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 But, says Foucault, the crisis heterotopia has largely been replaced by heterotopias of deviation: prisons, psychiatric hospitals, nursing homes, brothels.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.