I would like to share a crucial text by Michel Foucault which I discovered through a recent article by Marko Juvan on geographical information systems (GIS) and literary analysis:

  • Juvan, Marko (2015). From Spatial Turn to GIS-Mapping of Literary Cultures. European Review, 23(1), pp. 81-96.
  • Foucault, Michel (1984). Des espaces autres. Hétérotopies. Architecture, Mouvement, Continuité, 5, pp. 46-49. Originally: Conférence au Cercle d’études architecturales, 14 mars 1967.

The full text including the translation I am quoting from is available on foucault.info. It is available somewhere in Dits et écrits in paper form. If am understand correctly, the translation is from Jay Miskowiec (see this website). It is an absolute bootleg, since it is originally from a lecture and has not been officially planned for publication. Still, Foucault’s prose is as usual really dense and there is much to learn from it. In the course of time, it has become a central text of the so-called “spatial turn”, which has admittedly been introduced by Foucault and Lefebvre in the 1960s and 70s.

In the opening of the text, comparing the 20th with the 19th century, Foucault comes to the idea that our time is one of juxtaposition:

L’époque actuelle serait peut-être plutôt l’époque de l’espace. Nous sommes à l’époque du simultané, nous sommes à l’époque de la juxtaposition, à l’époque du proche et du lointain, du côte à côte, du dispersé. Nous sommes à un moment où le monde s’éprouve, je crois, moins comme une grande vie qui se développerait à travers le temps que comme un réseau qui relie des points et qui entrecroise son écheveau.

The present epoch will perhaps be above all the epoch of space. We are in the epoch of simultaneity: we are in the epoch of juxtaposition, the epoch of the near and far, of the side-by-side, of the dispersed. We are at a moment, I believe, when our experience of the world is less that of a long life developing through time than that of a network that connects points and intersects with its own skein.

Foucault then briefly sketches a genealogy of the notion of space. He sees a first shift with Galileo and the substitution of extension for localization, followed by a second shift:

De nos jours, l’emplacement se substitue à l’étendue qui elle-même remplaçait la localisation. L’emplacement est défini par les relations de voisinage entre points ou éléments; formellement, on peut les décrire comme des séries, des arbres, des treillis.

Today the site has been substituted for extension which itself had replaced emplacement. The site is defined by relations of proximity between points or elements; formally, we can describe these relations as series, trees, or grids.

I have to say that grids is not the best translation for treillis, which involves a multidimensional interlacing such as a canvas or a mesh. Foucault then interestingly links to notion of site to modern technology, an idea which could be elaborated on with recent developments in distant/cloud computing. He concludes:

Ce dernier problème de l’emplacement humain, ce n’est pas simplement la question de savoir s’il y aura assez de place pour l’homme dans le monde – problème qui est après tout bien important –, c’est aussi le problème de savoir quelles relations de voisinage, quel type de stockage, de circulation, de repérage, de classement des éléments humains doivent être retenus de préférence dans telle ou telle situation pour venir à telle ou telle fin. Nous sommes à une époque où l’espace se donne à nous sous la forme de relations d’emplacements.

This problem of the human site or living space is not simply that of knowing whether there will be enough space for men in the world – a problem that is certainly quite important – but also that of knowing what relations of propinquity, what type of storage, circulation, marking, and classification of human elements should be adopted in a given situation in order to achieve a given end. Our epoch is one in which space takes for us the form of relations among sites.

The lecture continues with a definition of the heterotopia. The “spatial turn” flourished and the notion is still frequently refered to in the humanities, which can be explained by the conceptual – and financial – productivity of “an orientation towards quantification of the natural and physical environment” (Juvan 2015).

Concerning the notion in itself, here are further introductions: