Saturday, February 20, 2016

“A Swaying and Fluttering Form”: Foucault’s Heterotopias in Eco’s The Name of the Rose

In honour of Umberto Eco upon his death, here is a paper I originally presented at the CISPCR Symposium in 2013. Some of the material was modified and applied to Bowie, and appears in my book on Bowie, published by McFarland and Company in 2015.

Michel Foucault writes of certain spaces that “suspect, neutralize, or invert the set of relations that they happen to designate, mirror, or reflect.” (Foucault 24) He calls such spaces heterotopias. For Adso, the narrator-protagonist in Umberto Eco’s best-selling novel, The Name of the Rose, the biblical text of the Song of Songs acts as a sort of heterotopia, a mirror which reflects (and distorts) his position; “it exerts a sort of counteraction on the position.” To clarify, there are moments in the novel where Adso’s heterosexuality, a subject position assumed by his piety, by his position in monastic life in the early part of the second millennium, is suspect: “even today my old age is stirred ... when my eyes ... happen to linger on the beardless face of a novice, pure and fresh as a maiden’s.” (Eco 159) At another moment, Adso reflects on an incident of heterosexual impropriety, and uses the text of the Song of Songs in order to deflect, perhaps, suggestions of sexual impropriety in the text. None of this is sure, though; in fact, the novel as a whole seems to enact a sort of heterotopic space. It is what could, what might, but what is not (necessarily).

An article, “Of Other Spaces,” was published in 1986, a translation of Michel Foucault’s lecture, “Des Espaces Autres,” given in March 1967. In the english translation by Jay Miskowiec, Foucault describes a sort of history of space. Of note, he suggests that the “actual” space of the Middle Ages constitutes what he calls a “space of emplacement”: “a hierarchic ensemble of places: sacred places and profane places; protected places and open, exposed places; urban places and rural places (all these concern the real life of men).” (22) This is an important observation considering the setting for Eco’s novel, that of a monastery in the fourteenth-century. For Foucault, the Middle Ages demonstrated “this complete hierarchy, this opposition, this intersection of places” in a particularly marked and compelling way. The Middle Ages was an age in which one was strongly placed in a certain space, without possibility for mobility. Each space, also, was marked as what it was, without the possibility of change; categorization of space, and of its occupants, was fixed. As in other areas of Foucault’s study, the study of space reveals power relations.

To only slightly oversimplify, Foucault suggests that the spaces that one lives in that define one’s life are also defined by society, and other power holders and discourse creators and reinforcers. The spaces or sites in which one lives are related to each other: these spaces are through which order is established in society. Foucault states, though, that such mundane sites are not of ultimate interest to him:
I am interested in certain ones 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. These spaces, as it were, which are linked with all the others, which however contradict all the other sites, are of two main types. (24)
The types to which Foucault refers are “utopia” and “heterotopia.” For Foucault, then, utopia is unreal, a presentation of society “in a perfected form, or else society turned upside down, but in any case . . . fundamentally unreal spaces.” Heterotopias, on the other hand, are real spaces: “these places are absolutely different from all the sites that they reflect and speak about.” Between the utopia, which is unreal, and the heterotopia, which is real, is what Foucault calls the mirror. He seems to conflate the two ideas as well: while the heterotopia is reflected or mediated by the mirror, the mirror becomes a sort of heterotopia in itself:
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 spaces that surrounds it, and absolutely unreal, since in order to be perceived it has to pass through this virtual point which is over there. (24)
The mirror exists in the real world, and thus reflects the unreal idea of utopia in a solid object. Such ideas are compelling if one considers the role of Eco’s own novel—the actual, perhaps physical, idea, or concept, or narrative—as heterotopia: “The heterotopia is capable of juxtaposing in a single real place several spaces, several sites that are in themselves incompatible.” (25) For a moment, consider the actual novel, the very narrative that constitutes the reading text. This is a single space of heterotopia, but one can continue the chain. The Song of Songs in the novel acts as heterotopia, the mirror in which Adso sees himself acts as heterotopia, and, ultimately, the story of the kitchen girl acts as heterotopia.

Foucault discusses various principles of heterotopia; one of his principles suggests that “Heterotopias always presuppose a system of opening and closing that both isolates them and makes them penetrable.” (26) Haft, White and White, in their massive work, The Key to the Name of the Rose, suggest that the Middle Ages, that space that Foucault calls a “space of emplacement,” is “an historical ‘open work.’” (Haft, White and White 23) That period has no definitive opening or closing, which works to make the novel itself both “isolated,” in that its temporal definition is difficult to immediately ascertain (especially for the contemporary reader), but this very fact also makes it penetrable. It is not hard to presume that many readers would need to be reminded of the actual historical time period of the novel; while the abstract “Middle Ages” is obviously the temporal setting of the novel, its importance is not necessarily the key to understanding the narrative. Certainly understanding the key elements of the historical background of the novel helps to further flesh out the story, a fact which is made clear by the popularity of such books as The Key to the Name of the Rose, Theresa Coletti’s Naming the Rose from 1988, as well as Eco’s own, rather substantial, Postscript to the Name of the Rose, from 1983. But such knowledge is not required in order to begin to read the book. The difficulty for the reader begins, though, with the first introduction of language other than the text of the story; whether we consider the source Italian or the translated English, some of the first words the reader encounters are in French. As the reader continues her journey in the story, she encounters Latin, French, Italian, and the patois of all three as manifest in the speech of the character Salvatore. Rocco Capozzi, in his study of the “unlimited intertextuality” of the novel, writes,
Eco’s novel is a perfect example of conscious (and unconscious) “hybridization”; it is a text in which many other texts merge, fuse, collide, intersect, speak to, and illuminate, one another—each with its own language and “ideologue.” The Rose, succinctly put, is a skillfull (con)structure of an intentionally ambiguous, polyvalent, and self-reflexive novel intended to generate multiple meanings. Moreover, it is a novel which wishes to be: an intersection of textual “traces” and “textures”; a dialogue with many texts; and a literary text generated through the endless process of writing and reading, re-writing and re-reading, etc. (Capozzi 413)
Such discussions of the novel certainly evoke at least the reflection of utopia in the form of heterotopia.

The Song of Songs exists as heterotopia within the novel as well. Foucault states, “There are others [that is, other heterotopias] . . . that seem to be pure and simple openings, but that generally hide curious exclusions.” (Foucault 26) It might be that the Song of Songs acts as an “opening” that hides the “exclusion” that is homosexuality. Adso uses the words of the Song of Songs to describe his liaison with the kitchen girl because, first of all, the experience did not occur, and secondly, because he is unable to describe the experience, having never experienced such a liaison. The Song of Songs, then, is a kind of “entry door” as Foucault seems to describe it. In his article, Foucault describes what he calls “famous bedrooms” that existed in South America, as containing an entry door that did not lead to the central chambers in which the family lived, but rather to an open bedroom in which a stranger was allowed to stay, but only for a time, that is, for the evening. Foucault makes a compelling observation: he suggests that these South American bedrooms are akin to the “famous” American hotel rooms in which “illicit sex is both absolutely sheltered and absolutely hidden, kept isolated without however being allowed into the open.” (26-27) For Adso, the biblical text works as a kind of “entry door” or “open room”: it allows Adso entry but only for a time. It works for him to keep the act isolated or sheltered—the language of the biblical text is not his own text, and thus, shelters him from needing to experience the actual act in reality—and it works for him to keep the act absolutely hidden—he uses the biblical text to mask what has actually happened, by displacing the more immoral experience of homosexuality with the liaison with the kitchen girl, through the lens of the biblical text. As heterotopia, though, the text functions in another way, as an actual, real, example of utopic love, something that is reflected in the text of the novel, while being ignored in the narrative of the novel.

The mirror itself, which Adso encounters in the library, is also a heterotopia. Adso’s first experience of the mirror is described as follows: “Holding the lamp in front of me, I ventured into the next rooms. A giant of threatening dimensions, a swaying and fluttering form came toward me, like a ghost.” For Adso, the mirror is something that, as William explains, “reflects your image, enlarged and distorted.” Adso continues to describe the experience: “I saw our two images, grotesquely misshapen, changing form and height as we moved closer or stepped back.” (Eco 196) Recall Foucault’s description of those spaces that are not the spaces which define the lives of those in society, but rather those spaces that convey something else: they “suspect, neutralize, or invert the set of relations that they happen to designate, mirror, or reflect.” (Foucault 24) In this case, the actual mirror, and its reflection, seems to signify this space, a kind of space of possibility, a possibility with “threatening dimensions, a swaying and fluttering form,” that is, the form of Adso’s fabrication, a sort of reflection of himself that is misshapen. It is a true reflection, yet it is distorted; it is a representation of Adso’s experience of pleasure, but an encounter with Ubertino, which occurs directly before his supposed encounter with the kitchen girl, as described in the narrative.

Another heterotopia is the story of the liaison with the kitchen girl itself. It functions as many of the heterotopia discusses thus far function. It is a heterotopia which neutralizes, which hides “curious exclusions,” to use Foucault’s terms. Foucault also suggests, though, that heterotopias are able to juxtapose “several sites that are in themselves incompatible.” Furthermore, these are heterotopias of deviation, what Foucault describes as “those in which individuals whose behavior is deviant in relation to the required mean or norm are placed.” (25) Certainly Adso’s behaviour is deviant if one considers the liasion with the kitchen girl, and so it seems to function well, then, as a heterotopia. As such, it is a space of experience, where a figure without (prior) experience can express the experience of sexuality, in a space which, in such a way, is utopic, a space of expression of experience. It is a distorted reflection of the actual event between Adso and Ubertino, at the very least an example of sexually charged homosocial behaviour.

The image most closely associated with the heterotopia is a boat, an item at its most comfortable (for lack of a better word) on the sea, in an unfixed position, always swaying to and fro. Foucault states, “the boat is a floating piece of space, a place without a place, that exists by itself, that is closed in on itself and at the same time is given over to the infinity of the sea.” This is a fascinating idea that might be applied to the novel of The Name of the Rose itself. The polysemic nature of the text, the labyrinthian levels and layers of meaning, those spaces of emplacement that are also juxtaposed into sorts of networks of manifest utopia, point to a kind of unfixed text, a space which becomes, as Foucault suggests, “the greatest reserve of the imagination.” If the novel presents chains of heterotopia, then it also presents a real example of the ideal utopia. Without that “greatest reserve of the imagination” which characterizes the novel, Foucault continues, “dreams dry up . . . and the police take the place of the pirates.”


Capozzi, Rocco. “Palimpsests and Laughter: The Dialogical Pleasure of Unlimited Intertextuality in The Name of the Rose.” Italica 66:4 (Winter 1989). 412-428.

Eco, Umberto. The Name of the Rose. Translated by William Weaver. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. 2006.

Foucault, Michel. “Of Other Spaces.” Translated by Jay Miskowiec. Diacritics 16:1 (Spring 1986). 22-27.

Haft, Adele J., Jane G. White and Robert J. White, The Key to the Name of the Rose. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press. 1998.