I learnt a new word on the radio this morning: psychogeography. Even after a bit of research, I’m still not sure what it means: anything to do with the way we respond on a non-rational level to the urban environment.
Someone from the Ramblers’ Association presented it as a way of walking the streets around you with more attentiveness – with the interest and focus you would bring to a visit to an art exhibition. Noticing things; appreciating things. This seems beautiful and harmless.
But on the internet there are stranger theories about ‘drifting’ (letting yourself be guided by the ‘psychic’ or psychological contours of the geography) and ‘algorithmic wandering’ (walking to a formula, e.g. “Take the first street left, then the second right, then the second right” – then repeat this sequence until the time runs out).
I’m uneasy about the New Age aspects of this, but attracted by the invitation to go somewhere without going anywhere. And I like the idea of a programmed/random exploration. It’s the same fascination of being a taxi driver – the mix of uncertainty and fate, that you never know where you will be going, even though your destination is determined beforehand. Or is it?
Here is one summary of the meaning of psychogeography:
The word psychogeography was coined by the situationist poet Guy Debord around 1950. It describes the study of the precise laws and specific effects of the geographical environment, whether consciously organised or not, on the emotions and behaviour of individuals.
The sudden change of ambience in a street within the space of a few meters; the evident division of a city into zones of distinct psychic atmospheres; the path of least resistance which is automatically followed in aimless strolls (and which has no relation to the physical contour of the ground); the appealing or repelling character of certain places – these phenomena all fall into the field of psychogeography.
One of the basic situationist practices is the dérive [literally: "drifting"], a technique of rapid passage through varied ambiences. Dérives involve playful-constructive behaviour and awareness of psychogeographical effects, and are thus quite different from the classic notions of journey or stroll.
In a dérive one or more persons during a certain period drop their relations, their work and leisure activities, and all their other usual motives for movement and action, and let themselves be drawn by the attractions of the terrain and the encounters they find there. Chance is a less important factor in this activity than one might think: from a dérive point of view cities have psychogeographical contours, with constant currents, fixed points and vortexes that strongly discourage entry into or exit from certain zones.