54. John Schott and Phil Smith, Rethinking Mythogeography in Northfield, Minnesota

by breavman99

rethinking mythogeography

Rethinking Mythogeography in Northfield, Minnesota, a collaboration between John Schott and Phil Smith, helps to explain what mythogeography (Smith’s walking practice) is, and suggests the ways that practice is still developing and changing. In that way, it’s a companion to his earlier book on mythogeography, perhaps as an example of practice to accompany that text’s theory. In his introduction, Schott explains the book’s context: in 2016, Smith spent two weeks at Carleton College as artist-in-residence at WALK!: A Festival of Walking, Art & Ideas, a ten-week celebration of walking as an artistic practice (4). The festival’s high point, for Schott, Smith’s mythogeographic exploration of Northfield, “The Blazing Worlds Walk,” the focus of this publication (4). During that walk, 15 people walked for three hours, stopping at locations Smith selected; at each location, he spoke about “a wide range of ideas provoked by our discoveries” (4). “His technique—and this walk was both a demonstration of mythogeographic procedure and an invitation for participants to devise their own walks in future—was a bravura enactment of personal place-making,” Schott writes:

At each stopping point Phil undertook an archaeology of the devalued and ‘invisible’ that blended post-modern theory and a well-studied command of local history—Phil did his homework!—in an ebullient, spontaneous performance. With its mix of theoretical playfulness and improvisatory poetic association, Phil’s mythogeography of Northfield modeled for participants ways to excavate their own invisible cities. (4-5)

This book consists of  two independent but parallel texts: Schott’s photographic documentation of the walk, with brief explanations of essential ideas presented at each location with which the participants engaged; and Smith’s essay reflecting on mythogeography and his Northfield experience (5). My response is going to focus on Smith’s essay. Schott’s photo documentation and descriptions, however, are an important part of the book, because they help me to understand what a mythogeographical guided walk might look like.

In the second introduction, Smith writes, “In Northfield I realised just how serious the magic of the ordinary is” (6). On his first morning in the city, a small college community in eastern Minnesota, he met a maintenance man repairing signals in the Union Pacific yard—“a man mending signals! How much more symbolic could it get?”—and gave him a map of Northfield, UK: 

I knew that such poetic moments were not exceptional in themselves, Not even in their accumulation were they special. It was their resolute meaningfulness in the face of all odds that was remarkable; they come to us in bits and pieces, in the blur of a chance moment or in the miasma of sleep, but somehow we still “get” them. (6-7)

Such moments, he continues, give access to “a sur-reality”—“a space where things make their own connections and we must wait our turn for the trucks to pass” (7). The reference to “trucks” here might be part of this passages use of trains as an extended metaphor:

The magic of the ordinary may at first strike you in flashes or by the sudden falling of a shadow across a scene; but if you can hold onto those moments for a while, stay calm and not grab for the first wonder, then—like the passing freight train—the magic will begin to stream around you in unfolding loops. (7)

In Walking’s New Movement, Smith eschews an emphasis on the magic in the everyday in favour of political engagement, but in this book, he returns to what seems to be the primary purpose of mythogeography: discovering a sense of wonder in the quotidian.

Smith’s essay. “Rethinking Mythogeography in Northfield, Minnesota,” begins with another story about his first morning there. He bluffed his way into a prayer room and the congregants laid hands upon him for a prayer; in the words of that prayer, he was “re-imagined in ways that were fantastical for their ordinariness; so far from my intentions I felt wholly unharmed. Being turned into something like an erudite and caring octopus with a fan of praying tentacles, I was lifted up in the arms of a community within a community” (9). “Such encounters,” he writes,

when entered into mythogeographically, as part of one’s questing journey to understand and intervene in places that are strange or deeply unfamiliar, leave one touched, sometimes deeply, yet unobliged. There is no surrender of one’s nomadic slipperiness, no surrender to the grand narratives that are all around. Even in places where belief and worldview are strictly codified, the mythogeographical pilgrim presents such a benign ambiguity that even the language of faith struggles to get any grip on the edge of the abyss we all hang onto. (9)

Such “unbalanced but efficacious connections” are ambivalent, even when they are intense:  “They rely on the mythogeographer paying close, polite and respectful attention to everything and yet being ‘not quite there’; and so able to make a deft, intuitive connection to the big picture beyond (or beneath and within) the big pictures” (9). When he left Northfield, he continues, he was “more determined than ever to be an evangelist for this mythogeography; to encourage more people to take its path—its pilgrimage, even—beyond the big things, through the small things, to the even bigger picture, the picture before decisions” (9). That residency in Northfield changed Smith and his thinking about mythogeography—hence the essay’s title. You really have to admire someone who, 20 years into an art practice, is still rethinking its fundamental characteristics.

For example, Smith mentions pilgrimage (one of my interests) for the first time (that I know of) in this essay:

The walking I practice (some call it “walking art,” some “psychogeography”) is a kind of pilgrimage, though not in a usual sense. It is less of the “special” thing that is usually understood by pilgrimage. I am not on pilgrimage all the time, but I switch in and out from everyday life more regularly than a traditional pilgrim. This is a pilgrimage that anyone can take, that anyone can weave in and out of their daily lives dependent on the pressures and limits that bear upon you. It is a sporadic journey in which you, the pilgrim, seek two things: firstly, to appreciate the sacredness (in the sense not of any religion, but of its need and right to be venerated) of the road itself; secondly, to find in oneself the edge of the hidden and unrepresentable part and to learn how to protect its borders from algorithms and other attractive invasions. (11)

Such a pilgrimage has no set destination (11); the road the pilgrim takes is more important:

The route of a spiritual, alchemical or psychogeographical pilgrimage—the actual road with its signposts and potholes, hedgerows and roadkill—is sacred in itself, but is only discovered as sacred by the pilgrim’s own transcendence (or just plain thinking) that might occur at any point in a quest. (11)

Smith’s walking practice, which he calls “disrupted walking, walking that breaks from an everyday and functional walk,” adopts the idea of the road as sacred, but drops the singularity of a unique sacred destination “in favour of a multiplicity, a quantum dance with super-positioned elements” (11). “The mythogeographical pilgrim,” he writes, “is much less about arriving at a shrine or a mystical state and more about entangling, physically and psychically, with a (not ‘the’) bigger picture” (11). Such pilgrimages aren’t special or rarefied events: “On any walk, a stroll or a walk to the shops, there is some engagement with those bigger pictures,” such as a view that resembles a particular period of oil painting, or anticipating the taste of “a particular processed food” (11). 

How is Smith’s version of pilgrimage different from ordinary pilgrimage—or, for that matter, ordinary walking? “The difference in what I am proposing is that the walker acknowledges and works in the big pictures they walk with: critiquing, enthusing, embracing, wrecking . . . whatever it is you need to do to achieve your two primary aims of veneration and wary self-discovery,” he writes (11). That means every disrupted walk is reflexive, “messing with its own pretensions, setting out for things never done or never experienced or not even entertained, all in a wobbly dance across volatile fields” (11). Such reflexivity is joined up with “a serious desire to understand what the hell is going on in the world,” and the result is the beginning “of a journey walked in relation to distant particles, in relation to the adopted, rejected or assimilated personal of your role as ‘pilgrim-knight’”—Smith’s example of pilgrimage is a quest for the Holy Grail—“on a quest without an object, yet packed with objects” (11)—objects, I think, that the pilgrim discovers along the way, because he emphasizes the need to attend to “the resilient weirdness of bland things,” to know how “to tap the magic in the ordinary” (11). He also stresses “stillness, enigma and quietly reflecting, and reflecting upon, things” (13). There is a tremendous value, he continues, in 

[k]nowing and loving the darkness in ourselves, mapping the spaces the Spectacle cannot see and re-encoding its codes in our own symbolist doings in the streets. If that seems self-absorbed or indulgent, then see it as the fuel you need to hold yourself in that “not quite there” that gives you a deftness and intuition necessary for connections to the big picture beyond, beneath and within the big pictures. (13)

The reference to “the Spectacle” is yet another suggestion that Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle is, along with A Thousand Plateaus by Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, essential theoretical background to understanding Smith’s work. 

Understanding the big picture in Northfield begins with realizing that there are no stories in the town about anything prior to 1855: “Even about the survey of 1851 or the Dakota Treaty of the same year which removed the Siouan-speaking people from the region, yet along any kind of narrative of geological time. Yet almost every garden in some suburbs sported a glacial boulder” (13). The bigger picture can connect disparate things, “while attending to the effects of the parts of an object (like those parts of ourselves) that are, and should be, entirely hidden and inaccessible” (15). According to Smith, 

in mythogeography the “bigger picture” skirts the obsessive narrowness of the “local historian” (and other anti-interdisciplinary expertises) and the reductionism of those religions, materialisms, and so on that boil everything down to the unitary of a great 1 (or Great One). A mythogeographical pilgrim, instead, attends to the multiplicity of the bigger picture (which may, of course, include local history and “Great Ones,” but only as parts, layers or substrates of its swirling orrery of events). (15)

“Such connections and meanings, relations and scales can be directly intuited from the realm perceivable by a body’s senses,” he continues (15). Smith sensed that, in Northfield, the city’s genesis story was the source of the blank void in its self-representations before 1855: 

a genesis story generates an excessive idealism and energy as a result of the denial of things destroyed in order to begin from “nothing,” from “empty space.” In Northfield the origin story has an ideal nature, and John North’s grid plan for the town is certainly utopian in flavour, settling onto the land as if descending from the sky, only to be kinked at its centre by the river. (17)

In such ideal spaces—and the suggestion that the imposition of a grid on the landscape is a utopian gesture surprised me, used as I am to thinking of a similar imposition onto the entire southern part of this province as an affront—“the silencing of what was there before their creation is the generator for their troubled mythogeographies” (17). In other words,

It is the zero that determines their complex set of ones; the sum left after extraction and destruction, concealed and silenced by tales of a Great One or a single idealistic and magic form. This zero, this revenant of the obliteration prior to a place’s genesis, if reclaimed and repaired, is also a machine of future change. (17)

Deletions of prior histories “are often shadow silences; they obscure the overspeaking of even older narratives of geological action” (19):

Mythogeography’s generalisation motor, its big picture making, is powered by these absences and difficulties in historical and geological time. We are back at the zero, or the hidden part of any matter; that seems to be at work in stories of genesis and in overarching general descriptions. So here is a mythogeographical principle that I learned for the first time in Northfield: as you assemble all the multiplicity of informations about a place, look for the zeroing and silencing, large and small, originary and incidental, that these chunks of narrative and idea have been produced (at least partly) in order to obscure. Just as you have precious hidden parts, so does a place. (19)

All of this is pertinent to thinking about Saskatchewan, a place marked my many examples of zeroing and silencing, many gestures towards a blank slate upon which the settler apparatus is built. It might be pertinent to any place that where the ground zero was the genocide and displacement of other peoples. It would be very interesting to bring Smith to Regina to walk in spaces where that genocide and displacement are tangible.

The excess one senses in places, “a blurting out of things generated by the suppression of something else,” is “one of the languages of mythogeography; one that you can intuit in the streets and then back up with a little desk-based research or other kinds of nosey-ing around” (21). That excess, he continues,

is the reason why, on a mythogeographical mis-guided tour of such places, it is always necessary to under-tell the narrative, to dampen it down a little, to mimic the grander narrative of sinking into silence in order to draw the audience into its extreme taciturnity, to which much has already been lost and because of which much may still be at stake. (21)

Smith’s discussion of this excess heads in an existential direction:

In general terms, this silence is the historical manifestation of the mythic abyss, the void around the rim of which we all hang existentially. Hence the personal importance and the social necessity for good faith, fidelity and witness in respect of the accidental poetries, the eroded signs and the textural ironies to be found in every place (and I have found them in every place I have ever visited) which are generated by the silencing of colonialism and other place-making forces; it is not enough to fasten on just any cipher going or to use these things for effect. Hence the need for dampening down; fidelity means connecting to a bigger picture, not always through complexity, but always by a sinking beneath the event horizon of the surface Spectacle, by putting oneself, at least a little, at the mercy of the hidden zero. (21)

I’m not entirely sure how one might put oneself “at the mercy of the hidden zero,” or what that might mean in practical terms, or the connection between those “accidental poetries” and the underground narratives that exist in places like Northfield—or Regina; that’s something I’m going to consider.

Smith moves to a discussion of space that is clearly derived from Deleuze (and possibly Guattari): “There are no borders in space; a border is the antithesis of space. There is small and there are margins in places; but in space there is only folding and unfolding” (21). The same theoretical background informs his discussion of space versus power:

Power is necessarily concentrated and bounded, otherwise it would not be power, it would be free energy vulnerable to democratic uses. Space is dispersive and subject to democratic abstraction. Space can be grasped imaginatively and imagination requires no armies. A refugee in a Jordanian camp can invade England if they have access to a translation of H.G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds. (21)

I wouldn’t downplay the power of the imagination, but isn’t it important to realize that, in reality, Smith’s refugee remains in a camp, whatever he or she is reading? People who read Tolkien don’t actually—and this might surprise some of them—end up in the Shire. In any case, Smith’s discussion of space is definitely indebted to Deleuze and Guattari:  “space is finely interconnected; it is both material and imagined,” he writes (21). “The margin folds back to the centre. Those of us who feel left out are doubly tricked—first geographically, then subjectively—any marginalization is only partly real and partly a belief enforced upon us. We have been recruited into a conspiracy against ourselves” (21). Mythogeographers, he continues,

do not escape from one place to the other, but find and explore them curled up inside each other. Openness is not in one place and narrowness in another; they are different characteristics of the same places. This is part of the ‘and and and’ characteristic of mythogeography; of speaking of one’s own place as if it were space, never completed, always in motion, floated free from the binding and restraining power of identity and the binding and restraining identity of power. What is usually narrated as a doubleness or an opposition, in the space of mythogeography returns as a series of folds and loops, writhing and connecting and embracing the open within the narrow and the narrow within the open. The array of reflective surfaces created by this interweaving illuminates the narrow self-interests at work in the open space of grand narratives; the churning of their curved edges excavates the grandeur in the common symbols painted on the sidewalk by maintenance workers. If only we were to start pulling on the connections, the whole thing might swing around. (23)

Perhaps, then, rather than an opposition between space, as Yi-Fu Tuan proposes, one might assert an enfolding of them together? What would that look like? Would I have to return to the Deleuze’s The Fold or read A Thousand Plateaus to figure that out?

Smith argues that the dérive is always the motor of mythogeography, “the sociable, leaderless and destinationless wander with shifting themes and pilgrimage-like symbolisms” (25):

This derive is a simple way to take back some of the missing pleasure-surplus that has been subtracted from us—and from our public spaces—by various means including rent, exploitative labour and a Spectacle that turns its consumers into unpaid producers. In the “drift” this recovered surplus reappears like the nervous emergence of things the Spectacle has never “seen” before, spectres and unexchangeable artefacts, and an “under-selling” (a restrained telling) of the route. (25)

A dérive in Northfield took place entirely in a parking lot (25); the route can be anywhere. That dérive left behind an ad-hoc site-specific sculpture made with materials found on the edges of the parking lot; I wonder whether that is common in dérives. In any case, what Smith wants from being a walking artist, he discovered in Northfield, is for people “to walk mythogeographically, but under their own steam; not led, not guided by anyone, least of all by me” (27). He wants to be a part of walking groups but not as a leader; instead he wants “a place among the irresponsibilities and sociabilities of the mob” (27).

In fact, in Northfield, Smith found himself having to reconfigure ideas he had thought of as fixed and fundamental to what he does: 

I became aware of the need to work through pleasure more, to evangelise more and to reconstruct mythogeography as something sociable and convivial, as something people do together. I learned (and continue to learn since) to attend more, not less, to my own body as a site of inadequacy and illness that provides its own route for itself as a vehicle and agent of pleasure. (31)

He suggests as a goal he suggests for leading group walks (I think), a form of “talented” walking, with “talented” meaning a suspendedness or structural capability: 

by repeatedly walking, the walker learns to become ‘transparent,’ practising a calm and extreme openness to the experiences and capabilities of the route, so the walks increasingly take on the quality of narratives without walkers. 

The route becomes the walker. 

The prepared walker, by becoming transparent, passes through places as if he or she were the ignored ghost of it. The prepared walker becomes a haunting but not a frightening or interesting presence. The prepared walker’s transparency allows others to see the place through the walker; not by their leading or narrating, but by emptying themselves of leadership and narrative. . . . So, by their preparedness and transparency, a “talented” walker illuminates their route; and their deferral of action allows those they are with to imagine their own fading into “talented” agency. (31-33)

I’m not sure how a walker in this part of the world—or in Northfield—could become “transparent,” given the fact that so few people walk in these places, but if he is talking about a way of leading walks, this might make sense.

Indeed, Smith notes what while walking in Northfield he was often alone; few others out walking (35)—so he “mostly had meetings with things” (35). He thinks of Margaret Cavendish’s 1666 book The Blazing-World, in which the main character is marooned after a shipwreck on an island of bear-men, bird-men, fly-men, all physicists and philosophers; she is made empress and asks for a spirit amanuensis, the spirt of her own author, Margaret Cavendish (37). “Here was the model for me as a lone walker, washed up in alien suburbs and subject to a storm of my own reveries and unfamiliar resident objects,” he writes. “Be the spirit-amanuensis of your own earthbound ventures. Walking alone is a fine way of learning how to blend hard things with soft imaginings in the same journey” (37).

Here Smith returns to the notion of pilgrimage. He notes that medieval nuns engaged in virtual pilgrimages (they were not allowed to leave their convents to go on actual ones); he imagines that this could be a provocation for his walking (37). Since medieval guidebooks for pilgrims ignore the road and focus on the shrines along the way, that might suggest the road was “a profane obstacle to be overcome” (37). He sees a different extreme in what he calls “neo-romantic and contemporary pilgrimage: “its walk is privileged and democratised . . . and arrival is no longer realised by the transformation of space at the opening of the shrine, but by the transformation of the self along the way” (37). The pilgrim’s arrival at the shrine, he continues, 

is little more than an opportunity to celebrate the apotheosis that has already happened. What this removes is the “otherness”—weirdness, numinous and alien divine—from the heart of pilgrimage; relegating it to a consumable, if uncomfortable, exotic surplus. Ordinariness and the route remain burdens to be endured; this means that all neo-romantic pilgrimages are partly virtual, whether they are walked in a cell or across a continent. For the shrine of the neo-romantic pilgrimage—the transformable self—is always present and might be reached at any time. Pilgrimage becomes, then, a smooth and mobile space. The soul is not saved, but relocated to the ego. (39)

The reference to “smooth” space suggests Deleuze and Guattari again, but more importantly, I’m not convinced that Smith’s description fits my experience on the Camino—a walk that, not surprisingly, radical or art walkers who talk about democratizing walking sneer at. 

Mythogeography, Smith continues, sets out to push romanticism “to be itself but more extremely so,” so why not “privilege the way of the pilgrim not primarily as a metaphorical or psychological way,” but rather focus on tangible things? “Only by walking with and through such stinking things and squeezy organisms can a sacred way open up for this pilgrim,” he writes (39). Such a pilgrimage, “along the road of things,” would reorient one’s focus 

to the ugly matter of work and production, to medieval clumsiness and striation, to the hierarchy as well as the dispersal of space. On such a rough journey the pilgrim is no longer obliged to progressively dematerialise (emptying her rucksack as she goes), but instead to take on a new thickness, becoming increasingly loaded in the sustenance and resilience of things of the way, an ecological pilgrim wading through, and held up by, sloughs of responsive things. (39)

The drift, like the pilgrimage, is “a colonial revenant, appropriating the surplus of pleasure not from giant corporations but from passers-by, which survives inside even the most radical of walkings” (39). When I saw the word “colonial,” I perked up, but Smith is using is as a metaphor, not a literal term.

“The next step for everyday pilgrimage, if it is to escape neo-romantic, new-age opportunism, is towards ambulant architecture,” Smith writes, giving examples of disrupting the path, or creating new ones (39-41). That’s where he notes that a discussion on the Walking Artists Network focused on ways to disrupt the Camino. I’m not sure that impulse isn’t anti-democratic, given the number of people who walk that pilgrimage route every year. Why can’t they do that if they want to? Others can make more adventurous or philosophical walks if they want to, find different routes, or disrupt their own path by leaving objects behind, as Smith suggests (although where one would get those objects is an open question). There is a sociability and conviviality on the Camino—and sometimes a competitiveness—that might be worth exploring; sneering at it is not engaging with it.

“‘New menhirs’ are accidental versions of the ambulatory architecture that once combined as waymarking signs and ritual objects for prehistoric people in Europe,” Smith notes, suggesting that they “were probably the first architecture” (43)—if you ignore the shelters they lived in, perhaps that might be true. He describes the strange, typically discarded or unnoticed things he discovers when he is walking as “new menhirs” (43):

The pole of attraction of a new menhir swings things back towards junctions and magic squares, towards connectivity. It is a facilitating symbol of the human octopus and the social web; a mark that—despite its apparent isolation and its relation to journeying—connects and reconciles. While the general motor of the void is driven by loss and trauma, the new menhir is all about reparation and the reconciliation of opposites. (43)

Honestly, I’m not convinced that those objects, however strange, can actually generate connectivity—unless a group of walkers stop to examine them, perhaps. But Smith makes larger claims for these objects: 

A new menhir marks the spot where ideology touches the ground and becomes substantial. It marks the spot where deregulated images put down a footprint and can be caught. They are there to be touched, leaned against and held as connectors to something or somewhere else, channels to thinking and wands for moving things by something other than broadband. (45)

The reference to “broadband” suggests that he is talking about the Spectacle again; he is putting a great deal of weight on these “new menhirs,” but his poetic prose isn’t quite explaining—to me, anyway—their importance. Perhaps I’m too dull to pick up on it.

Smith’s experiences in Northfield “illuminated the process by which a mythogeography connects texture and detail to the big picture and how, as a common practice it can change situations and not just comment on them” (51). The essay ends with a call for readers to do “this stuff” in their own ways; one final section, “How Can We Do This Stuff In Our Own Ways?” consists of one sentence: “It wouldn’t be your way if there was anything under this heading, would it?” (51). That’s a good question. What I take, immediately, from my reading of this essay is that I ought to pay more attention to the objects and places I encounter on my walks—I am thinking right now of a hay bale at the side of the highway with a water bottle embedded in the centre—as well as to the people. And, again, I realize that my solo walking practice is probably not Smith’s cup of tea, although perhaps, after walking in Minnesota, he realizes how focused North America is on automobiles, how much it has turned its back on self-propelled motion. I am also more convinced than ever that I need to read Deleuze and Guattari—particularly if the relationship between space and place can be expressed as an enfolding rather than an opposition. I sense that such an idea has possibilities, but I would need a better grasp on the fold, and an understanding of the different kinds of space Deleuze and Guattari explore. 

Work Cited

Schott , John, and Phil Smith, Rethinking Mythogeography in Northfield, Minnesota, Triarchy Press, 2018.