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Theatre Journal 53.3 (2001) 429-454

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Highways, L.A.:
Multiple Communities in a Heterolocus

Meiling Cheng


I. Naming the Heterolocus

In his essay "Of Other Spaces," Michel Foucault posits the quality of contemporary space as divergent sites, a concept that replaces the medieval notion of the space of emplacement and the Galilean notion of the space of extension. 1 He argues that we experience the contemporary world as "a network that connects points and intersects with its own skein" rather than as "a hierarchic ensemble of places" that delimits the medieval sense of "emplacement" or as a point in constant movement whose stability is perceptually established by temporal "extension" (22-23). Foucault's concept of the site therefore privileges relations among different spaces, shifting the understanding of space from delineating its unique property to analyzing its positioning in a web of divergent spaces. The Foucaultian site offers an illuminating pointer to the use of space in our age of internet technology, where a website's connectability with multiple other sites certifies not only the site's value but also its active participation in the electronic community.

"Of Other Spaces" makes no pretensions to predicting the transformation of spatiality in the internet era. Instead, Foucault sets up the concept of site to introduce a new spatial type: the heterotopia. 2 The heterotopia is etymologically linked to another more familiar term, "utopia," which Foucault cites as a theoretical counterpart [End Page 429] to the heterotopia. According to him, both utopias and heterotopias are external sites that "have the curious property of being in relation with all the other sites, but in such a way as to suspect, neutralize, or invert the set of relations that they happen to designate, mirror, or reflect" (24). Whereas utopias are unreal, fantastic, and perfected spaces, heterotopias in Foucault's conception are real places that exist like "counter-sites," which simultaneously represent, contest, and invert all other conventional sites (24).

The implication of Foucault's coinage is taxonomic; he searches through existing spatial types and classifies certain spaces as heterotopias, as those "other" spaces that do not follow the normative set of relations that define conventional sites (e.g., an office, a retail store, or a home), even though these heterotopias (e.g., prisons, psychiatric hospitals, the fairground booth, the cemetery) simultaneously refer to and are connected with the normative sites. Foucault stresses both the universality and historicity of heterotopias, further proclaiming their ability to alter conventional rules. Characterized as it is by a global tendency, Foucault's theory is strongest in elucidating the general qualities of those counter-sites that fall under his rubrics for heterotopias. Two particular features that he enumerates for heterotopias especially make for an insightful reading of the theatre as a contemporary cultural institution: 1) the heterotopia is able to juxtapose in a single real place several incompatible sites--an observation that serves to identify the theatre's power to fabricate divergent dramatic settings on a single stage; 2) the heterotopia follows "a system of opening and closing" that both sets it apart from other places and allows itself to be occupied temporarily, reminding us of the theatre's convention to open itself up to its audience and to drop its curtain when a performance is over.

I wish to borrow and modify Foucault's concept of the heterotopia to broach another concept: the heterolocus. My modification comes from the desire to move from the global to the local and specific, while linguistically marking such a move. I do not claim, as Foucault does for the heterotopias, that the heterolocus exists universally in every culture. On the contrary, I use the heterolocus as a more precise conceptual paradigm to define the particular sociocultural functions of a unique locale: Highways Performance Space, an alternative live art venue in Los Angeles. I attempt to differentiate the heterolocus from the heterotopia by accentuating the double attribute of "locus" as a (physical) locality and a (symbolic) position, a geosocial type and a cultural attitude that intersect to produce a site of alterity for displaying and witnessing...


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