In his 1967 essay, “Of Other Spaces,” Michel Foucault argued that the modern age had succeeded in creating a new kind of space: the heterotopia. Rapidly articulating a geneaology of space, Foucault suggested a series of transitions from emplacement (oppositional fixed hierarchies) to extension (realization of expansiveness of cosmos) to localization (awareness of proximity and relationally).
Today, he wrote, “our epoch is one in which space takes for us the form of relations among sites.” Because we are always in relation to spaces, “we live inside a set of relations that delineates sites which are irreducible to one another and absolutely not superimposable on one another.” Relational spaces are promiscuous, giving birth to infinite diverse relations. It’s a powerful explanation of the anxiety of the modern world (if you buy that sort of thing.)
If we have all of these related, heterogeneous spaces, then the particular spaces Foucault was keen to examine are the nodes of relations–sites which are related to all other sites. Moreover, he wasn’t just searching for nodes that affirm all of these relations, but also those nodes which “suspect, neutralize, or invert the set of relations that they happen to designate, mirror, or reflect.” These distorted nodes he called heterotopias.
Utopias might be one example of a distorted node, but they have no physical substance and therefore cannot be true sites of relation. Utopias are literally no places or non places. They are fictions and for Foucault that means they are “fundamentally unreal.” Disregarding spaces [and yes Foucault awkwardly goes back and forth between space and place without distinguishing the two terms] that lack physical reality, we come to concretized relational nodes. Like utopias they possess inverted or distorted relations to all other places, but they are really real. Here’s the first attempt at a defintion:
There are also, probably in every culture, in every civilization, 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, even though it may be possible to indicate their location in reality.
Got it? They exist; they exist relationally to all other real site; their relations to all other sites contest those relations; and they exist “outside of all places” even though they have a location within all places.
If you’re confused, don’t worry. Scholars continue to argue over what Foucault meant. Even his initial example is a bit confusing–that the image one sees in a mirror is a heterotopia because while it exists (on the surface of the mirror) it isn’t the mirror itself, it falsely reflects the image, and so on.
Foucault goes on to argue we may have historical anthropological examples (sites of menstrual exclusion) and modern examples such as cemeteries. These examples lead him to construct several axioms: 1) All cultures have heterotopic spaces; 2) the function of heteotopias is not static and can change over time; 3) heterotopias can juxtapose “in a single real place several spaces, several sites that are in themselves incompatible”; 4) They are connected to slices of time; 5) their penetrability (accessibility from other sites) opens and closes; and 6) they function in relation to all other space.
To find the productivity of the heterotopia for spatial theory we could look to axioms 1, 2, 4 or 5. Finding heterotopic spaces and tracing the ways they change (how their inversions of their relation to other sites change) is certainly a possibility. These are more proof-texts for spaces we’re thinking about that may be heterotopic. But it is #3 and #6 that are the really fascinating and productive theory-bending axioms. They juxtapose spaces and they relate to all other spaces. These are not easy to prove–perhaps impossible even–which is why scholars continue to grapple with the heterotopia as a tool. (The best uses, although drenched in Marxist theory, are by Edward Soja and David Harvey).
I’m thinking a lot about heterotopias because I’m still trying to decide whether I think that the spaces that prayerwalkers and spiritual mappers (evangelical spiritual warriors) create are heterotopic. They do seem a profound relational inversion of all other spaces (by assessing them as non-participants in the partially fulfilled Kingdom of God on earth). They also seem to juxtapose several incompatible spaces (secular, physical geography with spiritual geography). It’s a pretty sure bet I can make a case that they are (and that the participants’ actions themselves support, albeit unknowingly, that case).
What I can’t decide, however, is if this helps me to explain the evangelical construction of space. Heterotopias, as a kind of heuristic tool, seem to be engaging in conversations that are pretty far afield from my subjects. I’m not convinced that connecting these conservative evangelicals to continental philosophy or postmodernism allows me to say more about American religion or sacred space. Those discourses may only overlap in my scholarly world–and I’m trying to stay empirically and historically grounded. When these sections get some external workshopping, I don’t want them to mistake the theoretical injunctions for their own, or to bury one beneath the other.
If I decide that by creating/engaging/managing heterotopias these spiritual warriors aren’t playing nicely with other models of sacred space, then that’s one issue to be dealt with. (They already don’t play well with those models for other reasons such as continuous mobility.) But I’m only willing to wade into the depths of Foucault’s heterotopias if I can see clear benefits to doing so. What will I lose if I don’t? I’m not sure. Unless I see a compelling answer, it may be one philosopher too far.