the discovery of infinite space (heterotopia 1)

Heterotopias are kinds of places described by Michel Foucault in his essay Of Other Spaces in 1967.  They approximate, or maybe more accurately reflect, utopias; approximate because heterotopias exist and utopias can’t, by definition.  They are ‘outsider’ spaces, meaning they exist outside of the influence of dominant cultures or hegemonies; and the people and events in them are involved in undesirable, outsider missions.  They are places that are real and unreal at once, complex and contradictory.  For Foucault, heterotopias are places that allow escape from places that are authoritarian and repressive.

This is the first of four posts on heterotopias and based on the essay Of Other Spaces.

Galileo’s rediscovery, that the earth rotates around the sun, upended the Medieval us.   It began the inexorable smashing of orthodoxies and institutions that led to the Enlightenment and modernism.  It accomplished this because it fundamentally challenged our way of thinking about how the world works and is ordered.

Medieval space was hierarchical – celestial, supercelestial, terrestrial, sacred and profane – and oppositional and stable – urban and rural.  But Galileo’s discoveries made us believe that space is open, dissolved, infinite, and that our normal perception of place is an illusion, a shapshot in time of something that is actually – maybe slowly, but irrevocably – moving and dissolving and changing.  Nothing is fixed, there is no still reference point, the center can no longer hold, said Galilleo.

These ideas are from the 17th century, and we forget how connected contemporary ideas are to modern and enlightenment and even older ideas.  But, the average person on the street doesn’t see space in these fluid terms; in fact, it seems today that the dominant theory of space is decidedly pre Galillean hierarchical.

The exception seems to be 1960s French philosophers like Foucault, who took the Galillean idea and ran with it.  They were sick of structural ideas that were rigidly constraining life on the continent, and they wrote philosophies that slashed away at orthodoxies and had enormous impact on culture and life during the following decades.

Everything in the world and in our lives appears static and ordered; and yet in the world of ideas, smart people tell us everything is in flux.  The worlds of the living and of ideas are parallel but separate:  the world of ideas casts a long slow-as-glaciers shadow over centuries; there are flashes of contact and influence with the world of living, like a hidden magnet altering the movement of metal pins; but for the most part they are two worlds, each the shadow of the other.

In his introduction to the essay’s main topics, Foucault introduces his idea of the network:

We are at a moment, I believe, when our experience of the world is less that of a long life developing through time than that of a network that connects points and intersects with its own skein.

He goes on to describe a pre modern or Medieval understanding of space which was heavily hierarchical:  layered between sacred (celestial and supercelestial), and profane,  —

in the Middle Ages there was a hierarchic ensemble of places: sacred places and profane plates: protected places and open, exposed places: urban places and rural places (all these concern the real life of men). In cosmological theory, there were the supercelestial places as opposed to the celestial, and the celestial place was in its turn opposed to the terrestrial place. There were places where things had been put because they had been violently displaced, and then on the contrary places where things found their natural ground and stability. It was this complete hierarchy, this opposition, this intersection of places that constituted what could very roughly be called medieval space: the space of emplacement.

Galileo is the pivotal figure that breaks our understanding from Medieval ‘localization’ to a state of existing in an infinite space; a sort of premonition of Einstein centuries later.

For the real scandal of Galileo’s work lay not so much in his discovery, or rediscovery, that the earth revolved around the sun, but in his constitution of an infinite, and infinitely open space. In such a space the place of the Middle Ages turned out to be dissolved, as it were; a thing’s place was no longer anything but a point in its movement, just as the stability of a thing was only its movement indefinitely slowed down.

Of Other Spaces (1967), Heterotopias, Michel Foucault

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