20 March 2007


Filed under: Culture, First Lines, Ktismata — ktismatics @ 1:06 am

The great obsession of the nineteenth century was, as we know, history: with its themes of development and of suspension, of crisis, and cycle, themes of the ever-accumulating past, with its great preponderance of dead men and the menacing glaciation of the world.

– Michel Foucault, “Of Other Spaces,” 1967

Foucault speculates that perhaps the current era — which, forty years later, perhaps remains current — concerns itself primarily not with time but with space. In this essay Foucault quickly sketches a history of the present orientation to space, from the medieval hierarchy of places (sacred/profane, protected/open, earthly/heavenly, etc.), to the modern infinite extension of the empty space-time continuum, to the present emphasis on the “site.”

The site is defined by relations in proximity between points or elements; formally, we can describe these relations as series, trees, or grids… Our epoch is one in which space takes for us the form of relations among sites.

Society designates sites for work, for recreation, for rest, for education, for transportation, and so on.What interests Foucault in particular are “counter-sites,” places positioned on the outside of cultural space, irrelevant to the practical functioning of everyday life. These are real places but “absolutely different” from other sites; not utopias but “heterotopias.”

In traditional societies the heterotopias are reserved for people undergoing transitional crises: adolescents, menstruating women, pregnant women, the dying. Remnants of crisis heterotopias persist in boarding schools (perhaps also universities), the military, the honeymoon trip. But, says Foucault, the crisis heterotopia has largely been replaced by heterotopias of deviation: prisons, psychiatric hospitals, nursing homes, brothels.

The relationships between sites and heterotopias can change over time. Cemeteries used to be placed in the center of town, next to the church; now they’re more often marginalized to the outskirts. Foucault says the exile of the cemetery happened in the nineteenth century, when confidence in eternal life began to waver. The cemeteries then came to constitute, no longer the sacred and immortal heart of the city, but the other city, where each family possesses its dark resting place.

Some heterotopias juxtapose many places in a single space. The theater projects onto the rectangle of stage or screen a whole series of places. The traditional garden represents within its rectangle the four parts of the earth, with a fountain or basin in the center as an umbilicus or womb from which the earth flows and in which it is unified.

Heterotopias open onto heterochronies — disjunctures from the evenly spaced and empty continuum of time. Theater time passes differently from the time that surrounds the theater. The cemetery is a juxtaposition of the end of time and eternity. Museums and libraries accumulate past time in a place outside of time. Resort towns exist only at certain times of the year. Entering into a heterotopia often requires a rite of passage: enlistment in the army, arrest and conviction, death, travel. The ship is the heterotopia par excellence. In civilizations without boats, dreams dry up, espionage takes the place of adventure, and police take the place of pirates.

I am attracted to the heterotopia: the non-site, the place of exile, the rupture in the time-space continuum, the outpost of the preposterous, the portal that punctuates the world like a black hole, the gateway to alternate realities.


  1. I am attracted to the heterotopia: the non-site, the place of exile, the rupture in the time-space continuum, the outpost of the preposterous, the portal that punctuates the world like a black hole, the gateway to alternate realities.

    beautiful: the realm of the traveller


    Comment by Odile — 20 March 2007 @ 8:36 am

  2. The realm of the traveller. Yes, that’s it. A heterotopia is a passageway and not just a static thing. There are also traveling heterotopias: parades, pilgrimages, quests, Route 66. There used to be “ships of fools,” which were floating madhouses. Some heterotopias are nowhere in particular, erupting from time to time in different places without warning: demonstrations, guerrilla cells, sudden convergences on particular blog posts,…


    Comment by ktismatics — 20 March 2007 @ 10:42 am

  3. […] bit. But there’s no denying that it attracts people, largely, I suspect because they can read whatever they like into its vague phrasing. (And wasn’t the “ship of fools” thing found to just be a […]


    Pingback by Getting beyond heterotopia « Foucault blog — 20 March 2007 @ 3:42 pm

  4. Foucault speculates that perhaps the current era — which, forty years later, perhaps remains current — concerns itself primarily not with time but with space.

    I think it is evident that in the “current era” – not the 1960s, but 2007 – the concern is not space. Would you agree?

    It may sound cliche, but is the current concern information? Or perhaps the information age is already over – up in a puff of smoke as quickly as it started! Perhaps connectivity would be now be our concern? I want to connect with myspace friends online, connect with my peers and social groups/circles, connect with others who are interested in sports, use my cell phone to connect with others using text message, connect via email, pour out my junk on a blog and connect with others who are like me, connect with my environment with more organic foods….we could probably go on….


    Comment by Jonathan Erdman — 20 March 2007 @ 4:33 pm

  5. Getting Beyond Heterotopia –

    This comment seems truncated. On my email it says it’s a pingback, so I don’t quite get it. Anyhow, it sounds like the Foucault dude thinks the Heterotopia idea is over too. And no real ships of fools? Disappointing. There’s a Doors tune called Ship of Fools; Foucault wrote about the ship of fools in his book on the history of the asylum. And it’s just a myth? Perhaps I’ve found my calling.

    Jonathan –

    Is space the main concern of the present era? I doubt it too. On the other hand, I think the idea of heterotopia is the kind of thing that could reclaim space as important. In a virtual globalized culture, the idea of a place off the grid, marginal to the normal economy, existing as a kind of gateway, I find attractive. I understand also that there’s the countervailing urge to abandon all fixed coordinates, to float on the electrons, to be everywhere at once but nowhere in particular. That’s another way to go. Maybe I’m just a retro guy looking for that monastic pomo vibe.

    I think there’s something here about whether a church in pomoland is a site that’s on the grid or a heterotopia that exists at the margins. Or is it better to de-institutionalize the church and let it operate like an underground organization, meeting in houses, striking up discussions in bars, blogging…


    Comment by ktismatics — 20 March 2007 @ 4:50 pm

  6. Good question about the church….De-institutionalizing at this point is critical for some churches because the “church” is equated with the physical building and with the incorporation papers and with a creed or mission statement, etc. The church should exist as a group of people who have engaged (and have been engaged by) God and in turn engage (and be engaged by) each other. It’s very, very ironic, but even this kind of thing can become bastardized by institutionalization. For example, one could turn my statement about engagement into a mission statement and we can rally around it and institutionalize it as “our mission.” But then the mission, itself, can take a position of superiority over and against the people who are doing the engaging. We could reach the point where we say, for example, “You guys (or “ya’ll” if we lived in the south) are just not “engaging” the right way, and so we think you ought to go somewhere else….” Hhhhmmmm…but maybe there do need a corrective….these things are so fluid and difficult to pin down! But it all comes back to fixing things in static positiosn.


    Comment by Jonathan Erdman — 20 March 2007 @ 5:23 pm

  7. Lou Kahn said “the institutions are the houses of the inspirations.” Institutions weren’t always mechanical, beurocratic and market-driven. Institutions once were thought to have something to do with beginnings (“to institute”) rather than only with sad endings. Architecture is about the city. The city needs the institutions (not so much functionally as to be the city)…so I have some “self-interest” here…

    Also…about space and information…Corbusier put a lot of ink to the notion of “visual acoustics”. I was later stunned to find McLuhan using the same terminology!



    Comment by Jason Hesiak — 20 March 2007 @ 6:17 pm

  8. Maybe some institutional goodness…
    “Milbank and Hauerwas, two of my favorite theologians, are often disdained in emergent church land.”


    Comment by Jason Hesiak — 20 March 2007 @ 6:34 pm

  9. It makes sense that there would be some tension between centered and distributed church. Is there perhaps some kind of out-in oscillation? Businesses have office buildings but they still go out to meet with customers. This of course is the grid as the interconnection of multiple interrelated sites. Which I think is arguably the internet too, where each individual is his/her own business and each computer its own site. To have a site as a place of regrouping and communion seems like a good thing in theory anyhow.

    There’s also this oscillation between institution and engagement — related to the Deleuze discussion about territorialization and flows, or Derrida about structure and deconstruction. Are structures and institutions dams that stop the flow, or are they fountains? And it is historically true that cities tend to be the wellspring of innovation: is it the buildings, the institutions, or the complex traffic flows that bring people into contact with each other?

    As for the Milbank, he talks about John Locke as the ideological source of individual rights versus collective justice. Strangely, Locke based his case on Genesis 3, when individual Adam and Eve left the Garden. “By the sweat of your brow” you shall make your bread, says God. So Locke postulates this: whichever man “improves” nature by sweating over it has thereby earned the right to own that chunk of nature — and to pass it on to his offspring. He also justifies slavery: if I kick your ass in combat, I’ve sweated to earn the right to own you as property. I think it’s the key master/bondsman discourse of the 17th century.


    Comment by ktismatics — 20 March 2007 @ 7:42 pm

  10. But Locke’s case is interesting b/c in his historical context he was looking for a way to give a voice to the marginalized. If you believed in a different god or if you believed in a different interpretation of Scripture or had a different view of ecclesiastic authority you could be killed or otherwise removed from the state. State and nation were one in the same. So, Locke gave a voice to the oppressed individuals by virtue of individual justice rooted in a rationalism that was available to all. Rationality was something that all good-sensed people could see and hence a sort-of court of appeals for oppressed minorities. That this developed into what we now variously call The Enlightenment or The Cartesian Project might be an example of “institutionalizing” some good ideas and bastardizing them from their original context.


    Comment by Jonathan Erdman — 20 March 2007 @ 9:00 pm

  11. Sorry, I meant to say that “State and religion” were one in the same.


    Comment by Jonathan Erdman — 20 March 2007 @ 9:01 pm

  12. Yo’lls (hear the southern draw?) thoughts are interesting. I’ll have to get back to you guys later on…


    Comment by Jason Hesiak — 20 March 2007 @ 10:11 pm

  13. In the topography of Genesis 2-3 the earth was divided between the Garden and everyplace other than the Garden. The Garden wasn’t an ideal utopia; it was a real place, with real plants and animals, through which the real Euphrates river passed. In Foucault’s chronology this is a medieval hierarchical partitioning of the earth. Later the Garden came to be regarded as a non-physical utopia, qualitatively different from the material earth. That’s what I think it is for most people today: a mythic space representing perfection, innocence, and harmony with God and nature.

    The non-Garden portion of the earth wasn’t quite a dystopia (i.e., it wasn’t hell). The ground was cursed, but it could still yield sustenance to those who worked for it: “by the sweat of your brow you shall eat your bread.” Everything outside the Garden was a kind of heterotopia, a wildnerness that had not been territorialized. When John Locke builds a rationale for private property rights on the Fall, he’s dividing it up on the basis of the Fall: the curse of the ground, the need to work, the separation of individuals from harmonious unity. Essentially he’s territorializing the heterotopia, turning the middle space between heaven and hell into the modern spatial grid. Heaven and hell are relegated to ideal non-space; the only real space is the fallen earth, an abstract empty gridwork divided up based on sweat and separation and interpersonal conflict. And the whole paradigm of “individual rights” fits into such an abstraction: it’s an agreement among those who divide up the land to respect each other’s boundaries without fear of reprisal, and to band together against anyone who lays claim to a portion of the grid that’s already been claimed by the landowners.


    Comment by ktismatics — 21 March 2007 @ 7:19 am

  14. So…following up also on my comment to “I Erased You”…was the Garden territorialized? Was the garden the measure of territory (the one place that has definition, as given by our removal from it), or is the Garden the perfect state of “flow” without territorilization (which does not exist)?

    And back to Ground…I think of man’s state in the Garden as being in harmonious relation to each other, and as well to the ground from which he came. No thorns and thistles. They (Man and Ground) relate to each other; it’s actually a loving relationship of care and support. Which points to origins, to where we came from and how we are made…to who we are. The way I see it, you can’t have a groundless human, or else its something other than human.


    Comment by Jason Hesiak — 21 March 2007 @ 7:58 pm

  15. Have you seen “Running With Scissors”? “What are you doing in my Masurbatorium? I’ve told you to stay out of my Masturbatoriuam!”


    Comment by Jason Hesiak — 22 March 2007 @ 2:15 am

  16. I’d say that the Garden was territorialized: clear boundaries, names of rivers, names of animals, distinctions between ok/not-ok trees to eat from, etc. It was still in the process of being territorialized collaboratively by Yahweh, Adam and Eve when the rift came. Man departed into an unterritorialized space equipped with the ability to create, to reproduce, to have interpersonal desire and servant-master relationships (Gen. 3:16), to die, to distinguish between good and evil. Territorializing the wilderness begins immediately in Gen. 4: birth, division of labor, sacrifice, murder, etc.

    There are those who see the Garden as analogous to early childhood: no territorialization, no differentiation of self from parents and from the world. But that’s not how it’s written. There is fellowship between God and Adam/Eve but they are separate entities. And the categorizing and naming of things is well underway.


    Comment by ktismatics — 22 March 2007 @ 7:46 am

  17. OK, I read your comment on my “Freedom Shines” blog, on your “I Erased You” blog, and now this one. I will have to get back to all this ground and territory. Not sure when. Probably either tonight or tomorrow sometime, or in increments.


    Comment by Jason Hesiak — 22 March 2007 @ 4:00 pm

  18. Increments? That somehow sounds wrong coming from you.


    Comment by ktismatics — 22 March 2007 @ 4:05 pm

  19. I’d agree about the territorilization of the Garden. And yeah I guess I really didn’t do the increments thing. Sorry everyone couldn’t see my comment on “I Erased You” on the Ground that I emailed to you, John. I’m sort of out of ideas on how to get it to appear on your site.


    Comment by Jason Hesiak — 23 March 2007 @ 10:37 pm

  20. Fixed and done. I don’t know what went wrong, but hopefully it was an anomaly.


    Comment by ktismatics — 23 March 2007 @ 10:56 pm

  21. I saw that its on there now. Under my name, too! Wierd. Did YOU do that? Or did it take a while to come up on there?


    Comment by Jason Hesiak — 24 March 2007 @ 12:10 am

  22. I can edit or delete comments that other people have put up. So I pasted your email onto the bottom of your short comment where you said it wasnt’t working.


    Comment by ktismatics — 24 March 2007 @ 5:37 am

  23. […] Fascinating idea I’ve never come across before, from French philosopher Michel Foucault via John Doyle at Ktismatics: “Society designates sites for work, for recreation, for rest, for education, for […]


    Pingback by Heterotopias « Beyond Rivalry — 2 January 2009 @ 6:15 pm

  24. […] have to be places of deviation or rites-of-passage, though. Some further examples of heterotopias, as noted by John Doyle and others, might be museums, libraries, the theatre, fairs and festivals, cemeteries, gardens, […]


    Pingback by The Heterotopia of Facebook | BEYOND RIVALRY — 31 March 2015 @ 5:18 pm

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