Prompt: Defining Utopias, Dystopias, Heterotopias


Contributed by Jen Schell

Although it is short, Michel Foucault’s essay “Of Other Spaces’ is the most difficult reading we will complete this semester. This piece uses many, many challenging and confusing words, and it deals with abstract and theoretical ideas. So how do we cope with this piece? One way of dealing with a reading like this is to try to define the terms it uses. For this assignment, you will be doing just that.

In this essay, Foucault spends most of his time discussing a term that he invents, namely “heterotopia.’ He creates this term by playing with other words and phrases (“utopia,’ “dystopia,’ and the prefix “hetero’). The end result is “heterotopia.’ Using the Oxford English Dictionary (, look up what “utopia’ and “dystopia’ mean. Then, using the internet and the Foucault reading, try to discover what the prefix “hetero’ and the term “heterotopia’ mean. In your own words and in three separate paragraphs, create your own dictionary entries for these words. Each entry should be about a third of a page long, and it should include a definition and an example. You can include more than one example if you want.


Helpful Tips:

  1. Do not wait until the last minute to do this assignment. Start early. The reading is amazingly difficult.
  2. You may want to look up the definitions before you begin the reading.
  3. You will not find “heterotopia’ in the dictionary, but you may find it on the internet.  You are working with the geographic concept, not the anatomical one.  If you locate websites which discuss the gray matter of the brain, then you’re off track.
  4. Focus on the parts of Foucault’s essay that make sense to you. Focus on the more concrete aspects of the essay, and work from there.
  5. In the essay, Foucault talks about many different kinds of heterotopias. You don’t have to address all of them. You just need a general definition of the term.
  6. This paper should be relatively short (1 double-spaced page).
  7. We will spend lots of class time going over the essay in class. Feel free to bring questions.  Everyone will be confused, so don’t be embarrassed.
  8. Feel free to drop by office hours for help. You can also email questions.  

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