crisis and deviation (heterotopia 2)

This the second post on Michel Foucault’s of Other Space, 1967.  The first post is called the discovery of infinite space.

On my first day in boarding school, I was eight and, I think, brimming with expectation.  It was bright and cold and the mountain air was thin:  I was wearing jeans and a jean jacket, I could see my breath and smell eucalyptus.  We met my dorm mother, put my tin trunk in the tiny dorm room and said our good byes, my mom and I, on the narrow grassy edge between the dorm and a drop off to the lake 50 yards away.  I sat on a swing while she tidied up emotional loose ends with some questions about feelings and some advice.  And then she was gone.

My new roommate waited and we walked up the hundred covered steps through the academic quad, past the dining hall and down to the squash courts where we played frisbee.  And that’s all I remember of that day.  Someone told me I would, and perhaps should, be homesick and once or twice in the first few weeks I lay in bed, under flannel sheets and prickly black wool blankets, and tried to cry.

In the following passage, French philosopher Michel Foucault describes boarding schools; he calls them crisis heterotopias.  Crisis heterotopias are almost extinct.  In Foucault’s world, they were places for people going through troubling times:  internment camps for the menstruating, adolescent and elderly.  They’re all but gone, except that we have remnants of them in military service and boarding schools.  The author also describes heterotopias of deviation, which are not extinct, perhaps because we are less prone to accept deviation, and flexible enough to absorb crisis.  And so, there is an abundance of psychiatric hospitals, prisons and retirement homes.

Perhaps Foucault’s strangest image of crisis heterotopias is the honeymoon:  deflowering a virgin bride in a place he calls no place:  on a train or in a honeymoon hotel.  On a train you don’t know where you are when it happens, and the hotel is nearly as stationless:  phantom memories of landmark emotional events.

Honeymoon sex is the blink of an eye; boarding school is institutional day in and out.  I hadn’t thought when I was there that my boarding school was a heterotopia of crisis.  It was pitched to us as the best education in the region; we were the children of an international set and logically – we were assured – we would be well educated and perhaps even become future leaders.

Foucault’s description of the boarding school is entirely different:  a place set apart from parents’ places of work and living to facilitate the crisis of adolescence.  It’s a reductive image: instead of a place that educates an international elite, it is a sort of daycare for sniveling, hormonal and embarrassing children.   There is a further sense of being sent to limbo – the edge of hell – where lives haven’t yet started nor do they matter until finishing school is, well, finished.

Boarding school is a Lord of the Flies outsider place; it does approximate utopia, and is coincidentally slightly dystopian.  And like the honeymoon train, a real place that vanishes in the night and that you can’t revisit, boarding school stays with you for life.

From the essay, heterotopias of crisis:

In the so-called primitive societies, there is a certain form of heterotopia that I would call crisis heterotopias, i.e., there are privileged or sacred or forbidden places, reserved for individuals who are, in relation to society and to the human environment in which they live, in a state of crisis: adolescents, menstruating women, pregnant women, the elderly, etc.  In our society, these crisis heterotopias are persistently disappearing, though a few remnants can still be found. For example, the boarding school, in its nineteenth-century form, or military service for young men, have certainly played such a role, as the first manifestations of sexual virility were in fact supposed to take place “elsewhere” than at home. For girls, there was, until the middle of the twentieth century, a tradition called the “honeymoon trip” which was an ancestral theme. The young woman’s deflowering could take place “nowhere” and, at the moment of its occurrence the train or honeymoon hotel was indeed the place of this nowhere, this heterotopia without geographical markers.

heterotopias of deviation:

those in which individuals whose behavior is deviant in relation to the required mean or norm are placed. Cases of this are rest homes and psychiatric hospitals, and of course prisons, and one should perhaps add retirement homes that are, as it were, on the borderline between the heterotopia of crisis and the heterotopia of deviation since, after all, old age is a crisis, but is also a deviation since in our society where leisure is the rule, idleness is a sort of deviation.

Of Other Spaces (1967), Heterotopias, Michel Foucault


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