Thursday, 30 December 2010

Heterotopias and dead zones

I need to put down a brief thought after having read the book on heterotopia edited by Dehaene and De Cauter (Heterotopia and the City: Public Space in a Postcivil Society, London & New York: Routledge, 2008).

What strikes me is the movement of the concept of heterotopia itself. In Foucault, who made it famous with his lecture on "other spaces" in the 60's, the concept is notoriously multifaceted. It is a fusion of incarceration and ship, a place of exclusion as well as a place of adventure. Despite the bleakness of the image of heterotopia conjured up by his many examples, it is clear that he is fascinated by them, by the otherness they offer. The light his lecture throws on his work on prisons and asylums is of great interest. As critics have remarked, however, his concept is also very ambiguous. It's hard to use, and furthermore it is unclear to what extent he considered heterotopias as places of resistance.

In Dehaene and De Cauter (as well as to most of the contributors to their volume) the concept noticeably shifts. It becomes, perhaps, somewhat clearer, although it is still far from unambiguous. Just as in Foucault, it is still a largely ahistorical concept - rather than tracing a history of the forms and shifting functions of heterotopias, they attempt to assemble its meaning through a juxtaposition of examples. The greatest shift, however, lies in the dilution of the scent of otherness in the concept. To Dehaene and De Cauter, heterotopia is delineated by the sphere of culture as exemplified by art, sports, leisure and the sacred. Theoretically, they try to define it as the sphere of activities that fall outside Arendt’s typology of labor, work and action. If labor and work belong in oikos, the private world of the household, and action belongs in agora, the political “space of appearance”, then the heterotopias constitute a “third space” beyond oikos and agora. Examples of this kind of space include the church, the theatre, and the stadium. The borderline to what we ordinarily refer to as public space is thus not very sharp (I think one needs to recall here that the agora was never denuded of sacred or ludic elements). Their heterotopias are communal, publicly recognized and often given prominent urban visibility through  monumental buildings. They are largely institutionalized spaces, often given official backing and funded by wealthy citizens (today, the authors claim, golf clubs can be heterotopias). Hence, their concept of heterotopia seems to be a far cry from the ephemeral wasteland, the suddenly appearing interstice, the homeless and squatter communities which the original conception of Foucault still seemed to encompass.

Maybe this is what prompts Gil Doron to reject the concept in favor of the notion of dead zones in one of the best and most thought-provoking contributions to Dehaene's and De Cauter's volume (“‘…those marvelous empty zones on the edge of our cities’: Heterotopia and the ‘Dead Zone’”). What are dead zones? First, he likens them to the desert. He then discusses derelict land, using an arena near the sea in Tel Aviv as example. This area was called “dead zone” by the city planners. It was, however, a place where Palestinian fishermen had used to live before being driven away. There was also a ruin of a Roman fortress, dilapidated warehouses from the 1930s, and the area was often used for rave parties, bonfires, fishing, sex, and graffiti. “While the planners portrayed the area as a void, the city authorities were trying to evict a descendant of one of the Palestinian fishermen, who was claiming back the family hut and had opened a small café in it” (p205).

Pointing out that many so-called dead spaces are populated is important. To call them “tabula rasa” is a prelude to colonization, as in the foundation of Israel. They can be shanty towns or squathouses or areas used by homeless immigrants. Such places “are rarely empty but… they have been portrayed as empty… for economic, social and political reasons” (p 207). “These spaces are named ‘dead zones’ when the hegemony wishes to reuse them” (209).

Here’s a passage that makes dead zones look just like the way I describe the "no man’s land" Kamogawa riverbanks and that also recalls what Ogawa Tetsuo says about wastelands being the place where art is born. 
Omitted from many of these empirical reports and theoretical texts is the fact that most of these terrain vagues have been populated by marginal communities and they have certain physical and non-physical qualities that are unique to them. These places also present history (rather than represent it), foster creativity and nourish the aesthetics of ruins; they are a habitat for wildlife and plants, places in which the body has to adapt to its environment rather than being cuddly choked by its surroundings. In short, these zones are a space of suspension, of solitude and silence within the bustling cities, sites that are a viable alternative to the heterotopian public space. (p204)
Significantly, he distinguishes these zones from heterotopias. If heterotopias exist everywhere, the dead zone is their residue. Unlike the heterotopias the dead zones have always been sites of transgression and excess. The heterotopias can tolerate dead zones but not vice versa – blind spots and openings can exist in heterotopian spaces like shopping malls, cinemas, hotels, gardens or gated communities, but when heterotopias intervenes in the dead zone “it either takes it over or pushes it aside: as with the colonies, the garden in the desert... In heterotopias the sacred is present, but the dead zone is profane and everyday. Unlike the heterotopias, which are exclusionary, the dead zone is always open, although entering there can be ‘at your own risk’" (p210f).

To summarize: to Doron the heterotopias stand for an institutionalized and officially recognized alterity, existing as dream and compensation, while the dead zone is the remainder, the leftovers. The dead zone - one could perhaps say - is the real exteriority, not only as conceived and dreamed.

I will continue discussing this some other time. Let me just say that I'm pleasantly surprised by the many convergences I find in Doron with what I have been trying to explore myself with the idea of "no man's land" (Solà-Morales' idea of terrain vague is another similar notion), and that I find much of interest in the meandering history of the idea of heterotopia from its suggestive multifariousness in Foucault to its clear contraposition to dead zones in Doron.

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