The Ship – heterotopia par excellence

In my research on the history and cultural techinques of seafaring (in preparartion for the  Festival of Heterotopias next year), I was struck by the final flourish of the radio talk version of Foucault’s introduction to heterotopia. In the better known later talk to architects he concludes:

Brothels and colonies are two extreme types of heterotopia, and if one considers, after all, that the boat is a floating piece of space, a place without a place, that exists by itself, that is self-enclosed and at the same time is given over to the infinity of the sea and that, from port to port, from bank to bank, from brothel to brothel, goes as far as the colonies in search of the most precious treasures they conceal in their gardens, you will understand why, from the sixteenth century until the present, the boat has been for our civilisation, not only the greatest instrument of economic development (I have not been speaking of that today), but also the greatest reserve of imagination. The ship is the heterotopia par excellence. In civilizations without boats, dreams dry up, espionage replaces adventure, and the police the pirates.(translation by Dehaene and De Cauter)

In the earlier version, the final sentences are even more flamboyant:

The ship is the heterotopia par excellence. A civilisation without ships is like a world where children aren’t allowed to play out their imaginary games on their parents’ double bed: dreams dry up, espionage replaces adventure, and the grim police [la hideur des police] the sun-soaked beauty of buccaneers. (my translation)

This recalls the descrption of children’s games and imaginary spaces  that he gave towards the beginning of the radio talk (and left out of the later version).

These counter-spaces, these locally realised utopias, are well recognised by children. Certainly, it’s the bottom of the garden; it’s the Indian tent erected in the middle of the attic; or still, it’s Thursday afternoons on their parent’s bed. It is on that bed where they discover the ocean, as they can swim between the covers, and the bed is also the sky, or they can bounce on the springs; it’s the forest as they can hide there; or still, it’s night as they can become ghosts between the sheets and, finally, it’s the delight, as their parents come home, as they will be punished. (my translation)



26 May 2016