On Universities and Heterotopias

Winner of Writing Prize
Article by Sanjana Bhatnagar, Pitzer ‘23
Artwork by Tarini Gandhi, Pomona ‘21


    Staring into a screen for hours on end during the COVID-19 pandemic, I’ve begun to dissociate. Some days, it feels as though everyone is just a square on the screen, thoughts on a forum post, or an empathetic expression in a group chat. Flattened by this two-dimensional existence, I ache for the consistent sense of expansiveness that rushed through me when I was at college. For most students, this past year has been immensely emotionally taxing, and the “college experience” has become a secondary concern. With our upcoming return to campus this fall, I cannot help but reflect on how the college experience has manifested during the pandemic. On the surface, a lot feels similar on Zoom to how the university functioned on-campus. However, comparing the virtual experience to the physical experience of college using Michel Foucault’s concept of the heterotopia reveals that there is one fundamental thing universities have failed to provide in their shift onto Zoom. Although universities have reconstructed almost every principle of the heterotopia remotely, they have failed to translate the effects of the one principle which ties all of the other principles together: the liminal spaces—hallways, sidewalks, and gardens—that unify the disparate elements of the university. With the configuration of the university as a virtual institution, relationality has been lost to the seperation of sites. Everything is disconnected, and so it is no surprise that we, too, disassociate.

What is a Heterotopia?

    In his 1967 talk “Of Other Spaces,” Foucault contends that our present era will be determined by how we arrange our spaces. The arrangement of spaces occurs in sites, which are defined by “relations of proximity between points or elements,” as in the forms of “series, trees, or grids.”1 In “Of Other Spaces,” Foucault examines the potential of a unique type of site: defined by difference (hetero), and conceived of as enacted utopias, Foucault names these sites heterotopias. They are distinct, because the heterotopia’s relations of proximity are between the points or elements of every other site in society. If a normal site is a set of relations, then the heterotopia, whose set of relations is between sites themselves, is almost like a meta-site. Not only does a heterotopia relate to all other sites, but it also does so in a manner that inverts the sets of relations contained within those sites. Heterotopias both produce an image of all spaces within a society and contest that image. They are like a blueprint site, creating an understanding of all other sites through depiction, but reconstituting the image of those sites through their potential to meet the urgency of the present era’s problems. In capacity, they could almost be utopias, except that heterotopias exist in the world of reality.

    To clarify the way in which a space can both represent and contest, Foucault calls upon the image of the space within mirrors. The subject seen in a mirror is unreal, as it exists in an imaginary, “placeless place” beyond the mirror, but it is also real because the mirror itself is real and provides an inverted image of the very real subject before it. As with the subject in the mirror, who is able to see an image of themself and their relation to space in their inverted reflection, the heterotopia provides a means through which society can conceive of itself and its relation to space through an image that contests itself and its relations.

The University as a Heterotopia

    There are many moments in modern and contemporary history when universities have served as heterotopic sites that have effectively represented and inverted society at large. One such instance is the protests of May 1968 in France, which were heavily influenced by the works of Foucault himself.2 What started as visions of reform by students at the Paris Nanterre University and the Sorbonne quickly disrupted all of France and turned into a movement that included not just students, but workers across society. Since so many of the workers who were protesting were integral to the daily functioning of France, the French economy was literally brought to a standstill.3 The goals of May 68 expanded from overturning university structures to reforming a wide array of French social and cultural systems. As universities have often been sites that spur political action, calling into question the norms of the societies they exist within, it seems fitting to look to the concept of the heterotopia as a means of understanding how the space of the university functions. It is precisely the constant interrogation of society as it was and is arranged, in the mission of imagining society as it could be, that makes the university such an enriching site to participate in.

    To get at the heart of the university—the critical something that makes the institution a heterotopia—I reviewed the six principles Foucault uses to coordinate the heterotopia:

        1) They exist for those who are either in a state of crisis or deviance.

        2) They are created to serve a specific function and that function evolves with time.

        3) They bring together several, contradicting spaces.

        4) They are associated with slices in time.

        5) They are only penetrable to those who perform certain rituals to enter.

        6) They expose or oppose all other spaces in society.

    Considering each of these principles as they apply to the university structure of the Claremont Colleges, I found that all but the third principle have held true on Zoom.

    Before further investigating these principles, it is important to note that the Claremont Colleges as they exist now are not ideal heterotopias. In multiple systemic ways, they are deeply flawed. As such, I want to emphasize that my argument is not that the institutions of universities or the institutions of the Claremont Colleges themselves are an inversion of social norms, because on the institutional level, they still uphold society in its most absurd of power structures. Rather, my argument is that they hold the potential to provide a framework for students to recognize and shift existing social norms. Ultimately, this means that universities are heterotopic only to the extent to which students manifest this potential.

    The Claremont Colleges are flawed, but heterotopias can exist within such circumstances. This is in fact something that is considered in the sixth principle: the space of the heterotopia must relate to all other spaces in society. Foucault proposes two modes through which spaces can achieve the sixth principle. One way is through the creation of “a heterotopia of illusion” which relates to all other spaces in society by exposing them. This mode speaks to how a heterotopia can exist, even through the negative norms of society, by creating “a space of illusion that exposes every real space, all the sites inside of which human life is partitioned, as still more illusory.”4 The Claremont Colleges function as a heterotopia of illusion in the moments when they sustain and reproduce the norms of the rest of society, to such an extreme extent that the illusion of those norms are made apparent. For instance, one needs to look no further than the use of the various 5C endowments to see that the institutions do not invert, but rather uphold some of the worst norms of society. From endowment investments in fossil fuels to the lack of support for workers during the pandemic, it is hard not to question the very foundation of our colleges. However, the aforementioned uses of endowments (or lack thereof) were met with considerable advocacy which sought to reveal not only the problems with how the 5Cs use their money, but also a more general concern about the ends towards which money is used in society.

    The second way spaces can achieve the sixth principle is through the creation of “a heterotopia of compensation,” which relates to all other spaces in society by opposing them. They compensate for the flaws of societal relations through creating “another real space, as perfect, as meticulous, as well arranged as ours is messy, ill constructed, and jumbled.”5 The most important feature of the university is the classroom, as the function of college is to provide education, and, for the most part, classrooms facilitate this construction of a well-arranged world. As students learn ideals and interpretations of society and the world from professors, who are acquainted with all of the various aspects of relationality within their fields, students can conceive of how to manifest a society on campus that pushes for the ideals taught in the classroom. The intensity and depth of the classroom experience has the potential to trickle into how campus life arranges itself, as students use it to shape the world around them. This could be in a way that is explicit, such as a sociology lesson leading students to an innovative approach to discussing how identity configures itself on campus. Or, it could be less explicit, such as a math class in fractals inspiring a student to take their friends on hikes to find fractals in trees and appreciate the wonders of the natural world.

    The second principle of the heterotopia is that each heterotopia has a “precise and determined” function that adapts in relation to the time in which it exists.6 Higher education has evolved over time to serve different functions, and the Claremont Colleges are a prime example of this in that each college was founded around a core mission suited to the needs of the time. For example, Claremont McKenna was founded in 1946, only a year after World War II had ended, with the intent of preparing students (many of whom were GIs) to be “future leaders of private and public enterprise” through an emphasis on practical action.7 Harvey Mudd was founded in 1955, the same year that the space race began, and it first opened for classes in 1957, just a month before Sputnik I was launched, and so the mission of the school echoed the needs of the times and set out to offer “a rigorous scientific and technological education.”8 Pitzer defined its mission and core values in accordance with its founding decade of the 1960s which saw the Civil Rights Movement, the Anti-Vietnam War Movement, and the start of the modern environmental movement. Each of the 5Cs have renewed and redefined their missions to find new relevance and function in all subsequent eras.

    Another key aspect of the experience of the university is living in community with peers. The fourth principle of the heterotopia is that “heterotopias are most often linked to slices in time.”9 College is a slice of time because it often delineates the interim time between childhood and adulthood. This transitory nature of college makes it a time of radical exploration in which one is able to investigate the features of adult life with the low-stake consequences of childhood. The nature of this time can be further contextualized by the first principle, which is that heterotopias exist for those in a state of crisis or deviance. The university is a crisis heterotopia, defined by Foucault as “privileged or sacred or forbidden places, reserved for individuals who are, in relation to society and to the human environment in which they live, in a state of crisis.”10 For many, college is the first instance of leaving home and learning how to be in the world. It is culturally deemed a place of finding oneself and one’s path, and so the space of the university could certainly be seen as reserved for individuals figuring out the crisis of individual identity.

    The community is not only one of individuals experiencing a shared period in time, but it is also artificially organized by the admissions process. Although college admissions are problematic in countless ways, this process is a feature that facilitates the fifth principle of the heterotopia, which is that heterotopias require a “system of opening and closing that both isolates them and makes them penetrable... To get in one must have a certain permission and make certain gestures”11. One of the considerations in admitting students into the space is evaluating how they will relate to the community at large. Both the shared sense of time and the community of college are critical in rendering it a heterotopic site.

    While all of these principles still apply in translation to Zoom, Foucault’s third principle of the heterotopia—the heterotopia’s ability to connect its various, incompatible sites—is not found on the Zoom rendition of the Claremont Colleges. Although Foucault does not address the potential for heterotopias, or spaces more generally, to exist through non-physical sites, he does consider the existence of non-physical sites in realms such as technical work. Since the potential exists for sites to exist virtually, there is the potential that the university could function as a heterotopic site when moved away from its physical space and configured into a non-physical site. However, the one principle that the heterotopia on Zoom lacks is not only an aspect that is currently solely achievable in a physical site, but it is also the principle that is necessary in making every other principle truly heterotopic. A site is not a heterotopia if it does not contain liminal spaces that connect its contradicting, multiplicitious points and elements.

The Third Principle

    The university on Zoom has failed to achieve the heterotopic potential of universities in person because it does not unify the sites that achieve the various principles of the heterotopia. The third principle of the heterotopia is that “the heterotopia is capable of juxtaposing in a single real place several spaces, several sites that are in themselves incompatible.”12 Insofar as heterotopias are defined by their capacity to simultaneously represent and contest every other site of the culture they exist within, it is in fact impossible that they can exist without creating a unified site out of multiple dissonant and incompatible sites. Universities, especially liberal arts colleges, contain a web of interconnected but juxtaposed features. There is an array of classes in various fields that sometimes contradict each other in outlook, but all come together on one campus. Beyond just classrooms, the university contains the heterogenous sites where students eat, learn, sleep, organize, hook up, cry, dance and engage in other features of everyday life. On the college campus, all of the incompatible sites of our lives come together into one space. Further, the Claremont Colleges demonstrate a unique combination of incompatible sites, as the consortium is formed by five very different schools. The values and student bodies of each of the schools are different, even somewhat disparate at times, but the very composition of the spaces sufficiently demonstrates the union of contradictory sites—one needs to look no further than the walk amongst campuses, from the old world glamour of Pomona, through the corporate Claremont McKenna, around the lush gardens of Scripps, to the native-plant desert ecosystem of Pitzer, up and around the open lawns surrounding the brutalism of Harvey Mudd. What ties all of these dissonant features together and creates a singular site out of multiplicity is nothing more than the pathways and public spaces that connect them. On our computers, there are no pathways to connect the various components of the university. After a class, no one lingers. As Zoom fatigue takes over, students simply move on to the next thing. Ideas end on the page of the essay, the problem set, the lab, or the red “leave meeting” button. The home, as a space, is distinct from the classroom, which is on a particular Zoom link, which is distinct from other classrooms, on other Zoom links, which are distinct from social settings on various sites of social media or private spaces of communal interaction. Zoom fails in providing the string that weaves it all together into a field of relationality—into a heterotopia.

    It is not enough for thoughts to be invoked in the classroom; they must be discussed, integrated, and pondered with peers of different studies and beliefs. They must bleed into our everyday lives. They must not remain isolated in the classroom, but rather diffuse into the spaces of society at large. This is achieved in the undesignated time of commute, as the ideas are able to fester in a student’s mind, either through conversation with the classmates they walk out with or in their own mind as they move between destinations. The commute allows for thoughts to move with the student while they relate with the material world. In moving through different spaces, students may consider the theory they were grappling with in class as it relates to the world that they are moving through. Recall the examples of how theories presented in sociology or math classrooms might find their way into campus life. If a student leaves the sociology classroom and commutes to the place where their affinity group meets, or perhaps they even just pass the place where their group meets, then the odds that the theories of the sociology classroom move with the student into that space of the affinity group is increased. Or after the math class, if a student looks at the nature they pass in their commute as more than just a feature of their environment, but with fractals in mind, then the materiality or even the spirit of the theory is confronted, and its importance outside of the classroom escalates. In these liminal spaces, thought moves from the abstract spaces of classrooms and sublimates into the spaces where students manifest.

    Moving college to Zoom does not change the slice of time that the majority of college students exist within, as they are still of the interim age between childhood and adulthood. But after shifting off campus, many students moved back home with their families, returning to a similar environment as their childhoods. Others moved into their own apartments, mimicking a self-sufficient adult environment. Neither group of students has fully created the situations of childhood and adulthood, as they are still defined by the experience of being within the interim of the university. For students living with friends, the community aspect of the university still remains to an extent, but most of these students still feel the tangible lack of diversity and novelty presented by the whole college community, as students are limited to those they already know. The shared slice of time and state of crisis, with the uniquely composed community, becomes limited to a very small set. It is uniquely in the liminal space of the commute that defined social sets are abolished, as these spaces are defined by movement, such that no individual or group can permanently occupy them. Conversations after class create new connections, as those who might share nothing in common can move into a social space together while continuing those conversations. Or while commuting and passing by students gathering, perhaps for a club, one might be called to join them when they otherwise would not have been. Leaving a gathering late at night, one might spot someone they’re familiar with and decide to walk back to the dorms with them. Strangers, who would never have crossed paths, slowly turn into friends through the commute, and at some point, what started as a mere smile while passing by shifts into something else completely. The potential that is unlocked by this seems menial, but in considering the disconnected communities of the outside world, the social potential of college is radical. People from completely different circumstances, values, and majors come together and learn from perspectives that challenge their own, gaining the potential to innovate in a way that those in the outside world, who limit themselves to interacting with those inside their fields of work, their geographical location, or some other commonality, cannot. The commute opens up the potential of social networks expanding the relations that society has limited itself to, and inverting the spaces of the outside world. The crisis of identity is confronted with the possibility of a multiplicitous, non-static subjectivity.

    The commute is a space in which people have the tendency to use their phones, attempting to make use of a time that is otherwise considered wasted. Although technology might provide an “efficient” alternative to an undesignated commute, it limits the potential that students can unlock from the university as a holistic entity with a complex set of relations. In considering how fundamental the third principle is in creating a heterotopia, it becomes remarkable to think that non-physical sites have not yet found an equivalent to physical liminal spaces. Every site on the computer or the phone is self-referential, which deprives them of a connectivity that could only come from undesignated, undirected movements between sites. As non-physical sites gain more and more prevalance in determining how society arranges itself, it seems important to consider what might be lost from moving everything into the virtual world and expanding our definition of space to include the flattened virtual worlds of our screens. Or perhaps this could even provide a model for an addition to the virtual site that would allow it to mimic the more complex connections amongst networks that exists in physical sites.


    A heterotopia is defined by difference and is conceived of as an enacted utopia. It is a placeless place. It feels almost intuitive that the defining aspect of the university is the placeless place of the connectors, the hallways, the sidewalks, the gardens: the commute. For the university, the subject in the unreal place of the mirror is the ideals and theory of the classroom. It is the classroom that reflects the reality of society through the opposed image of society’s ideals. The dorms, the social spaces, and the dining halls are all spaces that relate to this subject in the mirror. The capacity to reflect onto society the image of this inverted subject of ideals and its relation to spaces lies in using what literally connects the subject and the spaces around it to form an image of their whole as a relational entity. In connection is where relations are made evident, and the image in the mirror can bounce back into the real world. The blueprint emerges from this connectivity as relations are made evident through the various heterotopic principles, converging and reassociating in the commute to form innovative and new possibilities of relations.

    Embracing the potential of the journey to, from, and between places could perhaps unflatten our persistent screen fatigue and invigorate the potential that ideas have to be manifested into the world. On Zoom, the university is a hollow shell of what it used to be. Without the intricate network of connections and relations that physicality provides, the university is not a heterotopia, and ultimately that is why there are no stand-ins for the experience. Staring into a screen just isn’t enough.


1.  Foucault, Michel, and Jay Miskowiec. "Of Other Spaces." Diacritics 16, no. 1 (1986): 23
2.  Lopes, António. “The University as Power or Counter-Power? May 1968 and the Emergence of a New Learning Subject .” European Journal for Research on the Education and Learning of Adults 5, no. 2 (2014): 31. https://doi.org/10.3384/rela.2000-7426.201452.
3.  Beardsley, Eleanor. “In France, The Protests Of May 1968 Reverberate Today - And Still Divide The French.” NPR. NPR, May 29, 2018. https://www.npr.org/sections/parallels/2018/05/29/613671633/in-france-the-protests-of-may-1968-reverberate-today-and-still-divide-the-french.
4.  Foucault, Michel, and Jay Miskowiec. "Of Other Spaces." Diacritics 16, no. 1 (1986): 27
5.  Ibid.
6.  Ibid, 25.
7.  “History of the College.” cmc.edu. Accessed April 24, 2021. https://www.cmc.edu/about/history-of-the-college. 
8.  “History of Harvey Mudd College.” hmc.edu. Accessed April 24, 2021. https://www.hmc.edu/about-hmc/history.
9.  Foucault, Michel, and Jay Miskowiec. "Of Other Spaces." Diacritics 16, no. 1 (1986): 26
10.  Ibid, 24.
11.  Ibid, 26.
12.  Ibid, 25.