Welcome to day 6 of 31 Days of Heterotopias: Motels and Hotels, a month of posts about how motels, hotels, and inns function as heterotopias and liminal spaces in society. (More about heterotopias and liminal spaces.) Each post will look at these ideas from its own vantage point, which may not obviously connect with the others, and which may mention motels and hotels only peripherally or may focus on them without referencing heterotopia or liminality. I won’t attempt to tie the posts together. They’ll all be listed here, as they are posted.
A friend — Jack, a college acquaintance, now friends on Facebook — asked me yesterday why I’m interested in heterotopias. He asked, I saw the question, then I went out with a few friends for a goodbye lunch for one of us (not me), where those friends asked me, What exactly is a heterotopia?
I gave my short spiel, then walked to the hair stylist, who, while she cut my hair, asked, What is that first word, that “h” word, heterotopia, what does it mean? I said I would send her the little piece I wrote, Heterotopias and Liminal Spaces. But meanwhile, Jack’s question stirred my mind: Why?
I had been looking earlier at an interesting and beautiful-in-its-way Tumblr page called Motel Register. The page’s writers seem to have a nightmarish view of motels; many of the images are dystopian, creepy, ominous, grim. Some are sort of bleakly glamourous, like this one:
(Above, not my photo)
A recent entry that caught my attention was the one on Crossroads, i.e., motels with that name, as well as the idea that motels are a crossroads, which is heterotopian:
“Crossroads. This is the ur motel marker. Traced back to its German roots, this two-letter prefix means ‘out of’ and ‘original’ all at once, just like a motel room promises adventure and solitude in the figure of the frontier. America in a nutshell.
“To be in a motel is to be at the crossroads — of adventure, the workaday grind, criminality, and life in general. Anything could happen here. And you could take one road or the other out of the parking lot. The choice is always, painfully yours.
“Everything is overdetermined on the road. You cower under the sheets of your adventurous spirit. The company of strangers is the only home you care to know.
If the ultimate promise of travel is self-discovery, the lonely night beside the highway might be the most authentic moment of your life.”
What this no-place place, this crossroads between real and unreal reveals is disillusionment: we are lonely and exist as solitudes, we seek adventure but we are cowards, we are people in pain seeking to escape pain.
There’s this lovely thought, a sort of mockery of nostalgia, about motel phones, on a night when the air conditioner, with its “hum like an airplane’s engines … wheez[es] out a bit of dread that finds your borrowed bed” and after you come back from a trip to the foreign bathroom, a crack in the curtain [which is why I always carry large safety pins] casts a spectral light spotlighting the obligatory telephone:
“Age finds you in an instant. Frozen like a deer, your mind starts silently punching in your first phone number, still so easy to remember some 30 years later. 481-9371. And like that, you’re at home and so far away all at once.“
Motels: They stand in for home, and in doing so remind us, in their bleak emptiness, that we are not home, not at all. Or perhaps they remind us that home, wherever that is, is not any better than this shabby and friendless motel, that “the company of strangers” is the only company — the only family, the only community — that exists anywhere for us.
So I go to lunch with friends (friends I had never met 8 years ago), go to get my hair cut, walk the mile or so home (taking a detour to photograph some butterflies in flowers at a farm stand but end up in love with these grasses in this light),
flip on NPR and listen to more discussion of Kazuo Ishiguro’s being awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature today, with the Nobel committee’s comments about his writing: Ishiguro “uncovered the abyss beneath our illusory sense of connection with the world.” Others (NYT, mainly) write that “[h]is dual identity has made him alert to life’s dislocations; many of his characters are caught, in different ways, between worlds. There is a sense among his men and women that a single wrong move may be calamitous.” (Shades of the mood at the Tumblr site, Motel Register.) They say, “he writes about what you’ve had to forget to survive in the first place, as an individual and as a society.” (From Never Let Me Go: “All children have to be deceived if they are to grow up without trauma.”) Prospect magazine calls him “the master of the quietly unsettling.”
Dislocations; the experience of being caught between worlds; that sharp and inescapable realisation of the abyss that lies black and gaping beneath our abiding hope that we’re connected, that we are solid, permanent, that we are who we think we are, who we appear, known and loved by those we believe we know and love; the necessity of forgetfulness about who we are and what’s been done to us, or what we have done, that enables us to function, and then the remembering, sometimes, that disquiets, quietly unsettles, calls into question everything.
What, I wonder, in our culture reinforces the illusions, tells us the lies that are needed so that we can function as it prefers us to function, helps us forget what we hold inside, distracts us from what’s true, asserts unacknowledged power over our options, our desires, our relationships with each other, with other species, with the earth? Is it really an illusion, that we are connected to each other, or is the truth that we actually are and don’t see it, don’t feel it, and if so, why not? Why do so many people feel they “don’t belong”? Why are so many resources spent on making houses into homes, far beyond what’s needed in terms of shelter and comfort — the many home box stores, the TV stations, hundreds of magazines, newspaper sections devoted to home decor and desires, decorators, stagers, massive industries and hours of time devoted to the project of creating and recreating the home, over and over?
Today, again on NPR, I heard this interview with a reporter who wrote in the Atlantic magazine about ongoing and deadly fraternity hazings and about the “profound moral unease” that frat members may feel as they cross the line into criminality, certainly into cruelty and obscene carelessness, or they may cover up this sense of unease at the time, may express unconcern and callousness, only to have it seep out later, who knows when, why, and how. Because “there’s this sense that at the core of hazing is a kind of manhood that says, ‘You endure, you shut up, you keep the secrets’ and that’s how you go forward and become a man in this context.” A man doesn’t call for help. A man covers up, hides the significance of what he’s done and how he feels about it from himself, and moves on: “And … they take a breath the next day, the next month, even the rest of their lives, and realize what they’ve been part of ….”
Hiding aspects of who we are from ourselves and everyone else. Profound moral unease.
Because of the new Ken Burns & Lynn Novick series, Vietnam is bubbling in our collective consciousness again. I haven’t seen any of the series, though I was privy to a small discussion about it among people who have seen it, and I’ve listened to some news stories on it (this Maine Calling program on the documentary is particularly affecting); one thing that seems clear is that, like fraternity hazing, it was another circumstance — and a compulsory one for most, unlike fraternities — where young men (primarily) were put in a situation of doing terrible things and then having to bear the psychic consequences of their actions.
Profound moral unease. What do we do with it, as people, as a culture?
Then the news this morning of the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize awarded to the International Campaign To Abolish Nuclear Weapons — as the Nobel committee says, “the spectre of nuclear conflict looms large once more” — and I thought of the existential unease many of us experience, some consciously, some subliminally (that is, below the threshold of sensation, consciousness; affecting our mind without our being aware of it, so that we may deny it).
Unease. Disquiet. Dark thoughts of mortality, morality (acting in a way unaligned with our deepest values), alienation from self and others.
Welcome to the Crossroads Motel!
(Above, photo by Joseph Vavak. “Happy Easte”)
So, these are all things that interest me — I assume they interest most people in this culture? — and that are the essence of what heterotopian spaces evoke, I think.
When I am in a motel (as in a cemetery, garden, hospital, museum, on a ship in the middle of the ocean), in that “borrowed bed,” the knowledge that life is a way-station, an unlikely moment between nothingness and nothingness, perhaps, is as pervasive as the peeling wallpaper and the stark, unflinching lights over the bathroom sink. I am travelling, not only here as a guest in this motel but also, at the speed of light, between birth and death.
And there is that dual sense of possibility, of being anyone, doing anything next, because time is floating and place is layered and who I am is unclear, fragmented, divided. As Motel Register reminds us, “Anything could happen here. And you could take one road or the other out of the parking lot. The choice is always, painfully yours.”
A heterotopia works on us by mixing up layers of life, layers of meaning, layers of time like yesterday, “when I’m old,” my 8th birthday. Normally, I may wake up at 6 or 8 a.m. and do this, then do that, then do this other thing, and then it’s time for dinner, and life goes on in this linear way, though the activities vary, from one moment to the next, and it might make sense to me at times, it holds me together and sets out boundaries. Time and space are defined by known boundaries.
But heterotopias disorder time, they subvert our sense of expectation and of what’s next, and often, by means of their temporal and spacial misalignment with our normal world, they contest, question, or subvert our usual sense of what’s important. Heterotopias stir up unknowing, throw established meaning into question, both our personal perspectives and ways of making meaning and also the significance and meanings assigned to things, events, people, places by others, by the society at large.
If you have been in a space of crisis (serious illness or injury, someone dying, natural disaster, war, abuse, etc.) you may have felt the way an hour can last 10 hours, or vice versa. The experience of time in such a place, during such an event, intensifies, distorts, feels circular or exponential. And in this disrupted, out-of-the-ordinary place and time, our attitudes, beliefs, relationships, sense of self can suddenly feel provisional, less definite.
More, on a level above the personal, the relationships we observe among our society’s spaces — whose definitions and meanings derive from the prevailing cultural power structure; and in which we may participate willingly or not — can be called into question in heterotopic spaces. Michel Foucault’s (rather grand) claim was that heterotopias are critical to the functioning of the human imaginary (i.e., the deep-seated mode of understanding, the creative and symbolic dimension, through which we create the ways we live together collectively), and that without heterotopias societies will inevitably collapse into authoritarianism. In Foucault’s conception “the heterotopia is simultaneously both part of and apart from the hegemonic arena [i.e., from the power structure of the society]. It is something whose aim is to challenge the dominant culture yet at the same time it is constitutive of that very culture which it opposes and challenges – no culture exists that does not contain heterotopic spaces. So, it is clearly not the case that the heterotopia is seeking to replace the prevailing hegemony.” Yet it is meant to question, challenge, and subvert it, from within. (Much more on this at The Heterotopic Art Institution, at Traces of the Real, by Hugh McCabe, August 2014.)
Fiona Tomkinson, writing about Ishiguro’s novels in her article “Ishiguro and Heidegger: The Worlds of Art” (in Kazuo Ishiguro in a Global Context, 2015), asks “How do the protagonists survive the loss of their illusions and of their world? What is left when a world, floating or otherwise, vanishes ….?”
What may be left, going back to the Tumblr “Motel Register” site, is an authentic moment, perhaps a lonely, disconnected one, perhaps a moment when we come face to face with our cowardice, selfishness, lack of faith, pettiness, terror of the abyss, homesickness, heartache, helplessness, exhaustion. Perhaps a moment when we question what we know, what we believe, what we’ve been taught in our culture and by those who love us. Perhaps a moment when we don’t know anymore who’s bad and who’s good, who to exclude and who to include, who belongs and who doesn’t. Perhaps just a moment when we don’t know and don’t have to know, or one when we don’t rush to unravel a ball of tangled feelings … as we listen to the clanging air conditioner, feel the light from outside the motel room even through closed eyelids, and lie there on our borrowed bed, disillusioned with the promise of the motel room.
Welcome to day 5 of 31 Days of Heterotopias: Motels and Hotels, a month of posts about how motels, hotels, and inns function as heterotopias and liminal spaces in society. (More about heterotopias and liminal spaces.) Each post will look at these ideas from its own vantage point, which may not obviously connect with the others, and which may mention motels and hotels only peripherally or may focus on them without referencing heterotopia or liminality. I won’t attempt to tie the posts together. They’ll all be listed here, as they are posted.
“…vicinity to the sea is desirable, because it is easier to do nothing by the sea than anywhere else”― E.F. Benson,
The Seaside Inn in Kennebunk is “directly on the beach!” and walkable to Kennebunkport’s Dock Square shops and restaurants.
Not to mention just a few hundred yards from the really interesting St. Anthony’s Franciscan Monastery and Guest House, with its Lithuanian art, stained glass, and sculpture. (And a red-tailed hawk, the day we were there.) What became the monastery and guest house was built around the turn of the 20th century, with landscaping “arranged by the Frederick Law Olmsted Brothers, designers of New York City’s Central Park and Boston’s Emerald Necklace.” The Lithuanian Friars of St. Casimir bought it in 1947, when they fled the Soviet invasion of Lithuania; their founder here, Fr. Justinas Vaskys, had left Lithuania at the beginning of the occupation of his homeland in 1940. (More on Lithuania under Soviet control in World War II and after.)
A bit farther, but still within walking distance, is the Mornings in Paris cafe, selling coffee drinks and a wide variety of macarons, napoleons, truffles, and other pastries and sweets.
A favourite home store for more than 20 years, Pallian & Co., is nearby in Wells.
Also in Wells, the wonderful Wells Reserve at Laudholm (or, Laudholm Farm, as I call it), with a short walk to the beach and ocean at Drake’s Island.
We also walked on the Mousam River Estuary Trail in Kennebunkport (if you haven’t listened to Hugh Laurie singing “Mystery,” please do. It’s the most important thing I can offer in this whole series.)
Seaside was the perfect place to stay in the waning days of December 2014. I can’t say the room was anything special — the most special thing was how well you could hear what was going on in the other rooms nearby (a reminder that the seemingly private space is actually public) —
— the patio outside the door was nice —
— and the location, across a small yard from the beach, is absolutely splendid.
“At the seaside all is narrow horizontals, the world reduced to a few long straight lines pressed between earth and sky.” ― John Banville
During this mid-winter time, the monastery grounds and church, the French bakery, the quiet beach and seaside motel, the cracking ice everywhere all lent a heterotopic feel to the place, a sense of being suspended in time in a timeless frozen landscape, of finding oneself in the alternate winter universe of a summer tourist town. It felt dreamy and slow. It felt like the place was taking a deep breath, an intermission, waiting patiently for what would be next, as one year ended and the next came into view. It felt like a good place to end and begin again, a place blurring land-sea-sky boundaries.
I wonder if the Lithuanian friars felt that it was a good starting place, when they came here under tragic and difficult circumstances from the Soviet Union rather than, probably, be deported to labour camps during and after the war.
… or, clam shells arranged by someone else on the beach at Laudholm Farm, Wells, Maine, 29 Sept. 2017.
Wednesday Vignette is brought to us by Flutter & Hum.
Welcome to day 4 of 31 Days of Heterotopias: Motels and Hotels, a month of posts about how motels, hotels, and inns function as heterotopias and liminal spaces in society. (More about heterotopias and liminal spaces.) Each post will look at these ideas from its own vantage point, which may not obviously connect with the others, and which may mention motels and hotels only peripherally or may focus on them without referencing heterotopia or liminality. I won’t attempt to tie the posts together. They’ll all be listed here, as they are posted.
There’s a funny phenomenon in real estate photos, where the person photographing the rooms unintentionally photographs themselves in a mirror, usually in the bathroom. In this way, realtors superimpose themselves, the marketer, onto the home they are marketing, which is not their home, not a space where they would usually appear in the mirror, except for the fact that they are selling this home for someone else. They don’t belong here but they are now integral to the space, as though they were the inhabitant of the house. (Check out Bad MLS Photos, especially the series I’m Looking for the Agent in the Mirror – definitely “asking him to change his ways.” Also, Stupid Selfies at Terrible Real Estate Agent Photos, which I think says it all.)
The same thing happens when I take photos of motel and hotel rooms. I try to avoid it, except when I am actually trying to do it, but occasionally I capture a little of me, someone else, or some luggage reflected.
The motel remains, and I am a fleeting glimpse caught forever in its mirror. If the mirror weren’t there, would I remain? Where is my actual presence in that moment?
In Nataly Tcherepashenets’ book Place and Displacement in the Narrative Worlds of Jorge Luis Borges and Julio Cortázar (2007), she talks about Foucault’s “motif of the mirror … which questions ‘real’/’fictional’ place opposition and where the concepts of utopia and heterotopia converge. … [It’s] where the very notions of linearity and presence are suspended.” She compares “the City” in Cortázar’s novel 62: Modelo para armar (1968; in English, 62: The Model Kit) — characterised as “a heterotopian zone, constructed and deconstructed at the same time” — to a mirror: “[Juan] has an impression that … a mirror of space and a mirror of time had coincided at a point of unbearable and most fleeting reality before it left me alone again, with so much intelligence, with so much before and after and so much in front and in back” and she continues “[t]he functioning of the City turns out to be that of a mirror where heterotopia, utopia and dystopia converge. It accumulates ‘real’ (recognizable) spaces and at the same time appears to be an overtly imaginary construct.” In this way, as Danielle Manning puts it in her article (Re)visioning Utopia: The Function of Mirrors and Reflection in Seventeenth-Century Painting, the mirror has the “ability to destabilize the seemingly straightforward transcription of real space.” The mirror both includes and excludes real objects: they appear as images in the mirror but are not really “allowed” in the mirror, instead remaining external it. Where are they?
The “intelligence” Juan describes seems to me to be a kind of revelation or realisation, which comes from his sense of “so much before and after,” the convergence of eternity — past, present, future — in the never-ending refraction of light in a mirror, with him at the center. Yet the mirror, like “the City” in the novel, is a real place, the mirror possibly made in a Chinese factory and transported across oceans on a container ship to be placed in, perhaps, this particular home or motel. It’s a real object but its significance is wholly in its function of reflecting other objects, and those reflections aren’t “real” but are “image-inary.”
An exhibition for the Singapore Biennale (2016-2017), “An Atlas of Mirrors: At Once Many Worlds,” includes Harumi Yukutake’s Paracosmos (2016), which was apparently inspired in part by Foucault’s thoughts on mirrors:
“Paracosmos [click to see image] propels the viewer into a parallel world – a space of otherness that is recognisable but unfamiliar. … [T]he ‘membrane’ of hand-cut mirrors dissolves the definition between foreground and background by dissipating the single image into an explosion of reflections. A space of simultaneity, and eternally liminal, the mirror was core to philosopher Michel Foucault’s concept of the heterotopia as a kind of zone that could encompass other sites. Yet munificence can also be deceptive, and like a mirror that throws a warped or skewed reflection, heterotopias can disturb and distort the spaces held in their embrace. The mirror reveals itself as a paradoxical device: able to hold every other image by having no inherent image, it can enfold an ‘everywhere’ by being a ‘nowhere’ in itself.”
The mirror is a perfect “placeless place”: the mirror itself is empty of imagery, yet that’s where accurate representations of real objects are found.
Looking at oneself in a mirror, it’s hard not to experience, on some level (maybe a subconscious one), both a reassuring sense of our own solid presence and a disquieting sense of our fleeting impermanence. The mirror suggests that besides the “real” me, there is another me, out of body, external. And that reflected, external me doesn’t correspond perfectly with the real me. The copy of me isn’t me, but it’s what everyone else, for whom the mirror stands in, sees as me.
Philippe Rochat and Dan Zahavi, in their (pdf) article “The uncanny mirror: A re-framing of mirror self-experience” in Consciousness and Cognition (Feb. 2010), mention in the introduction “the wariness typically associated with mirror self-experience” and French phenomenological philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s description of “the profoundly unsettling encounter with one’s specular double.” Rochat and Zahavi share the story of an isolated tribe living in the Papuan plateau, who had never seen their own reflections in anything natural or constructed (no slate, no metallic surfaces, only murky rivers); an anthropologist brings a mirror to their tribe and they look into it: “They were paralyzed: after their first startled response – covering their mouths and ducking their heads – they stood transfixed, staring at their images, only their stomach muscles betraying great tension. Like Narcissus, they were left numb, totally fascinated by their own reflections.”
It’s easy to forget, especially in this age of selfies, that without mirrors, reflective glass, and cameras (or clear reflections in water, rock, etc.), we would not know what our own face looks like, we would never see the gestalt of our body in one image.
The authors go on to discuss the uncanniness of mirrors, as a “source of visual enhancement as well as illusory perceptions. …. Mirrors are visually trickery because they give perceivers an illusion of transparency, the exact opposite of what they are in their physical reality. ” They raise Merleau-Ponty’s argument that for a child who first sees its whole body in a mirror or other clear reflective surface, “this new unifying appearance of the body” is an objectification:
“For the child to recognize the specular image as its own is for it to become a spectator of itself. … At the same time that the image makes possible the knowledge of oneself, it makes possible a sort of alienation. I am no longer what I felt myself, immediately, to be; I am that image of myself that is offered by the mirror. To use Dr. Lacan’s terms, I am ‘captured, caught up’ by my spatial image. Thereupon I leave the reality of my lived me in order to refer myself constantly to the ideal, fictitious, or imaginary me, of which the specular image is the first outline. In this sense I am torn from myself, and the image in the mirror prepares me for another still more serious alienation, which will be the alienation by others. For others have only an exterior image of me, which is analogous to the one seen in the mirror.”
In other words, as they continue,
“Merleau-Ponty’s central idea is that mirror self-recognition exemplifies a troubled form of self-knowledge. … The enigmatic and uncanny character of the specular image is precisely due to this intermingling of self and other. It is me that I see in mirror, but the me I see has not quite the same familiarity and immediacy as the me I know from inner experience. The me I see in the mirror is distant and yet close, it is felt as another, and yet as myself.”
These intermingled feelings — of knowing oneself while being alienated from oneself, of self as both object and spectator, of recognising oneself intimately yet feeling distant from self, of feeling the image to be eternally situated and at the same time deeply transitory — points to the experience of ambiguity and contradiction inherent in heterotopias.
And looking at photos of mirrored images all the more ambiguous, unsettling, disorienting. This was 20 years ago. For a moment. That never ends.
“I suspected that what happens in hotel rooms rarely lasts outside of them. I suspected that when something was a beginning and an ending at the same time, that meant it could only exist in the present.” — David Levithan
Welcome to day 3 of 31 Days of Heterotopias: Motels and Hotels, a month of posts about how motels, hotels, and inns function as heterotopias and liminal spaces in society. (More about heterotopias and liminal spaces.) Each post will look at these ideas from its own vantage point, which may not obviously connect with the others, and which may mention motels and hotels only peripherally or may focus on them without referencing heterotopia or liminality. I won’t attempt to tie the posts together. They’ll all be listed here, as they are posted.
There are six motels/hotels that we (spouse and I) stay at over and over, in Savannah, Boston, Middlebury VT, Orleans MA, Boothbay ME, and Ogunquit ME. I’m not sure exactly what their appeal is. Prices per night range from $89 to $250, all fairly mid-range for their locations. The locations themselves are great but they differ — two are in the heart of cities, two are in the heart of towns — all four very walkable to the things we want to walk to — and the other two are on the outskirts of town, though still walkable into town (a mile or two each way, which we enjoy), and one of those is a few blocks from the ocean. Three accept pets, which mattered to us until a few years ago.
I’m going to highlight one of these hotels today, The Holiday Inn Express-Historic District, Savannah, GA. We’ve stayed here at least four times and would have stayed more but they were booked twice when we travelled and we had to stay at other hotels, including the Cotton Sail, which sits just above River Street, chic, modern, expensive, and the Planters Inn, on Reynolds Square, which is old-fashioned, falling apart (when we were there, the elevators didn’t work, almost the whole time!), and the staff was unfindable and not helpful. There was a complimentary bottle of wine in the room for my birthday, which was a lovely surprise, but things went downhill from there, and at more than $300 per night, things needed to be pretty perfect.
But I love the HIX. Yes, it’s a Holiday Inn — which, when I was growing up in the 70s, was “the nation’s innkeeper” and its iconic sign was everywhere (my family stayed in family-friendly Holiday Inns and Howard Johnsons on our once-a-year vacation) —
(above, not my photo)
— but this one is on the corner of E. Bay and Abercorn, one block from River Street, a few blocks from the City Market, a block from Reynolds Square. The location can’t be beat. (Shown below with red tag. You can also see the Cotton Sail Hotel and the Planters Inn on the map.)
We come into town on the train,
take a cab to the hotel, and we don’t rent a car (from the airport, miles away) until we check out and leave for Jekyll Island, an hour and a half away — often via the Coastal Georgia Botanical Gardens:
Somehow the HIX feels like a sanctuary from the moment I enter the wide, whooshing automatic sliding doors, usually for the first time each visit at 6:30 a.m., more than 24 hours after having fallen out of bed in New Hampshire at 4 a.m. to catch the 5:50 a.m. bus to Boston, then the 9:30 a.m. train from there, through a change to a different train line in New York’s Penn Station in the afternoon, with evening and overnight on the Silver Meteor (which continues on to Miami), to be awakened early again, at 5 a.m., for disembarking.
And just about always, our room is ready when we stumble in, bleary eyed, at 6:30, both needing showers and some sleep on a real bed before hitting Huey’s on the River for beignets, cafe au lait, and grits:
Nothing says “welcome” like the availability of the hotel room in the wee and exhausting hours of the morning, and check in staff who seem happy to provide it more than 8 hours before their normal check-in- time. (They also give us bottles of water and sometimes fruit.)
Chilling out on the bed in your hotel room watching television, while wearing your own pajamas, is sometimes the best part of a vacation. — Laura Marano
We’re usually at this hotel at Christmas and New Year’s, when it’s decorated cheerfully and simply.
There is something especially wonderful, for me, about spending big, culturally significant holidays like Christmas and Thanksgiving away from home, and it is precisely because of the heterotropic feel of it: I like the way time passes differently when travelling, when staying in a city or town where I don’t know anyone except the person I am travelling with (and if I’m travelling alone, even more so). Time is open, the future is unknown rather than proscribed as it often is when surrounded by family or friends, when in one’s usual place, taking part in the same interactions as always on these occasions.
We often spend a day or two before Christmas in Savannah, then drive to Jekyll on Christmas Eve or Christmas itself, and we return to Savannah on New Year’s Eve or the day before, spend that night there, and take the train home on 1 January. I love subverting the procession of what is often treated as “sacred” time by making it feel ordinary (ordinarily holy) through the mundane activities of packing, picking up a rental car, driving on the interstate, unpacking, finding take-out Chinese food someplace or just nibbling on snack food when most others in our culture are buying, wrapping, feasting, gathering in groups. I like interacting with cab drivers, rental car agents, restaurant staff, hotel staff on these set-aside days; I feel I am part of an underground community in some way, and at the same time I know I’m not. Our schedule and plans for Christmas Eve and Day and the days before involve not decorating a tree, not wrapping and unwrapping gifts, not making holiday foods, not meeting family/friends for a meal, not going to church, and so on, but rather just checking out of a hotel and picking up a rental car on time. Then? Nothing is certain; time could unfold any way it will.
We exchange only one or two small gifts during this period and I make some rough decoration for the room from shells, branches, sand, rocks, ribbons and rope, a few shiny things. If we were at home, I’m not sure we’d scale down to this extent, but even if we did, I don’t think it would feel the same to me, because there is something about the usual place, home, that exerts a kind of sway on time, on plans, on what’s expected to happen when, and it really does seem like it’s the place itself that has this effect.
Michel Foucault says (slight paraphrase) that “the heterotopia begins to function fully when people are in a kind of absolute break with their traditional time.” To make “an absolute break with traditional time” — by travelling away from home, by staying in a hotel or motel that superimposes and confuses public and private space, that functions as a temporary and transitional way-station, that allows personal (and perhaps “couple” or “family”) identity to float free of its boundaries in an anonymous environment — removes or rescues us from prevailing norms, allows time and self to dissolve and re-order to some extent, blurring the boundaries of time and self as the boundaries of meaning in the space itself are blurred (public/private, familiar/strange, feels institutional/feels like a retreat, etc.). And what period of time is more traditional in American culture than Christmas and the weeks before it? (Rivaling Christmas for traditional celebration, Thanksgiving is the other time we tend to travel each year.)
Some years, we do feast on Christmas Day at the Jekyll Island Club Hotel buffet extravaganza, and New Year’s Eve is often a special dinner in Savannah. We may attend the Christmas concert at St. John the Baptist in Savannah, or take a nighttime walking tour with a sort of Christmasy Dickensian theme (a fund raiser for the local food bank or other charity in Savannah). Even those time-appropriate, traditional “Christmas” events, however, take on a different feel, because we are in the space of a heterotopia, where multiple realities are juxtaposed. We’re in a place that’s both familiar (we have been to Savannah and Jekyll before, we have certainly stayed in Holiday Inns before) and unfamiliar, even exotic, a place where the weather is mild enough that we can dine outside at a cafe table on the sidewalk in mid-winter, when there are feet of snow piling up on our driveway at home. We are among palm trees and camellias blooming everywhere. We are wearing light clothing. We are among other tourists, also enchanted and bewitched by their surroundings and how they feel in these strange surroundings, unmoored from the usual family, community, daily household tasks. It often feels surreal, disorienting in a mostly good way.
Instead of spending Christmas morning unwrapping gifts, we light a candle or two, open a card and a gift or two, and then take a long walk on the quiet beach, admire the shore birds, maybe walk in the woods and look for stinkhorn fungi. On New Year’s Eve in Savannah, we often eat dinner fairly early, walk about on the Savannah streets a bit as festivities are starting to gear up, then head back to the waiting hotel room, where we can perhaps hear a car horn, fireworks, carousers from inside the small impersonal space.
Back to the hotel: The room itself is simple, like the lobby, with just what’s needed: good wifi, a refrigerator, a microwave, a desk and chairs, comfortable bed(s), well-functioning bathroom, some space, some quiet.
The staff are always attentive, and the place just works well. I don’t feel in any sense that I am home there, but I feel benignly looked after without feeling watched or intruded upon. I can be anonymous, I am unknown (even after four or more visits), but I also feel the tenuous and privileged connection that being a “guest” confers.
While in Savannah, favourite spots besides the hotel and Hueys are the Paris Market, with their unusual toys and stuffed animals, good-smelling things, jewelry, books, household goods, fantastic displays, and the macarons, especially at an outside cafe table …
… the fabulous Arches Bar in the Olde Pink House …
And the tavern there for dinner, by the fire …
… and then there is the estimable Gryphon Tea Room, serving tea sandwiches and brunch, staffed by the Savannah College of Art & Design students …
Oh, and Savannah Bee honey, with two (maybe more?) locations in Savannah (and one on St. Simon’s Island) … Free samples of honey there, plus mead tastings, lots of lotions and potions …
… and the River Street Sweets and Candy Kitchens on River Street and at City Market (all with free praline samples) …
Other favourite food places are Jazz’d Tapas Bar for tapas and romantic atmosphere; Moon River Brew Pub for casual eats (big outdoor space); Churchill’s Pub in the wine cellar for special occasions; Rocks on the River and Rocks on the Roof at the Bohemian Hotel for a fun, hip nosh (Rocks on the River was open one Christmas morning when nothing else was, bless them); Vic’s on the River for great view and a comfy traditional spot. Once we get the car, we usually head to the Crab Shack on Tybee Island for seafood and cocktails. I’d love to get to the Crystal Beer Parlor next time; we walked there last time but they were unexpectedly closed that day.
Then there’s hours spent strolling on cobblestone streets, along tree-lined streets dripping with Spanish moss, beautiful and interesting architecture everywhere …
… and the parks, gardens, squares, Colonial Cemetery …
… the stairs that are so fun to climb …
… the whimsical creche and the glorious Christmas concerts, with organ and choir, at The Cathedral of St. John the Baptist …
I almost forgot the Telfair museums — which includes the Telfair Academy, part period house, part art gallery …
… the Jepson Center (a more modern art gallery) …
… and a tour of the Owens-Thomas House (no inside photos allowed) …
And after walking, eating, drinking (cocktails on the street!), attending events and taking tours, enjoying tea, (mostly) window shopping, sampling gobs of pralines and honey, pounding the cobblestone and climbing up and down the stairs, it’s so nice to retreat to the unpretentious Holiday Inn Express at the corner of E. Bay and Abercorn for a little quiet, some privacy, a few Zots candies, and some moments or hours of down time in an uncluttered, embracing room, possibly overlooking a pocket garden behind the hotel.
Even after a long train ride and early morning wake-ups, no shower, gritty eyes, I always perk up a bit when I see this ….
When you get into a hotel room, you lock the door, and you know there is a secrecy, there is a luxury, there is fantasy. There is comfort. There is reassurance. — Diane von Furstenberg
Welcome to day 2 of 31 Days of Heterotopias: Motels and Hotels, a month of posts about how motels, hotels, and inns function as heterotopias and liminal spaces in society. (More about heterotopias and liminal spaces.) Each post will look at these ideas from its own vantage point, which may not obviously connect with the others, and which may mention motels and hotels only peripherally or may focus on them without referencing heterotopia or liminality. I won’t attempt to tie the posts together. They’ll all be listed here, as they are posted.
One of my favourite places to stay recently has been The Element Boston Seaport, a Westin Hotel on the outskirts of the seaport area, a part of Boston I especially like. I like the edgy feeling, the sea, the gulls and ducks, the restaurants, the proximity to South Station — the major train and bus hub in Boston — and most of all the industrial, edge-of-the-city, institutional vibe; it’s also near the airport, and the convention center is there. (Map here.)
And the Element hotel is just perfect, so much so that while we (spouse and I) were there in late March, to attend the annual flower and garden show at the convention center, I looked around the hotel room, a sort of studio apartment — with its surprisingly well-equipped galley kitchen, living area with sectional sofa, bookshelves, and king bed, its bathroom, closets and other storage spaces, the windows overlooking concrete and glass buildings — and thought, I could live here. I started to consider whether there was enough room to entertain the way I like to and decided, no, not for more than two or at most four other people (or six who really know each other well), but there are rooms downstairs, off the lobby, to hold parties and dinners.
“Small rooms or dwellings discipline the mind, large ones weaken it.” — Leonardo da Vinci
Kitchen – obviously, I was enthralled; I mean, a full refrigerator, a dishwasher, and a stovetop!:
The Living Area/Bedroom, with sectional seating for 4 or 5, and including a desk:
A decent closet:
Corridor and part of lobby (breakfast area, also wine and cheese area in the afternoons):
It’s a very appealing thought, to get rid of 90-95% of what I own and move into a 400-500-square-foot home, especially one with such clean lines and efficient use of space, surrounded by a whole vibrant city, on water, almost literally a stone’s throw from Amtrak. Granted, the bed is right there in the living room, but for one person, or for two people in a relationship, would it really be a big inconvenience? I might stretch out and sleep more than usual, but maybe not. And I’d need a washer and dryer in the unit, but I’m sure that could be arranged.
This was one of the first hotel or motel rooms that actually prompted me to consider what it would be like to call it home, not just a transitionary space for a few days or a week.
View from the window over the desk:
Just a short walk to the Barking Crab, Row 34, Trillium Brewing, City Tap House, and lots of other places to eat and hang out:
Art (maybe) in the Seaport:
“the height of sophistication is simplicity” — Clare Boothe Luce, in Stuffed Shirts
Heterotopias are spaces that disrupt the continuity and normality of common everyday places, places removed from ordinary time, from the evenly spaced movement of time. Heterotopias are disjunctures and are felt as such. They are places that change how time is felt, experienced. They may juxtapose past with present, future with present, or overlap meaning and relationships, in a way that challenges or subverts our impression and experience of the prevailing social context. They can be built spaces, like a motel or hotel, library, museum, garden, cemetery, ship, prison, etc., or even something like the “space” of a phone call or the moment when a mirror reflects our image.
French philosopher Michel Foucault outlined the concept and principles of a heterotopia in his 1967 lecture Of Other Spaces. You can find more information on this in the links below, but briefly, because places are defined, their meaning and purpose determined, according to the hegemony (power structure, authority) of the prevailing culture, and because places exist in relationship to one another, Foucault saw counter-sites — those places that have a relationship to all other places (and they also share some other characteristics he delineated, such as containing a multiplicity of sites in one site, breaking the normal flow of time, having a principle of access by which it is closed or open, et al.) — as critical to the functioning of the human imagination because they contest and invert the relationships according to which spaces in the rest of the society are constituted, thereby preventing the collapse of a society into authoritarianism. These he called heterotopias.
As Hugh McCabe notes in his piece (linked below), in Foucault’s conception “the heterotopia is simultaneously both part of and apart from the hegemonic arena. It is something whose aim is to challenge the dominant culture yet at the same time it is constitutive of that very culture which it opposes and challenges – no culture exists that does not contain heterotopic spaces. So, it is clearly not the case that the heterotopia is seeking to replace the prevailing hegemony.” Yet it is meant to challenge and subvert it, from within.
If you can wrap your head around how a mirror is the space between a utopia (an unreal place) and a heterotopia (a place both absolutely real and at the same time, not real), you’ll have the gist of both heterotopias and liminal spaces: “[Foucault] distinguishes between utopias, which are sites with no real place, and heterotopias, which are places absolutely different from all the sites that they reflect and speak about. However, between utopias and heterotopias there is what Foucault calls ‘a sort of mixed, joint experience,’ which is the mirror. Foucault further explains that ‘the mirror is, after all, a utopia, since it is a placeless place. In the mirror, I see myself there where I’m not, in an unreal, virtual space that opens up behind the surface.’ At the same time, the French philosopher contends that it is a heterotopia because the mirror exists in reality, reflecting the image of somebody absent there, but present where one is, and by gazing at oneself in the mirror, one reconstitutes one’s self where one is. The heterotopia function of the mirror is that it makes the place occupied at the moment of the gaze ‘at once absolutely real, connected with all the space that surrounds it, and absolutely unreal, since in order to be perceived it has to pass through this virtual point which is over there.’ (from “Heterotopia, Liminality, Cyberspace as Marks of Contemporary Spatiality” by Dana Bădulescu; see below for link.)
Another way to say it: “In one example [of heterotopias, Foucault] refers to children’s play, when they invent games. They produce an imaginative space, but at the same time mirror the physical realities around them. A bed can become a boat or a sandbox a whole universe. Another of Foucault’s core examples of the heterotopian space is the mirror in itself. In the mirror, you see yourself while you are in fact in another place. … Foucault highlights the meaning of ‘heterotopia’ as a space of intangible otherness: particular type of space that reflects the slippage between the familiar and the unfamiliar between reality and utopia.'” (from notes on Ylva Ogland ‘s 2014 art exhibition, “Diverse Variations of Other Spaces”)
Yet another expansion of the same idea: “A space of simultaneity, and eternally liminal, the mirror was core to philosopher Michel Foucault’s concept of the heterotopia as a kind of zone that could encompass other sites. Yet munificence can also be deceptive, and like a mirror that throws a warped or skewed reflection, heterotopias can disturb and distort the spaces held in their embrace. The mirror reveals itself as a paradoxical device: able to hold every other image by having no inherent image, it can enfold an ‘everywhere’ by being a ‘nowhere’ in itself.” (from notes on Harumi Yukutake’s Paracosmos, 2016)
Liminal spaces are spaces between boundaries; they’re thresholds, like a door into a room, and as such they can be seen as a sort of subset of heterotopias. They hold the space between one time and another, one place and another, a kind of suspension between feeling part of one culture or context and then feeling part of another. Examples might be military boot camp, menstruation, peri-menopause, giving birth, end-of-life moments, admission to a psychiatric hospital, the day of retirement — any time after we separate from one way of being but before we reassimilate into our life and our culture in a different way. As Sarah McLaen says (in “Places Where Reality Feels Altered,” see link below), “Liminal spaces, such as waiting rooms, parking lots, stairwells and rest stops, make you feel weird if you spend too much time in them because these spaces exist for the things that come before or after them. Their “existence” is not about themselves.” They mark differences in time and space.
For those interested, more info on heterotopias and liminal spaces:
On the web:
Heterotopian Studies: What’s It About (rich site)
The Heterotopic Art Institution, at Traces of the Real, by Hugh McCabe, August 2014. A lot of the background of Foucault’s thinking.
“Places Where Reality Feels Altered: What Are Your Liminal Spaces?” by Sarah McLaen at Odyssey, Aug. 2016.
“Heterotopia, Liminality, Cyberspace as Marks of Contemporary Spatiality,” by Dana Bădulescu, Feb. 2012, in Microsoft Word format)
“Of Other Spaces: Utopias and Heterotopias,” written as “Des Espace Autres,” by Michel Foucault in March 1967 and published in Architecture /Mouvement/ Continuité in Oct. 1984 (9-page PDF)
“Different spaces: Exploring Facebook as heterotopia” by Robin Rymarczuk and Maarten Derksen in First Monday, 2 June 2014
“The Heterotopia of Disney World,” by Christophe Bruchansky, in Philosophy Now, 2010.
“Marginalized Urban Spaces and Heterotopias: An Exploration of Refugee Camps,” by Anthony Barnum at Rumi Forum (date unknown but post-2014)
Heterotopia at Wikipedia
My previous posts on the topics:
A post I wrote in 2007 about heterotopias.
Post on Living in Transition (Oct. 2012) which talks quite a bit about heterotopias.
Post from A Sense of Place series: Neither Here Nor There (Oct. 2015)
Post on The Heterotopia of Facebook (March 2015).
Short post on A Land of No-Place (March 2007)
When People Break (poem – liminality; Nov. 2008)