Reading thick volumes of philosophical pondering is certainly a fun and healthy activity. It is not always the case, however, that one has time for a hearty meal of metaphysical speculation or ethical deliberation. Luckily, for those in a rush there is a snackier solution to the thought nourishment: reading short philosophical essays. All the big names in philosophy are normally (and for a good reason) associated with their magna opera: Plato and The Republic, Nietzsche and Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Heidegger and Being & Time. However, all these people, including Plato, had written shorter and no less fascinating pieces that deserve the reader’s attention. They can be standalone expositions of interesting ideas or even summaries of the author’s own thought condensed into a digestible dozen-page format. In other words, nearly every philosopher had written a bunch of short essays during their career, and these essays can serve as both a great entry point into the heads of these philosophers and as a stimulating dose of new ideas that does not take years and an academic degree to study.
In this new rubric called “Snack for Thought” I will be introducing short philosophical essays that I find particularly interesting and stimulating. They will not be analysed in detail but rather presented in a rough outline: the impetus behind this rubric is that the readers are motivated to check the original article by themselves. For that reason, whenever possible (and legal) I will try to provide a link to the article in question. One last remark before we proceed. Calling an essay a “snack” is by no means intended to be demeaning. Rather, if we were to compare the size of the Critique of Pure Reason to a hearty meal, Kant’s short essay “What is Enlightenment?” would be a drop of Tic-Tac. Much fewer calories, but also much easier to swallow.
Foucault’s ”Of Other Spaces” is actually not an essay but a lecture delivered to the students of architecture in 1967. Nevertheless (or maybe precisely because of that), it is a fairly easy and stimulating read. The text, in fact, is 2-in-1. In the first part of the lecture Foucault briefly presents a rough “history of space” – how and why our notions of space have changed through time. In the second and bigger part of the talk Foucault introduces a term that has consequently become in vogue among all kinds of architects and urban planners: “heterotopia”.
Space, says Foucault, has a history. He divides this history in three parts. First, is the space of emplacement. In the Middle Ages space is hierarchical: there are sacred and profane, urban and rural places; in Aristotelean-Ptolemaic cosmology there is a separation between terrestrial, celestial and supercelestial spaces.
Second, this space of emplacement was “infinitized” by Galileo in the 17th century: “For the real scandal of Galileo’s work lay not so much in his discovery, or rediscovery, that the earth revolved around the sun, but in his constitution of an infinite, and infinitely open space. In such a space the place of the Middle Ages turned out to be dissolved.” Place, in other words, has become relativized: “a thing’s place was no longer anything but a point in its movement”.
Third and finally, today, the emphasis has shifted from the extension to the relations of proximity between the elements: “formally, we can describe these relations as series, trees, or grids.” To sum up, in the Middle Ages a thing had its natural place (and would move toward it), with Gallileo things had lost their natural places and became moving points, and, finally, today, the relationship between these moving points has become of importance. “Our epoch is one in which space takes for us the form of relations among sites.” Foucault gives examples of demography and traffic grid, and, surely, if he lived in the era of the Internet the worldwide web would figure as an example. Both the physical infrastructure of the Internet ans well as its contents present a complex network of interrelated “places”.
In the second part of the lecture Foucault introduces the term “heterotopia”. Literally, “a different place”, heterotopias are the opposite of utopias. A utopia does not exist in reality but is directly related, by mirroring or subverting, the present state of society. Heterotopias, on the other hand, do exist, they “are something like counter-sites, a kind of effectively enacted utopia in which the real sites, all the other real sites that can be found within the culture, are simultaneously represented, contested, and inverted.” Heterotopias are closely related to the notion of liminality: they are places different, possibly opposite, from what is “normal” and yet they are always related to that “normal”. Cemeteries, theaters, and brothels are all examples of heterotopias. As well as the boat: “a floating piece of space, 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”.
(Foucault dedicated a good portion of his Madness and Civilization to the nautical thematic. During the Renaissance, he writes, the imagery of a ship was in vogue: the ship of princes, virtuous ladies, even the ship of health would often find their place in the popular literature of the time. Set apart from the above is the ship of fools, the Narrenschiff - a vessel both metaphorical and real. Foucault writes in the Madness and Civilization: “of all these romantic or satiric vessels, the Narrenschiff is the only one that had a real existence – for they did exist, these boats that conveyed their insane cargo from town to town”. The heterotopic meaning of the ship of fools is very vivid. Not only it is a boat and, as such, has no place where it belongs (and yet it is a place in itself), but further it is full of the “madmen” – people who are the opposite of the “normal” people on the dry land: “these ships of fools, which haunted the imagination of the entire early Renaissance, were pilgrimage boats, highly symbolic cargoes of madmen is search of their reason”.)
Foucault closes his lecture with a line that since has become famous: “The ship is the heterotopia par excellence. In civilizations without boats, dreams dry up, espionage takes the place of adventure, and the police take the place of pirates”.