by Terence MacNamee

The term hétérotopie seems to have been invented by Michel Foucault, though he himself made limited use of it. In one sense, he used the word to designate the “other places” he studied in his books, all of which were places to send deviants or people in crisis: the prison, the lunatic asylum, or the hospital. Yet he used the term in another sense – writing about the basic order of discourse in society and its rules – to designate China and “other places” where the rules of the game differ.

In this latter context, he distinguished heterotopias from utopias, which are ideal places but, of course, they do not exist (utopia means “nowhere”). Heterotopias are not ideal, they are just different. (Lacking this useful word, Samuel Butler called New Zealand Erewhon – nowhere backwards.)

Today people also talk about “dystopias”, which are utopias gone wrong. But again heterotopias are neither good nor bad, they are just different. They are parallel worlds to ours. The same things are going on there as go on here, but entirely independently. As French philosopher and sinologist François Jullien says, these worlds are indifferent to one another.

Foucault said that utopias console us, but heterotopias make us uneasy. The uneasiness, he says, comes from the fact that they are organized on different principles. But I think it also comes from the parallel quality. If you go “there”, you see life going on, and when you come back “here”, it’s still going on over “there”. But if you have ever lived in two places – an increasingly common experience in this globalized world – you gradually get to accept it. Often, when you are “here”, you find yourself thinking of “there” and wondering what’s going on in your absence. There is a lost innocence of “here”. You know now that there is always a “there”, that in fact there are many “there”s – a world of heterotopias.