31 Days of Heterotopias: Motels and Hotels :: Introduction

I’m participating once again in the Write 31 Days project this year, as in past years, when my topics were A Sense of Place and Kissing the Wounds.

This year, for the whole month of October, my topic is Heterotopias: Motels and Hotels. (More on heterotopias and liminal space.)

Day 1: Retreat to New Orleans, Memphis, and Minneapolis
Day 2: Tiny Seaport Home (The Element, Boston)
Day 3: There is Comfort. There is Reassurance. (Holiday Inn Express, Savannah)
Day 4: Mirrors: Suspension of Presence
Day 5: Seaside Inn, Between Earth & Sky (Kennebunk, ME)
Day 6: A Bit of Dread That Finds Your Borrowed Bed
Day 7: Hampton Inn and Olive Garden (Richmond, VA)
Day 8: Cuddles & Bubbles
Day 9: Few Hours in Life More Agreeable (Middlebury Inn, VT)
Day 10: Impermanent & Insignificant (Trade Winds Inn, Rockland, ME)
Day 11: Hotels I Haven’t Known
Day 12: More Than Promised (Sea Whale Motel, Middletown, RI)
Day 13: Intercontinental Earth Hour (Intercontinental Hotel, Boston, MA)
Day 14: The Lorraine (Memphis, TN)
Day 15: In the Cosmic Perspective (Hyatt Place, Owings Mills, MD)
Day 16: Marjorie
Day 17: Entangled Orbits (Hyatt Place, Owings Mills, MD)
Day 18: Intersections
Day 19: Now, the Berkshires seemed dreamlike (Birchwood Inn, Lenox, MA)
Day 20: Might be Motel Sixing but it feels like Turks and Caicos (Footbridge Beach Motel, Ogunquit, ME)
Day 21: Mash Up of Public Spaces
Day 22: Taking Sanctuary in Diners, Train Stations, Motels
Day 23: No-Frills Flagship (Boothbay, ME)
Day 24: Oh, we have twelve vacancies. Twelve cabins, twelve vacancies.
Day 25: Somebody else, some stranger, haunted
Day 26: How far is the unseen world from Midtown? (Midtown Hotel, Boston, MA)
Day 27: Sand Under My Toes (Sand Dollar Inn, Pine Point Beach, ME)
Day 28: Elephants, Swans, & Monkeys, Oh My! (The Cove Motel, Orleans, Cape Cod, MA)
Day 29: Myrtle Beach Days (Wyndham Towers on the Grove, North Myrtle Beach, SC)
Day 30: Almost Certainly Not Axe Murderers (Fairfield Inn & Suites, Kennett Square, PA)
Day 31: Dream City Home


Michel Foucault, who coined the term “heterotopia” in the 1960s, describes it as “a space that disrupts the continuity and normality of common everyday places.” (From that description alone, you can see how motels and hotels, and in fact many places associated with travel and vacation time, are examples.) Foucault uses the term to describe spaces containing more layers of meaning, or more relationships to other places, than immediately meet the eye. The role of heterotopias in his view is either illusory or compensatory, to either “create a space of illusion that exposes every real space, all the sites inside of which human life is partitioned, as still more illusory” or “to create a space that is other, another real space, as perfect, as meticulous, as well arranged as ours is messy, ill constructed, and jumbled.” In either case, they point to the truth of our own reality.

MelanietakingphotosofheadstonesHillcrestCemeteryFederalsburgMD14Nov2015.jpg(Above, my sister at family cemetery plot)


Beyond revealing the illusion of real space and time (either directly or through compensation), a heterotopia is a place that’s removed from ordinary time, from the evenly spaced movement of time. It’s a disjuncture. It’s a place that changes how time is felt, experienced. It’s a place that juxtaposes past with present, future with present, that disorders time and allows it to function in a non-hegemonic way (i.e., no longer ruled or ordered by prevailing social or political context). It can be a built space (a library, museum, garden, cemetery, ship, prison, etc.) or it can even be something like the “space” of a phone call or the moment when a mirror reflects our image.

jiMinJICHPresSuitebathroommirror24April2012.jpg(Above, Jekyll Island Club Hotel, Jekyll Island, GA)


In fact, gardens, especially public gardens, are seen as heterotopias, because they incorporate a rich spatial incompatibility, superimposing meanings, changing the pacing of time, mimicking perfection a la the Garden of Eden and/or revealing how far they fall short of what Mother Nature constructs; and since my blog is titled A Moveable Garden, I think it’s appropriate to post these here — though the posts won’t be about gardens (most of the time) or about the natural world per se — to reflect the larger idea of living in transition, moving from place to place, knowing and not knowing places and spaces. (I will also be cross-posting at my other blog, Beyond Rivalry, my Girardian/mimetic theory musing space.)

littleislandinmiddleofpondatPublicGardensBoston14June2012(Above, Boston Public Garden)


As I’ve said, I often wonder 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. 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, not able to be easily found by others.

As much as I enjoy being at home (in my house and garden), and being part of a geographically situated community, I seem to prefer slightly more being neither here nor there (hence my appreciation of Facebook). And even as I make each new place, each new garden and ecosystem, each new community, “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, tundra, or cityscape — I am aware of the illusion that it is a lasting place, a place that persists. In the short term, I will leave, and in the end, no place will persist for any of us.


Before we delve more deeply into the home-away-from-home motel and hotel focus of this series, here are some more examples of heterotopias (some overlapping), for those interested (from “Of Other Spaces: Utopias and Heterotopias” in Architecture /Mouvement/ Continuité, October, 1984, based on a Michel Foucault lecture of March 1967):

  • heterotopias of crisis (red tents for menstruating women, honeymoon hotels for virgins, boarding schools for boys, hospitals, nursing homes)
  • heterotopias of deviance (prisons, retirement communities, mental hospitals)
  • heterotopias that juxtapose “in a single real place several spaces, several sites that are in themselves incompatible” (the theatre, cinema, public gardens)
  • heterotopias linked to slices in time, where humans in them “arrive at a sort of absolute break with their traditional time” (cemeteries; museums and libraries, which are “heterotopias of indefinitely accumulating time”)
  • heterotopias linked to the accumulation of time, those “linked to time in its most flowing, transitory, precarious aspect, to time in the mode of the festival” (fairgrounds, seasonal spaces like corn mazes, resort communities and tourist towns), where in fact one might even “rediscover” time.

inthecornmazeb20Oct2012(Above, corn maze in New Hampshire)

As Danielle Manning notes so articulately in her essay “(Re)visioning Heterotopia: The Function of Mirrors and Reflection in Seventeenth-Century Painting” (in Shift: Queen’s Journal of Visual and Material Culture, 2008), “[t]he enigmatic term ‘heterotopia,’ popularized by Michel Foucault in his text The Order of Things (1966), describes sites that undermine stable relationships, disrupt conventions of order, and negate straightforward categorization. Heterotopias also reflect a curious slippage between the familiar and the unfamiliar. … Heterotopic sites seem familiar, as they are subsumed within a society’s conventional ordering system that links them to other sites, yet they are unfamiliar in that they simultaneously contradict the premises by which these relationships are sustained.”

“The strange thing about hotel rooms is that they look familiar and seem familiar and have many of the accoutrements that seem domestic and familiar, but they are really weird, alien and anonymous places. ” — Moby


For me, motels and hotels — like trains, probably my favourite heterotopia — are a reminder of our fleeting existence, and serve perhaps as practice, if you will, for the time when time is no longer linear, when life is no longer programmed at all, no longer ordered by societal norms.

There is something comfortingly anonymous about motels, hotels, and some inns — which is not so for most B&Bs — that I think relates to the heterotopic nature of these temporary places. It’s sort of like Alfred Hitchcock walking into and out of a scene in one of his movies with no one interacting with him or hardly seeming to notice him (excepting Blackmail, 1929); he’s almost an apparition; he rarely has any effect on those around him nor they on him.  In a sense, there is utter possibility then, because being is unacknowledged and there is only becoming, in a place where, e.g., what happens next or what happened before is not as significant or intrusive as normal. Hotels and motels remind us, because we exist in them only briefly and quite anonymously, not known to others around us, that although we can feel mighty solid, with a complete history of lived experience, fully installed on Earth and in our homes, we are actually atoms, air and water, with personalities and minds that may or may not persist, with homes that will vanish on a planet that will also disappear.

HitchcockwalkonMarnie(Above, Hitchcock walk-on in Marnie. Not my photo.)


As Peter Beagle says, in The Last Unicorn (1968; a book I found when I was young and even more impressionable than I am now),

“When I was alive, I believed — as you do — that time was at least as real and solid as myself, and probably more so. I said ‘one o’clock’ as though I could see it, and ‘Monday’ as though I could find it on the map; and I let myself be hurried along from minute to minute, day to day, year to year, as though I were actually moving from one place to another. Like everyone else, I lived in a house bricked up with seconds and minutes, weekends and New Year’s Days, and I never went outside until I died, because there was no other door. Now I know that I could have walked through the walls.”

A heterotopia can reveal the illusion of time, the illusion of solid walls, to us.


Some say (far down, in comments) that a luxury hotel might be the best hotel heterotopia, because for a while one inhabits a completely other world than usual. I can see this, but having stayed in quite nice hotels and quite dreary, sketchy motels, and many in between the two, my experience is that they are all about equal in their ability to remove me from my ordinary life, which is neither posh (by American standards) nor low-rent.

B&Bs, on the other hand, are not up to the task, although they may juxtapose the familiar with the unfamiliar in a disorienting way, because they demand adherence to conventional societal norms: usually B&B guests breakfast together, or if not together in a group, they are still often expected to chat with their hosts or at least exchange pleasantries with each other; sometimes there are wine afternoons, with more chatting and the ritual of “getting to know” someone, exploring what you have in common. Sometimes there is a shared bathroom, with all the communication amongst strangers that that requires. In some smaller B&Bs, a guest might even be expected to check in after each excursion, or to ask advice from the hosts about the area, or, in a true case from my own life, stay in a bedroom with the daughter’s clothes in the closet and decorated with her knick-knacks and enjoy a movie, with popcorn, with the host on her sofa of an evening.

But when one stays in a hotel or motel, one is usually left alone. Most don’t even require that housekeeping staff come in to change towels, make the bed, and tidy up every day. You can put a “Do Not Disturb” sign on your door and behave pretty much as you like in the room. The linked article above even mentions “the famous American motel rooms where a man goes with his car and his mistress and where illicit sex is both absolutely sheltered and absolutely hidden, kept isolated without however being allowed out in the open.”

(Above, not my photo)

And the decor of hotels and motels, while it ranges from drab, musty, wallpapered to sleek, modern, uber-plush, is impersonal (unlike even most Airbnbs, at least those in my limited experience), enhancing the feeling of not being anywhere in particular, of not knowing anyone here. Chain hotels and motels, like chain restaurants, tend to look the same, no matter what town or city you’re in: The town, region, weather, country may be unfamiliar, but the motel or hotel is familiar. In many of them, you can completely and disorientingly forget what physical location you’re in once you open the door, and even in mom-and-pop one-off motels, there is a motel feel — born of the generally low-slung architecture, the carpeted floors and the landscape/abstract paintings, the key or keycard you carry with you, the Gideon’s Bible in the nightstand, the very brightly lit bathroom, and perhaps most of all the simple knowledge that this is a temporary place — that lends a sense of nowhereness to them, and to you.

memphislorrainemotel112006(Above: Except you shouldn’t mistake the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, TN, where Martin Luther King Jr was shot to death, for any other motel.)


In the next month, I will be posting interior and exterior photos of 30 or so motels, hotels, or inns I’ve stayed in, and perhaps a few I haven’t. (I already have a list of 34 I’ve photographed while as a paying guest, plus 8 or 10 more I’ve photographed without being a guest.) While they are essentially located anywhere and nowhere, they are geographically located in Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Rhode Island, Boston, the Berkshires, Cape Cod, Rehoboth Beach in Delaware, Kennett Square in Pennsylvania, Savannah and Santee Georgia, New Orleans, Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming, and other spots. (Unfortunately, I had no camera with me in London and in Wales; in Granada, Spain I stayed in a rented apartment; I neglected to take any when on the island of Saba, N.A., in a sort of motel/apartment combo; and I took only day trips to Montreal and Nova Scotia, so I’ll be posting only photos of hotels and motels in the United States).

I’ll also be looking at motels and hotels in film; considering the different experience of staying in motels and hotels alone vs. with someone else; thinking about how we may behave differently when in a hotel or motel vs. at home; exploring the juxtaposition of multiple realities, the familiar and the unfamiliar, the conventional and the unusual, that coalesce in motels and hotels; considering how a sense of anonymity and of feeling unknown open possibilities and can affect attitude, behaviour, mood, imagination; how physical location of a motel or hotel may interact with the dislocating nature of the space; and so on.

Join me! And if you have a motel or hotel story, tell us about it, please.


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