Alan N. Shapiro, Visiting Professor in Transdisciplinary Design, Folkwang University of the Arts, Essen, Germany

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Foucault’s Thinking About Space, by Lulu Zhao

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Foucault’s Thinking About Space

In Michel Foucault’s work, the space concept of the human translates these days into a structural situation. Space is not the extension of object movement any more, but rather it is something specific that is composed of specific activities and relationships. Space is no longer abstract, homogeneous and infinite, but rather heterogeneous, specific and limited.

As Foucault said, we are now living in a set of relationships which are defined by sites which are neither mutually reductive nor dominant. Quality forms the characteristics of postmodern space. In terms of its mutual non-reduction, space is always concrete and specific, a different place, a different living space, there is no common space. In terms of its non-dominance, spatial relations are flowing and mutating. Foucault thought that space is not separated from the activities of humanity, but is a specific form of human space, a practice. In other words, the space is not ready to give, but through practice to make.

Understanding space is itself the understanding of human experience. Foucault’s understanding of contemporary space has important methodological significance. He asks us not to focus on the abstract principle of space, but on the characteristics of the concrete experience-space of the human.

It must be said that, for Foucault, the concept of sites has a core status in Heterotopia thought. Any specific human activity leads to the way of social cognition. Social spaces include not only factories, parliament, public squares and other places, but also train carriages, cafes, beaches, etc. Among the various relationships and definitions of sites, Foucault is most interested in Heterotopia.

“Our epoch is one in which space takes for us the form of relations among sites.

In any case I believe that the anxiety of our era has to do fundamentally with space, no doubt a great deal more than with time. Time probably appears to us only as one of the various distributive operations that are possible for the elements that are spread out in space”  —— Of Other Spaces, Heterotopias (Michel Foucault).

We are all living under a net of power and knowledge, and thus it’s very important to determine our position in the complicated relationship which is the net. This space-form is called Heterotopia by Foucault. It exists in complex network relationships and mutual influence. In the description of its six characteristics, Foucault emphasizes the relationship between modern society and  power operations, as well as the interaction between culture and society. On the other hand, he pointed out that this is not only a relatively closed space, but it’s also the first characteristic of an open space. That it is impossible to create culture in this world which is not a Heterotopia. Different cultures all over the world present the features of multiple coexistence that are Heterotopia.

The second characteristic of Heterotopia is that a society can exist in a very different way in the history of the society. Every Heterotopia has a clear and certain effect within the society, according to the simultaneity of the culture in which the Heterotopia exists. The same Heterotopia can have one of several functions. For example, the cemetery is a Heterotopia. Compared with ordinary cultural space, the cemetery is a different place. It can be in contact with localities: the city or the countryside. Everyone, or every family, has their own relatives resting here. In fact, when people really believe in the resurrection of the body and the immortality of the soul, they do not pay fundamental attention to the remains. When people are no longer sure that there is a soul and that the resurrection of the body exists, then they will give more attention to the remains. Until the end of the 18th century the cemetery was placed in the center of the city, next to the church. In the 19th century, the cemetary started to migrate to the suburbs. With that development, the cemetery came to constitute not only the holy, permanent custom of the city, but rather another city, with each family having its own house there. Remains are the only existence of traces in this world.

The third characteristic of Heterotopia is that it is able to link a few spaces and grounds which could normally never coexist in the realm of a real space. We can connect a series of discrete locations and events as on the stage. Or a garden in which all the plants should be distributed in the small universe. Carpet is a copy from the garden, and is also the symbolic improvement of or commentary on the whole world. It can be seen as a garden which moves through the spaces. The garden is the smallest part of the world; at the same time it is the whole world. It is a kind of common and happy Heterotopia.

Fourthly, Heterotopia is not only isolated from space, but also from time, making it into pieces and collage. Foucault called these fragments of time Heterochronies. Such as museums and libraries. In these different Herterochronies, time is accumulated constantly and stays at the peak of itself. All the time, all the form, all the desire of the hobby exists in these spaces. They are out of time and unable to be eroded by time.

The fifth characteristic is that Heterotopia must always must have an open and closed system which isolates Heterotopia from the outside, and which allow an entrance to it. Heterotopia seems to open completely, but it often hides the strange rejection. Everyone can go to the different places of Heterotopia, but this is just an illusion: people believe that they can enter into it, just as it is, but it is also excluding of them, such as the few rooms of plantations in South America. These room’s doors do not face towards the center of these family living rooms. All visitors are allowed to push open the door and enter the room, even to sleep overnight. The room is like this: the visitors have never penetrated into the center of a family — and they are just uninvited visitors.

Heterotopia serves two functions balanced between two extremes. Heterotopia has the effect of creating an illusion of space that shows more unreal space than all the real space of the world. It highlights, in a paradoxical gesture, the space which is isolated from human life. Heterotopia creates an imaginary space, at the same time that this space reflects all of real space.

Foucault’s thinking about space provides a new idea for recognizing modernity, enriching the interpretation of a social theory framework and future theories which appear on the horizon. But Foucault’s work on space has also had an influence more widely than within theory. Influencing ideas about globalization and the prospects of human liberation, Foucault’s wisdom – the space of his thought and his thought about space – is a lasting legacy.

Lulu Zhao

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