‘As for heterotopias, how might they be described? What meaning do they have?
(Foucault,  1998)
During 1966-67, Foucault presents the notion of heterotopia on three separate occasions. He discusses it firstly in his preface to Les mots et les choses (1966), later translated into English as The Order of Things (1970 ), secondly, within a radio broadcast devoted to the theme of utopia and heterotopia (1966) and, finally, in a lecture (1998 [1967)] presented to a group of architects and not published until shortly before Foucault’s death in 1984. The first refers to textual spaces, whilst the other two, with close similarities, concern a rather playful analysis of particular social and cultural spaces.
As Defert remarks in an introducing the radio broadcast (see Foucault, 2004 and 2009), this tantalisingly brief sketch of the concept of heterotopia is unusual in that it is presented in a rather light-hearted and almost improvised manner, eschewing any explicit reference to academic or ‘serious’ texts and involving perhaps a certain pleasure, a ‘play of the imagination and intelligence’ (see also Defert, 1997). In the broadcast and the lecture, 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. The lecture to architects formally summarises six principles of these ‘different’ spaces. In brief, they:
- become established in all cultures but in diverse forms (especially as sites of ‘crisis’ or later ‘deviation’)
- mutate and have specific operations at different points in history
- juxtapose in a single space several incompatible spatial elements
- encapsulate spatio-temporal discontinuities or intensities
- presuppose an ambivalent system of opening/closing, entry/ exit, distance/penetration
- have a specific operation in relation to other spaces as, for example, illusion or compensation
Foucault presents a bewildering array of examples, including:
- Jesuit utopian colonies
- Muslim baths
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’.
Foucault’s accounts of heterotopia are varied and spring from three distinct sources. Nevertheless, despite, or perhaps because of, the brevity and vagueness of his ideas, the subsequent uses of the notion 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.
Defert, D. (1997) ‘Foucault, Space, and the Architects’ in Politics/Poetics: Documenta X – The Book, Ostfildern-Ruit: Cantz Verlag, 274-283.
Foucault, M. (1966) Les mots et les choses, Paris: Editions Gallimard.
Foucault, M. (1966) Utopie et littérature, recorded document 7 December. Centre Michel Foucault,Biibliothèque du Saulchoir, reference C116. Sections available on You Tube:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RC7qhps2HMM (broadcast of radio talk – can disappear from youtube)
Foucault, M. (1970)  The Order of Things, Andover, Hants: Tavistock.
Foucault, M. (1984)  ‘Des espaces autre’ [Of other spaces], Architecture, Mouvement, Continuité, (5): 46-49.
Foucault, M. (1998)  ‘Different Spaces’, (trans. R. Hurley) in J. D. Faubion (ed.), Aesthetics, Method, and Epistemology: Essential Works of Foucault Volume 2, London: Penguin, 175-185.
Foucault, M. (2004)  Utopies et heterotopias [Utopias and heterotopias], CD: INA, Mémoire Vive.
Foucault, M. (2009)  Le Corps Utopique – Les Hétérotopies. Clamecy: Éditions Lignes.