“Michel Foucault & Hannah Arendt: Calls to Political Action” by Vera Vieira

Posted: June 15, 2012 in Vol. 1: Spring Essays 2012

Through the analyses of power and space, Michael Foucault in “Of Other Spaces” gives many hints and signs about the relevance and the implications of “space” in the lives of people.  In our contemporary society, cities and urban spaces are perhaps where such analyses could be utilized to better understand and illustrate economic and social phenomena that influence the level of civic engagement and political participation by citizens.  However, one must not forget that there are many types of different inhabited spaces that are not urban—and such places would be equally important in enhancing our understanding of how space in relation to historic time contributes to the overall level of civic engagement.

In his written work, Foucault utilizes a conversational style that engages and invites the reader to reflect about the individual and society, as well as their actions over history — including social struggles that led to major societal changes throughout time.  Foucault also focuses great part of his text on what he calls “heterotopias,” which in a sense are representational of any “place” in the world, with its unique characteristics, set of principles, and cultural beliefs.  This is how Foucault describes “heterotopias”:

“There are also, probably in every culture, in every civilization, real places – places that do exist and that are formed in the very founding of society – which are something like counter-sites, a kind of effectively enacted utopia in which the real sites, all the other real sites that can be found within the culture, are simultaneously represented, contested, and inverted. Places of this kind are outside of all places, even though it may be possible to indicate their location in reality. Because these places are absolutely different from all the sites that they reflect and speak about, I shall call them, by way of contrast to utopias, heterotopias” (Foucault).

It seems that one could interpret heterotopias in many different ways, but I see heterotopias perhaps as social movements that led to major changes like the Civil Rights Movement in the United States, and the 1989 Diretas Ja in Brazil that reinstituted democracy in the country.  Such socio-political movements were unique to their particular cultures — they also functioned and were influenced in very different ways to serve specific societal purposes within a particular and crucial time in history.

Just as Michael Foucault in his text “Of Other Spaces” invites individuals to engage in heterotopias, or perhaps to engage in a new form of thinking, being, and relating to social structures, Hannah Arendt in The Human Condition also challenges readers to take charge of their lives and of the societies they belong to.  Throughout her work Arendt offers critical insight into social and political matters.  She also uses storytelling as a mean to engage her audience.  According to Lisa Disch’s book, Hanna Arendt and the Limits of Philosophy, Arendt uses storytelling more specifically as a mean to deal with the “problem of political judgment” as she believes that storytelling allowed the human mind the needed degree of imagination to possibly consider and perceive issues through others’ perspectives and point of views (Disch).  Arendt believes this capability of seeing issues through others’ perceptions to be a very important trait to enhance people’s overall understanding and political participation within pluralistic societies.

In order to point out a few similarities between Foucault’s “Of Other Spaces” and Arendt’s The Human Condition, I will proceed to analyze and explore their works — first separately and secondly by comparison.  I will then conclude this essay by briefly discussing how the work of these two amazing political philosophers, with their languages and styles, can offer us insight into how we can better understand, engage, and participate in our current political process.

To expand and explore his ideas and reflections on heterotopia, Foucault applies six different principles to it.  In the first and second principles Foucault mentions that, “Its first principle is that there is probably not a single culture in the world that fails to constitute heterotopias. That is a constant of every human group. But the heterotopias obviously take quite varied forms, and perhaps no one absolutely universal form of heterotopias would be found … The second principle … is that a society, as its history unfolds, can make an existing heterotopia function in a very different fashion; for each heterotopia has a precise and determined function within a society…”

Through these principles Foucault implies that heterotopias are capable of developing and happening in any “space” or any part of the world, among any social group — however, they would do in very different ways — possibly to fulfill different societal and political needs of any particular time in history, depending on the existing needs and struggles to be overcome.

The third and fourth principles Foucault attributed to heterotopias are somewhat a little more difficult to comprehend — but through the interpretation of heterotopias as possible social movements, these principles become more understandable, and their concepts somewhat easier to grasp.  Foucault mentions under his third principle that “the heterotopia is capable of juxtaposing in a single real place several spaces, several sites that are in themselves incompatible” (Foucault).  I believe that through this statement Foucault means to imply that social and political movements can, at the ideological level, spread and influence different “spaces” and places that may be very culturally different and be experiencing diverse forms of social and political issues.  This process could happen between two different societies and perhaps even within a single one where different “spaces,” perhaps represented by different social classes, could be engaged in the same movement, even if from different perspectives and to achieve different ends.  Such process could also begin from a very small “space,” like a “garden,” and still impact a much greater “space,” or even the entire world.  In turn, Foucault’s fourth principle deals with time and traditions — he implies that some heterotopias may be transitional and of short duration while others may be “sort of perpetual,” and also that some will break with traditions while others will perpetuate them (Foucault).

Foucault’s fifth and sixth principles deal with accessibility and functionality respectively.  Under the fifth principle Foucault mentions, “heterotopias always presuppose a system of opening and closing that both isolates them and makes them penetrable” (Foucault).  Through this statement Foucault implies that some “spaces” are open and easily accessible to people, while others are more exclusive and selective, possibly as a way to distinguish the public and private realms.  Perhaps through this principle Foucault also attempts to imply that accessibility and openness may also depend on how moral issues and traditional ways can affect the capacity of collective action within societies.

Lastly, Foucault’s sixth principle states, “The last trait of heterotopias is that they have a function in relation to all the space that remains. This function unfolds between two extreme poles. Either their role is to create a space of illusion that exposes every real space, all the sites inside of which human life is partitioned, as still more illusory … Or else, on the contrary, their role 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.”

By breaking up with tradition and established social structures, other paths can be opened that can lead to other “spaces,” perhaps “spaces” that are better, more dignified and more humane. Therefore the function of heterotopias is ultimately to lead people to a better “place,” to freedom — either within themselves, or externally, as an individual in relation to other individuals or to society.

In her book The Human Condition, Hannah Arendt refers to “human conditions,” those activities and functions that give all men their very existence and reason to live.  According to Arendt, such conditions will vary depending on the place and on the specific time in history men encounter themselves; thus all men are conditioned, either by internal factors like their own actions, thoughts, and feelings, or by external ones like the historical moment one experiences and happens to be part of, any cultural influences, family, and even friends.  “The Human Condition” revolves around the concept of “Vita Activa,” or the active life, that derives from old Greek principles, and meant to Arendt “human life in so far as it is activity engaged in doing something.”

Arendt organized the “human conditions” under three concepts — labour, work and action — making relationships between these concepts and the political and social world she experienced.  Arendt elaborates that “labour” is the process necessary for human survival, while “work” is the activity in which natural things are transformed into artificial objects — therefore, “work” is not inherent to men or essential for their survival, it is rather an activity that men imposed on themselves, perhaps as a result from a cultural process.  For Arendt the third concept, “action,” is men’s necessity to live among other men, since men are, by nature, social beings — the quality of men’s actions will reflect their social characters and differences.  Arendt also makes the point to differentiate in more detail what constitutes “labour” and “work” as a mean to illustrate and question the organization of modern economic activity, or of what she considers to be a senseless process of production and consumption.  She implies that through the “work” of men, objects are given a certain degree of permanence, while “labour” only sustains men’s lives out of necessity — thus the products of “labour” are consumed, over and over again, and there is no escape from “labour” in life (Arendt).  Before exploring the differences between “work” and “labour,” Arendt criticizes Karl Marx’s work in part, pointing out that Marx failed to understand that even after emancipation from oppression, men could not free themselves from “labour.”

Throughout her work Hannah Arendt makes many relationships between the importance of thinking, understanding, and taking action.  She also implies in many different ways how the economic activities of our times, of compulsory production and consumption, keep people occupied to such a degree that it inhibits their capability of reasoning and understanding the various social and political issues of our times (Arendt).  Perhaps Arendt felt the responsibility to use her various written works to invite people to question existing political, social and economic systems, and to help people understand each other’s differences (pluralism) as assets in the strengthening of society as a whole.

Arendt’s idea around the permanence of objects resultant from the “work” of men, in contrast to the brevity and quick consumption of  men’s “labour” is comparable to Foucault’s forth principle of heterotopias in which the French philosopher describes some “spaces” that accumulate in time and are perpetual, while others are transitory. I believe both philosophers beneath their concepts attempt to illustrate the idea of freedom.  Perhaps freedom for Foucault, within the context of his fourth principle, means the rupture with traditional barriers and rituals that can prevent men from fully reaching “heterotopia”; also, how men can for split moments of their lives feel and be free, but not possess freedom permanently and continuously.  For Arendt the issue of freedom is perhaps easier to comprehend — “labour” represents the lack of freedom, the oppression.  Even when man is able to make gains and ensure some rights, “labour” is the concept utilized by Arendt to emphasize that perhaps freedom is very hard to achieve, and surely uncertain.

Just as Foucault under his fifth principle explores the differences between the private and the public spheres, so does Arendt.  Nevertheless, Arendt goes far beyond Foucault in her assumption as she suggests that with modern age the private realm (the family unit) was brought into “the light of the public sphere” (society), and this in turn has resulted in a generalized confusion and blending of both realms that has not benefited society as a whole.  To Arendt, the loss of distinction between public and private realms has limited people’s freedom and their capacity of engaging in political action.

Both philosophers seems to have emphasized the importance of place and time, and both mention the significance of the discoveries of Galileo in their works.  For Foucault, Galileo was responsible for the opening of such possibilities like the “infinitely open space” that eventually turned over an entire era’s beliefs.  The possibility of space infinity challenged all precedent ideas, beliefs, and religious faith of the Middle Ages (Foucault).  For Arendt, Galileo’s telescope and the revelation of the secrets of the universe propelled humanity from what they believed to be reality into a new era of unknown possibilities and uncertainties that in a way forced men into contemplation and even greater scientific discoveries.

In addition, a pluralistic society according to Arendt’s point of view can very much be Foucault’s society of heterotopias.  The many “spaces” of Foucault’s accounts can easily be compared with the diverse cultures, beliefs and opinions of various sectors and individual members of a pluralistic society.

Both Foucault and Arendt seem to use storytelling and a conversational style in their written work that offers readers a variety of interpretations — and perhaps this is what the strength and relevance of their work rests upon.  Their stories and illustrations invite readers to think, imagine, and to blend all the information given with one’s own experiences and beliefs.  As Disch mentions in her review of Arendt, “A more powerful defense of storytelling as marginal criticism begins from the premise that it is precisely because they call for interpretation — that they cannot be taken literally — that stories make a powerful vehicle for marginal critical theory” (Disch).

When people are allowed to make interpretations, they do so in great part based on their own imaginations and beliefs.  In this manner, people are able to engage in critical thinking and in the process of understanding their time and place (space), and related social and political issues.  Thus storytelling, when used to invoke political participation, can be a very powerful tool, building the necessary bridge to engage citizens into meaningful action.

Michael Foucault and Hannah Arendt successfully engage their audience through storytelling and challenge people to take action towards regaining their lives and their place in society.  Both philosophers make criticisms about modern politics and the existing economic and social processes that have continuously impacted people’s lives and deprived western and other societies from reaching more equality, fairness, and freedom.

The generalized political apathy of the American society at the present time may very well have its roots in the withdrawal of public political participation.  It is possible that the mass withdrawal from political action is largely due to an increased lack of interest in the political life of this country, which is generated and perpetuated by powerful economic and political forces that have the means to deeply influence our society: forces like the media for example.  The lack of understanding, of comprehending these manipulative mechanisms that aim to alienate and buffer our society, is perhaps one of the most dangerous political phenomena of our times — it leads to inactivity, and without action, more precisely political action, people cannot regain control of their lives and of the world they inhabit.

Works Cited

Arendt, Hannah. The Human Condition. With an Introduction by Margaret Canovan. Second Edition. University of Chicago Press. 1998.

Disch, Lisa Jane. Hannah Arendt and the Limits of Philosophy. Cornell University Press. 1994.

Foucault, Michael. “Of Other Spaces”. 1967. 9 Apr 2012.    <http://foucault.info/documents/heteroTopia/foucault.heteroTopia.en.html>.

Written for Prof. Monique Mironesco’s POLS 499: Directed Reading


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