Essay: "Walking" in a Heterotopia -

Essay: “Walking” in a Heterotopia

“Nature will bear the closest inspection. She invites us to lay our eye level with her smallest leaf, and take an insect view of its plain.”
— Henry David Thoreau

When one thinks of a utopia, the image that usually comes to mind is a sort of idyllic wonderland: chirping birds, white clouds, fresh grass, and a deer or two. In contrast, reality is often imagined as a dank, disparaging dump, full of despair, and strangely, with a grey monochrome. Less well-known is the site between these two Wizard of Oz-type representations; that is, the theory of Michel Foucault that there are heterotopias that exist within utopias and reality. A heterotopia is non-physical space, a time/place in which change or a deviation of the norm occurs (Foucault 4). Naturally, this is not a static definition, similar to how reality is actually ever changing: depressing to cheerful, positive to negative. Heterotopias also exist in other binaries, such as Nature and Civilization. Henry David Thoreau, of Walden fame, explores this space in his essay, “Walking” – not in so many words, perhaps, but Foucault’s theory can easily be applied to that of Thoreau. The relationship between Nature and civilization described in “Walking” is a crisis heterotopic space because it is a sacred place where change occurs, albeit not always willingly, and yet this same relationship is often treated as a deviant heterotopia, since it tends to be seen as an abnormality, especially during the time period in which Thoreau is writing .

Crisis heterotopias “are privileged or sacred or forbidden places, reserved for individuals who are, in relation to society and to the human environment in which they live, in a state of crisis” (Foucault 4). Foucault includes monasteries in his examples, since they are continually in a state of crisis, albeit temporarily. The word “crisis” seems to indicate critical circumstances or an emergency environment, but here it simply means change. People completely dedicated to their religion enter these communities to grow closer to their god and ultimately, to alter their whole being. Foucault did not see sacred places as utopias, because “they present society itself in a perfected form” (4) and obviously, religion – or indeed, sanctity in general – would be unnecessary in a pure world. He also subtly notes that the monastery building itself exists in reality; it is what takes place inside the structure that is sacred and thus conforms to a heterotopia. What Thoreau discusses in “Walking” is similar to this. Venturing into Nature indicates the desire for change.

Despite the gruff tone and sharp jabs, Thoreau does not despise civilization and society. He does not see it so much as a necessary evil, but a natural progression of mankind; he merely wishes for people to not forget their roots, so to speak. “A single farmhouse which I had not seen before is sometimes as good as the dominions of [a king],” he notes during one of his daily walks. “There is in fact a sort of harmony discoverable between the capabilities of the landscape within…the limits of an afternoon walk, and . . . the years . . . of human life” (Thoreau 5-6). Loving the wilderness to the point of an obsession allows him to effectively criticize society without completely dismissing it. Thoreau argues that one can have the best of both worlds: “Let me live where I will, on this side is the city, on that the wilderness . . .” (8). Living a “border life” (Thoreau 16) means having the comfort of civilization with convenience, a home, family, and friends, and the freedom of Nature. Neither Nature nor civilization can be fully enjoyed if lived in extensively. People take their comfort/freedom for granted and instead of experiencing change, become stagnated and complacent. “To enjoy a thing exclusively is commonly to exclude yourself from the true enjoyment of it” (Thoreau 7).

Thoreau is well aware that his profession as a writer makes him automatically part of civilization (13). Writing and other liberal arts are not possible in a subsistence economy, where maintenance of the system requires every member of the community. Only when there is a surplus of workers can craft-specialists and other technical innovators (e.g., politicians, writers, artists, etc.) exist to benefit society. Thoreau notes, “The weapons with which we have gained our most important victories, which should be handed down as heirlooms from father to son, are . . . the bushwhack, the turf-cutter, the spade, and the bog hoe . . . begrimed with the dust of many a hard-fought field” (12). Between those who work in Nature and those who work in civilization, they make a space where both can coexist peacefully. If Thoreau had his way, though, it seems that he would much prefer to disappear into the woods one day and never return. “If you are ready to leave father and mother, and brother and sister, and wife and child and friends, and never see them again […] then you are ready for a walk,” Thoreau baldly states in the beginning of his essay – figuratively speaking, of course. He merely suggests that people not become too attached to material belongings or people and be prepared to change when venturing into that crisis heterotopic space. Few people, however, actually possess the sincerity to attempt this move.

Some of my townsmen, it is true, can remember and have described to me some walks which they took ten years ago, in which they were so blessed as to lose themselves for half an hour in the woods; but I know very well that they have confined themselves to the highway ever since, whatever pretensions they may make to belong to this select class. (Thoreau 4).

Such people see the space between Nature and civilization too far out of their comfort zone – physically or intellectually – to be seriously considered. They are the type of people who, in modern times, donate money to a charitable cause for the mere sake of performing a “good deed” instead out of genuine concern . They see crisis heterotopic space as strange and beyond the norm: what Foucault calls deviance heterotopias.

Most heterotopias are already on the borderline between those of crisis and those of deviance, because sacred places are technically not part of normal society (“normal” here and throughout means not conforming to what is generally considered to be standard behavior). Specifically, heterotopias of deviation are “those in which individuals whose behavior is deviant in relation to the required mean or norm are placed” (Foucault 5). Psychiatrist hospitals and prisons are examples that Foucault gives, and the heterotopic space in “Walking” can also be seen as such, due to people treating it as abnormal. When they do not allow themselves to be changed, they make it easily accessible (not something profound) or they act exactly the same as they do in civilization, with no alteration of conduct. Those who do enjoy that space are seen as atypical, and Thoreau himself was not immune to such criticisms: “Yes, though you may think me perverse, if it were proposed to me to dwell in the neighborhood of the most beautiful garden that ever human art contrived, or else of a Dismal Swamp, I should certainly decide for the swamp” (11-12). Such described behavior reflects the reality of the nineteenth century. Urban areas expand widely, and industrialization grows ever more powerful and pervasive. It is a time of wealth-seeking and easy accommodation , when “a man bears a name for convenience merely, who has earned neither name nor fame” (Thoreau 15).

“Walking” is neither a historical discourse nor a political tract, and therefore, information must be gleaned carefully from the text in order to get an idea of nineteenth century life. On the surface, it is a time of expansion and urbanization, with little regard for preserving the past or Nature. “Nowadays,” complains Thoreau, “Almost all man’s improvements, so called, as the building of houses and the cutting down of the forest and of all large trees, simply deform the landscape, and make it more and more tame and cheap” (6). Thoreau wants that unique heterotopic space, both Nature and civilization. Towns solely comprised of urban area are not only blocked off from agricultural society but from Nature as well. Well-meaning committees tried to combat this separation with the placement of nature spots within the city, i.e., parks and plants. Front yards were a particular sore point for Thoreau, who called his a “meager assemblage of curiosities, that poor apology for a Nature and Art . . . an effort to clear up and make a decent appearance” (11). There is no balance there, he argues. It’s only civilization, without any Nature.

Man needs that balance, Thoreau points out, and asks, “Will not man grow to greater perfection intellectually as well as physically under these influences?” (10). Living in Nature can only help people contribute to civilization, he reasons. Even as the United States grows in power and authority, she still recognizes the need for Nature to harmonize with her evolving economy. Thoreau observes the desperate lengths that America goes to in order to receive any bit of Nature as possible: “The cities import it at any price. Men plow and sell for it” (10). Like front yards, Thoreau is not fond of gardens. They are not places of change, but of fake reassurance that one is close to Nature. Thoreau compares people to cattle: going through the motions of everyday life without any change, whatsoever. Unfortunately, people are frightened of what they do not understand. “In their reaction to Nature men appear to me for the most part, notwithstanding their arts, lower than the animals. It is not often a beautiful relation . . .” notices Thoreau (16). Perhaps this is why some people regard Nature and heterotopic space with suspicion and insincerity.

Foucault believed that crisis heterotopias were disappearing: there was no longer a need or even a desire for sacred places. Those that still exist were usually considered deviant (Foucault 5). In Thoreau’s time, nearly a century before Foucault’s, crisis heterotopias were still widely available and acceptable but were indeed beginning to vanish. Thoreau watched as Nature went from a way of life to a mode of recreation, and civilization take over the barren land left behind. Daily, that crisis heterotopic space shrank until it became nothing more than a sacred secret to a happy life for some and a mere theory to others. Perhaps it dwindled because change is difficult and sometimes painful. It is easier to view crisis heterotopias as deviance, because it is abnormal and socially unacceptable. People do not change willingly, except in rare circumstances, and going out of one’s way to experience a sacred place lacks a certain appeal, even something as natural as Nature and civilization. That relationship is sacred due to its sheer contrast and the change one can experience from both, although it is seen as a deviation from the norm since it is unusual – in the nineteenth century and in modern times.

Works Cited



This was written in 2011 for my college American Novel – 19th Century class. I remember not particularly liking all the texts very much (boring, XD), but I did really like my professor. He was very passionate about teaching and literature, which was slightly off-putting at first, but I slowly learned how to grow out of my shy shell with his class, as he encouraged discussion and liked to challenge our literary conceptions. I used to hate doing group work until I took this class, and I even ended up enjoying it when I took a different class of his the following year. So thank you, Professor of the American Novel. =)

This is the feedback for this essay:

You do a good job of explaining Foucault’s different types of heterotopias and your discussion of “Walking” is, overall, good. I think what is missing is a clearer connection between Foucualt’s terms and how you apply them to walking, such as your use of the term crisis heterotopia. I think that you could apply it, but you need to explain how that term fits to describe nature. There are also areas, mostly in the beginning, where you could be more specific about what “Walking” reflects about the culture it was written out of.

Basically, a solid B. GOOD ENOUGH.

Header image: “November, Brookline” by Nicholas Johnson is licensed under CC BY-ND 4.0.


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