It is not the place we occupy which is important, but the direction in which we move.Oliver Wendell Holmes, Author.
One of the most startling paradoxes of being human is the simultaneous quest for the “here-now” as well as “the other”. We aspire to live this life to the fullest whilst dreaming of other lives – life before us, life after us and the life unlived. Somewhere along these musings we create spaces to nestle these dreams in the spectrum of reality.
French philosopher Michel Foucault, in a talk given to architect students, describes the fundamental nature of spaces that we create. He begins by delineating the history of space- from the medieval power hierarchies of space through Galileo’s revolutionary heliocentricism to the modern idea of emplacement. He describes how the broadening of our sense of space and its vastness, through ideas like heliocentricism (and years later, through Carl Sagan’s love letter to the pale blue dot) dethrones the monopolies of localized space. The essence of emplacement, the tendency to replace localization with extension, is encapsulated in the idea of the site.
The idea of site is best illustrated in the extension of internet, where each website is an identified space within the extension. This extends to physical space while we locate people and places. Foucault suggests how omnipresent ‘space’ is. Yet as a construct, space in reality, is still far from its extensive nature, beguiled by the dichotomies of deified and dreaded spaces, personal and public spaces as well as internal and external spaces. Foucault writes:
It is within this heterogeneity that we dream about other spaces. Foucault describes two types of other spaces. The Utopia is the other space of the ideal. It is the other space of perfection that we can only imagine. It is the other space, immortalized by Thomas Moore. But Foucault focuses more on the second type- Heterotopias.
Heterotopias are sort of like Schrodinger’s cat. They are simultaneously here and not here, real and unreal, dead and alive, ofcourse. Cemeteries, hospitals, brothels are all examples of heterotopias. They are real spaces in our vicinities, yet their seclusion is capable of transporting us into an otherness that we crave.
Foucault describes that there could be heterotopias in all cultures. Some of it might have exclusive access, such as military camps, menstrual huts or honeymoon trips. All these tend to be heterotopias of crises, as they arise in the face of a crisis. Foucault observes that they are fast replaced by heterotopias of deviations. The transition from crisis to deviation as a ticket to access these heterotopias speaks volumes about power and hegemony exercised by societies. Foucault also points out how history can shape heterotopias. He illustrates this by noting how the location and the cultural significance of Cemeteries evolved with our changing attitude towards life and death.
All is Vanity (1892) by Charles Allan Gilbert. Foucault quotes the mirror as an example of the amalgamation of utopia and heterotopia. The mirror image is a reflection, an unreal, utopian space. Yet, the mirror is real. Thus it is heteropic too.
Foucault delineates how heterotopias can exist in space and time – as a collage of other spaces as in a garden of exotic plants or as heterochronies, offering other slices of time as in a library, museum or cemetery. All of these heterotopias are simultaneously exclusive and open. The illusion of accessibility, of the right to know ensures the exclusivity of these other spaces. Foucault describes a ship as a heterotopia par excellence as it embodies all these qualities of ‘a place without a place’, an other space moving from one place to another.
Finally Foucault points out that all heterotopias has a purpose. It offers critique to our reality by exposing it in an illusion or it provides a compensation for our messy reality by offering a comfortable escape. It is all the more true for an age of digital spaces and virtual realities. Yet, what heterotopias try to offer is in its essence a capacity to look at the world not as it is, but as what it could be.