Psychogeography has been emerging as a dimension in my life for a good few years – a way of navigating and making sense of my own personal space, and a paradigm worthy of use interrogating professional, social and cultural evidence and ideas in research. I make these claims (I’d previously even started to try to integrate it into the curriculum while I was still teaching public relations at university) yet, beyond actually walking, sensing, and reflecting, I had yet to invest much energy in reading around the subject. Luckily, Coverley’s paperback on the topic has come to my rescue, and is the ‘all points’ introductory text that many have rightly come to recommend. [“Psychogeography”, Merlin Coverley, (2018) Harpenden: Oldcastle Books]
The book takes a good wander around the terrain which the subject inhabits, highlighting the various strands which bring their own shades to this particularly vague of topics, and collecting useful contributions. from them all.
“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 into 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. Catch the textual run-off of the streets; the graffiti. the branded litter, the snatches of conversation. Cut for sign. Log the data-stream. Be alert to the happenstance of metaphors, watch for visual rhymes, coincidences, analogies, family resemblances, the changing moods of the street. Complete the circle and the record ends. Walking makes for content; footage for footage.” [Robert MacFarlane, ‘A Road of One’s Own: Past and Present Artists of the Randomly Motivated Walk’, Times Literary Supplement, 07/10/05, 3-4, pg.3.]
I’d always understood that psycogeography was about exploring how a place makes us feel and behave, so getting beyond simple physical, and human geographical subject labels. It’s a lot more than that. The book asserts that psychogeography is neither a political creed (which has mainly been embraced by the Situationalists), nor a literary movement, an ecological fashion, nor a set of ‘New Age’ ideas, or avant-garde practices, but instead, it charts an ever-moving definition which draws on all for sources of inspiration.
One of the most literal definitions to which the book repeatedly returns is that ‘point where psychology and geography intersect‘, and the practice of walking, through which to experience it is central too, although more recent writers have expanded this to included other forms of transportation, such as train, bus, car and plane.
I suppose an aspect which has always appealed to me is that where there is also a preoccupation with drawing on the past, and what it has to tell us through the lived topology of place. For some people, this goes as far as to include the occult, and the New Age too. I have always been interested in how two very similar, but neighbouring places can have very different personalities, and how such effects can endure over time. A friend of mine more aptly call’s this a place’s ‘soul’. The book starts to introduce how this is indeed an aspect of psychogeography.
While I wanted to get straight onto the contemporary and existential aspects of the practice, I found the historical and literary chapters really helpful, not only in charting its development, but helping to unravel particular characteristics of the practice, and what they can achieve. The book takes us through Daniel Defoe, Robinson Crusoe and a reimaging of the streets of London; William Blake and his visionary, transformative topography of London; Thomas de Quincey’s dream-like wanders, and metaphorical quests, such as for a ‘North West passage’; Robert Louis Stevenson’s gothic trawls of gruesome, yet entrancing streets of Victorian times; Arthur Machen’s art of wandering, particularly provoked by constantly looking for the unknown; and, Alfred Watkins and the near occult, hypothetical alignment of places or features with a wider geographic, spiritual or religious significance.
As well as in London, the book spends time in Paris, looking at the idea of the flaneur – and flags up one the huge issues, until recently, with the whole tradition – it’s near exclusion of a female perspective. While here, it touches on the debate over whether the idea is about being an observer, or a participant; spectator or agitator? Loner, or alone in a crowd? Can it be practiced sitting down, from a chair, as mental travel? Solitude is a concept which is something to which I will return. And when it moves on to examine the calls on it by the more avant-garde and the Surrealists, we touch on on the role space, and performance play in its discharge, and in doing so, I for one am invigorated by how it might wake us up to what our current political, economic and environment balance sheets are doing to our daily inter-actions with the places we inhabit, often in more of a sleep-walk, than anything than a real relationship of any kind with our surrounds.
Undirected ambling.?Dreamlike wandering? Detached observation? Committed and involved practice? Drifting purposefully? Purposeful gait? Pedestrianised stalking? Deep typology (as coined by Nick Papadimitrou)? Eavesdropping? The book provides so many ways of looking at the the practice.
“I’ve taken to long distance walking as a means of dissolving the mechanised matrix which compresses the space-time continuum, and decouples humans from physical geography. So this isn’t walking for pleasure – that would be merely frivolous or even for exercise, which would be tedious.” [Will Self, ‘Psychogeography #1, A walk though time and space,’ The Independent, 03/10/03]
Self is one of a number of contemporary authors who have embraced psychogeography in their writing, both fiction, and non-fiction. Iain Sinclair has done much to re-examine the practice, for examine, using the idea of the fugueur (who is fleeing, escaping) to chart things, as well as the flaneur. He has also discussed the obsessive charting, documenting, and journaling/storying which can accompany all of this. Some can practice it in a very progressive, reclaiming, power challenging fashion; others can interpret it as an extremely conservative, affirming, identity expressive form. There is a wide spectrum, as with everything.
This is the perfect introductory book. As most reviews have said, “it does what it says on the tin”, with plenty of accurate references underpinning it.
I am fascinated by psychogeography on a personal level. It really speaks to me, and helps me unravel the relationship I have with my town, and county, knowing I have been able to chart stories for generations of my family back past the year 1000, and in my town to the early 1600s. I’m fascinated about the levels of relationship with place, what makes a town different from its neighbour, and how landmarks and developments shape the soul of a place, and intrigued by just what goes on in ‘borderlands‘. Should we be worried by a privatisation and sanitisation of public space making any prospect of free movement by modern day flaneurs nigh on impossible?
And on a professional level, from an industry that has always been a bit of a ‘jackdaw’, I’m fascinated about what psychogeography can do to help create new practice, or understanding in public relations and communications. If we can unleash more of allowing people to think more about how a place makes them feel, rather than more literal measurements, untangling human and physical geography so that the pedestrian is born again, maybe we will open up a new flank of possibilities? Or maybe I’m clutching at straws. Thankfully, I’ve retired, and I’m free to ponder these things on long walks, rather than having to pitch them as new strategies in boardrooms!