What’s It About?

‘As for heterotopias, how might they be described? What meaning do they have?

Bath house depicted by Persian miniature painter: Kamāl ud-Dīn Behzād (1495)
Bath house depicted by Persian miniature painter: Kamāl ud-Dīn Behzād (1495)

Heterotopias are defined as sites which are embedded in aspects and stages of our lives and which somehow mirror and at the same time distort, unsettle or invert other spaces. Foucault summarises six principles of these ‘different’ spaces. In brief, they:

  1. become established in all cultures but in  diverse forms (especially as sites of ‘crisis’ or later ‘deviation’)
  2. mutate and have specific operations at different points in history
  3. juxtapose in a single space several incompatible spatial elements
  4. encapsulate  spatio-temporal discontinuities or intensities
  5. presuppose an ambivalent system of opening/closing, entry/ exit, distance/penetration
  6. have a specific operation  in relation to other spaces as, for example, illusion or compensation

Foucault presents a bewildering array of examples, including:

  • cemeteries
  • brothels
  • Jesuit utopian colonies
  • ships
  • gardens of antiquity
  • Muslim baths
  • prisons
  • asylums
  • museums
  • fairs and festivals

He carefully contrasts these spaces with utopias. Both are connected to the rest of space and ‘yet are at variance somehow’, but whereas utopias are unreal, heterotopias are ‘actually localisable’.

Despite, or perhaps because of, the brevity and vagueness of his ideas, the subsequent uses of the notion of heterotopia have been startling in their range and diversity. His brief thoughts have cut through a host of disciplines and generated a plethora of interpretations. This web site introduces you to many of them.

revised July 2018

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