We are not arguing here that websites generally constitute what Foucault understood as a "living space." Websites are merely linked archives, what Foucault might have described as problems in contemporary technical work of digital storage. We are suggesting, however, that certain websites, as they are circumscribed by other forms of communicative functions and media, tend toward heterotopic places that resemble "real places" which are something like counter-sites, a kind of effectively enacted utopia in which the real sites, all the other real sites that can be found within the culture, are simultaneously represented, contested, and inverted" (Foucault 24). As soon as we begin to understand certain archival websites as heterotopic or heterotopic-like spaces, we can begin to understand how new (or abnormal) discourse of archival models might help shift the perceived truth about existing publication models.
The physics e-print archive site that we introduce, for example, is distinct from all others. It has a precise and determined function, contains and juxtaposes varied and incompatible virtual spaces, is demarcated by boundaries and entry ways, and has a specific function in relation to all other spaces (particularly publishing houses which it reflects and inverts). This archival website is actually a collection of esoteric (primarily math, physics, and nonlinear sciences) author-published, pre-print texts, serving "over 35,000 users worldwide from over 70 countries and process[ing] more than 70,000 electronic transactions per day" (Ginsparg, "Winners and Losers"). This e-print archive reflects a "working" research community that is constantly reading, writing, refereeing, and collaborating. The metaphor of a working community distinguishes this archive, created in 1991, from most others, which borrow the library metaphor, a physical structure (or digital space) where materials are "housed."
Like others of Foucault's heterotopias, this website serves as a mirror in the utopian sense. It constructs an ideal community of like-minded physics and math professionals who value new knowledge more than validation of their work in print journals. The time costs of print production outweigh the professional costs of pre-print distribution of their work. Writers like Paul Ginsparg, who describe the impact of such e-print archives, suggest that these systematic preprint systems serve "closed peer communit[ies and] may signal a greater intrinsic likelihood for acceptance and utility of free electronic dissemination of unreviewed material" ("Winners and Losers"). Writers like Ginsparg see themselves in an "unreal, virtual space that opens up behind the surface" (Foucault 24). The openings act as a mirror, a "placeless place where we might see ourselves differently"--as writers, authors, and, ultimately, publishers.
To describe the physics e-print archive as a heterotopia is to stretch the definition of "site" as Foucault imagined it. We realize that this working research community is not manifest in the archive itself like the communities that exist in certain MOOs, MUDs and listservs. Unlike these interactive spaces, the archive itself is not a living space governed by problems of "knowing what relations of propinquity, what type of storage, circulation, marking, and classification of human elements should be adopted in a given situation in order to achieve a given end" (23). Rather, this archive is a reflection of and pointer to that community. This uncomfortable stretch need not stop us, however, from examining a range of archival websites that attempt to mimic real spaces, some more heterotopic than others. A study of these sites leads us to our description of truly heterotopic archival sites online.