DrJoolz commented about the idea of hetertopias with respect to my previous post on simulacra and it challenged me to make a new post as a response. As I understand it, heterotopia is a Foucauldian concept developed in this paper, from which I extract the following definition (with my boldings):
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. I believe that between utopias and these quite other sites, these heterotopias, there might be a sort of mixed, joint experience, which would be the mirror. The mirror is, after all, a utopia, since it is a placeless place. In the mirror, I see myself there where I am not, in an unreal, virtual space that opens up behind the surface; I am over there, there where I am not, a sort of shadow that gives my own visibility to myself, that enables me to see myself there where I am absent: such is the utopia of the mirror. But it is also a heterotopia in so far as the mirror does exist in reality, where it exerts a sort of counteraction on the position that I occupy. From the standpoint of the mirror I discover my absence from the place where I am since I see myself over there. Starting from this gaze that is, as it were, directed toward me, from the ground of this virtual space that is on the other side of the glass, I come back toward myself; I begin again to direct my eyes toward myself and to reconstitute myself there where I am. The mirror functions as a heterotopia in this respect: it makes this place that I occupy at the moment when I look at myself in the glass at once absolutely real, connected with all the space that surrounds it, and absolutely unreal, since in order to be perceived it has to pass through this virtual point which is over there.
I really like this concept of “seeing ones self where one is not” and yet I am almost inclined to say that when I am in Second Life, I am seeing myself where I AM. I am not sure how to theorise the total immersion I feel, but let’s say this: my avatar sees from the first person camera angle (though I often turn the angle about when I look at myself) so I feel like I have entered the world in which my avatar resides. I engage and interacti with people from the world. I move and animate and respond to others. Lets talk semiotics: I am experiencing say 80% of the visual cues through the screen - the virtual landscape is 3D so the screen becomes invisible and I enter into the 3D as much as possible given the screen is flat. Yet I also keep catching myself moving my physical body closer to the screen to try and shut out the peripheral vision of the real world about me sometimes. The more immersed I get, the closer I move! (Must be terrible for my eyes!). I am also getting all my sound cues from the screen or from the phone/skype if I am talking to somebody at the same time. The music I listen to is streamed through to my property, the sounds of the ocean and birds are background noises that I am much more conscious of than even the sounds of the television if it happens to be on in the background. Emotionally I am caught up in animated discussions with people, and I feel “present” and immersed in what I am doing at that point in time. If we think of the physical body as one semiotic resource, and that resource is not being activated - then the resources that are ebing foregrounded are the ones that are shaping my sense of reality: the visual, the auditory, and the avatar animations. Also for me the social contexts in whcih I am immersed are where I am intellectually and emotionally located - so when we have each of these resources articulating together to make and shape my reality, I am so THERE inside Second Life. The mediation of technology moves me from outside the mirror to a position where I am at the same time outside yet also inside it. I am both voyeur and yet also the object of my gaze (I talked about this more here), but I am a full participant in both worlds.
A long time ago I did my Masters thesis in Drama and I used a term then which best describes what I think is happening for me in my experience of Second Life, and that is METAXIS.
Metaxis: “the state of belonging completely and simultaneously to two different, autonomous worlds: the image of reality and the reality of the image”
I don’t see many people using this term but for me it captures precisely what I am doing: living simultaneously in two different worlds, where my image is reality. When I am inside Second Life, the semiotic resources which are shaping my reality mean that my second life world is foregrounded and is MORE REAL at that point in time than my other world, in which I am sitting alone in a room at a computer. The stimuli of the world is where I AM. I am not actually socially or mentally or emotionally or visually or auditorily in my “physcial” world. And again I return to my favourite theorist, Lemke, who wrote something way back in 1998 that became the beginning of my PhD thesis:
The ultimate display medium is reality itself; what we see, hear, touch and feel; what we manipulate and control; where we feel ourselves to be present and living. … A fast enough computer can simulate reality well enough to fool a large part of our body’s evolved links with its environment. We can create virtual realities, and we can feel as if we are living in them. We can create a sense of full presence… …We can change reality by acts of will… we can be the sorcerers of our dreams and our nightmares. …What is literacy when the distinction between reading and living itself is nominal? When a reality becomes our multimedia text…?
(Lemke, 1998, pp.298-299)
So is this Second Life existence an example of Foucault’s heterotopia? I am still grappling with it because I think the answer is YES AND NO. It is both. I think we have entered a new form of consciousness here right at the border of yes and no actually. What do others think? I would be fascinated to know!