Utopian World Championship

Utopia / Heterotopia
by Sven Olov Wallenstein

  What are we going to do with the concept of utopia today? After the downfall of the grand historical narratives, the various Marxisms, Hege-lianisms, and historicisms that have permeated modernity, the concept seems hopelessly discredited. Or could it be that we actually live in the midst of a world so saturated by Utopian fantasies-of wealth, communication, immediacy of desire and the reign of an unconditioned pleasure principle-that we can no longer perceive the concept as such? What is the relation between the "non" (the Greek negative prefix ou-) in "uto-pia," and our "here," our present? Can we still imagine a radical negativity, another world transcending our own, or have we become stuck with the pure facticity of what there is? Or perhaps this dualism itself needs to be rethought in a different way?
  Here I will choose a rather different and seemingly deviant way to ap-proach the concept of utopia, on the basis of a brief lecture presented by Michel Foucault in 1967 to a small informal group of architects in Paris, "Of Other Spaces" ("Des espaces autres"). It remained unpublished for a long time, in fact until 1984, where it was translated for the Internationale Bauausstellung in Berlin, and it has since attracted considerable attention among architects, geographers, psychoanalysts, and philosophers.
  My take on this text is the following: for Foucault the "otherness" of these spaces is not due to their transcendence in relation to ordinary space and spaces, but to they way in which they interact with everyday space by challenging it, reversing it, at once contesting and confirming it in a strange dialectic, and it is this which perhaps can allow us to think the utopian "ou-" differently. Utopia perhaps needs to be re- or de-constructed, so that its energy may be deployed in another way, not in a massive opposition to that-which-is, but in such a way that it can seep into the cracks and fissures of the present.
  Now, heterotopia was already an issue for Foucault in one of his major works published the year before the lecture on other spaces, The Order of Things (Les mots et les choses). In the introduction utopia is opposed to heterotopia, which Foucault here understands as a non-site on the level of language. His example is Jorge Luis Borges's famous Chinese Encyclopedia with its incongruous classificatory categories for animals (animals "drawn with a very fine camelhair brush", animals "having just broken the water pitcher," "innumerable," "belonging to the Emperor," etc)-and the heterotopia would be that place where it is possible to think all the contradictory categories at the same time, thus a site of im-possibility. This non-site opens onto a certain limit of culture, Foucault says, which functions as its foundation but also an intermediary zone where culture has always already begun to drift away from its codes, has begun to become destabilized. There is, at this level, a pure experience of order, a sense of the radical contingency of all our systems of classification, that in a way also is the condition of possibility for Foucaults own discourse, in that it measures the distance from which he is able to survey other systems of classification. Heterotopia would in this sense be the place from which thought arises, and it would open the possibility to think differently, to think the Other and not the Same.
  The lecture on "other spaces" from 1967 differs from its predecessor, as we will see, and it opens another perspective: heterotopia is now connected to the production and reproduction of social space instead of language, it functions in and as the margin of a social discipline. Order is here to be understood not so much as classifying as in in the sense of command (and the installation lecture at the Collège de France on "The Order of Discourse" three years later will thematize this: the order of things and words is also a relation of power, of inclusion and exclusion, starting with the will to truth, which is the most enigmatic of exclusions, presenting truth as a problem, the result of capture and combat instead of something emerging from the good will and straight mind of the thinking subject).
  What interest Foucault in the lecture on other spaces, is neither space as a mathematical and geometric entity (of which he however provides us with a brief account leading from ancient Greece to modern science and informatics), nor space as a fantasmatic and psychologic category (which, as he also notes in passing, has been dealt with in depth by Gaston Bachelard in terms of a "poetics of space"), but that space which "draws us out of ourselves," where "erosion occurs," where there are irreducible and non-superimposable sites that resist the operations of consciousness, in fact may subvert it. It is a question of those sites that stand in relation to all other sites, that "render suspect, neutralize, or invert the set of relations they happen to designate, mirror, or reflect."
These places are called both utopias and heterotopias, and Foucault porposes that we distinguish between them. Utopias, Foucault suggests, are an inverted or perfected imaginary forms of current society, and thus properly without a place in that very society. Heterotopias, on the other hand, are real, they are implied in the very founding of society as countersites that represent, contest, and invert all the other places. Indeed, Foucault somewhat jokingly says, there could be envisaged such a thing as "heterotopology," a description, if not a science, of these places.
  He then proceeds to a rather loose and improvised description of these places: graveyards, libraries, museums, brothels, cinemas, ships, places where rites of passage occur, etc. It would not be difficult to criticize Foucault for certain, if not many, inconsistencies (but perhaps he is mocking us, playing a Borgesian trick on our minds…), but this need not detain us here. The important thing is that the "ou-," the negativity of the countersite enters into a both productive and disruptive connection with everyday space. A heterotopia is a place where we can find peace, retreat, and rest (the vacation resort, the monastery, the library), and in this sense it operates as an integral and functional momemt the cycle of space (re)production)-going on vacation means we can come back and work more efficiently)-but it also gives rise to the possibility of a radical contestation: why are we not always on vacation? What is the meaning of work, why do we see it as such an essential part of our lives? In this it fuels desires for a radical otherness, by presenting them not as impossible imaginary worlds, but rather as possible, in fact real and actual, lines of flight within this world, that this world both requires and expels outside of itself, into an outside which is also a fundamental and essential inside.
  In this sense, I believe that our current utopias should be understood more in the sense of heterotopias: real-and-imagined places (to use Ed-ward Soja's expression) that allow for a freedom of movement, fantasy, and reflection. Heterotopias are not necessarily diametrically opposed to our ordinary topoi, rather they make them deviate by prolonging something that was already present in the first site, thus causing it to become different from itself. Perhaps art can have something of this quality: not opposing itself to life, but inserting itself in it, acting in the space be-tween (the "thirdspace," as Edward Soja might say) so that both sides of the opposition are set in motion. The difference between the "ou-" and the "hetero-" of the "-topia" is not always be easy to pinpoint, perhaps it is just a shift in mood, tonality, and affectivity, but in the long run it might have tremendous consequences. Why attempt an absolutely different life somewhere else, in the beyond of negativity and nothingness, why not try to live, act, and desire differently here and now, not absolutely, but relatively?

Sven-Olov Wallenstein