Welcome to day 6 of 31 Days of Heterotopias: Motels and Hotels, a month of posts about how motels, hotels, and inns function as heterotopias and liminal spaces in society. (More about heterotopias and liminal spaces.) Each post will look at these ideas from its own vantage point, which may not obviously connect with the others, and which may mention motels and hotels only peripherally or may focus on them without referencing heterotopia or liminality. I won’t attempt to tie the posts together. They’ll all be listed here, as they are posted.
A friend — Jack, a college acquaintance, now friends on Facebook — asked me yesterday why I’m interested in heterotopias. He asked, I saw the question, then I went out with a few friends for a goodbye lunch for one of us (not me), where those friends asked me, What exactly is a heterotopia?
I gave my short spiel, then walked to the hair stylist, who, while she cut my hair, asked, What is that first word, that “h” word, heterotopia, what does it mean? I said I would send her the little piece I wrote, Heterotopias and Liminal Spaces. But meanwhile, Jack’s question stirred my mind: Why?
I had been looking earlier at an interesting and beautiful-in-its-way Tumblr page called Motel Register. The page’s writers seem to have a nightmarish view of motels; many of the images are dystopian, creepy, ominous, grim. Some are sort of bleakly glamourous, like this one:
(Above, not my photo)
A recent entry that caught my attention was the one on Crossroads, i.e., motels with that name, as well as the idea that motels are a crossroads, which is heterotopian:
“Crossroads. This is the ur motel marker. Traced back to its German roots, this two-letter prefix means ‘out of’ and ‘original’ all at once, just like a motel room promises adventure and solitude in the figure of the frontier. America in a nutshell.
“To be in a motel is to be at the crossroads — of adventure, the workaday grind, criminality, and life in general. Anything could happen here. And you could take one road or the other out of the parking lot. The choice is always, painfully yours.
“Everything is overdetermined on the road. You cower under the sheets of your adventurous spirit. The company of strangers is the only home you care to know.
If the ultimate promise of travel is self-discovery, the lonely night beside the highway might be the most authentic moment of your life.”
What this no-place place, this crossroads between real and unreal reveals is disillusionment: we are lonely and exist as solitudes, we seek adventure but we are cowards, we are people in pain seeking to escape pain.
There’s this lovely thought, a sort of mockery of nostalgia, about motel phones, on a night when the air conditioner, with its “hum like an airplane’s engines … wheez[es] out a bit of dread that finds your borrowed bed” and after you come back from a trip to the foreign bathroom, a crack in the curtain [which is why I always carry large safety pins] casts a spectral light spotlighting the obligatory telephone:
“Age finds you in an instant. Frozen like a deer, your mind starts silently punching in your first phone number, still so easy to remember some 30 years later. 481-9371. And like that, you’re at home and so far away all at once.“
Motels: They stand in for home, and in doing so remind us, in their bleak emptiness, that we are not home, not at all. Or perhaps they remind us that home, wherever that is, is not any better than this shabby and friendless motel, that “the company of strangers” is the only company — the only family, the only community — that exists anywhere for us.
So I go to lunch with friends (friends I had never met 8 years ago), go to get my hair cut, walk the mile or so home (taking a detour to photograph some butterflies in flowers at a farm stand but end up in love with these grasses in this light),
flip on NPR and listen to more discussion of Kazuo Ishiguro’s being awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature today, with the Nobel committee’s comments about his writing: Ishiguro “uncovered the abyss beneath our illusory sense of connection with the world.” Others (NYT, mainly) write that “[h]is dual identity has made him alert to life’s dislocations; many of his characters are caught, in different ways, between worlds. There is a sense among his men and women that a single wrong move may be calamitous.” (Shades of the mood at the Tumblr site, Motel Register.) They say, “he writes about what you’ve had to forget to survive in the first place, as an individual and as a society.” (From Never Let Me Go: “All children have to be deceived if they are to grow up without trauma.”) Prospect magazine calls him “the master of the quietly unsettling.”
Dislocations; the experience of being caught between worlds; that sharp and inescapable realisation of the abyss that lies black and gaping beneath our abiding hope that we’re connected, that we are solid, permanent, that we are who we think we are, who we appear, known and loved by those we believe we know and love; the necessity of forgetfulness about who we are and what’s been done to us, or what we have done, that enables us to function, and then the remembering, sometimes, that disquiets, quietly unsettles, calls into question everything.
What, I wonder, in our culture reinforces the illusions, tells us the lies that are needed so that we can function as it prefers us to function, helps us forget what we hold inside, distracts us from what’s true, asserts unacknowledged power over our options, our desires, our relationships with each other, with other species, with the earth? Is it really an illusion, that we are connected to each other, or is the truth that we actually are and don’t see it, don’t feel it, and if so, why not? Why do so many people feel they “don’t belong”? Why are so many resources spent on making houses into homes, far beyond what’s needed in terms of shelter and comfort — the many home box stores, the TV stations, hundreds of magazines, newspaper sections devoted to home decor and desires, decorators, stagers, massive industries and hours of time devoted to the project of creating and recreating the home, over and over?
Today, again on NPR, I heard this interview with a reporter who wrote in the Atlantic magazine about ongoing and deadly fraternity hazings and about the “profound moral unease” that frat members may feel as they cross the line into criminality, certainly into cruelty and obscene carelessness, or they may cover up this sense of unease at the time, may express unconcern and callousness, only to have it seep out later, who knows when, why, and how. Because “there’s this sense that at the core of hazing is a kind of manhood that says, ‘You endure, you shut up, you keep the secrets’ and that’s how you go forward and become a man in this context.” A man doesn’t call for help. A man covers up, hides the significance of what he’s done and how he feels about it from himself, and moves on: “And … they take a breath the next day, the next month, even the rest of their lives, and realize what they’ve been part of ….”
Hiding aspects of who we are from ourselves and everyone else. Profound moral unease.
Because of the new Ken Burns & Lynn Novick series, Vietnam is bubbling in our collective consciousness again. I haven’t seen any of the series, though I was privy to a small discussion about it among people who have seen it, and I’ve listened to some news stories on it (this Maine Calling program on the documentary is particularly affecting); one thing that seems clear is that, like fraternity hazing, it was another circumstance — and a compulsory one for most, unlike fraternities — where young men (primarily) were put in a situation of doing terrible things and then having to bear the psychic consequences of their actions.
Profound moral unease. What do we do with it, as people, as a culture?
Then the news this morning of the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize awarded to the International Campaign To Abolish Nuclear Weapons — as the Nobel committee says, “the spectre of nuclear conflict looms large once more” — and I thought of the existential unease many of us experience, some consciously, some subliminally (that is, below the threshold of sensation, consciousness; affecting our mind without our being aware of it, so that we may deny it).
Unease. Disquiet. Dark thoughts of mortality, morality (acting in a way unaligned with our deepest values), alienation from self and others.
Welcome to the Crossroads Motel!
(Above, photo by Joseph Vavak. “Happy Easte”)
So, these are all things that interest me — I assume they interest most people in this culture? — and that are the essence of what heterotopian spaces evoke, I think.
When I am in a motel (as in a cemetery, garden, hospital, museum, on a ship in the middle of the ocean), in that “borrowed bed,” the knowledge that life is a way-station, an unlikely moment between nothingness and nothingness, perhaps, is as pervasive as the peeling wallpaper and the stark, unflinching lights over the bathroom sink. I am travelling, not only here as a guest in this motel but also, at the speed of light, between birth and death.
And there is that dual sense of possibility, of being anyone, doing anything next, because time is floating and place is layered and who I am is unclear, fragmented, divided. As Motel Register reminds us, “Anything could happen here. And you could take one road or the other out of the parking lot. The choice is always, painfully yours.”
A heterotopia works on us by mixing up layers of life, layers of meaning, layers of time like yesterday, “when I’m old,” my 8th birthday. Normally, I may wake up at 6 or 8 a.m. and do this, then do that, then do this other thing, and then it’s time for dinner, and life goes on in this linear way, though the activities vary, from one moment to the next, and it might make sense to me at times, it holds me together and sets out boundaries. Time and space are defined by known boundaries.
But heterotopias disorder time, they subvert our sense of expectation and of what’s next, and often, by means of their temporal and spacial misalignment with our normal world, they contest, question, or subvert our usual sense of what’s important. Heterotopias stir up unknowing, throw established meaning into question, both our personal perspectives and ways of making meaning and also the significance and meanings assigned to things, events, people, places by others, by the society at large.
If you have been in a space of crisis (serious illness or injury, someone dying, natural disaster, war, abuse, etc.) you may have felt the way an hour can last 10 hours, or vice versa. The experience of time in such a place, during such an event, intensifies, distorts, feels circular or exponential. And in this disrupted, out-of-the-ordinary place and time, our attitudes, beliefs, relationships, sense of self can suddenly feel provisional, less definite.
More, on a level above the personal, the relationships we observe among our society’s spaces — whose definitions and meanings derive from the prevailing cultural power structure; and in which we may participate willingly or not — can be called into question in heterotopic spaces. Michel Foucault’s (rather grand) claim was that heterotopias are critical to the functioning of the human imaginary (i.e., the deep-seated mode of understanding, the creative and symbolic dimension, through which we create the ways we live together collectively), and that without heterotopias societies will inevitably collapse into authoritarianism. In Foucault’s conception “the heterotopia is simultaneously both part of and apart from the hegemonic arena [i.e., from the power structure of the society]. 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 question, challenge, and subvert it, from within. (Much more on this at The Heterotopic Art Institution, at Traces of the Real, by Hugh McCabe, August 2014.)
Fiona Tomkinson, writing about Ishiguro’s novels in her article “Ishiguro and Heidegger: The Worlds of Art” (in Kazuo Ishiguro in a Global Context, 2015), asks “How do the protagonists survive the loss of their illusions and of their world? What is left when a world, floating or otherwise, vanishes ….?”
What may be left, going back to the Tumblr “Motel Register” site, is an authentic moment, perhaps a lonely, disconnected one, perhaps a moment when we come face to face with our cowardice, selfishness, lack of faith, pettiness, terror of the abyss, homesickness, heartache, helplessness, exhaustion. Perhaps a moment when we question what we know, what we believe, what we’ve been taught in our culture and by those who love us. Perhaps a moment when we don’t know anymore who’s bad and who’s good, who to exclude and who to include, who belongs and who doesn’t. Perhaps just a moment when we don’t know and don’t have to know, or one when we don’t rush to unravel a ball of tangled feelings … as we listen to the clanging air conditioner, feel the light from outside the motel room even through closed eyelids, and lie there on our borrowed bed, disillusioned with the promise of the motel room.