By Nick Dilonardo
I recently returned from 20 days in London. The subject of the course was Shakespeare. We studied him around a central concept: heterotopia. It has to do with the way in which place can allow for us to explore and negotiate different values, ideas and selves by virtue of location. It’s like a mirror.
You stare into a mirror, and you see yourself reflected and refracted. It’s not exactly you. It’s a you that serves a purpose. You have to – you should at least – be aware and acknowledge that the self you see isn’t the way others see you. In a mirror, like a photograph, the only way to achieve something close to what others see is to flip the image in Photoshop. Outside of that truth in a vacuum, it’s the closest we can get.
Heterotopia is similar. We see London on stage or even San Diego in an ad on TV. How does the image we see in the ad help us negotiate our own understanding of our subject position relative to the discourse of San Diego? I see where I live on TV. It most likely isn’t even an “accurate” or fair depiction of it. But what does it give me?
We saw London on stage. We heard actors on a stage in London, pretending to be in London. It’s a series of layers. It’s like an onion. It’s like a mirror. What does it reveal?
Coming back to campus, I can’t help but apply the concept of heterotopia to USD. How does our campus function as a heterotopia? Think of it this way:
Where else can you wear the letters of a dead alphabet on your jacket be understood as part of a community? Where else does “Alpha Phi” mean anything, if not on our campus? There are many chapters of Alpha Phi, as there are any sorority or fraternity. But they aren’t all the same, and the status that comes with one chapter may not be the same at another. When one thinks of an “Alpha Phi,” an entire set of characteristics comes to mind; they may not be the same somewhere else.
How does our image of ourselves as students at USD shape us? How does USD as a place figure us? How does it do its work on us as subjects? We are subjects of the university. We may pay fifty grand a year to attend, but make no mistake, we are subject to its authority and to its power. If the university was subject to us, I have a feeling I wouldn’t be charged $7.50 for an Acai Bowl or over three dollars for a cup of OJ. But I could be wrong.
How does our concept of USD as a place shape our concept of ourselves? I am a Torero, but what does that mean? A simple way of getting at it is to try and imagine what significance being a Torero might have. We are who we are in relation to what we are like and what we are not. Being a Torero is relative to being an Aztec, an Anteater, and whatever the hell mascot they have for UCSD. How does our place differ? What does USD mean?
Take a look around. How do Lamborghinis and Ferraris rolling down Alcala establish our identity in our eyes, and in the eyes of others? How do the shirts sororities wear or the signs they paint with their clever slogans construct us? What significance does our bistro that serves both bbq and sushi say about us? The question is: How can we come to understand ourselves and our world through an understanding of places themselves?
I don’t know if I can answer it. I tried to over those twenty days in London this January. When it comes to USD, I’ve been thinking about it a lot. If definition comes from difference, I can safely say USD has helped define me to myself a lot. I know what I’m not. At least I can tell you that. And if I ever forget, I can take a stroll past Serra and down Alcala Way, the sun in my eyes, the wind off the ocean rising over the mesa, the blasted Kanye and dubstep in my ears, the siren songs of the University of San Diego, bringing me back to myself in peace.