The heterotopia of the retail store; or in other words, French philosophy is killing me slowly.

Over the past eight or so years, I have been exposed to a host of French philosophy by way of being an English major. I say this as a not-so-veiled way to critique the bias in advanced English studies (as much as I love that bias) and to just throw out there how utterly mind-numbing this stuff can be. Case in point, Michel Foucault.

In a class I am taking called, “Cultural Geography and Renaissance Literature,” we read an article based off of a lecture Foucault gave, titled “Of Other Spaces.” In it, M.F. makes a distinction between utopias and the real world equivalent, his hereto termed “heterotopias.” If I can explain it in as few words as possible, a hetertopia is a societal structure that exists to enact the idea of utopia, but is ultimately held back by being too tied to the “real” world. Does that make sense? No. Good. Here’s a real world example.

When I’m not being an amazingly intelligent literary student, I work part time at a major retail establishment. It’s pretty mindless, but it gives me plenty of drive to push froward with my studies so I won’t get stuck there. Anyway, the other day I had a customer come to the service desk (my own personal Purgatory) to make a return on some socks she had purchased. As she walked up to the service desk, I could see the steely resolve in her eyes that she was going to get her money back. Before I could ask my scripted greeting, sock lady began to pull something out of her purse and said, “Hi, I want to exchange these socks. I have my receipt and I wore these socks for a week and they have this hole in them now.” She says all this while unrolling the unpackaged, generic navy blue feet warmers. I kind of look at her with a sense of bewilderment and reply, “Ma’am, I need to have the original packaging to do any return or exchange.” “Well, they have some over there (cue her thumb flying behind her head to point to socks presently awaiting sale in the store). I’ll just get those.” I feel fairly flustered at this and state, “No, we can’t do that. I need the original packaging.” Her nostrils flare up and her eyes move from steely determinism to outright anger. “I can’t believe this. I saved this receipt thinking this was enough! Where does it say that on here (as she fumbles around her receipt)?!” I point to the oversized board hanging above my head like it were the Ten Commandments, and say, “it says it right there in the first line of the second paragraph; all returns or exchanges must be accompanied by a receipt and the original packaging.”

She gets mad. Muddles some curse word that’s barely under her breath, and storms off saying, “well, I’ll never be shopping here again!” As I laugh to myself at yet another unsatisfied, now former, customer, I suddenly realize something. This is exactly like the fifth trait of a heterotopia in the M.F. article. Sock lady had total freedom to come into the store and buy some socks, a utopian experience if ever there was one in a capitalistic society, but was under rules and regulations when attempting to return her items. She was still free to do so, but part of her freedom was closed off. I understand the concept!

And then a sense of dread washed over me. I was living in a heretopia. And hereotopias are totally linked to systemic control and power structures. Not only that, I just took an obscure piece of philosophy and attached it the most soul sucking of employment experiences I’ve had. Crap.

Thanks, M.F. You did me a real solid there.

-If you are interested in reading the article I’ve referenced above, you can do so here.-


3 thoughts on “The heterotopia of the retail store; or in other words, French philosophy is killing me slowly.

  1. Graduate school can be funny that way. Next time something like that happens, try explaining the concept of a heterotopia to the customer who’s returning the socks. It might smooth things over a bit.

  2. Think of all the energy spent by academics to study historical places such as old churches and royal castles. Well, the same will happen in the future, but with offices and shopping malls. So, applying philosophy to these places is in a way more relevant than applying it to places that don’t belonging so much to our time.

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