Oh, we have twelve vacancies. Twelve cabins, twelve vacancies.

Welcome to day 24 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.  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.
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Who knew there was so much to know about motels?

Wikipedia’s motel article is pretty detailed, with sections on architecture and layout (“typically constructed in an ‘I’-, ‘L’-, or ‘U’-shaped layout that includes guest rooms; an attached manager’s office; a small reception; and in some cases, a small diner and a swimming pool”); room types (some with small kitchens, some connecting); a history from auto camps and courts to early motels (“a handful used novelty architecture such as wigwams or teepees or used decommissioned rail cars”) to chains, and from expansion (when motels added swimming pools, colour TV, Magic Fingers!, and beach-front motels were popular) to decline (here’s a handy list of defunct motel and hotel chains) and then revitalization; international variations (Canada, Europe, and South America); “crime and illicit activity” and “motels in popular culture.”

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If you’re interested in staying at motel with character, check out Momondo’s June 2016 list of “Iconic American lodging: cool and offbeat motels in USA,” which includes The Madonna Inn (I knew someone who stayed there once) in San Luis Obispo, CA (“rural ranch meets pink fantasy palace”), the Red Caboose Motel in Philadelphia, the Thunderbird Marfa in Marfa, TX, Kate’s Lazy Meadow, a 1950s marvel near the Catskills in NY, and Dog Bark Park Inn, shaped like a beagle, in Cottonwood, ID.

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The “motels in the popular culture” section mentions some movies known for a motel setting, notably the Bates Motel in Hitchcock’s 1960 film Psycho. An “isolated motel being operated by a serial killer, whose guests subsequently become victims, has been exploited in a number of other horror films, notably Motel Hell (1980) and Mountaintop Motel Massacre (1986).” Somehow, I missed those. The 2011 thriller The Innkeepers used actual rooms and hallways of the Yankee Pedlar Inn, in Torrington, CT, for interior shots.

Of course, the “long-established connotations of motels and illicit sexual activity” manifests in “Motel Confidential (1967) and the porn film Motel for Lovers (1970),” as well as “Paradise Motel (1985), Talking Walls (1987), Desire and Hell at Sunset Motel (1991), and the Korean films Motel Cactus (1997) and The Motel (2005).” Sordid events take place in Pink Motel (1982), Motel Blue 19 (1993), Backroad Motel (2001), Stateline Motel (2003), Niagara Motel (2006), and Motel 5150 (2008).

An article in the National Post (9 Oct. 2015) succinctly summarises in its subtitle (taken from comments by Dave Alexander, editor of Canadian horror magazine Rue Morgue) why sleaze, horror, vice, and violence are housed in hotels and motels: “Hotels are a pseudo home where people go to do bad stuff and a place where strangers intersect.”

From the same article, Canadian film director Brandon Cronenberg says that “‘a hotel room is both a foreign space and an intimate space. … We might sleep there, bathe there, have sex there, but it’s also somewhere unfamiliar and uncontrolled, and that creates a sense of vulnerability.'” Further, says Cronenberg — getting at the heterotopia as a place that both exists in time but also outside of time, as a discontinuity of time, an accumulation of time — “a ‘hotel is like a labyrinth of secret history.’ … There is something delicious about the idea that a sordid moment from that history might resurface in the present, perhaps literally in the case of a supernatural story.'”

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“All good hotels tend to lead people to do things they wouldn’t necessarily do at home.” — Andre Balazs

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When I think of motels, I think of My Cousin Vinny, starring Joe Pesci as Vinny, an inexperienced lawyer from New York trying to free his nephew and friend from a murder charge in Alabama, and his sharp-witted girlfriend Lisa, played by Marisa Tomei. Technically, Vinny and Lisa are staying in an H OTEL, but it’s basically a motel, one with a railroad track abutting it. If you haven’t seen it, watch this 2-min video to see what happens at 5 a.m. in the motel room.

Then there’s Fawtly Towers, the British comedy set in “a fictional hotel in the seaside town of Torquay on the ‘English Riviera.'” John Cleese is the “tense, rude and put-upon” and socially conservative owner Basil Fawlty, with Prunella Scales as his bossy, acerbic wife Sybil, Connie Booth as the peacemaking chambermaid Polly, and Andrew Sachs as the “hapless and English-challenged Spanish waiter Manuel.” The quartet tries to run the hotel “amidst farcical situations and an array of demanding and eccentric guests and tradespeople.” It’s such an iconic show that hard to believe there are only 12 episodes! The whole series came about after Cleese, then with Monty Python, stayed at the Gleneagles Hotel in Torquay while filming on location:

“Cleese was fascinated with the behaviour of the owner, Donald Sinclair, later describing him as “the rudest man I’ve ever come across in my life.” This behaviour included Sinclair throwing a timetable at a guest who asked when the next bus to town would arrive; and placing Python member Eric Idle’s briefcase (put to one side by Idle while waiting for a car with Cleese) behind a wall in the garden on the suspicion that it contained a bomb. Sinclair justified his actions by claiming the hotel had “staff problems.” He also criticised the American-born Terry Gilliam’s table manners for not being “British” (that is, he switched hands with his fork whilst eating).”

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“Of course great hotels have always been social ideas, flawless mirrors to the particular societies they service.” —  Joan Didion

Philip French, in the Guardian’s 16 Dec. 2000 article, “This Looks A Nice Place To Stop,” gives a brief history of 75 years of motels in Hollywood, “a metaphor for angst and alienation.” He perhaps overstates the case for danger: “Motels are places for assignations and illicit sex, for planning crimes and dividing the spoils, for insecure people in transit or desperate people on the run. There’s always the chance that you’ll wake up alone, robbed after a night of passion, or that the place will be surrounded by cops (as in Bonnie and Clyde (1967) or this year’s Way of the Gun) and you’ve the choice of shooting it out or getting handcuffed.”

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French describes as motels as “located on the edge of cities, identifying their patrons as marginalised, or they are out in the wilds of the Midwest, dwarfed by the big sky and the majestic landscape. … They have a dispiriting anonymity,” either homogeneous chains that “protect us from local colour,” or “squalid, cigarette-scarred, kitsch-decorated, the thin-walled suites located behind flickering neon signs and fetid swimming pools. The upmarket places were acidly satirised in Richard Lester’s Petulia (1968), where would-be adulterers George C. Scott and Julie Christie book into a San Francisco motel so impersonal that you never meet the staff or other guests. The experience of staying in downmarket versions is cleverly caught in Christopher Nolan’s Memento (2000), whose protagonist suffers from short-term memory loss and has to take Polaroids so he can recognise the LA motel he’s living in.”

Not movie-related, but French tells us in this article that in 1934, “Frank Lloyd Wright incorporated a motel in his design for a utopian city called Broadacre. Lloyd Wright planned a ramp for visitors to drive their cars virtually into their motel rooms.”

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Besides those named already, there are lots of other famous movies set partially or wholly in hotels and motels, among them Grand Hotel (1932) with Greta Garbo, Joan Crawford, John Barrymore, Lionel Barrymore (the Grand Hotel, where “nothing ever happens”); the Marx Brothers movie Room Service (1938); Week-End at the Waldorf (1945) with Ginger Rogers, Lana Turner, Walter Pidgeon, Van Johnson; Jacques Tati’s Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday (1953); A Touch of Evil (1958) dir. by Orson Welles, with Charlton Heston and Janet Leigh; The Bellboy (1960), with Jerry Lewis as a bumbling hotel bellhop; the Barbra Streisand/Ryan O’Neal romantic comedy What’s Up, Doc? (1972); California Suite (1978) with Maggie Smith, Richard Pryor, Alan Alda, Jane Fonda, Bill Cosby; The Shining (1980) with Jack Nicholson; the rom-com Pretty Woman (1990) with Julia Roberts and Richard Gere; Lost in Translation (2003) with Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson; The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (2011) with Judi Dench, Bill Nighy, Maggie Smith; and The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014), with Ralph Fiennes and F. Murray Abraham.

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I’d never heard of it before but The Florida Project (2017) — about young kids who live in “the Magic Castle, a purple-colored budget motel that’s near the Magic Kingdom and above which clouds resemble dollops of cotton candy” — sounds like something I’d want to see: The camera moves “in and out of [the motel’s] rooms, investing the minutia of the down-and-out lives within this little ecosystem with a bittersweet energy and significance.” From the same (linked) review, this is also intriguing:

“Some might argue that The Florida Project’s ending constitutes another such misstep, but that would be to misunderstand another of Baker’s fundamental projects. Joan Didion has written, and better than no one else, about Miami as a transient metropolis, one that’s been built in the image of so many Cuban cities, and one that seems like it will, if not exactly crumble, reveal its essential ephemerality when so many of its Cuban-born citizens feel like they finally have the license to return to their homeland. The same could be said of Orlando, a city which feels like it only exists in relationship to Disney World, a capitalist dependency that’s very much felt throughout this film. As lived-in and detail-rich as the lives in The Florida Project are, the environment where they’re rooted is fleeting, a place where one passes through but never stays.”

Coming of age at the Magic Castle motel abutting the Magic Kingdom: Heterotopian in multiple ways in its ephemerality, marginality, placelessness (a place that disappears or where we simply can’t stay for long): the motel, the resort “World” itself, and even perhaps in the fleeting nature of childhood. Foucault himself speaks of child’s play as heterotopian in a way: “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.”(from notes on Ylva Ogland’s 2014 art exhibition, “Diverse Variations of Other Spaces”)

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Title quote spoken by Norman Bates to Marion Crane in Psycho.

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Taking Sanctuary in Diners, Train Stations, Motels

Welcome to day 22 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.  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.
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“Hospitality means primarily the creation of free space where the stranger can enter and become a friend instead of an enemy. Hospitality is not to change people, but to offer them space where change can take place. It is not to bring men and women over to our side, but to offer freedom not disturbed by dividing lines.” — Henri J.M. Nouwen, Reaching Out: The Three Movements of the Spiritual Life

I’m fairly certain Father Nouwen wasn’t speaking of hotels and motels in his words about the division-healing work of hospitality, but there is something about the “free space” offered by motels and hotels, without conventional expectation and placed outside ordinary relationships to a greater or lesser degree, that perhaps gives the humans who stay in them some freedom for the mind or heart to open. As I’ve quoted earlier,

“Hotels bring together individuals whose paths might not normally cross, and they create relationships and social hierarchies new to those individuals — relationships and hierarchies that do not always correspond to the individuals’ ‘normal’ relationships outside the hotel. In subverting the status quo, they are fundamentally political spaces in the broadest sense” (from The Shining’s Overlook Hotel as Heterotopia by Elizabeth Hornbeck, 2016).

Or as Beth Lord — then teaching fellow in Philosophy at the University of Dundee in Scotland, now Head of Philosophy at the University of Aberdeen — notes, concerning museums but equally applying to motels and hotels,

“What are we to make of Michel Foucault’s claim that the museum is a heterotopia? When reading Foucault’s description of the heterotopia in his 1967 essay “Different Spaces,” we are left with the impression of something negative, uncanny, and disturbing: a heterotopia is a space of difference, a space that is absolutely central to a culture but in which the relations between elements of a culture are suspended, neutralized, or reversed. Unlike utopias, heterotopias are real places ‘designed into the very institution of society’ in which all the other real emplacements of a culture are ‘at the same time, represented, contested, and reversed, sorts of places that are outside all places, although they are actually localizable.'”

Dr. Lord mentions two of Foucault’s prime examples of a heterotopia, the cemetery and the ship, adding about the ship that it “is ‘a piece of floating space, a placeless place;’ it functions according to its own rules in the space between ports, between cultures, between stable points.” Places that are heterotopian “are those sites in a culture designated as spaces of difference, spaces in which ordinary relations within the culture are made and allowed to be other.” (Beth Lord in “Foucault’s museum: difference, representation, and genealogy,” in Museum and Society, March 2006)

It is this “being allowed to be other” than who we normally, routinely, habitually are that I think merges with Nouwen’s concept of hospitality as a space where we and our relations with others (other people, other beings, the earth, the abstract and eternal, the power structure of the culture) are allowed — not coerced, forced, or manipulated (except by architecture, perhaps) — to be other; not that being other than usual is necessarily a good in itself (as countless horror movies set in motels can attest), but that it offers us freedom where change can take place, because we are freed to question ourselves, the prevailing society, our relations with all things and beings.

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Philosophical writer Alain de Botton, below, is in part speaking of motels when he describes one of their functions as that of a sanctuary:

“The twenty-four-hour diner, the station waiting room and the motel are sanctuaries for those who have, for noble reasons, failed to find a home in the ordinary world, sanctuaries for those whom Baudelaire might have dignified with the honorific ‘poets’.” ― Alain de Botton, The Art of Travel, 2002

The welcome of a good motel, hotel, or inn (or a 24-hour diner, or a station waiting room) is such a comfort in the midst of the rigors of travel. On our first evening near Newport, Rhode Island, in late spring this year, we couldn’t find a suitable restaurant without an hour-long waiting line at 8:30 p.m. You know that physically fatigued, stressed feeling you get when you’re hungry, tired from travel, trying to navigate and orient in an unfamiliar place, easily frustrated, ready for bed but needing some sustenance and just … some impersonal, disinterested, non-demanding comfort? That night, we found such a sanctuary in the Blue Plate Diner in Middletown, RI. No, it’s not a 24-hour diner (but it was open until 10), and the food was fine, but more importantly, it was warm, available, and served with friendliness in a comfortingly casual, anonymous, and just-well-enough-lit space.

dinerMiddletownRI6May2017

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I’ve spent a fair amount of time in train station waiting rooms. Most are unremarkable, a few are unpleasant, but a few stand out — either because of their architecture, amenities, and the feel of the space, or because of my need for that kind of comfort just then, or both — as exemplars of sanctuary for those of us who who have, by and large, failed to find a home in the ordinary world. Or, I would say in my case, as one who has found herself equally at home when somewhere not designated as home; and more at home and at peace, contented, in the non-ordinary place rather than within the circumference of my ordinary world.

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Union Station in Washington DC

It’s changed quite a bit in recent years, with the Center Cafe, in the center of the “Beaux-Arts main hall,” closing in 2016 after 28 years there  (I miss it, contrary to this March 2016 Washingtonian article that says it won’t be missed by many), as well as B. Smith’s restaurant closing in 2013 after 23 years, and the Barnes & Noble bookstore being replaced with an H&M clothing store. There’s still the Thunder Grill, which offers a roomy space for travellers with lots of luggage, and the service and southwestern food are surprisingly good for the location. They also have a full bar.

Really, Union Station is just a beautiful spot, if you like classical architecture. Some of the police ride segways through the space; there are large waiting areas; and there are many boutique shops (though most open up late, close early, or for whatever reason aren’t open when I’m there) and some chain restaurants/cafes like Au Bon Pain and Pret A Manger. (A Legal Seafood is coming soon.)

I often have layovers of 1-3 hours here and don’t mind it at all.

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Christmas time at Union Station, Jan. 2017
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Thunder Grill at Union Station, Sept. 2014
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bar at Thunder Grill, Jan. 2017
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Center Cafe when it was still there, Jan. 2011.
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waiting area, Union Station, Dec. 2013
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Gate J is usually my Union Station gate. Jan. 2011
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with my sister at Union Station, Nov. 2006
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sign inside Union Station celebrating 45 years of Amtrak, 1 Jan. 2017

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Penn Station in Baltimore, MD

Not a grand station at all but serviceable, airy, with a Dunkin Donuts and an eat-in/take-out place called Java Moon Cafe. I’ve had some scary moments scrambling with my luggage off the train in the middle of the night — it stops for about 2 minutes in Baltimore before heading on, and not all doors open onto the platform, which if you’re asleep and disoriented poses a challenge — but waiting here for a train is one of the less stressful travel connections, since there’s pretty much never a queue as there is at termini like Washington DC and Boston, and people sit reading the newspaper on the comfortable wooden benches — like pews in a sanctuary?  — until their train is called. Very civilised.

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Penn Station (on left) in the Mount Royal section of Baltimore, May 2008
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me, looking tired indeed, waiting for a train, in 2004 or 2005

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South Station in Boston, MA

I’ve spent more time here than any other train station over the last 25 years. (It’s also a major bus terminal, including for the bus from my NH town to Boston, which I’ve probably taken at least 30 times in each direction in the last eight years. The bus station side is not nearly as nice — in terms of architecture, spaciousness, amenities, etc. — as the train station.)

On the one hand, I like that South Station is an Amtrak terminus, which means trains start and end there (this is the northern end of Amtrak’s very popular Northeast Regional and Acela lines), so on boarding all the seats are available when you get on and on disembarking you never miss your stop, even if you are asleep. But being a terminus also means that riders often line up, inside and outside, long before the train is scheduled to depart, in order to get the best seat possible or seats together if travelling in a group. I do this, too, but it’s kind of a pain to feel that urge. On the other hand, if I’m going to be sitting on a train for 8 or 12 hours, it’s not a bad thing to stand in a line for a while beforehand.

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South Station exterior, March 2015
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plantings, the bus side of South Station, May 2016
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South Station Starbucks (almost side-by-side with Dunkin Donuts), Dec. 2013
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Au Bon Pain at South Station, Oct. 2015
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line at Au Bon Pain, Dec. 2013 – look how perfectly spaced the queue is
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arrivals and departures board, and train display during Christmas, Dec. 2013
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arrivals and departures board with Apple ads, March 2011

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Actually, just looking at these stations has me itching to take the train again right now.

“So I’m more at home with my backpack, sleeping in a hotel room or on a bus or on an airplane, than I am necessarily on a bed. It’s weird being here. It feels like I’m standing next to my real life.”  — Henry Rollins

A bed is certainly more conducive to sleep, but in some ways I prefer sleeping (or trying to sleep) while being no-where, on a train or bus, or being somewhere that feels like no-where, like a hotel or motel.

Train stations, diners, hotels — I love those that feel welcoming, comforting, a home away from home that’s nothing like home.  A placeless place feels like my place.

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Cuddles & Bubbles

Welcome to day 8 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.  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.
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Then there’s sex. Usually better in a motel or hotel than at home, but why? Boundary blurring of private-public? Some kind of taboo related to adultery (commonly practiced in motel rooms exactly because they’re not quite private or public), a trespass (temporary usage of a space that’s not mine), that sense of anonymity or of feeling I’m not quite the me I usually am (or that you are not quite your ordinary you) — are we idealised and idealising, or is it just that the thought of a stranger is more exciting than the familiarity of each other? Is it that it’s a break in the routine, whether a different time, the different place, different bed, or some other aspect? A reminder of brothels and motels that can be rented for an hour, even if you’re there for three days on a straightforward business trip or for a funeral?

“… the North American roadside, a place underwritten by the values and desires of a cultural system that anxiously balances the competing aims of instant gratification and moral purity.” (on “Dreamland Motels” and Freud, at Motel Register)

Elizabeth Hornbeck, in her essay on Stephen King’s Overlook Hotel in his novel The Shining (in Stephen King and Philosophy, Jacob Held, 2016), is articulate in her description of hotels as places, heterotopias, where non-normative and transgressive acts can occur, activity that subverts normal social roles and rules. She notes first that Michel Foucault “describes motel rooms as heterotopias ‘where illicit sex is totally protected and totally concealed at one and the same time, set apart and yet not under an open sky.'”

Then:

While Foucault does not mention hotels in his essay [“The Order of Things,” in which he does mention brothels], they satisfy his description of the heterotopia of deviance because of the unique kind of social space they offer. Hotels bring together individuals whose paths might not normally cross, and they create relationships and social hierarchies new to those individuals — relationships and hierarchies that do not always correspond to the individuals’ ‘normal’ relationships outside the hotel. In subverting the status quo, they are fundamentally political spaces in the broadest sense. …

“The family home … constrains the parent-child relationship, the spousal relationship, intergenerational relationships, and so forth, all according to socially defined roles. Breaking away from those norms is facilitated by leaving the normative space of ‘home’ and entering the subversive space of heterotopia. …. Heterotopias undermine our sense of ordering, defining, and understanding, and hence to some extent controlling, the spaces we occupy.  Unlike their counterparts, normative spaces, heterotopias are spaces where the transgressive can take place without censure.”

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“Magic fingers” were all the rage at the classy places we went to as kids on family trips.

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My sisters and I always put quarters in the slot and enjoyed the good vibrations. I shudder when I think about what was probably on the sheets and comforters. (The Flamingo Motel in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho had some of the last working units in 2012, still only 25 cents a go.)

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I’m pretty sure I also know what’s floating around in the “jacuzzi built for two” and it’s not any kind of aphrodisiac. (This International Inn & Suites is in Hyannis, Cape Cod, MA. Their URL is “cuddles.com”)

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“Hotel rooms constitute a separate moral universe.'”– Tom Stoppard

It’s not exactly a motel, but it may as well be: This scene with Goldie Hawn and Dudley Moore in Foul Play is a gleaming model for all things sleazy motelish. The liquor cabinet and bad drinks, the strobing lights, the BeeGees, the sudden arrival of the sex dolls, the naked women paintings and the porn film projected on the wall, the heralded hidden bed and mirrored neon-lights ceiling, tambourines, binoculars, his coy preening and prancing. Then his utter humiliation and shame when he’s scolded and the lights come on. It’s a classic!

 

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A bit of dread that finds your borrowed bed

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.  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.
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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?

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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?

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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:

CapriMotelMotelRegisterbleakglamourour(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.

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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),

grassplumesbrightsunlightSpringLedgeFarm5Oct2017

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?

birdsnestinSwidaRacemosaGreyDogwoodbBattellWoodsTAMMiddleburyVT31Oct2015

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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.

DarkWoodssculptureQuetzalcoatlBedrockGarden19July2015

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!

CrossroadsMotelMotelRegisterTumblr(Above, photo by Joseph Vavak. “Happy Easte”)

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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.

cemeteryandtreesSalemMA8Feb2014

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.”

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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.

memphisstjudeshospital112006

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 Institutionat Traces of the Real, by Hugh McCabe, August 2014.)

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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.

CadillacMotelRoomsforaNightoraLifetimeManchesterNH14Jan2017

 

Mirrors: Suspension of Presence

Welcome to day 4 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.  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.

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There’s a funny phenomenon in real estate photos, where the person photographing the rooms unintentionally photographs themselves in a mirror, usually in the bathroom. In this way, realtors superimpose themselves, the marketer, onto the home they are marketing, which is not their home, not a space where they would usually appear in the mirror, except for the fact that they are selling this home for someone else. They don’t belong here but they are now integral to the space, as though they were the inhabitant of the house. (Check out Bad MLS Photos, especially the series I’m Looking for the Agent in the Mirror – definitely “asking him to change his ways.” Also, Stupid Selfies at Terrible Real Estate Agent Photos, which I think says it all.)

The same thing happens when I take photos of motel and hotel rooms. I try to avoid it, except when I am actually trying to do it, but occasionally I capture a little of me, someone else, or some luggage reflected.

fridgedeskmirrordoorbathroomOldeTavernMotelOrleansCapeCod1Nov2016
part of me in the mirror, Olde Tavern Motel, Orleans, Cape Cod, 1 Nov. 2016

The motel remains, and I am a fleeting glimpse caught forever in its mirror. If the mirror weren’t there, would I remain? Where is my actual presence in that moment?

fireplaceandmirrorwithreflectionsCylburnMansionBaltimore12March2014
friends reflected in ornate mirror in Cylburn Mansion, Baltimore, MD, March 2014

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In Nataly Tcherepashenets’ book Place and Displacement in the Narrative Worlds of Jorge Luis Borges and Julio Cortázar (2007), she talks about Foucault’s “motif of the mirror … which questions ‘real’/’fictional’ place opposition and where the concepts of utopia and heterotopia converge. … [It’s] where the very notions of linearity and presence are suspended.” She compares “the City” in Cortázar’s novel 62: Modelo para armar (1968; in English, 62: The Model Kit) — characterised as “a heterotopian zone, constructed and deconstructed at the same time” — to a mirror: “[Juan] has an impression that … a mirror of space and a mirror of time had coincided at a point of unbearable and most fleeting reality before it left me alone again, with so much intelligence, with so much before and after and so much in front and in back” and she continues “[t]he functioning of the City turns out to be that of a mirror where heterotopia, utopia and dystopia converge. It accumulates ‘real’ (recognizable) spaces and at the same time appears to be an overtly imaginary construct.” In this way, as Danielle Manning puts it in her article (Re)visioning Utopia: The Function of Mirrors and Reflection in Seventeenth-Century Painting, the mirror has the “ability to destabilize the seemingly straightforward transcription of real space.”  The mirror both includes and excludes real objects: they appear as images in the mirror but are not really “allowed” in the mirror, instead remaining external it. Where are they?

MelaniereflectionredFiatrentalcarRehobothBeach27July2017
my sister in a Fiat rental car at the beach this summer

The “intelligence” Juan describes seems to me to be a kind of revelation or realisation, which comes from his sense of “so much before and after,” the convergence of eternity — past, present, future — in the never-ending refraction of light in a mirror, with him at the center. Yet the mirror, like “the City” in the novel, is a real place, the mirror possibly made in a Chinese factory and transported across oceans on a container ship to be placed in, perhaps, this particular home or motel. It’s a real object but its significance is wholly in its function of reflecting other objects, and those reflections aren’t “real” but are “image-inary.”

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An exhibition for the Singapore Biennale (2016-2017), “An Atlas of Mirrors: At Once Many Worlds,” includes Harumi Yukutake’s Paracosmos (2016), which was apparently inspired in part by Foucault’s thoughts on mirrors:

Paracosmos [click to see image] propels the viewer into a parallel world – a space of otherness that is recognisable but unfamiliar. … [T]he ‘membrane’ of hand-cut mirrors dissolves the definition between foreground and background by dissipating the single image into an explosion of reflections. 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.”

The mirror is a perfect “placeless place”: the mirror itself is empty of imagery, yet that’s where accurate representations of real objects are found.

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Looking at oneself in a mirror, it’s hard not to experience, on some level (maybe a subconscious one), both a reassuring sense of our own solid presence and a disquieting sense of our fleeting impermanence. The mirror suggests that besides the “real” me, there is another me, out of body, external. And that reflected, external me doesn’t correspond perfectly with the real me. The copy of me isn’t me, but it’s what everyone else, for whom the mirror stands in, sees as me.

leastsandpiperbirdreflectioncloseJekyll21Dec2015

Philippe Rochat and Dan Zahavi, in their (pdf) article “The uncanny mirror: A re-framing of mirror self-experience” in Consciousness and Cognition (Feb. 2010), mention in the introduction “the wariness typically associated with mirror self-experience” and French phenomenological philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s description of  “the profoundly unsettling encounter with one’s specular double.”  Rochat and Zahavi share the story of an isolated tribe living in the Papuan plateau, who had never seen their own reflections in anything natural or constructed (no slate, no metallic surfaces, only murky rivers); an anthropologist brings a mirror to their tribe and they look into it: “They were paralyzed: after their first startled response – covering their mouths and ducking their heads – they stood transfixed, staring at their images, only their stomach muscles betraying great tension. Like Narcissus, they were left numb, totally fascinated by their own reflections.”

It’s easy to forget, especially in this age of selfies, that without mirrors, reflective glass, and cameras (or clear reflections in water, rock, etc.), we would not know what our own face looks like, we would never see the gestalt of our body in one image.

minbathroomcartoon24sept2010

The authors go on to discuss the uncanniness of mirrors, as a “source of visual enhancement as well as illusory perceptions. …. Mirrors are visually trickery because they give perceivers an illusion of transparency, the exact opposite of what they are in their physical reality. ” They raise Merleau-Ponty’s argument that for a child who first sees its whole body in a mirror or other clear reflective surface, “this new unifying appearance of the body” is an objectification:

“For the child to recognize the specular image as its own is for it to become a spectator of itself. … At the same time that the image makes possible the knowledge of oneself, it makes possible a sort of alienation. I am no longer what I felt myself, immediately, to be; I am that image of myself that is offered by the mirror. To use Dr. Lacan’s terms, I am ‘captured, caught up’ by my spatial image. Thereupon I leave the reality of my lived me in order to refer myself constantly to the ideal, fictitious, or imaginary me, of which the specular image is the first outline. In this sense I am torn from myself, and the image in the mirror prepares me for another still more serious alienation, which will be the alienation by others. For others have only an exterior image of me, which is analogous to the one seen in the mirror.”

In other words, as they continue,

“Merleau-Ponty’s central idea is that mirror self-recognition exemplifies a troubled form of self-knowledge.  … The enigmatic and uncanny character of the specular image is precisely due to this intermingling of self and other. It is me that I see in mirror, but the me I see has not quite the same familiarity and immediacy as the me I know from inner experience. The me I see in the mirror is distant and yet close, it is felt as another, and yet as myself.”

These intermingled feelings — of knowing oneself while being alienated from oneself, of self as both object and spectator, of recognising oneself intimately yet feeling distant from self, of feeling the image to be eternally situated and at the same time deeply transitory — points to the experience of ambiguity and contradiction inherent in heterotopias.

And looking at photos of mirrored images all the more ambiguous, unsettling, disorienting. This was 20 years ago. For a moment. That never ends.

MelanieMollycameramirrorHotelPacificMontereyCA10April1997

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“I suspected that what happens in hotel rooms rarely lasts outside of them. I suspected that when something was a beginning and an ending at the same time, that meant it could only exist in the present.”  — David Levithan

 

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.

cameraingardenmirrorjadecrabapplepic5Aug2011

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.

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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)

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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.

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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)

31 DAYS OF HETEROTOPIAS: MOTELS AND HOTELS :: INTRODUCTION

I’m once again participating in the Write 31 Days project this year, as in past years, when my topics (at A Moveable Garden only) were A Sense of Place and Kissing the Wounds.

This year, for the whole month of October, my topic is Heterotopias: Motels and Hotels. (More on heterotopias and liminal space.)

[Double-posted from A Moveable Garden.]

Day 1: Retreat to New Orleans, Memphis, and Minneapolis
Day 2: Tiny Seaport Home (The Element, Boston)
Day 3: There is Comfort. There is Reassurance. (Holiday Inn Express, Savannah)
Day 4: Mirrors: Suspension of Presence
Day 5: Seaside Inn, Between Earth & Sky (Kennebunk, ME)
Day 6: A Bit of Dread That Finds Your Borrowed Bed
Day 7: Hampton Inn and Olive Garden (Richmond, VA)
Day 8: Cuddles & Bubbles
Day 9: Few Hours in Life More Agreeable (Middlebury Inn, VT)
Day 10: Impermanent & Insignificant (Trade Winds Inn, Rockland, ME)
Day 11: Hotels I Haven’t Known
Day 12: More Than Promised (Sea Whale Motel, Middletown, RI)
Day 13: Intercontinental Earth Hour (Intercontinental Hotel, Boston, MA)
Day 14: The Lorraine (Memphis, TN)
Day 15: In the Cosmic Perspective (Hyatt Place, Owings Mills, MD)
Day 16: Marjorie
Day 17: Entangled Orbits (Hyatt Place, Owings Mills, MD)
Day 18: Intersections
Day 19: Now, the Berkshires seemed dreamlike (Birchwood Inn, Lenox, MA)
Day 20: Might be Motel Sixing but it feels like Turks and Caicos (Footbridge Beach Motel, Ogunquit, ME)
Day 21: Mash Up of Public Spaces
Day 22: Taking Sanctuary in Diners, Train Stations, Motels
Day 23: No-Frills Flagship (Boothbay, ME)
Day 24: Oh, we have twelve vacancies. Twelve cabins, twelve vacancies.
Day 25: Somebody else, some stranger, haunted
Day 26: How far is the unseen world from Midtown? (Midtown Hotel, Boston, MA)
Day 27: Sand Under My Toes (Sand Dollar Inn, Pine Point Beach, ME)
Day 28: Elephants, Swans, & Monkeys, Oh My! (The Cove Motel, Orleans, Cape Cod, MA)
Day 29: Myrtle Beach Days (Wyndham Towers on the Grove, North Myrtle Beach, SC)
Day 30: Almost Certainly Not Axe Murderers (Fairfield Inn & Suites, Kennett Square, PA)
Day 31: Dream City Home

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Michel Foucault, who coined the term “heterotopia” in the 1960s, describes it as “a space that disrupts the continuity and normality of common everyday places.” (From that description alone, you can see how motels and hotels, and in fact many places associated with travel and vacation time, are examples.) Foucault uses the term to describe spaces containing more layers of meaning, or more relationships to other places, than immediately meet the eye. The role of heterotopias in his view is either illusory or compensatory, to either “create a space of illusion that exposes every real space, all the sites inside of which human life is partitioned, as still more illusory” or “to create a space that is other, another real space, as perfect, as meticulous, as well arranged as ours is messy, ill constructed, and jumbled.” In either case, they point to the truth of our own reality.

MelanietakingphotosofheadstonesHillcrestCemeteryFederalsburgMD14Nov2015.jpg(Above, my sister at family cemetery plot)

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Beyond revealing the illusion of real space and time (either directly or through compensation), a heterotopia is a place that’s removed from ordinary time, from the evenly spaced movement of time. It’s a disjuncture. It’s a place that changes how time is felt, experienced. It’s a place that juxtaposes past with present, future with present, that disorders time and allows it to function in a non-hegemonic way (i.e., no longer ruled or ordered by prevailing social or political context). It can be a built space (a library, museum, garden, cemetery, ship, prison, etc.) or it can even be something like the “space” of a phone call or the moment when a mirror reflects our image.

jiMinJICHPresSuitebathroommirror24April2012.jpg(Above, Jekyll Island Club Hotel, Jekyll Island, GA)

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In fact, gardens, especially public gardens, are seen as heterotopias, because they incorporate a rich spatial incompatibility, superimposing meanings, changing the pacing of time, mimicking perfection a la the Garden of Eden and/or revealing how far they fall short of what Mother Nature constructs; and since my [other] blog is titled A Moveable Garden, I think it’s appropriate to post these there — though the posts won’t be about gardens (most of the time) or about the natural world per se — to reflect the larger idea of living in transition, moving from place to place, knowing and not knowing places and spaces.

littleislandinmiddleofpondatPublicGardensBoston14June2012(Above, Boston Public Garden)

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As I’ve said, I often wonder whether my true home isn’t perhaps a heterotopia, or some sort of liminal space I am continually passing through. A wholly unnecessary space, “irrelevant to the practical functioning of everyday life.” A tourist town, a dis-placed place. No-home. It’s where I, perversely perhaps, seem to feel most at home. Not “home” in the sense of feeling rooted and attached but rather in the sense of feeling relaxed, satisfyingly connected, most myself, engaged in discovering and exploring the new and mysterious, not able to be easily found by others.

As much as I enjoy being at home (in my house and garden), and being part of a geographically situated community, I seem to prefer slightly more being neither here nor there (hence my appreciation of Facebook). And even as I make each new place, each new garden and ecosystem, each new community, “my own” — no matter the USDA hardiness zone, no matter which birds sing in the trees, no matter whether I am in the midst of the most-craved ocean and marsh, or of mountains, lakes, rivers, swamps, meadows, prairie, forests, desert, tundra, or cityscape — I am aware of the illusion that it is a lasting place, a place that persists. In the short term, I will leave, and in the end, no place will persist for any of us.

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Before we delve more deeply into the home-away-from-home motel and hotel focus of this series, here are some more examples of heterotopias (some overlapping), for those interested (from “Of Other Spaces: Utopias and Heterotopias” in Architecture /Mouvement/ Continuité, October, 1984, based on a Michel Foucault lecture of March 1967):

  • heterotopias of crisis (red tents for menstruating women, honeymoon hotels for virgins, boarding schools for boys, hospitals, nursing homes)
  • heterotopias of deviance (prisons, retirement communities, mental hospitals)
  • heterotopias that juxtapose “in a single real place several spaces, several sites that are in themselves incompatible” (the theatre, cinema, public gardens)
  • heterotopias linked to slices in time, where humans in them “arrive at a sort of absolute break with their traditional time” (cemeteries; museums and libraries, which are “heterotopias of indefinitely accumulating time”)
  • heterotopias linked to the accumulation of time, those “linked to time in its most flowing, transitory, precarious aspect, to time in the mode of the festival” (fairgrounds, seasonal spaces like corn mazes, resort communities and tourist towns), where in fact one might even “rediscover” time.

inthecornmazeb20Oct2012(Above, corn maze in New Hampshire)

As Danielle Manning notes so articulately in her essay “(Re)visioning Heterotopia: The Function of Mirrors and Reflection in Seventeenth-Century Painting” (in Shift: Queen’s Journal of Visual and Material Culture, 2008), “[t]he enigmatic term ‘heterotopia,’ popularized by Michel Foucault in his text The Order of Things (1966), describes sites that undermine stable relationships, disrupt conventions of order, and negate straightforward categorization. Heterotopias also reflect a curious slippage between the familiar and the unfamiliar. … Heterotopic sites seem familiar, as they are subsumed within a society’s conventional ordering system that links them to other sites, yet they are unfamiliar in that they simultaneously contradict the premises by which these relationships are sustained.”

“The strange thing about hotel rooms is that they look familiar and seem familiar and have many of the accoutrements that seem domestic and familiar, but they are really weird, alien and anonymous places. ” — Moby

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For me, motels and hotels — like trains, probably my favourite heterotopia — are a reminder of our fleeting existence, and serve perhaps as practice, if you will, for the time when time is no longer linear, when life is no longer programmed at all, no longer ordered by societal norms.

There is something comfortingly anonymous about motels, hotels, and some inns — which is not so for most B&Bs — that I think relates to the heterotopic nature of these temporary places. It’s sort of like Alfred Hitchcock walking into and out of a scene in one of his movies with no one interacting with him or hardly seeming to notice him (excepting Blackmail, 1929); he’s almost an apparition; he rarely has any effect on those around him nor they on him.  In a sense, there is utter possibility then, because being is unacknowledged and there is only becoming, in a place where, e.g., what happens next or what happened before is not as significant or intrusive as normal. Hotels and motels remind us, because we exist in them only briefly and quite anonymously, not known to others around us, that although we can feel mighty solid, with a complete history of lived experience, fully installed on Earth and in our homes, we are actually atoms, air and water, with personalities and minds that may or may not persist, with homes that will vanish on a planet that will also disappear.

HitchcockwalkonMarnie(Above, Hitchcock walk-on in Marnie. Not my photo.)

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As Peter Beagle says, in The Last Unicorn (1968; a book I found when I was young and even more impressionable than I am now),

“When I was alive, I believed — as you do — that time was at least as real and solid as myself, and probably more so. I said ‘one o’clock’ as though I could see it, and ‘Monday’ as though I could find it on the map; and I let myself be hurried along from minute to minute, day to day, year to year, as though I were actually moving from one place to another. Like everyone else, I lived in a house bricked up with seconds and minutes, weekends and New Year’s Days, and I never went outside until I died, because there was no other door. Now I know that I could have walked through the walls.”

A heterotopia can reveal the illusion of time, the illusion of solid walls, to us.

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Some say (far down, in comments) that a luxury hotel might be the best hotel heterotopia, because for a while one inhabits a completely other world than usual. I can see this, but having stayed in quite nice hotels and quite dreary, sketchy motels (one in Petersburg, VA, comes to mind), and many in between the two, my experience is that they are all about equal in their ability to remove me from my ordinary life, which is neither posh (by American standards) nor low-rent.

B&Bs, on the other hand, are not up to the task, although they may juxtapose the familiar with the unfamiliar in a disorienting way, because they demand adherence to conventional societal norms: usually B&B guests breakfast together, or if not together in a group, they are still often expected to chat with their hosts or at least exchange pleasantries with each other; sometimes there are wine afternoons, with more chatting and the ritual of “getting to know” someone, exploring what you have in common. Sometimes there is a shared bathroom, with all the communication amongst strangers that that requires. In some smaller B&Bs, a guest might even be expected to check in after each excursion, or to ask advice from the hosts about the area, or, in a true case from my own life, stay in a bedroom with the daughter’s clothes in the closet and decorated with her knick-knacks and enjoy a movie, with popcorn, with the host on her sofa of an evening.

But when one stays in a hotel or motel, one is usually left alone. Most don’t even require that housekeeping staff come in to change towels, make the bed, and tidy up every day. You can put a “Do Not Disturb” sign on your door and behave pretty much as you like in the room. The linked article above even mentions “the famous American motel rooms where a man goes with his car and his mistress and where illicit sex is both absolutely sheltered and absolutely hidden, kept isolated without however being allowed out in the open.”

NotNowEgoNeedsRestDoNotDisturbsignHardRock
(Above, not my photo)

And the decor of hotels and motels, while it ranges from drab, musty, wallpapered to sleek, modern, uber-plush, is impersonal (unlike even most Airbnbs, at least those in my limited experience), enhancing the feeling of not being anywhere in particular, of not knowing anyone here. Chain hotels and motels, like chain restaurants, tend to look the same, no matter what town or city you’re in: The town, region, weather, country may be unfamiliar, but the motel or hotel is familiar. In many of them, you can completely and disorientingly forget what physical location you’re in once you open the door, and even in mom-and-pop one-off motels, there is a motel feel — born of the generally low-slung architecture, the carpeted floors and the landscape/abstract paintings, the key or keycard you carry with you, the Gideon’s Bible in the nightstand, the very brightly lit bathroom, and perhaps most of all the simple knowledge that this is a temporary place — that lends a sense of nowhereness to them, and to you.

memphislorrainemotel112006(Above: Except you shouldn’t mistake the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, TN, where Martin Luther King Jr was shot to death, for any other motel.)

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In the next month, I will be posting interior and exterior photos of 30 or so motels, hotels, or inns I’ve stayed in, and perhaps a few I haven’t. (I already have a list of 34 I’ve photographed while as a paying guest, plus 8 or 10 more I’ve photographed without being a guest.) While they are essentially located anywhere and nowhere, they are geographically located in Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Rhode Island, Boston, the Berkshires, Cape Cod, Rehoboth Beach in Delaware, Kennett Square in Pennsylvania, Savannah and Santee Georgia, New Orleans, Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming, and other spots. (Unfortunately, I had no camera with me in London and in Wales; in Granada, Spain I stayed in a rented apartment; I neglected to take any when on the island of Saba, N.A., in a sort of motel/apartment combo; and I took only day trips to Montreal and Nova Scotia, so I’ll be posting only photos of hotels and motels in the United States).

I’ll also be looking at motels and hotels in film; considering the different experience of staying in motels and hotels alone vs. with someone else; thinking about how we may behave differently when in a hotel or motel vs. at home; exploring the juxtaposition of multiple realities, the familiar and the unfamiliar, the conventional and the unusual, that coalesce in motels and hotels; considering how a sense of anonymity and of feeling unknown open possibilities and can affect attitude, behaviour, mood, imagination; how physical location of a motel or hotel may interact with the dislocating nature of the space; and so on.

Join me! And if you have a motel or hotel story, tell us about it, please.