Thursday, August 12, 2010

The Food Court Heterotopia: Spatially Reimagining Left Politics

     In preparing for my teaching assistant position at UCD, I recently read Foucault’s “Of Other Spaces: Utopias and Heterotopias,” a 1967 lecture posthumously published. This relatively early Foucault work concisely outlines the structure of a very real type of space: the heterotopia, essentially a kind of pastiche materialized in real space in which different spaces and times are juxtaposed for the ultimate purpose of creating an illusory-real space revealing how illusory our actually real spaces are. A near perfect example, one not that had yet to reach its zenith in Foucault’s lifetime: the American mega shopping mall.
     Typically, Foucault notes, while all cultures perhaps have heterotopias, the heterotopias themselves fall into two main types: those of crisis (the boarding school and the honeymoon suite , both places where sexuality is first realized for boys and young women, respectively) and those of deviance (prisons, rest homes, mental clinics). Okay, then what crisis or deviance does the mall respond to?
     Any stroll through a food court can, at some level, hint at what almost entirely marginalized and sublimated deviance the mall harbors in neat a semi-circular, white-lit smorgasbord. At most malls one can find Japanese, Indian, Mexican, Cajun, Chinese, Italian, and, if you are a truly “lucky” bourgeoisie, Thai food stalls. And for domestic pride, a MacDonald’s or Burger King (but never both in the small food court!). Here unfolds in cordoned-off compartments bearing too eerie a resemblance to Bentham’s Panopticon prison (a favorite paradigm of Foucault’s) all those ethnic identities (and what expresses an ethnic identity more than food, that most personal and communal a heritage?) in plain view for the leisurely consumer, each disparate culture (always so alien-like from our own) offered up to us for easy and inexpensive consumption. Each stall has its obligatory ethnic representative, each representative its requisite and appropriately accented English.
      What startles one most forcible, when detached just enough from this scene, is the absolute habitiualization of the entire space. No one thinks anything is deviant, any one food is anything other than what is common at a food court. And one would be, from a certain perspective, correct. Certainly, the Indian food isn’t properly representative of Indian food (of what region and style of “Indian”?). Instead, and this comment is, clearly, very banal for any “multi-culturally” adventurous dinner, each ethnic food is greatly “Americanized” by not only our food distribution networks, but our tolerance for culinary deviance: not too spicy and not too strange looking, please.
     What each food culture has undergone is, clearly, a process of acculturation requisite for belonging to the heterotopic space within the mall. And this is precisely Foucault’s point. Entrance into a heterotopia can occur only after “one has completed certain number of gestures” designed as “rites of purification.” To participate in the economic system of the mall, various marginalized cultures must purify themselves of certain culinary deviances (spicy strangeness).
     Yet, what is truly included in the overall heterotopia of the mall (the food court being a sort of heterotopia within a heterotopia)? Clearly one doesn’t see too many Japanese clothing outlets or, rarer still, a Spanish speaking sales person at the Gap. Here, one can see the slightly horrific resemblance between the food court and the Panopticon, the perfectly semi-circular layout of stalls and the circular organizations of Bentham’s cells, both so ordered to facilitate easy visual examination. No doubt the shopper is not ogling the Mexican worker selling burritos to make sure he isn’t plotting a prison break (as if the shopper were a panoptical security guard), but instead simply looking over the stalls to find what culinary exoticism he or she will indulge in. Yet the two gazes are, structurally speaking, nearly interchangeable. Both are gazes implicated in the same action of deviance’s containment. While the prison serves to localize criminals, the food court serves to localize within the whitewashed corridors of the American cathedral those cultures that otherwise would slip from visibility into the cracks and corners of our invisible, domestic third worlds.
     Such resemblance between gazes underscores the bipolar function of all heterotopias. According to Foucault, heterotopias operate between two poles: on the one hand “they perform the task of creating a space of illusion that reveals how all of real space is more illusory.” For the mall’s food court this means, brutally, look, these marginalized ethnicities are here, in the mall, being economically successful and represented; those domestic third worlds cannot be all that real. On the other hand, Foucault writes, heterotopias “have the function of forming another space, another real space, as perfect, meticulous, and well-arranged as ours is disordered, ill-conceived, and in a sketchy state.” The food court’s very real spatiality says, blatantly, there may exist a world were these cultures are even more marginalized then here, but at least in the mall we have a clean-cut, white-lit hall of nations from which we can experience all that each disparate culture has to offer.
     When viewed spatially, these ethnic and class disparities call more forcibly for a new conception of politics – a post-identity politics based upon one’s relation to dominant power. In her seminal 1997 essay “Punks, Bulldaggers, and Welfare Queens: the Radical Potential of Queer Politics?” (another essay I read in preparation for TA’ing), Cathy Cohen calls for precisely such a reimagining of radical, left politics. Cohen, questioning the efficacy of the queer political movements in the late ‘90’s for their too limited (and often class-privilege blindness) power binary of heteronormative/queer, petitions for an entire reworking of the conception of political belonging: “Far too often movements revert to a position in which membership and joint political work are based upon a necessarily similar history of oppression – but this is too much like identity politics. Instead, I am suggesting that the process of movement-building be rooted not in our shared history or identity, but in our shared marginal relationship to dominant power which normalizes, legitimizes, and privileges” (458, emphasis added). What the heterotopia of the food court reveals to us spatially is the shared, seemingly abstract (but no less real) relation of each seemingly disparate ethnicity to the dominant power – the predominantly white, middle class shoppers and dinners. And this heterotopia can do more than reveal such a shared marginal relationship to dominant power; it can provide a concrete site for the fostering of shared political action (unionization, collective rent bargaining, voter registration drives, etc) among these otherwise disparate ethnic communities, subversive because the food court, like its ancestor the Panopticon, is laid out such that those in their little stalls and compartments cannot communicate, cannot unionize, cannot create a common political identity.

1 comment:

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