I’ve written quite a lot before about heterotopias. Heterotopias are ‘counter-sites,’ places positioned on the margins of or outside of normal cultural space, irrelevant to the practical functioning of most people’s everyday life. They are real places, with a relationship to other real places, but they are absolutely different from other sites. Traditionally, they were places set aside for people undergoing transitional crises, part of the common stages of life like adolescence, menstruation, pregnancy, dying. Nowadays, we have the military and the honeymoon trip to stand in for these, as well as “heterotopias of deviation,” like prisons and psychiatric hospitals, places where we put people to keep them away from the rest of us.
Heterotopias don’t have to be places of deviation or rites-of-passage, though. Some further examples of heterotopias, as noted by John Doyle and others, might be museums, libraries, the theatre, fairs and festivals, cemeteries, gardens, airports and train stations, tourist towns, a ship. Disney World might be another example.
A heterotopia might be any place that:
- Juxtaposes and merges incompatible spaces “like ‘private space and public space, family space and social space, cultural space and useful space, the space of leisure and that of work’ into spaces of otherness.”
Michel Foucault, who coined the term in the 1960s, describes “a heterotopia as a space that disrupts the continuity and normality of common everyday places. … [Heterotopias] relate to other spaces by both representing and at the same time inverting or distorting them. … A cinema, for example, is a space of otherness amid more ordinary spaces, ‘a very odd rectangular room, at the end of which, on a two–dimensional screen, one sees the projection of a three–dimensional space.’ In it, the real world and the fiction of the movie are juxtaposed, and the visitors are drawn into the story of the heroes and villains projected on the screen.”
- Links to “‘slices in time,’ often breaking with traditional time in certain spaces.” Doyle writes: “Heterotopias open onto heterochronies — disjunctures from the evenly spaced and empty continuum of time. Theater time passes differently from the time that surrounds the theater. The cemetery is a juxtaposition of the end of time and eternity. Museums and libraries accumulate past time in a place outside of time. Resort towns exist only at certain times of the year.”
- Represents ordinary life but also inverts it in some way, either by exposing it as an illusion or by compensating for its imperfections. Heterotopias invite reflection on their relationship to other spaces. They are “‘counter–sites,‘ a kind of effectively-enacted utopia in which the real sites, all the other real sites that can be found within the culture, are simultaneously represented, contested, and inverted.” They function by “unfolding between two extremes: between providing an illusion that exposes the real world as still more illusory, and providing a space of perfection to compensate for the flaws of real life. The otherness of a heterotopia, whether it is characterized by illusion or by perfection, calls into question the reality of the ordinary spaces around it. Heterotopias are disturbing.”
So I was pretty excited to come across this article, “The Heterotopia of Facebook,” by Robin Rymarczuk at Philosophy Now (h/t to Peter Johnson at Heterotopian Studies). And then to find a much fuller treatment of the topic by Rymarczuk and Maarten Derksen in First Monday, June 2014, from which I’ve drawn most of my quotes.
In the paper published at First Monday, Rymarczuk and Derksen enumerate the ways in which Facebook is a heterotopia — in fact, “a heterotopia par excellence,” “able to reflect just about any other site in our culture — the office, the living room, the café, the amusement park, the brothel — at the same time turning them into something completely new.”
You can read the paper at the link. It’s fascinating, especially concerning the Trinidadians’ embrace of Facebook as village-like.
For me, the most interesting aspects are two: Facebook’s distortion of time — conflating past and present, in particular; and its revelation of our carefully constructed identities as illusory:
Tɪᴍᴇ ᴅɪsᴛᴏʀᴛɪᴏɴ: Not only does time seem to fly when we’re using Facebook, and other online resources, but Facebook’s Timeline “collapses past life, present life and afterlife into something very other. … Like a museum, Facebook accumulates time. … Facebook keeps the past present, but in a way that is much more direct because it is accessible in the same space where the present happens. The past becomes transparent in a way that many people … find unsettling.”
And, “[t]he past lives on in another way as well. Like a cemetery, Facebook houses eternity, but here the dead wander among the living. It’s estimated that by 2015, there will be 50 million social ghosts or profiles without a living owner on Facebook .”
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Last week, a Facebook friend of mine died suddenly. In one sense, she was a virtual friend, because I never met her in person, though I heard her voice on my voicemail when she called me after my mother died, one of very few of any of my friends who did. We also exchanged very tangible Christmas gifts, baked goods, pickles, and cards. But our primary interactive space was on Facebook, in the Timeline, on post comments, and in private messages. We were in touch daily for most of 3 years. I felt a more intimate connection with her than with most of my “in the flesh” friends, mainly because she was completely integrated into my ordinary, daily life, even though our meeting space was often somewhere in the ether between my house in New Hampshire and hers on Long Island, NY.
I miss her the same way I miss my dog, who died in June 2013, which is more than I miss my parents, who have both died. Daily, meaningful connection — virtual or not — is intimate connection.
And seeing her Facebook page now that she has died – still being filled with tributes, (virtual) tears, photos, comments, and her past-but-no-longer-present postings — is a touchstone for me. I hope it remains online always.
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Tʜᴇ Iʟʟᴜsɪᴏɴ ᴏғ Iᴅᴇɴᴛɪᴛʏ: This is the most interesting facet of social media for me, the construction and presentation of an online identity and how it differs from our normal identity construction and presentation. The writers argue that Facebook — often seen as illusory, deceptive, a constructed performance — reveals the illusion of real life identity:
“A heterotopia has a function amidst the other spaces in a society. Because heterotopias are spaces of otherness, outside the normality of everyday life, their function revolves around the distinction between reality and illusion. Foucault gives the example of a brothel, ‘a space of illusion that exposes every real space, all the sites inside of which human life is partitioned, as still more illusory.’ In the case of Facebook, organised as it is around personal profiles, status updates and postings, it is the reality of personal identity that is at stake.”
Rymarczuk summaries, in the piece at Philosophy Now:
“Erving Goffman argued in The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (1959) [that] the self is always a performance, in which individuals attempt to control the impression that others have of them. This fact is unsettling, because it means that in recognizing the way we present our lives and construct our identities on Facebook to be a performance, we then come to question our personal identity offline too. It is exactly at this juxtaposition of reality and image, where the virtual defines the real, that the heterotopia undermines the notion of ‘real’ reality, through undermining the notion of ‘real’ identity. So on the one hand Facebook opens up a new kind of space where the selection, formulation and articulation of content concerning our identity is more readily available; but on the other hand, this new-found malleability makes us question what our everyday ‘identity’ actually means. … Facebook exposes not the increasing reality of the virtual, but rather that our reality, our identity, has been virtual all along.”
Of course, on some level most of us know that our identity is always constructed, in the tangible world as well as in the virtual world. We know we act one way with one group of people and another way with another group. We always choose which aspects of ourselves to convey, whether consciously, subconsciously, or completely unaware that we’re doing it. I think somehow knowing that we construct and present our identities for various audiences — which for some reason makes us feel inauthentic, though it is vastly human — lies at the heart of the discomfort both users and non-users of Facebook and other social media share:
“In Foucaultian terms, Facebook is a ‘disrupting’ space which turns our usual world on its head by disturbing its ‘continuity and normality’. You exit the normal world when you log in; but still you are involved in representing a version of normal life. … Whereas Facebook is attractive to many primarily as a social networking tool, it is repulsive to some as a site, a heterotopia.”