This is an important book. Phil Smith makes an argument in favour of a specific kind of walking that is both politically and aesthetically radical, drawing on psychogeography as a resource but subjecting it to a thorough critique. I can’t say that I understand all the nuances of Smith’s argument—that’s what this summary is for, to help me see what I understand and what I don’t—or that I agree with it; indeed, I sense that, from Smith’s perspective, I’m the wrong kind of walker (I think he would call me “neo-romantic” and “literary,” which are bad things, in his opinion). That doesn’t matter. Walking’s New Movement is a tremendous resource, and it packs a tremendous amount of thinking and arguing and research into its pages.
In the book’s introduction, Smith explains that he was motivated to write after going to talks by Laura Oldfield Ford, Frédéric Gros, and Alastair Bonnett (they are writers and walking artists—don’t worry, Gros was the only one I knew of before reading this book) shook his thinking about radical walking (1). He decided to write this book as a response to those talks. The book, he suggests, proposes “some massive practical projects,” offers “some smaller-scale tactics,” and promotes “a handful of new ideas” about walking (1). Smith says that he is attempting to write with a kind of binocular vision—both inside walking, as a practitioner, and also above, as if looking down from a satellite or a helicopter: “I am trying to tease out the most progressive threads from the meshworks of walking, which means I have sided with some and against others”—but his arguments are about ideas and practices, he continues, not his personal feelings about individuals (1).
The introduction also, not surprisingly, outlines Smith’s purpose in this book: “Something extraordinary has happened in radical and art walking in the last fifteen years, the work of many people and of many non-human forces, and this book is intended both to celebrate that and to furiously urge a new change and to help radical walkers realise it” (1). At the same time, rather than list his demands or create a manifesto made up of numbered points, he suggests that while he has attempted to speak directly, he has “also sought to lure you into new trajectories by the curling and folding back of arguments and narratives”—a style of argument he calls “drift-thinking” (2). So the book makes its argument in both form and content, as Smith does in his book on mythogeography, which I wrote about earlier in this project.
The first chapter, “Threat,” begins with an a question: “Things look pretty good for radical walking and for the latest generation of psychogeographers and walking artists. Don’t they?” The answer, though, amounts to a list of the issues Smith wants to address, and is worth reproducing in full:
Yet the change and expansion is neither even nor simple. The performances of radical walking inside the expansion are shifting. Contradictory currents cross the zones of change. General flows and tides emerge to show themselves: an increasing multiplicity of styles and means orbiting around a variety of ideas that together form and re-form approximate coherences; the growth in the number, visibility and influence of women walking, which in its turn exposes other and continuing absences; art and performance practices dispersing across the field; the return of romanticism and the attraction to ‘new nature writing’ within the prospect of an ecological catastrophe; the exposure of semi-hidden places of violence, intensification of the invasion of the subjective, the return of repressed legacies of psychogeography including iconoclasm and the occult; a renegotiation of the relation of theory to practice and the fraying at the edges of epic and sociable walkings. (3)
Smith’s assumption has been that “the explosion of walking arts,” informed by “a political psychogeography with its roots in the early practices of the International Lettrists and Situationist International (IL/SI), are the right ingredients for a difficult, complex, savvy, corporeal, subversive, self-aware, increasingly post-dance-like walking, part of a broad and loose meshwork of resistant practices” (4). He’s optimistic about this, and yet concerned about “an accelerating discontinuity spreading across the field of radical, non-functional and art walking,” and wonders what ought to be done in response (4). That wondering or questioning is genuine: this book has emerged from a period of reflection and activity, of thinking and asking questions, as well as walking and writing. Part of what has emerged from that work, Smith suggests, is “a set of ideas for performing walking practices”:
some are original, others are hybrids or adaptations of existing practices. Taken together, they model performances of walking in relation to eco-romanticism, to misogyny, to occult ambiguity, to apocalypse, to Savilian space and to the encoding of the city. They are a prescription for a new dérive that is already emerging, and has been for a decade or so now. (4-5)
Those ideas are what this book will address.
Smith’s second chapter, “Space Wars,” is partly about a battle for “holey space,” or what Stephen Barber calls “city-space aperture[s] able adeptly to traverse all divisions between underground and surface, in order to instil its disruptive content into the relentless regulation of surface space” (6). Examples of holey space include tunnels in Gaza, place hackers accessing railway tunnels under London, air exclusion zones, basements, silos, bunkers, and hideouts, “but also those invisible above-ground ‘tunnels’ we (and they) deploy for hiding in plain sight in the anonymity of city life” (6). I can’t pretend to understand this, and that’s not surprising, since the concept of “holey space” (according to my quick Google search) originally comes from Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari’s book A Thousand Plateaus, a book I haven’t read but that, it’s becoming increasingly clear, I need to, even though it’s notoriously long and difficult. Smith’s explanation of the application of the idea of holey space to walking leaves me bewildered: “A radical walking can respond by accessing and keeping open some of the less vulnerable networks of holey space such as the trajectories of saluted magpies and imaginary sky creatures, processional walkways revealed by aerial photography, hollow lanes, and the encoding of spaces as pathways of joy and of night time revellers” (6-7). I honestly don’t know what that means, but perhaps after reading Barber, and Deleuze and Guattari, I’ll have some idea. What is clear from Smith’s remarks about holey space is that it is a space of freedom, but I am not sure how it applies to the walks I make, since I don’t wander into sewers or bunkers or silos when I walk. Such places are off-limits, usually for good reasons (wandering around in a subway tunnel isn’t safe), and in any case, I can’t think of anything like holey space in this city or in the surrounding areas. Perhaps trespassing, particularly in rural areas, might be an example? Climbing through a barbed-wire fence to walk on a piece of unbroken grassland without permission? I don’t know.
Complementarity to the notion of a battle for holey space is the “ongoing assault on the hospitable upper surfaces of urban space” by power—so that parks and benches are under attack, becoming cluttered by signs that connote “aggressive visual incoherence and anxiety” (7-8). This assault leads to a degradation of public space:
a long process of re-spacing that discourages congregation and contemplation, subjects signs to an over-pixilation, strips human anomalies from public space in order to more starkly distinguish the suspicious from the harmlessly alienated and allows rich, affluent, comfortable, exploited, disturbed and poor individuals to move rapidly through central urban spaces without recognising each other. (8)
By “over-pixilation,” I think Smith means that there are more and more signs in public spaces, signs that make increasing (and threatening?) demands of people in those spaces (I’m thinking of the signs in Wascana Centre here in Regina that forbid smoking or vaping, or that warn of thin ice even in the middle of summer—but Smith is referring to a more threatening variety, I believe). The purpose of those signs, and the rules and regulations they announce, is to strip “human anomalies from public space,” and those anomalies are important, particularly if individuals from different groups are to recognize each other as they move through urban spaces.
Another form of space that concerns Smith is what he calls “Savilian spaces,” the subject of his third chapter. The reference is to Jimmy Savile (those of us outside of the UK may have forgotten the scandal occasioned by the decades of abuse that Savile, a British celebrity, perpetrated on the living and, apparently, the dead as well). A Savilian space is a space of abuse, “a space that seems to have gone missing, become invisible or meaningless, that seems to have been largely unacknowledged in public, legal or academic discourses but to have been consistently exploited semi-publicly/semi-privately by abusers, both individual and organised” (10). Smith’s examples of Savilian spaces include churches, hospitals, special schools—and spaces within those institutions, I should think; these “are often located somewhere between private and public space. They are places to which access is negotiated; though not public places they are usually ‘known’ to, even administered by, the institutions, families, and communities the abusers operate within” (10-11). Savilian spaces are not “places of confinement or concealment, nor are they clandestine or taboo, covert or transgressive. They are inversions or inlets of semi-informal and semi-official space: dressing rooms, offices, private rooms on wards, curtained beds, and so on” (11). These, I think, are the kinds of spaces where Savile abused people. They are “very effective in creating a symbiotic relationship between criminal and official spaces,” because “[s]emi-hidden abuses in semi-hidden space put the official world in a position of ‘semi-knowing’; hearing tales whispered behind the hand, gossip about ‘bad reputations,’ and so on” (11). The institutions responsible for those spaces end up legitimating the outrages perpetrated in them through inaction and collusion. For Smith, the behaviour of police during nineteenth-century pogroms is a parallel; the police would arrive while Jews were being assaulted and murdered, and then step back, allowing the mob to do whatever it wanted and legitimating its violence (11). What makes Savilian space different is that “it is a semi-private space adjacent to public space, rather than public space itself, but it is subject to the same evacuation and validation (and to a greater or lesser extent the same disinterested witness) by official authority,” and in such space, “abusive agents act with the accommodation, tolerance, connivance and embarrassment of public power and authoritative communal relations,” in which the authorities signify their authority but withdraw their responsibility (12). As I read this description, I found myself thinking of offices or dormitories in residential schools, or those rooms in churches adjacent to the sanctuary, where abuses take place. In Savile’s case, though, his celebrity, and the way he was able to psychologically transform space, creating “unreal places of invisibility and silence” (13), was a key factor in the production of Savilian space.
Smith wants radical walking to address Savilian space: “Part of any new movement in psychogeography, if any such thing is to genuinely exist as a force for change, might be an obligation to identify and classify in popular taxonomies the locations and general dynamics of these and other spaces of exploitative and repressive power; requiring an inquisitiveness every bit as un-tame as place hacking” (14). That activity “will be a harsh and threatened mapping,” and as psychogeographers take on this task, they should do so with the understanding “that reactionaries, with the advantage of hegemony, will be able to exploit our discoveries about transit and affordance while we can never re-utilise theirs about exploitation and repression” (14). First of all, “transit” suggests mobility or movement, I think, and “affordance” comes from the work of James Gibson, whom I read about when I read about embodied cognition back in January. It means, I think, what an environment offers to an organism, the possibilities of action an environment allows.
Given the semi-private, improvised and temporary nature of Savilian spaces, I’m not sure how one would map them (does every hospital bed, surrounded by privacy curtains, constitute a potential Savilian space? If so, would that mean mapping them all?). But for Smith, that mapping would be part of radical walking’s political engagement: “if we really want to engage with the exploitative power as well as the magic of the city, including the ‘magic’ of its exploitative power, then one of the tasks of the new psychogeographers will be to devise maps to locate, and toolkits to provoke, the textures and layers of the exceptional relations of the Spectacle”—here, and elsewhere, Smith is referring to Guy Debord’s theory of the spectacle—“in the same way as we have for the textures and layers of the spectacular Everyday. And Savilian space will constitute one of those layers” (14). This political engagement is essential for Smith:
Shifts in the nature of space challenge us to make new kinds of radical walking that take themselves more seriously as activisms against the Spectacle and against power. They challenge us to generate the movement (rather than ‘create the organisation’) capable of researching and sharing taxonomies of spaces of power, exploitation and affordance to freedom, exacerbating the pleasure we find in the free enchantments of everyday space and expanding the liberties we enjoy in holey space, while tracing, exposing and ending the abuses of Savilian and similar spaces.
This means more than a politics of everyday life; it means a politics for everyday life as politics, privileging everyday life as the site of politics against the discourses of the state and the agents of the Spectacle. (15)
This political activity is, for Smith, an important part of any new form of psychogeography, and he concludes this chapter with a series of questions about what that new form, the new movement of the book’s title, might look like: “What stories would such a movement tell itself and others? What dreams would it have, despite itself? What shapes would it form and what meshworks of structure and desire would it weave?” (15). Smith addresses those questions as the book unfolds.
Smith’s fourth chapter, “Ripping Yarn,” is about women and walking. “The female walker faces the challenge to get beyond or around the threats that women face, in varying degrees, in public space,” he writes, and managing and avoiding such threats, and getting beyond or around “imaginaries in which women are not agents in the landscape but figure as a landscape or as agents missing from it” (16). He cites Judith Walkowitz, who suggests that the figure of the flâneur emerged from horror narratives and a “voyeurism that essentialises the walker as a male ‘explorer’ who reproduces the binaries of the city by retelling narratives of physical peril and sexual threat” (17). I recall that Merlin Coverley mentions this fact neutrally; in contrast, it angers Smith, who notes that some male walkers, including Will Self, consider it to be an exclusively male activity. I was disappointed to read this; I know Self is considered too mainstream a figure among walkers these days, but I like the fact that he walks to and from airports when he travels, something I’d like to try. It’s not just Self, though; many walkers, and writers about walking, ignore women. Smith notes that Iain Sinclair and Richard Long typically stand “at the head of a canonised procession from which women are almost entirely excluded” (17). “It is from this procession that a ‘new psychogeography’ must, painfully, detach itself,” Smith writes, “leaving behind some cherished sources, and find new precedents for itself (Margaret Cavendish, Charles Fourier or Nan Shepherd, for example), freeing itself from ‘the limitations of situationist psychogeography . . . ground[ed] in the male gaze’” (17-18)—the quotation is from an essay by Alexander John Bridger.
As an aside, that’s one of the great things about this book, from my perspective; it is a rich resource of books and articles about walking that I knew nothing about before. In a note, for instance, Smith acknowledges that he is “purposely fuzzying” the distinctions between other forms of radical walking and psychogeography (18). Those other forms include Nick Papadimitriou’s “deep topography,” Cara Spooner’s “greater choreography,” Tina Richardson’s “schizo-cartography,” Roger Bygott’s “integral drift,” and Bill Psarras’s “hybrid flânerie” (18)—all terms I had never heard of and need to follow up on. Smith celebrates these hybrids and overlappings, celebrating multiplicity without worrying about losing a clarity of definition (18).
Back to the main focus of the chapter: Smith suggests that the male domination of psychogeography—its older form, the form he would like to see replaced—is bolstered and articulated by
a very longstanding and resilient literary positioning of women in a landscape of passivity; this is just as common in past accounts by radical walkers as in those of more conservative literary walkers. In radical literature the landscape is female. The male writer explores the secrets of the landscape, often portrayed as someone seducing or penetrating a female entity. (18-19)
Male writers who have participated in that positioning have included Thomas de Quincey, André Breton, Louis Aragon, Stephen Graham, Julian Gracq, Walter Benjamin, and Iain Sinclair (19). “It is hardly surprising, then,” Smith continues, “that a critical geographer like Doreen Massey might mistakenly conflate such a psychogeography with a parody of urban exploration to excoriate ‘the least politically conniving of situationist capers. . . . eroticised colonisation of the city” (19). I have to admit that I missed that quotation when I read Massey’s book—I must have been too busy thinking about space and place and not open to other ideas, which suggests that I ought to re-read it.
What makes this situation particularly intolerable is that women were and are walking: there were women in the Lettrists International, women participating in the situationists’ drifts, women walking as an art practice (19). Ignoring them, Smith contends, is a “memetic war on memory and agency” (20). More importantly, “the sheer exponential growth in numbers of women practising some kind of radical or art walking” is “shifting the ground away from under the malevolent gaze” (20). It’s important to keep telling this story, he suggests, to continue noting the women engaged in radical or art walking (20). He suggests that the work of Tina Richardson is important as a way of resituating a new psychogeography. Her table of opposing elements—the negative side included the terms masculine/colonial, singularly literary, and univocal, while among the positives was post-Sinclairian—suggests, for Smith, “that while a generation of male literary psychogeographers would not be forgotten, they would be superseded, as the precursors to, rather than the originators of, a new psychogeography” (22). That new psychogeography would come from somewhere else—from the theories and practices of women walkers, in part.
Another source of the new psychogeography, according to Smith, will be an emphasis on performance. In his fifth chapter, “The Return of Art Through Performance,” he suggests that the concept of “ludibrium” “may help us make sense of what is emerging, self-consciously and unplanned, form ambulatory arts” (22). What is a ludibrium? It is “a fiction of an organisation” that brings “a real organisation into being,” Smith contends (22). A ludibrium is made up of actions and provocations, rather than dialogue and stage directions, and it lets loose “a fictional narrative and a dramatic world that invites its realisation in practice in the real world. It is a fictional score to be brought to life not by actors playing parts, but by its characters emerging from real life (22). One example is the London Psychogeographical Association of the 1990s, which was a fictional creation that, through its critiques and provocations, led large groups of people to remap their cities emotionally (22). Other examples of ludibria, defined as “journeys through metaphorical terrains, volatile sites of contestation, and inner landscapes,” include Blake Morris’s memory palaces, Jess Allen’s tilting@windmills around the wind farms fo Wales, the meditative processions of Robert Wilson, Theun Mosk and Boukje Schweigman’s Walking, the collecting/carrying/passing on of precious objects by Elspeth Owen (24). Theatre, despised in visual arts by modernist critics, “has prevailed in walking” (24), Smith suggests, and it seems that ludibria have been the vehicle for that theatricalization.
There are many practices involved in this theatricalization, but Smith wonders whether there needs to be more discussion of political strategy (24). He gives the work of Wrights & Sites as an example (a group he, of course, was part of). Their work in the mid-2000s suggests that strategy can emerge from tactics; “they suggested melding situation-making with dérive to make a walking that could in itself change the city” by attacking “the usual functionalist role of the dérive” as a gathering of information (24). Instead, the point of the dérives conducted by Wrights & Sites was to make situations, “located events that defy the present economic and political system and prefigure a new kind of society” (24). According to Smith, Wrights & Sites
proposed collapsing the walking into landscaping, taking from Michel de Certeau his empowering of pedestrianism, but getting beyond the structuralist passivity of de Certeau’s everyday tactics by adding art-making without an aesthetic product; suggesting that performance and other arts practices could be integrated into situationist praxis on a walk in which the options, to perceptually reframe the city or to physically intervene in the city, were kept open. This had the advantage of change not being planned from above . . . and instead coming by exploration and jouissance (intense pleasure) on the ground. The meanings of a place could be transformed in the process of “re-discovering” and re-enacting it and, when necessary, re-constructing it. In effect Wrights & Sites had invented a new drift-as-ludibrium: a”‘situational dérive.” The touchstone of this “situational dérive” is the whole-body jouissance of the walker, the city defined by the pleasure of a walking body; hypersensitised and micro-architecturally agentive; a prefigurative activity for a “jouissant city”; a ludibrium awaiting a walking movement capable of fully enacting it. (25)
Smith notes that geographer Alastair Bonnett complained in 1998 of the failure of the Situationists to develop an approach to creativity that abandoned avant-gardism and artistic production and engaged with the ways that people explore or mutate their environment. “It is precisely this kind of ‘approach’ that characterises the creative activity around walking today,” Smith contends:
the sources of that approach are a loosely meshed and at best vaguely psychogeographically-informed array of artists and post-artists, quite capable of negotiating (if not always successfully) the dematerialisation of the art object, relational aesthetics and post-dramatic performance. It is a commonplace (taken from live art, postmodern dance, spatial practices, mapping, and so on) for these artists to place themselves in the junctions of art and the everyday, more oriented to deferral from, than refusal of, art. (25-26)
Such work, he notes, is more likely to engage with the everyday than gallery or theatre spaces (26). Ambulatory artists and activists “engage with the way in which environments are both explored and mutated in a walk,” a practice that is similiar to ludibria, “but more welcoming to the uninitiated, grasping the provocative qualities of a teatrum mundi or of ‘a game of war,’ yet working more often in a vernacular register than in poeticised theory or abstruse symbolic mapping” (26). “Where today’s practices might occasionally spill over into opportunism or un-theorised spontaneity,” Smith continues,
walking might, equally well, suddenly spill over into dance; far better that, then, than to realise rationally and wholly (as localism or obscurantism does) some detail of a scenario that short circuits the “ideal-entire” by giving credibility either to pragmatic things only or to the making of values by the exclusion of others from them. (26)
This statement makes me think about the walks I’ve been making, and whether my focus on pragmatic (Smith might use the word “functionalist”) issues (because I know I require certain things to be able to walk 30 kilometres in the summer heat) would be, for Smith, a problem, or whether he would consider that establishing a goal of 30 kilometres excludes others. Yes to both questions, I would think, but I don’t intend to move away from that kind of walking, and for that reason I might need to begin to develop a defence of long, rural walks as a practice.
Smith sees Rebecca Solnit’s and Morris Marple’s work on walking as both too romantic and too literary (a theme he returns to later); as an alternative, he suggests Henri Lefebvre’s Critique of Everyday Life, and his belief in “a lay wisdom of the ordinary that would be as sophisticated as the technical learning required for complex science and quite different from the ‘great ideas’ of philosophy” (27). Smith doesn’t mind Lefebvre’s romanticism, because it is addressed to the future, rather than nostalgically, to the past. “I have become worried,” he writes,
that I have sometimes over-emphasised seeking wonders in the everyday . . . at the expense of exposing the oppressive homogenisation, fragmentation, marginalisation, policed containment and repressive incoherence inflicted on people in public space. . . . At the same time I have no with to leave behind my wonder-tactics for “a folk politics of localism, direct action, and relentless horizontalism.” (28-29)
“My attempt at a response, following Lefebvre’s model of revolutionary-romantic strategy,” he continues, “is to plan a distribution of alternative codes to the common things, signs, patterns, flows, encounters, and so on, in everyday public space” (29). The coding process looks like this: first, “identifying the ways in which these public spaces are constructed and rearranged as means to inflict codes that are both limiting, tedious and disorienting,” then assembling
a taxonomy of things, patterns and so on through which these ideological processes operate in a particular public space. In response, I then place this re-encoding on the buildings in these spaces, record their placing and distribute this information; so, now, the built environment can be read by others as a series of subversive and anti-ideological mnemonics. (29)
“This is a mapping of rebel ideas, dream theories and pleasure principles onto the built environment,” he continues; “an environment that is, of course, always changing and thus itself would be always finessing the codes, and helping to conceal their meanings from those who think themselves above going down into the streets to read the changes in the art of memory there” (29). This process is similar to that of occult psychogeography (29-30). It is “an art of memory for anywhere, education without system; inscribing simply-reasoned radical and vitalist theories into the fabric of things, transforming everyday life into a giant ludibrium” (30). The strategic virtue of the kind of project, for Smith, is that “once the codes and arts have been devised, released and distributed in samizdat and rumour forms, those in central power will be unable to remove them or their architectural and everyday signifiers form an everyday invisible discourse without bulldozing the entire everyday world” (30). “Those reading the codes in the everyday will learn how to do so without outwardly signalling their finessing of their mind maps (dancing with their eyes only)” (30). It would be “a strategic deployment of performance-like tactics that is not realised in art, but in everyday walking through everyday space, enabled by aesthetic technique but without aesthetic product” (30).
I have trouble imagining how this coding project might work in practice—mostly because I’ve never seen it done. Let me imagine a local example: one might walk with a group of people to Victoria Park, where a statue of Sir John A. Macdonald stands. He holds in his left hand a rolled object that I think is supposed to be the British North America Act, but it looks like a burrito or a hot dog. The ideological processes operating through that statue are pretty obvious, I should think: it asserts the right of Canada to this territory; it holds up Sir John A. as an example, as the “Father of Our Country”; it obviates or negates the genocide Sir John A.’s government committed against Indigenous peoples, including the execution of Louis Riel, whose trial took place (so a nearby plaque tells us) very close by. In a recent performance, Métis artist David Garneau, dressed as Riel (about to be hanged, wearing a hood and a noose), engages in a dialogue with the statue about why it should be removed, including attempting to pull it down with a Métis sash. Is that the kind of recoding Smith is thinking about? Is Garneau engaged in “a mapping of rebel ideas, dream theories and pleasure principles onto the built environment” (29)? I’m not entirely sure—perhaps I’ll get a chance to see this kind of coding exercise in action, some time: it seems to be the kind of thing you need to experience in order to understand.
In the following chapter, Smith gives what might be an example of a performance that engaged in a similar coding project: Nando Messias’s The Sissy’s Progress, which was a response to a homophobic assault he experienced near his home in London, a performance which “blends elements of vulnerability and display” (31). “There was no undisputed meaning, no secure space for identity-making, not even a reclaiming of the space from violence; all these things remained unresolved,” Smith writes:
What, instead, was revealed and celebrated/exorcised/invoked were the different spaces within the one space, no one of them more “real” or authentic than any of the others; different strata of conflicting personal and cultural performances and displays, layers of violence . . . different and conflicting narrations of the same places, all cutting through and across each other. (33)
Those layers did not mesh comfortably, as in an idealist, pro-Situationalist approach to the city, but rather they “remained conflicted and tense” (33). At the same time, the spaces “had positive dynamics,” and they offered the possibility of multiple positioning (33). There is a rich potential, he continues, in “deploying multiple tactics sensitive to terrain, to layers, to planes, to rights, to gender and to appearance if and where there is a primary body-identity-provocation to shake the layers of that terrain,” Smith writes (33).
Next, he describes an event in Plymouth that uncovered “a certain model-like conflation of ideas and tactics. . . . I was able to meet whatever the sum of that conflation was by moving abstractly in relation to pigeons and blown packaging—a shift to dance, a refusing to be scared of dance” (35). In other words, Smith subjected himself to a combination of physical forces, and performed that subjection. The result, he continues, was
a complex and multiplicitious dynamic patterning in engagement with multiple complex memes, “other” than human consciousness yet patterning human consciousness, while engaging against the constructing of illusions of legitimacy. . . . I was implicated and implemented. . . . I had (literally) stumbled across a de-normalising trajectory, from vertical to horizontal, to add, with difficulty, to nomadic thinking’s walk away from sedentary thought. (36)
I’m not sure if there’s a connection between these performances and the recoding project Smith describes in the previous chapter. I don’t think there is; I think he is describing a different mode of performance, but I could be wrong. Again, I would need to be part of such performances (I don’t think one is merely a spectator) in order to understand the connection between theory and practice.
Chapter seven, “War of Selves,” is about “the serious business” of psychogeography: the “struggle for the subjective” (38):
The architecture of multiple selves rather than the architecture of the streets is the key terrain of psychogeographical change; nothing changes until we first realise, each one of us, that we are alone and that nothing changes unless we allow that aloneness to change it. Everything else—comradeship, violence, democracy, environment, ideas—is scaffolding. No wonder revolutionary capitalism is so indifferent to structure and so vampiric upon every impulse to create, every desire to produce and every spirit of enterprise. (38)
But subjectivity, Smith insists, is not introspection or solipsism:
We are in the midst of a guerrilla war for what people once called ‘the soul,’ that properly dark and appropriately hidden part of you, a delicacy once hungered after exclusively by priests and false messiahs, but now desired by business and government just as much. Once upon a time acts of non-normative self-affirmation were accompanied by fear of exposure . . . today such exposure is translated into information currency in a digital marketplace. The performance that once disrupted and differentiated itself from the normative is made digestible. (39)
Given this struggle, what is necessary is for walkers to play stupid, to refuse to produce themselves as commodities, to be discreet, to put “machines of invasion into reverse so they become the means of dispersal rather than exposure,” to seek “secret places of footfall for confession and intimacy”—all tactics “that have been prefigured in the intricacy, presentness and presence of live art or in those modern pilgrimages described by Robert Macfarlane and others” (39). (As an aside, that is one of Smith’s few positive remarks about Macfarlane, who is one of my favourite writers.) “The work of the ideology-pilgrim is doubled, and then doubled again,” Smith argues:
It is not an initiation into mysteries hidden within, but, to begin with, a double journey, firstly through a real landscape saturated by ideology, a space where “virgin,” “wild,” “primal” and “unspoiled” are marks of fabrication (in both senses of nobly crafted and scandalously faked), where materiality cannot be relied upon as a counter to its own deceptions, and, secondly, a walk towards a revelation that is no more a given than the rest of the route, but is constructed and reconstructed by each journey . . . not a solipsist or spiritual journey to some “revelation” about the self, other than revealing how much the self is implicated in making everything that imprisons it. (40)
Walkers need to become walker-artificers, finding the reality in illusion, then constructing a new fabrication: that is how one does the “situational dérive” (40). The “situational dérive,” he continues,
is a baroque form of walking. . . . it is a rejection of conventional planning, even of the utopian “New Babylonian” kind, and instead prosecutes a conflation of walking and architecture; a re-making of the city’s meaning through both spontaneous and choreographed walked armed with détournement and performance. (40-41)
Walkers have a responsibility to invent: it “can only be fulfilled by the irresponsibility of refusing to imagine even what contradictions or forces of production might power up such invention; imagination being the most saturated site of ideological reproduction,” Smith continues (41). The “situational dérive is an interrupted and limited mobility, “not by destinations and productions but by decompression chambers, vaults, airlocks and encounters” (41). What is needed is something like the “ambulatory architecture” championed by Wrights & Sites (42). I don’t know enough about their work, but I’ve ordered their book(s).
And yet, Smith continues, “it is clear that there are times when psychogeography has to unclip itself from architecture and physical trace and listen for the silence, feel for the absence, dream the trauma of colonial spaces” (43). Yes—I agree. That’s what I try to do in my walks. The question is, what are the best ways to do that? “The malevolent wreckages of colonialism and misogyny are everywhere in the far-reaching strata that are crossed by our drifts; material ‘depth’ that may have to be accessed by ludicrous dreams” (43). Perhaps, but at least in this part of the world, the reality of colonialism and misogyny is probably powerful enough; I’m not sure why “ludicrous dreams” are necessary. Again, I’m not getting Smith’s point. The contemporary dérive needs the occult, it seems, or at least dreams, magic, vampires and ghosts (44). I don’t understand why that would be; why is gothic fantasy necessary? “[A] new walking movement might appropriate the baroque style of occult psychogeography and begin to ‘quietly’ but publicly encode the existing city in an art of memory, making small material interventions when necessary to finesse the code,” he continues, a suggestion that is related to Doreen Massey’s demand that we examine anew and reinvent (44). As before, I don’t understand the coding or recoding process Smith is alluding to, and I’m not sure how small a material intervention has to be before it becomes illegible. “Psychogeography can ‘re-shape’ a city into ‘as if’ patterns, using the template of ‘occult’ exegeses . . . to attribute new meanings to both generic and unique elements of a city,” Smith continues (44)—and again, I don’t understand how such gothic fantasies are a model. But my confusion grows ever deeper: “To walk a city re-encoded would be a re-composition of that city’s meaning. . . . By writing and then refining the incomplete codes, the mostly unseen and undetectable process of de-composing and re-composing a city might predominate over any cod-sinister hiddenness or finality of meaning” (45). How does a subjective process of asserting codes to objects or buildings change what the city means? David Garneau’s intervention with the statue of Sir John A. Macdonald might add to that statue’s meaning, at least for those who were present at the performance, but if the process is supposed to be “mostly unseen and undetectable,” then how does it have any effect?
“By sharing and deploying decompositions and limited encodings through unprofitable ‘art’ (technique without product),” Smith writes,
the process can shift gear from subjective pleasure to a democratic ‘art of memory’ anywhere. To be effective would of course require a qualitative leap beyond what passes at the moment for representations of walked place and a strategy for laying various encodings over, under and around each other in ways that others could understand and commit to memory. Theoretical sophistication and (a sometimes sectarian) passion have proved no substitute for artistic technique divorced from art production: a code, a fanciful mapping that cannot be read except through another journey, a score that is only visible when performed. (45-46)
Smith insists that this coding or mapping is essential to walking (at least, walking in urban spaces), and the suggestion that those codes constitute “a score that is only visible when performed” suggests that what he is talking about is close to Garneau’s performance, but I am still confused about what any of this means. I intend to follow up with Smith’s references as a way of trying to sort out my confusion, but I’m honestly not sure how telling fictional stories about places changes them. The difference between what Smith seems to be advocating and what Garneau performed is that Garneau’s narrative isn’t fictional; it’s an Indigenous perspective on the truth about Macdonald, and the reasons that he should not be celebrated with statues.
Interrupted walking, the form Smith has been disscussing, is, he suggests, “an example of slow revolution; not a sudden rupture which leaves everything still to be done and everyone vulnerable to power in other masks, but longstanding in prosecution and effects” (47). “The work of slow revolutionaries,” he continues,
is to place a nail in the flow, to subject it to the torque of resistance, upset and the foot stuck out to trip, to everywhere block and barricade revolutionary capitalism, refusing to “wipe the slate clean” but instead to conserve and détourn the smears on the slate (this is why we love the everyday and its ruins) against the imperative to “start again from scratch,” conserving and transforming obstacles into mini-barricades, chicanes and blockades. (48)
“Contemporary psychogeography,” he concludes,
may do better to draw upon the dematerialisations of the art object, the co-optation of everyday processes (like mapping) and the anachronisms like slow analogical coding, performance and iconoclastic practice (while rejecting its iconoclastic principles) as the collective means to discreetly navigate a creative space between a hiddenness within subjectivities’ interior worlds and invisible encodings upon an unremovable and uncensorable everyday. (49)
Now the codings have shifted from being mostly undetectable to being invisible. If they cannot be seen, how can they have any impact? Through a performance that names them? I honestly don’t understand this emphasis on coding. Mapping is problematic, too, since as a settler in a territory that is claimed by Canada through an unjust treaty (see Sheldon Krasowski’s book No Surrender: The Land Remains Indigenous), I don’t think it’s appropriate for me to start drawing maps. So I’m not sure how much of this I can take away. Again, I’m going to have to see this done to understand what Smith is talking about, and I hope I get that opportunity.
The next chapter, “Gros and Romanticism,” argues that Frédéric Gros’s book, A Philosophy of Walking, along with Solnit’s Wanderlust and Marples’s Shanks’s Pony, roots “modern non-functional walking in the nineteenth century romantic movement” and privileges “literary practice” over performance (50). In addition, like other men writing about walking, Gros leaves women walkers out of the story (50). “Gros attempts to relocate radical walking to an actively anti-modernist tendency, championing a direct, uncluttered and innocent encounter with the terrain; aligning it with a romanticism mostly stripped of ‘terror sublime,’” and focusing on presence and mystical fusion with the environment (50). I’m not sure that is an entirely accurate description of Gros’s book, but since Smith is responding to a talk Gros gave in Bristol, it might summarize his remarks there. In any case, Gros apparently described himself in Bristol as a fellow-traveller of the Situationists, a suggestion that bothers Smith, because of Gros’s “nostalgia for the authentic and the pre-modern” (51). Could that be true? he asks. Could psychogeography (both its occult and politically revolutionary forms) be about “a sense of loss of authenticity, a nostalgia for a sense of presence that was more accessible in a pre-modern era, a preference for the antiquarian over the modern, and a savouring of physical and biological ruin and social redundancy over the revolutionary contradictions of production and social organization”? (51). That would mean “that the two main traditions of resistant ambulation—the romantic tradition that began with radical literary walkers (most lively now in ecologically informed visual art, ‘new nature writing,’ performance and poetry) and the disruptive and iconoclastic Dada deambulations and situationist dérives—had disappeared into each other” (51).
That possibility upset Smith very much, and he started reading widely, including authors who identify the dérive as romantic:
Their interpretations struck deep into a practice I had always regarded as disruptive, anti-essentialist, anti-realist and subversive. The more I read, the more fuzzy seemed the break from the romanticism on which I had tried, following others, to found my own wobbly walking; at the very least, with legs astride, trying to walk on both sides of the abyss. But Gros, Bonnett, Rancière and Cooper seemed to deny that abyss in favour of shades of Thomas Gray. (51-52)
All walks, according to Gros, “are romanticist variations, greater or lesser fusions with what is already there. The revolutionary walk is not the making of the terrain itself, but simply a less successful fusion with it” (52). That argument forces this question: “what is it that the situationist-inspired, performance and post-art influenced dérive does that distinguishes it from a romantic walking with a radical veneer?” (52 ).
That question leads to the following chapter, “Yes to Romanticism and Beyond,” which begins with this surprising statement:
To walk as an exchange of presences, not to walk beyond the human, not yet, but to walk alongside ideals and things as companions, to walk sociably, footsteps stretching out the hours, living longer but not forever, slowing light and bending time, but possessing neither. Any new landscape we may discover is inside ourselves, not a possession, but a gratitude for the exchange of presences with the landscape within us and our attending to and tending to the terrain without. Understanding that there is no external and objective ‘landscape’; just as there is no modern world without some foundations resting on the graves of the colonialised, some barely dug. (53)
“Some of what passes for ‘presence and mystical fusion’ is a potent concoction of self-delusion, appropriation of the agency of others and the brutal excisions of a kind of historiographical cutting room floor,” Smith continues, identifying Richard Long, Philip Marsden, and Robert Macfarlane as practitioners of that form of walking (53). Macfarlane’s book The Old Ways, for example, is too traditionalist, too cautious: “It will not set its whole project at the mercy of the road” (53-54); its “brief dérive” is “followed by epic trails with fixed destinations” (55). Despite his walking—and Smith makes the same critique of Linda Cracknell’s Doubling Back (which I haven’t read) and Simon Armitage’s Walking Home (which I loved)—”it is still the ‘main road’ . . . conserved by its perilous narratives, picturesqueness and vulnerability to gaze and imagination, that is somehow more certainly real” (54). Both Cracknell and Macfarlane interpret their journeys, Smith continues, and “when that happens the mobility solidifies into a commodity that is reassuringly unique and recognisable” (54). Well, they are writing books, and books are commodities, right? Or have I missed Smith’s point again?
Smith is no more convinced by the “new nature writing”—a term I had to look up, because it doesn’t seem to be in use in this country. The “new nature writing,” Smith writes,
may pose some threat to radical walking (more than that from the literary psychogeographers; for while there is very little room at the top of the literary greasy pole anyone can convince themselves that they “appreciate” the natural world) it need have no fears of any new strand of neo-romanticism (very different from its own neo-romantic roots in, say, Arthur Machen, Hope Mirrlees or Paul Nash). In the business of intensity of experience, authenticity, the “real,” risk or immersion, radical walking need not shuffle back, embarrassed. It is on the other side of these writers, it does not have them in its sights, not because they are so far down the road, but because they are at its coat tails. (54)
“Radical walking tops all this by clinging to the rim of the abyss not as an extreme moment on a mountain pass but as the modus vivendi of precarity that mythogeography promotes . . . the walk of uncertainty in ‘uncertain times’ done anywhere,” he continues (55). Anywhere, perhaps, but mostly in urban spaces, it seems, and (certainly in this country) there is a distinction to be made between urban and not. I’m not entirely sure how Smith reaches the conclusion that a concern with ecology is somehow retrograde or inauthentic, but then again, I don’t know anything about these “new nature writers,” and not having read their work, I cannot speak of it. I would say that my walk last summer to Wood Mountain was an intense and authentic experience that involved risk and immersion, and one of its goals was to try to apprehend the sacred in the cultivated land of southern Saskatchewan—a goal I was not able to reach, and one which might in fact be unreachable. I know that Smith has made walks in rural areas (he writes about one of those in Mythogeography) but because his primary interest in this book is in urban walking, I’m not entirely surprised that he finds an attention to nature—an admittedly problematic category, but one many of us find ourselves falling back on, because we are interested in something other than urban or suburban environments—wrongheaded.
I think what Smith objects to is literary representation of walking, rather than walking as a mode of performance:
We need not be cowed by authenticity, nor from admiring these writers for their attention to detail. But we can bring something from post-dramatic performance that goes beyond their romanticist authentic and that is the facility to stage authenticity; when the mask fits it disappears. Knowing that masks are authentic things made of vital matter, which express as well as hide. And for a modernist art tainted by theatre we can draw from Yves Klein, who put his signature on the sky; we can appropriate his absurdly inflationary gesture for an effective asymmetrical relation to climate change, a more appropriate relation to the environment we partly constitute, applying satellite capture techniques to the global climate’s accelerationism, aware that our harmonies may not be the same as other parts of “nature,” that a good parasite does not kill its host, that sustainability will only come with excess, at the very moment we grasp our monstrosity, that our uncanniness is a product of “Nature,” and that a “new psychogeography” honed to finding wonders in alleyways will be better placed than ecologists, who are too busy naturalising globalisation, when it comes to turning the oil tanker. (55-56)
I doubt that ecologists are “naturalising globalisation,” or that the “new psychogeography” is better suited to averting ecological catastrophe than those who study the intricate relations between parts of ecosystems. Perhaps, as Smith’s reference to the Dark Mountain manifesto might suggest, he is looking ahead to a future after our civilization collapses due to climate chaos (I don’t think there will be one, not for our species). The new romanticism, he writes lacks “unreal risks”:
the walking that mostly informs it, while its efforts and dangers are real and its paths exceptional, is hardly unpredictable. It has yet to “step outside the human bubble,” in the words of the Dark Mountain manifesto. Again, radical walking can be, already is (if it would acknowledge it itself) beyond these new romantics; the epic trails taken by Gros, Cracknell and Macfarlane . . . are safely separated by their own estrangement, their depredation is part of a complicated movement within which distinctions between wild and human-built environment are increasingly disappearing, boundaries between city and country eroded materially and mentally (I, now, no longer get asked repeatedly “can you drift in the countryside as well?”), and public and private meshing. (56)
I don’t understand how any human activity can “step outside the human bubble.” Nor do I understand how one cannot see a distinction between an environment that is primarily wild and one that is constructed by human activity. All environments now are affected by human activity, but a native grassland or the boreal forest is not built by humans: maintained, protected, used and abused, yes, but there is a fundamental difference. I must not be understanding Smith’s point here. And I’m not sure one can drift in the countryside—at least, not in Saskatchewan, given the distances involved: if you don’t have a sense of where you’re going, you will get lost, and that could be a serious problem.
In fact, Smith goes on to celebrate an invasive species—buddleia or butterfly bush—as an ally:
Radical walkers do not need to go lining up with the siege defenders of public space or wilderness, nor enter into exciting hypervelocity-embraces with globalised information space; instead we can seek out and define our own holey space. . . . we can enjoy the edgelanding of everywhere. Buddleia, anonymous animal migrations and expanding microbial colonies are our allies in the marinated terrains of climate changes, and we can help them by opening up disruptive “wild channels” across our cities. (56)
This must be some English thing that Canadians don’t get: invasive species are a problem, sometimes a disaster. How can one celebrate Asian carp in the Mississippi, or giant hogweed or purple loosestrife taking over riparian habitat all over North America, or Dutch elm disease and the mountain pine beetle destroying forests? I just don’t understand, and I think it might be because I lack a certain imaginative flair, that I am too dull and stodgy and grounded, to follow Smith’s flights of fancy. I’m trying, and I’m not succeeding.
Smith recalls his “inter-garden wanderings” in the suburban neighbourhood where he grew up. What he learned, he writes, is that
you do not have to trample, nor build ramparts in defence of the “natural” or the old, but find a holey space as much in the everyday as in the exceptional, a place between the banal and the fanciful. That within private space there are gaps that are explorable and trespassable, connective and ambiguous; these are the efficacious spaces of subjective and intimate mutual exploration that Savile and his ilk appropriated for Power and that we must take back whenever they are taken from us. (57)
Okay. Fair enough. But not every space is a suburban neighbourhood. And sometimes, to save the “natural,” you do have to build a rampart. I live in a province where just 13.7% of the original grassland ecosystem is left. The rest? It’s gone: destroyed, ploughed under. And we lose more every year—to resource development and cereal agriculture. Don’t the species that need the grassland—animals, birds, grasses and forbs—don’t they deserve a place to live? They can’t exist without habitat. Why is it that humans must take everything for their own uses? Perhaps someone living in the UK can’t understand this point—although Europe is having its own extinction crises because of pesticides and habitat loss. My point is that some spaces are different from others, and we owe it to them, and to ourselves, to recognize that.
Perhaps I am simply anti-modern, or expressing a dislike of the modern or the urban, a reactionary, as Smith suggests much of what passes for radical criticism too often is (57). Perhaps my walks are too difficult, too “ascetic,” not enjoyable (57). Perhaps I don’t understand that cities “are spaces for face to face contact of amazing variety and richness,” that they “are spectacle—and what is wrong with that?” (58). Actually, I do understand that, but I also see “amazing variety and richness” in parts of the natural world that we have not yet destroyed. What is wrong with that?
Smith suggests that cities shouldn’t have to be spectacles: “they could be villages, machines, works of art, telecommunications stations and spaces with the stillness necessary for face to face meetings and the instability conducive to fictional and multi-located contacts” (58). What is a fictional contact? What is a “multi-located contact”? I don’t understand. Cities, he continues, are products of nature, and “city” and “nature” are “parts of a pattern of interlocking extended organisms and cold rhythms” (58). Yes, since humans are part of nature, then our civilization and everything in it has its starting point in nature, but there is, as I have tried to suggest, a significant difference between a functioning ecosystem and a city—which can only be an ecosystem metaphorically. It’s not that, as Smith sarcastically comments, human activity takes place “on remote Platonic planes” which “allow the alternate idealisation of one and demonisation of the other: switching back and forth between ‘innocent nature’/corrupt society’ and ‘nature red in tooth and claw’/‘welfare state’” (58). I’m not talking about deconstructing a binary opposition between the opposition city/nature; I’m talking about an extinction crisis, a climate crisis, and my fear that the outcome of both will be the end of the human experiment. This kind of deconstruction, at a time when our governments and corporations are doing everything they can to destroy our home, is not radical. It’s collaboration.
It would be best, Smith concludes, to “wait in slowness and quietness, for a moment to come when nature and agency are superseded by something no one will or ever could predict” (61). Oh, given our ongoing use of our atmosphere as a carbon sewer, it’s pretty clear what is going to supersede nature and (human) agency—and it won’t be pretty for the species that are wiped out as a result. Including humans.
In chapter 10, “Psychogeography Never Existed,” Smith writes about reading the introduction to Alastair Bonnett’s 2014 book Off the Map, which renounces nomadic thinking, psychogeography, and spatial theory (62-63). Bonnett’s argument suggests that “a practical psychogeography never actually existed in the UK,” and Smith began to wonder whether psychogeographical writings are imaginary, “black holes of anti-practice” (63). That notion is the second encounter that destabilized Smith’s sense of what psychogeography is. In the subsequent chapter, Smith turns back to the Lettrists and the Situationists. Without their affection for the city, their revolutionary desire to realize it fully, free of capital, and their techniques for achieving that desire, “we might now be far more vulnerable than we are to purveyors of novelty tours and self-deluding ‘leisure walking plus’” and other “hegemonising operations” (64). Most walkers, he contends, “have deployed and transformed situationist techniques to their own ends,” but Bonnett’s contempt for those techniques is not exceptional; he lists more than a half-dozen examples of writers who arrived at conclusions similar to Bonnett’s. “These denigrations hit right at the workings fo what, for many walkers, have been essential motors for interrogating and provoking idealist walking into interesting hybrids; they reach right to the door of IL/SI,” Smith writes. “If the motors have always been useless, then psychogeography’s history is phantom and any connection between contemporary dérivistes and a tradition of useful precedents is fanciful,” because it has never been practiced (65).
So Smith looks again at the psychogeographical literature, and he decides that in the 1990s, at least, psychogeographers’ walking was “routinised and simplistic,” “testimony to the morbid and annihilating energy of ideas floating about on an absence of complex practice” (66-67). How can radical walking, conceived of in this way, “stand up to a revival of romantic walking with its resources of poetry, escapism, heritage and deep ecological sensitivity in the face of global climate derangement?” he asks (67). I’m not sure why escapism and heritage are necessarily part of romantic walking, along with poetry and ecological sensitivity—I don’t think they are in my walking practice, which I’m pretty sure Smith would describe as both romantic and literary.
Nevertheless, the following chapter, “Wooooooohoooooo!!!!,” begins to answer those questions—and the answers are, surprisingly (to me), in “the much maligned literary and occult psychogeographyers”: despite their deliberate obscurity and misogyny, they maintained “a space for the irrational, unconscious, haptic, poetic and noumenal,” Smith writes. “It was they who identified where inner life imbeds itself in architectural form, who knew how to walk and explore and to identify where the psychogeographical becomes mythogeographical and engage directly with ideology in motion” (68). (Mythogeography, according to Smith’s online definition, “describes a way of thinking about and visiting places where multiple meanings have been squeezed into a single and restricted meaning.”) “I have enjoyed and learned a great deal from works by occult psychogeographers,” he continues, including Iain Sinclair’s Lights Out For The Territory, which helped sensitize him “to complexities, ironies, textures, narratives and layering,” and Arthur Machen’s The London Adventure (the next book I’ll be writing about here) and Hope Mirrlee’s Lud-In-The-Mist, which “have partially shaped my re-imagining of the terrains I explore; simple ways to write code over the top of an existing space and a semi-allegorical approach to built environment” (70). That helps me understand a the notion of coding a little better; what Machen seems to do is imagine histories for spaces, including stories he imagines through Charles Dickens. “Though I have been embarrassed by the antiquarianism and credulity of much of what has passed for occult psychogeography,” Smith concludes,
what I realise now, in a flash of understanding that cuts through a grey mire of defeatist leftist interpretation, is that it was these very obfuscations of occultism and the well-worn tracks of the uncanny (in a virtuous ambiguity that is as objective as it is human) that brought at least some dérivistes, including myself, into an immersed rather than a token practice. (70)
“[I]f judged on the basis of practical effects . . . it was occult psychogeography that kept the ‘drift’ alive and practised,” he writes (70).
That realization brings us to the book’s thirteenth chapter, “Recently,” which includes a list of exemplary publications about radical walking, which I intend to read, particularly Carl Lavery’s “25 Instructions”; a list of gatherings of radical walkers; web sites related to radical walking and related practices; and examples of practical precedents for performative walking, including Fluxus scores. “By practising a range of tactics the walker can develop their walking as a discipline, skills deployed and hybridised independently, as part of a recognisable ‘mystery’ (in the sense of a skilled trade),” Smith argues. “Accumulations of multiple tactics can tip over into qualitative change; into an uneven, evolving and always, and necessarily, partly covert ‘life score’; what this is all about (75). I was not aware of most of the resources Smith includes here, and I’m grateful that I came across them relatively early in my reading, so that I can include them on my list.
Smith also suggests that “there has also been a significant change of tone in psychogeographically informed writing, a greater commitment to openness and accessibility” (76). While “the heroic solo art walk” of Richard Long or Hamish Fulton, “inaccessible to most people due to its epic proportions, continues to garner admiration among arts managers (and the public),” more recent walking performances are “more sociable”: “The general trend is democratic, but not necessarily yet transformational” (76). My practice is closer to Long’s or Fulton’s (although I don’t move rocks around as I walk), but I would resist the suggestion that my walks are epic or heroic or inaccessible. I’m not a heroic male specimen, just a middle-aged man with bad knees and feet, but I manage to walk distances I’m comfortable with. And I’m not convinced that a relational aesthetics or social practice approach is the only acceptable form of walking. As Smith himself suggests, “a wide range of tactics is now available to anyone willing to seriously engage with radical walking. . . . there is a far deeper immersion of psychogeographical thinking in practice and there is a widespread if approximate understanding of psychogeography among the majority of practising art walkers” (78). While “many longstanding ambulatory explorers and artists engage uninhibitedly with psychogeographical and other ideas,” the expansion of practice-as-research in universities has meant that universities are moving to meet them (78).
Chapter 14, “The Movement,” casts a critical eye upon the expansion of radical and art walking Smith celebrated in the previous chapter. “Since the 1990s,” he writes,
the burgeoning multiplicity of new walkers has changed the terrain for radical walking. The growth in useful rather than bewildering publications and in opportunities to gather together seems to reflect the growth in the practices themselves; both in the deepening sophistication of ambulatory practices and in the crude numbers participating. (80)
“But is there a dialectical process at work within the increase and diversification?” he asks.
What if the sudden growth in disparate practices, by its very mass, generates a sudden condensation of practice, a tightening of connections? Might the development of a co-operative and relational (rather than literary and individualistic) psychogeography actually constrain the dispersal and performance of a practice that can only come from the subjective, whose performance is always ‘to the side’ of itself? I have no idea, but I have my suspicions. (80-81)
Is there a need for something “more agitational and dispersive,” something “with a harder edge, more evangelical, more at war with the Spectacle”? (81). Is there a need for a focus on strategies and tactics? Once again, he turns to the work of Wrights & Sites as a model:
we choose very general areas of agreement around practices to work with, then, for a specific project we make a bare collective structure that we can agree on. This structure will consist of Happenings-like spatial and temporal compartments which, by mutual consent we allot to each other. Then each of us, within our allocated, personal compartments, is free to put or do whatever we want without interference from the others. . . . Once the compartments are full the project is complete. (82)
That is how the Mis-guides were written, and how their manifestos and videos were made (82). “By making each of ourselves an ‘anywhere’ we can learn to be a stranger to ourselves,” Smith writes,
and to be better strangers to each other, facilitating a kind of holey organising; creating bare collective structures in order to provide compartments for free activity? Although Wrights & Sites is quite incapable of collectively subscribing to or evolving a political meta-narrative, if you have ever heard or read one of the group’s manifestos . . . you will know that while each of the policies or tactics or demands on its own can be deployed or realised under the conditions of the present political economy, the totality cannot. (82)
Despite or because of the lack of organization among dissident walkers, though, there is “a surprising commonality of general purposes and principles, alongside a huge range of different styles, approaches and genres”—which is a good thing (82-83). Smith suggests that his work on tourists pointed out “just how profound and witty was their agency, and that it was from that agency that everything radical can start” (83). For that reason, he now takes subjectivities seriously and myths positively (as, he contends, psychogeography itself does): “I see not only obfuscation, ideology, the script of neo-liberalism and the ‘shadows of gods,’ but also their revolutionary negation by actions that we cannot predict and should not try to second guess, but must instead await and respond to slowly and anonymously” (83).
Nevertheless, challenges remain. While more women are walking, there remain few “black and ethnic minority walkers” engaged in radical walking in the UK, and “class division continues to put a moat between practice and theory” (83). That moat “too often consigns creativity to tiny parcels of content-based provocation, milieu specialisation and formal experimentation: niches unvisited by most people in their everyday lives,” he writes. “While the relation between practice and theory is being transformed in the academy by the return to actual practice (a rare anomaly of institutional content), there is at present no similar prospect for a resolution of practice and theory in everyday life” (83). (I wonder if that’s because most people aren’t interested in anything labelled “theory”?) The challenge for radical walking, then, is to extend its reach to those who are excluded: to
disperse those means to free pleasure in the city, getting them out beyond the artists and to those who are least well-prepared to recognise or disposed to use them? Radical walking must learn the creative means of absenting itself in order for others to walk radically; its mortal remains left behind as fallen strategies—global art of memory, collective independence, war on two fronts, open infiltration, leaping over neo-romanticism’s head—for others to pick up or crush to dust as they walk far beyond. (84)
How can an art practice absent itself in order for others to engage in that art practice? What would that look like? I can’t imagine.
The next chapter, “The Problem is Walking Itself,” returns to the issue of walking artists in public spaces:
The relentless squeezing of the possibilities for artists in public space has had the positive effect of their returning to that space, and along with other pedestrians, not as artists as much as lay architects; leaving the traces of their journeys rather than depositing product, changing images rather than completing representations . . . . The contradiction for power is that the more it denudes and disarms the public and the public artist, the more it clothes and weaponises the nomad. (85)
The word “nomad,” like the term “holey space,” points to the presence of Deleuze and Guattari behind Smith’s argument, and it’s clear that I won’t be able to avoid reading A Thousand Plateaus for this project. It’s also clear that Smith, given his roots in performance, does not like object-oriented art practices:
Walking, by its transient nature and by its relations to materials, has always been placed problematically, paradoxically and productively in relation to “site-specificity”; the “site-specific” being that aesthetic approach which privileges the particularity of a place in the making, content and performance of an artwork. By the time the specificity of site in art-making came to be challenged by Miwon Kwon (2004) and others as essentialising and enclosing itself in identity, art walking had already “moved on” and was carrying its specificities lightly, as much by necessity as self-analysis, but was not yet (or ever) ready to drop them in the flow to globalisation. (85-86)
The “torque enacted” on the flow to globalization
by the spiky particularities of specificity and the anachronistic pace of the pedestrian are together capable of exerting revelatory distortions. Not as some form of localism . . . but by the irritating, eccentric, anomalous, perverse, de-contextualised and non-representative qualities of individual granules (nothing very attractive to the market there), scratched and broken, snagging on the fine weave of smooth space. (86)
“Smooth space”: Deleuze and Guattari again. “Walking in specificity, by its inherent and contradictory qualities, when armed with a disruptive Brechtian verfremdungseffekt . . . is more capable than other practico-aesthetic-theoretical activities of attending to and breaking up the slippery spaces of hypermodernity . . . and tripping up the mobilities paradigm” (87). Don’t be fooled, though; Smith does not advocate asserting the idea of place as a way of resisting hypermodern space, because doing so loops back to romanticism and authenticity, “as if certain terrains have perhaps yet to qualify for reality” (87). It’s an argument I don’t quite understand: an airport (a hypermodern space) is a place for the people who work there handling baggage or cleaning toilets, just as a grassland is a place for the people who spend time there. I’m not sure one can suggest Nan Shepherd as a psychogeographical precursor on one hand, and dismiss the notion of place as romantic on the other. Smith, though, sees that notion as a temptation that must be resisted, and finds a better model in the “anywheres” of Wrights & Sites, real places that can be found anywhere (88). “Immersed walking practitioners require neither an essentialist conception of place nor an idealist conception of thought,” Smith writes. “By necessity walkers have always had to process the intense specificity of textures and signs with the motion and transience of their own mobility; a slipperiness which renders them not immune to, but at least prepared for and ready to deploy or take advantage of, the subtle adaptations of specificity and site” (89). But the activities that take place in those sites need to become more performance-like and performative, he argues:
By bringing an understanding of post-dramatic performance to such walking we begin to see that part of the problem, a problem we have not solved yet, is “walking” itself. A “walking” that takes no account of those who cannot or do not or who refuse to walk, including the very young, the injured, the reclusive, the excluded, the confined. (90)
I’m not sure that those who refuse to walk matter as much as those who cannot—after all, there are other forms of mobility that operate at more or less the same speed as walking and that could fit together with it. Those who refuse—well, that’s most of the population of this province, and if I were to take into account those who will not walk, then what would I do? Stop walking myself? What would that prove? This is a line of argument I’m never comfortable with, one that suggests that just because I can’t kick a football, nobody else should kick a football either. Still, as Smith points out,
The post-dramatic is one way of understanding that there is nothing natural or universal about walking; every aspect of it is in question. . . . Under challenge is the very idea that there is a normal and ubiquitous behaviour—walking—in which we are all engaged and which therefore gives a universal legitimacy and a level playing field to all our walks. There is no such thing. (90)
Absolutely: walking, in this city, in this province, especially walking more than three or four kilometres, is neither normal nor ubiquitous, and most of my fellow citizens are not engaged in it. So walking is not a technique that provides equal access for everyone to the public sphere; instead, walking is performative,
an enactment in relation to an illusion of normalcy, to threat, to inhibition, to disability, to appearance, to signs, in which the meaning of “walk” is reinvented and within which the conditions of repression and exclusion are enacted and reinforced whenever resistance to them is not explicitly and structurally inscribed in an anti-walk in the walk. (90-91)
“If we do not resist the universality of walking we condemn ourselves to never finding out how different it can be,” Smith contends, and crawling and falling performances may show us the way to disrupt walking and its “structural assumptions” (91). Radical walkers, he continues, need to assault “the normalising assumptions about what is an acceptable passage through these spaces by addressing the specific inequalities in our assumptions about the pedestrian act, opening up a new and wider range of possible trajectories” (91). Perhaps that’s what he means by inscribing the anti-walk within the walk? I’m not sure. I am sure, though, that I’m not interested in engaging in crawling or falling performances. That’s just not something I want to do, although I respect Smith for engaging in that kind of work. I’m becoming increasingly aware that I’m not a performer, and I’m okay with that.
The last chapter, “What the Laura Said” (sic), is about the third comment that sent Smith on the road to writing this book: an offhand remark by Laura Oldfield Ford, contrasting her art practice to the “coffee table” books of Will Self. That didn’t bother Smith—he thinks that Self and Sinclair have become shorthand terms for “mainstream psychogeography,” against which others define themselves—but he didn’t like the criticism she received as a result, online, from neo-situationists (93). He read her book, Savage Messiah, a collection of zines under a single cover, and was struck by its “raw anger at the alienation of communities and individuals fuelled by feelings, rushes, love, desiring, dreaming and the erotic urge to fight back” (94). “More than anything I have written here, Laura Oldfield Ford prefigures what an engaged and vividly serious and sensitive and sophisticated and historically aware and reflexive walking might be,” Smith writes—but he wouldn’t have read her book if not for her criticism of Self (and the response it received). For that reason, he hopes that his readers will forgive and respond to his attacks on Gros and Bonnett and others, “as a good excuse to make up your own walkings and watchings and readings and thinkings and to take the next steps of an unpredictable movement” (94-95).
It’s a surprisingly open and humble conclusion, and it emboldened me to express myself fully about this book—the points I didn’t understand, and the points I didn’t agree with—and I appreciate that. As I’ve suggested, there is much in this book with which I don’t agree, and I fear that Smith would dismiss my walking as romantic, literary, and heroic (that is, insufficiently radical, not performative, and not relational), but that doesn’t mean this isn’t an important book for my research. It is. It’s a tremendous resource of writing and thinking on contemporary walking practices, and I wish I had read it as my first text, rather than my fifty-first. At least I have read it now.
Smith, Phil. Walking’s New Movement: Opportunities, Decelerations and Beautiful Obstacles in the Performances, Politics, Philosophies and Spaces of Contemporary Radical Walking, Triarchy, 2015.