Psychogeography, as the term suggests, is the intersection of psychology and geography. It focuses on our psychological experiences of the city, and reveals or illuminates forgotten, discarded, or marginalised aspects of the urban environment.
Both the theory and practice of psychogeography have been around since 1955, when French theorist Guy Debord coined the term. While it emerged from the Situationist International movement in France, the practice has far-reaching implications. It’s relevant, for instance, in contemporary Sydney.
Psychogeographers advocate the act of becoming lost in the city. This is done through the dérive, or “drift”.
Because purposeful walking has an agenda, we do not adequately absorb certain aspects of the urban world. This is why the drift is essential to psychogeography; it better connects walkers to the city.
Psychogeographers idolise the flâneur, a figure conceived in 19th-century France by Charles Baudelaire and popularised in academia by Walter Benjamin in the 20th century. A romantic stroller, the flâneur wandered about the streets, with no clear purpose other than to wander.
In his 2013 Paris Review article, In Praise of the Flâneur, Bijan Stephen observes that the use of the flâneur “as a vehicle for the examination of the conditions of modernity” fell out of favour in the ensuing decades. Stephen poses the question:
But as we grow inexorably busier – due in large part to the influence of technology – might flânerie be due for a revival?
Walking as an act of insurgency
The revival had already begun, thanks to popular contemporary psychogeographers, notably Iain Sinclair and Will Self (whose book ‘Psychogeography’ was published ten years ago).
In his book London Orbital, Iain Sinclair describes a walk around the M25 and the “unloved outskirts of the city”. He observes:
I had to walk around London’s orbital motorway; not on it, but within what the Highways Agency calls the ‘acoustic footprints’. The soundstream. Road has replaced river. The M25 does the job of the weary Thames, shifting contraband, legal and illegal cargoes, offering a picturesque backdrop to piracy of every stamp.
Sinclair describes his walk as having a “ritual purpose” to “exorcise the unthinking malignancy of the Dome, to celebrate the sprawl of London”. He also describes walking as a virtue.
Self sees walking as “a means of dissolving the mechanised matrix which compresses the space-time continuum”. He describes the solitary walker as “an insurgent against the contemporary world, an ambulatory time traveller”.
Psychogeography is therefore useful in showing that walking is not only an art form in itself. It is also crucial in understanding the complication between the histories and myths of urban landscapes.
This article was originally published by The Conversation.