No Place as Someplace: Foucault’s Heterotopias in NEP Russia

Nora Ryan, University of California, Los Angeles

In the critical assessment of utopias, much has been made of their status as unreal space (“no place”), meaning that attempts to enact utopias have often been referred to simply as “utopian projects.” However, a more precise term for such attempts has been suggested by Michel Foucault in an often-overlooked essay entitled “Of Other Spaces” (1967), which introduces the term heterotopia to designate an enacted utopia. Like utopias, heterotopias are based on the desire to create a perfectly ordered society within a perfectly ordered space, but while a utopia seeks to transform all of society and is by nature unattainable, a heterotopia remains limited to a small space and thus can exist in reality. In fact many may exist in a given society. Each heterotopia may contradict that society by providing an alternate model, or uphold it by providing a place where its particular dreams of perfect order can be enacted. In either case it stands in opposition to that society because its purpose “is to create a space that is other, another real space, as perfect, as meticulous, as well arranged as ours is messy, ill constructed, and jumbled.” Russia in the twenties was particularly well-suited to the creation of heterotopias as the profound uncertainty and ambiguity inherent in NEP society gave rise to a desire to provide order and fix meaning. This paper will present two cases in which Foucault’s concept can shed new light on cultural productions of the twenties.

The first case is communal housing complexes designed and constructed in the twenties. While many architectural plans of the twenties were entirely utopian in nature, others were designed for immediate construction; of these a few were actually built, including several communal housing complexes. Many of these plans were based on the assumption of avant-garde architects that the structure of space conditions social relations, meaning that by ordering space one could order life. The planned housing was meant to foster a perfectly organized communal life that would stand in sharp contrast to the chaos of the society at large. Foucault’s concept highlights the way in which these designs both uphold and implicitly critique contemporary society.

The second case is several plays of the twenties (Nikolai Erdman’s Mandat, Mikhail Bulgakov’s Dni Turbinykh and Isaak Babel’s Mariia) that depict families trying to maintain the old social order within the confines of their apartments. They create spaces in which the hierarchical ordering of social relations is preserved in spite of its breakdown in Russia as a whole. By classifying these spaces as heterotopias we can see their similarity to other utopian impulses of the time, in spite of the fact that rather than moving toward a perfected future they enact a return to an idealized past.