Book: Psychogeography (pocket edition)

In the context of genres and placing my own work, I feel there may be some connection with psychogeography. When I think back to the beginning of my serious photography, it was in street photography and the pleasure of wandering unfamiliar streets. Though, I had not heard the term ‘psychogeography’ back then.

I read Merlin Covey’s book Psychogeography earlier in my OCA studies and revisited it now to understand more about the genre. I note here points relevant to my own work.

While psychogeography is strongly connected with Guy Debord and the Situationist International movement (founded 1957), Covey argues that its practice and reflection in literature (even if not labelled as such) pre-dates Debord with English writers like Daniel Defoe (1660 – 1731). Particularly influential is Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, which gets a nod in later psychogeographical works including the films of Patrick Keiller (London and Robinson in Space). Importantly, it is not a practice that should be too strongly attached to wandering the streets of Paris, even if that is where the term was coined. Debord defined the term: ‘Psychogeography – The study of the specific effects of the geographical environment , consciously organized or not , on the emotions and behaviour of individuals’ However, Covey is enthusiastic in connecting the practice to the streets of London and authors writing about those streets.

It is seen as a practice associated with city streets, kicking against the flows organised by town planners: ‘the mental traveller who remakes the city in accordance with his own imagination is allied to the urban wanderer who drifts through the city streets ; the political radicalism that seeks to overthrow the established order of the day is tempered by an awareness of the city as eternal and unchanging ; and the use of antiquarian and occult symbolism reflects the precedence given to the subjective and the anti – rational over more systematic modes of thought .’ . I may find following the route of a canal, even if I step away from it on occasion, a very different experience to wandering a multidimensional city. I think for a psychogeographic experience, it will be necessary to step away from the path and explore what lies around it in the towns and cities along the route. At the same time, wandering too far would make the work no longer about the canal. I feel that this would be the practices of a genre positively shaping my practice, rather than it being an adjustment of practice so the work better fits a genre.

The practice involves a mindful approach that challenges our usual perceptions, as Covey suggests, ‘transforming our experience of everyday life and replacing our mundane existence with an appreciation of the marvellous … street and the stroll was a crucial practice in its attempt to subvert and challenge our perceptions.’ . I think bringing a mindful or contemplative approach to my work will be important to its success – otherwise I could miss what is hidden in the banality of long empty stretches of little used industrial-age motorways.

Covey observes Debord’s concern about the ‘banalisation’ driven by modernity and mass consumerism, and alludes to the ‘spectacle’ – the essential emptiness of modern life is obscured behind an elaborate and spectacular array of commodities and our immersion in this world of rampant consumerism leaves us disconnected from the history and community that might give our lives meaning’. . I don’t yet know what I will find along the 29¼ route, but I suspect commercialism may be limited. I’m perhaps more likely to experience modernity through suburbanism. As psychogeography concerns itself with the negative psychological and geographic impact of modernism, my work could also be aligned to the genre through this.

Covey’s work concludes by examining psychogeography today, citing writers such as JG Ballard, Iain Sinclair and Patrick Keiller. Interestingly for my project, Ballard regards the ‘city as a semi-extinct form’, he thinks, ‘the suburbs are more interesting than people will let on … you find uncentered lives … more freedom to explore imagination and obsessions.’ . I think this thread and Ballard’s work is worth following up – the notion that the banality of the suburbs dissolves community and is replaced by self-obsession.

Covey’s book has cemented the idea that my own work could be placed in the psychogeography genre. Also, an interest in revisiting Robinson Crusoe (last read as a child) and looking at JG Ballard’s work.

References

Coverley, M. (2012) Psychogeography [Kindle edition]. (Amazon Kindle) (s.l.): Oldcastle Books.