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

**first uploaded 14 June 2020; revised 7 September 2020

***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”. [27]  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.” [28] 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.” [29] 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.

Heterotopias and the Disorder of Things 異托邦與事物的失序

This section considers an early discussion of the concept of Heterotopia in Foucault’s work. In the Preface to The Order of Things, Foucault refers to a short story, “The Analytical Language of John Wilkins, written by Jorge Luis Borges. The story mentions a “certain Chinese encyclopaedia” wherein “‘animals are divided into: (a) belonging to the Emperor, (b) embalmed, (c) tame, (d) sucking pigs, (e) sirens, (f) fabulous, (g) stray dogs, (h) included in the present classification, (i) frenzied, (j) innumerable, (k) drawn with a very fine camelhair brush, (l) et cetera, (m) having just broken the water pitcher, (n) that from a long way off look like flies’.” [30]

The Chinese Encyclopaedia mentioned by Borges shows the arbitrariness of any schema that aims to give a final, absolutely correct categorization of things in the world. It undermines any “age-old distinction between the Same and the Other”. [31]  Immediately upon reading the story, we feel something impossible in this system of classification. But what makes this classification so transgressive?

What is the impossibility? We might say that the system mixes ontologically different kinds of things, for instance actual kinds of animals (“sucking pigs”, “stray dogs”) and imaginary ones (“sirens”, “fabulous animals”). Their juxtaposition is incongruous. This classification is potentially dangerous because it can lead to the confusion of what ought not to be confused, e.g., the actual and the fictive. But in a sense, the Encyclopaedia diffuses this potential danger by situating different things into “categories of their own”. [32] For instance, the “fabulous” is placed into its own separate place. Each category is then assigned a reasonably precise meaning. “Each of these strange categories can be assigned a precise meaning and a demonstrable content…” [33] The Encyclopaedia “localizes their powers of contagion” and exorcises any “possibility of dangerous mixtures”. [34] Things appear to have been assigned to clear-cut boxes.

What, then, makes this classification so transgressive?

The transgression does not lie in the content of any of the categories but in their location in the same taxonomy. “It is not the ‘fabulous’ animals that are impossible, since they are designated as such, but the narrowness of the distance separating them from (and juxtaposing them to) the stray dogs, or the animals that from a long way off look like flies.” [35] The transgression consists in “the sudden vicinity of things that have no relation to each other.” [36] They are placed together although they have no “common locus”. [37]

Instead of constituting an order of things, Borges’ classification exemplifies disorder. But Foucault mentions two kinds of disorder. The first is the disorder of “the incongruous, the linking together of things that are inappropriate…” [38] The second and more radical kind of disorder is that of “the heteroclite.” What we see in the heteroclite is a collection of “fragments of a large number of possible orders”. [39] These are fragments extracted from several possible orders and assembled without any criteria for similarity or difference. Let us see what this means.

The first category is “belonging to the Emperor”. We can think of this category as having been extracted from a prior classification. Other terms in that classification might have been: “belonging to one of the Emperor’s ministers”; “belonging to a soldier”; “belonging to a farmer”; etc. Consider the category “fabulous”. It seems to have been extracted from a classification that includes such additional categories as (e.g.) “existing” and “possible but non-existing”. Another is “tame”, which seems to be part of a classification that also includes the category “wild”.  Each of the categories in the Encyclopedia seems to have been torn out from some system of categories, the system wherein it has a home. Having been rendered “homeless”, these categories are then brought together.

But in what sense are they brought together? These categories are only brought together because they are listed in the same enumeration. Nothing else connects them. It is only language that relates them, our writing them next to each other on the page (on a diagram or a table, for instance). It might seem that by writing one next to the other, we have brought them into a common space. But language is a “non-place”. [40]  Merely stating various categories one after the other in a list does not establish a common “place” for them: “…the common ground on which such meetings are possible has itself been destroyed.” [41] There is no site, a locus, where these categories could come together, where we could speak of things being close to or far from one another. They do not all belong to one and the same conceptual space. Each category belongs to a different space. Foucault explains that “in such a state, things are ‘laid’, ‘placed’, ‘arranged’ in sites so very different from one another that it is impossible to find a place of residence for them, to define a common locus beneath them all.” [42] Foucault compares this destabilization to the experience of the aphasiac who, when shown differently colored patches of wool, cannot arrange them into any coherent and stable pattern. Instead, the patient will regard the various samples as a fragmentary agglomeration of unconnected islets with unstable and shifting interconnections.

What does it mean, to say that a set of categories has a common ground or common place? It means, very roughly speaking, that there are relations of order among the various categories. Order is established by means of a “table, a tabula, that enables thought to operate upon the entities of our world, to put them in order, to divide them into classes, to group them according to names that designate their similarities and their differences – the table upon which, since the beginning of time, language has intersected space.” [43] To construct a table is “to display at the same time the continuous order of their identities or differences as well as the semantic field of their denomination.” [44] First of all, there is a system of names for different categories of things. Secondly, there are criteria for the determination of identities and differences.  This system should allow for the determination of relations of closeness or distance among elements. We say, for instance, that two dogs resemble one another more than a dog resembles a cat, even if the dog and the cat are both frenzied or embalmed. [45] Foucault refers to the notion of a system of elements. “A ‘system of elements’ – a definition of the segments by which the resemblances and differences can be shown, the types of variation by which those segments can be affected, and, lastly, the threshold above which there is a difference and below which there is a similitude – is indispensable for the establishment of even the simplest form of order.” [46]

There can be no meaningful table that contains all the categories mentioned by Borges. The classification destroys the very possibility of a table. Foucault notes that “the central category of animals ‘included in the present classification’, with its explicit reference to paradoxes” shows the impossibility of finding a stable, coherent common place. This category shows that “we shall never succeed in defining a stable relation of contained to container between each of these categories and that which includes them all…” [47]

Foucault here introduces the contrast between utopias and heterotopias. “Utopias afford consolation: although they have no real locality there is nevertheless a fantastic, untroubled region in which they are able to unfold…” [48] Foucault notes that utopias afford discourse and narrative: “utopias permit fables and discourse: they run with the very grain of language and are part of the fundamental dimension of the fabula” [49]  Utopias sustain the possibility of speaking about things, of organizing them into stories that we can tell. In contrast, heterotopias disrupt the possibility of discourse and narrative. They undermine language itself: “Heterotopias are disturbing, probably because they secretly undermine language, because they make it impossible to name this and that, because they shatter or tangle common names, because they destroy ‘syntax’ in advance, and not only the syntax with which we construct sentences but also that less apparent syntax which causes words and things (next to and also opposite one another) to ‘hold together’. ” [50] According to Foucault, “heterotopias (such as those to be found so often in Borges)… contest the very possibility of grammar at its source”. [51]

This conception of heterotopia put forward in The Order of Things is transgressive.  Heterotopias question the very notion of an organization of the world into a stable system of categories. I don’t think Foucault holds on to this transgressive vision of heterotopias in his later work. The panopticon, insofar as it is an actual space, constitutes a heterotopia, even though it does not contest the very possibility of discourse.

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.” [52]

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



[27] “Different Spaces,” 182.

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

[29] 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.

[30] to [34] Michel Foucault, The Order of Things: An Archaeology of Human Sciences (New York: Vintage, 1973). xv.

[35] to [37] Ibid., xvi.

[38] to [40] Ibid., xvii.

[41] Ibid., xvi.

[42] to [43] Ibid., xvii.

[44] Ibid., xviii.

[45] Ibid., xix.

[46] Ibid., xx.

[47] Ibid., xvii.

[48] to [51] Ibid., xviii.

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


RELATED READING: Heterotopia []