This concept of heterotopia is among the most fascinating and complex ideas that I have come across as I continue to explore how our minds work and how we relate to the world around us. Since it was introduced by French philosopher Michel Foucault in the 1960s, many experts still continue to debate different interpretations of the idea up until this very day. As you saw in the video above, one definition of heterotopia is “a social space of otherness, at once physical and interpsychic.” Another definition is “spaces that have more layers of meaning or relationships to other places than immediately meet the eye.”
I think the best way to introduce this concept is by starting with the idea of utopia. Most people are familiar with a utopia is: a type of perfect society that does not exist in reality. Heterotopia is not necessarily anti-utopia, but rather a deviation from it. Utopias are spaces that don’t exist, whereas heterotopias are spaces that simultaneously exist and do not exist, but are based off an inverted reality. The best example of a heterotopia is the mirror. The person we see in the mirror exists because the mirror is showing something that is real. However, the image we see in the mirror itself is not a real person. It does not exist on its own without an actual person for it to deviate from.
Another example of a heterotopia that exists in society is the cemetery. The cemetery is a space where people simultaneously exist (as bodies in the ground) and no longer exist (as living human beings), but it is a space that reflects a part of society. Cemeteries would not exist without something real to begin with. When we die we cross over to another space that is no longer part of society, while simultaneously representing a physical space in society through our gravestone. It is both physical and interpsychic, to tie it back to the video at the beginning of this blog. But the real reason I became fascinated with this concept is not necessarily how it operates as a space in society, but how it operates as a space in our minds.
Perhaps the most interesting example of heterotopia in today’s society is the rapidly emerging industry of virtual and augmented reality. Similar to the mirror example, when we experience virtual reality we are seeing a space in which images of physical things exist, but the space itself does not exist in reality – it is virtual. However, unlike the mirror, we now have the ability to design these virtual spaces. We can create our own heterotopias, our own constructions of places that we can experience while not physically being at that place. As Jason Silva says, we can design our mindscapes. We can create worlds that are a reflection of society but do not operate under the hegemonic conditions of society.
What’s even better is that we can share these creative spaces with others. Anyone can enter these spaces and each person will have their own unique experiences. In this way, we can design our minds for the future. We may not be able to create utopia, but we can connect with other individuals in these heterotopias, these spaces that exist as both physical and interpsychic, and I think harnessing the power of the human brain in this way opens up the door to endless possibilities regarding how society advances in the future.
This blog comes nowhere near exploring the full history, interpretations, and applications of heterotopia that have been developed since the term was originally coined. For more background and additional information on this topic, refer to the links below.
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