By Brigitte Arndt
This blogpost is written by an expat living in Florence, and is about Foucault's theory on heterotopia, and the relationship between time and space within these sites. It then turns to theatre and the city of Florence, and uses Foucault's words to give it new and clear 'definitions'.
Having done my postgraduate degree in Philosophy a couple of years ago I still spend a great amount of time reading on my favorite philosophers and theories. Additionally, having quite a fascination with structuralist and post-structuralists movements recently led me to read Michel Foucault’s Of Other Spaces: Utopias and Heterotpoias. Here he speaks about time and space, and how the 19th century obsession with time has led us to the present epoch of space, although one is not to disregard the ‘fatal intersection’ of time with space; space, itself, very much has a history in Western experience. Foucault goes on to roughly trace this history of space (or ‘sites’), from the Middle Ages, to the 17th century to modern day. Although fascinating, the aim of this piece is not to recount this history, but to share certain conclusions Foucault draws about space, and how they have lead me to define the city of Florence and theatre in a new way.
Foucault believes that our modern day lives are still very much governed by oppositions, including our conception of space: private space and public space, social space and family space, just to name a few. Without disregarding the intrinsic value of these sites, and the ‘hidden presence’ of the sacred in these oppositions, Foucault focuses on external spaces:
The space in which we live, which draws us out of ourselves, in which the erosion of our lives, our time and our history occurs.
No man, however, is an island and we do not live within some kind of a void, we live inside a set of relations that characterises sites “which are irreducible to one another and absolutely not superimposable on one another.” Foucault , though, is interested in Heterotopia’s; for him Heterotopia is the “effectively enacted utopia in which the real sites, all the other real sites that can be found within culture, are simultaneously REPRESENTED, CONTESTED and INVERTED.” These spaces include prisons, psychiatric hospitals, cemeteries, boats, theatres, cinemas, the Internet, museums, festivals etcetera. He bases his description(s) of Heterotopic spaces on six different principles, and it is when I got to reading his descriptions of ‘museums’ and ‘theatre’ that made me truly relate to his piece.
It is in the third principle of heterotopia’s that Foucault writes about theatre. Here he says that the heterotopia is capable of juxtaposing in a single (real) space several different sites, incompatible with one another. It is therefore an alternative space that is distinguished from the actual world, but resonates with it. “Thus the theater brings onto the rectangle of the stage a whole succession of places that are unrelated to one another”. The value in applying heterotopia to theatre is that in performance, we can actually witness how else space and place might be constituted, whilst simultaneously, as Foucault says of the heterotopia, it is a kind of “actually realized utopia.” In The Medici Dynasty Show, history comes ‘alive’, and one is transported back to an almost ‘utopian’ time, before humanism and patronage had been neglected. The time and space relationship here I find fascinating, but also the expressive quality of theatre to in the ‘now’ transport us BACK in time and remind us of values that are so imperative to a happy society, values that are lost on the majority of the Western world (apart from Italy, I feel).
In his fourth principle, Foucault states that a heterotopia begins to function at full capacity when men arrive at a sort of absolute break with their traditional time. He divides these heterotopia’s into two different kinds: those that indefinitely accumulate time, and those linked to time in its most transitory and flowing aspect. Living in Florence, which is an almost museum-like city, the first of these two heterotopia’s I found most interesting. Foucault says of this heterotopia:
… the idea of accumulating everything, of establishing a sort of general archive, the will to enclose in one place all times, all epochs, all forms, all tastes, the idea of constituting a place of all times that is itself outside of time and inaccessible to its ravages, the project of organizing in this way a sort of perpetual and indefinite accumulation of time in an immobile place, this whole idea belongs to our modernity.
Reading this I almost feel that Foucault was speaking of Florence itself, a city in which people genuinely arrive at a sort of break with traditional time, a city that does constitute a space of ALL time that is itself outside of time and inaccessible to its destrcution. It is therefore also the ideal city in which to build a ‘bridge’ between the past, the present, and the future, which is exactly what we here at The Medici Dynasty aim to do. Foucault just made me realise that we have chosen the perfect city, as well as craft to facilitate this.