Of other Foucaults

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.

3 thoughts on “Of other Foucaults

  1. Great post Rob – it got me thinking about three potential connections.

    1) At the moment there are a series of properties being managed by an arm of the Irish State after their having been re-posessed in the fall out from the property crash. It isn’t too much of a stretch to suggest that these properties, much like Royal Bank of Scotland, are largely publicly owned amenities. Much like RBS, however, they are regularly run as if they weren’t public institutions. So if we do think of these properties as potentially public goods, as many have, then the suggestions made by a group called NAMA Lab surely engage in the heterotopic lines of thinking you’ve outlined above. More details at the link below


    2) The Olympic Games is celebrated for expressing and promoting a universal human spirit. The logic of paranoid hysteria along which it is currently being pre-policed suggests otherwise, of course:


    One doesn’t need to look at the Olympics in order to see these tensions at work, of course – just walk through any modern city centre and look for somewhere to sit, chat and relax, without shopping and it’s pretty much the same.

    3) JG Ballard has turned heterotopic existence into an art form (NB Concrete Island and Kingdom Come)

  2. One of the problems I have experienced in the past when trying to make sense of Foucault’s notion of heterotopia is that once you start listing spaces and places that can be conceived of in these terms, you pretty quickly realise that its all of them. One way of thinking about this is to try to imagine the opposite – what would a homotopic or monotopic space look like? Personally, I cannot think of one, though happy to be corrected.

    The issue, therefore, and Steve’s comment seems to me to reinforce this, is that all spaces are heteroptopic by default, but only in some and in certain contexts, does that present itself as a threat that needs to be managed and or suppressed. Heterotopic space is the norm, on other words, but access to it and power over it becomes problematic when confronted with other, more restricted and restrictive spatial orders. The most common – as we are seeing with the current tussle over anti-piracy legislation in the US (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stop_Online_Piracy_Act) – is where a reflexively heteroptic space ( the Internet in this case) confronts the spatial order of the state and those who use the restricted legal spatialty of the state to preserve particular areas of activity through copyright, patents and IPRs, etc. Both are, of course, heterotopic, but in different and contrasting ways.

  3. If heterotopic spaces simply means spaces with many uses and meanings then I think I completely agree that everywhere is heterotopic. Perhaps the point here is that it depends who’s in the spaces. Of course, it’s equally likely that Foucault was arguing precisely that all spaces are heterotopic now – while this might not have been the case in some other epoch. But I read the essay to be much more materialist than I think this open definition implies. There something more at work than saying different people use spaces differently because they are different. To me, I think the interesting point is to consider whether there’s something literally built in the design and position of some spaces that make them both open and closed without the need for interlopers to occupy, intrude or invade and without the need for the powerful to exert any obvious influence to keep them out.

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