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.