A note on psychogeography and the dérive

I recently came across an essay on ‘Situationists and Architecture’ by Peter Wollen in The New Left Review from 2001. I thought it was worth sharing these passages on psychogeography  and the dérive as it’s a subject I’m often asked to explain or define, so scholarly sources are always very welcome.

 

psychogeography

from Memoires by Guy Debord & Asgar Jorn 1959

 

Guy Debord wrote the classic text on the ‘Theory of the Dérive’—usually translated as ‘drift’ or ‘drifting’—in December 1958, in the second number of Internationale Situationniste. He defines it as ‘a technique of transient passage through varied ambiences’. Note, again, the taste for transience and spontaneity. Debord’s basic idea is that this project of wandering through the city should be determined not by any preconceived plan, but by the attractions or discouraging counter-attractions of the city itself. It requires a ‘letting go’ of ‘the usual motives for movement and action’—we might almost say, a letting go of everyday identity. Debord seems to have been inspired in part by Paul-Henry Chombart de Lauwe’s study of Paris et l’agglomération parisienne, published in 1952; and particularly by its maps, which are frequently used as illustrations in the Situationist journal and in Debord’s own art works. He was especially struck by a map detailing all the movements made over a year by a student living in the 16th Arrondissement: ‘her itinerary delineates a small triangle, with no deviations, the three apexes of which are the School of Political Science, her residence and that of her piano teacher.’

Shocked by this rigid repetition of a fixed pattern of mobility, Debord conceived dérive as a way of creating completely new, unpredictable itineraries, dependent on chance and the spontaneous subjective impulses and reactions of the wanderer. The recourse to chance reminds us, unavoidably, of André Breton’s doctrine of ‘objective chance’ and above all of his great book, Nadja, which traces a series of just such aimless journeys through Paris, punctuated by a pattern of attraction and repulsion to certain buildings, or kinds of buildings, rather than others. Debord notes that this technique of dérive is, in a way, only necessary because his larger project of ‘psychogeography’ has not yet been sufficiently far developed. Psychogeography would make possible the creation of maps in which particular locations or regions had already been designated as favouring the arousal of one kind of affective or aesthetic response, so that a certain amount of pre-planning could take place. Meanwhile, chance was the best method. (This text, interestingly enough, was written just as John Cage was conducting his seminars on chance procedures at the School for Social Research in New York. Probably a coincidence.)

A dérive could take place over a few minutes or even a few days. Duration didn’t matter. Taxis could be used for rapid transport outside one’s usual environment. (One Situationist demand was for the abolition of private cars and their replacement by fleets of low-cost taxis.) As in Breton’s book, the dérive also implied the possibility of chance encounters, meetings with strangers. Debord even suggests that the subject of a dérive might be invited to visit a particular place at a particular time, with the expectation of meeting an unknown person, thus being forced to introduce themself to random passers-by in an effort to identify whether this was the person he or she was looking for. This was called the technique of the ‘possible rendezvous’. He also reveals a taste for straying in uncanny locations—‘slipping by night into houses due for demolition . . . wandering in subterranean catacombs forbidden to the public, etc.’ Here we see the dérive as a kind of dream journey, even an invitation to break taboos—or, perhaps, simply to enjoy what we might think of, in the architectural register, as the Gothick picturesque.

…from the start, psychogeography was bound up with the creation of situations; and the concept of situations was expanded, in time, to cover not just the city, but the whole of society, the totality of possibilities open in an unalienated community.”

PETER WOLLEN, New Left Review 8, March-April 2001

The radical tradition of urban walking – my article in the NewStatesman

radical urban walking

‘What both the interwar topographers and the situationists recognised was the transformative potential of large numbers of people regularly stepping outside the matrix, taking to the streets and walking, becoming active participants rather than passive spectators.’

Read the article here

Debunking Debord – Chris Gray Memorial Lecture

Last week I was invited to Housmans for the inaugural Christopher Gray Memorial Lecture given by Gray’s long-term friend and collaborator Charles Radcliffe.

It was fascinating to hear Radcliffe talk about heading off to Paris with Chris Gray to meet Guy Debord and join the Situationist International. He was disparaging about Debord, saying how square he was and didn’t understand the acid culture that was a significant force in 60’s London (Gray later authored The Acid Diaries). Debord’s intellectual achievements weren’t contested but more the manner of how he dealt with his allies and fellow travelers.

He then gave a pithy account of all the expulsions and exclusions from the SI instigated by Debord and how the Situationists never really seemed to do anything else. Radcliffe was in that select group of people who resigned.
It was a great evening and felt I learnt more about Debord and the SI than in the previous years of reading hagiographies of Debord and his cohorts.

On the way home I read Chris Gray’s introduction to his key book on the SI – Leaving the 20th Century. It seemed from the talk and from Gray’s text that the principle thinker on psychogeography wasn’t Debord by Ivan Chtcheglov. I imagine Debord couldn’t be bothered to walk around Paris all day from the sounds of it.

A passage from the book about the foundation of the SI also struck me:

‘On 28th July 1957, delegates from l’Internationale Lettriste, from the largely Scandinavian and German Movement pour un Bauhaus Imaginiste and from a dubious London Psychogeographical Committee, met at a formal congress at Coscio d’Arroscia in Italy and decided to amalgamate. L’Internationale Situationiste was born.’

Does this mean that this ‘dubious’ London Psychogeographical Committee was the first explicitly psychogeographical group?

If so makes it fitting that the practice and ideas of psychogeography were revived in London in the late 1980s/early 90’s by two men who were in the audience that night at Housmans – Fabian Tompsett and Stewart Home.

There is a video of the part of the event on the Housmans Youtube Channel

london