Essay 21: Learning to Process the University With Your Own Questions

You need to “subdue” or “master” a university by “imposing” or layering your own questions on theirs in quizzes and exams, finals and midterms.

Here’s an example: In the masterpiece, What I Saw: Reports from Berlin, 1920-1933Joseph Roth (died in 1939), the author writes about Berlin traffic and transport:

“After all, the passengers on a bus or streetcar make up a community of a kind.” (“Some Reflections on Traffic,” November 15, 1924.)

This idea of “small communities” including transitory ones, is developed by the French philosopher Michel Foucault.  He calls them “heterotopias” (different places) which are neither utopias or dystopias.

This notion reminds us of Edmund Burke’s (18th century conservative thinker), founder of concept of society’s “little platoons” like friends, families, clubs, congregations in churches, which Burke cherishes.

Heterotopia is a concept elaborated by the leading French philosopher Michel Foucault (died in 1984).

Heterotopias are worlds within worlds…micro-societies.

Foucault provides examples: ships, cemeteries, bars, brothels, prisons, gardens of antiquity, fairs, Turkish baths and many more.

If we take the ship as the utmost heterotopia, a society without ships is inherently a repressive one.

Foucault outlines the notion of heterotopia on three occasions between 1966-67.

Foucault explains the link between utopias and heterotopias using the metaphor of a mirror. A mirror is a utopia because the image reflected is a ‘placeless place’, an unreal virtual place that allows one to see one’s own visibility. However, the mirror is also a heterotopia, in that it is a real object. Hence a dual function.

The heterotopia of the mirror is at once absolutely real, relating with the real space surrounding it, and absolutely unreal, creating a virtual image. Foucault discusses several possible types of heterotopia:

  • A ‘crisis heterotopia’ is a separate space like a boarding school or a motel room where activities like coming of age or a honeymoon take place out of sight. Foucault describes the crisis heterotopia as “reserved for individuals who are, in relation to society and to the human environment in which they live, in a state of crisis.” He also points that crisis heterotopias are constantly disappearing from society and being replaced by the following heterotopia of deviation.
  • ‘Heterotopias of deviation’ are institutions where we place individuals whose behavior is outside the norm (hospitals, asylums, prisons, rest homes, cemetery).
  • Heterotopia can be a single real place that juxtaposes several spaces. A garden can be a heterotopia, if it is a real space meant to be a microcosm of different environments, with plants from around the world.
  • ‘Heterotopias of time’ such as museums enclose in one place objects from all times and styles. They exist in time but also exist outside of time because they are built and preserved to be physically insusceptible to time’s ravages.
  • ‘Heterotopias of ritual or purification’ are spaces that are isolated and penetrable yet not freely accessible like a public place. Either entry to the heterotopia is compulsory like in entering a prison, or entry requires special rituals or gestures, like in a sauna or a hammam.
  • Heterotopia has a function in relation to all of the remaining spaces. The two functions are: heterotopia of illusion creates a space of illusion that exposes every real space, and the heterotopia of compensation is to create a real space—a space that is other.

You could use this idea of “heterotopias”(little societies and worlds) and apply it to the various buildings on a campus, the little worlds or sub-worlds of fields and faculties, to the sub-cultures of fraternities and dormitories, to sports teams and clubs, to classes of students at a lecture.

Joseph Roth is a “radical devotee” of the charms of local groupings and small “truths and atmospheres” such as these heterotopias and states:

“It’s only the minutiae of life that are important.” (What I Saw: Berlin, 1920-1933, “Going for a Walk,” 1921)

Looking through such lenses, a student could layer one’s own visions and questions on a university and counterbalance” theirs and bring enchantment to the current “knowledge factory.”