Psychogeography, in its broadest sense, has a long and fascinating tradition. Although Debord claimed and colonised the term in post-war France (first in the Letterist pamphlet Potlatch, 1954; and then in numerous pronouncements via its evolution, the Situationist International, from 1957) there are many antecedents, influences, and developments. In two distinctive traditions, one based in London (the Robinsonade) and the other in Paris (the Flâneur), leys of affinity can be gleaned: although as with Alfred Watkin’s 1922 notion of the ‘ley’, how much is geographical serendipity, geomantic intentionality, or the projection and pre-occupations of the viewer is hard to say. In hindsight, viewed from the hill of the here-and-now, there seems to be a parallax movement emerging autocthonically from the labyrinths of London and Paris. Psycho-geographical commentators like to cite Daniel Defoe as the ‘Godfather of Psychogeography’ (when not citing Blake, De Quincey, Baudelaire, Machen, Poe, or Stevenson), with his Journal of a Plague Year (1722). Ur-texts like Confessions of an English Opium-eater (1821), The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886), The London Adventure (1924), and The Old Straight Track (1925) on this side of the English Channel; and the works Baudelaire (e.g. ‘The Painter of Modern Life’, 1863) and the Dadaists and Surrealists, Aragon’s Paris Peasant (1926), Breton’s Nadja (1928), and Soupault’s The Last Night in Paris (1928) act as reliable co-ordinates. Important outliers include Edgar Allan Poe’s story, ‘The Man in the Crowd’ (1840), James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922), and the writing of Heinrich von Kleist and Heinrich Heine, extending the ‘leyline’ to Boston (Poe’s birthplace if not the setting of his story), Dublin, Berlin, and Vienna. This anti-tradition has been perpetuated via various literary dérive (Debord’s term for his psychogeographical technique of drifting and qualia capture) by an irregular cohort of free radicals, including Walter Benjamin, John Michel, Iain Sinclair, Alan Moore, Peter Ackroyd, Patrick Keiller, and others. Notably, this inshore drift has been dominated by solitary (white) males and an obsessive focus on the urban. Fortunately, a counter-tradition to all this flâneury has welled up, as articulated in the writings of Rebecca Solnit (notably Wanderlust, 2000), and Lauren Elkin’s book on the Flâneuse (2016). Other variations or subsets include: ‘mythography’, ‘deep topography’, ‘deep mapping’ (as brilliantly expressed by Nan Shepherd in The Living Mountain), ‘cyclogeography’, and ‘wayside inspiration’ (a term the writer Peter Alfred Please coined to describe his particular form of intimate travel-writing). I would add to this parameter space the Immrama (Celtic wonder voyages, e.g. the voyage of St. Brendan); and the New Nature Writing, which blends travel-writing and memoir into the long tradition in works like Waterlog, Weeds, Edgelands, Crow Country, Wild, The Outrun, and The Salt Path. Robert Macfarlane’s oeuvre almost deserves a category of its own – in tomes like The Old Ways, Landmarks, and Underland he deep dives into language and landscape with dazzling erudition and daring, in prose that glitters like mica. None of these later writers would claim to be psychogeographers, but there are important elements in their work – textual nutrients – which psychogeography needs if it is to continue and flourish. The thin soil of the capitol city is depleted, and the 21st Century dériviant needs to look further afield for its seeds to thrive.
Copyright ©Kevan Manwaring, 7th June, 2019
Un/Packing Psychogeography – a checklist
As the Psychogeography Editor of Panorama: the journal of intelligent travel, I would like to provide the following (fluid, playful, provocative) criteria for those considering submission for one of our call-outs. See previous post for details
- Capitols (London; Paris anyway…)
- Solipsistic intellectualism.
- The pontifications of the lone, white male.
- Obfuscation and needless jargon.
- A performance of erudition over a sincere, embodied engagement and strong sense of voice.
- ‘Wikipedia-lit’ and Rough Guide
- Self-importance (it’s only going for a walk).
- Maps (‘Done with the compass, done with the chart’, Emily Dickinson).
- Smart devices.
- Footnotes, end-notes, a bibliography (‘death-by-quotes’).
Taking with Us
- A compassionate, curious gaze.
- A visceral, authentic response.
- The Flâneuse.
- A multi-dimensional form of exploration, one that is both diachronic and immediate, vertical as well as horizontal, outward as well as inward.
- Self-excavation – a form of travel through one’s own history.
- Body writing – maps of the skin.
- Voices of the marginalized: the psychogeographies of indigenous peoples, BAME, LGBTQ+, Traveller culture, asylum seekers and refugees, working class, etc.
- An awareness and acknowledgement of the challenges of the Climate Crisis, and the seismic destabilisation of the Anthropocene (‘The Earth has moved,’ Prof. Bruno Latour).
- Humility: a disavowal of omniscience.
- An ethical foregrounding. A responsible form of writing, sensitive to cultural appropriation. An exoticisation of the self, perhaps, but not the ‘other’.
- Soulfulness: a Psyche-geography, rather than a Psycho-geography.
- Mindfulness (mind in one’s feet; mind in the pen).
Contact Kevan if you are interested in submitting: psychogeographyeditor[at]panoramajournal[dot]org