About Heterotopias and Liminal Spaces

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)


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