The word ‘psychogeography’ has a sense of the scholarly. It suggests study, a seriousness of microscopes and set rules. Guy-Ernest Debord, a pioneer of the concept, describes the word in almost clinical terms, as “the study of the precise laws and specific effects of the geographical environment, consciously organized or not, on the emotions and behavior of individuals.” Despite the stuffy definition, psychogeography is a playful concept. It is very much a display of randomness, designed to throw one off course, to become aware of one’s space. It acts as an “insubordination of habitual influences” (Debord 1955). This insubordination challenges our perceptions of space.
Psychogeography is narrative. It is a story, an element. It is how a place lives and breathes, through the eyes of one individual. In my outside reading this semester, a book called London Calling: A Countercultural History of London since 1945 by Barry Miles (2010), I was surprised to find this quote from Alexander Trocchi about Debord:
I remember long, wonderful psychogeographical walks in London with Guy [Debord]…He took me to places in London I didn’t know, that he didn’t know, that he sensed that I’d never have been to if I hadn’t been with him. He was a man who could discover a city…There was a magical quality to Guy. Distances didn’t seem to matter to the man. Walking in London, in the daytime, at night, he’d bring me to a spot he’d found, and the place would begin to live. Some old, forgotten part of London. Then he’d reach back for a story, for a piece of history, as if he’d been born there. (136)
Psychogeography is as much about experiencing earlier narratives as creating one’s own. There are stories within the walls, the hills, the trees. It is as much finding the stories of the past within the present, as we do with our Literary High Street project, as generating new narratives. These narratives may never exist beyond one’s own mind, they may not be told to friends, family, and so forth. We often do choose to share these narratives, whether we realize it or not. Recently, my parents came to visit. As we walked through Edinburgh, I found myself truly sharing my version of the city with them. Our leisurely walks brought us through the areas I know well—the University, my neighborhood, the shops and museums I frequent. As we walked, I told stories, of my adventures and misadventures, of things that occurred in the city’s past. This provided my parents with a view into my Edinburgh. The places I mention in our conversations are no longer names; they are actual locations, storefronts and streets. My friends are no longer characters; they exist in the flesh.
Sometimes, the psychogeographical aspects of the area cannot be shared through words. They are visceral and personal, the rituals that we make up for ourselves. Often our interpretations of an area are clouded by emotions, either that the landscape brings in us, or that which we are feeling in the moment, brought on by internal thoughts. Certain streets are tainted with annoyance, as I recall needlessly walking down them with an injured back. Others are happier places, memories of entertaining dinners with friends; others become places of solace, where I go to escape the busy world around me.
There is very much an aspect of getting lost to psychogeography. There are psychogeographical events that specifically want their participants to get lost, or at least end up in an area of the city/town where they have never been. This is termed “generative psychogeography” or algorithmic walking, where participants follow a set formula of taking turns at intersections (Hart, 2004). It is a similar concept to the ‘right hand road trip’ that bored American teenagers embark on. With the road trip game, every time the car comes to an intersection, the driver takes a right hand turn (if it is legal, if not, continue straight). The idea is to explore the area one lives in, in a different way. There is an excitement to this sort of thing, causing one to be more aware of the area they inhabit. Of course, one does run the risk of ending up exactly where one started approximately 20 minutes later (as I did on my first ‘right hand road trip’), but the sense of exploration and adventure caused me to notice how my hometown is put together.
I am very interested in exploring the emotional effects that a place has on a person (or that a person has on a place). The three cities I have lived in during my time as a University student—Boston, Florence, and Edinburgh—bring similar emotional responses in me. There is a similar undercurrent to these three cities, a similar feeling of memory and purpose. There is a grand exterior, with an undercurrent of the artsy and undiscovered. I feel at home in these cities. Larger cities, such as New York and London, have a different heartbeat. There is a manic energy, a clash of cultures, a sense of the busy. Yet under these cities, in each city, in every town, every street corner and forgotten tree, there is a feeling. Place and space evoke these emotions in us, peace, loneliness, excitement. It does not need to be much; the space does not need to be vast. Entering the library, one’s room, the cinema—each makes us experience the world differently. To take these experiences, these emotions, and distort them, turn them on their heads and challenge them, would be a truly psychogeographical experience.
Photograph by Bethany Wolfe
Debord, G. (1955). Introduction to a Critique of Urban Geography. Les Lèvres Nues,
6. Retrieved from library.nothingness.org/articles/SI/en/display/2
Hart, J. (2004). A new way of walking. Utne Reader, July/August 2004. Retrieved from www.utne.com/2004-07-01/a-new-way-of-walking.aspx
Miles, B. (2010). London calling: A countercultural history of London since 1945. London: Atlantic.