Is the canal a heterotopia and is the label helpful?

Since reading JM Ramírez-Suassi: Fordlândia Interview – Heterotopia, I’ve been mulling over the concept of heterotopias and doing some further research. Academic, Peter Johnson’s website is an excellent resource, containing his own essays, critical reviews and signposts to Michel Foucault’s original writings and explanations of heterotopias.

My draft dissertation examines how meaning is formed in the context of space and the social importance of meaning. It uses various narratives of the canal to illustrate a contested space and how dominant narratives shape the understanding of it. However, I’m still wrestling a little with the structure of the essay. It is centred around a conceptual thesis relating to ‘meaning’, with the canal positioned to illustrate; the concept before the concrete perhaps. My CS tutor observed that it would be better centred around the canal and its specifics, with the conceptual trailing . As I’ve returned to my BoW and the materiality of the canal’s space, this suggestion feels more important than it did when my head was in books and theory. It would breath more life into the writing. It could be that the ideas in Foucault’s heterotopia help me bridge the gap between the concept of meaning and the materiality of space; laying the ground for a restructuring of the dissertation. It may also help articulate my feelings about my BoW and its relation to the dissertation.

From my reading of Foucault’s Of other Spaces and Peter Johnson’s materials, I consider heterotopia and the canal. Underlines denote Foucault’s characteristics of heterotopias:

Johnson observes that Foucault doesn’t closely define heterotopia and so it is open to interpretation (and misinterpretation). I’m only concerned with how the ideas might apply to the Leeds & Liverpool canal that is the basis of my photography body of work. That is, heterotopia as an ‘enacted utopia in which the real sites, … are simultaneously represented, contested, and inverted’ (Foucault). I understand this as discrete sites brought together in the place of heterotopia, which sits outside of society but reflects that society. To me, the canal brings together sites along its route, yet is obscured from society by its embankments and screening trees, with limited entry and exit points. Heterotopia has diverse forms; the example of a train as an ‘extraordinary bundle of [spacial] relations’ as something that one goes through, goes from one place to another, and also goes by. It is the strangeness of the spatial relations along the canal that draws me to it – its watery materiality carries us along its flow and moves us between sites. It is a deindustrialised highway of another time but has mutated and is represented as place of leisure where ‘life is better by the water’ and celebrities go barging. The materiality of the Leeds & Liverpool canal ‘juxtaposes in a single real place several spaces, several sites that are in themselves incompatible‘ (Foucault). Making-do in the aftermath of deindustrialisation, gentrification, second homes on boats, only homes due to unaffordability of conventional housing, a place of leisure, a place of work, a place of history, a place of heritage. And so on. At over 200 years old, the canal ‘encapsulate[s] temporal discontinuity [and] accumulation.’ Foucault outlines further characteristics that I’m unsure apply to the canal:a) ‘presuppose an ambivalent system of rituals related to opening/closing and entry/exit’ – arguably this applies to boaters and the locks, but I’m not so sure about general use of the canal. b) ‘function in relation to the remaining space, for example, as illusion or compensation’ – a place of leisure?

I wouldn’t presume to state the canal is a heterotopia, but the ideas seems to help unpick its meaning and interest as a place. I’m unsure that I would want to use the term in the context of my BoW as it wouldn’t be widely understood and therefore, its main purpose would be to add the weight of an academic reference. However, some of the thinking expressed could be useful in explaining the place of the canal.