Reification in the consumer society

Image: Alexander Zvir


Currently, emancipation is not free and the construction of new forms of sociability is not free from advertisements or publicity.

“The devaluation of the human world increases in direct proportion to the valuation of the world of things” (Karl Marx).

When taking an aesthetic walk in the midst of large urban centers, it is possible to perceive a tension between contemporary architectural design and the logic of capitalist consumption. Among countless examples of this tension, what first strikes the eye are the large buildings covered in reflective glass, built with large and inviting open spaces on the floors that are located on the ground floor. Initially designed to integrate the dynamics of the streets with the seductive living areas, thus constituting a threshold between the public and the private, these places become increasingly objectified by real estate speculation that forces the owner to besieged behind bars. or dense urban gardens that remove original architectural design features.

In a similar way, other spaces such as museums, artistic productions in public places, gardens, fairs, belvederes or old constructions, are castellated, intimidated and cowed by stores and restaurants that serve not only as physical barriers, but also as barriers that impede access to these spaces of subjectivity.

These barriers reinforce the logic of capital, show that currently emancipation is not free and that the construction of new forms of sociability is not free from advertising or publicity. In turn, the physical barriers to the supply of products and services must first be overcome, and then think about possible results of a new and creative relationship between space and spectator. This urbanistic aporophobia is undoubtedly symptomatic since, anticipated by the utopian-negative thinking of the situationists in the late 1960s, we can state that the dynamics of capital has been taking emancipatory spaces by storm and increasingly hijacking this valuable instrument of social reconstruction that These are called “heterotopic spaces”.

Currently, thinkers such as Jacques Rancière offer alternatives to contemporary sociocultural criticism, proposing a new approach to the fight against the realm of appearances and the solid manifestation of exacerbated consumption.

Like Jacques Rancière, and emblematic in every sense, Michel Foucault's concept of “heterotopia” is fundamental to understanding spaces of subjectivity and their importance in the formation of society. These spaces cannot be forgotten or objectified, as they allow individuals to have a laboratory experience as part of a community.

Based on these principles, we will dynamically present the process of reification of heterotopic spaces by the logic of capital and its possible consequences in the emancipatory project of society. Initially, we will analyze the theoretical principle of Foucauldian heterotopia, then we will examine the forces that are being responsible for reifying them.


Heterotopia as a laboratory space

By unfolding the concepts of positive utopia and negative utopia that ran through the modernist vanguards, Michel Foucault elaborates the concept of “heterotopia”, a kind of affective topology in which he describes places that operate in non-hegemonic conditions and that subjectify spaces in contrast to the existing reality. . While utopia is a tensioning force that persists in an ideal of civilization in contrast to the present, heterotopias are dual places within the existing space-time, in which a subjective transformation is experienced.

Foucault then articulates four types of heterotopia, starting with the crisis heterotopia, which are places normally reserved for individuals who find themselves in a situation of imbalance in relation to society. Usually located in sacred places at the same time as they are places of privilege, these spaces are located far from the eyes of a society, as subjectivity is linked to a specific and passing moment of an individual. Military barracks and maternity hospitals are examples of crisis heterotopias.

Deviation heterotopias are spaces located on the outskirts of urban centers where subjectivity is related to unwanted behavior, or misaligned with current logic and social norms. Asylums, prisons and psychiatric hospitals are examples of this type of heterotopia.

A third type of heterotopia described by Foucault is the temporal heterotopias or also called heterochronies. They are spaces in which we try to gather objects of representation from different places, periods and contexts. There are small or large museums, cultural centers, sculptures, statues, works of art in public or private places, old buildings, gardens, squares and parks, which bring together different stories from different places and different chronologies. Consequently, these heterochronies can transport the willing spectator to other places and historically different times, thus allowing us to recreate our existing reality.

Finally, the heterotopia of passage that emphasizes the opening and closing system existing between these places and their surrounding space. This characteristic is also present in other heterotopic modalities, however, in passing heterotopias it is evident the contestation of other spaces by creating an illusion that denounces reality, or creating another reality that seeks perfection. Old colonies, parishes, schools, holiday clubs and fraternal organizations are some of the places that represent this type of heterotopia.

In general, Foucault presents us with heterotopias as spaces devoid of physical borders and at the same time transitory. In other words, a new heterotopic space can be created, while another ceases to exist. For Michael Foucault “a civilization without heterotopic places are like children whose parents did not have a big bed in which they could play”, their importance is vital in society and without them “their dreams are fading, espionage replaces adventure, and police truculence, the sunny beauty of cities” (Foucault 2013 p. 30).

Therefore, heterotopias not only conceive cities as we know them, but are key factors for us to learn in community. With them, we create, share and absorb a new vision of reality, becoming active participants, instead of being seduced by clichéd images, to become passive spectators of the world around us.

However, this logic of unbridled consumption is fortuitously taking over heterotopic spaces, with the consent of those who should protect them. Given this, if heterotopias can be thought of as places that change the sensitive forms of human experience, we can also understand them as laboratory spaces for exchange between equals. The contemplation of the appearances produced by the spectacularization of these spaces separates, at first, critical reflection from the contemplated images. Capitalist life is therefore mediocre; while art and heterotopic places show that life should be great.

If we think of undertaking a reformulation of heterotopic spaces, it is not surprising that such thinking is supported by Guy Debord's own critique of the spectacle, who, together with the situationists, warned that the society of the spectacle is "a worldview that has become objectified", that in turn, understands the capitalist logic as responsible for this anesthesia of individuals in large cities (Debord 2016 p. 14).

Observing this reification in spaces designed to build social culture and raise critical thinking, such as heterochronies or heterotopias in passing; we will see that the same institutions that criticize the interaction between the logic of the spectacle and the spaces that trigger the social imaginary, become conniving by presenting consumption barriers, before offering access to heterotopic spaces. Among numerous examples, I cannot fail to mention the former mansion of the Hannud Family located on Av. Paulista, 1811; a true architectural work of art, full of stories and teachings, which is taken over by advertisements for a chain of restaurants, transforming this old building into a real food court. What we are seeing is the reification of heterotopic spaces due to the totalizing spectacularization of exacerbated capitalism that inserts the spectator into an ideologically premeditated circuit.

One of the contemporary thinkers who present a different way out of this phenomenon is undoubtedly Jacques Rancière. Starting from Debord's situationist exhibitions, Rancière suggests subverting the question, by stating that the spectator is an active part of the constitution of the spaces he observes and of the possibilities that arise from the interaction within these spaces in the way they present themselves.

According to Jacques Rancière, the relationship between the spectator and the observed object is always mediated by a third party. Be it a museum, a curator or the State itself, this relationship has always been a perspective of freedom that imposes an idea of ​​distancing between the viewer and artistic intentionality. Likewise, heterotopic spaces, when thought to offer a new possibility of community, lose their effect when confronted with the logic of capitalism. This happens because the logic of consumption develops, it evolves like a computer algorithm, transforming work into fun and exploration into entertainment.

Despite this consumerist logic making heterotopias spaces conditioned, amputated and kidnapped by products and services, Jacques Rancière first proposes “the refusal of mediation, since the refusal of the third party is the affirmation of a community essence” (RANCIÈRE, 2012 P. 19), then, the abolition of the idea of ​​the master and the ignorant, that is, the demand for a spectator as an active interpreter and in search of his own history.

In this sense, the emancipation of the spectator in face of the spectacularization of the spaces, is in making efforts in the production of a new context together with other spectators. It is by dispensing with the fantasy produced by spectacularization that its power of perceptive deviation is revoked, thus resuming community power and heterogeneous relationships.

At Avenida Paulista number 2424, is the Instituto Moreira Salles, an important cultural center located in an imposing building, with a glass facade, photographic exhibitions, library and exhibitions. At the back of the building, the first sculpture by the American artist Richard Serra open to permanent public visitation in Latin America is on display, Echo (2019)[I]

Figure 1 - Work Echo by Richard Serra; IMS – ground floor

Source: Author's image, 2022

Consisting of two 18,6 m high steel plates, each weighing 70,5 tons, the work Echo it represents the existing tension between brutality and lightness, between industrialization resulting from the technical-scientific revolution, and the simplicity of forms. At first, one might think that the work is in a much smaller space than it could be (figure 01), however, the work was designed and built by Richard Serra to occupy this place, thus being able to assimilate at the same time the concept of proportion of spaces.

The plates are stuck in the ground in an inclination that is better perceived because they are parallel to the building, in addition, the highest part of the plate ends at the height of the second floor of the building, where there is an opening in the facade that allows the visualization of the spectator from top to bottom (figure 02).

Figure 2 - Visitors taking pictures of Richard Serra's Echo; IMS – second floor

Source: Author's image, 2022

Richard Serra's work was made to be interactive, touched and passed through, where interference in the work and the potential consequences of this freedom reflect the reality of a society, allowing subjectivity to be transformed into reflection. However, the work is objectified and physically enclosed by a refined restaurant located on the ground floor. The restaurant, like a wall, transformed the installation area into a waiting area for lunch and dinner tables (figure 3).

Figure 3 - Restaurant in front of the work Echo by Richard Serra; IMS – ground floor

Source: Author's image, 2022

The same occurs on the second floor of the building (figure 4), where interaction with the work takes place from above in a new perspective. However, this is only possible after passing through a food court where there is a cafeteria that occupies the entire peripheral view of the space.

Figure 4 - Café in front of Richard Serra's Echo; IMS – second floor

Source: Author's image, 2022

It is important to point out that this is not a matter of modifying the expographic form, since we have already observed that the artist conceived the sculpture after designing the building plan. It is, therefore, about questioning the perceptual deviation and the negative impact that both the café and the restaurant bring to the meeting of spectators willing to share experiences and questions.

Figure 5 - View of the restaurant from the installation area; IMS – ground floor

Source: Author's image, 2022

It is by observing the restaurant from the point of view of the work (figure 5) that the perceptive deviation that this phenomenon presents becomes clear. While waiting for the meal, the customer observes the steel plates as objects and not as Art, in the same way the spectator on the platform feels observed not by equals, but by consumers, by others, elsewhere. This capitalist showcase that attacks the viewer puts him back in the world of consumption, so that the latter sees the work as a thing again, does not interact with it, or with the other who is beside him. Thus, we lost another heterotopic space.



We cannot ignore that the capitalist logic forces individuals to separate themselves in a predatory movement that arbitrarily reifies heterotopic spaces, ensuring that these properties are in the hands of the owners of capital to generate nothing but profit. However, when we think about the spectator's relationship with himself and with the other, we can conceive a reflection on the importance of rethinking subjectivity spaces, keeping them alive in the construction of critical thinking within a community.

Within this conception, the restriction of supply and consumption cannot be thought of as something fundamental for the maintenance of these spaces. Therefore, heterotopias will only be dynamic and aligned with the existing condition if they express the shuffling of the position between the artist and the spectator; in breaking the border between the proposal of the first and the subjectivity of the second.

Therefore, when we observe carefully, we can say that there are still other ways of dealing with social emancipation. Because, as long as it is possible to question the world around us, we will seek innovative actions and other ways of presenting artistic work, insofar as the subject will continue to expand his intangible capital.

*Rodrigo Mantoan Cavalcante Muniz is gstudying philosophy at the University of São Paulo.


DEBORD, Guy. The Society of the Spectacle. Translation: Estela dos Santos Abreu. Rio de Janeiro: Counterpoint, 1997.

FOUCAULT, Michael. The utopian body, the heterotopias. Translation: Salma Tannus Muchail. São Paulo: n-1 Editions, 2013.

RANCIÈRE, Jacques. the emancipated spectator. Translation: Ivone C. Benedetti. São Paulo: Editora WMF Martins Fontes, 2012.

ECHO by Richard Serra, Moreira Salles Institute, São Paulo, 30/01/2023. Available in:


[I] Information taken from the Instituto Moreira Salles website according to the bibliographic reference.

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