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How We Can Enact Our Utopias in Real Life: Foucault’s Heterotopia

January 25, 2021
5 mins read
Navigating the vast landscape of my room, a space filled with routine yet tinged with the allure of daydreams, I've discovered the transformative power of the heterotopic mind—a concept inspired by Foucault's ideas. It’s a journey that reveals how our perception can turn the mundane into magic, and how, within the confines of the familiar, we can recreate our realities and rediscover wonder.

Utopia and Reality

In my room, as has been the case for the past three years, I find myself enveloped in the familiar. Day after day, I sit in my chair, sifting through scattered papers on the desk, navigating from one theory to the next. I diligently take notes and type out the subsequent paragraphs of my bittersweet, seemingly never-ending dissertation. This space has taught me an essential truth: when activities are repeated in the same place, they become commonplace. Over time, this regularity can feel like a growing weight, layering itself upon one’s existence. It’s a reality, a normality, that can feel almost unbreakable.

A short escape from usuality — maybe a trip or an activity outside my daily life — is no longer a solution. It would only be a temporary shift, and somehow, I would return again under the same surface. I know that I need something not external to my life but very intrinsic to it. I don’t need adventures sometimes somewhere, but I have an adventurous life here, forever. A sense of magic while wishing to realize dreams and utopias. Even if, at the same time, I know that they are not real.

My kensho companion in this satori journey of earning a doctorate is no one less than Michel Foucault. His notion of — heterotopia, of other spaces, could pull me towards a hint of a solution to my ongoing endeavor of finding adventure in regularity. It can provide a new space category even if it is not the most direct solution. It can display that there is not only utopia and reality but third places, a layer just in between, a heterotopia(s).

Foucault Heterotopia…

If we view utopia as an imagined society wherein everything is perfected, then dystopia is the contrary; everything is horrible and unbearable, as most famously depicted in George Orwell´s “1984”. Even though both notions are used for the creative imagination of surreal spaces, they intend to evoke two extremes of one spectrum. Hell vs. heaven. And in this momentum of binary lies the reason why, factually, we cannot (?) encounter them in real life.

Photo by Denys Nevozhai on Unsplash
Foucault Heterotopia
Photo by Denys Nevozhai on Unsplash

Foucault´s heterotopia exists in every society, culture, and civilization, but in different fashions, separated from all ordinary places and significantly different from them. They are “counter-spaces” in which we can enact our utopias. Simultaneously, the usual sites of society are represented, contested, and altered inside them. Thereby, these different spaces possess both mythic and real qualities simultaneously. While challenging, contradicting, and inverting the spaces wherein we live, they also reflect, mirror, and represent them1.

Foucault’s heterotopias are mainly considered social and cultural spaces; therefore, they are quite controversial. Even many researchers in the field find the term inconsistent and incoherent2. As such, heterotopia is considered different by comparison with the rest of society. In other words, society in front of heterotopias is construed as “the whole” as homogeneous, which is untrue. And if we know that society is heterogeneous, consisting of many distinct strata, then any space can be identified as heterotopia due to its singular qualities different from the rest. It is worth noting that Foucault did not develop the term in-depth and gave up after 2–3 times use. Nevertheless, heterotopia still preserves its significance and is worth a deeper look.

What if we take heterotopia as a viewpoint?

Considering that human psychology is frankly open to tough generalizations due to the self-centered perspective, tempting to perceive the outside as “the whole,” we can approach heterotopia as an individual viewpoint on spaces surrounding us. That is, we can understand it as our perception of different spaces. Somehow, personal heterotopia can be considered a break from our normality, a crack on the surface of our ordinary life. But how can we make a space different? How can we smash the surface?

Foucault notes that the main group of people who recognize heterotopias naturally are children:

“it’s … on their parent’s bed where they discover the ocean, as they can swim between the covers, and the bed is also the sky, or they can bounce on the springs; it’s the forest as they can hide there; or still, it’s night as they can become ghosts between the sheets…” (Foucault, M. “Le Corps utopique, Les Hétérotopies”)3

With this Children’s imagination or inventive playfulness in mind, which could be understood as a source of transformative power, I’d like to stay true to the Foucauldian muse in me and coin a new term by calling it the heterotopic mind. A source that transforms a space into a different space while staying in the same place. It recreates new realities with new meanings by inverting the current ones. That is to say, what makes a space different is mainly our mind, our perception of space, and thus the power of our abilities to use a heterotopic mindset.

To understand how utopic and heterotopic minds work and how a space can be reconstituted, Foucault’s analogy of the mirror is quite helpful:

“The mirror is, after all, a utopia, since it is a placeless place. In the mirror, I see myself there where I am not, in an unreal, virtual space that opens up behind the surface; I am over there, there where I am not, a sort of shadow that gives my own visibility to myself, that enables me to see myself there where I am absent: such is the utopia of the mirror.” (Foucault, M. “Of Other Spaces”)

As we see here, the utopic mind functions as the utopic quality of the mirror. We daydream we wish, we construct the ideal places in our mind, somewhere else where we are absent, not involved in reality. As for heterotopia, things work differently:

“From the standpoint of the mirror I discover my absence from the place where I am since I see myself over there. Starting from this gaze that is, as it were, directed toward me, from the ground of this virtual space that is on the other side of the glass, I come back toward myself; I begin again to direct my eyes toward myself and to reconstitute myself there where I am.” (“Of other Spaces”)

As Foucault mentioned, the heterotopic mind functions in two stages: First, a utopia is created, and then, from the point of this utopia, the actual place is exposed to immediate transformation. As children do, they first create their utopias, then according to these utopias, they reconstitute the space, which is different — real and magical at the same time. They transform their parent’s room into a forest. It is still the room, the same place, but re-constituted as a different space.

The critical point here is that, unlike in utopia, we are immediately involved in the space and its recreation process in heterotopia. Our real body actively participates there. The heterotopic mind looks like a process where one constantly writes a novel about herself at every moment. It is our third eye observing ourselves constantly. It is our creative energy playing with spaces and meanings around us.

Let’s play, then…

I am in my room, as usual. While writing the last paragraph of my first Medium article, surrounded by many papers and books, words, and meanings hover and circulate over my head. The room is my transmitting point from which I visit different realities of fiction and distinctive worlds of thinkers. And it is my chair; when I sit in it, it becomes the zero point of the whole universe.

[1] Foucault, M (1967), “Of Other Spaces,” link

[2] For further information on different uses of heterotopia in various fields, see. Johnson, P. (2016), “Interpretations of Heterotopia,” in Heterotopia Studies, link

[3] The translation of the paragraph belongs to Johnson, P (2016), “Brief History of the Concept of Heterotopia,” in Heterotopia Studies, link

Khayyam Namazov

I am a committed researcher with expertise in social movements and power and knowledge technologies. My passion lies in helping people enhance their knowledge and skills on diverse subjects, as well as encouraging their personal growth and development.

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Khayyam Namazov

I am a committed researcher with expertise in social movements and power and knowledge technologies. My passion lies in helping people enhance their knowledge and skills on diverse subjects, as well as encouraging their personal growth and development.

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