I have previously written about utopias, apparent utopias, idylls and dystopias. I thought I had -topias covered. Then I came across the word heterotopia. What’s that now?
Foucault uses the term “heterotopia” to describe spaces that have more layers of meaning or relationships to other places than immediately meet the eye. In general, a heterotopia is a physical representation or approximation of a utopia, or a parallel space (such as a prison) that contains undesirable bodies to make a real utopian space possible.
That last clause makes zero sense to me. The article gets more impenetrable from there.
After taking a close look at what the concept means, I’m reminded of when I was teaching. Teachers would refer to ‘the real world’ as if it were somewhere else. In ‘the real world’ people don’t get 12 weeks of holiday. In the real world you don’t get a fixed but safe salary every two weeks. Like some sort of wild creature taking risks real world people have to run their own businesses or something. But then I had a job with public service. I noticed that people who work for the public service also talk about everyone else is if everyone else is ‘the real world’. Council workers do it, too. I now realise that teaching, like few other jobs, really is ‘the real world’. In a school you’re dealing with whatever trouble comes through the door — family issues, medical issues, car crashes, rape, imprisonment and physical assault on top of the day-to-day actual teaching and paperwork. This feeling that everyone else is ‘the real world’ and you yourself are living in some sort of insulated bubble is quite widespread, and I wonder if any group of professionals do in fact consider themselves The Real World. I suspect even emergency department nurses are prone to this feeling, working at night when everyone else is perceived to be asleep, and on the side of the bed where you are expected to be calm ande helpful rather than show your human side.
A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE WORD HETEROTOPIA
Heterotopia is based on the concept of utopia.
The Greek ‘u’ bit at the beginning of utopia means ‘not’.
The ‘topia’ part means ‘place’.
So if utopia means a place that is not — a place which doesn’t actually exist — heterotopia means a place that is different. Whereas the word ‘utopia’ has been around since 1516 thanks to Thomas More, heterotopia has only been around since 1967, thanks to Michel Foucault, who was giving a lecture to students of architecture at the time.
The sorry truth is, Foucault made this word up, explained it a bit, and then left it alone. Maybe he confused his own self. BUT he said just enough to make a lot of us want to know more, and others have said a lot since. Others have picked up the word and ran with it.
Let’s look at the concept of heterotopia from a perspective I can sink my teeth into — children’s literature.
Well, I will admit to thinking that if Marketing truly had their way, the title for every book would be an artless string of words broadcasting its selling appeal. The Hunger Games would be called ACTION PACKED DYSTOPIAN LOVE TRIANGLE.
The theory about interpretation of texts is called hermeneutics. The word alludes to the name of the Greek god Hermes who was the messenger between gods. Hermeneutics thus emphasizes that a message needs someone to carry it, someone to explicate, to elucidate, to interpret. A hermeneutic analysis involves pointing out and explaining how what we read or otherwise perceive embodies a meaning. The main premise of hermeneutics is that in extracting a meaning from a piece of art we alternate between the whole and the details.
For instance, when we look at a painting, we can start by perceiving it as a whole, noting the general composition, theme, color scheme, and so on. Provided that we are interested enough in learning more about the painting, we may then study the details, for instance each depicted object, figure, or shape; the foreground and the background; the particulars of hues and saturation; the individual brushstrokes (or other technique); and so on. However, if we stop at this stage, our perception of the word will be fragmentary. Therefore we must go back to studying the whole, this time with a better preconception, since we know more about the constituent parts of the whole.
In studying a literary text, we also usually begin with the whole: the storyline, the central characters, and their role in the story. When reading for pleasure, we often stop at that. Working with the text professionally, as critics or teachers, we will most probably go on to study the details: composition, characterization, narrative perspective, style and underlying messages. We may go still further into particulars, for instance, and only examine metaphors, or only concentrate on direct speech, or only investigate how female characters are portrayed. Such a detailed study is, however, only fruitful if we afterward go back to the whole, and hopefully we will then have a better understanding of the text.
Why do children read the same book over and over? No, it’s not to torture parents and teachers! Here are some pedagogical and developmental reasons why. It’s to do with what’s known as ‘hermaneutic reading’.
There is great comfort in the predictable, especially before bed or when other things in life are changing.
2. TO GAIN BETTER UNDERSTANDING OF THE TEXT
At some point many readers must realise that there are far too many books in the world to continue reading the same ones over and over (although I do know middle-aged Tolkien enthusiasts who read Lord Of The Rings every single year). Children who ask for the same story over and over are often getting more out of it each time. This experience is especially valuable with adult input during some of the readings. Story book apps with auto-narration are especially useful in this process, because adults have a smaller tolerance for repetition than their children.
What is the difference between ‘camp’ and ‘kitsch’?
CAMP: A PREFERENCE FOR REVERSAL AND REJECTION OF SINCERITY
I was listening to a podcast recently — I think it was one of the 99% podcasts — when someone in interview started talking about something being ‘camp’ and I realised I have no idea what the word actually means. I thought it described the behaviour of stereotypically gay men, in relaxed, social mode. But no. I still had no idea what it meant, even after listening to a lengthy discussion about it in relation to architecture.
But then, a few weeks later, I came across ‘camp’ again in an essay about David Bowie:
Camp is notoriously hard to define, but in most conceptions it involves both a sense of doubleness — things are not merely what they seem to the naive viewer — and a preference for reversal — the very bad now reinterpreted as good. Camp makes most sense not as an aesthetic style — like classicism or modernism — but as a mode of apprehension or a hermeneutic. It is a way of understanding or interpreting the world. Historically, camp emerges in gay subculture where it functions as a kind of passive resistance to the straight world, much of the cynical humor of the Russians was a form of passive resistance to Stalinism…. Transvestitism for obvious reasons lends itself to camp interpretation, and the embrace of artifice over nature is a convention of camp taste… camp interpretation requires a lack of seriousness and the rejections of sincerity.
– from Goth: Undead Subculture
(Hermeneutic is another word which I keep having to look up.)
This is probably the best description of camp that I have seen, because it describes how it relates to gay culture, while explaining in clear terms the wider context.
In children’s literature we don’t tend to use the word camp to describe this ‘reversal’ of the established order; we use the term carnivalesque. Though they are slightly different, I now consider them very much related as concepts.
Fantasy has a problem – it is inherently kitsch. What do I mean by kitsch? Crap that people unaccountably like. The dictionary defines kitsch as tawdry, vulgarised or pretentious art usually with popular or sentimental appeal. Unicorns, wizards, put upon young wretches who come to be great mages, haughty princesses, riders in dark cloaks – Robert Jordan, if you want it summed up in two words.
Well, I suppose that’ll do. So what’s the opposite of kitsch?
In going the other way, in trying too hard to be ‘realistic’, honest, gritty or meaningful we end up over-reaching ourselves and the monster eats us anyway.
There. Now I have a definition for ‘gritty’. I’m just going to say it’s the ‘opposite of kitsch’ and be done with it.
The Boss in “The Fly” by Katherine Mansfield had a pyrrhic victory. By winning the (heavily stacked) ‘battle’ against the fly in his ink pot, he was reminded of his own mortality.
Moral philosopher Bernard Williams argued that there are lots of situations in life where something won’t work, where we are just stuck and there’s no way out.
Agamemnon by Aeschylus — A great king has to either betray his army by abandoning his expedition to Troy, or sacrifice his daughter Iphigenia, because the goddess Artemis was preventing the wind from blowing the right way, and demanded this price.
Sophie’s Choice — perhaps the most obvious example of a tragic dilemma — expressed even in the title. Sophie has to decide which of her two children is to be sent immediately to the gas chamber.
A Streetcar Named Desire — Writer and critic Joseph Wood Krutch, in appraising Blanche, says, “Her instincts are right. She is on the side of civilisation and refinement. But the age has placed her in a tragic dilemma. She looks about for a tradition according to which she may live and a civilisation to which she can be loyal. She finds none. Ours is a society which has lost its shape.”
Olivia and the Missing Toy by Ian Falconer shows Olivia the Pig at her most bratty, and her parents at their most indulgent.
There are several versions of the book cover of Olivia and the Missing Toy, and the dark one is the scarier of the two.
The other is mostly white space, in keeping with most of the Olivia series. This book has a gothic episode in it — a definite spoof, with knowing use of the cliche “dark and stormy night”. Below, Margaret Blount explains one reason Olivia is a pig and not a little girl:
Even more suburbanised is Russell Hoban’s Frances where the child/animal substitution is so complete as to be unnoticeable. Frances the Badger is a small girl afraid of the dark, tucked up in bed but constantly annoying her parents by coming downstairs and interrupting the television. Why make her into an animal at all? The cosy delights of the Badger household — so like a human one — do remove the situation one or two degrees away from discomfort; some children are afraid of the dark, do dislike being alone.
— Margaret Blount, Animal Land
As for Olivia the pig, love her or hate her. Olivia is one popular children’s book character who pisses a lot of parents off, judging by reviews I have read online. While I don’t have a problem with some of the Olivia stories, this particular one annoys the hell out of me. That tends to happen when an adult reader sees a parenting style in a picture book with which we disagree. Here we have a demanding brat, an acquiescent mother and a father who is quick to say ‘I’ll buy you a new one’ after Olivia’s own carelessness with a toy.
I don’t think this is one of Falconer’s best. And it doesn’t just apply to the indulgent parents and bratty child character; the story structure is also a little odd and I don’t think it works. Why not? Let’s take a closer look.
Down Under, we grow up reading American books and watching American TV, so the following words are familiar even if we don’t use them ourselves. That said, our language and culture is borrowing more and more from North America. High schools often have faculties now instead of departments, and I’ve heard teenagers start to say ‘math class’ instead of ‘maths class’. New high schools are calling themselves colleges.
The following terms refer to Americans in high school AND in university.
year 1: Freshman
year 2: Sophomore
year 3: Junior
year 4: Senior
We call Freshmen ‘first years’. At university in New Zealand, a ‘freshman’ is often required to do an ‘intermediate year’, which is the first year of a university course. It’s relatively easy to get into university there, in fact you don’t even have to pass a thing at high school – you can simply wait until you turn 25. But if you want to do a rigorous course such as medicine, you’ll have to do an intermediate year of health science, from which only the top students are accepted for further study.
In New Zealand they are called second years (university), or year tens (high school).
Sometimes Americans might say “I’m a junior” and will have to clarify if that’s high school (age 17) or college (age 21ish).
PAYING FOR UNIVERSITY IN AMERICA
Prices vary between states but it looks to be around $10,000 tuition per year. Plus you need $10,000 (give or take) per year for room, board, fees, books.
An out of state school public could be $20,000 a year and up.
There is no free option at this time unless you apply for and receive a scholarship or grant.
Also, there are government sponsored loans that are easy to get for young first time college students to help offset the costs. They have to be paid back monthly for many years after you graduate, which is the same in New Zealand and in Australia. In NZ it’s called the student loan scheme, and in Australia it is shortened to HECS.
Low income Americans can get the expensive application fees waived for colleges but that’s about $100 each and doesn’t cover much in the scheme of things.
There are also waivers available for the tests to get into college (SATs and ACTs). There are also waivers for low income high school students down under, so they can sit their tests even if their parent(s) can’t pay for it.
You’ve probably heard Americans talk quite a lot about SATs. Here’s a confusing thing for us: elementary school SATs are different.
SAT stands for Scholastic Aptitude Test. It is administered by the College Board in the USA, and is a measure of the critical thinking skills needed for academic success. The SAT assesses how well you analyse and solve problems. (Some would argue that it tests how well you have already been educated, and how savvy you are at taking tests.)
It is made up of three parts: Critical reading/Math/Writing
Here’s a site that tells American college graduates where they might get into college based on their SATs and ACT scores.
What’s a good SAT score? If you want to get into one of the best schools it seems you need about 1500 or above.
But you also need to show that you’re a well-rounded person, and you should be into sports/arts/charity work.
OTHER AMERICAN TERMINOLOGY
BLEACHERS – For the longest time I thought this was something you’d find in a janitor’s closet. Then I read about some kids kissing behind the bleachers, and I realised the handle of a mop would hardly provide cover, so I took the time to look it up. Turns out they refer to those tiered seats you get on playing fields and lining gymnasiums. I have no idea what we call them, but I’ve never heard anyone talk about ‘bleachers’. Perhaps we call them ‘forms’. They’re not standard equipment, in any case.
JANITOR – But we don’t say ‘janitor’ either. That would sound distinctively American. We just say ‘cleaner’.
GRADUATE – In New Zealand you don’t ‘graduate’ high school. You just get your qualifications (or not) and finish up. You graduate from university.
CAFETERIA – New Zealand and Australian schools don’t tend to have those huge dining hall set-ups. We had to eat a packed lunch outside. If the weather was terrible we were (reluctantly) allowed to eat inside our home classroom, but in year ten, several drop-ins broke windows, so we were all locked out no matter the weather. I have memories of sitting inside a cleaner’s closet with two friends because it was snowing outside. (There were no bleachers in there.)
If students want to buy lunch (which is usually a meat pie because salad rolls are for pansies) they go to the ‘canteen’ or the ‘tuck shop’, but there’s no place to sit down and eat lunch at a civilised table, unless you go to an expensive private school. Even then, such privileges are often reserved for seniors.
‘SIGNING UP’ FOR CLASSES – This sounds more like something you’d do as a university student, but American books tell me that high school students ‘sign up’ for their classes at the start of an academic year. Senior high school students here do have a day in which you have to go in at the beginning of the year and show the timetabling teacher the marks you got, to prove you indeed still want to do the same subjects you’d picked before summer.
Down Under, there is a core of compulsory classes (English, maths, science) and even in senior high school, you have to select your subjects the year before, in the hope you’ll pass your end of year exams and get into them. Therefore, ‘signing up’ for a class is more a matter of visiting your subject teachers on the first day back and letting them know haven’t changed your mind about your subject choices over the summer holidays – or if you haven’t passed your NCEA courses, you’ll be having a sit down with a careers teacher to discuss your options. ‘Signing up’ sounds like there’s way more freedom than there actually is, because even with elective subjects, you’ve still got to choose something. (Maybe that’s the deception.)
CHEERLEADERS – I don’t know of any local high schools with a cheerleading team, and while I appreciate the strength and agility required, to me it is on a par with pole dancing. That said, there is a local gymnastics teacher who offers classes in cheerleading to little girls. (I suppose little boys could join in too, though I doubt it’s full of male participants.) Since pole dancing seems to have taken off lately, it wouldn’t surprise me if cheerleading took off in high schools here in the next generation. We do have cheerleading teams for regional and national rugby games, so the concept is here.
HOMECOMING QUEEN – I’m so glad we don’t have this tradition. Really. It sounds just awful. We do have end of school celebrations.
PROM – Some of our schools call them ‘balls’. Others call them ‘formals’. But I’ve not heard proms. What is it short for? There is usually an ‘after party’, which is shut down if the teachers get wind of it, then it moves somewhere else. Traditional high schools still teach their students ballroom dancing beforehand, and retain the ‘invite a partner’ thing, but more and more liberal high schools are deconstructing the idea of ‘partners’, and instead encourage their students to just turn up and have a good time when they get there. This is to avert the need for major stress for students who can’t find a partner, and avoids discrimination of non-heterosexual students, who are still banned from bringing their partners to the school ball at some schools, both state and religious.
In Australia, there is ‘schoolies’ week – an huge week-long party which started at Broadbeach. But not everyone is interested in attending that. It receives a lot of media attention every year because bad things happen there too. A lot of Australians have very fond memories of schoolies. In New Zealand, there isn’t a huge organised thing like that, but lots of students get together with friends and stay for a week in someone’s family bach (holiday home) or take a car trip around New Zealand before spending the rest of summer stacking shelves at a supermarket.
DRIVER ED – Are not usually run through a school in the way they are in America. Until recently, we got taught by our dads. But licences have gotten a little harder to pass, and have now turned into a formal industry. It’s hard to pass the tests unless you get taught by a qualified instructor. So more and more high schools now are taking the American model, and hiring driving instructors through the school. Unlike what I saw in Mr Holland’s Opus, these instructors are not their regular teachers, but contractors who specialise in driving instruction. In a film such as Mr Holland’s Opus we see that some high school teachers earn money over summer by teaching driving lessons. This is because America doesn’t pay their teachers well enough to sustain them over the entire year. Down here, driving instruction is a separate industry, though recently a lot of high schools are providing a driving program through the schools. Some even have their own designated car.
YEAR BOOKS – Most high schools seem to produce year books here, which are either put together by a teacher or by a group of students. Either way, I’ve not ever seen a ‘Student most likely to…’ situation. That sounds rather unkind to me. That’s not to say year books are not unkind, especially if the students collating photos have malevolent intention. Mind you, this is no worse than what goes on online, where ‘friends’ can tag you in the most heinous positions, and then share those photos with the world. I wonder if year books are on their way out everywhere. An online forum would be a less expensive way to share photos and memories of school. Mind you, its very fluidity is also its downfall.
The comforting image of an idealized maternal figure and environment are produced in Nina Bawden’s Carrie’s War. Carrie and her little brother Nick are evacuated to Wales during World War 2. They are billeted with a rather strange couple whose house is cold and austere. But they derive much comfort from visiting Hepzibah whose kitchen is “A warm, safe, lighted place … Coming into it was like coming home on a bitter cold day to a bright, leaping fire. It was like the smell of bacon when you were hungry; loving arms when you were lonely; safety when you were scared.’ Thus, the kitchen is a maternalized space, a place where warmth, the promise of food, bodily contact, and security conflate to produce feelings of comfort. When the children first meet Hepzibah she is “smiling. She was tall with shining hair the colour of copper. She wore a white apron, and there was flour on her hands. She has “a rather broad face, pale as cream, and dotted with freckles. Carrie thought she looked beautiful: so warm and friendly and kind.’ The feelings of homely, maternal comfort evoked by the descriptions of the kitchen and of Hepzibah herself are embellished and reinforced by sensuous descriptions of food. Carrie is shown the dairy where “there were speckly eggs in trays on the shelf, slabs of pale, oozy butter, and a big bowl of milk with a skin of cream on the top.
— Carolyn Daniel, Voracious Children: Who Eats Whom In Children’s Literature
Do you have a favourite picturebook kitchen?
from one of the Brambly Hedge books
The smaller, working-class Victorian kitchen or parlour would appear, to a modern child, to have all the warm, dark earthiness of rabbit hole or badger sett.
The cosy kitchen is often chaotic, overflowing with food (and love and happiness).
Bush Picnic by Eveline Dare and John Richards (1970)
Here we have a happy nuclear family, but with a modern and sleek kitchen (1970 version). This appears in a picture book, but might just as well appear in an advertisement for stainless steel kettles or kitchen design.
Courage The Cowardly Dog (Horror Comedy TV Series 1999-)
“You know. You’ve just come home from a movie, you had a great time, you go to the refrigerator to get a beer, you open the door, and you say, ‘Wait a minute …’” If a film has got the audience until they open the fridge, maintains [director Jonathan] Demme, then that’s all that matters.