Michel Foucault’s heterotopia – in comics?

This time, we’re going to look at a theoretical concept which is not specific to art history: heterotopias, or “other spaces”, described by philosopher Michel Foucault in a talk in the 1960s which was published in the 1980s. He defines heterotopias as “something like counter-sites […] in which the real sites, all the other real sites that can be found within the culture, are simultaneously represented, contested, and inverted.” Foucault then lists six “principles” to further characterise heterotopias:

  1. Today’s heterotopias are “heterotopias of deviation: those in which individuals whose behavior is deviant in relation to the required mean or norm are placed”;
  2. “a society, as its history unfolds, can make an existing heterotopia function in a very different fashion”;
  3. “the heterotopia is capable of juxtaposing in a single real place several spaces, several sites that are in themselves incompatible”;
  4. heterotopias are often linked to either the accumulation of time or to ephemeral time;
  5. “heterotopias always presuppose a system of opening and closing that both isolates them and makes them penetrable”; and
  6. heterotopias either “create a space of illusion that exposes every real space, all the sites inside of which human life is partitioned, as still more illusory”, or they are “as well arranged as our [space] is messy”.

These “principles” are not meant to be necessary characteristics of heterotopias, i.e. a space doesn’t need to fulfil all six principles to be regarded as a heterotopia. This rather vague definition means we can apply the term heterotopia to many different spaces. In art history, we mainly deal with two kinds of spaces: real spaces in which art is produced and received, and imaginary spaces conveyed by the content of works of art. For the former, see e.g. Ruth Reiche’s recent blog post (in German) on cinemas and museums as heterotopias. I’m going to look at the latter now, and try to find out what is to be gained when we conceive a space in a comic as a heterotopia.

A sword breaks, a demon laughs... but where are we? On p. 23 of Lone Wolf and Cub #2, that's the only thing we know for sure.

A sword breaks, a demon laughs… but where are we? On p. 23 of Lone Wolf and Cub #2, that’s the only thing we know for sure.

The sequence I have selected for this purpose is from an episode of the manga classic 子連れ狼 / Kozure Ōkami (Lone Wolf and Cub) by Kazuo Koike and Gōseki Kojima, titled “Pitiful Osue” in the US edition (issue #2 in the First Comics series from 1987). On the first 19 (of 56) pages, we only see the infant Ogami Daigorō, the “cub”, but no trace of his father Ogami Ittō, the “lone wolf”. Then suddenly, starting with p. 20, the page background turns black for five pages. A caption text tells us we’re “elsewhere” now, and we witness Ogami (Ittō) fighting against animal-headed demons amidst swirling fumes. Is this new setting a heterotopia?

The basic definition, a counter-site which represents and inverts real sites, might be applicable: in this hell (Ogami himself uses this term later), the twisting, naked bodies are representations of the people on earth. Ogami seems unchanged at first, but then his sword breaks in the fight – something which probably never happens to him in “real” life – and he doesn’t overcome his enemies. Some of Foucault’s six principles also hold true for this hellish place:

  1. It is a place for the deviant, not only in a mythological sense (the deviant sinners are condemned to hell), but also in the sense that this scene turns out to be a feverish nightmare of the ill (i.e. unhealthy, thus deviant) Ogami.
  2. It is a place that has changed its function in history. While in medieval Japan, in which the story is set, hell was imagined as a real place where you could end up after death, the 20th century manga readers would probably regard hell as unreal and recognise this scene as a dream sequence, even before it is revealed as such on p. 25.
  3. Three places are juxtaposed here: the place where the dead wind in agony, the place where Ogami fights the demons, and the shrine (which turns into a real place in which Ogami sleeps). These places are both separated and connected by the mists of hell. On another level, they exist all in one “real” place: the shrine where Ogami dreams of them, or his imagination.
  4. It is quite an ephemeral place, as it exists only for as long as Ogami is dreaming. (On the other hand, for those who believe in it, hell is eternal.)
  5. No matter whether we regard this place as hell or as a dream, both have notoriously specific modes of entering: entrance to hell is usually reserved for the deceased, and a dream can be entered only by one single sleeper.
  6. As a dream, this place is an illusion. At the same time, as hell, the place of eternal torment, isn’t it more real than the fleeting earthly life? Ogami himself seems unsure about how his nightmare is connected to reality: “Is it a sign that my fever has passed — or that death is near?”, he wonders on p. 26. (The relation between the two spaces gets more complicated on pp. 42-43, when they briefly merge, but that’s another sequence…)

So what do we make of this dream/hell now that we’ve identified it as a heterotopia? Above all other characteristics, heterotopias are radically different from real places, and this “otherness” might be the key to understanding the role of the dream sequence in the story: it marks a harsh change of perspective from Daigorō to his father, who are for once far apart from each other in the beginning of this episode. By shifting from the real world to the heterotopian underworld, the authors emphasise that father and son are “worlds apart”. In the course of the episode, they will have to find each other again, so that the order at the basis of Kozure Ōkami – the companionship of “wolf” and “cub” – is restored.

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2 Comments on “Michel Foucault’s heterotopia – in comics?”

  1. […] site specificity, impermanence, accumulation, discursivity, and hybridisation. As with Foucault’s heterotopian principles, these strategies are not necessary characteristics – the artists discussed by Owens employ […]


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