Introducing Psychogeography

 

We are indebted to Emma Smith – Masters student at the University of Derby – for this excellent interpretation of the term ‘psychogeography’

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‘Psychogeography could set for itself the study of the precise laws and specific effects of the geographical environment consciously organized or not, on the emotions and behaviour of individuals.’[1]

Guy Debord "Psychogeographique"

[2] The term psychogeography is traced back to the Situationist International group headed by Guy-Ernest Debord in the 1950’s.  It seems that whichever pathway one undertakes to find a fixed meaning, Debord’s quote materialises.  This definition is fundamental to the concept of psychogeography as a framework for theoretical approaches, and provides researchers from multi-disciplinary fields  a variety of directions to explore.  As theories concerning identity are constantly developing, this particular connection between the individual and an environment is crucial.  It is impossible to have a subject removed from an environment, therefore be it urban, rural, or even suburban, familiar or newly discovered; an individual responds to the surrounding landscape and consequently develops new characteristics to their identity.  Notions of conflicts and relationships in general between a person and the environment are apparent in much earlier texts such as Mary Wollestonecraft’s  A Short Residence in Sweden whose travel writing genre combines personal reflection with a critique of society and industry in a geographical context.  Her letters relay this connection, ‘The view of this wild coast, as we sailed along it, afforded me to a continual subject for meditation.’[3] Here it is clear that the landscape not only performed the role of muse, but also prompted the possibility of self-reflection for an individual.  Writers on psychogeography such as Merlin Coverley also claim that this understanding of psychogeography is apparent in many earlier writers such as Thomas deQuincey  which is entirely plausible due to the theoretical connection of identity and environment, and in particular the notions of the dérive.  Debord and his fellow psychogeographers embraced the practical and conscious act of the dérive through the cities, to explore unusual, less aesthetically pleasing areas of Paris in a less systematic way. Debord himself writes, ‘The dérive [literally: “drifting”], a technique of rapid passage through varied ambiances.  Dérives involve playful-constructive behaviour and awareness of psychogeographical effects, and are thus quite different from the classic notions of journey or stroll.  In a dérive one or more persons … let themselves be drawn by the attractions of the terrain and the encounters they find there.’[4]  This playful experimentation and display of pushing boundaries is placed within the contextual period of the avant-garde movement which enabled the individual to engage with innovative and artistic ways of expressing themselves and ultimately reflecting on their society which includes their environment.

Self & Steadman "Psychogeography"

Although psychogeography has never left the field of theoretical practice per se, it has continuously blended into the background.  Will Self and Ralph Steadman have brought the concept of psychogeography firmly into the 21st Century with their articles in TheIndependent combining in publication to produce the texts Psychogeography and Psycho Too.  Here Self introduces psychogeography as a concept with his detailed account of his purposeful and deliberate walk from Stockwell in south London to the Lower East Side of Manhattan.  Self provides the reader with his reasons for the walk, and subsequently what separates his notions of psychogeography from earlier examples such as J.G.Ballard and Iain Sinclair.  Self asserts his reason for walking to New York was, ‘because I had business there, to explore; and, also, because in so doing, I hoped to suture up the wounds in my own, divided psyche: to sew together my American and my English flesh.’[6] Here it is clear that Self believed that this journey as a physical and psychological exploration would result in a clearer, more unified sense of self.   Ralph Steadman’s artwork [5] which accompanies Self’s writing not only enhances Self’s deeply reflexive prose but can also be considered as a text entire.  He visually and aesthetically represents the complexity of relationships between individuals and their locality through a modern form which displays his immediately recognisable cartoon style. By creatively representing countries, buildings, monuments and the natural landscape of cliff edges, deserts and coastlines (to name a few) emphasises how the environment delivers an  enormous impact on the individual, moulds their experiences and the tensions and fluidity that envelopes both land and person resulting in a sensual and spiritual relationship.

It is not only aesthetically pleasing settings which can capture our senses of self, or spark a connection between person and place; psychogeography can be seen to relate to many types of exploration and representation.  Urban explorers generally prefer to find disused sites, and to visit places the general public would not normally like to go, this is not only to seek and capture the heritage of a particular place but could also be a way of coping with a sense of nostalgia and the degeneration of a cultural site.  There are many web sites which display photographs taken of derelict buildings, factories, hospitals and even asylums which provoke many critiques of historical, social and political structures.  It is through the tangible connectivity of these spaces that it becomes more apparent that not only is there the effect an environment has on an individual but also the effect an individual can have on a place.  A text which poignantly represents some of England’s disregarded landscapes is Edgelands written by Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts.  This book celebrates a ‘debateable zone’ which they argue we do not even acknowledge in our everyday lives.   As they explain, ‘edgelands, by and large, are not meant to be seen, except perhaps as a blur from a car window, or as a backdrop to our most routine and mundane activities.  Edgelands are part of the gravitational field of all our larger urban areas, a texture we build up speed to escape…The smaller identities of things in the edgelands have remained largely invisible to most of us.’[7]  The reader learns this is potentially a true loss in terms of life experience.  The reference made to ‘so-called psychogeographers’ has a negative implication in terms of a general consensus that these in-between spaces ‘are merely a backdrop for bleak observations on the mess we humans have made of our lives, landscapes, politics and each other.’[8] This can be seen in some approaches to psychogeography, however, it is equally apparent that groups of psychogeographers also place an importance on visiting, experiencing and exhibiting their responses to edgelands.  It could be argued that any exploration and subsequent representation of experiences will create ripples in the fluidity between person and place, and furthermore becomes a firm foundation when considering a variety of theoretical critiques.

Alvar Aalto - tactile architecture

By exploring the notions of psychogeography it is possible to investigate many theoretical practices with the environment and the psyche as a subject.  Urban, identity and architectural theories are clear approaches where psychogeography could aid debate.  Architectural theory is a key example of this dual relationship and how considerations are given to the sensual rapport between architecture, environment and the body when designing buildings and even urban planning.  Kenneth Frampton exhibits this consideration in his essay, ‘Towards a Critical Regionalism: Six Points for an Architecture of Resistance’.   When concluding his essay, Frampton touches on significant examples of psychogeographical traces.  He asserts, ‘The tactile resilience of the place-form and the capacity of the body to read the environment in terms other than those of sight alone suggests a potential strategy for resisting the domination of universal technology.’[9] This is further elaborated by Frampton’s description of, ‘ [T]he kinetic impetus of the body in climbing the stair is thus checked by the friction of the steps, which are “read” soon after in contrast to the timber floor.’[10]  When acknowledging that senses other than sight are as important for a person to connect with a place-form this emphasises the possibilities of responding to any environment on a multitude of levels, particularly psychologically.  By ascending stairs and ‘reading’ them emphasises not only physical connection and movement to the stairs but also a necessity to engage with the setting on a much more complex level. 

Juhani Pallasmaa also appreciates and expresses the importance of a person’s perception in context with the environment, in his text The Eyes of the Skin he considers the importance of architectural phenomenology and how experiences of architecture have been suppressed and limited by the importance placed on the sense of sight.  Consequently, he calls for the necessity to combine the senses and embrace the knowledge of how a body, a person responds to their environment.  He argues,

‘All the senses, including vision, are extensions of the tactile sense; the senses are specialisations of skin tissue, and all sensory experiences are modes of touching and thus related to tactility.  Our contact with the world takes place at the boundary line of the self through specialised parts of our enveloping membrane’.[11]

This is a clear example of psychogeography, the psychological and physical experience of an individual and their surroundings through sensory perception.  Pallasmaa further develops this notion,

‘Touch is the sensory mode that integrates our experience of the world with that of ourselves.  Even visual perceptions are fused and integrated into the haptic continuum of the self; my body remembers who I am and where I am located in the world.  My body is truly the navel of my world, not in the sense of the viewing point of the central perspective, but as the very locus of reference, memory, imagination and integration. … The ultimate meaning of any building is beyond architecture; it directs our consciousness back to the world and towards our sense of self and being’.

It could be argued that this theoretical concept is not limited to architecture in terms of buildings and cities, these sensory principles can be applied to any given environmental landscape.

The possibilities the concept of psychogeography provides are unlimited.   It can provide a framework for literary critiques in terms of identity, and space and place, journeys of a physical or metaphorical nature and most importantly the development of identity and characteristics in synch with a static or changing environment.  Theoretically psychology travels with the rhizomatic metaphor associated with an unveiling perception of critical regionalism; these ideas are not solely fixed in contemporary literary works, but can meander and transgress a plethora of disciplines and eras with virility and the excitement of interesting discoveries.


[1] Debord, Guy-Ernest, Introduction to a Critique of Urban Geography, http://library.nothingness.org/articles/SI/en/display/2 Accessed 3/3/2011, 10:13.

[2] http://imaginarymuseum.org/LPG/debordpsychogeo.jpg Accessed 3/3/2011, 9:37.

[3] Wollestonecraft, Mary, A Short Residence in Sweden, London: Penguin Books Ltd, 1987, p 130.

[4] Debord, Guy-Ernest, Theory of the Dérive., http://library.nothingness.org/articles/all/all/display/314 Acessed 3/3/2011, 14:50

[5] Steadman, Ralph, Psychogeography, front cover.

[6] Self, Will, Psychogeography, London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2007, p 13-14.

[7] Farley, Paul and Symmons Roberts, Michael, Edgelands, London: Jonathan Cape, 2011, p5.

[8] Farley, Paul and Symmons Roberts, Michael, Edgelands, p 9.

[9] Frampton, Kenneth, ‘Towards a Critical Regionalism: Six Points for an Architecture of Resistance’, in Foster, Hal,(ed), Postmodern Culture, Verso, 1990, p28.

[10] Frampton, Kenneth, ‘Towards a Critical Regionalism: Six Points for an Architecture of Resistance’, p 28.

[11] Pallasmaa, Juhani, The Eyes of the Skin, West Sussex: John Wiley & Sons Ltd, 2005, p 10-11

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