Foucault in Context: Transitional Justice as a Heterotopic Object and Medium

by | 3 Nov 2021

In a lecture delivered in Tunisia in 1967, Michel Foucault referred to heterotopias as ‘des espaces autres’. A literal translation of this French phrase means ‘other spaces’. Foucault lists some such other spaces ranging from boarding schools and honeymoon hotels to cemeteries. He also says that the mirror as an object is a heterotopia or an espace autrewith the caveat that a mirror could also be a utopia or an ‘unreal’ space. It is this concept of a mirror as heterotopia that I equate to transitional justice processes as will be unpacked in the ensuing paragraphs. 

According to International Centre for Transitional Justice, transitional justice is a process used by countries which have experienced large scale and systematic human rights violations due to conflicts and repressive regimes that have incapacitated existing systems of justice from providing adequate redress. The quality of transitional justice that makes me perceive it as heterotopic is that it is othered by comparison. It is transplanted into a setting that has been in existence. The usual system has, by the very nature of having been in existence, developed a quality of being integral to the society. In other words people know whether to expect the system to work or malfunction. Yet, what to expect of the transitional justice system remains unclear due to its occupation of the espace autre. This is why transitional justice is heterotopic. 

A primary question that arises when presenting a process as being heterotopic is that it is not necessarily associated with a location (locus) unlike the list of heterotopias Foucault has dealt with in his lecture. However, Foucault says ‘heterotopias obviously take quite varied forms, and perhaps no one absolutely universal form of heterotopia would be found’. He therefore, leaves the interpretation of heterotopias sufficiently open for the inclusion of processes. 

But, why is it that I say that transitional justice is an object and medium of heterotopia akin to a mirror? A mirror possesses peculiar qualities, which are also comparable to processes of transitional justice. For instance, Visual Artist Knut Åsdam argues, drawing on Foucault, that ‘[h]eterotopia suspects, neutralises or inverses the relations which it signifies, mirrors or reflects’. These are also features of transitional justice processes which are expected to neutralise conflict contexts, reflect on power dynamics, and provide a moment of significance to address the existing imbalances. More importantly, it is because one suspects the capacities of existing systems that a transitional process is initiated. The similarities of a mirror and a transitional justice process as heterotopic are therefore abound. 

Yet, the process is not as simple as it appears. A transitional process, just like a mirror, can complicate understandings, nuances, observations, perceptions, and reality. They can both cause deviations from their respective purposes. This means that those involved in looking at a mirror, or participating in a transitional process may oscillate between the past, present, and the future thereby losing the opportunity to focus on the significance and implications of the present. 

Let me unfold that argument in relation to what happens when an individual stands in front of a mirror. If being mindful of the present moment, the observer can understand that it is their reflection that is being projected on it. This allows for the adoption of actions in accordance with what is signified at the present moment. The actions however, are to be implemented on the person standing before the mirror as opposed to on the reflection. 

There is a reality observable here. However, whether one engages with that reality is contingent upon the provisional. In other words, the if and the mindfulness matter. Depending on this, the distinction between the reality and the projection may or may not be evident to the one who stands before the mirror. 

Taken in that light, there are two ways in which the reality may dissolve into the reflections or projections of a mirror. First, our brains convince us that there is a left – right switch in the image when in actuality, it is an inversion of front – back which is irrelevant to my argument here. Second, the observer often loses sense of time and space when glaring at the reflection. The polarity between projection and reality and the observer’s understanding of that distinction are fundamental to conceptualising how transitional justice processes become heterotopic. It is the temporal – spatial context of the existence of the process, and the amount of significance attached to that context that determines whether the transitional process can or cannot reach its potential – in whatever way it is imagined. The primary need here is to comprehend what happens when one detaches from the actual temporal – spatial setting of the heterotopic object and medium. 

In the case of the mirror, this occurs in various forms. For instance, we may wonder whether others see us the way we see ourselves and we may obsess over injuries that are not objectively identifiable to an external observer. Yet we somehow become both internal and external to the process thereby also fashioning some insularity as against the material reality of the mirror. 

Transitional justice presents the same complexities. Especially in matters that require legal assessment or the determination of a penalty, there are external and objective criteria that law demands. While the individual involved in the process subjectively feels the injury, laws of transitional justice may refuse to grant redress – much like the outsider failing to see the injury we saw on the reflection of our face. This in no way weakens the validity of the subjective perception of the injury. Yet an immediate disjointedness between the reality and what is being reflected and acted on begins to manifest. This is only one heterotopic challenge of transitional justice.

The second challenge relates to temporal – spatial contexts which can also be unpacked in relation to a mirror. While gazing into a reflection, we may get lost in memories – history(ies?) across time and space(s). Or alternatively, we may project on what is yet to come – future(s) across time and space(s). This temporal – spatial blend weaken our consciousness of the material reality of our presence before the mirror. Ultimately both the looker and the medium become immaterial. They dilute into reflections and projections which are scattered across time(s) and space(s). 

The problem with this dispersal is that it then merges with subjectivities that taint the present moment. In transitional justice, this occurs through an infusion of understandings of historical wrongs and future expectations which are cast on the process. These perceptions are inherently (mis)guided by identity politics especially because the process is established within contexts where there are deep divisions premised on such identity politics. This suppresses the significance of the moment of transitional justice. The process then becomes ridden with repressions, conflicts, violations, and incapacities that were embedded in the existing system that first necessitated the establishment of a transitional justice process with a view to redressing experienced harms. Through these, the heterotopic medium becomes overshadowed. As a result, the process collapses. And, the reality perishes. 

The understanding that one’s reality could perish before a mirror (heterotopia) perhaps drove Nobel Prize winning English poet WB Yeats to plead in ‘A Prayer for My Daughter’ that the daughter not be granted beauty to the extent of being distraught ‘before a looking glass’. While I am aware of the deeply sexist, patriarchal, and patronising threads of the poem, this is neither the time nor the place for that commentary as that would distance me from the temporal – spatial setting of this piece. Transitioning to a work of literature more contemporaneous than that of Yeats, JK Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone comes to mind. In it, Rowling touches upon the concept of heterotopia in relation to the Mirror of Erised (desire read backwards). In this mirror, the observer sees the deepest desires in the form of reflections. These desires could be either in relation to the past or the future. Rowling portrays how parting from the present moment could lead to one being stuck in utopian or dystopian planes forgetting that the mirror is merely an object and medium. Using Dumbledore – a recurring main character – as her mouthpiece, Rowling says the happiest man on earth would look into the Mirror of Erised and ‘see himself exactly as he is’. This means that in that context, there will be no deviation from the temporal – spatial reality of the mirror as an object and medium of generating a reflection. 

What these works of literature coupled with the Foucauldian theory of heterotopia indicate is that it is essential to focus on the temporal and spatial setting in order to facilitate the potential / purpose of the heterotopic object and medium. For Foucault, this meant that ‘each heterotopia has a precise and determined function within a society and the same heterotopia can, according to the synchrony of the culture in which it occurs, have one function or another’. 

There are two elements here: one related to the precise function, and the other related to cultural influences on that function. If the temporal – spatial setting of heterotopia is not melded with cultural tropes which are varied between communities and across times and spaces, its precise function could be discovered and achieved. When this logic is applied to transitional contexts, it becomes clear that the precise function of transitional justice will vary in accordance with who is looking at it. The problem here is that what is perceived as the precise function by one group would not be the same for the other. This is often because transitional processes are established in deeply divided societies such as Argentina, Colombia, Nepal, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, South Africa, Sri Lanka, and Uganda where identity politics are deep rooted. The communities in such societies will determine what the function of transitional justice should be in accordance with their respective cultural synchronies thereby overshadowing the present setting of the transitional process. This is perhaps why the world is yet to see a truly successful transitional process that has brought meaningful transformation and stability to a state. 

The concern however, is that transitional processes are expected to facilitate transformations. According to Foucault’s six principles of heterotopology (principles for the description of heterotopias), several qualities of a heterotopic medium can be developed to show why transitional justice should lead to transformations if it is taken as a heterotopic medium. These qualities can be carved out from the foregoing analysis. 

A heterotopic medium: 

  • possesses a material reality disregarding whether it has a physical presence such as that of a mirror or whether it is a process that is galvanised in a temporal-spatial reality such as a transitional justice process adopted by a state; 
  • has a temporal – spatial presence; 
  • is a moment and mode of transition; and, 
  • possesses a transformative potential as a natural progression of the three preceding criteria. 

It is worth noticing that criteria (i) – (iii) are premised on the present reality. It flows logically therefore, that a deprioritisation of the present sabotages the transformative potentials of the medium of heterotopia. This is significant because, as Ruti G Teitel’s work suggests, transitional justice processes are inherently interlinked with the relation of law to political transformation (p.4). More recently, for instance through From Transitional to Transformative Justice, attention has been drawn to the transformative potential transitional justice has not only on politics, but on law, society, and individuals. 

Yet, as is clear from the analysis of how different groups perceive the precise function of a transitional process, what we are left with is a deprioritisation of the present moment and a rise of alterity bounded with the object and medium of heterotopia. This coerces the one who experiences the process to be stuck in temporalities, spaces, and the narrative dynamics that are particular to those circumstances and are hence not the factors by which the object and medium of heterotopia should be guided by. This occupies a disjointed discursive space which are then used for questioning the surrounding ‘truths’, ‘knowledge’, or ‘expectations’ one has cast on the reality of the process of transitional justice. The twin fallacy here is that the projections are placed in historical or futuristic temporalities which transcend the present, and the expectations that are accordingly formulated assume a fixed quality thereby preventing the mobility of the transitional mode and moment of the heterotopic medium. 

Ultimately, transitional justice also falls prey to the fate of a mirror in that it becomes utopian – ‘a site with no real place’. What Foucault opened up for interpretation therefore closes on itself. The inability of transitional justice to perform its precise function (whatever that maybe) and achieve its transformatory potential make it ‘fundamentally unreal’. Transitional justice fails therefore in its purpose as a heterotopia as it can no longer function as the othered space that provides a breakaway from existing systemic incapacities.  


  1. Open camps in today’s Europe play such a role. “The inability of transitional justice to perform its precise function (whatever that maybe) and achieve its transformatory potential make it ‘fundamentally unreal’.” It is not right saying that these spaces are fundamentally unreal, they are very real, they do their function…

    • Thank you for your comment. It is of course important to continue to question what makes it real or unreal. What TJ’s function(s) is(are). When, where, and how they do they work? Who works them, and who do these functions and potentials work for and to what extent. The reality and unreality would be dependent on these.


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