Psychogeography: a beginner’s guide. Unfold a street map of London, place a glass, rim down, anywhere on the map, and draw round its edge. Pick up the map, go out in the city, and walk the circle, keeping as close as you can to the curve. Record the experience as you go, in whatever medium you favour: film, photograph, manuscript, tape.

Psychogeography has been on my list of things to read about since early last spring when I read blogger Peter Elmlund about Guy Debord and the Situationists. Last week, Robert MacFarlane of the Times Literary Supplement reviewed Iain Sinclair’s Edge of the Orison (Amazon), and in doing so briefly summarized what psychogeography is about.

I was reminded of an idea I had ten years ago, about a game. I was going to take a couple of pictures around Stockholm, and the players would try to figure out where each of them was taken, then mark that spot with a dot on a map of the city, and finally they would try to figure out how to connect the dots, to make a picture.

The game master would essentially proceed much as the psychogeographer in organizing the game. For the players, the game would be psychogeography in reverse.

Debord and the Situationists were looking for ways to explode the herd-think of the urban masses, and to disrupt their choreographed obedience to the sign-making habits of capitalism. To these ends, they developed the idea of the ‘dérive’ or ‘drift’: the randomly motivated walk [...] The dériveur was thus a radical update of the nineteenth-century figure of the flâneur: the pedestrian who wandered, idled and watched, and who – as Walter Benjamin pointed out – had been co-opted and degraded by capitalism into the figure of the shopper, aimlessly dot-to-dotting points of purchase.

The dérive was an aspect of the Situationists’ wider drive to achieve a revolutionary transformation of everyday life. Specifically, it offered a way to see past or through what Debord called ‘the society of spectacle’. By forcing an arbitrariness of route, and insisting on pedestrianism, the dériveur was, in theory, brought to experience astonishment upon the terrain of familiarity, and was more sensitive to the hidden histories and encrypted events of the city.

I’m sympathetic to the idea of the flâneur. When I visit new cities, I like to get to know them by foot. Even in Stockholm, I prefer to walk, but I often forget to watch what’s around. Countless times I have been surprised by the look of buildings on routes I take every day. I’d like to always be as aware as when visiting a city for the first time.

(Reading MacFarlane’s review I realized how simple cities are. For instance, walking a familiar route in the opposite direction, the route is still very familiar. It’s not as in the woods where the terrain is completely foreign in the opposite direction. Songlines, imageability.)

MacFarlane lists a number of writers whose works resemble (some before the fact; such as Defoe, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Kafka) or are inspired by the psychogeographic method (Will Self, W.G. Sebald, Stewart Home). Among these are Paul Auster’s City of Glass, the first part of The New York Trilogy, and I realize it might have unconsciously inspired my game idea (a private eye follows a person’s daily walks and records them on a map; each of which forms the shape of a letter).

As for Iain Sinclair:

All of Sinclair’s books – novels, poems, essays, uncategorizable travelogues – have turned psychogeographic tricks. But the technique has been most inventively successfully used in the trilogy of which Edge of the Orison is the grimly brilliant concluding part.

The first and second parts are Lights Out for the Territory and London Orbital.

The above was posted to my personal weblog on October 22, 2005. My name is Peter Lindberg and I am a thirtysomething software developer and dad living in Stockholm, Sweden. Here, you’ll find posts in English and Swedish about whatever happens to interest me for the moment.


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