When you make the journey to work, do you ever feel like a lab rat in a maze? Every day, the same tedious route, laid out by powers beyond your control – directed through the same doors, onto the same platform, down the same street. Signposts and notices batter you into submission: “no entrance,” “turn left,” “keep out.” If you ever feel inclined to push in the opposite direction, to jump a fence or walk down the middle of a road, you may have the soul of a psychogeographer!
Psychogeography originated with a group of French intellectuals and artists known as the Lettrists. Influenced by Surrealism and Dada, they wished to transform the urban landscape through art. In 1957, a splinter group started a magazine known as the Situationiste Internationale.
The “Situationists,” as they were known, hoped to liberate art from the galleries and make it part of everyday life. Many sympathized with Marxism and Anarchism, agreeing that the present system stifles creativity and reduces the worker to a mere spectator and consumer. Instead, they wanted a society in which people lived more active, imaginative and creative lives.
In 1967, a key figure in the movement, Guy Debord, published his manifesto on Situationism, The Society of the Spectacle. Debord coined the word psychogeography in the 1950s, and in this manifesto he expanded on its key concepts. Modern life is impersonal, Debord argued. We have little sense of involvement or participation and have instead been reduced to mere spectators, or consumers.
Debord agreed with Marx that the modern worker is alienated from his work. Whereas the medieval blacksmith or woodcarver was a true craftsman, the modern worker, who sits in front of a flickering screen all day, creates nothing. He takes a bus or train along a set route, walks along pavements laid down by other people, works for someone else, and is then encouraged by advertisers to seek out the latest electronic gadget or toy.
The modern worker rarely cuts his own wood, makes his own fire, or grows his own food. He misses out on even the most basic rituals of life and, rather than a fully-rounded human being, is a passive consumer of things he neither wants nor needs.
The answer, Debord argues, is not political revolution but a revolution of thought and behavior – here and now, on the street. People need to be jolted out of what they call reality. To be more precise, they need to stop living lives of habit and routine. Above all, they need to perceive and experience the world in a new way.
Purpose and Goals
The individual must create a new “situation” for him or herself (hence the name “Situationism”). And that includes the way you interact with your environment. After all, this affects both emotion and behavior. Instead of mindlessly following the same old paths through the city, paths set down to help you work and consume more efficiently, Debord urged people to “derive,” or drift.
The idea of drifting was not in itself new. The 19th century French poet Baudelaire, for example, wrote of the “flaneur,” or romantic, who wanders or strolls through the city without an end in sight. And the derive means just that, a stroll. In a sense, then, the purpose of psychogeography is to overcome the very idea of a purpose.
You do not need to read a lifestyle magazine or chat to a therapist to know that stress and anxiety bedevil the modern world. Social media, advertising, indeed the whole system, makes people dissatisfied. And they suffer more than ever from what is known as “FOMO,” or the “fear of missing out.”
This fear keeps people trapped as spectators or consumers, unable to think and act for themselves. Instead they work to secure status and, with the money they earn, rush to the shops to buy the next big thing and thus avoid being left behind. The fear of missing out leaves little time for anything but working and spending, which is why Situationists scrawled the slogan “work, consume, die” on the walls of Paris during the 1968 uprising. Since they wish to do little but work and consume, people welcome the most convenient routes around the city, which ensures they reach the shop or the office as soon as possible.
So what does the psychogeographer achieve by drifting through Chicago, or Berlin, or New York? In part, he reclaims himself. Or, rather, he re-asserts his individuality. The psychogeographer is a rebel. But his rebellion is psychological. By rejecting the normal routes through the city, avoiding the shops and tourist traps, refusing to take the roads and paths set down by the planners, he experiences his environment in a new way. In other words, the psychogeographer liberates himself.
Within the English-speaking world, psychogeography seems to be especially popular in the UK. The British novelist Will Self, for example, even had a regular column on the subject in a major national paper. This may be because psychogeography works especially well in places with numerous layers of history.
Indeed, it is no coincidence that the British historian Peter Ackroyd has expressed an interest in the subject. Ackroyd is known for the long walks he undertakes around London and for writing books that involve the city in some way (like biographies of Londoners such as Blake, Dickens and Charlie Chaplin).
Of course, most of us never get to walk the streets of a great city with someone who knows it so thoroughly as Ackroyd knows London. And yet imagine if you could. Think how this would transform your view and experience of your home town.
To stick with Ackroyd’s London for a moment, you might walk Oxford Street, which runs through the middle of the city, every day on your way to work and think of it as nothing more than a tourist trap, a place of smart shops and coffee outlets. And yet, until the late 18th century, the top of Oxford Street was a famous execution spot. In its place, there is now a traffic island! A place of anarchic violence (the crowds at a hanging were notorious) is now a place in which individuals are herded and controlled by bleeping and flashing lights.
Unleashing the Psychogeographer Within
If psychogeography appeals, try it for yourself. Obviously you need to be sensible: don’t trespass, wander through high crime areas, or walk for miles without a phone or map. Think of it as an experiment. Remember, you want to experience your town or city in a new way. So take something to eat and drink and, if it’s cold, wrap up warm. You don’t want to be compelled by hunger, thirst, heat or cold to obey the signs and enter a shop or bar. After all, you are supposed to be defying consumer culture.
Begin in a place you know well. If you have a day off, head to the part of the city in which you work. Notice how the commuters are herded up one sidewalk and down the other, how they frequent the same sandwich bars and cafes, how they bunch up in the same corner of the park to eat, and so on.
And notice how bossy and demanding the street signs can be: don’t cross here, don’t go down there, move that way, etc. Imagine yourself in a post-apocalyptic movie, where the hero emerges to find the city deserted. Suddenly he can walk anywhere, do anything.
When you start your “derive,” try to resist the herd mentality. As you look around and decide which direction to take, you may notice that herd instinct pulling on you. Drifting doesn’t come easily. On the contrary, we have been subtly conditioned to move along well-worn paths. Getting started may therefore require discipline and effort. You are trying to break out.
Once moving, allow yourself to be guided not by consumer instinct but by curiosity. Allow yourself to drift towards any odd or curious building, preferably one that looks old or out of place, one built to an awkward design, or one that jars with the buildings around it. And it needn’t just be buildings that draw you on. You could follow colorful looking characters, or even some unusual sound floating across the traffic and noise.
Will Self once arrived at work to find that his boss had gone home ill and taken the key with him. This meant everyone had the day off. It occurred to him that he had never walked the length of the Thames (the river that runs through London), though he had lived in the city all his life. So that was what he did – just drifted along the bank of the river, like a pre-modern explorer or nomad.
Psychogeography is unlikely to transform your life. As Debord knew, this was no profound revolution. Instead, think of it as an act of subtle, though effective, rebellion.