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.


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.


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)


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.


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)

Living in Transition

I could have sworn I had posted something about the idea of “home” in all the years I’ve been blogging, but if I have, I can’t find it now.

deer were here, 28 Jan 2012I was prompted to think about it again this time by my friend Lynn’s class this fall on “a sense of place,” and by another friend, Caroline’s, post recently titled Staying Put, in which she writes, inspired by Wendell Berry: “We can’t love a place until we know it, and we can’t know a place until we are willing to open ourselves to its mystery, its intricacies and complexities, its willingness to invite us into conversation.”

Like Caroline, who calls herself a “former nomad,” I have never stayed put. Many of my friends (including Lynn) have lived in the same house or the same town for 20, 30, 40, 50 years. I think my imagination is pretty well-developed, but I have trouble envisioning what this would be like: to not consider every box that comes into the my piece of sky, 22 July 2012house for its packing potential, to not browse house listings (daily), to know how to get places, to not need to find new grocery stores and hair stylists, to never walk into a new library or church for the first time. To never have to make a complete set of new, local friends. To not feel the delicious, displaced, lonely, and anticipatory burden and freedom of living in someone else’s house and tending someone else’s garden.

I’ve lived in 24 places in 50 years, in 18 towns, in 6 states. I’ve spent another combined (estimated) two years in one- and two-week vacations across the U.S. (focus on Jekyll Island, Rehoboth and Myrtle beaches, New York City), and in the UK, Spain, the Caribbean; and another year or so of summers on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, most summer weekends for six years on a lake in central Virginia, a cumulative month in San Francisco with a friend’s dying sister; and another 6 months perhaps on the train, travelling coast to coast several times, to New Orleans 5 or 6 times. I’ve spent some time in every U.S. state except Hawaii, Alaska, South and North Dakota, and Michigan.

I’ve lived in my latest state, town, neighbourhood, house and yard for exactly three years now. For the first two-and-a-half years, I felt like a tourist in this town. In fact, the Marti Jones song, “Tourist Town,” came to mind often as I walked and drove through town: “I’m tempted to hide away / I’m tempted to hide in a tourist town.” I felt hidden in plain view, recogising almost no one and unrecognised by almost all.

hummingbird in penstemon, 23 June 2012And I realised that I liked it, most of the time. A few palm trees, sand, the sound of seagulls, and some ocean would have improved the experience, but on the whole, I appreciated feeling anonymous, invisible, unknown by my fellow townmates. I also appreciate being known (or at least recognised) now. Both states feel deeply healing, in their owns ways.

The social theorist Michel Foucault’s idea of a heterotopia is extremely appealing to me; he speaks of heterotopias as “‘counter-sites,’ places positioned on the … outside of all places … irrelevant to the practical functioning of everyday life.” They might be reserved for “people undergoing transitional crises: adolescents, menstruating women, pregnant women, the dying.”  They can also be places of deviation, where “individuals whose behavior is deviant in relation to the required mean or norm are placed”:  prisons, retirement homes (idleness is a deviation in our society), psychiatric hospitals.

But they don’t have to be places of abnormal deviation and crisis. They can be cemeteries, gardens, theatres, cinemas, museums, libraries, fairgrounds, festivals, ships … In fact, they can be tourist towns, which remove people from their normal daily lives and which usually exist outside of time and flourish for only for part of the year and then close down.

Some places — gardens, museums, cinemas and theatres, e.g. — juxtapose many shade garden etc, 2 July 2012places or scenes in one place. They may even contain mini-heterotopias and places of transition within them, like a bridge, an archway, movement from a sunlit meadow to a dark forest or from a gallery to an open rotunda. Some, like museums and libraries, constitute “a place of all times that is itself outside of time and inaccessible to its ravages,” while others (fairgrounds, vacation villages) are “absolutely temporal.”

As described by John Doyle at Ktismatics:  “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. Entering into a heterotopia often requires a rite of passage: enlistment in the army, arrest and conviction, death, travel. The ship is the heterotopia par excellence” because it is “a place without a place, that exists by itself, that is closed in on itself and at the same time is given over to the infinity of the sea.”

monarch caterpillar on asclepias, 6 Aug 2012I’m starting to 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. A place removed from ordinary time. A kind of folly.

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 (as Caroline put it, “willing to open ourselves to its mystery, its intricacies and complexities”). I feel paradoxically at home as an unrooted, uprooted stranger passing through a strange and passing land.

I seem to prefer being neither here nor there. Even as I mhosta shoots, 3 May 2012ake each new place “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, or tundra — I am aware of the illusion of terra firma, of an everlasting place, this eden.

I think, through practice and perhaps by nature, I have become skilled at inhabiting places in such a way that they feel real to me — real like the smell of fried food and popcorn on the boardwalk, the shriek of gulls fighting over a clam shell, the glare of the high summer sun beating on sand, the warm taste of coconut and pineapple in pretty drinks with umbrellas, the overlay of pop music and oldies coming from every other beach blanket — even as I know that this place too will shutter up when the season is over (though the gulls will remain).

Rehoboth boardwalk at night, 12 Aug 2011

* From Wikipedia: In anthropology, liminality (from the Latin word līmen, meaning ‘a threshold’) is the quality of ambiguity or disorientation that occurs in the middle stage of rituals, when participants no longer hold their pre-ritual status but have not yet begun the transition to the status they will hold when the ritual is complete. During a ritual’s liminal stage, participants ‘stand at the threshold’ between their previous way of structuring their identity, time, or community, and a new way, which the ritual establishes.”