I’ve just been reading Foucault’s ‘On Other Spaces’. In this lecture from 1967, Foucault argued that we now lived in an age where our social relations are determined not simply by time but by space – a point that is no doubt pretty obvious to most of us now. What I think is still worth taking from the essay, though, is Foucault’s explanation of heterotopic spaces.
As I understand it, Foucault is arguing that some spaces are over-determined. They link together many different uses, people and activities primarily because they link together many other spaces. These spaces (or sites as Foucault calls them) are, in other words, multi-storey. A bit like in the film Inception, we can bend them, stretch them, and tunnel into them. Foucault gives a range of examples to illustrate his point, libraries, museums, prisons and so on, but I think the most potent examples are not among this list.
To me, public toilets, carparks and shopping centres are the most obvious examples of heterotopic spaces. Public toilets, for instance, are obviously useful amenities when we hear the call of nature. In this regard, they are what Foucault calls ‘pure and simple openings’. But in this openness they ‘hide curious exclusions’. In popular culture we know that public toilets can be scenes of various sexual activities, drug taking (see Trainspotting for a colourful example), theft, and graffiti. In short, beneath their obvious use, they are full of activities that many of us never see even if we are aware of their presence through sticky residues of shadows in our mind or on the walls. As Foucault puts it ‘we think we enter where we are, by the very fact that we enter, excluded’.
It seems to me that the most interesting part of heterotopic spaces, then, is not how we enter them but how we are excluded when we enter them. Here, I think shopping centres come into their own. While they are open to all they are remarkably powerful sites of exclusion. The obvious candidate here is the poor who cannot afford the fruits of consumerism … don’t worry, it’s not another blog about the riots last year or the occupy movement. More important, to me at least, than these fairly simplistic examples, are groups who are excluded through the space itself not the price of good within it. People with various physical and social disabilities are perhaps the best example of this group.
I need to think some more about this.