|An asylum - it's a post about Foucault, are you really surprised?|
In a nutshell
Foucault believes our era is one dominated by space. He describes heterotopias, 'real' places that, due to their unique characteristics, are nevertheless "outside" other places. They are places for the 'unwanted', previously as places of crisis (e.g., sexual awakenings), and in modern times as places of deviation (e.g., prisons, asylums). He runs through the various attributes and classifications of heterotopias, describing what he calls heterotopology - the systematic description of such places.
Where the nineteenth century was obsessed with history, he believes we are now replacing that with an obsession for space. He cites our concentration on issues of “the near and far, of the side-by-side, of the dispersed.” (1) Specifically, he describes our world as one of “a network that connects points.” (1) His conception of space at this stage seems to be leaning toward a Cartesian interpretation, space rather than place, if you will.
Space, he claims, has its own history, one which he will briefly elucidate (but which Casey questions the historic accuracy of, it must be noted). According to Foucault then, in the middle ages there were sacred places and profane places in a hierarchy, opposing each other. He calls this the space of emplacement. It was opened up by Galileo, "in his constitution of an infinite, and infinitely open space." (2)
Moving swiftly on to today, and he says that "the site has been substituted for extension which itself had replaced emplacement. The site is defined by relations of proximity between points or elements" (2), also described as a 'grid'. Again Casey criticises him here, this time for his failure to distinguish between site, place, and space.
He explicitly states that space is fundamental to "the anxiety of our era" (2), more so than time, which he sees as "one of the various distributive operations" (2) that can be applied to objects which are fundamentally spatial. We reveal everything in a spatial manner. We also have our own oppositions which cannot be questioned; he names private/public space, family/social space, cultural/useful space, and leisure/work space. Space has not yet been totally “desanctified” (2), these dualities still draw on the sacred.
He acknowledges the work of Bachelard and phenomenologists in challenging the idea that space is homogenenous, but says that they focus on internal space, where he wants to address external space (2). We do not live, he says, inside a void which is then filled with objects. So far so Heidegger, but he then goes on to say that "we live inside a set of relations that delineates sites which are irreducible to one another and absolutely not superimposable on one another." (2) Given this delineation, one can use these relations to identify and describe sites.
Such a project would clearly be quite broad, but he wishes to concentrate on a particular type of site. The sites he is interested in have a relation to all other sites, but they "suspect, neutralize, or invert" (3) those relations. Their relationship with other sites is contradictory. Sites like this fall into two possible catgories. Firstly utopias, which are "sites with no real place" (3 - and does this mean that he recognises a difference between the terms site and place, or is he just using them colloquially?). They function by analogy to the real political space.
Secondly, and presumably more interesting to him in this piece, there are "real places- places that do exist and that are formed in the very founding of society-which are something like counter-sites, a kind of effectively enacted utopia in which the real sites, all the other real sites that can be found within the culture, are simultaneously represented, contested, and inverted. Places of this kind are outside of all places" (3). He calls these counter-sites heterotopias.
In case that weren't already exciting enough, he has a brief digression to describe something in between the two, placeless yet existing in reality (3). He likens this to a mirror, where I see myself over there. It provides a counter-point to my actual location. He doesn't spend long on this placeless place, but it seems that I recognise myself as being genuinely over 'there'. The mirror, my reflection in it, has all the same connections to the world, it will reflect anything that happens - this is not the same as seeing a photo or video of myself. Yet it is also at the same time unreal.
Back to the heterotopias then, which we could offer a systematic description "that would, in a given society, take as its object the study, analysis, description, and "reading" (as some like to say nowadays) of these different spaces, of these other places." (3) It may be setting off alarm bells for anyone familiar with Foucault that this is basically what a lot of his work does do, Casey points this out in his discussion of the paper. This systematic description would be a heterotopology.
There is "probably" (3) no culture in history that does not have heterotopias, and they can be classified into two main categories. The first, which he associates with 'primitive' societies, are called crisis heterotopias - "privileged or sacred or forbidden places" (3) for those in a relation of crisis to wider society. He lists as examples "adolescents, menstruating women, pregnant women, the elderly, etc." (3) A young adult's first sexual experiences are to take place "nowhere", away from the home, hence boarding schools, honeymoons, etc. This nowhere becomes a 'place' for the unwanted.
Today however, heterotopias of crisis are being replaced by ones of "deviation" (4), places for deviants. Examples here would be Foucault favourites such as prisons and asylums. He also mentions retirement homes as bridging the gap between crisis and deviation. Old age is a crisis, but "in our society where leisure is the rule, idleness is a sort of deviation." (4) In both the primitive heterotopias of crisis and the modern ones of deviance these are places for the unwanted, but there is a clear difference and seemingly, though he does not explicitly say this, a sense of decline from the primitive to the modern. Those in crisis seem to be so temporarily at least, for a specific event (e.g., periods of sexual awakening), where deviation is a label applied to the person instead of the event, and the obvious examples of heterotopias of deviation (i.e., prisons, asylums, retirement homes) are places one will generally not leave for a significant portion of time, if at all.
Heterotopias can also change over time. He uses the example of the cemetery which was once placed in the centre of the city, at the heart of society. Now it must have space for everyone's bodies because we have become so attached to them (a consequence of our lack of confidence in the afterlife). They are now therefore placed on the outskirts, partially simply due to room for bodies, but also because death is now seen as a deviation (4). This is an intriguing interpretation of death and the role of cemeteries and bodies. In fact he describes the cemetery as constituting "no longer the sacred and immortal heart of the city, but "the other city", where each family possesses its dark resting place." (4)
"The heterotopia is capable of juxtaposing in a single real place several spaces, several sites that are in themselves incompatible... The garden is the smallest parcel of the world and then it is the totality of the world." (4-5) This speaks to the diversity of place, and the power it has to take on different meanings and affect us in different ways, even when it is something as seemingly simple as a garden. The garden is the world in a "microcosm" (5), as it can contain elements representing the rest of the world.
Time has remained mostly absent from the discussion thus far, but heterotopias are also linked to 'slices' of time, as he says. Examples are the cemetery again, being linked to loss of life, and museums linked to "indefinitely accumulating time." (5) He defines the drive behind museums, this urge to collect the entirety of history within one place, as typical of, and new to, our modern period.
Entry to heterotopias, perhaps paradoxically, "both isolates them and makes them penetrable." (5) Some are compulsory such as a prison or asylum, where some require specific permission to enter, such as sacred religious places or, believe it or not, saunas (in that they require specific hygeine rituals to allow entry). Some are freely entered, but by their nature exclusionary. Here he cites American motels, where a man will take his mistress - again a place to hide the unwanted (6).
The final trait he lists of heterotopias is that they have a relation to all the other spaces. Some expose "every real space, all the sites inside of which human life is partitioned, as still more illusory" (6), where others are places of "compensation" (6), which sit in contrast to the other spaces. He specifically mentions here places constructed very meticulously, in contrast to our 'messy' space. They are attempts at rigid perfection through place.
This is a fascinating piece in which Foucault really shows what we can do with a focus on place, the relations we can bring out and the roles we can highlight. It is very much a cursory glance, pointing the way for possible routes to follow, and he says as much when he claims to be describing an area of research, as it were. He does approach with a very subjective, anthropocentric viewpoint, but there are moments we can pull out which show the power of spaces, such as their ability to juxtapose contradictory spaces within themselves. Part of the problem here is indeed, as Casey points out, his lack of clarity on the distinction between the various terms (space, place, site, etc), but there is rich material here to aid any thinking on place.