On Heterotopias

August 15, 2011

This text explores the idea of ‘heterotopias’ in the context of our historical understanding of space and spatial hierarchy. Foucault identifies two types of heterotopias: Crisis Heterotopias and Heterotopias of Deviation, and in the final body of the essay he examines key principles of these.

Foucault argues that Galileo’s discovery of infinite space, a concept that ultimately destabilised the hierarchical spatial orderings of the medieval era, has led to a contemporary understanding of sites as sets of relations rather than absolute, determined entities. Foucault identifies two main types of sites which have “the curious property of being in relation with all the other sites”; firstly, utopias (perfect , non-real places) and secondly heterotopias: real places that exist, but which are simultaneously non-places.

Crisis Heterotopias are sites for members of society in a state of crisis, such as adolescent students of boarding schools. In this example, the school typology fails to cater for sexual activity (deemed inappropriate by society), forcing the adolescents to find alternative places to satisfy their needs. In fulfilling this requirement, the Honeymoon Motel becomes a form of heterotopia: as a defined place, and simultaneously non-place (for sexual activity may be performed nowhere).

Heterotopias by Deviation are defined as places designed for members of society whose behaviour deviates from the accepted norm. Rest homes, psychiatric hospitals and prisons are three such examples given by Foucault. Like the Motel described earlier, the prison is a place in that it exists, and simultaneously a non-place in that the behaviour of its occupants may not be conducted anywhere according to societal customs.

In the final body of the essay, Foucalt outlines five underlying principles which define heterotopias. These are:

1. Heterotopias exist in every human culture
2. They are able to be modified according to societal trends
3. Heterotopias contain several contradictory spaces in one (such as the theatre, which projects 3D space inside a space)
4. Heterotopias are not freely accessible and instead involve a form of ritual as part of entry
5. They have a function that relates beyond themselves: as spaces of illusion which expose real space, or alternatively as a perfect, “meticulous” real space designed to counterbalance the messy and imperfect

Danny Brookes


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