Heterotopias and changing the University of Alabama

Recently, I have found myself asking the same question repeatedly: what are we doing? I mean this question in the sense that as a human community (and even an interspecies community) our actions are pulled between contrasting poles of irreconcilable cruelty and kindness. These polar opposites seem to drive our actions and reactions, oftentimes against our will. Who is it that seeks cruelty for themselves?

Independently it seems that as actants that can pull at others, choosing to inflict cruelty or kindness, our own personal morals should drive us toward kindness. But often, that is not the case. Marginalized groups remain just as outside as ever, still subject to discourses and practices of domination even if those practices themselves have changed (e.g. the evolution from chattel slavery, to convict leasing, to institutional domination represents a part of the story of racial hierarchization in the United States). Moving out of this trap is not something that is independently achieved, however we each can have some small space in which negative outside influences can leave us be, if only for a moment.

I want to ground this in reality, and so I will pull the theoretical framework described so far into the University of Alabama.

The University itself has a dominant cultural influence. White, affluent, conservative, religious. Each of these traits (as opposed to structures) on their own is not enough to result in domination, nor is it a specific indictment of an individual. This cultural background (milieu) produces conditions where certain manifestations become more likely. A particularly negative example of this is a student group called Students for America First. This group posts signs around campus calling for the abolishment of Women’s Studies and African American Studies (drawing off of Jordan Peterson’s boorish conceptualization of corrupted social sciences), harasses female and queer students through social media (and in the case of several of its members, in person), and has been systematically attacking Muslims and immigrants through various poster campaigns. In essence, they are the manifestation of every stereotype of the alt-right, down to poorly constructed arguments about the superiority of western culture, and extreme fear about mixture. This group is the latest in a series, including Young Americans for Freedom which has brought in hateful ‘thinkers’ like Colonel Allen West, Milo Yannapolis, and Rick Santorum. But before dismissing this as a litany of complaints by a ‘snowflake’, consider that it underscores my next theoretical point.

Values spread or are weaponized via heterotopias. What do I mean by this?

Foucault conceptualizes heterotopias as a reflection of real society, like a mirror, except dominant discourses and practices are reversed or inverted. Let’s do a thought experiment to illustrate. Imagine for a moment that you are standing in front of a mirror. Your body and the mirror are both embedded within a particular social reality complete with specific cultural facts and practices. These facts and practices are influenced by the poles of cruelty and kindness described earlier. The mirror, however, reflects a reality reversed in some way. Along a particular axis (say, sexual rights) the mirror can reflect a different social reality. Peering into the mirror is akin to Harry Potter seeing himself surrounded by his dead family, it is a different – possibly more desirable – space for the subject (it is important to make a distinction between more desirable for a particular subject, and more desirable for society as a whole). The desirability itself is dependent on those subjects who peer into the mirror, it shows their hearts’ desires.

These spaces are enacted into the physical world. We can imagine them as internalized aesthetic spaces that are externalized within a particular sphere by the actant(s)/subject(s)/people that imagine a different world. More practically, this means that we can create spaces that resist the traditional logics of domination and subordination within society. These spaces could take form in book groups, poetry circles, athletic teams, classrooms, homes, clubs, etc. That is, each of these spaces can reflect values which contrast with general society itself, a space where those who feel (or are) subordinated in some way can step outside those logics of domination. It is a step into the mirror, or into the wardrobe, an entrance into an alternative world that somehow seems better than the one in which we exist.

Heterotopias (alternative worlds) still exist within the world as it is. These heterotopias can have interesting interactive effects based on their embeddedness. Imagine for a moment that a city has five schools, all of them with varying degrees of ‘success’ in graduating students. The school board wants all the schools to be successful at graduating students. It seems that there could be several options toward doing this. One is to issue rules from the superior body (the school board) to the inferior bodies (the schools). Another is to listen to successful schools, and enact the same policies that made them successful in other schools. We could also imagine a scenario in which schools are allowed to determine on their own how to improve outcomes, and adopt policies from other schools which seem particularly well-suited to their students.

These models illustrate some different methods for diffusion (spread) of norms (values) and/or practices. We have the institutional model (top down), the democratic/meritocratic model (bottom up to top down), and the heterotopic model (from one center/site to another, possibly from bottom to top, e.g. if the schools tell the suprastructure what they need in order to be successful).

Heterotopias can act as refuges for those that are inside them, but social systems in many ways act like markets. That is, preferences drive individuals toward particular practices and norms/values that look appealing. This is particularly important when thinking about social change. There are many ways to enact social change, and each has their own merits and shortcomings. One alternative is the heterotopic model.

The heterotopic model would imagine that individuals create their own ‘heterotopias’ or spaces free of outside logics of dominations. These spaces become more visible as people also step into them. Preference activates latent values, changes values, or creates new values within the general population outside the heterotopia, or who choose to step into the heterotopia or create something akin to it. This means that social change can spread from sites where this change has already been enacted, in some cases evading institutional or democratic coercive methods (where people are compelled by a suprastructure or institution like government or the University of Alabama to adopt certain positions).

I believe that this point is important for several reasons. Let’s return to Students for America First. This group has enacted its own heterotopia, and seems to have activated or embodied latent preferences of domination that are common at the University of Alabama. It is notable for its particular extremeness. The history of the University of Alabama is such that any positive social change has been brought about through force. The University resists all efforts at improvement as an institution, and indications are that it will continue to resist the enactment of positive changes from the top down. One positive change would be a proactive response to groups like Students for America First, however discrimination is largely dealt with based on the volume of the oppressed and their allies rather than an institutional ethical code. Quite bleak. This bleakness has led me to ask myself ‘how can we enact change without institutional support?’ The heterotopic model is what I have arrived at, and is inspired by intersectional theory (pioneered by black women and other women of color who were excluded from the feminist movement), Foucault’s thoughts on heterotopias (which are interesting, but I find much to disagree with), Pierre Bourdieu’s conceptualization of fields, and my interaction with student groups on campus. It is not a unique hypothesis, but I hope that it is one which brings some hope, and helps create concrete plans of action.

Students for America First teaches a valuable lesson. Student groups on campus can inculcate values which radiate out and alter the social context in which they are embedded. Heterotopias themselves become means of enacting or creating certain utopian or dystopian realities by the spread of new values and practices. Creating change can be as simple as creating a space in which you and people like you are comfortable and safe. Returning to my initial point, if all of us claim that we incline toward kindness rather than cruelty as individuals, heterotopias which are built on inculcating kindness should have stronger powers of projection onto neutral individuals than those that don’t.

Admittedly, I do not claim that this is a prescription to alter the University of Alabama, or any place over night. The challenges of confronting dominant discourses and practices are great, and the social conditions in which heterotopias are embedded drastically alter their power to change the world around them. This is where mental health becomes a particularly salient issue. We can easily become disillusioned, depressed, jaded, etc. by the realities in which we find ourselves. These feelings are valid, but can prevent individual and collective thriving. The goal of changing society as a whole is a noble one, but creating spaces where the marginalized or oppressed can exist free of marginalization and oppression if only for a moment is just as noble, and more practicable. It also has the effect of projecting new values out into the field which it is embedded in.

All of this is simply to say that sometimes it is best for our health to create our own spaces, and by creating spaces for ourselves we can inadvertently change the world around us.

A final point to remember is the market-like nature of society. At a certain point heterotopias cease to exist. As values are projected the boundaries of what constitutes the heterotopia blurs. Additionally, heterotopias are often appropriated by dominant groups. This appropriation can be good, bad, or both good and bad. Musical genres often represent an escape for the people that songs/art represents. But, the monetization and affinity toward sounds and stories blurs the boundaries of who the music was initially for. This can exclude the original groups, but also alter our relations to those people that originally created a particular genre. We must be ready to vary the structure and purpose of our heterotopias, assuming that there are some which we will lose. Those that we could lose – or even plan to lose – should be weaponized. That is, the logics and practices embedded within those heterotopias should be irreconcilable with logics of domination that oppress the people who originally created them. Doing so should result in broad social change as preference is driven toward the just. At the same time, we should also create spaces which are jealously guarded so that as groups we can be nurtured by our peers without the interference of those not peering into the mirror. Exclusionary principles in these cases can be for our own health and well-being, and should be communicated in such a way as to create compassion for people within those heterotopias. For example, imagine that I create a space for queer individuals to communicate to each other as queer individuals (perhaps a support group). It is perfectly reasonable and understandable to exclude those who aren’t queer, and it can be done in such a way that guards this space and affirms its importance. Imagine my non-queer ally friend inquires about going to this particular support group, my response could be: “I appreciate that you want to support me. This group is just for queer people to support each other, because many of us have certain sensitive things to discuss and need to do so with specifically queer individuals. But, I appreciate your support as an ally, and there are other places where you can interact with and support us such as […].”

Finally, it is important to note that different heterotopias can support each other, and that their membership and concerns can and should overlap. Our struggle is not just individual, we are not endowed with singular identities, and we are certainly related to people of other identities. Concern with issues that don’t directly affect *you* affects issues which *do* directly affect you, so be prepared to support others.

Thank you for reading my meandering thoughts!

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