Will Vigar

Psychogeography and Succotash

After decades of hearing Looney Tunes’s Sylvester the Cat say ‘thuffering thuccotash’, my friend Dirk, a Native American, told me what Succotash actually is. Succotash is a Native American dish. Its name is Anglicised from the Narragansett word msickquatash meaning cooked corn. I’m not sure how we got to the subject of succotash, but he told me that it was one of those dishes that everyone made differently, although it always had corn and beans in it. His family’s recipe had fatty pork or bacon, thyme, butter beans and double cream, all quite commonly used ingredients around the regions. ‘Some people,’ he said with evident distaste, ‘use mint and tomatoes.’

He wrote his recipe down for me and I set about making it. I doubt it was as authentic as his Mum’s version, but it was delicious.  I raved about it to my work colleague the following day. She asked for the recipe, which I wrote down for her.

‘It wasn’t very nice,’ she said, during our next statutory break together.

I couldn’t comprehend why not, so I took my life in my hands by suggesting that she may have cooked it incorrectly.

‘Oh, no,’ she said, ‘I followed your recipe.’

On further enquiry, I discovered that she had ‘adapted’ the recipe to include mushrooms instead of pork, courgettes instead of butter beans, no onions, and cheese sauce instead of cream. She didn’t like herbs, so she left those out. Sweetcorn made her feel sick, so they were removed.

The rich, comforting stew that indicated a tangible history, an historical identity, had been diluted and confused with ingredients that had no place in its story. All that was left was the name.

This is, in many ways, how I feel about modern psychogeography.

Psychogeography is an astounding idea with a robust and substantial philosophy. However, in its modern form, it bears little resemblance to the rich ideological stew set out by its originators.

In the twenty-first century (and the latter quarter of the twentieth century), the label of psychogeography  has been borrowed, misunderstood and misapplied by its practitioners. Choice ideas have been stripped out, replaced and reimagined. The term no longer represents the same things it once did; it blatantly ignores the rules and tenets of dérive, the original concept underpinning the theory to which psychogeography gives its name. Original ingredients have been stripped out and replaced by what modern practitioners need to justify their work, rather than the ideas set by Guy Debord and his cohort in the 1950s.

The main tool of psychogeography, the dérive, has been subverted. Dérive describes ‘a mode of experimental behaviour linked to the conditions of urban society: a technique of rapid passage through varied ambiances.’ Debord’s Theory of the Dérive (1956), the document that first introduced the idea, states that ‘Wandering in open country is naturally depressing, and the interventions of chance are poorer there than anywhere else’. And yet modern psychogeography, in the forms of Deep Topography, Walking Poetry, Mythogeography, and Edgelands studies, are almost wholly concerned with reconnecting with the rural past and describing the negative effects that an urban environment inflicts on them.

The Situationists, as their name suggests, were quite clear that psychogeography was best understood as a reaction to a specific set of circumstances, predominantly, the so-called ‘compartmentalisation’ of Paris. Debord saw the new post-war urban planning of Paris into ‘zones’ for living, shopping, working, manufacturing as an affront to the communities that had grown up in the city and postulated that its compartmentalisation into designated precincts was the result of extreme capitalism. Dérive was a method of protest that wilfully ignored those compartments and celebrated random movement. It delineated the terms of choice, of where and when to go somewhere, outside of the needs of consumerism.

Applying psychogeography to anything other than an urban setting, therefore, is a futile task in that it’s major tools (the ‘spectacle’, the Dérive and détournement) are all reliant on and symbiotic with expressions of mass media. Detournement is a practice that reroutes, or hijacks existing works of art, advertising or music used to facilitate ‘the spectacle’ of media into works of propaganda. Human intervention of this variety is rarely found in rural idylls.  For example, Banksy’s appropriation of the McDonalds logo to make a political point is an act of détournement. The advertising onslaught that defines the spectacle renders the idea of rural psychogeography moot.

The aim is for dérivistes to drop their everyday activities and ‘let themselves be drawn by the attractions of the terrain and the encounters they find there.’ Landscapes and open spaces do not allow for the kind of ‘rapid transit’ expected to make a psychogeographic study work, simply because points of interest in a rural setting are fewer and further between. It became apparent that psychogeography was an expression of the cultural zeitgeist. Or at least the zeitgeist as experienced from Debord’s perspective as a Marxist in 1950s Paris. 

Despite being designed as deliberately vague, to allow for multiple interpretations – something later referred to as ‘schizoanalytic cartography’ by Felix Guattari – psychogeography (as an activity) encouraged people to explore their environment and actively turn their lives into ‘an exciting game.’ The game and the inherent playfulness of dérive became more and more complex and difficult to achieve in the light of fewer pedestrian-friendly city centres and the demolition of many public spaces in favour of private ownership and corporate shopping malls.

Divorced from its revolutionary framework, as set down by Ivan Chtcheglov in the essay ‘Formulaire Pour un Urbanisme Nouveau’ (1953), psychogeography’s raison d’etre has expired. Dérive was intended as a method of commenting on the loss of individuality in towns and cities. It aimed to consciously break down the borders between artificially created ‘zones’ – habitation, commerce, manufacturing, leisure – within the newly rebuilt city. 

Dérive is – to paraphrase Ralph Rumney, co-founder and later expelled member of the Situationists – ‘walking around a bit and thinking about it’. It is probably that description that has caused psychogeography – or at least the name of it – to be co-opted by creatives, as Debord said, psychogeography has no art of its own. Where writers and artists might find inspiration in dérive and express their findings perhaps in détournement, architects (the traditional enemies of the Situationists) have used Debord’s ideas to exert control and facilitate the capitalist ideals he railed against. This would have been intolerable to the situationist as they completely opposed the ideals or modern urban development.

Derive was intended to be a tool for subversion. It was a method of walking between city ‘zones’ in a manner not prescribed by architects and town planners, a subjective report on the effects of the city on the psyche. Architects have used that information to create new spaces that suggest certain actions subliminal to the subconscious mind.

Psychogeography in its modern form, now seems to be the province of modern architects and town planners, a situation that would be intolerable to Situationists who were completely opposed to modern city planning. Dérive was an attempt to ‘break up’ the modern city and ‘decompartmentalise’ it. Using the information gleaned from psychogeography and Dérive to better plan the compartmentalisation of cities is an ironic betrayal of the principles and the ultimate in détournement.

Where psychogeography and Dérive were methods of rebelling against capitalist and corporate structures – and in particular ‘the spectacle’ – modern psychogeography is an entirely egotistical endeavour marking out the practitioner as an arbiter of taste. The spectacle can be defined loosely to mean manipulation via the mass media, which Guy Debord called ‘its most glaring superficial manifestation,’ but more specifically, ‘the autocratic reign of the market economy which had acceded to an irresponsible sovereignty, and the totality of new techniques of government which accompanied this reign.’

This definition no longer applies to modern psychogeography. The radical politics of the Letterists and Situationists has, in effect, become travel writing. The only difference is that where, say, Bill Bryson would talk about how he felt about a town or country and move on having barely scratched the surface of its history, modern psychogeographers rely on history, nostalgia and romanticism to paint a more dimensional portrait of a town, city or other landscape. There is a sustained depth to their explorations that borders on hagiography. But to approach psychogeography in this way, as a discursive form of exegesis, misunderstands its founding principle.

The practical Rumnean nature of the dérive has remained (i.e ‘walking around and thinking about it’) but the practice has been stripped of its Marxist nature. Where dérive was an end in itself, modern psychogeographers treat it as a stepping-stone and inspiration to potential written or other artist works. If, as Debord’s The Theory of the Dérive states, ‘a dérive is to be without purpose,’ giving it purpose negates it being dérive.

Where the original ideas of psychogeography were concerned contemporaneously with the dissatisfaction of modern life, modern psychogeography is concerned with the past and how it affects the present. It has adapted from its revolutionary framework to become a socio-archaeological tool. Where Debord’s dérive sought to dismantle the vogue for compartmentalisation in town planning, modern dérive absorbs that vogue – and subsequent fashions – and looks at the processes that led up to it with the intention of revealing hidden histories rather than mocking current architectural and town planning transgressions.

Psychogeography has become a ‘time’ element. Where its original concept concerned itself with ‘the now’ of 1950s Paris, its primary motivation became recovering layers of historical information buried under an ever-increasing urban sprawl. Modern psychogeography – or deep topography or mythogeography – has evolved to become the search for the occult, literally and figuratively.

Myth, magick, spirituality and ‘spirit of place’ become an ever-present wash to its study, most notably in Iain Sinclair’s London Orbital (2003) which he describes as ‘a spell; a banishing.’ Alan Moore’s Snakes and Ladders (2003) and The Highbury Working (2000) involves ritual magick practices as a gateway to understanding a given space. Since its de facto death, proclaimed by Debord in 1972, psychogeography has been in a pupal state and has now birthed the imagoes of Deep Topography and Mythogeography to name two.  Both are concerned with capturing the ‘spirit’ and ‘psychic resonances’ of a place, where past and present collide, influence and inspire new ideas. As defined by mythogeography.com, it is

influenced by, and draws on, psychogeography – seeking to reconnect with some of its original political edge as well as with its more recent additions. While engaging seriously with academic discourses in areas like geography, tourism studies and spatial theory, mythogeography also draws upon what Charles Fort might have described as ‘the procession of damned data’. So, occulted and anomalous narratives are among those available to mythogeography, not as ends in themselves, but as means and metaphors to explain, engage and disrupt.

Cities manifest as palimpsests, with layer upon layer of information waiting to be rediscovered and interpreted: histories exist to be unearthed, a process that could be called psychogeology or perhaps more fittingly psychoarcheology. In that respect, psychogeography has become more about site-specificity and identity, which, according to McLucas and Pearson,

are conceived for, and conditioned by, the particulars of found spaces, (former) sites of work, play and worship. They make manifest, celebrate, confound or criticise location, history, function, architecture, micro-climate… They are an interpenetration of the found and the fabricated. They are inseparable from their sites, the only context within which they are ‘readable.

These ideas are crucial to the notion of mythogeography and allow for more sustained explorations of an area through writing, fine art or performance pieces. Applying some of this outlook to rural settings seems more germane and achievable.

Without doubt, psychogeography plays an important role within mythogeography, but I’m more interested in the myths, myth creation and histories that emanate from a given location; the ideas and events that cause a place to manifest in its current incarnation rather than creating tricksy interventions that confuse and obscure a genuine history.

Anecdotally, in reading and talking to modern practitioners over the last few years, a theme seems to be developing in which practitioners have a desire to reconnect with the land as a reaction to cities becoming more ‘identikit’. It is difficult to assert your own individuality or develop a regional persona when every city increasingly offers the same things. Globalisation leads to lowest common denominator thinking. It may be comforting to know that your vanilla Frappuccino will taste the same in Oxford and Exeter, but it doesn’t allow for individuality or character to develop. In that respect, there is a movement away from the capitalism that Debord would probably respect. The idea is that in traversing the countryside, in engaging with the landscape and retrieving stories and artefacts from the past, a more fulfilling, more productive and more individual life than can be found in the metropolis.

Accepting that there are huge differences between Situationist psychogeography and modern psychogeography, not least in terms of politics, method and outcome, after almost fifty years, is it time for practitioners to re-evaluate and lovingly consign psychogeography to history? Can we not accept it as an influence and move on without having to hold onto Dumbo’s magic feather?

All of those extraneous ingredients in psychogeography, like Dirk’s abused succotash recipe, make for a diluted, confused and ultimately disappointing experience. Utilised in a more considered way – which mythogeography and deep topography certainly have – they may offer something more thought provoking and flavoursome that incorporates the zeitgeist rather than refusing its evolution.

Words by Will Vigar.

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