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Dr. Andrew Wood
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Summary of Michel Foucault's "Of other spaces"

Foucault, M. (2008). Of other spaces (L. De Cauter & M. Dehaene, Trans.). In M. Dehaene & L. De Cauter (Eds.), Heterotopia and the city: Public space in a postcivil society (pp. 13-29). Milton Park, Abingdon, Oxon:

Michel Foucault's musings on heterotopia are notoriously dense and difficult to read. Some scholars go further in their critique, claiming that he never intended his words on this topic to be published as a formal essay; others even propose that he delivered this idea as a sort of practical joke. Nonetheless, his formulation has inspired generations of scholars to descend the rabbit hole of heterotopian thinking. The version of Foucault's essay I've selected for this class starts with translators' notes that unpack some of the work's complexity. Thereafter, Foucault launches into a description of how the nineteenth century focus on time has given way to a more recent attention to space.

The author begins by explaining that our understanding of space - particularly in the relationships between environments, peoples, and things - has changed. He describes the arrangement medieval spaces as one of hierarchy, with some spaces being more important than others. He then notes how Galileo's heliocentric model challenged that sense of hierarchy by suggesting that the vastness of space removes the "localized" importance of any particular locale, even the Earth. From this point, Foucault argues that a new perspective of space has arisen in the modern era: emplacement. The translators use that word, "emplacement," for several reasons. But for our purposes, we might simply understand it as a "site" produced through human sense-making.

The production of a site, after all, occurs amid an infinite array of possible choices. Pause here and consider the rhetorical implication of that move. What Foucault is saying is that an emplacement is not created by some supreme force; it is a choice - like all rhetorical forms - to organize the world and its human technologies, and to make that organization seem reasonable, even necessary. Initially he adds that our choices to array spaces in particular ways inspire all sorts of technical challenges. More importantly, though, Foucault states that the production of space (eg., a "classroom" amid a seemingly endless array of roads and buildings) is "haunted by fantasy" (p. 16); it is the choice of its inhabitants to adapt themselves to a shared meaning. In other words, our performances of emplacement are just as necessary as the designs and plans of its architects.

From that background, Foucault asks: What sorts of spaces should we study, and how may we best understand them? He answers this question by opting to focus on emplacements "that have the curious property of being in relation with all the other sites, but in such a way as to suspend, neutralize, or invert the set of relations designated, mirrored, or reflected by them" (pp. 16-17). That... is a complicated idea. I recommend that you read it a couple times; really think about those words. What does he mean?

Well, Foucault offers two broad examples. First, he discusses utopias, which he defines as unreal spaces like Plato's Republic or More's island that reveal the limitations of human relationships that we call real. A utopia is a reflection of the world that showcases not what is but rather what should be. Foucault then turns his attention to the actual focus of this essay: heterotopias. These are spaces that exist - they do not reside solely in the imagination - even though they reveal possibilities not found in the world of everyday life. In the pages that follow, Foucault explains heterotopias by summarizing a set of principles that guide their emplacement.

Principle 1: All cultures produce heterotopias. There are two types:

Principle 1a: The primitive heterotopia may be termed a "heterotopia of crisis." That word, "crisis," may seem like an odd choice, particularly when you consider Foucault's examples: puberty huts, boarding schools, and the like. Considering the roots of the word, though, we may understand "crisis" as a "turning point" - such as the one that occurs at puberty. To Foucault's way of thinking, the heterotopian emplacement allows for that "crisis" to be managed safely away from the regular pattens of public life. Why? Because the "crisis" of puberty, for example, its blurring of childhood innocence and adult maturity, could challenge the order of everyday public life, unless it is set apart and managed.

Principle 1b: The modern heterotopia may be termed a "heterotopia of deviation." The production of this emplacement is necessary, Foucault claims, in a society too vast and complex to manage social disorder in an organic way. Think of a small town where most folks know each other. One person may break the local rules. The collective response is not to build a prison but instead to resolve the perceived problem in less formal ways, either to tolerate that person's eccentricities, to request (or coerce) adjustments in that person's behavior, or to banish (or destroy) that person altogether. Modern society, in contrast, struggles to accommodate rule-breaking. It must produce emplacements where deviation may be managed. Thus we observe the design of psychiatric hospitals and prisons, but we also imagine all sorts of other emplacements of deviation that are not "prisons" in a technical sense but are simply crafted to localize "other" behavior. Think of an amusement park, where people pay to act in manners contrary to their routine. Disneyland is hardly a prison (though you may disagree); yet it is certainly a place set apart that works to manage and release the tensions of public life.

The Parish of Saint Cuthbert
The Parish of Saint Cuthbert, Edinburgh, Scotland [Photograph by Andrew Wood]

Principle 2
: The functions of heterotopia change over time. To illustrate this idea, Foucault describes the changing emplacement of the cemetery. Prior to the eighteenth century, the bodies of the dead were generally located at or near the center of public life, serving to reflect a hierarchy of their relative importance. Notable people would have their names etched in stone, to be memorialized in a central place for as long as the structure lasted. Less notable people might be commemorated in less durable ways and less central places, while members of more modest economy would likely receive no marker and would soon be forgotten altogether. In contrast, Foucault notes a modern democratization of the dead, where all people expect their mortal remains to be saved. This would appear to be an ironic choice, given the increasingly atheistic character of public life. But Foucault explains that the population and movement of cemeteries from the center to the margins of our cities reflects an anxious attitude that modern folks have toward death. If mortality is no longer supervised by God and is instead managed by human beings, Foucault proposes that death becomes a medical failure, not a natural occurrence. And such failure must be placed outside of the realms and norms of public life, lest its sign of weakness infects other institutions. The point of this principle, though, is not to discuss cemeteries. It is simply an example of how heterotopian analysis may be used to explain social change.

1939-40 NYWF Postcard
1939-40 New York World's Fair postcard [Scan from Andrew Wood's collection]

Principle 3:
Heterotopias arrange multiple spaces. This is arguably the most interesting dimension of Foucault's essay. Unlike utopia, which may be known for the homogeneity of its attitudes, fashions, and designs, heterotopia is about heterogeneity, of managed "otherness" and opposition. It has "the power to juxtapose in a single real place several spaces, several emplacements that are in themselves incompatible" (p. 19). Foucault uses the traditional garden as an example. In this emplacement, one may find vegetation from distant parts of the globe gathered into a singular setting. At first we may imagine the garden as merely being pleasurable, a lovely setting to gaze upon the varieties of the world in a singular locale. Yet we also recognize the power of heterotopia to organize oppositions in a strategic manner, to produce not just a sense of completeness but also a perception of order. In our class we discuss worlds fairs as that sort of arrangement, where all of the world is supposedly gathered into one place, not just to display its variety but also to produce a sense of ranking. Unlike the utopian divide between "who's in" and "who's out," the heterotopia of the world's fair works by bringing all peoples and ideologies together, producing what may appear to be a fair distribution of perspectives. We are reminded, however, that heterotopian rhetoric is not an untamed garden of possibility. It is, rather, a subtle machine of discipline.

Tesseract scene from Christopher Nolan's (2014) Interstellar

Principle 4:
Heterotopias arrange multiple times. Foucault offers this principle as a sort of parallel with the preceding discussion about spaces. He begins this section by noting how heterotopia enacts a "break" from the normal flow of time. It is not a spreadsheet-like array of time in which each moment is equal. It is a specific time set apart that he illustrates in two ways:

Principle 4a: Heterotopias of accumulation, like libraries or museums, summon a desire to gather all times - past, present, and future - into an archive, frozen for eternity. They reflect a wish to produce a sense of order and permanence.

Principle 4b: Heterotopias of festivity, like festivals and fairs, work in an opposing way. They enact pleasure precisely through their perceptions of precarity, not permanence. They are not a vacation that you wish would never end (a utopia, perhaps). They are, instead, a vacation whose pleasures arise in the temporary nature of the experience.

Exiting Chernobyl Exclusion Zone
Exiting Chernobyl Exclusion Zone

Principle 5
: Heterotopias manage entrances and exclusions. Foucault explains that these emplacements, sites set apart from the norms of public life, require some process or performance for their entrance. One must wear appropriate clothing, recognize subtle cues, or even utter specialized language. In a formal sense, we may imagine the process for entrance to these sites as a kind of "purification" (though in my own work on this topic, I am exploring heterotopias that value the opposite: "contamination"). Foucault adds, however, that while some entrances appear to be open to virtually anyone, they may lead visitors not to a true interior but instead to yet another kind of exterior enclosure. Think of a porch to a southern home. You may be invited to that emplacement; you may even be served a glass of sweet tea. But you have not necessarily been allowed to access the privacy of the home. In this case, the porch works to preserve a deeper mode of protection maintained by its owners.

Principle 6: Heterotopias expose real spaces. This is potentially the most complicated of Foucault's principles, particularly since the author emphasizes the reality of heterotopias (when compared to the fanciful nature of utopias). His argument here concerns the rhetorical nature of spaces, the sense that - despite their apparent "reality" - all emplacements enact visions of public life that are temporary choices, not unchanging realities. Once again, he offers two perspectives on this practice.

Principle 6a: Heterotopias of illusion, such as brothels, expose the "interiors" of our fantasy lives, opening our domestic selves to the outside world while providing "social safety valves" for the tensions of those environments.

Principle 6b: Heterotopias of compensation, such as the Puritan colonies we discussed while reading John Winthrop, expose the messy and disorganized nature of even our most well-disciplined public spaces.

Foucault concludes with a brief play on the idea of a boat that serves as a "heterotopia par excellence" (p. 22), exploring the necessity of these emplacements in modern societies that, despite their apparent pleasures, allow no freedom for movement or imagination. At this point, though, we are left with the question of whether the heterotopian boat allows us to flee the prison of modernity or whether it merely serves to render it more difficult to see.