The social theorist Michel Foucault’s idea of a heterotopia is extremely appealing to me, and is a good touchstone in thinking about a sense of place. Foucault speaks of heterotopias as “‘counter-sites,’ places positioned on the … outside of all places … irrelevant to the practical functioning of everyday life.” They might be reserved for “people undergoing transitional crises: adolescents, menstruating women, pregnant women, the dying.” They can also be places of deviation, where “individuals whose behavior is deviant in relation to the required mean or norm are placed:” prisons, retirement homes (idleness is a deviation in our society), psychiatric hospitals.
But they don’t have to be places of abnormal deviation and crisis. They can be cemeteries, gardens, theatres, cinemas, museums, libraries, fairgrounds, festivals, ships. They can be tourist towns, which remove people from their normal daily lives and which usually exist outside of time and flourish for only for part of the year and then close down.
Some places — gardens, museums, cinemas and theatres, e.g. — juxtapose many places or scenes in one place. They may even contain mini-heterotopias and places of transition (liminal places) within them, like a bridge, an archway, movement from a sunlit meadow to a dark forest or from a gallery to an open rotunda.
Some, like museums and libraries, constitute “a place of all times that is itself outside of time and inaccessible to its ravages,” while others (fairgrounds, vacation villages) are “absolutely temporal.”
As described by John Doyle at Ktismatics (blog now defunct): “Heterotopias open onto heterochronies — disjunctures from the evenly spaced and empty continuum of time. Theater time passes differently from the time that surrounds the theater. The cemetery is a juxtaposition of the end of time and eternity. Museums and libraries accumulate past time in a place outside of time. Resort towns exist only at certain times of the year. Entering into a heterotopia often requires a rite of passage: enlistment in the army, arrest and conviction, death, travel. The ship is the heterotopia par excellence” because it is “a place without a place, that exists by itself, that is closed in on itself and at the same time is given over to the infinity of the sea.”
The idea that heterotopias open to heterochronies — that these places outside of places change the way time feels, so that time passes differently in them — reminds me of John Brinckerhoff Jackson’s conception of landscape, described in his Discovering the Vernacular Landscape: “As far back as we can trace the word, land meant a defined space, one with boundaries, though not necessarily one with fences or walls. The word has so many derivative meanings that it rivals in ambiguity the word landscape. …Nevertheless the formula landscape as a composition of man-made spaces on the land is more significant than it first appears, for … it says that a landscape is not a natural feature of the environment but a synthetic space, a man-made system of spaces superimposed on the face of the land, functioning and evolving not according to natural laws but to serve a community. … A landscape is thus a space deliberately created to speed up or slow down the process of nature.”
Whether all landscape necessarily involves human activity is perhaps debatable (I don’t see it this way), and it’s interesting to consider whether all heterotopias are human-made. There are certainly naturally occurring archways, entrances and exits, the “movement from a sunlit meadow to a dark forest” that I listed as an example above which imply that they exist without human intervention, though I wonder whether other animals have the leisure to feel that they exist outside the ravages of time (and predators), even during rights of passage.
I’ve wondered in recent years whether my true home isn’t perhaps a heterotopia, or some sort of liminal space* I am continually passing through. A wholly unnecessary space, “irrelevant to the practical functioning of everyday life.”
A tourist town, a dis-placed place. No-home. A place removed from ordinary time. A kind of folly.
It’s where I, perversely perhaps, seem to feel most at home. Not “home” in the sense of feeling rooted and attached but rather in the sense of feeling relaxed, satisfyingly connected, most myself, engaged in discovering and exploring the new and mysterious.
I seem to prefer being neither here nor there. Even as I make each new place “my own” — no matter the USDA hardiness zone, no matter which birds sing in the trees, no matter whether I am in the midst of the most-craved ocean and marsh, or of mountains, lakes, rivers, swamps, meadows, prairie, forests, desert, or tundra — I am aware of the illusion of terra firma, of an everlasting place, this eden.
I think, through practice and perhaps by nature, I have become skilled at inhabiting places in such a way that they feel real to me — real like the smell of fried food and popcorn on the boardwalk, the shriek of gulls fighting over a clam shell, the glare of the high summer sun beating on sand, the warm taste of coconut and pineapple in pretty drinks with umbrellas, the overlay of pop music and oldies coming from every other beach blanket — even as I know that this place too will shutter up when the season is over (though the gulls will remain).
In short, I feel like this guy: “After discovering my love of place, I quickly realized that all of my favorite places aren’t really considered places at all. They are “non-places.” The shopping mall, the airport, and the parking lot are traditionally considered to have no sense of place. They exist for a specific function, and other than that function, they have no purpose. I quite disagree. I find that in these places of placelessness, a certain magic comes about.”
Liminal: From Wikipedia: In anthropology, liminality (from the Latin word līmen, meaning ‘a threshold’) is the quality of ambiguity or disorientation that occurs in the middle stage of rituals, when participants no longer hold their pre-ritual status but have not yet begun the transition to the status they will hold when the ritual is complete. During a ritual’s liminal stage, participants ‘stand at the threshold’ between their previous way of structuring their identity, time, or community, and a new way, which the ritual establishes.”
(Most of the above is adapted from a piece I wrote in Oct. 2012.)
Thanks for checking in. Be sure to see what the other 31 Dayers are writing about.
This project is a bit like Wallace Stevens’ poem Thirteen Ways of Looking At A Blackbird, in that I’m writing about a sense of place from vantage points that may not obviously connect with each other. I’m not going to attempt to tie them together. In the end, these 31 days of looking at a sense of place may overlap, contradict, form a whole, or collapse like a flan in a cupboard, as Eddie Izzard would say. That remains to be seen. Thanks for stopping by.