Urban Topographies of Global Imagination

Hegemonic views surrounding globalism and community have become predominant in a society shaped by media representations. The inherent limitations displayed by topographic imagery, in which digital technology is harnessed by the city for the purposes of governing, only further anchor these views in reality. From this perspective, the notion of a global future that often gets presented to media audiences does not unify the globe on a political level, but instead divides it, separating many aspects of diversity. By drawing from Foucault’s notion of “heterotopias,” among other theories, this paper examines some of the urban topographic images that appear in popular television.

Sense8 is one such show that attempts to establish the diversity of global cultures from a counter-hegemonic angle. This show exploits the increasing global immediacy of instantaneous communication by extending it even further than what technology currently allows. With eight protagonists situated all around the world with the ability to share feelings, memories, and skills, Sense8 strongly suggests that there is an opportunity to create a planetary solution to our individual problems. The show presents the image of a closely linked world that goes beyond even the supernatural communication evinced by the show’s main characters. A diverse cast is inexplicably linked by a power to collectively change the course of time and history on a global scale. Certainly, as I outline below, there are flaws in the production of Sense8 that prevent it from depicting this global possibility in a convincing manner. However, in reference to Michel Foucault’s concept of heterotopias, in which spaces of otherness are depicted outside the boundaries of institutional normativity, I argue that the show is still notable for its intent to envision a diversifying global future. More specifically, by analyzing the impact of media and topographic representations, as well as norm-challenging media, like Sense8 itself, and the principles of Foucault’s spatial concept, I will show that modern heterotopias act as an exemplary model of a global future more diverse than our present. As these heterotopias develop into fully-formed microcosms of their own, this global future has the potential to exist and to be actualized sooner rather than later.

Imagination and Topographic Representation

To fully grasp how heterotopias are established, first it must be understood how society functions outside of these sites. What is notably different within certain heterotopias are the views held regarding global imagination and what this means in the overall functionality of a heterotopic site. Heterotopic sites are distinguished from global imaginaries replete with hegemonic views. Such global imaginaries are shaped by various elements including media and topographic representations. Shani Orgad explores what is meant by global imagination and how media representations influence it.1Shani Orgad, Media Representation and the Global Imagination (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2012). To define imagination, Orgad borrows from Susan Feagin and Patrick Maynard, clarifying that imagination represents “the absent as present, with all the thoughts and feelings it would bring if it were present.”2Ibid., 41. According to Orgad, then, the global imagination will be tasked with representing absent globalization as if it were present. How global interaction is perceived is largely shaped by the representations available to be drawn from to create these imaginations. Orgad argues that with this being so, “representations, through signs, makes the absent present, which is the essence of imagining.”3Ibid. In turn, this manufactures hegemonic ideals that are distinctive within certain heterotopias.

However, further questions need to be raised regarding media representations themselves. Orgad, for instance, describes such representations as “any object…that carries meanings beyond its immediate function and use.”4Ibid., 17. Media representations in particular refer to texts, in a broad sense of the term, that circulate within a media space. This definition could include videos, advertisements, images, or pages that “use systems of signs to produce meaning.”5Ibid. Orgad further argues that media representations are inscribed in relations of power, allowing for the representations to construct “knowledge, values, conceptions, and beliefs,” and therefore to produce and reproduce power relations.6Ibid.,25. I argue that these elements all act as the basis both for a global imagination and for hegemonic realities. In other words, media representations hold great influence regarding how society functions, whether heterotopic or not.

Media representations, however, are not the only influence upon an emergent global imagination. I will demonstrate that topographic representation equally manufactures societal views based on data interpretation. Relating to the previous definition, topography details both the natural and artificial features in any given area, presented to carry meaning behind the data it provides. For Saskia Sassen, the type of information given has implications regarding “spatialized global economic, political, and cultural dynamics,” all of which can contribute to the ideas surrounding diversity and intersectionality that form global imagination.7Saskia Sassen, “Reading the City in a Global Digital Age: The Limits of Topographic Representation,” Procedia – Social and Behavioral Sciences 2, no. 5 (2010): 7030.

In other words, the details presented by a topographic representation will undoubtedly be a contributing factor for the information on which global imaginations are based. For this reason, topographic representations, like media representations, have a significant influence on the hegemonic ideas that structure societies. Seeing the power that topographic representations occupy, I argue that there is a strong basis to critique how it is currently practiced.

In “Reading the City in a Global Digital Age,” Saskia Sassen argues that the interpretation of information regarding urban regions has become inadequate with the onset of globalization.The globalization of cities limits the veracity of topographic representation by failing to take urban economic restructuring into account, causing a distinct divide between socio-economic sectors that in actuality overlap. Referred to as “analytic borderlands,” Sassen shows that there are city regions that have an overlap between socio-economic sectors such as rich and poor neighborhoods, but only the differences are emphasized within its representation. According to Sassen, the economic restructuring within cities produce “multiple interconnections among parts of the city that topographically look like they may have little to do with each other,” potentially shaping cultural global imagination with this misconstrued information.8Ibid.

Technology is also presented as an issue for topographic representation in Sassen’s critique. Although the digitalization of topography suggests greater accuracy within the resulting data, Sassen draws our attention to two analytical flaws. The first is the emphasis put on the capabilities of the technology. Sassen suggests that digital use “confines interpretation to a technological reading of the technical capabilities of digital technology,”9Ibid., 7032. which affects the understanding of the topography. The second flaw is that any transition into a digital domain will still rely on “analytical categorizations that were developed under other spatial and historical conditions.”10Ibid. Through oversimplification of socio-economic distinctions and the issues associated with topographic technology, there are clear limitations to the topographic representations, and therefore to the global imaginations that are shaped by them. On the other hand, this presents a hopeful situation for heterotopic sites, as I argue below.

The global imagination that is often conceived today shows a lack of diversity that I argue is problematic for a viable global future. Due to how it is shaped, I argue that the reasoning behind this homogeneity and segregation is both the media and topographic representations described above. Within the various forms of media, particularly the influential entertainment industry, there is a notable lack of diversity. In western popular television, for example, it is more common to find a series with a cast that predominantly follows set hegemonic ideals. In situations where this is not the case, the focus tends to land on another group that has their own set of ideals. In either case, diversity is rarely included, rendering any resulting imaginary of planetary unity homogeneous. A common theme within media along with the lack of diversity is establishing the minority as an “Other,” meaning they are distinct from hegemonic norms. While the reality is that cities have overlap between sectors or groups, the way information is commonly interpreted suggests otherwise due to how it is represented. As representations have been shown to establish global imaginations, I argue that the current state of globalization is not unifying, but problematically segregating.

Heterotopias in Sense8

There have been successive attempts in recent years to combat this hegemony within popular culture. A noteworthy example in this respect is the Netflix Original series Sense8. The basic premise of the show brought forth by the Wachowskis follows a group of eight “sensates,” that is, strangers from different cultures throughout the world that discover the ability to share memories, emotions, and skills with one another. Unbeknownst as to why or how they have gained this ability, the eight characters have to rely on each other to survive being hunted because of their abilities. Beyond the surface premise of science fiction drama, there are elements explored by the series that make it notable for not conforming to other media representations. Being from different cultures around the world, the show takes place in a variety of locations, each making an attempt at displaying the culture of the area. In addition to the cultural diversity, there is also significance in the diversity of the characters reaching beyond simply ethnic diversity between them, but also gender, sexuality, religion, politics, and identity. With the abilities they obtain, the series uses the premise of the show to bring together the diverse cultures and characters, making an attempt at a unified global future.

Expanding on the attempts made to present a global future that is done throughout the first season. The commentator Claire Light argues for the ways in which this succeeds and where it fails.11Claire Light, “Sense8 and the Failure of Global Imagination,” Thenerdsofcolor, December 15, 2015. https://thenerdsofcolor.org/2015/06/10/sense8-and-the-failure-of-global-imagination. The vision behind the show enters from the start with a premise of a unified global future. Light makes note of two major virtues that should be recognized for succeeding in a global imagination that matches this vision. The first is the sensate from San Francisco, a transwoman named Nomi who is first introduced during the city’s Pride parade. This is particularly exemplary for Light as she argues Sense8’s depiction is “the best representation both of the city and of that particular [LGBT+] community that [she has] ever seen on TV.”12Ibid. The detail and thought put into this character and story arch establishes them in a way that creates an accurate representation of real people within this community. While the detail of other characters does not quite reach the level of specificity established with Nomi, there is a second virtue that Light argues is recognizable in the series’ active pursuit of global future. The slow pace of the show’s story arch allows for each character to equally get their story told. In doing so, this “forces the writers to unpack details of each character’s life and situations that bring a kind of life and reality to the clichés they’re embedded in.”13Ibid. Although not as equally specific in their respective representation of Nomi, the characters are given diversity within the story arch, bringing them to life. These aspects work well within the vision of global future that is so prominent throughout the season. While the vision is achieved in these ways, Light also discusses the ways in which the Wachowskis’ limited views negatively affected representing a global imagination.

However, Light argues that Sense8 ultimately fails to achieve the vision of diverse unity within a global future, but nonetheless should be recognized for its merit. Due to the limits of the American showrunners’ perspective, the Wachowskis based many of the cultures outside of America on stereotypes. Regarding the research undertaken for the non-American cultures, Light suspects “the filmmakers primarily learned about these other cultures through their films” without any further investigation.14Ibid. I argue that the pop-culture elements that shape the diverse characters are exclusively American. That is to say, many of the characters make reference to American media instead of the pop-culture of their own culture. For example, Light describes how the “German sensate claims Conan the Barbarian quotes as his personal philosophy,” or another idolizes Jean-Claude Van Damme who is popular within American action movies.15Ibid. In instances where different cultural references are included, it again uses clichés and generalizations such as Bollywood dancing that displays the limits of their American perspective. However, despite these flaws, the vision and what it has achieved makes the show noteworthy within contemporary media. The premise of the show alone brings in ideas of unity and globalization that are rarely represented. Despite its downfalls, what Sense8 does provide is a set of ideas for an emergent global imagination to draw from. I argue that these ideas can be seen as functioning within modern heterotopic sites.

To better understand how the universe of Sense8 is found in heterotopias, I turn to Foucault’s introduction and discussion of his six heterotopic principles.16Michel Foucault, “Of Other Spaces: Utopias and Heterotopias.” Architecture /Mouvement /Continuité, no. 5 (1984) : 1-9. Simply understood as spaces or sites of otherness in which regular hegemonic ideals are not present, heterotopias offer many elements relevant both to global imagination and to representation in general. Foucault introduces a notion of “space” to denote the form of relations among sites. In this way, the idea of space is a major element of the modern epoch. To describe heterotopic sites, Foucault uses the well-known concept of “utopia” as a starting point. Utopias are sites created out of society and reflect it in some ways, but are fundamentally unreal. Heterotopias, on the other hand, enact utopia within real sites, acting as a midpoint between utopic sites and reality. Going further, Foucault describes these sites as “simultaneously mythic and real contestation of the space in which we live,” establishing ways in which it may seem unreal while being completely existent.17Ibid., 4. As real as these places might be, the concept behind them is not simple to grasp. With this in mind, Foucault established the six principles of heterotopias and their relation within social spaces, as I describe below.

The first principle which Foucault discusses is not about the heterotopias themselves, but rather their place within larger society. In any case whatsoever, a constant of heterotopias is that they are found in every single culture in the world. Indeed, if we accept that heterotopic sites can take on many forms, it is more likely than not that they have been established worldwide in one way or another. Here Foucault describes the two main classes in which they can be categorized. The first class encompasses that of crisis heterotopias, mostly found in primitive-societies and are “reserved for individuals who are… in a state of crisis” such as adolescents, menstruating women, or the elderly, to use his examples.18Ibid. Although these are disappearing in modern society, their remnants can still be found in the form of boarding school or military service for adolescents. The second encompasses heterotopias of deviation, which are considered to have replaced the former classification. The individuals that are placed within these sites have behavior that deviates from the norm. Although Foucault creates these two specific classifications, there are many sites he later references that fit loosely, suggesting the requirements for fitting them are not as strict as initially led on.

The second principle of heterotopias is that “a society, as its history unfolds, can make an existing heterotopia function in a very different fashion.”19Ibid., 5. To expand on this thought, a site may change how it functions within society and yet remain a heterotopic site. Foucault uses the example of the cemetery. While a cemetery has always fit within the criteria of a heterotopia, being unlike regular cultural spaces but having connections to it nevertheless, it has changed throughout its history. Where it used to predominantly be a spiritual place, at the heart of the city and near a church, it has moved to more suburban areas where it adapted the function of a resting place. Although the reason for their functional changes can differ from site to site, the primary focus of this principle is the potential for change itself, not being uncommon among heterotopias.

The third principle described is conceptually complicated but significant for understanding heterotopias. Foucault explains how heterotopias are able to juxtapose several spaces within a single place that would otherwise be incompatible. In the cinema, for example, there is a “rectangular room, at the end of which, on a two-dimensional screen, one sees the projection of a three-dimensional space,” bringing together what would otherwise oppose each other.20Ibid., 6. Although this is a modern example, this concept has been present within heterotopias since their origins. This principle demonstrates the potential for what heterotopias are capable of within their interaction with other places in society.

Heterotopias can often be linked to a point in time, as explained in the fourth principle. When there is a complete break of conventional time, Foucault calls this functioning at full capacity. To exemplify this principle, we are referred back to the cemetery as a heterotopia, ceasing time entirely for those who occupy the site. In addition to stopping time, there are heterotopias that are constantly accumulating time linkages such as libraries which create archives of reference. This is done through time-oriented artifacts that establish connections to other points in time, also including museums as another example of this principle.

The fifth principle outlined by Foucault is the system in place which monitors the opening and closing of a heterotopia. To enter a heterotopia, it is either by force, such as a prison, or through a process of submitting to pre-established requirements. There are also heterotopias described by Foucault that seem as if they have no permissions to enter, but they actually have hidden exclusions. These sites he exemplifies with the bedrooms in the great farms of South America. While these doors are open to travelers to enter and spend the night, they do not have access to where the families would reside and they could not lock the door behind them, leaving it open to other travelers as well. The system that monitors the opening and closing of heterotopias is a factor isolating them from society yet makes them penetrable.

The final trait of heterotopias as outlined by Foucault is the way they function in relation to the remaining space. There are two opposing functions that are described here. In the first, a space of illusion is described as exposing actual space. Foucault comments on the function of the brothel in this way as being its own space of illusion. The other function refers to a “space that is other, another real space, as perfect, as meticulous, as well arranged as ours is messy, ill constructed, and jumbled.”21Ibid., 8. This type of heterotopia views regular society and becomes a compensation for what is viewed as imperfect. In this sense, the settlements made by North American colonists fit within this definition, establishing distinct differences against their home-nations with what they thought needed improvement.

In understanding these six principles of heterotopias, especially the means of flexibility that broaden their criteria, it is evident that modern heterotopic sites are all around us, in some instances acting as microcosms of global imagination. While these sites inevitably vary between places and cultures, the elements that compose them challenge representation in a similar fashion as Sense8. Expanding on this premise, it can be noted how heterotopias change function as the space develops by means of growing and evolving with the changing culture outside of its boundaries. In a world where equality and diverse representation are becoming more actively sought out, heterotopias have come to function as a site to enact a global imagination where they are present. These sites can grow with incoming occupants, developing into heterotopic microcosms such as certain modern universities or similar spaces.

As a microcosm, modern heterotopic sites avoid hegemony and standard global imagination through the different forms of representation that are brought into the space. While media and topographic representation are both present within these sites as they grow, they differ from the external spaces, therefore giving distinct concepts to draw from in constructing global imagination. The media outside these spaces are known and acknowledged, but does not have the same influential effect as it does outside the boundary. Topographical representation, as discussed above, is primarily limited within urban cities, seldom having an influential effect on microcosmic sites. With exposure to different media representations as well as diversity occurring in reality, globalization and unity become familiar concepts.

To a degree, microcosmic heterotopias accomplish, or at the very least closely replicate, the vision imagined in Sense8. Whereas in the series characters are inexplicably linked by emotion or thoughts, modern heterotopias often physically bring various cultures together through a shared pursuit of higher education, global change, or a better future. Like Sense8, these microcosmic spaces project the possibility of a global future in which persons are not divided, but instead brought together for a common goal or relations. As a heterotopia, microcosms such as these reject the flaws found in media and topographic representation, imagining an improved world compensating for the homogeneity of contemporary society.

 

Notes   [ + ]

1. Shani Orgad, Media Representation and the Global Imagination (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2012).
2. Ibid., 41.
3. Ibid.
4. Ibid., 17.
5, 8, 10, 12, 13, 14, 15, 18. Ibid.
6. Ibid.,25.
7. Saskia Sassen, “Reading the City in a Global Digital Age: The Limits of Topographic Representation,” Procedia – Social and Behavioral Sciences 2, no. 5 (2010): 7030.
9. Ibid., 7032.
11. Claire Light, “Sense8 and the Failure of Global Imagination,” Thenerdsofcolor, December 15, 2015. https://thenerdsofcolor.org/2015/06/10/sense8-and-the-failure-of-global-imagination.
16. Michel Foucault, “Of Other Spaces: Utopias and Heterotopias.” Architecture /Mouvement /Continuité, no. 5 (1984) : 1-9.
17. Ibid., 4.
19. Ibid., 5.
20. Ibid., 6.
21. Ibid., 8.

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