The strategic performance of heterotopic experiences in higher education: Imagining spaces of potentiality for new South African identities

DOI: 10.1080/02580136.2018.1514287
Author(s): Belinda du PlooyEngagement Office, South Africa


In an interview published in Esprit, Achille Mbembe asks “what is ‘today’, and what are we today? What are the lines of fragility, the lines of precariousness, the fissures in contemporary African life? And, possibly, how could what is, be no more, how could it give birth to something else?” As a response to this question of African identity, this article is twofold. Firstly, I aim to draw together an argument that recent and ongoing debates about decolonising knowledge (including Mbembe’s 2015 WISER lecture and open public conversations with the #RhodesMustFall [#RMF] student movement) can be read as part of the search for ways “to be otherwise”. In fact, higher education (HE) institutions should be, can be, and often are, crucial spaces of potentiality in this regard. An essential part of realising Mbembe’s vision of a new kind of human, therefore, would be to ensure that institutions in the contemporary HE landscape recognise, embrace and therefore (paradoxically) become what they are, namely “heterotopias”. Heterotopology is a metaphor Michel Foucault suggests in his 1967 lecture Of Other Spaces: Utopias and Heterotopias. Accepting that HE is a heterotopically discursive site, this article provides a brief, broad Foucaultian heterotopology of the contemporary HE landscape, with specific reference to the South African context. It focuses on Foucault’s three types of heterotopia (crisis, deviation and compensation) and his six principles of heterotopia. Secondly, it would be something of a performative contradiction if this article were merely to follow the conventions of a traditionally organised philosophical argument about an engaging metaphor (“heterotopia”). As an experimental “strategic performance”, the writing itself aims to produce a heterotopic reading experience, thereby joining in the heuristic excavation of experience, which is the task of the heterotopia. It draws disparate, clashing elements into a complex textual web, which should generate at least some feeling of disturbance or cognitive dissonance. In the article’s fissures and joints, readers should find points of entry for critical and creative thinking. As Johnson puts it in his analysis of Foucault’s metaphor, “heterotopias glitter and clash in their incongruous variety, illuminating a passage for our imagination”.

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