University as Heterotopia


American University as Heterotopia: A Thought Experiment

Perusing critiques of the academy (with such ominous titles as Fall of the Faculty, Blow-up the Humanities, Moral Collapse of the University, Knowledge Factory, and Declining by Degrees) for my own study of the university from an East-West perspective, I came across several passages referencing the utopian propensities of the American project in higher education. Yet, having taught in American universities since 1999, I find very few elements in today’s academy that we might hope to emulate in society as a whole.

University politics are notoriously nasty, and faculty members are full of fear these days as they face more administrative oversight. Most American institutions of higher education are suffering from administration bloat, high tuitions, reliance of adjunct labor, standardization, Balkanization of academic units, fragmented curricula, and an influx of corporate values and business speak.

Even so, I wondered if the university writ large (as we are speaking of it, collapsing all kinds of distinctions between institutions) might still possess some quasi-utopian function. After all, the pejorative phrase often aimed at it, the “Ivory Tower,” does suggest a certain detachment from, and opposition to, the status quo. Perhaps a better way of thinking about the American university today is as a “heterotopia”?

Michel Foucault, in a 1967 lecture entitled “Other Spaces: Utopias and Heterotopias,” contrasts heterotopic sites with utopias. Utopias are for him “unreal spaces,” “sites with no real place,” and “inversions of real space.” Heterotopias, by contrast, are real places (real sites) in which “all the other real sites…are simultaneously represented, contested, and inverted.”

Like a mirror, the heterotopia is at once “absolutely real, connected to 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.” Heterotopology, for Foucault, therefore is “a sort of simultaneously mythic [unreal, utopian] and real contestation of the space in which we live.”

Foucault goes on to list six principles of the heterotopia, which we will take one by one, if only to briefly consider their applicability to particularities of the American university.

While heterotopias “take quite varied forms,” they are first and foremost a “constant of every human group.” Foucault claims “there is probably not a single culture in the world” that fails to constitute them. Although Foucault never mentions the college or university specifically in his writing on heterotopia, but he does note that “crisis heterotopias” are “privileged” places “reserved for individuals who are, in relation to society and to the human environment in which they live, in a state of crisis.”

Many teachers in the American university are living in crisis. Adjunct, and other contingent, faculty now account for 73% of teaching faculty nationally (tenured and tenure-track less than 27%). Because they can be replaced easily, contingent faculty members remain largely unable to meaningfully resist the very administrative prerogatives that are responsible for their marginalization.

In some ways, today’s university is a modern day equivalent to Foucault’s crisis heterotopia: the 19th century boarding house for adolescents where sexual awaking was suppose to happen “elsewhere than home,” and where “leisure as the rule” formed “a sort of deviance.”

The second principle of heterotopia is that it “has a precise and determined function within a society.” In the case of the university, at the most basic level, that function is to educate and advance human knowledge. However, Foucault asserts that as history unfolds, a society can “make an existing heterotopia function in a very different fashion.”

It may be a tangential connection, but at this very moment, conservatives who view intellectuals as a threat to traditional cultural and religious values are turning that human knowledge into a commodity. The modern American university has adopted the structure of a “managed organization” to integrate all its functions, which means that students are increasingly taught the vocational skills required for technical specialization at the expense of more comprehensive liberal education.

Toby Miller points out that one result of this neo-liberal assault on the American university is a “new type of conformity to national and international governmentalization and commodification” that has emerged “in which faculty devote vast amounts of time to filling out forms describing what they have done, are doing, and intend to do” while a new class of unaccountable evaluators has emerged to police them.

A heterotopia is also “capable of juxtaposing in a single real place several places, several cites that are themselves incompatible.” Foucault cites the odd rectangular space of the typical theatre in which “on a two-dimensional screen, one sees the projection of three-dimensional space.”

The modern university lecture hall, with its multiple projectors and smart boards, comes to mind as a similar type of heterotopic space. Like the theatre or Persian Garden (to which Foucault refers), in this “smallest parcel of the world,” the microcosm of the university classroom is transformed into “the totality of the world” through the interplay of word and image.

Foucault’s fourth principle of the heterotopia is that it is linked to “slices of time,” opens out into what he calls “hetero-chronies,” and results in a break with traditional temporalities. He cites the cemetery as a heterotopia that radically breaks with traditional temporality (in that it is a place of dissolution and disappearance). Libraries and museums are also heterotopian spaces “of ever accumulating time.”

The festival fits the fourth principle because it is one of “time in its most flowing, transitory, and precarious aspect.” Foucault offers up the recent phenomenon of the theme-based vacation village as a new kind of temporal heterotopia. In terms of the modern university, it contains a library (and often a museum) in which time accumulates. Yet, like a festival or even a vacation village, the university is temporary–in terms of students’ temporal passage through it.

The fifth principle of the heterotopia is that it possesses “a system of opening and closings that both isolates them and makes them penetrable.” A prison compels entry, for instance, but in other cases one “must have a certain permission and make certain gestures” to enter. One manner in which the university manifests itself as a system of opening and closing is through the admissions office, which provides access to those who make the right gestures.

While debates about “class vs. race” based admissions rages on, students from wealth and privilege still make up the majority of those who attend the most selective American colleges and universities, as they have since the founding of our country. On the other side of the equation are students who are priced out of higher education altogether, or who must borrow tens of thousands of dollars to finance their degrees. In this sense, the openings and closings that isolate universities, yet and make them penetrable, are driven by a variety of socio-economic forces and government policy.

While some heterotopias “seem to be pure and simple openings, but they “generally hide curious exclusions.” In the United States, there are more than 4,000 institutions of higher education that seem to offer access to everyone, yet we have noted several factors of exclusion above. Foucault points out that in some heterotopic sites entry “is only an illusion—we think that we enter where we are, but the very fact that we enter, excluded.”

The final principle of heterotopia that Foucault identifies is that these sites “have a function in relation to all the space that remains.” They can “create a space of illusion that exposes every real space…as still more illusory.” Like the university, heterotopias “create a space that is other, another real space, as perfect, as meticulous, as well arranged as ours is messy, ill constructed, and jumbled.” Foucault calls these “heterotopias of compensation,” and he compares them to “the first wave of colonization in the seventeenth century, of the Puritan societies that the English had founded in America that were absolutely perfect other places.”

In the colonies established by the Jesuits of Paraguay, the village and grounds were laid out “according to a rigorous plan” and the daily life of individuals was regulated in them “not by the whistle, but by the bell.” In the early history of the college, a highly regimented life was a standard part of the American experience of higher education.

Frederick Rudolph notes that “compulsory morning and evening prayers and Sunday church services” were once “fundamental to the American collegiate experience.” They were much maligned by students, who protested by “deliberate absenteeism, indifference, disrespect; by ogling female visitors; the writing of obscene doggerel on the flyleaves of hymnals, [and] by expectorating in the chapel aisle.”

Today, higher education in the United States may be more polite, but it is in well-documented decline. Even so, reform is still possible. As Benjamin Ginsberg reminds us, “at is best, the university is a remarkable institution. It is a place where ideas are taken seriously; where notions that are taken as givens are problematized; where what has seemed to be reality can be bent and reshaped by the power the mind.”

The American university will never be a “heterotopia par excellence” (a self-contained “place without a place” that exists by itself, like a boat that  moves from port to port). Nevertheless, between World War II and the 1980’s, the American university was “the great instrument of economic development” and “simultaneously the greatest reserve of imagination” in our nation’s history. Although in crisis, we must protect it as an institution essential to our democracy.

As Foucault warns: in “civilizations without boats, dreams dry up, espionage takes the place of adventure, and the police take the place of pirates.”

2 Responses to “University as Heterotopia”

  • Evangelina K. Says:

    I would be interested to see how you could relate an American Campus with the garden analogy made by Foucault in his Heterotopology. Especially since green spaces on campuses are of vital importance and have remained important ever since the creation of the first campuses on American soil.

  • Admin Says:

    Great suggestion! Thank you.

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