What is a heterotopia? We explain it through the film “The Beach” and the words of Foucault


We live in space; it is not neutral, it has various nuances and contours. Sometimes what is around us does not suit us, we feel alienated from it, and so our bodies begin to imagine and dream. Sometimes these dreams meet, and when they do, they give rise to new places in space, to utopias that come true, counter-spaces in the world in which to find refuge, these are the heterotopias.

What does the film The Beach tell us about its spatial construction?

The film The Beach, starring a young Leonardo Di Caprio, tells in short (spoiler alert) about Richard (L. Di Caprio), a young American tourist who goes on a trip to Thailand, hoping to find a place that maintains its “wild” and uncontaminated state. When he lands in Bangkok he immediately realises that this is not the case, and as he himself defines it, it is just a place to “suck dollars”. That same night in the hotel he meets his roommate Daffy, a very eccentric guy who tells him that there is an island, a magical place outside the world. Richard doesn’t believe him, the guy is too crazy, but the next morning he finds Daffy has committed suicide and has left him a map of how to get to the island. Richard is intrigued by the whole story and decides to set off in search of this “magical” place together with two other young people of French origin, Françoise and Étienne. After various adventures, they managed to reach their destination. The island is a veritable paradise lost to the world, inhabited by a self-sufficient community of travellers who have decided to settle there to find refuge through estrangement from the world. At first things are going really well, the community is immersed in a unique serenity, and everyone is happy. Difficulties arise when a couple of events, the death of one and disability for another resident of the community caused by a shark attack during a fishing trip, and the arrival of a new group of tourists, destabilise the harmony and the very existence of the dream of living in paradise. The epilogue of the story comes in a final confrontation between the community itself and the ‘dark’ side of the island, a small settlement of farmers who grow grass. The confrontation between the two different communities that inhabit that magical place results in terror. There is a reversal of the place, from a place of paradise to a place of fear, crumbling and putting an end to the dream.
Our brief summary is used to make some considerations on our main theme, namely the spatial construction in the narrative plot. The place that is at the centre of the story is the island, which represents a refuge from society, an estrangement from it and the construction of a new kind of community, which is, however, reserved for only a few. The island is the antithesis to the outside world and its sufferings; it is a refuge from pain. The realisation of this utopian project of eternal happiness without torment is successful, until the first death of an inhabitant of the community. The death serves as a message, a warning that suffering will also arrive there in that remote paradise, putting an end to the dream of continuous happiness, and awakening them from the illusion. At the end of the story, the island turns from a paradise into a place of terror. The inhabitants founded the community for various reasons (to escape from the world, to look for a meaning, a reason, a refuge, peace) the basic reason that binds everything together is the suffering that the inhabitants felt being in the world. The island provides them with a refuge, until it turns into the greatest suffering: death, and not just any death, but a violent death, the worst possible evil, as Thomas Hobbes teaches us.
What can we say about the construction of this space and its transformation from paradise to nightmare? What is the relationship between the island and the rest of the world? Let us try to make sense of it through Foucault.

The Beach and Foucault: the heterotopic construction in five points

The island in the film is a heterotopia, but what does this mean? And how is it created?
Man lives in space, but not all spaces are the same. Human beings have always imagined new worlds, new places, given them special meanings. Some of these special spaces have no time or place, they have never been realised, limited in our minds, these are the so-called utopian projects that have never blossomed.
Then there are other spaces, and Foucault speaks to us precisely of these, of realised utopias identifiable on paper and in time, the antithesis of the surrounding space. One does not live in a neutral, white space, but lives, dies and lives in a square, varied space that is given meaning, Foucault calls these counter-spaces: heterotopias. In short, the French philosopher summarises the heterotopic construction in five basic principles: the first two deal with the relationship between society and time, as through a socio-anthropological analysis he explains how each human group has always constructed its own heterotopias and that each society can perfectly reabsorb and make disappear any counter-space it creates. The third fundamental is the juxtaposition in a real place of several spaces that would normally be incompatible. In the fourth principle he explains how heterotopias have a closing/opening system that isolates them from the surrounding space. You cannot enter at will, but just like in the film, you enter through rituals. This brings us to what is most essential about heterotopias. They are the contestation of all other spaces and can be manifested in two ways: by creating an illusion that denounces all the rest of reality as an illusion, or as in the case of “The Beach”, by actually creating another real and perfect space, ordered and functioning, when ours is disordered, badly organised and chaotic.
But is it really enough to just create another space and re-organise it? In the next paragraph we will examine a historical parallel.

The ‘People’s Temple’ and ‘The Beach’: a parallelism of the 1970s ended in tragedy

Leaving the world and its injustices, trying to create a new community, with its own space in which harmony, equality among members and the breaking down of racial barriers reign within, for the successful completion of a heterotopic construction aimed at finding happiness, as happens in the film, this project was not only implemented through Hollywood fiction. During the late 1950s in the American state of Indiana, preacher James Warren Jones tried to found a community called the ‘People’s Temple’. Jones’ utopian project aimed, through the social alienation of the time, to establish a new community and create social harmony. The movement was based on Christian and communist teachings with a strong indoctrination to Stalinism. At an early stage, the doctrine received much support, and there was a significant increase in membership, which led, along with some scandals, to the need to migrate in search of new territory. With the right political connections and support, the founding of the community town of Jonestown in the South American state of Guyana took place in the 1970s. At first the community prospered and everyone seemed happy, living in harmony. In November ’78 the situation degenerated due to the mismanagement of some malcontents. Everything results in absolute madness, when the preacher Jones himself gives the order to create a mass suicide, in which he also loses his life, leading to the death of almost a thousand people.
The parallels between the film “The Beach” and “The People’s Temple” are self-evident: both heterotopias and spaces were created to escape and find refuge from the suffering and injustice that populate the spaces of the world. Both in real life and in the film, these places at first, seem to be successful, the inhabitants live in harmony and are happy, the place becomes a refuge from the evils of the world. However, conditions change, things evolve and mutate, nothing is perpetual, the two heterotopias collapse and become the nightmare from which they provided shelter. Suffering turns into terror and danger (in the film), and unfortunately into death in the case of the ‘people’s temple’, putting an end to what were the utopian dreams of the two communities.

The creation of space is within us: the body as the creation of utopian place

Trying to make sense of these parallels and coming to an end, we are always helped by the brilliant thinking of Foucault, who thinks that the construction of spaces, utopian dreams and their success through heterotopias, are realised by us and are, like everything else, relative to the individual. Foucault tells us that it is my body that is linked elsewhere, to all the elsewhere in the world, and it is elsewhere than the way itself. It is with respect to it (the body) that there is a top and a bottom, a right and a left, a front and a back, near and far. The body is the zero point of the world where ways and spaces cross, the body is nowhere: it is at the centre of the world this small utopian nucleus from which I dream, speak, proceed, imagine, perceive things in their place and also deny them through the infinite power of the utopias I imagine. Foucault concludes by saying that our body is like the City of the Sun, it has no place, but it is from it that all possible places, real and utopian, are born and radiate. Everything is already inside us.

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