’, a homogenous conception of the city. In contrast, Bristow explores Ian Sinclair’s novels, poetry and literary criticism to revive local, multiple, contesting powers, to release energies that are ‘dislocated from hegemonic power’ and ‘not constituted by structural relations’ (30). Sinclair’s work for Bristow makes heterotopia a ‘poetic site of resistance’. Bristow briefly refers to the fence around the Games as a heterotopian feature but generally heterotopia is a poetic force ‘a negation of the quest for order’. In this reading, heterotopia is opposed to tradition, uniformity and commodity. There is here and in other contributions, as Iain Chambers expresses it in the chapter ‘Heterotopia and the Critical Cut’, the ‘desire to represent modernity as the perfect match of linear time and homogenous space’ (112). A simple dichotomy emerges that opposes heterotopia to this tidy and pervasive conception of global spatiality.
I have argued against such sweeping binary thinking about heterotopia elsewhere and suggested that heterotopia can be used as an actual tool for dismantling such a tendency, an unsettling lens that overlaps with Foucault’s (2008: 186) overall ‘critical morality’ that avoids ‘critical commonplace’ positions and, referring to his description of textual heterotopias, disturb ‘the familiar landmarks of my thought – our thought’ (Foucault, 1970: xv). To different degrees, many of the chapters do recognise that heterotopia is not a one-way street but offers different tensions, possibilities, dangers, cutting through and entwining elements of freedom, resistance, energy, regulation, normalisation, control, order and so on. For example, in ‘Heterotopia and Placelessness in Brian Chikwava’s Harare North’, Zoë Wicomb explores heterotopia in relation to post-coloniality, but without assuming that the concept necessarily resists dominant social systems or leads to hope of social transformation. Stella Bolaki’s ‘Heterotopias of Illness’ also uses heterotopia subtly, this time as a ‘conceptual tool to think about illness’ (81). Illness interrupts and opens up a ‘different space’, drawing us out of the familiar, ‘normal state’, a different disturbing play of space and time both of the body and the medical spaces that are occupied. Three illness narratives are explored: the struggle with tuberculosis and confinement in Sioux Sanatorium, the experience of attending voluntarily a clinic in Switzerland for alternative cancer treatment and an account of a mother’s struggle with dementia. Bolaki relates the three stories closely with Foucault’s outline, principles and features of heterotopia. The responses to institutional spaces are revealed as complex. For example, the experience of the Swiss clinic for the narrator is one of being inside an ‘insular bubble’, whereas this is contrasted with another patient who describes it as a haven, a holiday, a realm of freedom. This contrast reminded me of a passage in Marge Piercy’s 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 (1979: 86).
In a different context, Diane Morgan’s chapter ‘L’Asile Flottant: Modernist Reflections by the Armée du Salut and Le Corbusier on the Refuge/Refuse of Modernity’, uses heterotopia to confront stereotypes of authority and control. She explores the history of a barge that was bought by the French Salvation Army, Armée du Salut, and converted by the architect Le Corbusier to be a floating asylum for the homeless and destitute. Like the Armée du Salut’s ‘People’s Palaces’ and the more extensive ‘City of Refuge’, and even their work in Penal colonies of French Guyana, the boat is seen as both embracing difference and acting as a utopian model for a more equal society. Using archival material from the Armée du Salut’s newspaper, En avant, Morgan does not interpret the intervention as a process of normalisation, a moral crusade to purify the impoverished and return them to God-fearing ‘acceptable’ lives. She reads it as instigating a heterotopian community that sets a challenge for us all – a social critique and the promise of social transformation. An eclectic multitude, the destitute, the dispossessed, the ill, criminals, political agitators, the lost were brought together in a transient collective as a sort of democratic practice and laboratory for the future – a practised and local utopia. The ‘Refuge/Refuse of Modernity’ in the title captures nicely the ambivalence of this particular heterotopia.
Other chapters productively engage with Foucault’s elusive notion. Mariangela Palladino explores how Gypsy travellers deviate from the sedentary, dominant metropolitan conception of space, evoking their difference and similarity with the everyday, without romanticising their life. John Miller’s ‘Zooheterotopias’ focuses on the fascinating development throughout the twentieth century of the pseudoscience cryptozoology, the study of animals usually thought to be mythical or extinct. However, Abdulrazak Gurnah’s contribution ‘Writing the Littoral’, which looks at the coast of East Africa through the work of Joseph Conrad , Karen Blixen , V. S. Naipaul and Shiva Naipaul, seems out of place and does not refer to heterotopia directly at all except in the epigraph. The fact that it shares colonial and postcolonial themes explored in Wicomb’s chapter does not seem to justify its inclusion here. But perhaps the most questionable essay is Mauro Pala’s ‘From Hegemony to Heterotopias: Geography Epistemology in Gramsci and Foucault’. On various occasions Pala asserts that Gramsci is ‘just like Foucault’ as in ‘just as in Foucault, modernity is launched under the aegis of the bourgeoisie’ (20). The sweeping comparisons are never substantiated. More significantly, no attempt is made to confront Foucault’s fundamental critique of Gramscian concepts such as hegemony and ‘the state’. A reading of Foucault’s 1977-8 series of lectures at College de France (Foucault, 2007) would surely indicate serious objections to such assertions as: ‘history of states and groups of states’ is essentially the ‘history of the ruling class’ (23).
Overall, I find the most convincing contributions are those that avoid large claims, grand narratives and excessive dichotomisation concerning modernity, globalization and the homogeneous culture of late-capitalism. Jameson, in discussing academic interest in modernity, argues that to apply the term always involves an over-dramatization. The rewriting process takes priority over the historical insights that are offered. Modernity for Jameson is therefore a narrative category rather than a concept:
What I want to underscore… is the way in which to affirm the ‘modernity’ of this or that historical phenomenon is always to generate a kind of electrical charge…. to awaken a feeling of intensity and energy that is greatly in excess of the attention we generally bring to interesting events or monuments of the past (Jameson, 2002:35).
For modernity, also read globalization. This collection demonstrates that heterotopia is most effectively used circumspectly.
Dehaene, M. and De Cauter, L. (eds.) (2008) Heterotopia and the City, London and New York: Routledge.
Foucault, M. (1970)  The Order of Things, Andover, Hants: Tavistock.
Foucault, M. (2007)  Security, Territory, Population: Lectures at the College de France 1977-78, New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
Foucault, M. (2008)  The Birth of Biopolitics: Lectures at the Collège de France 1978-1979, New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
Jameson, F. (2002) A Singular Modernity: Essay on the Ontology of the Present, London and New York: Verso.
Piercy, M. (1979) Woman on the Edge of Time, London: The Woman’s Press.
Ritter, R. and Knaller-Vlay, B., (eds.) (1998) Other Spaces: The Affair of the Heterotopia, Dokumente zur Architektur 10, Graz, Austria: Haus der Architektur.
12 March 2015