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
Hetereotopia 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.
WHY WAS HETEROTOPIA INVENTED IN THE 20TH CENTURY?
Heterotopia is a 20th century concept because it describes 20th century life and beyond.
In the Middle Ages there was a hierarchic ensemble of places when it came to humans here on Earth:
- sacred places and profane plates
- protected places and open, exposed places
- urban places and rural places.
In cosmological theory, there were:
- the supercelestial places as opposed to the celestial
- the celestial place was in its turn opposed to the terrestrial place.
(Galileo put an end to that. Galieo’s new theories made people realise the universe was way bigger than they’d thought. They also separated ‘time’ from ‘the sacred’, but that still hasn’t happened entirely with the concept of ‘space’.)
HETEROTOPIA IN A NUTSHELL
- Heterotopia is a ‘real world utopia’. A utopia has no real place. A utopia is a ‘perfect version’ of a real place — a society turned upside down. But they are fundamentally unreal.
- Contrary to what you might think, a utopia isn’t necessarily a nice place. There’s a homophone from Greek — the eutopia — which comes from ‘good’ + ‘place’. These days, that’s what most people mean when we say ‘utopia’. As for ‘heterotopias’, those are definitely not necessarily nice places. A prison, a military school, a women’s refuge… these are heterotopias but I wouldn’t want to be there.
- The mirror is a kind of utopia. (It is a placeless place.) The mirror is also a kind of heterotopia as well as a utopia. The mirror does exist in the reality of your bathroom. But while the person you see in the mirror is real, but the image in the mirror is unreal. The mirror is the ultimate link between the real and the unreal. That’s why mirrors are so fictionally interesting.
- A heterotopia, similar to a utopia, is a kind of ‘unreal’ space.
- Time works differently in a heterotopia.
- Heterotopias have a system of opening and closing that both isolates them and makes them penetrable. In general, the heterotopic site is not freely accessible like a public place. Either the entry is compulsory, as in the case of entering a barracks or a prison, or else the individual has to submit to rites and purifications.
- A heterotopia is a place that represents society, but in a distorted way which calls to mind particular idealised aspects of the culture.
EXAMPLES OF REAL WORLD HETEROTOPIAS AND ANALOGUES FROM CHILDREN’S LITERATURE
Every culture has the concept of a heterotopia: privileged, sacred and forbidden places reserved for certain people.
There are ‘crisis hetereotopias’, where you find adolescents, menstruating women (See Menstruation In Fiction), pregnant women, women in general, the elderly. We have fewer of these ‘crisis heterotopias’ in modern society. It’s considered not-nice to lock people away when we don’t want to deal with them.
We still have boarding schools and many countries have the military service for young people.
Hogwarts is a well-known example. Harry Potter’s boarding school is a heterotopia because it is both separate from but also intimately connected to the world beyond its walls. Zooming in on more specific spaces within the Harry Potter universe we have some even better examples of hetereotopias:
- 12 Grimmauld Place, the ancestral home of the Black family, located in the Borough of Islington, London, in a Muggle neighbourhood
- The tent that Harry, Ron and Hermione share in book seven
- The Room of Requirement is a space within the place of the school proper. Itonly appears when a person is in great need of it. The room is thought to have some degree of sentience, because it transforms itself into whatever the witch or wizard needs it to be at that moment in time, although there are some limitations. For example, it cannot create food, as that is one of the five Principal Exceptions to Gamp’s Law of Elemental Transfiguration. It is believed that the room is Unplottable, as it does not appear on the Marauder’s Map, nor do its occupants, although this could simply be because James Potter, Remus Lupin, Sirius Black, and Peter Pettigrew never found the room.
Those two spaces exist in the margins of safety and danger. There are shifts from order to disorder, from safety to danger. The idea J.K. Rowling is pushing forth is that young adults can be powerful when it comes to opposing the abuses that permeate the spaces in our own world. What the trio does in Hogwarts does not stay in Hogwarts. The teenagers go against authority, learning the limits of their own power. For this they need to operate in a fictional space which is part fantasy, part real-world.
Train And Steamships
A lot of children’s stories still feature steam trains even though most modern kids have never ridden one in their lives. The steam train, or the ship (offered as an example by Foucault himself) are especially good as heterotopias because they operate like alternative worlds. They are kind of like a portal in a portal fantasy, and John Truby in Anatomy of Story strongly advises writers to ‘linger’ in the portal. He doesn’t give all the reasons why writers need to do this. The most obvious one is to give an audience the enjoyment of being transported to another world. Another reason is to make sure the audience doesn’t zone out for a moment and lose track of where they are. But there are other reasons.
When the fantasy portal is something like a train or a ship, this gives the writer some space and time to:
- Establish the logic of this new universe
- To subvert it
- To have it clash with the logic of the existing, real world universe.
(In the real world, the ship which inspired the film Pirate Radio (2009) existed in a kind of heterotopia, able to broadcast non-classical music due to floating outside the reach of the rule makers.)
The boat is a floating piece of space, a place without a place, that exists by itself, that is closed in on itself and at the same time is given over to the infinity of the sea and that, from port to port, from tack to tack, from brothel to brothel, it goes as far as the colonies in search of the most precious treasures they conceal in their gardens, you will understand why the boat has not only been for our civilization, from the sixteenth century until the present, the great instrument of economic development… but has been simultaneously the greatest reserve of the imagination. The ship is the heterotopia par excellence. In civilizations without boats, dreams dry up, espionage takes the place of adventure, and the police take the place of pirates.
Pirate stories set on ships are likewise heterotopic.
In the past the ‘honeymoon trip’ had the purpose of removing a young woman from society so that she could lose her virginity elsewhere (out of sight, out of mind — because everyone’s always been scared of young female sexuality). So the honeymoon destination is a kind of heterotopia, without geographical markers.
The honeymoon destination is the closest real world analogue I can think of for the portal fantasy that takes a character (and her sidekick) away to a fun and fabulous land where children can eat as much as they like of whatever they like and get up to other carnivalesque mischief. After all, in children’s literature food is basically sex.
Libraries and Museums
A 20th century heterotopia. Time works differently here because in these places time never stops ‘building up and topping its own summit’.
A lot of children’s books feature libraries — probably because children’s authors are huge fans of books. For instance, A Series of Unfortunate Events contains memorable libraries.
Cinemas and Theatres
Juxtaposition is very important when it comes to the importance of a heterotopia. Cinemas and theatres are heterotopic because they are capable of juxtaposing “in a single real place several spaces, several sites that are in themselves incompatible”. There’s the audience, sitting comfortably in their chairs, juxtaposed with whatever mayhem’s going on on the screen or stage.
These are sites of temporary relaxation.
The theater brings onto the rectangle of the stage, one after the other, a whole series of places that are foreign to one another; thus it is that the cinema is a very odd rectangular room, at the end of which, on a two-dimensional screen, one sees the projection of a three-dimensional space.
Drag queen cabarets are especially good examples of heterotopias because the men dressed as ‘women’ are not mimicking real women at all, but a particular kind of ideal woman, with exaggeratedly feminine attributes. They caricature feminine traits. What is the raison d’etre of drag queen cabarets? A kind interpretation: Drag queens highlight the ways in which femininity is a performance. More pessimistically, by highlighting that femininity is a performance, women are seen to be performative, duplicitous and basically liars when we put on ‘masks’ such as make-up, and dress to make our legs look longer and so on.
In children’s books there are few (if any) drag queen cabarets — this is considered adult entertainment. But we do often get a form of cross-dressing. This is most often done to disempower boys by comparing them to girls, long considered a lesser gender. This is not a form of heterotopia but a kind of gag.
Whenever a character in a story visits the cinema or the theatre and watches fiction on the stage, this might (or might not) be metafictional, depending on whether the author calls attention to the fact that, Hey, look, this character is watching a play and you’re reading a book about them watching a play.
Perhaps the oldest example of these heterotopias that take the form of contradictory sites is the garden. We must not forget that in the Orient the garden, an astonishing creation that is now a thousand years old, had very deep and seemingly superimposed meanings. The traditional garden of the Persians was a sacred space that was supposed to bring together inside its rectangle four parts representing the four parts of the world, with a space still more sacred than the others that were like an umbilicus, the navel of the world at its center (the basin and water fountain were there); and all the vegetation of the garden was supposed to come together in this space, in this sort of microcosm. As for carpets, they were originally reproductions of gardens (the garden is a rug onto which the whole world comes to enact its symbolic perfection, and the rug is a sort of garden that can move across space). The garden is the smallest parcel of the world and then it is the totality of the world. The garden has been a sort of happy, universalizing heterotopia since the beginnings of antiquity (our modern zoological gardens spring from that source).
— — Foucault
Since heterotopias represent a society’s idealised version of reality, each culture has its own raison d’etre. Japanese gardens are all about balance, because balance is important to Japanese people. French gardens are made of straight lines whereas English gardens mimic the irregularity of nature (with the emphasis on ‘mimic’). Gardens are attempts to recreate an ideal, utopian nature.
Heterotopia is also about the side-by-side, the near and far, and simultaneity.
Botanical gardens in particular are driven by the desire to reconstitute the whole world in a walled enclosure.
The golf club is a kind of massive, over-manicured garden — another example of heterotopia. Malcolm Gladwell did an excellent podcast on American golf clubs, and how taxpayers are all paying for them even though they are accessible by very few.
A cemetery is a heterotopia because the tombs form a sort of ideal town for the deceased, each placed and displayed according to social rank. Our local graveyard divides people according to religion — we have protestants on one side, Catholics on the other. The odd atheist (I assume) is over by the fence, as far as possible away from the religious folk. This represents some sort of idealised town, in which people of different/no faiths don’t have to deal with each other.
Also, a cemetery gives the illusion to its visitors that their departed relatives still have an existence and status, symbolised by the stone of their tomb. This is a simulated utopia of life after death, but it is also a representation of the real world, where things like your religion and status — as described briefly on your tombstone — actually matter.
Take the strange heterotopia of the cemetery. The cemetery is certainly a place unlike ordinary cultural spaces. It is a space that is however connected with all the sites of the city, state or society or village, etc., since each individual, each family has relatives in the cemetery. In western culture the cemetery has practically always existed. But it has undergone important changes. Until the end of the eighteenth century, the cemetery was placed at the heart of the city, next to the church. In it there was a hierarchy of possible tombs. There was the charnel house in which bodies lost the last traces of individuality, there were a few individual tombs and then there were the tombs inside the church. These latter tombs were themselves of two types, either simply tombstones with an inscription, or mausoleums with statues. This cemetery housed inside the sacred space of the church has taken on a quite different cast in modern civilizations, and curiously, it is in a time when civilization has become ‘atheistic,’ as one says very crudely, that western culture has established what is termed the cult of the dead.
Basically it was quite natural that, in a time of real belief in the resurrection of bodies and the immortality of the soul, overriding importance was not accorded to the body’s remains. On the contrary, from the moment when people are no longer sure that they have a soul or that the body will regain life, it is perhaps necessary to give much more attention to the dead body, which is ultimately the only trace of our existence in the world and in language. In any case, it is from the beginning of the nineteenth century that everyone has a right to her or his own little box for her or his own little personal decay, but on the other hand, it is only from that start of the nineteenth century that cemeteries began to be located at the outside border of cities. In correlation with the individualization of death and the bourgeois appropriation of the cemetery, there arises an obsession with death as an ‘illness.’ The dead, it is supposed, bring illnesses to the living, and it is the presence and proximity of the dead right beside the houses, next to the church, almost in the middle of the street, it is this proximity that propagates death itself. This major theme of illness spread by the contagion in the cemeteries persisted until the end of the eighteenth century, until, during the nineteenth century, the shift of cemeteries toward the suburbs was initiated. The cemeteries then came to constitute, no longer the sacred and immortal heart of the city, but the other city, where each family possesses its dark resting place.
Cemeteries are a good example of how time is different in a heterotopia. In a cemetery humans have met with broken time — starting at the time of death.
The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman
[Fairgrounds are] marvelous empty sites on the outskirts of cities that teem once or twice a year with stands, displays, heteroclite objects, wrestlers, snakewomen, fortune-tellers, and so forth.
Disney World is the ultimate real world heterotopia. The characters are really nice to visitors not because Donald Duck is best friends with every visitor but because friendliness and photo opportunities are the service parents have paid for. The place is open only to those with enough money to enter — poverty and beggars are absent. The ‘city’ itself is a miniaturised version of an idealised world. For more on Disney World as the ultimate heterotopia see this article.
Although this describes Disney World it applies equally to malls:
Stephen Fjellman explains in Vinyl Leaves that the ‘magic’ of Disney World is actually a cognitive overload associated with decontextualization. ‘Cognitive overload’ simply means that the visitors’ senses are constantly overloaded by stimuli: music, stories, animatronics, cute characters, pretty buildings, rides, simulations and more. The visitor is overwhelmed and loses part of his capacity to discriminate information or think.
In our local mall we have:
- Booths in the middle of the ‘street’ with salespeople trying to sell you mobile phone plans, insurance and do your taxes, depending on the time of year
- The sub-heterotopia of a children’s entertainment arena, again different depending on the time of year. Before Christmas you can pay for the simulated intimacy of a photo with Santa. During school holidays you can be tied up to bungee ropes and jump and flip up as high as the third level of the mall. For younger kids we have mechanical horses which ‘run’ if you rock them the right way.
- Music which is different depending on the store
- Smells — some unintended, like the chemicals coming out of the nail salon; others intentional, such as the smell of baking coming out of the gourmet bakery.
- Lighting which highlights some features over others
- Massive advertisements, often of semi-naked women, always young and either smiling or seductive.
- A help desk which supposedly caters to your every need, including telling you where to find things and dealing with misplaced items, like a patient mother
- Tiny cars with flags on the top, so toddlers can imagine the mall is a city
- Balloons with ‘Westfield’ written on them, simulating a party atmosphere
- Mechanical animals, which take you to an imaginary other world if you put two dollars in the slot.
While malls are the ultimate shopping heterotopia, individual shops do their best to emulate the exclusivity of their stores — the very definition of ‘brand’.
Quite recently, a new kind of temporal heterotopia has been invented: vacation villages, such as those Polynesian villages that offer a compact three weeks of primitive and eternal nudity to the inhabitants of the cities. You see, moreover, that through the two forms of heterotopias that come together here, the heterotopia of the festival and that of the eternity of accumulating time, the huts of Djerba are in a sense relatives of libraries and museums. for the rediscovery of Polynesian life abolishes time; yet the experience is just as much the,, rediscovery of time, it is as if the entire history of humanity reaching back to its origin were accessible in a sort of immediate knowledge.
Like a permanent vacation village, the gated community is a phenomenon of the 21st century. In America, the same companies running prisons are guarding gated communities.
The ‘trailer park’ or the ‘mobile home community’ is a compulsory form of gated community — made compulsory due to poverty.
Rapunzel lives in the ultimate gated community. Rapunzel is the ur-Story of any overprotected girl who has lost freedom to move around her environment due to real or perceived danger.
There are even heterotopias that are entirely consecrated to these activities of purification -purification that is partly religious and partly hygienic, such as the hammin of the Moslems, or else purification that appears to be purely hygienic, as in Scandinavian saunas.
In a children’s book the tree house can function as a kind of religious space, letting in only those who perform the ritual of a password (e.g. Enid Blyton’s The Secret Seven). In The Three Investigators the boys have a caravan in one of their uncles’ scrapyard.
The first wave of colonization in the seventeenth century, of the Puritan societies that the English had founded in America and that were absolutely perfect other places.
Jesuit colonies that were founded in South America: marvelous, absolutely regulated colonies in which human perfection was effectively achieved. The Jesuits of Paraguay established colonies in which existence was regulated at every turn. The village was laid out according to a rigorous plan around a rectangular place at the foot of which was the church; on one side, there was the school; on the other, the cemetery-, and then, in front of the church, an avenue set out that another crossed at fight angles; each family had its little cabin along these two axes and thus the sign of Christ was exactly reproduced. Christianity marked the space and geography of the American world with its fundamental sign.
The daily life of individuals was regulated, not by the whistle, but by the bell. Everyone was awakened at the same time, everyone began work at the same time; meals were at noon and five o’clock-, then came bedtime, and at midnight came what was called the marital wake-up, that is, at the chime of the churchbell, each person carried out her/his duty.
Thirteen-year-old Kyra has grown up in an isolated community without questioning the fact that her father has three wives and she has twenty brothers and sisters, with two more on the way. That is, without questioning them much—if you don’t count her secret visits to the Mobile Library on Wheels to read forbidden books, or her meetings with Joshua, the boy she hopes to choose for herself instead of having a man chosen for her.
But when the Prophet decrees that she must marry her sixty-year-old uncle—who already has six wives—Kyra must make a desperate choice in the face of violence and her own fears of losing her family forever.
Brothels and colonies are two extreme types of heterotopia.
In YA fiction featuring the heterotopias of brothels we have Naked by Stacey Trombley, Dime by E.R. Frank and Out of the Easy by Ruta Sepetys, among others.
There are others, on the contrary, that seem to be pure and simple openings, but that generally hide curious exclusions. Everyone can enter into thew heterotopic sites, but in fact that is only an illusion- we think we enter where we are, by the very fact that we enter, excluded. I am thinking for example, of the famous bedrooms that existed on the great farms of Brazil and elsewhere in South America. The entry door did not lead into the central room where the family lived, and every individual or traveler who came by had the right to ope this door, to enter into the bedroom and to sleep there for a night. Now these bedrooms were such that the individual who went into them never had access to the family’s quarter the visitor was absolutely the guest in transit, was not really the invited guest. This type of heterotopia, which has practically disappeared from our civilizations, could perhaps be found in the famous American motel rooms where a man goes with his car and his mistress and where illicit sex is both absolutely sheltered and absolutely hidden, kept isolated without however being allowed out in the open.
For children, a hotel doesn’t have to be a sex destination in order for it to function as a getaway.
IS HETEROTOPIA A USEFUL CONCEPT FOR TALKING ABOUT CHILDREN’S LITERATURE?
The word is probably more useful for architects than for students of literature, because it describes the function of a real world fictional place such as a Spanish garden or a games room. The truth is, every story with elements of realism features a heterotopia. Some sort of closed arena is a requirement for a story, after all.
The word is still useful for students of literature and here’s why:
[Disneyland] is presented as imaginary in order to make us believe that the rest is real, when in fact all of Los Angeles and the America surrounding it are no longer real, but of the order of the hyper-real and of simulation.
–Jean Baudrillard, Simulacra and Simulations (1981)
Certain kinds of stories, including many children’s stories, are likewise presented as imaginary in order to make us believe the rest is real. Yet the very existence of these stories draws attention to the fact that the ‘real world’ is pretty fucking far from ‘real’. We’re actually living in a simulcrum of reality. I’m wearing a graduation gift that is a $300 dress ring, and it looks like it might be a lot more expensive than it is. Outside I have planted natives which I hope will look like they’re self-sown, if I can get them to establish.
When The Tiger Who Came To Tea leaves the house, the young reader’s attention is drawn to the fact that their real life is bound by certain rules and expectations. Foucault considered heterotopias escapes from authoritarianism, much like the carnivalesque settings in picture books. Subsequent thinkers have expanded his original meaning. Hetereotopias can also be dystopias, in fiction as in real life.
Children’s literature in general is very concerned with truth. Middle grade fiction in particular is read at a time when children are learning not only to lie, but when it is okay to lie. The concept of heterotopia is useful when considering the difference between reality and a shiny veneer which is not genuine at all. Is this expensive boarding school your parents have sent you to really all that great? Does this teacher in charge of your welfare really have your best interests at heart? Do the ‘popular’ kids in your class have real friends, or does popularity really mean ‘social status’? Is this world created for you by adults anything like the world you’ll be thrown into once you enter adulthood?
All children — at least, all well-cared-for children — live in a heterotopia, where they are protected from certain news stories, from the full spectrum of adult sexuality, from toxic food choices and their own bad decisions. The best coming-of-age stories — not the ones solely concerned with losing one’s virginity — are at their base about a young person realising the extent to which they’ve been living inside a heterotopia, and how much they’re willing to come out of it.
Heterotopia is also a useful concept when talking about the ‘Disneyfication‘ of children’s stories. This has been going on for more than half a century, and is an interesting look into how the West thinks of childhood.
It is also useful for getting a handle on your own personal philosophy of children’s literature. To what extent are you comfortable with people/children living in multiple levels of reality? Do you think that when children read magical stories like Harry Potter this affects their real-world understanding of science? At what age should children be exposed to what? If we allow privileged child readers to remain in the heterotopia we have created for them will this affect how they identify with people less privileged than themselves?
Also, the words used to describe “non-realistic” narratives have not been specific enough. Academics were overlapping different words and using them interchangeably. This was no good. Take the word ‘fantasy’ itself. Different scholars call it a ‘genre’, a ‘style’, a ‘mode’, or a ‘narrative technique’. Believe it or not, people have big arguments about this. When describing children’s literature in particular, anything that’s not realistic is generally called either ‘fantasy’ (for long works) or ‘fairy tale’ (for short ones). This distinction is pretty useless really. Fairy tales and fantasy may seem related at a surface level, fairy tales came out of myth and have roots in archaic society. But fantasy is definitely a product of modern times. Heterotopia can be useful when talking about concepts related to modern fantasy stories, especially those with no portal. Portal fantasy most often has just the two distinct worlds — the ‘real world’ and the ‘fantasy world’ through the looking glass or whatever. But modern fantasy often involves a multitude of ‘secondary’ worlds. Traditional fantasy is all about simplicity, stability and optimism, whereas modern fantasy can explore reality in a much more complex fashion, emphasising uncertainty and ambiguity. Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials series is a good example of this kind of fantasy.
Perhaps it might be especially useful for talking about fabulism, magical realism, and especially the typical modern child’s relationship with computer games. The word ‘spaces’ is often used to describe the imaginary worlds of computer games but we might use ‘heterotopia’ to be more specific.