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unpublished for a long time, in fact until 1984, where it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
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?