Heterotopia, next to its spatial otherness, constitutes an alternative temporal ordering, giving an impression of timelessness, or emphasizing the transitory and the ephemeral. Heterotopias are produced, with a transformative tendency. A ludic principle invites us to consider strategies that mark out a heterotopia from other social spaces. Yet heterotopia is to be practiced, and cannot be reduced to readymade methods or generalization of types.


/3 of 3… continued from part 2

***feature image: Diamond Princess seen from Mount Asama around port of Toba in Toba, Mie Prefecture, Japan. By Alpsdake – This file has been extracted from another file: Diamond Princess (ship, 2004) and Port of Toba.jpg, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=84753070



Temporality of heterotopias 異托邦的時間性

Heterotopias often differ from other spaces in virtue of their temporal organization.

Heterotopias involve some sort of temporal break. In addition to their spatial otherness, they also embody a temporal otherness.

Heterotopias thus constitute an alternative organization of time. There are at least two distinct forms of temporal organization at work. One of them projects an impression of timelessness. For Foucault, many libraries and museums aim to produce this eternal or unchanging image. They aim to preserve things by lifting them out from the ravages of time and so achieving a sort of timelessness. These heterotopias are singular places that in some sense contain “all times, all ages, all forms, all tastes”. [31]  But not all heterotopias are intended to function as timeless paradigms. There are also heterotopias that emphasize the transitory or the ephemeral. They take place only within a relatively short span of time. This is the second form of temporal organization. There is of course the festival and the fairground. The latter occupies a site, usually in the outskirts of the city, only briefly. The vacation village is another example of this fleeting or temporary heterotopia. Any political revolution, insofar as it is understood as a period of transition, a passing moment, and a sort of collective festival (for instance, in Henri Lefebvre’s theory of the Paris commune as a political festival) also belongs in this category. There is a connection between this view of the political revolution as an affirmation of the transitory and the transformative, and certain modern art practices, such as the Happening or the constructed situation.

Take the latter practice as an example. The group known as the Situationist International invented the notion of a “constructed situation”. The core idea involves starting from certain desires that are not very clearly understood. The participants then establish a “temporary field of activity” on the basis of those desires. For instance, one might lay down a new system of rules for drifting in the city, or for designing performances in certain public spaces, during a carefully circumscribed period of time. By performing activities within this field and then reflecting on those activities, participants come to understand more clearly what it is that attracts or repels them in those activities: i.e., they reflectively clarify their own desires. This might involve, for instance, walking randomly in diverse locations within a city while communicating with other group members using a mobile phone. It could also involve experimenting with different ways of setting up a video conference. “The really experimental direction of situationist activity consists in setting up, on the basis of more or less clearly recognized desires, a temporary field of activity favorable to these desires. This alone can lead to the further clarification of these simple basic desires, and to the confused emergence of new desires whose material roots will be precisely the new reality engendered by situationist constructions.” [32] The situationists’ work suggests one reason why the production of heterotopias is important in contemporary art. It consists in an experimental practice whereby desire is individuated by means of its concrete spatial and temporal organization. When we construct a practice in a concrete location on the basis of an initially vague desire, we give ourselves the room to clarify and further articulate the content of that desire.

Situationist activities are essentially ludic. In a classic study of the role of playing in civilization, J. Huizinga argued that all forms of play stand outside “ordinary” life, and proceed “within its own proper boundaries of time and space according to fixed rules and in an orderly manner.” [33] This generalization may perhaps be false as a matter of fact, since individuals constantly engage in all sorts of playful behavior in everyday locations, and not always in accordance with fixed rules, but Huizinga’s statement accurately describes a wide range of situations that we would consider “playful”. We can describe such self-contained games as heterotopias. The modernist concept of the “autonomy of art” is also meant to heighten the game-like separation of the artwork from ordinary life, and so is essentially heterotopic.

The perils of generalization 「異托邦」概念不可被簡化為普遍值

The concept of heterotopia is not a reductive one. There is no definite set of necessary and sufficient conditions for membership in the class of heterotopias. Heterotopias can take very different forms in different periods and in different communities. The features mentioned throughout this 3-part reading report should be understood only as rough rules of thumb that need not apply to every single case. The concept is not meant as a general theory detailing the universal laws of every society. Foucault would, to my mind correctly, be very suspicious of any such enterprise. There is not one type of heterotopia, but rather many different kinds with their own individual features. Foucault’s interest mainly pertains to the description of individual cases. It would therefore be a fundamental misunderstanding to expect from this concept anything like a system of general laws or a universal theory of society.

Foucault’s work gives an impetus to attend to, discover and describe those differences. It respects the individual case, not to subsume particular cases under some overarching category. The concept of “heterotopia” does not embody a description of a general, homogeneous type of social institution. Rather, it is a methodological device to facilitate the production of descriptions of particular spaces. It is still up to the historian to write the appropriate description, and this requires attention to the individual case. He notes: “there is probably not a single culture in the world that fails to constitute heterotopias. That is a constant of every human group. But the heterotopias obviously take quite varied forms, and perhaps no one absolutely universal form of heterotopia would be found.” [34]

The purpose of the concept of heterotopia is not explanatory but descriptive and analytical. Foucault’s interest is directed towards describing social arrangements, not explaining why those arrangements are as they are. Foucault does not offer any kind of causal explanation for either social change or social stability.

The concept of heterotopia functions as a heuristic device to help guide the historian’s attention to certain aspects of a given practice, or of a network of practices. Its main usefulness lies in the questions it suggests and the way it channels the attention of the researcher. By helping to focus research, the concept aids the scholar in producing a richly detailed and fine-grained description of concrete social circumstances. It alerts critical historians to certain features of social spaces and thus assists in the comparative description of different spatial formations. In particular, it singles out a set of highly diverse sites characterized, very broadly, by their actual physical existence and their spatiotemporally disruptive character.

In analyzing a social space, we should pay special attention to the following questions:

  • In what sense is a given heterotopia different from other social spaces? Always remember that “difference” is not a universal category: there are various kinds of relevant differences depending on context. We must explain what is meant by “different” in the context we are studying, and how this difference is embedded in behavior. For instance: How must persons step outside of ordinary society to enter the heterotopia? Are there physical barriers? Are there rules of exclusion or inclusion? What are the devices that isolate a given heterotopia from all other social spaces? Are there purification rituals, strict membership conditions, economic or political barriers, religious taboos, customary restrictions, etc.? The system of entrances and barriers must be described in detail.
  • Does the heterotopia present a perfected or an inverted version of existing social arrangements? The answer may be a combination of both. Which social orderings, if any, are being denied or contested? What values or norms are affirmed as ideal? For instance: modernity, efficiency, democracy, egalitarianism, communism, commerce, excess, sexuality, etc.
  • In what way are these values expressed or embedded in the spatial practice? How does behavior express the temporal aspect of the heterotopia in question? What other aspects about the organization of time play a part in the heterotopia? For instance: is there any form of time-tabling? How is the course of each week and each day divided into parts?  What sorts of activities are conducted at each of those parts? What systems of classification and ordering, if any, is the heterotopia connected with? How is the connection implemented practically? What is the relationship between architectural elements, functional aims, and ideal classifications? To what extent and in what way are places and activities segmented?
  • How are the heterotopias formed? By government decision? By political activists? Intellectuals? Are these heterotopias sustained by military violence, legal measures, or economic pressures?
  • Are there different ways of interpreting a particular heterotopia in various different discourses (government documents, newspaper articles, scientific reports, popular culture)? Does a heterotopia change its function or social role over time? Are the heterotopias undergoing some sort of historical transformation? What are the changes and how are they related to changes in the rest of society? More generally: how is the organization and operation of a heterotopia connected to other social institutions?
  • Which different spaces or times are brought together into a single locale? In what sense are these spaces or times incommensurate? Does the situation involve something like a surrealist collage or a montage of attractions? How are these diverse spaces brought together? Is the heterotopia a sacred symbol of the various parts of the world (like the Persian garden), a cinematic or theatrical representation, a collection of examples (like the zoo), or does it employ other methods of juxtaposition?  Does the heterotopia perform a disorienting or disturbing function? Or does it offer consolation and harmony? Does it upset existing social categories and classifications, create new ones, or both?
  • In what sense does a heterotopia institute a break with regular time? Does it embody timelessness or transience? Is it radically outside of time or radically subject to becoming? (The nature of those values should be described in detail: there are various kinds of timelessness in different societies and contexts.).

/… end of a 3-part reading report



[31] “Different Spaces,” 182.

[32] “Preliminary Problems in Constructing a Situation,” trans. Ken Knabb, Internationale Situationniste #1 (June 1958), https://www.cddc.vt.edu/sionline/si/problems.html.

[33] J. Huizinga, Homo Ludens (New York: Roy Publishers, 1950), 13. Roger Caillois, who disagrees with Huizinga in important respects, also stresses the separation between play and ordinary life: “In effect, play is essentially a separate occupation…” Caillois, Man, Play and Games, trans. Meyer Barash (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1961), 6.

[34] Foucault, “Of other spaces,” p. 4.


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