Reading and Walking

Walking, Reading, and Reading about Walking

Tag: Psychogeography

72. David Pinder, “Arts of Urban Exploration”

I don’t recall where I learned about David Pinder’s essay “Arts of Urban Exploration”—perhaps in Tina Richardson’s anthology on contemporary British psychogeography, or maybe in Phil Smith’s book Walking’s New Movements. Sometimes a long time elapses between reading about (and printing) an article and actually getting down to reading it. Without knowing the context that explains why I thought the article might be worthwhile, it’s hard to know what my expectations might have been or why I thought it might be interesting. I need to find a better way of keeping track of these things, perhaps by improving my note-taking, because I can foresee this happening a lot. If anyone out there has any ideas, let me know.

Anyway, Pinder’s essay is an introduction to a special journal issue on “the arts of urban exploration” (387). He begins with a 2003 event on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, a musical march of sorts, described by the organizers as “a tour, a sound riot, a parade, a junk band, a detritus band” (qtd. 383). The police were disturbed, and passersby bemused; when the group wheels noise- and fire-making “contraptions” into the site of their parade, the police move in; the parade crosses over into Brooklyn, “taking its noisy party spirit with it” (385). That event was created by a Brooklyn artist collective, Toyshop, which is centred on a street artist named Swoon; “the group . . . is concerned with public space and its democratization through what it calls ‘creative forms of productive mischief,’” Pinder writes (385). “The activities of Swoon and Toyshop signal some of the themes at the heart of this essay,” he writes:

My concern is with how artists and cultural practitioners have recently been using forms of urban exploration as a means of engaging with, and intervening in, cities. The papers sets this within the wider context of critical approaches to urban space which take it seriously as a sensuous realm that is imagined, lived, performed and contested. It argues that experimental arts and modes of exploration can play a vital role in the development of critical approaches to the geographies of cities, where they may challenge norms about how urban space is framed and represented, and where they may help to open up other possibilities. (385)

Toyshop’s intervention was part of a 2003 event in New York called Psy-geo-conflux, which “brought together artists, cultural workers, activists and urban adventurers from North America and Europe under the banner of ‘psychogeography’” (385-86). That event, he continues, 

can be seen as part of a developing concern within academic, artistic and activist circles with exploring critically the cultural geographies of cities. This includes practices of studying, representing and telling stories about cities; it also involves ways of sensing, feeling and experiencing their spaces differently, and with contesting ‘proper’ orderings of space to allow something ‘other’ to emerge. Characterizing this experimentation within academia is not only interdisciplinarity or transdisciplinarity, in recognition that understanding cities necessarily requires diverse perspectives and cannot be the province of one discipline alone. Also important is a growing dialogue and interconnection between academia, artists, cultural workers and activists, and between critical and creative practices. The search for tactics, spatial practices and modes of expression with which to explore urban culture is leading to an increasing turn to work traditionally associated with the creative and performing arts and with the inventiveness of activist groups, and now permeating all sorts of critical endeavour. (386-87)

This exchange between academic theory and creative practice owes a debt to the writing of Walter Benjamin, Michel de Certeau, Henri Lefebvre, the Surrealists and the Situationists, and “the long histories of attempts to transgress boundaries between art and everyday space, to explore the street and public realm through artistic practice” (387). However, Pinder is particularly interested in “the current revival of interest in urban psychogeography in relation to its political dimensions,” and intends “to focus on two main themes”: “assertions of ‘rights to the city’ and forms of ‘writing the city’” (387).

The term “urban exploration” has politically charged connotations, Pinder acknowledges:

it is associated with voyages of discovery and the construction of geographical knowledge, but it also has a disturbing history in terms of the power relations through which it has been conducted. Of particular concern are the colonial discourses and power structures that have framed much venturing into cities in both past and present. This is in terms not only of colonizers discovering and “taming” distant lands and peoples, but also of intrepid social explorers and reformers seeking to shed light on the “dark” and “undiscovered” urban geographies in the heart of exploration. (388)

At first, I thought Pinder’s use of the term “colonial” was metaphorical, but he means it seriously, even though some of his examples such as the 19th century “the language of imperial exploration” that was used in relation to places like London’s East End, which ended up being described “as part of ‘darkest England’ and its inhabitants as an ‘exotic race apart,’ in ways that had powerful material effects for mappings and constructions of the city and for projects of colonization and civilization,” are also rhetorical (388). But those linguistic constructions have power and generate nondiscursive effects. “The power of such scripting in the production of imaginative urban geographies remains evident in the colonial present,” Pinder notes, and it continues elsewhere, such as “in presentations of urban ‘pioneers’ exploring prospects in the ‘Wild West’ and on the ‘frontiers’ of the inner city” (388). This irruption of the colonial into walking practices is a problem for my own walking in Saskatchewan, where “colonial” is definitely not a metaphor, and I need to find ways to address it.

Nevertheless, the term “exploration” can be appropriated for other ends; example of the radical geographer Bill Bunge, who set out to turn around “the capitalist and colonialist language of exploration during the late 1960s and early 1970s” in “expeditions” in Detroit and Toronto, in which “he showed how progressive forms of exploring urban areas could be developed in collaboration with urban residents” (388). “These expeditionary practices brought into focus the daily problems, inequalities and structural conditions affecting the lives of residents,” Pinder states (388). Bunge’s techniques included “community mapping that addressed spaces of violence and safety, of poverty and wealth, and of starvation and abundance. This was a practice of exploration based on an ‘intimate sensing’ in contradistinction to abstract ways of knowing then promoted by advocates of spatial science” (388). Another radical tradition of urban exploration is found within the Situationist International and psychogeography, “which was from the beginning a highly politicized endeavour, one that was committed not only to studying urbanism and socio-spatial relations but also to changing them” (388). The Situationists, of course, used dérives or drifts as a way of exploring cities on foot, drawing on earlier avant-garde practices, especially those of the Dadaists and Surrealists (388). Psychogeography 

combined playful-constructive behaviour with a conscious and politically driven analysis of urban ambiences and the relationships between cities and behaviour. But they also sought out a better city, one that was more intense, more open and more liberating. This led to reimaginings and remappings of urban space, where cities were mapped according to paths, movements, desires and senses of ambience. (389)

The Situationists’ activities have been important in the recent interest in critical urban exploration (389):

As a mode of exploration, psychogeography has typically had a marginal and underground air, not least through its focus on the hidden, forgotten and obscure. Its basis lies in the settings and practices of the streets, in their fragments, everyday materials and detritus. Yet if psychogeographical explorations retain associations of the marginal and even illicit, their significance for developing critical understandings of cities has been increasingly recognized. (389)

Pinder contends that there has been an surge of interest in other artistic practices engaging with urban space related to psychogeography as well (389)—and I think he might be including the work of Toyshop in that category: 

Psychogeographical practices of exploration are additionally feeding into, and resonating with, wider current concerns with rethinking cities and urban space. The attention to mood, ambience and the possibilities of the urban are proving conducive for those seeking to develop critical understandings of urban experience and life. (390)

Theoretical influences on these practices include Doreen Massey and the importance she gives in For Space to “the potential surprise of space and to the encounter with the unforeseen, arguing for an understanding of the spatial that resists closure and stasis. It is an approach that emphasizes dynamic simultaneity, where space is in process and incomplete, where it eludes final determination and representation” (390). I was happy to read that capsule summary of Massey’s book, and I realize, once again, that I will need to read For Space a second time.

A broad range of activities took place during the Psy-geo-confluxes event: activities that “sought to divert or subvert routinized spatial practices” and encouraged interactions with strangers (390-91). Other activities tried to investigate “the urban everyday, and to sense urban moods and ambiences,” by listening to the city and its multiple stories and memories, “and finding means of responding to or recounting the tales” (392). These practices didn’t only consider “meanings as currently understood” but also questioned those meanings through games, walks, events that encouraged participants to adopt different routes “or sought to defamiliarize routine paths and practices” (395). Most of the activities “involved immersion in the city specifically through walking,” in keeping with other forms of urban exploring and psychogeogrpahy (396). However, those activities set out “to displace everyday routines and habit in navigating the city” by opening walks “to chance events and encounters,” often “through instituting frameworks or rule systems for walking” (396). “Such practices to encourage dérives might recall aspects of situationist practice, and in particular Debord’s criticism of the limitations of surrealist strolls that relied on chance alone,” Pinder notes (397). 

The Situationists and their “conscious assertion of revolutionary desire in the effort to overturn dominant sociospatial relations” also “led to the assertion of what their sometime associate Henri Lefebvre later termed in 1968 ‘the right to the city,’ by which he meant the right to dwell in and to inhabit the city, the right to urban life and encounter, to the use of moments and places, to participation and socialization” (397). Much of the value of psychogeographical activities, Pinder argues, “comes from what they say about ‘rights to the city’ and practices of ‘writing the city’” (397). “To intervene through creative practice in public space today,” he continues, “is to enter into a crucial struggle over the meanings, values and potentialities of that space at a time when its democracy is highly contested. Encouragement of vitality and openness in that space is not an innocent demand” (398). Instead, it confronts “the commercialized and commodified blandness of urban space” (398). It is also “located within a tightening of surveillance measures and a hardening of the city’s surface,” in terms of increased security after 9/11 “and in relation to a landscape pitted against the already marginalized and poor” (398). “Familiar components include the proliferation of surveillance cameras and the construction of walls, embattlements and other signs to warn off and issue orders to users of space,” and “zero-tolerance” policies, moving homeless people out of public spaces (398). Related to these is the redevelopment of urban centres, which has resulted in evictions and exclusions (398). “Toyshop’s infectuously joyous Serenade and other psychogeographical explorations of cities” therefore “occupy an awkward position”: 

The games and gift economy underlying them cut against the prevailing emphasis on commercialized and controlled activity with associated demands of passivity, where the commodity is the measure of worth. From a hard-nosed political perspective, though, such activities may be easy to dismiss as irrelevant to the “real” business of political struggle, even trivial. Real estate interests can also sleep easy, with the cachet of more artistic gatherings even rubbing off on their marketing schemes. How can artists criticize and resist the remaking of public spaces by powerful interests? How can they question the complicity of the arts in socially divisive urban development programmes, where they are often used merely to add gloss to urban “renewal projects through aestheticization in the form of sculptures or individual art projects? (398)

Such questions “have been at the heart of much important critical public art over the last two decades,” and they have “led activist strands of creative practice to engage with communities and existing social struggles, to develop collaboration and dialogue with residents, and to employ different modes of address” (398). Those “activist strands” have also questioned the role of the arts in urban change and gentrification (398).

The political strategies of the psychogeographical activities Pinder has discussed are typically not overt, and they rarely involve collaborations with communities beyond “their own relatively narrow constituencies” (399). For that reason, “they are relatively detached from the kinds of day-to-day struggles of poorer local residents” (399). At the same time, however, “exploring ‘the meaning of living in a city’ at this time is crucial politically. It is not a trivial matter to find different ways of attending to the ‘quality of life’ in the city, especially when that phrase has become hijacked by authoritarian modes of policing public space . . . and used invidiously to construct public space in exclusionary ways” (399). “Nor is it insignificant to explore critically the qualities of streets, squares, parks and other aspects of the public realm in terms of how they are used, imagined and lived,” Pinder continues. “Indeed, doing so is vital given the significance of these spaces for sustaining a vibrant and democratic urban culture, and for defending rights to the city. So too is provoking debate about how they might be different, better” (399). In addition, many explorative activities have become politicized through the resistance they have received—such as police harassment (399). The importance of psychogeography is the way that it “directs attention in particular to spatial practices, undercutting assumptions that public space can be understood in static terms as a ‘thing’ whose status is fixed in advance. It can open to interrogation the means through which public space is socially produced and contested” (399). What characterizes psychogeographical strategies is their “emphasis on an active engagement with urban space where importance is attached to the act itself: to creating games in the city, to experimenting with behaviour, to experiencing urban spaces directly as an actor rather than as a passive spectator” (400). Psychogeographical activities can also include “forms of play in the streets, whose presence is testament to how space remains open to the potential for surprise and encounter, and whose actions” may loosen the rules of social conduct (400). These strategies may also “raise significant questions about how hopes, dreams and desires for a different city might be drawn out from everyday moments and events” (400).

However, the difficult question “of how resulting momentary incursions and shifts in perspective can lead to longer lasting social and spatial change” is important: “Demands for right sto the city, as Lefebvre made clear, require the production of an appropriate space; this signals a limitation of psychogeographical incursions and remains an issue in need of further address” (400). “Part of the significance of psychogeography and walking practices is nevertheless the way in which they allow encounters with apparently ‘ordinary’ and ‘unimportant’ activities in the city, against the grain of powerful discourses of the urban,” Pinder writes (400). Such discourses that constitute grand narratives about the state of city life (401). “Wandering through the city and attending to such everyday practices” means operating below the threshold (to paraphrase de Certeau) of “urbanistic, planning and geographical discourses” (401). “It is from this street-level perspective that such practices open up detours and rework understandings of cities along different lines from those scripted according to the dominant terms of the ‘Concept City,’” Pinder contends (401). He asserts the importance of de Certeau’s essay “Walking in the City” as an expression of “the endless creativity of ordinary users and walkers in cities, their tactical operations and errant movements on foot,” which resemble (de Certeau argues) speech acts in which pedestrians “enunciate” spaces rather than conform to them (401). However, there are many critiques of that essay, including the suggestion that de Certeau was talking about walking in the abstract, without rooting his essay in specific examples, which led to, among other things, a neglect of “the specific identities through which people negotiate their passage in the city” (402). 

One “important outcome” of the discussion of urban exploration, Pinder writes, has been an emphasis on the ways that 

spatial practices are constrained as well as enabled by the particular identities of the explorers involved and the context with which they are engaged. The relative ease with which some explorers move through terrains is bound up with axes of power that involve complex articulations of class, gender, ‘race,’ sexuality, disability and so on. It is therefore necessary to consider how ostensibly ‘radical’ explorations may themselves depend on privileges of power. (402)

That reality “tempers some of the enthusiasm with which walking has been embraced by many critics and cultural practitioners in recent years for enabling critical analysis, discovery and thought” (402). Indeed, part of walking’s appeal “has been the way it apparently renounces the centred, the panoptic and the hierarchical” and “provides a means of engaging with urban spaces and experiences in ways that move beyond specialized arenas, whether those of art or academic institutions”—with “apparently” being the key word in that sentence (402). 

It is important to recognize that while the city “can never be known in its entirety, and that representing space is in some cases an inevitably doomed task due to its very openness,” experimenting with ways of “writing the city” is still 

vital for developing critical studies of the urban as well as this sense of its openness. “Writing” here is understood in a wide sense as involving all kinds of media, registers and modes of performance, and may include adopting different textual strategies and voices as well as modes of (counter)mapping in an effort to find forms conducive to addressing the complexities of the urban. Such experimentation is not for its own sake but in recognition of the politics as well as poetics of representation. (403)

There is much to be learned regarding the politics of the representation of the city, Pinder argues, 

from a range of current exploratory and psychogeographical practices that includes the work of contemporary artists, urban adventurers and explorers. It is not simply an issue of asking what artists can do in a narrow instrumental sense to bring about progressive urban change, but rather of opening up through such practices the potential for collaborations, interventions, reimaginings that disrupt and expand senses of both the city and the self. This necessitates working within particular contexts, and negotiating and constructing paths through what exists. It also requires inventing different ways to address “the meaning of living in a city” and associated rights, with a continual emphasis on what is possible. (404)

Those words essentially constitute Pinder’s conclusion; what follows is a discussion of the other articles in the issue of the journal, which sound promising and helpful and certainly worth reading.

In a way, Pinder’s essay is a rather general introduction that repeats things I’ve already read. What is useful about it, though, is that it is a discussion of psychogeography that doesn’t get hung up (as I tend to do) on some of its (to me) less useful aspects—its emphasis on occult or esoteric knowledge or belief, for instance. And, while Pinder is clearly focused on urban explorations, I wonder if it would be possible to read his essay against rural explorations as well. Perhaps not: there are significant differences between the way space is constituted in the country and the way it is constituted in the city. Nevertheless, it still might be worth a try. I was also surprised at the link Pinder makes between events like Toyshop’s parade and psychogeography—perhaps the range of activities that fall beneath that rubric is wider than I had thought. And, of course, Pinder’s bibliography is a rich source of further reading, as any good research essay typically is. Each thing I read is one more piece of a larger puzzle, even if I can’t immediately see where that piece fits, and so none of it—well, almost none of it—is wasted.

Work Cited

Pinder, David. “Arts of Urban Exploration,” Cultural Geographies, vol. 12, no. 4, pp. 383-411.

60. Alastair Bonnett, “The Dilemmas of Radical Nostalgia in British Psychogeography” 

dilemmas of radical nostalgia

I often feel nostalgic, sometimes for a past I’ve never experienced. I am nostalgic for a world where the concentration of carbon in the atmosphere is less than 405 parts per million, for instance. I’m nostalgic for a world when southern Saskatchewan was still grassland, a time before settlers arrived (which would mean that, as a descendant of settlers, I would be somewhere else, or perhaps nowhere, but I honestly don’t care about that). I don’t imagine that in the future the concentration of carbon will be less than 405 parts per million, or that this province will have any more than 13.7 percent of its original grassland ecosystem intact, so I imagine the kind of past I’d like to see. I’m not the only one who feels that way. I remember a passage in George Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier (I think it was The Road to Wigan Pier) measuring a happy working-class home in the 1930s against a similar home in the modern future, and Orwell deciding that the present, when there was work and food and decent housing–all things that, as his book demonstrates, manifestly did not exist in the UK of the 1930s–would be better than what was coming. But at the same time, I know that nostalgia is a vehicle for right-wing fantasies of white supremacy and empire. That’s what those MAGA hats are about, right? A malignant and racist nostalgia—and I’m not attacking Americans here, either; there are enough white supremacists right here, some of them working for one of our major political parties. My point is that nostalgia is slippery and dangerous–and yet, I am very familiar with its call.

So Alastair Bonnett’s essay, “The Dilemmas of Radical Nostalgia in British Psychogeography,” speaks directly to me, and his bibliography suggests lots of further reading on the topic of nostalgia’s place within radical political and aesthetic practices. Bonnett begins with Iain Sinclair’s London Orbital, one of his central examples, a book which, he writes, depicts “a journey in and against the contemporary landscape” and “an act of retrieval of radical histories now by-passed,” but also “a kind of romantic tribute to the brute energy of a technocratic, dehumanized environment” (46). That book is, for Bonnett, also an example of the “psychogeographical turn” in British literary culture and avant-garde activity (46). It is a work that “seeks to re-enchant and re-mythologize prosaic geographies. The resultant effect is disorientating—funny yet melancholic; utterly of our time but ill at ease with modern Britain” (46). In a review of London Orbital, Robert Macfarlane described it as “nostalgic radicalism” (qtd. in Bonnett 46), highlighting what Bonnett sees as its ambivalence, “the unresolved nature of his project” (46). Bonnett’s purpose is to develop this interpretation and to argue “that contemporary British psychoeography should be understood as a site of struggle over the politics of loss within the radical imagination,” and more specifically “that British psychogeography is an arena of conflict between two important strands within British radicalism: the use of the past to critique industrian modernity and the suppression of nostalgia” (46). “[T]hese tendencies, though they remain discordant presences, are, in fact, partially resolved into novel forms of creative praxis,” he writes (46).

Bonnett’s essay has three sections: first, the historical context of “the emergence of nostalgia as a dilemma within political radicalism,” and the second and third examples of British psychogeography—one devoted to Iain Sinclair’s work, and the other to the various psychogeographical groups which sprung up in the 1990s in the UK (47). Both share “a quixotic, love-hate relationship with the past,” exhibiting “an uneasy combination of deracinating modernism and folksy localism,” but both are distinctive in “their fraught relationship with nostalgia” (47). “Within Sinclair’s travel books, the modern landscape becomes a site of creative purgatory,” Bonnett writes. “Britain’s auto-centric, disorienting non-places seem to have for him the fascinating, troubling allure of a kind of necessary violence, a violence that simultaneously anchors the writer in modernism while establishing marginal spaces and histories discovered on foot as sanctuaries that tell of profound cultural and social loss” (47). In what he calls “revolutionary psychogeography,” on the other hand, the simultaneous refusal and deployment of nostalgia 

is enacted in a different way and to different ends. The use of a self-consciously exaggerated and, hence, self-subverting rhetoric of class war enabled these activists to evoke and ironize orthodox revolutionary politics. The development within this resolutely ‘underground’ community of so-called ‘magico-Marxism’ encapsulates the novelty but also the folk-historical inclinations of their project. (48)

For Bonnett, “a newly confident politics of nostalgia can be glimpsed within this milieu: at the counter-cultural margins of society radicalism is (once again) becoming tied to a popular politics of loss” (48). 

This discussion is part of a larger debate about the relationship between radicalism and “the politics of loss,” Bonnett writes (48):

Politics demands the critique of the present and, hence, the necessity of political visions of the past and/or future. Yet within an era that distinguishes itself by its modernity, these are not equivalent options. to be “backward looking” is unacceptable, inadequate, eccentric. . . . However, while we should acknowledge that a yearning for and an attachment to the past is inherently discordant in the modern world, it appears that the relationship between nostalgia and radicalism is uniquely troublesome. “Making a new world” is a defining or, at least, central claim of the radical imagination. (48-49)

“The landscape has been the central stage for the proof and spectacle of radical transformation,” Bonnett continues. “The eradication of old buildings, old place names and old monuments, and the construction of new places, new names and new monuments, provided the most visible symbols of revolutionary intent. This eagerness to build anew was never simply a mere concretization of radical ideology. It was also an assertion of authority over the past” (49). So, by the middle of the 20th century, “the idea that radicals are necessarily suspicious of the past had become so dominant that, across the range of radical opinion—from authoritarian to libertarian—feelings of loss and regret were cast as intrinsically wrong,” and looking back has been seen as wrong-headed (49). Regret about the past leads to resignation about the present and, therefore, political quietism, according to Richard Sennett, a claim Bonnett suggests “bears little scrutiny” and “has the brazen, generalizing quality of a stereotype” (49). Nostalgia therefore came to be seen as “an alien presence” within radicalism (49). 

“However, it is only by addressing the use and subsequent repression of nostalgia in the broader radical movement that we can begin to understand how and why the unresolved problem of the past is played out within contemporary psychogeography,” Bonnett argues (49). Attachments to the past were once central to popular radicalism, but after the late 19th century “such attachments became marginalized and, hence, available to an emergent avant-garde as a resource for cultural transgression” (49). Nevertheless, the relationship between the avant-garde and nostalgia always uneasy: “The way in which the avant-garde imagined and recuperated aspects of the past as pre-bourgeois and pre-civilized is indicative of how it has managed the paradoxes of modernist nostalgia” (50). In fact, he suggests, “[t]he attachment to the land and to myths of traditional community that are so central to late 18th-century and early and mid-19th-century English revolutionary thought have been consistently underplayed” (50). The sense of loss experienced by those early radicals was not just related to “ancient landscapes” but also to “traditional and communal relationships to the landscape” (50). “Whether expressed through romantic or practical historical comparison, resistance to the transformation of ‘our places’ into things owned and traded by an alien class was central to the emotional and political message of early radicalism,” Bonnett writes (50). However, as scientific socialism became pervasive, “such backward-looking perspectives took on an increasingly self-conscious and risky quality” (50). Nostalgia came to acquire “defensive and disruptive connotations” (51), and “resistance to industrial civilization” came to be seen as “arcane and conservative” (51). 

“As hostility to nostalgia developed into a radical orthodoxy, the past became more attractive to the unorthodox,” Bonnett writes. “Hence, one of the consequences of the opprobrium that came to surround the topic was that the past came to take on forbidden connotations and acquired transgressive qualities (especially when cast in the form of the ‘primitive’ and pre-civilized) that attracted the avant-garde” (51). While “[t]he avant-garde have continued to work through the dilemmas and opportunities of radical nostalgia,” though, “an attraction to the past triggers automatic suspicion” (52). For instance, the attempts by the Surrealists and Situationists to “cast the street as a terrain of intimacy and creativity, a space hidden and threatened by the ‘suppression of the street’ augured by modern traffic and modern planning,” might “have had ‘elitist’ components,” with elitism being one of the suspicions modernity has about nostalgia, but “it must also be understood as an attempt to defend ‘popular’ or ordinary space within and from the new technocentric and exclusionary landscapes of modernity” (52). “Nostalgia cannot be adequately summarized as either elitist or popularist,” Bonnett continues. “Indeed, it often acts to confound and confuse such designations and, by extension, the ability of ‘melancholic intellectuals’ ever to be entirely ‘at home’ within either modernity or anti-modernity” (51). For example, “radicalism and nostalgia were most clearly drawn together within the often uneasy combination of anti-technocratic pastoralism and avant-garde experimentalism found within the hippie and bohemian arts scenes of the 1960s and 1970s” (52). In addition, “nostalgia has had a somewhat mercurial presence within theorizations of postmodernism” which is often overlooked: one example is Wendy Wheeler’s 1994 essay “Nostalgia Isn’t Nasty,” which argued that nostalgia is a central feature of postmodernism (53). Nevertheless, nostalgia never became a central theme in postmodern discourse: 

it has been stereotyped by both postmodernists and Marxists as a sign of failure and conservatism. By approaching nostalgia through political history it becomes easier to see that any attempt to classify it as a symptom of postmodernism (or, indeed, of late modern Marxism) is unlikely to be satisfying. The politics of loss are chained to the politics of modernity. This also implies that the possibility of nostalgia’s reassertion in radical politics is best explained by reference to political change (such as the demise of communism) and chronic political dilemmas. (54)

According to Bonnett, “Contemporary British psychogeography may be viewed as a creative space where feelings of loss and redemption are explored and negotiated,” although the dilemmas “negotiated within this body of work are far from unique,” and there have been other “critical deployments of nostalgia by avant-garde groups” (54).

Bonnett turns to Iain Sinclair’s writing as one example of “a creative space where feelings of loss and redemption are explored and negotiated”: his “double mapping of modernity and loss is narrated as an engagement with alienating, often brutally instrumental, landscapes. These places (or non-places) offer disorientation and disharmony while establishing the necessity of resistance and human solidarity” (55). Bonnett argues that London Orbital is Sinclair’s “most revealing and edgy confrontation with the dilemmas of radical nostalgia” so far (55). His exploration of the M25 expressway (the “Orbital” of the book’s title)

both repudiates and welcomes its disturbance, its capacity to dehumanize and deracinate. The ceaseless motorway provides the kind of hostile terrain and antagonism to sentiment required by Sinclair, both explore the creativity born of disorientation and his own profound sense of loss. The road and its surrounding ‘retail landfill’ are used to experience the violence of modernity. It is a violence that lures those who find themselves in and against their era. (55)

Sometimes the tensions in Sinclair’s work are resolved through apocalyptic fantasies (57): “Visions of the doom of Western civilization combine the violence of modernity with a violence towards modernity. They are a familiar avant-garde trope. However, Sinclair’s work offers other, less cataclysmic resolutions. Indeed, his wanderings may be represented as a search for restorative and redemptive community” (57)—in Edge of the Orison, for example, which traces a journey made by poet John Clare (57). However, unlike Clare, “Sinclair never belongs. Indeed, he implies that belonging is now impossible. But this only intensifies his hunger for company, for a community of the dispossessed” (57). This Bonnett suggests, is the reason Sinclair walks with others (58). “It is in Edge of the Orison that Sinclair comes closest to the kind of heartfelt sense of remembrance that one always suspects lies just below the rather glassy façade of London Orbital,” Bonnett continues (58). 

“Reading Sinclair, one may wonder how his melancholic concerns could ever be compatible with the rhetoric of class struggle. Such an incongruous mix is precisely what can be witnessed within the agitational psychogeographical groups,” Bonnett writes (58). While editing a psychogeographical journal, he saw “the odd amalgam of preservationism and radicalism, modernism and anti-modernism . . . propelling psychogeographical activity” (59-60). The occultism of that era of psychogeography imagines the occult, and “other hidden forms and sources of power,” as “a class strategy, a technique of control in the management of the spectacle,” ideas that came to be called “magico-Marxism” (60):

As with many avant-garde interventions, magico-Marxism is determinedly disorienting: is is evasive, infuriating, constantly asking that we see the city in new, unexpected ways. However, I would also argue that the disorienting game played by these psychogeographical groups acted to conceal and cohere the tension between anti-nostalgia and nostalgia, modernist and anti-modernist politics, that animated their project. (60)

Magico-Marxism “combined communist militancy with a romanticization of landscape and memory” (60). Some psychogeographic groups romanticized decaying or abandoned landscapes while being hostile to the destruction of old buildings (62). Bonnett suggests that the impulse towards preserving old buildings, and a hostility toward the construction of new ones, indicates that “the relationship between radicalism and nostalgia is changing”: “The hostility to the past that shaped the socialist tradition from the late 19th century is no longer the force it was” (63).

In his conclusion, Bonnett writes,

Modernity turns the past into an arena of provocation and danger. Attachments to the past and feelings of loss become sites of repression and potent resources for resistance and critique. These processes can be seen at work across many political projects. However, they appear to have a uniquely troubled relationship with that set of ideas and ideals associated with the pursuit of equality and the critique of commercialization that we can, perhaps, still call radicalism. (63)

The different psychogeographies he has discussed “illustrate different ways the dilemmas of radical nostalgia have been negotiated” (64). In Sinclair’s writing, “the non-place urban realm becomes a site of creative purgatory, a necessary violence that simultaneously positions the writer as dependent upon and antagonistic to deracination and alienation,” while in what he has called “revolutionary psychogeography,” the “tension is organized around themes of communism, occultism and preservationism” (64) The result, however, “has a desperate quality: it wants to be communist but it no longer believes; it wants to articulate the sense of loss that sustains it, but it does not know how” (64). The impulse towards preservation of the built environment appears to many as culturally conservative, reflecting “a political paradigm that, although dominant, no longer inspires the automatic loyalty of creative radicals” (64). “With the collapse of communism and the widespread questioning of the sustainability of industrial modernity, the radical imagination has been profoundly challenged. Old assumptions and prejudices can be overturned. And not the least of these concern the role of the past in the politics of the present,” Bonnett concludes (64). “[T]oday the shame of nostalgia is fading. It is perhaps fitting that it is radicals at the most iconoclastic edges of political and cultural life who are beginning to grapple with the fact that the poetry of the future is no longer enough” (65)

Bonnett’s essay doesn’t resolve the tension between nostalgia and radicalism, but it doesn’t have to: it identifies that tension and shows examples of it within psychogeography, and that’s all Bonnett set out to do. His discussion of magico-Marxism is valuable, although my revulsion at the occultism of much of 1990s psychogeography is such that I’m unlikely to pursue that direction of research. In any case, I’m not sure that the tension between nostalgia and radicalism can be resolved—not at the present time. What is clear to me, though, is that I will need to understand more about nostalgia in order to explore my nostalgia for landscapes and histories I have never experienced. One place to begin, of course, is with Bonnett’s bibliography. Another place is by reading more Iain Sinclair, especially Edge of the Orison. Wouldn’t it be great to take a course on Sinclair? Or, even better, to teach one? Maybe someday. It’s possible, even if it feels unlikely.

Work Cited

Bonnett, Alastair. “The Dilemmas of Radical Nostalgia in British Psychogeography.” Theory, Culture & Society vol. 26, no. 1, 2009, pp. 45-70.

56. Francesco Careri, Walkscapes: Walking as an Aesthetic Practice

careri walkscapes

In Walkscapes: Walking as an Aesthetic Practice, architect Francesco Careri constructs a genealogy of walking that is somewhat different from Phil Smith’s in Walking’s New Movements. It moves from the Dadaists, Surrealists and Situationists, as does Smith, but it ends up with Minimalism and Land Art, rather than performance. My sense that walking as an aesthetic practice is a very broad field is confirmed by the twin genealogies Smith and Careri create. 

In his 2017 forward, Christopher Flynn suggests that walking is “as much an architectural act as a pilgrimage” (8), and that is a good summary of Careri’s argument. The book also has two introductions (one from 2013 by Careri, the other from 2002, the date of the book’s original publication, by Gilles A. Tiberghien). In the 2013 introduction, Careri describes the colonial urban grid of South American cities, and his comments on such grids, and on walking in those cities, also apply to cities in North America, at least to a degree:

I have to look for the points in which the grid breaks up, lose my way along rivers, skirting around the new residential zones, plunging into the mazes of the favelas. Walking in South America means coming to terms with many fears: fear of the city, fear of public space, fear of breaking rules, fear of usurping space, fear of crossing non-existent barriers, fear of other inhabitants, nearly always perceived as potential enemies. To put it simply, walking is scary, so people don’t walk any any more; those who walk are homeless, drug addicts, outcasts. The anti-peripatetic and anti-urban phenomenon is clearer here than in Europe, where it still seems to be on the verge of taking form: never leave the house on foot, never expose your body without an enclosure, protect it in the home or in the car. (13)

There are no favelas in North America, not exactly, but there is a sense of fear attached to urban walking (to a lesser degree, no doubt, than in South America), and those who walk are considered as marginalized (unless, in this city, they are taking a stroll around the artificial lake in the park). There’s no question, though—particularly when it comes to rural walking—that the “anti-peripatetic” phenomenon is deeply rooted here: no one goes anywhere outside of the cities without protecting their bodies inside an automobile. It’s worth noting as well that Careri sees the urban grid as a colonial imposition, whereas Smith (in Rethinking Mythogeography in Northfield, Minnesota) suggests that such grids are utopian. Is there a crossover (from the perspective of the colonizer) between colonial imposition and utopian construction? If colonialism was intended as a utopian project (not for the colonized, obviously), does that help to explain why it is so hard for settlers, for colonizers, to address its ongoing legacy? 

Careri’s remarks on the politics of urban walking echo Jane Jacobs: 

It might sound banal, but the only way to have a safe city is to have people walking in the street. This factor alone allows people to watch and watch out for each other, without any need for fences and surveillance cameras. And the only way to have a living, democratic city is to be able to walk, without erasing conflicts and differences, to be able to walk in protest, to reassert our right to the city” (13)

Walking trains citizens; it is “capable of lowering the level of fear and of unmasking the media construct of insecurity” (13-14). So Careri walks with his students: “One motto that guides our walks is ‘lose time to gain space’” (14). He wants them to “get out of a functional-productive system in order to enter a non-functional, unproductive system” (14): 

You have to learn how to lose time, not always seeking the shortest route, letting yourself get detoured by events, heading towards more impenetrable paths where it is possible to ‘stumble,’ maybe even to get stuck, talking with the people you meet or knowing how to stop, forgetting that you were supposed to proceed; to know how to achieve unintentional walking, indeterminate walking. (14)

He calls the Situationist dérive a form of indeterminate walking, and suggests that it has the potential “for the transformation of the nomadic—or more precisely informal—city (14). “Drift,” he suggests, is a nautical metaphor: it connotes ways “to designate a direction, but with extensive openness to indeterminacy, and to listen to the projects of others” (15). That’s important, because determinate projects will fall apart at the first gusts of wind: “There are definitely greater hopes of achieving an indeterminate project” (15). 

At this point, Careri looks back at what he’s written so far, and sees it as connected to “relational” or “participatory” creative processes, which “cannot meet fulfillment without an exchange with the Other” (15). I’m hearing echoes of Smith or even Pujol here: in such relational creative processes, 

the operation usually happens in one of two ways: either you get the ‘other’ involves in your own project, to obtain consensus, or you cancel out your own creativity, leaving the completion of the work completely up to the other. Instead, I believe it is interesting to navigate between these two shores, aware of the fact that we have our own creative project (even our desire to participate is a project in its own right), but also knowing that we want to leave it open, indeterminate. The steering will therefore be done by the inner coherence between the things we come across and those we create, between things that happen and things we make happen, the ongoing discovery of a hidden order we can observe as it comes to life beneath our feet and the perspective they afford us, the possibility of constructing a meaning and a coherent, shared story-route. (15)

This is a reasonable take on relational aesthetics, worth remembering if (or when) I engage in that kind of project later on.

In the 2002 introduction, Tiberghien suggests that Careri offers “a rereading of the history of art in terms of the practice of walking” (20). The book’s main idea, he writes, is that “walking has always generated architecture and landscape, and that this practice, all but totally forgotten by architects themselves, has been reactivated by poets, philosophers and artists capable of seeing precisely what is not there, in order to make ‘something’ be there” (21). Walking serves practical needs, Tiberghien contends, but once they have been satisfied, it takes on a symbolic form that enabled humans “to dwell in the world. By modifying the sense of space crossed, walking becomes man’s first aesthetic act, penetrating the territories of chaos, constructing an order on which to develop the architecture of situated objects” (25). “Walking is an art from whose loins spring the menhir, sculpture, architecture, landscape,” he continues. “This simple action has given rise to the most important relationships man has established with the land, the territory” (26). Only in the 20th century has walking 

freed itself of the constraints of religion and literature to assume the status of a pure aesthetic act. Today it is possible to construct a history of walking as a form of urban intervention that inherently contains the symbolic meanings of the primal creative act: roaming as architecture of the landscape, where the term landscape indicates the action of symbolic as well as physical transformation of anthropic space. (26)

This is the perspective through which Careri looks at the shifts from Dada to Surrealism, from the Lettrist Internation to the Situationist International, and from Minimal Art to Land Art (26): 

By analyzing these episodes we simultaneously obtain a history of the roamed city that goes from the banal city of Dada to the entropic city of Robert Smithson, passing through the unconscious and oneiric city of the Surrealists and the playful and nomadic city of the Situationists. What the rovings of the artists discover is a liquid city, an amniotic fluid where the spaces of the elsewhere take spontaneous form, an urban archipelago in which to navigate by drifting. A city in which the spaces of staying are the islands in the great sea formed by the space of going. (26)

For the first part of the 20th century, walking was a form of anti-art: in a series of excursions “to the banal places of the city of Paris” in 1921, the Dadaists, for the first time, rejected art’s assigned places and set out to reclaim urban space; walking was one of the tools they used “to achieve that surpassing of art that was to become the red thread for any understanding of the subsequent avant-gardes” (27). Three years later, the Dadaists travelled to the open country, where they “discovered a dream-like, surreal aspect to walking and defined this experience as ‘deambulation,’ a sort of automatic writing in real space, capable of revealing the unconscious zones of space, the repressed memories of the city” (27). Then, in the 1950s, the Lettrist International, began to construct the theory of drifting (27). After the Lettrists had transformed into the Situationists, Guy Debord began making the “first images of a city based on the dérive,” as the Situationists experimented “with playful-creative behaviour and unitary environments” (27). 

In the second half of 20th century, walking seen as one of the forms used by artists to intervene in nature (27). In 1966, the journal Artforum published an account of Tony Smith’s journey along a highway under construction. After that, sculptors began exploring theme of the path, first as object, then as experience (27). According to Tiberghien, “Land Art re-examined, through walking, the archaic origins of landscape and the relationship between art and architecture, making sculpture reclaim the spaces and means of architecture” (27-28). In 1967, Richard Long’s created his famous A Line Made By Walking and Robert Smithson’s A Tour of the Monuments of Passaic (a work I had never heard of) became “the first such voyage through the empty spaces of the contemporary urban periphery,” a tour which led Smithson to conclude that “the relationship between art and nature had changed, nature itself had changed, the contemporary landscape autonomously produced its own space, in the ‘repressed’ parts of the city we could find the abandoned futures produced by entropy” (28). “Today’s city,” Tiberghien writes, “contains nomadic spaces (voids) and sedentary spaces (solids) that exist side by side in a delicate balance of reciprocal exchange. Today the nomadic city lives inside the stationary city, feeding on its scraps and offering, in exchange, its own presence as a new nature that can be crossed only by inhabiting it” (28). If you’re hearing echoes of Deleuze and Guattari in the types of space Careri identifies in the city, you’re probably right. 

According to Tiberghien, the first aim of this book is “to reveal the falseness of any anti-architectural image of nomadism, and thus of walking” (29). Paleolithic hunters and nomadic shepherds are “the origin of the menhir, the first object of the landscape from which architecture was developed. The landscape seen as an architecture of open space is an invention of the civilization of wandering. Only during the last ten thousand years of sedentary living have we passed from the architecture of open space to the architecture of filled space” (29). The second aim is “to understand the place of the path-journey in the history of architectural archetypes,” which means looking at the relationship between path and architecture, between roaming and the menhir, “in an age in which architecture did not exist as the physical construction of space, but as a symbolic construction—inside the path—of the territory” (29). In this context, “path” means three related things: “the act of crossing (the path as the action of walking), the line that crosses the space (the path as architectural object) and the tale of the space crossed (the path as narrative structure)”—he intends another meaning, path as aesthetic form available to architecture and landscape (30) In the 20th century, the rediscovery of the path happened first in literature (the Dadaists, Surrealists, and Situationists were writers), then in sculpture (Carl Andre, Long, Smithson), while in architecture it led to radical anti-architecture in nomadism, without (yet) a positive development (30). Through the path different disciplines have produced their own “expansion of the field,” paraphrasing Rosalind Kraus, as a way to come to terms with their own limits (30). “Retracing the margins of their disciplines, many artists have attempted not to fall into the abyss of negation consciously opened by Dada . . . but to leap beyond it”: so Breton transformed Dadaist anti-art into Surrealism by expanding the field into psychology; the Situationists tried to transform anti-art into a unified discipline by expanding into politics; and Land Art transformed the sculptural object “into construction of the territory by expanding the field toward landscape and architecture” (30). “Today architecture,” Tiberghien continues,

could expand into the field of the path without encountering the pitfalls of anti-architecture. The transurbance between the edges of the discipline and the place of exchange between the nomadic and the settled city can represent a first step. In this space of encounter walking is useful for architecture as a cognitive and design tool, as a means of recognizing a geography in the chaos of peripheries, and a means through which to invent new ways to intervene in public metropolitan spaces, to investigate them and make them visible. (30-32)

“The aim is to indicate walking as an aesthetic tool capable of describing and modifying those metropolitan spaces that often have a nature still demanding comprehension,” he writes, “to be filled with meanings rather than designed and filled with things” (32). Walking is a tool which, “due to the simultaneous reading and writing of space intrinsic to it,” enables attending and interacting with “the mutability of those spaces, so as to intervene in their continuous becoming by acting in the field, in the here and now of their transformation, sharing from the inside in the mutations of these spaces that defy the conventional tools of contemporary design” (32). This is a transformation of the path “from anti-architecture into a resource,” a way of expanding architecture’s field of disciplinary action (32), and Careri’s book is intended to be a contribution in that direction (32). I’m not interested in architecture, of course, but I am interested in walking, so my approach to this book was to skim over the passages devoted to architecture (including the final chapter, about Stalker, Careri’s walking group, which investigates the design of urban spaces) and focus on the genealogy of walking Careri constructs.

After Tiberghien’s summary of the book’s argument, Careri begins unpacking his ideas. In the first chapter, Errare Humanum Est . . . (wandering is human), Careri’s thinking takes an anthropological (even mythical) turn: “The primordial separation of humanity into nomads and settlers results in two different ways of living in the world and therefore of thinking about space” (35). He reads the story of Cain and Abel (one of his sources of information about nomadism and settlement) in architectural terms, arguing that it demonstrates“how the relation nomadism and settlement establish with the construction of symbolic space springs from an original ambiguity” (35). That story is about a division of labour: Cain is sedentary, a farmer, while Abel is nomadic, a herder (35). “[I[n the wake of an argument”—there is no Biblical justification for this claim, but never mind—“Cain accused Abel of trespassing and—as we all know—killed him, condemning himself to a destiny of eternal wandering as punishment for his fratricidal sin” (36). According to Careri, as a pastoralist, Abel has more free time, which allows him to experiment, to construct a symbolic universe, to map space and attribute symbolic and aesthetic values to the territory, all of which lead to landscape architecture (36). “So from the very beginning artistic creation, as well as that rejection of work and therefore of the opus that was to develop with the Parisian Dadaists and Surrealists, a sort of recreational-contemplative sloth that lies at the basis of the anti-artistic flânerie that crosses the 20th century, was associated with walking,” he writes (36). The two brothers’ different ways of dwelling (pastoralist versus agriculturalist) “correspond to two conceptions of architecture itself: an architecture seen as physical construction of space and form, as opposed to an architecture seen as perception and symbolic construction of space” (38). That doesn’t mean that settlement led to architecture: “it is probable that it was nomadism, or more precisely ‘wandering,’ that gave rise to architecture, revealing the need for a symbolic construction of the landscape” (39):

The division of labor between Cain and Abel produced two distinct but not fully self-sufficient civilizations. The nomad, in fact, lives in contrast to but also in osmosis with the settler: farmers and shepherds need to continuously trade their products and require a hybrid, or more precisely neutral, space in which this trade is possible. (39)

The Sahel, on the southern the edge of the Sahara desert, functioned as “an unstable buffer zone between the settled city and the nomadic city, the full and the empty,” or as Deleuze and Guattari suggest, striated and smooth space (39):

In other words sedentary space is denser, more solid, and therefore full, while that of the nomad is less dense, more fluid, and therefore empty. The nomadic space is an infinite, uninhabited, often impervious void: a desert in which orientation is difficult, as in an immense sea where the only recognizable feature is the track left by walking, a mobile, evanescent sign. The nomadic city is the path itself, the most stable sign in the void, and the form of this city is the sinuous line drawn by the succession of points in motion. (39-41)

Those points in motion, the “space of going,” are the “very essence of nomadism” (41): “Just as the sedentary path structures and gives life to the city, in nomadism the path becomes the symbolic place of the life of the community” (41). According to Careri, “The nomadic city is not the trail of a past left as a tracing on the ground, it is the present that occupies, again and again, those segments of the territory on which the journey takes place, that part of the landscape walked, perceived, and experienced” (41). “It is from this vantage point,” he continues, “that the territory can be interpreted, memorized, and mapped in its becoming” (41). 

While settlers see nomadic spaces as empty, “for nomads these voids are full of invisible traces: every little dissimilarity is an event, a useful landmark for the construction of a mental map composed of points (particular places), lines (paths), and surfaces (homogenous territories) that are transformed over time” (41). “The ability to know how to see in the void of places and therefore to know how to name these places was learned in the millennia preceding the birth of nomadism,” in the earlier Paleolithic period (41). “The slow, complex operation of appropriation and mapping of the territory was the result of the incessant walking of the first humans,” Careri continues (44). He calls the kind of walking characteristic of hunters and gatherers in the Paleolithic period “erratic” and distinguishes between such roaming and nomadism: “While the nomadic journey is linked to cyclical movements of livestock during the transhumance, erratic movement is connected to the pursuit of prey of the hunter-gatherers of the Paleolithic era” (44). Both nomadism and settlement result from “the new productive utilization of the land that began with the climate change following the last glacial period” (44). They are simultaneous developments, Careri is arguing; settlement did not come out of nomadic transhumance.  Nomadism is not wandering: it “takes place in vast empty spaces, but spaces that are familiar, and a return trip is planned; wandering, on the other hand, happens in an empty space that has not yet been mapped, without any defined destination. In a certain sense the path of the nomad is a cultural evolution of wandering, a sort of ‘specialization’” (49). “[B]oth the routes of the sedentary world and the journeys of the nomad are derived from the erratic, Paleolithic path,” he continues. “The notion of path belongs simultaneously to both cultures, i.e. to the builders of ‘settled cities’ and to those of ‘errant cities’” (49). But the path comes out of the Paleolithic world: the path was “the first anthropic sign capable of imposing an artificial order on the territories of natural chaos” (49). Eventually there was a change from a quantitative to a qualitative space, “filling the surrounding void with a certain number of full places that served for orientation. In this way the multidirectional space of natural chaos began to be transformed into a space ordered, in keeping with the two main directions clearly visible in the void: the direction of the sun and that of the horizon” (49). At the end of the Paleolithic era, then, the landscape, deciphered by human activity, was “a space constructed by vectors of erratic pathways, by a series of geographical features connected to mythical events and assembled in sequence, and it was probably ordered in keeping with the fixed directions of the vertical and the horizontal: the sun and the horizon” (49-50). 

Walking, Careri writes, “though it is not the physical construction of a space, implies a transformation of the place and its meanings” (50). Prior to the Neolithic period and its menhirs, “the only symbolic architecture capable of modifying the environment was walking, an action that is simultaneously an act of perception and creativity, of reading and writing the territory” (50). The menhir, “[t]he first situated object in the human landscape,”

springs directly from the universe of roaming and nomadism. While the horizon is a stable, more or less straight line depending on the landscape itself, the sun has a less definite movement, following a trajectory that appears clearly vertical only in its two moments of vicinity to the horizon: sunrise and sunset. The desire to stablize the vertical dimension was probably one of the motivations behind the creation of the first artificial element in space: the menhir. (50)

Menhirs, simple objects with great density of meaning, were the first human, physical transformation of landscape: they are stones raised vertically, planted in the ground, and thereby “transformed into a new presence that stops time and space: it institutes a ‘time zero’ that extends into eternity, and a new system of relations with the elements of the surrounding landscape” (50). There are many different interpretations of the way menhirs were used, because this invention “could satisfy many different aims” (50-51). They might have had many different simultaneous functions, possibly linked to fertility cults, possibly places where heroes had died, sites where water was found, or boundaries (51). What interests Careri, though, is where they were placed—the possibility that they revealed the geometry and geography of the place, that “they were signals placed along the major routes of crossing” (51):

It is hard to imagine how the travelers of antiquity could have crossed entire continents without the help of maps, roads and signs. Yet an incredible traffic of travelers and merchants continuously crossed nearly impassable forests and uncharted territories, apparently without excessive difficult. It is very probably that the menhirs functioned as a system of territorial orientation, easily deciphered by those who understood its language: a sort of guide sculpted into the landscape, leader the traveler to his destination from one signal to another along the intercontinental routes. (51-52)

Some menhirs are megaliths, requiring large populations to erect, so they may have been situated in neutral zones between populations (52). For Careri, that fact suggests that the places in which the megalithic works were built were “either a sort of sanctuary utilized by the surrounding populations for festivities, or more probably stopping places along the main routes of transit, places with the function of today’s highway rest stops,” visited by many different people, perhaps communicating “the presence of singular facts and information regarding the surrounding territory, information useful for the continuation of the journey,” but also perhaps places of ritual celebrations (52-56). If they were intended to pass along information about the journey, then “[t]he entire voyage, which had been the place of events, stories, and myths around or along the menhirs, encountered a space for representation of itself: tales of travels and legends were celebrated and ritualized around the stones planted in the ground” (56). 

The important thing about menhirs, for Careri, is what came before them: 

Before the physical transformation of the face of the Earth that began with the menhirs, the territory had undergone a cultural transformation based on walking, an action that took place only on the surface of the planet, without penetrating it. The space of the path, therefore, precedes architectonic space; it is an immaterial space with symbolic-religious meanings. For thousands of years, when the physical construction of a symbolic place was still unthinkable, the crossing of space represented an aesthetic means through which it was possible to inhabit the world. (58)

Architecture, then, was not the invention of a sedentary, settled world, if the path was the first example of human place-making.

I’m not sure whether the anthropological evidence supports Careri’s argument. It’s rather Eurocentric, for one thing, despite the reference to the Sahel. In this part of the world, there are no menhirs—medicine wheels, yes, but no standing stones. What does that mean? There was also little pastoralism in North America, as far as I know, although agriculture and hunting and gathering existed side by side. What might that do for Careri’s claims? What about the temporary or semi-permanent structures hunting and gathering peoples built? Don’t they count as architecture? For that matter, what about the structures pastoralists must have erected for shelter? Besides, as Robert Moor points out in his book on paths and trails, many human paths are (or were) first made by animals, not people; people simply used paths that were already in existence. Since Careri’s argument is that paths were the first human interventions in a landscape, what might that point do to his argument? Nevertheless, the suggestion that architecture was nomadic is key to his argument, especially his conclusion (which, as I indicated at the outset, I only skimmed) about the types of urban space Stalker investigates.

Careri begins his second chapter, “Anti Walk,” with an account of the Dadaists’ first excursion, to the church of Saint-Julien-le-Pauvre, on 14 April 1921. This was the first of what was to be a series of excursions to banal places in the city, “a conscious aesthetic operation backed up by press releases, proclamations, flyers and photographic documentation” (67). For Careri, it “remains the most important Dada intervention in the city,” “the first step in a long series of excursions, deambulations and ‘driftings’ that crossed the entire century as a form of anti-art” (67). The excursion also “marks the passage from the representation of motion to the construction of an aesthetic action to be effected in the reality of everyday life” (67). “With the Dada visits and the subsequent deambulations of the Surrealists the action of passing through space was utilized as an aesthetic form capable of taking the place of representation, and therefore of the art system in general,” he writes (68). In other words, “Dada effected the passage from the representation of the city of the future to the habitation of the city of the banal” (68). “Dada raised the tradition of flânerie to the level of an aesthetic operation” (74). In fact, that first excursion was an urban ready-made work, “the first symbolic operation that attributes aesthetic value to a space rather than an object. Dada progressed from introducing a banal object into the space of art to introducing art—the persons and bodies of the Dada artists—into a banal place in the city” (74). The excursion was neither decoration nor representation; it was not a material operation and left no physical traces except documentation (74-75). It merely consisted of an event, and actions performed during that event: reading from a dictionary, giving gifts to passers-by, attempts to get people to join them in the street (75). But for Careri, “[t]he work lies in having thought of the action to perform, rather than in the action itself” (75). That would suggest that this excursion was the first example of Conceptual art as well.

In May 1924, the Dadaists performed another intervention in real space, but this time “the plan was for an erratic journey in a vast natural territory”: this event, a deambulation in open country in the center of France, a country walk from Blois, a small town chosen randomly, to Romorantin, marks the passage from Dada to Surrealism (78). It was organized by André Breton, Louis Aragon, Max Morise, Roger Vitrac; afterwards Breton wrote the introduction to Poisson soluble, what would become the first Surrealist manifesto (78). According to Careri, “[t]he trip, undertaken without aim or destination, had been transformed into a form of automatic writing in real space, a literary/rural roaming imprinted directly on the map of a mental territory” (78). The choice or rural space was important for what would become the Surrealists:

Space appears as an active, pulsating subject, an autonomous producer of affections and relations. It is a living organism with its own character, a counterpart with shifting moods, with which it is possible to establish a relationship of mutual exchange. The path unwinds amidst snares and dangers, provoking a strong sense of apprehension in the person walking, in both senses of ‘feeling fear’ and ‘grasping’ or ‘learning.’ This empathic territory penetrates down to the deepest strata of the mind, evoking images of other worlds in which reality and nightmare live side by side, transporting the being into a state of unconsciousness where the ego is no longer definite. Deambulation is the achievement of a state of hypnosis by walking, a disorienting loss of control. It is a medium through which to enter into contact with the unconscious part of the territory. (78-79)

The rural deambulation only happened once, but there were walks through the outskirts of Paris: “one of the most assiduously practiced activities of the Surrealists for investigating that unconscious part of the city that eluded bourgeois transformation” (79). The Surrealists saw the city as amniotic fluid, “where everything grows and is spontaneously transformed, out of sight”—that is where “the endless walks, the encounters, the trouvailles (discoveries of objets trouvés), the unexpected events, and collective games happen” (80). 

Dadaism and Surrealism had different ways of thinking about the city, Careri notes. In Dadaism, the city becomes a place “to notice the banal and the ridiculous” and “unmask the farce of the bourgeois city” (80). The Surrealists, in contrast, move to a positive project, using psychoanalytic theory to look for what is hidden in the city’s unconscious, its non-visible reality (80): “The Surrealist research is a sort of psychological investigation of one’s relationship with urban reality, an operation already applied with success through automatic writing and hypnotic dreams, and which can also be directly applied in walking through the city” (80-81). According to Careri, “[t]he Surrealist city is an organism that produces and conceals territories to be explored, landscapes in which to get lost and to endlessly experience the sensation of everyday wonder” (81). The phrase “everyday wonder” made me wonder if there’s a connection between Surrealism and Smith’s mythogeography—although that is incorrect, or at least premature. Careri suggests that there is one more distinction to be made between the Dadaist exploration of the city and those of the Surrealists:

Dada had glimpsed the fact that the city could be an aesthetic space in which to operate through quotidian/symbolic actions, and had urged artists to abandon the usual forms of representation, pointing the way toward direct intervention in public space. Surrealism, perhaps without yet fully understanding its importance as an aesthetic form, utilized walking—the most natural and everyday act of man—as a means by which to investigate and unveil the unconscious zones of the city, those parts that elude planned control and constitute the unexpressed, untranslatable component in traditional representations. (81)

The Situationists would later accuse the Surrealists of failing to take the potential of the Dada project to its extreme consequences, Careri suggests: “The ‘artless,’ art without artwork or artist, the rejection of representation and personal talent, the pursuit of an anonymous, collective and revolutionary art, would be combined, along with the practice of walking, in the wandering of the Lettrist/Situationists” (81).

In the early 1950s, the Lettrist International began to see getting lost in the city as “an aesthetic-political means by which to undermine the postwar capitalist system,” and the term dérive was coined. Literally, dérive mean “drift,” “a recreational collective act that not only aims at defining the unconscious zones of the city, but which—with the help of the concept of ‘psychogeography’—attempts to investigate the psychic effects of the urban context on the individual” (86). In the dérive, “the contruction and implementation of new forms of behaviour in real life, the realization of an alternative way of inhabiting the city,” outside the rules of bourgeois society, aimed at going beyond Surrealist deambulations (86). According to the Lettrists/Situationists, the Surrealists didn’t understand “the potential of deambulation as a collective art form, as an aesthetic operation that, if performed in a group, had the power to annul the individual components of the artwork” (86). Moreover, they depended too much on a Freudian model of the city:

The miserable failure of the Surrealist deambulation was due, according to the Situationists, to the exaggerated importance assigned to the unconscious and to chance, categories that were still included in the Lettrists’ practice, but in a diluted form, closer to reality, within a constructed method of investigation whose field of action must be life, and therefore the real city. (86)

Lettrist drifting attempted to transform the subjective interpretation of the city (of the Surrealists) into an objective method of urban exploration (86): “The Lettrists rejected the idea of a separation between alienating, boring real life and a marvellous imaginary life: reality itself had to become marvellous” (87). That notion suggests that Smith’s mythogeography is closer to Lettrists rather than Surrealists—not a surprise, given the importance he gives to the Lettrists and the Situationists in his own genealogy. “It was no longer the time to celebrate the unconscious of the city,” Careri writes; “it was time to experiment with superior ways of living through the construction of situations in everyday reality: it was time to act, not to dream” (87).

Walking in a group was, for the Lettrists, 

a means of escaping from bourgeois life and rejecting the rules of the art system. The dérive was, in fact, an action that would have a hard time fitting into the art system, as it consisted in constructing the modes of a situation whose consumption left no traces. It was a fleeting action, an immediate instant to be experienced in the present moment without considering its representation and conservation in time. (87)

For that reason, the dérive fit with the Dadaist logic of anti-art (87). Although the term dérive first appears in an essay by Ivan Chtcheglov (Gilles Ivain), it was Debord, in 1955, who sets out to define experimental methods for observing urban spaces, and 1956, in “Theory of the Dérive,”  he formulates a definition of the dérive and its relation to psychogeography (92). According to Careri, the dérive and psychogeography “replaced the unconscious dream city of the Surrealists with a playful, spontaneous city”: they 

replaced the randomness of Surrealist roaming with the construction of rules of the game. To play means deliberately breaking the rules and inventing your own, to free creative activity from socio-cultural restrictions, to design aesthetic and revolutionary actions that undermine or elude social control. The theory of the Situationists was based on an aversion for work and the premise fo an imminent transformation of the use of time in society,” through automation, work would be reduced, free time increased, “Therefore it was important to protect the use of this non-productive time form the powers that be. Otherwise it would be sucked into the system of capitalist consumption through the creation of induced needs. (97)

For the Situationists, the revolution would have to be based on desire: “to seek the latent desires of people in the everyday world, stimulating them, re-awakening them, helping them to take the place of the wants imposed by the dominant culture” (100). “The construction of situations was therefore the most direct way to realize new forms of behavior in the city, and to experience the moments of what life could be in a freer society within urban reality,” Careri writes (100). And the way to realize new forms of behaviour was through the dérive: “The Situationists saw the psychogeographical dérive as the means with which to strip the city naked, but also with which to construct a playful way of reclaiming its territory: the city is a toy to be utilized at one’s pleasure, a space for collective living, for the experience of alternative behaviors, a place in which to waste useful time so as to transform it into playful-constructive time” (100). The city needed to be experienced as a playful territory that could lead people toward authentic lives (100).

Careri begins his third chapter, “Land Walk,” with the story sculptor Tony Smith’s journey along the unfinished New Jersey Turnpike. Smith was the “father” of American Minimal Art, and this event said to be the origin of Land Art and a series of walks in deserts and suburbs in the late 1960s (111). “The story leads to many questions and many possible paths of investigation,” Careri writes. “The road is seen by Tony Smith in the two different possible ways that were to be analyzed by Minimal Art and Land Art: one is the road as sign and object, on which the crossing takes place; the other is the crossing itself as experience, as attitude that becomes form” (111-14). In both cases, art was moving out of the gallery and museum and reclaiming the experience of lived space and the larger scale of the landscape (114). It is a crucial moment, according to Careri:

from this moment on the practice of walking begins to be transformed into a true autonomous artform. What seemed like an aesthetic realization, an immediate flash of intuition, an almost indescribable ecstasy, is then utilized in countless ways by a great number of artists—most of them sculptors—who emerged at the end of the 1960s in a passage from Minimalism to that series of very heterogenous experiences categorized under the generic term of ‘Land Art.’ (114)

Careri compares the work of Carl Andre and Richard Long: Andre “tried to make objects that could occupy space without filling it, to create presences that were increasingly absent within real space”; for him, the ideal sculpture was a road (114). What distinguishes Long’s work from Andre’s is that Andre makes flat sculptures on can walk on, whereas Long’s art is made by walking (114-15):

Therefore, Smith’s perplexities seem, just a few years later, to have already found resolutions in two directions: for Andre the road experienced by Smith is not only art, it is the ideal sculpture; Long goes further, saying that art consists in the very act of walking, of living the experience. At this point is seems clear that the fundamental step has been taken. With Long the passage has been made from the object to its absence. The erratic path returns to its status as an aesthetic form in the field of visual arts. (115)

“The first attempts to use walking as an art form—or, more precisely, as a form of anti-art—were made as an expansion of the field of action of literature into the visual arts”—the field visit, deambulation, the dérive (115). In the 1960s, however, performance art and sculpture expanded to include walking as well (115), and this expansion—especially into sculpture—is important, according to Careri, because it leads back to the path and the menhir:

The return to walking in the field of sculpture is an integral part of a more general expansion of sculpture itself. The artists take steps that seem to trace back through all the stages that led from the erratic journey to the menhir, and the menhir to architecture. In their works we can once again see a logical thread that goes from minimal objects (the menhir), to the territorial works of Land Art (the landscape) and the wanderings of the Land artists (walking). A thread that connects walking to that field of activity that operates as transformation of the earth’s surface, a field of action shared by architecture and landscape design. To effect this passage it is again necessary to find an empty field of action, in which the signs of history and civilization are absent: the deserts and the terrain vague of the abandoned urban periphery. (115)

Later, artists would engage with history and geography, adding their walks as layers of investigation into space.

The next step in the evolution of walking, Careri writes, is the shift from Minimalism to Land Art:

Minimal sculpture, in order to re-appropriate architectonic space, had to go back to come to terms with the menhir, in order to then evolve in the direction of Land Art. And in this journey back to and from the menhir, the path suddenly reappears, seen this time as sculpture in an expanded field, and no longer as a literary form. (124)

Minimal artists, by attempting to annul everything that had been considered sculpture up to that point, found themselves as a sort of “ground zero” of their discipline:

In this process of subtraction they had found objects extraneous to nature, contrasting the natural landscape by means of the artificial signs of culture, erasing that sort of animated presence that had always lurked inside sculpture. The artists had undertaken a series of passages that led them back to the menhir: the elimination of the base or pedestal to return to a direct relationship with the sky and the ground (the menhir is directly planted in the ground); the return to the monolith and the mass (the three parts of the column in architecture corresponded, in sculpture, to the subdivisions of the totem); the elimination of color and natural materials in favor of artificial, industrial materials, artifacts (the stone of the menhir was, in the Stone Age, the most “artificial” material found in nature, and its vertical position was the least natural imaginable); compositions based on simple rhythmical, and serial repetition (points, lines, surfaces); elimination of any adjectival impulses in favor of pure, crystalline forms; removal of the figurative mimesis that still existed in zoomorphic, anthromorphic, and totemic modern sculptures; recovery fo a sort of human dimension and therefore of a more abstract, theatrical anthropomorphism due to that residual ‘animated presence’ that continues to persist in sculpture. (124)

The result of all of these operations was “a monomateric, situated, fixed, immobile, inert, inexpressive, almost dead object,” but nevertheless 

an object that imposes a certain distance and has a new relationship with its space; it is a character without internal life but, at the same time, it takes possession of the space, forcing the observer to participate, to share an experience that goes beyond the visible and that addresses, like architecture, the entire body, its presence in time and space. (124-25)

“While the Minimal object moves toward the menhir, still seen as an object with an internal presence,” Careri continues, “Land Art moves, instead, more directly toward architecture and landscape, i.e. toward the menhir as an inanimate object to be utilized to transform the territory” (125). Land Art was no longer interested in modeling objects in space; instead, it sought 

the physical transformation of the territory, the use of the means and techniques of architecture to construct a new nature and to create large artificial landscapes. Any sculptural anthropomorphism still surviving in Minimalist sculptures is abandoned in favor of that even more abstract mimesis that characterizes architecture and landscape. (125)

In other words, “[i]n Land Art we can see a conscious return to the Neolithic” (125). What interests Careri about Land Art is the way some of its practitioners “rediscovered walking as a primary act of symbolic transformation of the territory, but a crossing of it that doesn’t need to leave permanent traces, that acts only superficially on the world, but can achieve proportions even greater than those of the earthworks” (126).

One of those artists (although he rejects the label Land Art) is Richard Long, particularly his work A Line Made by Walking, which, “thanks to its radical clarity and formal simplicity, is considered a fundamental point of passage in contemporary art” (126-28). It is a line that avoids transforming into an object (128): instead,

A Line Made by Walking produces a sensation of infinity, it is a long segment that stops at the trees that enclose the visual field, but could continue around the entire planet. The image of the treaded grass contains the presence of absence: absence of action, absence of the body, absence of the object. But it is also unmistakably the result of the action of a body, and it is an object, something that is situated between sculpture, a performance, and an architecture of the landscape. (128)

For Long’s fellow walking artist Hamish Fulton, walking is a celebration “of the uncontaminated landscape, a sort of ritual pilgrimage through what remains of nature,” an engagement with ecological concerns and a form of protest (128). In the work of Long and Fulton, “nature corresponds to an inviolable Mother Earth on which one can walk, design figures, move stones, but without effecting any radical transformation” (129). 

However, their approaches are different. One of the main problems in the art of walking is the communication of the ambulatory experience in aesthetic form (129). The Dadaists and Surrealists did not map and avoided literary representation; the Situationists produced psychogeographic maps but avoided representing the real routes of their dérives (129-34). Fulton and Long, though, use maps as an expressive tool (134): “The two English artists in this field follow two paths that reflect their different ways of using the body. For Fulton the body is exclusively an instrument of perception, while for Long it is also a tool for drawing” (134). In Fulton’s work, “the representation of the places crossed is a map in the abstract sense. The representation of the path is resolved by means of images and graphic texts that bear witness to the experience of walking with the awareness of never being able to achieve it through representation” (134). His text works are “a sort of geographical poetry” (134). (What about Long’s text works?) For Long, on the other hand, “walking is an action that leaves its mark on the place,” “an act that draws a figure on the terrain and therefore can be reported in cartographic representation”; also, though, in an inverse sense, “the paper can function as a surface on which to draw figures to be subsequently walked” (134). Walking is thus both an action and a sign, “a form that can be superimposed on existing forms, both in reality and on paper” (134). As a result,

the world becomes an immense aesthetic territory, an enormous canvas on which to draw while walking. A surface that is not a white page, but an intricate design of historical and geographical sedimentation on which to simply add one more layer. Walking the figures superimposed on the map-territory, the body of the wayfarer registers the events of the journey, the sensations, obstacles, dangers, the variations of the terrain. The physical structure fo the territory is reflected on the body in motion. (134-37)

I think this is true of both Long’s work and Fulton’s, although one difference between them is that Fulton tends not to make any alteration to the surface of the earth while he walks, unlike Long, who makes lines and arranges stones. Perhaps, then, Fulton’s work is a better model for my practice than Long’s.

Robert Smithson’s emphasis is “on the quality of the landscape crossed,” Careri suggests. (144). For Smithson, earth art opened up new spaces for physical and conceptual experimentation (144). But first came walking, in the form of Smithson’s exploration of the outskirts of Passaic, New Jersey, A Tour of the Monuments of Passaic:

For Smithson urban exploration is the pursuit of a medium, a means to glean aesthetic and philosophical categories with which to work form the territory. One of Smithson’s most extraordinary abilities lies in that constant mingling in his explorations of physical descriptions and aesthetic interpretations: the discourse crosses several planes simultaneously, loses its way on unfamiliar paths, delves into the material surrounding it.(146)

Smithson’s explorations took place in the city, unlike Long’s and Fulton’s: “The urban periphery is the metaphor for the periphery of the mind, the rejects of thought and culture” (152). The point, for Smithson, is not to condemn the destruction of the river or the industrial wastes that poison it; instead, 

there is a delicate balance between renunciation and accusation, between renunciation and contemplation. The judgement is exclusively aesthetic, not ethical, never ecstatic. There is no enjoyment, no satisfaction, no emotional involvement in walking through the nature of suburbia. The discourse starts with an acceptance of reality as it presents itself, and continues on a plane of general reflection in which Passaic becomes the emblem of the periphery of the occidental world, the place of scrap, of the production of a new landscape made of refuse and disruption. The monuments are not admonishments, but natural elements that are an integral part of this new landscape, presences that live immersed in an entropic territory: they create it, transform it, and destroy it, they are monuments self-generated by the landscape, wounds man has imposed on nature, and which nature has absorbed, transforming their meaning, accepting them in a new nature, a new aesthetic. (153)

In the territory Smithson crosses, “one perceives the transient character of matter, time and space, in which nature rediscovers a new ‘wilderness,’ a wild, hybrid, ambiguous state, anthropically altered and then escaping man’s control to be reabsorbed again by nature” (154). I didn’t know about Smithson’s walk in Passaic, and I intend to learn more about it; Careri’s description of the territory Smithson explores is surprisingly similar to the rural/industrial/natural landscapes of rural Saskatchewan.

So, Careri presents a genealogy of walking as an art practice that is similar to, yet different from, Smiths—no doubt because Careri is an architect, whereas Smith is a playwright and performer. Is it possible to bring those genealogies together? Is that necessary? Must one choose between them? Does Careri’s genealogy leave more room for the kind of walking Smith criticizes as epic or heroic and therefore undemocratic? These are some of the questions that Careri’s book leaves me thinking about. One thing is certain, though: I am going to need to dig into the Dadaists, Surrealists, and Lettrists/Situationists beyond the summary I’ve read in Merlin Coverley’s book on psychogeography. I’m also going to need to learn more about Fulton, and about Smithson’s walk in Passaic (and the art that came out of that walk). As is always the case, one book demands more, leads to more. That’s the point of this exercise: to open doors, to get me thinking, to identify the areas of inquiry of which I’ve been unaware.

Works Cited

Careri, Francesco. Walkscapes: Walking as an Aesthetic Practice, translated by Steven Piccolo, Culicidae Architectural Press, 2017.

Coverley, Merlin. Psychogeography, Pocket Essentials, 2010.

Moor, Robert. On Trails: An Exploration, Simon & Schuster, 2016.

Pujol, Ernesto. Walking Art Practice: Reflections on Socially Engaged Paths, Triarchy, 2018.

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

Smith, Phil. Walking’s New Movement: Opportunities, Decelerations and Beautiful Obstacles in the Performances, Politics, Philosophies and Spaces of Contemporary Radical Walking, Triarchy, 2015.

52. Arthur Machen, The London Adventure or the Art of Wandering

the london adventure

Arthur Machen’s The London Adventure or the Art of Wandering is one of the central texts in occult and literary psychogeography. It’s also a very strange book. Its digressive narrative is characterized by endless deferral; the narrator (I’m not sure whether this book is a novel, an autobiography, or a pseudo-autobiography) tells one story after another, all in preparation for writing a book called The London Adventure, a text that ends without beginning (142). I’m certainly no expert on Machen, but I have to say that this book is less gothic than romantic, even neoplatonist, and that the “wandering” of its subtitle is as much discursive as ambulatory or geographical. And yet, after reading The London Adventure, the role it plays in particular types of psychogeography becomes clear, as does (to a degree) the term “psychogeography” itself.

The book begins in a tavern in the suburbs of London. The narrator is thinking about the difference between those who work because they have a gift, like the painter J.M.W. Turner, and everyone else—the narrator included—whose employment is “but the curse of Adam, the slavery that we have to endure; about as blessed as oakum-picking and limestone quarrying and treadmill climbing and the other employments of the poor fellows that we call convicts, as if we were not as much convicts as they,” sentenced to earn an honest living (6-7). A man arrives in the tavern, someone the narrator knows. He looks at the narrator in a threatening manner and says, meaningfully, “The leaves are beginning to come out” (10). The narrator knows exactly what that statement means:

I knew what the man meant. I had told him some months before that I was to write a book about London, that it was to be a really great book, this time. But, I explained, I was not going to begin writing it till the leaves were out on the trees, since the green leafage of the boughs made such a marvellous contrast with the grim greyness of the streets; of the streets of which I meant to write: unknown, unvisited squares in Islington, dreary byways in Holloway, places traversed by railway arches and viaducts in the regions of Camden Town. (10-11)

In other words, the book is supposed to be about unfashionable and suburban places, the kinds of locales most writers would avoid because they prefer more chic environs, displaying an obvious importance or heritage. 

The narrator then recalls going to the “waste portions of the world down beyond the Surrey Docks” and visiting a neighbourhood he had never seen before: “Everything was shapeless, unmeaning, dreary, dismal beyond words; it was as if one were journeying past the back wall of the everlasting backyard” (11). Then, on a grey street, he sees something wonderful: 

from the area of one of the sad houses there arose a great glossy billow of the most vivid green surging up from the area pavement half-way up the height of the ground floor windows; a veritable verdant mountain, as blessed as any wells and palm trees in the midst of an African desert. It was a fig tree that had somehow contrived to flourish in this arid waste; but to me a miracle and a delight as well as a fig tree. (12)

“[T]his was to be the kind of adventure out of which I had agreed to make a book; and thus it was that I had talked of waiting till the time of the opening of the leaves before I began it” (12). The problem is—remember, the narrator doesn’t like to work—he doesn’t want to start writing: “Always, or almost always, I have had the horror of beginning a new book. I have burnt my fingers to the bone again and again in the last forty years and I dread the fire of literature” (12).

Nevertheless, that sense of wonder in an apparently banal space is important enough that the narrator tells another story about it: he describes “with absolute veracity” strange events he experienced while in chambers at Gray’s Inn (he must have been a law student, once; he discusses his career as a journalist at length later), and, he states, “I have never forgotten my almost incredulous amazement when I found out, seven years afterwards, that some of these experiences of mine had also been experiences of the monks of St. Columba’s congregation at Iona in the sixth century” (13). This sense of a mysterious connection between past and present events seems to be a characteristic of occult psychogeography, but I think (if The London Adventure is a model for occult psychogeography) that it has other characteristics as well.

One of those characteristics is an anti-materialist, anti-scientific belief in wonders and miracles—wonders and miracles which are, apparently, experienced, like the eerie parallels between the narrator’s experiences and those of sixth century monks:

so corrupt and bewildered is our nature; on the one hand inclined to the crudest, most bestial materialism, to the simple, easy, natural explanation of all wonders, all miracles; on the other, so sickened with sham marvels, with pantomine-chorus fairies on photographic plates, with ghosts that gibber indeed in the vulgarest, silliest manner possible; so bewildered are we, I say, between these two sides that we hardly dare to testify to the things which we have actually known, seen, experienced with our own senses and our own souls, if these experiences go beyond the limits laid down in some twopenny “science” text-book. (13-14)

The narrator continues, “I do my best to conquer this ‘scientific’ nonsense; and so, as I have noted, I try to reverence the signs, omens, messages that are delivered in queer ways and queer places, not in the least according to the plans laid down either by the theologians or the men of science” (14). Those who seek to know, or are certain about their knowledge, are this narrator’s enemies; those who accept mystery are his allies.

The narrator tells another story, this one about how one such message came to him two and a half years earlier, in another tavern, at a time when he was being bullied by his employer and mocked by his co-workers, facing dismissal, which would have meant ruin for his family (14-16). (This experience, and others, seems to be at the root of his dislike of journalism as a profession.) A man walked up to him and asked how the Latin word exaltavit, from the phrase et exaltavit humiles, “and lifting up the lowly,” according to Google, is spelled (17). Being reminded of that phrase—our narrator has had a classical education and sprinkles his text with Latin tags—allowed him to begin to hope, “to life up a little corner of the black curtain of despair” (18). For the narrator, the man with his question about Latin orthography was a messenger, one of two or three he had met in his life, and he states, “I never think of them without great wonder, awe, and reverence” (19). Was it just a coincidence? “It may be so; and I am too keenly aware of the dangers and follies of credulity to deny that it may have been so,” he writes. “Yet, I am a practical man above all things, and coincidence or no coincidence, I know that I was comforted and sustained and enabled by that word through many months of horrible and shameful suffering” (20). 

For the narrator, and for Machen himself, for all I know, those supposed coincidences are significant: they suggest something about the world itself. “It is possible, just dimly possible,” the narrator suggests,

that the real pattern and scheme of life is not in the least apparent on the outward surface of things, which is the world of common sense, and rationalism, and reasoned deductions; but rather lurks, half hidden, only apparent in certain rare lights, and then only to the prepared eye; a secret pattern, an ornament which seems to have but little relation or none at all to the obvious scheme of the universe. (21)

This is, I think, the occult psychogeographer’s sense of the city: it is a text with multiple levels, and the hidden level(s), its “secret pattern,” can only be apprehended by the initiated, in “certain rare lights.” Reason has “nothing to say in the presence of the unknown” (22); forty years before rational people would have dismissed ideas like radio as mere fantasies (23-24). “[W]e know nothing of matters concerning which we know nothing,” the narrator states. “And so this applies to the ghostly world—always allowing that there is any such world. What do we know?” (24-25).

In fact, it seems pretty clear that the narrator does believe in that “ghostly world.” “I firmly believe that the two worlds”—that is, the world of the living and the world of spirits—“have that gulf between them, that magnum chaos, which yawns, let us say, between painting and music”, he suggests, (25) and while one can make analogies between them, or speak of one in metaphors of the other, they “remain worlds apart” (25). The relationship between the two is like that between an actor on the stage, and the actor’s life off the stage (25). Taking that analogy further, he suggests that, just as the world of King Lear is a dream of Shakespeare’s, “it may turn out that this world of ours is but one of the dreams of the Supreme Artist” (26). His sense “of the probable order of things at large” inclines the narrator “to believe that very high messengers—in the play, in the mystery which we are enacting—may be quite ordinary fellows in private life” (27-28). Again we see the sense of (at least) two worlds, which is picked up on by psychogeography, and the belief that the ordinary might actually be extraordinary. Also—and I don’t want to push this too far, because it’s clear that Machen (or his narrator) was an actor as a younger man—the emphasis on performance here might be important as well, given Smith’s belief that the best forms of “new psychogeography” are performative and relational rather than literary. The narrator acknowledges that all of this has been a digression, but he notes, in a manner that is almost metafictional, that such digressions will be characteristic of this book. The point of the digression was “to show that one should hear and weigh all sorts of messages delivered in all sorts of places” (28). 

The narrator’s plan for the book, The London Adventure, “originated in old rambles about London, rambles that began in 1890 when I lived in Soho Street and began to stroll about Soho and to see that here was something very curious and impressive; this transmutation of late seventeenth-century and early eighteenth-century social solidity and even, in some cases magnificence, into a wholly different order” (30-31). He imagines the previous residents of buildings in Soho, what those buildings might have been over time—the residence of an ambassador, a pickle factory or printer’s works, “a camping ground for poor people, a place where almost every room sheltered a family”—or how one particular building that “looked as if it had been built for a Doctor of Divinity, c. 1720,” now houses (apparently) the sex trade (31-32) (I’m not entirely sure because Machen’s description is somewhat obscure). Like occult psychogeographers, the narrator is reading the past over the present, exhibiting an awareness of multiple possibilities for a space, at least in historical or antiquarian terms. 

But rather than Soho, the narrator wants to focus on the years after 1895, when he began exploring London’s suburbs:

when I first found out the wonders that lie to the eastward of the Gray’s Inn Road, when Islington and Barnsbury and Canonbury were discovered, when Pentonville ceased to be a mere geographical expression. And there was a later time still that was to yield fresh fruit; the days when I ran errands that were often in themselves of inconceivable folly, but led me all the same into queer outland territories that otherwise I should never have seen. (33-34)

Those errands were stories he was assigned to write about by his editor. He recalls one experience, when he went to Enfield (one of the destinations in Iain Sinclair’s London Orbital) to “taste the newly brewed Government ale—some horrible teetotal concoction of those bad times,” but even though he couldn’t find a pub that new anything of this new drink, the journey was not a failure: 

I had passed through such unsuspected countries in my voyage and travel from Enfield through Enfield Wash to Enfield Lock, through fragments of market garden and fragments of wild thicket, by sudden apparitions of grey houses built in the early ’sixties when it had dawned upon the mind of some madman that the day of the Wash was at hand and that the time for ‘development’ had come. (36)

He walks through apparently abandoned suburban developments and shops, ghost estates interspersed with remnants “of much older days,” such as Georgian mansions, now fallen into disrepair, about which the narrator creates a story: “There a substantial man, maybe an Alderman, had once lived; now, everything was falling down, broken, discoloured, desolate, uninhabited” (35-36). This varied suburban cityscape, the mixture of things he saw, and the stories he imagined about them, pleased the narrator: “And while I journeyed back to the office, I felt that I had been enjoying a rich and various experience” (36).

At this point, the narrator interrupts himself to point out that his point of view “is totally  removed from the ordinary tourist, guide-book point of view. I hope I am not without a due sense of the historic and literary interests of London, with which the guide and my guide-book are very properly occupied” (36). The narrator he respects the past, partly because of “literary and historical association,” partly because “of the love of antiquity for its own sake; a curiously compounded pleasure,” although “the more noble, terrible, notorious the associations called up, the less I am moved, in my heart of hearts” (36-37). In other words, he prefers ordinary histories. Nevertheless, he notes that “this love of antiquity for its own sake, apart from any particular literary or historical associations, has always been a great puzzle to me and still remains so” (37). Sometimes the associations that attract him are fictional: the remaining wall of the Marshalsea debtors’ prison reminds him of Dickens’s Little Dorrit, even though she never existed (37-38). “[W]hy should we be interested in places more or less connected with the fortunes of people who never existed, outside the brains and the pages of the romancers?” he asks. “I do not know why we are thus interested, but I know that we are so and that this interest constitutes one of the gentlest of pleasures of life” (38). So, when the narrator goes to Tower Hill, he thinks of Dickens’s characters Mr. and Mrs. Quilp (38-39), the way that the Marshalsea’s wall reminds him of Little Dorrit. “Perhaps, the explanation may be that the historic people are actual people,” he surmises, “creatures of fact not of fancy; and that fancy is infinitely more impressive than fact, partaking, as it does, not of actuality, but of reality” (39). Again, there is a suggestion of multiple layers of associations here, although these associations have their roots in fiction rather than in history, and I think that is another link between The London Adventure and certain forms of psychogeography.

In any case, the book he intended to write “was not to deal in the main with the historical or literary associations of London, nor even with antiquity as such, though sometimes antiquity would form part of the queer pattern that I had in my mind” (39-40). But he immediately plunges into another digression about the strangeness of unknown suburban districts, the individuality of taste, and the notion that life is a play within a play—“that there is no such entity as the thing in itself, there is no absolute existence in things seen,” and that even the “vile, red stones” of a modern suburb “may be transmuted into living, philosophical stones,” that there are mysteries in such places, rituals performed, “though those who officiate are ignorant of the secrets in which they, nonetheless, share” (40-44). Again, the sense of mysteries in the ordinary, which Machen’s book shares with occult psychogeography. This leads to a discussion of Freemasonry: “the ancient rite is duly performed, and so other ancient rites are performed in the rawest, reddest suburbs” (45). Those suburbs would be the subject of his book, even though, on one level, he despises them: 

Well, I was saying, I think, that the book on hand, this famous London Adventure, would have to deal with the raw, red places all around the walls of London; places detestable in themselves, no doubt, from the artist’s point of view, from the point of view of the lover of green fields and woods and shady lanes; but most of all detestable, I think, from my point of view, which is that of a many who loves ancient, memoried things; things of all kinds that have a past behind them, things of all kinds that show use and the touch of men upon them, and have become, in a sense, almost human or, at all events, partake of humanity. (47)

He imagines a worn doorstep, hollowed by a hundred years of feet, and imagines whose feet they might have been: “The feet of the weary and hopeless, the glad and the exultant, the lustful and the pure have made that hollow; and many of those feet are now in the hollow of the grave: and that doorstep is to me sacramental, if not a sacrament” (47-48). The book he intends to write would take all of these things into account: “the old, the shabby, the out of the way; and also the new and the red and the raw. But it was utterly to shun the familiar”—in other words, it would explore the London incognita rather than the London cognita (49).

That book, it seems, would perhaps imagine the lives of people who lived in places in the past, the way the narrator imagines the people whose feet wore down that doorstep. He recalls once wandering into a street between Camden Town and Holloway, where the houses were modest, but where each had a coachhouse and a stable: “for me here were compact histories of the Sketches by Boz period,” he states (50), and he describes the people who would have lived in an 1830s suburb. They are richly imagined in great detail (50-53).  “So much I saw as I passed down that street, Camden Town—Holloway, and I believe that most of it is truly seen; deduced, rather, from the little coach-houses and the little stables; and all a vision of a mode of life that has passed utterly away” (53). 

But, “in spite of the rows and rows of cheap red villas, which we must expect everywhere, there are still remnants of a former age” (55)—such as poltergeists. He concludes, regarding poltergeists, that

a human being is a world and cosmos of forces that reach out to other worlds wholly, or almost wholly, unknown and unconjectured; that, in most cases and probably, as things are, for the best, these forces and powers are dormant and unsuspected; that occasionally and by accident they assert themselves and produce results which prove—nothing. (61)

That odd word, “unconjectured,” shows up many times in this book, and it’s a sign of the narrator’s, and/or Machen’s, interest in mysteries, in the unknown, in esoterica or the occult. For example, he remembers visiting Bath when he was an actor, and how his fellow cast members decided, at a party, to hold a séance. Although he doesn’t believe “that the spirits of the dead can be conjured into a parlour by people sitting round a table in the dark” (66), one of the party clearly felt the presence of a spirit and was horrified by it (66). He notes the differences between that party and a real séance, at which the participants are serious: “They are investigators. They are intensely interested. They have a profound belief that the spirits of the departed can and do communicate with the living” (66-67). And yet, despite their lack of earnestness. a spirit appeared (he says) at that party: “I think that something happened; that the doors were opened; that the human spirit came into momentary contact with unconjectured worlds which it is not meant to visit” (68). “I think of all these things as I pass along the interminable wandering of the London streets,” he writes, “of the strange things which may have been done behind the weariest, dreariest walls” (68).

Now the narrator returns to the tavern where the book began, and the demand that he begin writing his book: “here was I well equipped with long-gathered material for a sermon on the great text that there is wonder in everything and everywhere, wonder above all in this great town that has grown so vast that no man can know it, nay, nor even begin to know it!” (69). The notion that there is wonder in everything and everywhere would be the book’s thesis, if it were an essay, which it’s not. It’s also one of the central characteristics of Smith’s version of psychogeography, although he wants it to include ideological critique as well. Those wonders, though, are (I think) neoplatonic and romantic: “We see appearances and outward shows of things, symbols of all sorts; but we behold no essences, nor could we bear to behold them, if it were possible to do so” (69-70). “We see nothing real, we can no more see anything real that we can take our afternoon tea in the white, central heat of a blast furnace,” he continues. “We see shadows cast by reality” (70). Those who attempt to explain the world using scientific methodology are kidding themselves:

The more foolish of us gather up some of the shadows and put them in saucepans and boil them and then strain: and find out that water is really H2O, which is true enough in its way, and will remain so: till it is found out that H2 is shorthand for ten distinct forces, while O is a universe of countless stars, all revolving in their eternal order about an unknown, unconjecturable orb. (70-71)

“[W]e see nothing at all,” he continues, “though poets catch strange glimpses of reality, now and then, out of the corners of their eyes” (71). 

The suggestion that the world is not real, and that the real world is inaccessible, might bother anyone, and our narrator admits as much: “the recognition of these obvious truths cast me down a little. I had not, then, got the unique object for investigation that I had supposed. London, it was true, was unknowable, an unplumbed depth, but so was Caerleon-on-Usk, that you could see in its totality form the top of the hill; so was the pebble on the path” (71). He looks into an old notebook, and wonders if there is a recurring pattern in his writing. He finds one; it is

the sense of the eternal mysteries, the eternal beauty hidden beneath the crust of common and commonplace things; hidden and yet burning and glowing continually if you care to look with purged eyes. Nay, I think that in this age, which has probably lost what I may call the epic sense, as it lives in villas and flats instead of castles, and goes in tweeds in place of chain mail, for us, I think, it is easier to discern the secret beauty and wonder and mystery in humble and common things than in the splendid and noble and storied things. (75)

I could be wrong—it’s 30 years since I took a course on romanticism—but this strikes me as an example of one form of Victorian romanticism. Nonetheless, the narrator describes himself as “a determined realist,” because he demands “a certain degree of assent in the reader to the propositions which are laid down before him,” and he wants his work to be seen as “credible . . . in the artistic sense, as Micawber is credible, though there never was, in actuality, any such person” (79). 

Back to his notebook, where he is disappointed by various sketches and outlines that led nowhere. “I find my destiny a hard one,” he writes. “Here am I, born apparently with this itch of writing without the faculty of carrying the desire into execution” (91). But he thinks about being a newspaper reporter, and its primary benefit—not being forced to write something to its end, but having seen “queer things and odd prospects” which he would not have seen otherwise, particularly strange places and neighbourhoods (96-97). He tells a story about climbing a mountain when he was a young man, and feeling something spiritual or religious in his encounter with those hills, so that the only expression in words for that feeling was “For ever and ever. Amen” (99). That experience is evidence that “the unknown world is, in truth, about us everywhere, everywhere near to our feet; the thinnest veil separates us from it, the door in the wall of the next street communicates with it” (100). “Men of science”—those who would disagree, perhaps, with that claim—“are always wrong” (100). The stories about his experiences as a journalist are all about running across something mysterious, something that suggests that “we . . . live in an illusory world” (105). He recalls being sent to investigate a dispute over a will in which a man named Campo Tosto left all of his possessions (Flemish paintings and candlesticks) to a man named Turk. He writes, 

here was a man called Campo Tosto living in a place called Burnt Green, which is, practically, a translation of Campo Tosto. Here was a man whose property consisted chiefly in Madonnas and medieval candlesticks, who shot at intruders with the bow, either long or short. Here was his heir, with the good old English country name of Turk. (110-11)

The narrator wrote the story, and his editor didn’t believe it: “He understood, better than I, that one order of illusion must not be allowed to impinge on another” (110-11). He tells similar stories from his career as a journalist, but what the narrator considers to be his strangest story had nothing to do with journalism: he was walking along, thinking about a passage in Boswell’s Life of Johnson about a fashionable baronet named Sir Michael Le Fleming, “when suddenly I saw on a brass plate on the garden-gate the very name that had just entered my mind”—an incident of “mad inconsequence,” meaning nothing at all (118-119). That story led nowhere, he admits:

But I do think that in each there is a hint of certain things. We move, as I have said before, in a world of illusions, but of illusions on one plane. We are mistaken if we think that there is, in ultimate reality, any such thing as a cube, any such thing as a cow; but, at all events, these two are apparently on the same surface of being. But, now and then, there are intrusions upon us from other worlds, probably quite as illusory as our own. And we are accordingly left stupefied. There is no “therefore”; no ratio. (122)

The moral is that the world is infinitely strange, “that even in the rind or surface of it the strangest essences are lurking, that tremendous beauties, amazing oddities are everywhere present,” even if they appear commonplace “123). “Such things are constantly happening in real life, or, at all events, the only life of which we know anything” (124). 

In case you don’t believe me about this book’s romanticism, take a read through this quotation, which presents two pastiches of Keats (one from a letter, the other from a poem): “Strangeness which is the essence of beauty is the essence of truth, and the essence of the world. I have often felt that, when the ascent of a long hill brought me to the summit of an undiscovered height in London; and I looked down on a new land” (127). The narrator recalls living in Notting Hill Gate 40 years before, and how, on one October day, dreaming about becoming a writer, and “seeing the stones glow into a spagyric gold beneath his feet, seeing the plane trees in the back gardens droop down from fairyland, seeing a mystery behind every blind, and the infinite mystery in the grey-blue distance, where, as they tell me, for I have never sought to know, the street becomes dubious, if not desperate” (131-32). That is the way he sees the world, and I think the way occult psychogeographers see the world: there is mystery everywhere, if it can only be sensed.

“But here we are, still delaying over the great work, The London Adventure; and nothing done,” the narrator states:

I begin to reflect on the matter very seriously, as the summer wears on. It strikes me that I had better try an old recipe of mine, and start out, on a book of a totally different kind, in the hope, I suppose, that the one undertaking, going prosperously—as of course it will—may stimulate the other. (137)

That story would symbolize the soul through “exterior things” (137). He would write of a man on summer holiday, who goes to the hills he climbed as a young man, where he would see “something outland,” and then to Caerlon-on-Usk to see the sunset and the river and the Roman walls: “He should go wandering away, this unfortunate fellow, into such a country as he had never dreamed of; he should lose himself in intricacies of deep lanes descending from wooded heights to hidden and solitary valleys, where the clear water of the winding brook sounds under the alder trees” (137-38). Then he would return to London “and perceive that wonderful things have been wrought in him”—that everything he saw “discoursed to him a great mystery, whereby his soul has been renewed within him” (138-39). But this is a story he will never tell, even though he has been thinking about it for 40 years (139). He doesn’t explain why—perhaps because he has just told it.

There is one more story, though, another one about his sense that the real world is hidden from us. Once, while writing an earlier book, he went out for a walk and lost his sense of direction. He couldn’t tell where his lodgings were, or what was north or south, east or west (140-41). “I got home somehow by complicated and dubious calculations,” he writes, “and in a some[wh]at confused and alarmed frame of mind. And odd as it may seem, this perplexity has never wholly left me” (141). That, he thinks, is a story he might be able to tell: a man “who became so entangled in some maze of imagination and speculation that the common, material ways of the world became of no significance to him” (141). 

It’s easy to see the intersection between The London Adventure and occult psychogeography. I don’t know that much about that form of psychogeography, to be honest; I’m still gathering string on the subject of psychogeography in all of its forms. If I were to read Iain Sinclair’s Lights Out For The Territories, for instance, I’m sure I would see more connections. I also see intersections between the form of psychogeography that Phil Smith advocates in Walking’s New Movement and The London Adventure. I wonder, for instance, how close the process of coding or recoding spaces is to the stories Machen’s narrator invents about the places he passes when he walks around London. I think there might be other echoes or resonances, and that wouldn’t be surprising, given the powerful influence of psychogeography on Smith’s version of radical walking, and given the importance of The London Adventure to a particular branch of that activity. The more I read about psychogeography—the more I read about any and all forms of radical or aesthetic walking—the more I’m going to understand about it. So I’m happy I tackled one of the practice’s primary texts.

Work Cited

Machen, Arthur. The London Adventure or the Art of Wandering, Martin Secker, 1924.

51. Phil Smith, Walking’s New Movement: Opportunities, Decelerations and Beautiful Obstacles in the Performances, Politics, Philosophies and Spaces of Contemporary Radical Walking

smith walking's new movement

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.

Work Cited

Smith, Phil. Walking’s New Movement: Opportunities, Decelerations and Beautiful Obstacles in the Performances, Politics, Philosophies and Spaces of Contemporary Radical Walking, Triarchy, 2015.

50. Merlin Coverley, Psychogeography

coverley psychogeography

While thinking and writing about Iain Sinclair’s London Orbital this week, I realized that I needed a firmer sense of exactly what psychogeography is. Good thing Merlin Coverley’s little book on the subject was on my shelf. It’s a brief but informative look at a variety of writers–Coverley is primarily concerned with literary manifestations of psychogeography, which isn’t surprising, since his 2012 book Ways of Wandering: The Writer as Walker, is also focused on literary texts. (I’ve read Ways of Wandering but because I didn’t taken notes on it, I’m going to have to read it again for this project.) I wouldn’t be surprised if, for that reason, Psychogeography were somewhat controversial among psychogeographers. That wouldn’t bother me if it were the case, because I’m not a psychogeographer and come at this subject without any preconceived ideas about what falls within the definition.

The book’s introduction rehearses Coverley’s argument in too much detail–I sense that the publisher asked for some padding to get the book to a desired length–but it does explain Coverley’s approach to psychogeography. He begins by noting that psychogeography is now a common term, frequently used, but that nobody knows exactly what it means (9). Is it a literary movement, a political strategy, a new age idea, or a set of avant-garde art practices? “The answer, of course, is that psychogeography is all of these things,” Coverley writes, “resisting definition through a shifting series of interwoven themes and constantly being reshaped by its practitioners” (10). The term originated in Paris, in the writings of the Lettrist Group, a forerunner of the Situationist International, but it was not defined clearly until 1955, when Guy Debord wrote a rather vague definition that suggested psychogeography was the effects of geographical environments on the emotions and behaviour of people (10). In other words, Coverley writes, psychogeography is “the point at which psychology and geography collide, a means of exploring the behavioural impact of urban place” (10). Since the 1950s, however, “the term has become so widely appropriated and has been used in support of such a bewildering array of ideas that it has lost much of its original significance” (10).

Coverley’s account of psychogeography doesn’t begin with Debord or the Situationists, however. He has preferred, he writes, “to ignore the Situationists’ claims for the originality of their own ideas by placing them within the wider historical context that gave rise to them” (29). He reaches back, historically, to earlier writers: Daniel Defoe, William Blake, Thomas de Quincey on the city of London; Edgar Allan Poe, Charles Baudelaire, and Walter Benjamin on the flâneur; writers of urban gothic tales, such as Robert Louis Stevenson and Arthur Machen; and the Surrealists. He also looks at the work of contemporary psychogeographers, including Iain Sinclair, Peter Ackroyd, and Stewart Home. Psychogeography, he argues, “may usefully be viewed less as the product of a particular time and place than as the meeting point of a number of ideas and traditions with interwoven histories,” Coverley writes (11). The predominant characteristics he sees within the “mélange of ideas, events and identities” he discusses in the book include the activity of walking, in cities that are increasingly hostile to pedestrians, so that walking becomes a subversive activity (12). “Walking is seen as contrary to the spirit of the modern city with its promotion of swift circulation and the street-level gaze that walking requires allows one to challenge the official representation of the city by cutting across established routes and exploring those marginal and forgotten areas often overlooked by the city’s inhabitants,” Coverley writes. “In this way the act of walking becomes bound up with psychogeography’s characteristic political opposition to authority” (12). Along with walking and political resistance, Coverley identifies “a playful sense of provocation and trickery,” “ironic humour,” a “search for new ways of apprehending our urban environment” and seeing it in a new way, a “perception of the city as a site of mystery,” and a desire “to reveal the true nature that lies beneath the flux of the everyday” as characteristics of psychogeography (13). The sense of urban life as mysterious and unknowable leads to gothic representations of the city, but it also gives rise to an obsession with the occult, which is often allied to an antiquarianism that focuses on the city’s past (14). “As a result, much contemporary psychogeography approximates more to a form of local history than to any geographical investigation,” Coverley writes.

In the next chapter, Coverley examines those writers whom contemporary psychogeographers identify as precursors: Daniel Defoe, “whose character Robinson is a recurrent figure within the literature of psychogeography; William Blake, described by Iain Sinclair as “the ‘Godfather of Psychogeography'”; Thomas de Quincy, who was recognized by the Situationists as an influence; Robert Louis Stevenson’s urban gothic novella, The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde; Arthur Machen, another writer of the urban gothic; and Alfred Watkins, whose theory of ley lines became “a cornerstone of the new age ‘Earth Mysteries’ school that has since provided an esoteric counterbalance to the stern revolutionary proclamations of the Situationists” (32-33). Other than a shared interest in London, all of these writers demonstrate “a wider awareness of genius loci or ‘spirit of place’ through which landscape, whether urban or rural, can be imbued with a sense of the histories of previous inhabitants and the events that have been played out against them” (33); an interest in visionary or esoteric or occult or irrational resistance to rationalism (33-34); and a desire to “expose the essence of place obscured by the flux of the everyday and highlight the threat to the identity of the city posed by the banalisation of much urban redevelopment” (34).

First, because Coverley’s discussion is organized chronologically, is Daniel Defoe. “With his twin roles as political radical and father of the London novel, Defoe is the first writer to offer a vision of London shaped according to his own peculiar imaginary topography,” Coverley argues, “and in his most famous work, Robinson Crusoe, Defoe introduces a character who has haunted both the novel and the literature of psychogeography ever since” (35). That novel’s “twin motifs of the imaginary voyage and isolation” is important, but even more so is its titular character, “who encapsulates the freedom and detachment of the wanderer, the resourcefulness of the adventurer and the amorality of the survivor”–all characteristics necessary for anyone walking unfamiliar urban streets, particularly in the seventeenth century.

However, it is in Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year that he can be said “to provide what is, in essence, the first psychogeographical survey of the city” (36). Both in style and content, that book “portrays the city in a manner that shares almost all the preoccupations that have come to be termed psychogeographical” (36). It brings together statistical facts, topographical details, local testimonies, and these are presented in a non-linear, digressive way that recalls the Situationists’ dérive (36). In its blend of fiction, biography, local history, and personal reminiscence, Journal of the Plague Year forms “an imaginative reworking of the city,” in which its familiar layout “is shown to be transformed beyond recognition by the ravages of the plague” (36-37). For anyone travelling in the London of the 1660s, a city without street lights or house numbers, a “mental map established through trial and error and by reading the signs that the environment displayed to you” was essential. “This alertness to topographical detail and the construction of a mental overview of the city would later form the basis of psychogeographical technique,” Coverley suggests (37). During the plague, however, the city was reshaped, as streets were deserted or blocked and buildings were marked with red crosses, signifying the presence of the disease. These changes created “a map of contamination,” making the city alien to its residents, “who had previously prided themselves upon an intimate knowledge of its secrets” (38). “This sense of the ground shifting beneath one’s feet, as the plague advances and retreats,” Coverley writes,

is mirrored in Defoe’s prose style, as a series of digressions and narrative cul-de-sacs afford the reader, both spatially and temporally, that sense of dislocation experienced by the characters. In effect, the catastrophe of the plague creates the characteristic sense of disorientation that we find in all narratives of urban catastrophe. . . . In such moments the city is momentarily made strange, defamiliarised, as its inhabitants are granted a vision of the city as it might be, as heaven or hell. (38)

Defoe’s “image of the solitary walker navigating the city and recording his impressions of it . . . dominates the tradition which he inaugurates” (39). I wonder if those who study eighteenth-century literature would agree with Coverley’s suggestion that Defoe was the first psychogeographer. It would be interesting to find out.

The next figure Coverley discusses is the poet William Blake, whose emphasis on “the imaginative reconstruction of the city” makes him one of the forebears of contemporary psychogeographers. Blake was a walker, “a wanderer whose poems describe the reality of eighteenth-century street life,” but those poems are “overlaid by his own intensely individualistic vision to create a new topography of the city,” transforming familiar landscapes into “a transcendent image of the eternal city,” which was, for Blake, Jerusalem (40). Blake’s poetry features apocalyptic imagery, since to rebuild London as the New Jerusalem means it must be destroyed. For Coverley, Blake’s “revolutionary call for the destruction of the power structures of his day” is another way he prefigures psychogeography. “Here, then, we find all the features ascribed to psychogeography today,” Coverley writes:

the mental traveller who remakes the city in accordance with his own imagination is allied to the urban wanderer who drifts through the city streets; the political radicalism that seeks to overthrow the established order of the day is tempered by an awareness of the city as eternal and unchanging; and the use of antiquarian and occult symbolism reflects the precedence given to the subjective and the anti-rational over more systematic modes of thought. (41-42)

If Defoe and Blake were theorists of psychogeography, Thomas de Quincy may be described as its first practitioner: “The drug-fuelled journeys through London of de Quincey’s youth seem to capture exactly that state of aimless drift and detached observation which were to become the hallmarks of the situationist dérive 150 years later,” Coverley writes (42). De Quincy, he continues, “is a prototype for the obsessive drifter allowing his imagination to shape and direct the perception of his environment; his purposeless drifting at odds with the commercial traffic and allying him to the invisible underclass whose movements map the chaotic and labyrinthine aspects of the city” (43). The combination of walking and observing, along with a sense of the fantastic, was influential on Poe and Baudelaire, writers who helped establish the figure of the flâneur and, through that figure, “the tradition of French avant-garde writing and theorizing that was to continue via the Surrealists to the Situationists” (44).

Robert Louis Stevenson is another important precursor of psychogeography. Contemporary psychogeographers draw on Stevenson’s gothic imagery “to symbolise the mystery beneath the apparently banal surfaces of the everyday city” (45). The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde is central in formulating an “occult division between appearance and reality” that is found in later psychogeographers (45). Coverley suggests that Stevenson’s London has a twofold nature, suggested by the duality between Jekyll and Hyde (46), and that his “imaginative topography” established “an unreal but eternal landscape that colours forever our experience of the city” (47).

Like Stevenson, novelist Arthur Machen applied his sense of the fantastic to the streets of London (47-48). “For Machen, the trained eye can reveal the eternal behind the commonplace,” Coverley contends, and London gave him a means of experiencing the strangeness of the urban environment: walking (48). Machen’s representations of London are both autobiographical and imaginative (48-49); “it is in these wanderings through the city that Machen becomes a prototype for both the flâneur and today’s breed of psychogeographer” (49). Machen was a prolific writer, but in this context his books Things Near and Far and The London Adventure are the most important: they are conscious attempts at ignoring the city’s known aspects in favour of aimless wandering, driven solely by the narrator’s imagination, and they suggest “the degree to which Machen is a hybrid figure in which walking and writing merge” (49). Machen’s version of the city was a discovery of the exotic within the commonplace, of the foreign close to home (49). He frees himself from historical or geographical markers, remapping the city as he moves through it, “establishing a trajectory away from the more well-trodden centre toward the overlooked suburban quarters of the city,” which makes him a forerunner of writers like J.G. Ballard and Iain Sinclair (50).

Another forebear of contemporary psychogeographers is Alfred Watkins, whose theory of ley lines shows the extent to which psychogeography has become caught up in occult, esoteric ideas, far from Debord’s original conception (51). A commercial traveller in Hertfordshire, in 1921 Watkins suddenly perceived the familiar landscape “to be covered by a vast network of straight tracks, aligned through the hills, mounds and other landmarks”–a network of lines connecting prehistoric sites (52-53). Watkins also suggested that these ley lines were connected to the locations of some London churches, making him an influence on Ackroyd and Sinclair (53). The books in which Watkins expressed these theories were rediscovered in the 1960s, and ley lines have become one of the staple ideas of New Age beliefs (I heard them discussed when I was walking in Spain) and an influence on psychogeographers interested in the occult.

The following chapter sees Coverley cross the English Channel and focus on Paris rather than London. In his telling, psychogeography is very much a tale of two cities (57). On the one hand is the dark gothic vision of London; on the other, the elegant arcades of Paris, the haunt of the flâneur. “Today the flâneur has become a somewhat overworked figure, beloved of academics and cultural commentators,” Coverley writes, “but while he (the flâneur is invariably seen as male) remains inseparable from the Paris of his day, his origins remain obscure” (57-58). Typically those origins are traced to Baudelaire’s essay “The Painter of Modern Life,” or Walter Benjamin, who analyzed the flâneur and his relationship to modernism in his (unfinished) The Arcades Project (58). But both writers took the flâneur from Poe’s short story, “The Man in the Crowd” (58). That story was the first appearance of a new urban type: “an isolated and estranged figure who is both a man of the crowd and a detached observer of it and, as such, the avatar of the modern city,” Coverley writes (60). This figure “heralds both the emergence of a new type of city and the passing of the old, his aimless wandering already at odds with his surroundings and his natural habitat threatened, in Paris at least, by the emergence of a more regimented topography,” as the city is redeveloped by Baron Haussmann (60-61).

In Baudelaire’s essay, the flâneur is an idealized figure in an idealized city–a figure that never actually existed, but one that is elusive, that cannot be located, although in searching for him, one begins to take on his characteristics (61-62). Like London, nineteenth-century Paris had expanded to the point where it could not be apprehended as a whole. Navigating the city thus became a skill, a secret form of knowledge available only to a few, “and in this environment the stroller is transformed into an explorer, or even a detective solving the mystery of the city streets” (62). As the city’s chaos was domesticated through redevelopment, however, the walker’s “arcane knowledge” becomes obsolete, and walking is reduced to window-shopping (62).

Benjamin, on the other hand, argues that London’s streets were too crowded for true flânerie, and that Paris and its arcades were a more suitable habitat for “the dandified stroller,” even though those sites were being destroyed by Haussmann’s redevelopment (63). Benjamin considered Poe’s character to be “a portrayal of the fate of the flâneur in the machine age,” a walker “reduced to little more than a cog in the machine, an automaton governed by the pressures of a barbaric crowd, not so much the hero of modernism as its victim” (64). The flâneur is thereby “inevitably caught up by the commercial forces that will inevitably destroy him,” and he becomes a window-shopper, which is “both the high point and the death knell for the flâneur” (64). Nevertheless, the figure of the flâneur retains its subversive age: “this insistence upon a walker’s pace questions the need for speed and circulation that the modern city promotes (yet seldom achieves). The wanderer remains essentially an outsider opposed to progress,” and “a non-paying customer” (64-65). “Ultimately, the flâneur is a composite figure,” Coverley contends: “vagrant, detective, explorer, dandy and stroller” (65). Yet, within these multiple and contradictory roles, “his predominant characteristic is the way in which he makes the street his home and this is his true legacy to psychogeography” (65).

As the flâneur found himself increasingly barred from the streets, he “devised new methods of travel that could be conducted from the safety of one’s armchair,” and his wandering became internalized (65-67). Joris-Karl Huysmans’s novel Against Nature (Á Rebours), published in 1894, is one example; in that book, an aesthete discovers the advantages of mental or imaginary travel in the city (67). Other modern novels use Robinson Crusoe as a figure undertaking an imaginary journey–from Kafka’s America to Céline’s Journey to the End of the Night–and so Crusoe becomes an emblem for contemporary psychogeographers (68-70). “Robinson is a totemic figure mapping out his journey from text to text,” Coverley writes,

providing a parallel history of urban wandering as it moves from London to Paris and around the world. Here we see writ in miniature the development of psychogeography, as it mutates from detached observation to a more committed and involved practice engaged with its surroundings and increasingly determined to change them. (71-72)

The flâneur may be a male figure, but his female counterpart, the flâneuse, has a very specific role: a prostitute. Those women met their clients–including Baudelaire and Benjamin and the Surrealists–in the Paris arcades (72). “As we approach the avant-garde flowering of the inter-war period,” Coverley suggests, “the streets of Paris are increasingly characterised as an erotic location–a place to procure, seek out of simply think about sex” (72). This is where the Surrealists come into the picture: not because of their political theorizing or attempts at walking around Paris, but because in 1918 André Breton and Louis Aragorn, between them, produce a psychogeographical novel:

With their absence of plot and digressive style, Breton’s Nadja and Aragon’s Paris Peasant offer accounts of journeys conducted through the Paris streets which are governed, in varying degrees, by sexual desire, and in their aimless strolling, they provide not only a precursor to the situationist dérive but a blueprint for contemporary wanderers on the streets of London. (72-73)

Coverley doesn’t explain how two men wrote one novel with two titles–that’s a mystery that will have to be solved through research. Nevertheless, he points out that Surrealism was about the resolution of dream and reality, and that its goal was not just art, but a transformation of our experience of everyday life “with an appreciation of the marvellous” (73). Surrealism’s domain, he continues, “was the street and the stroll was a crucial practice in its attempt to subvert and change our perceptions” (73). The walker–a combination of the flâneur and Robinson Crusoe–becomes, for the Surrealists, “a figure whose journey through the streets is both directed and transformed by the dictates of these unconscious drives” (73). The Surrealist practice of automatism, giving the unconscious free reign, was used not only in automatic writing but also in walking: “The aimless drifting that was later to become the dérive was initiated here in a series of walks whose free-floating exploration of Paris” was intended to discover new places (74). However, the walks the Surrealists took together provided “rather tedious and uninspired results, and as far as walking was concerned, a lot of legwork was expended with little obvious result” (76). Coverley is therefore more interested in the writing of the Surrealists. In addition, their history as a group, including their engagement with Communism and their collapse amid infighting, suggests, to Coverley, that “the day of the apolitical and dispassionate stroller was at an end” (77). The flâneur would have to fight against the destruction of the city, and that radicalization, Coverley argues, was the birth of psychogeography (77).

Next Coverley turns to Guy Debord and the Situationist International. After the Second World War, the Surrealists had split up, and new groups began to take shape in the French avant-garde. Some of those groups came together, in 1957, as the Situationist International. Under the strict control of Debord, the Situationists produced a series of statements defining psychogeography, the dérive and the détournement, and those theoretical writings are important to contemporary psychogeography. However, it’s important to understand that psychogeography was only one of the Situationists’ tools, “one whose role was to become more oblique, as situationism moved away from the subversive practices of its unacknowledged forebears and towards the revolutionary politics with which it has since been associated” (82). Psychogeography isn’t mentioned, for example, in either of the group’s major theoretical statements, Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle and Raoul Vaneigem’s The Revolution of Everyday Life (82-83).

The terms dérive and psychogeography were actually coined by one of the Situationists’ predecessors, the Lettrist International (85), although they made nothing of them, other than “adolescent humour” (87). In Debord’s article “Introduction to a Critique of Urban Geography,” he provided a more rigorous approach and the first real definition of psychogeography (88-89). That definition was rather vague, as Debord admitted, and that vagueness has “allowed so many writers and movements to identify themselves and their work under this label” (89). According to Coverley,

Psychogeography becomes for Debord the point where psychology and geography collide. Gone are the romantic notions of an artistic practice; here we have an experiment to be conducted under scientific conditions and whose results are to be rigorously analysed. (89)

The emotional zones of the city were to be identified “by following the aimless stroll (dérive), the results of which may then form the basis of a new cartography characterised by a complete disregard for the traditional and habitual practices of the tourist” (90). However, as the Situationists developed, the sense of playful creativity that informs the dérive was set aside, and overt political protest took priority (91). That meant that psychogeography, the dérive, and the détournement were subordinated to the group’s political critique (92). Nevertheless, before he abandoned them, Debord did define dérive and détournement. A détournement was a subversion of existing aesthetic elements–through parody or plagiarism, for example (94). A dérive, on the other hand, was a method of psychogeographical investigation, a form of fieldwork or a way to reconnoitre the city (96-97). “The dérive takes the wander out of the realm of the disinterested spectator or artistic practitioner and places him in a subversive position as a revolutionary following a political agenda,” Coverley writes, and the dériviste‘s aim is to identify currents, points, and vortexes of psychogeographical relief (97). Debord’s writing on the dérive provide a theoretical basis for the activity, along with practical suggestions (98), but “the actual results of all these experiments are strangely absent” from the Situationists’ writings; there is little “concrete evidence of clear instances of psychogeographical activity” (99). That is surprising, since the Scots writer Alexander Trocchi, a friend of Debord’s (until he was expelled from the Situationist International), recalled “long, wonderful psychogeographical walks” in London with Debord (101). According to Coverley, Debord ultimately “came to recognise the essentially personal nature of the relationship between the individual and the city, sensing that this subjective realm was always going to remain at odds with the objective mechanisms of the psychogeographical methodology that sought to expose it” (101). I find this very strange, because there seems to be little if anything objective about the dérive as a methodology; from what I understand, it is entirely subjective. Perhaps it was that subjective nature that led Debord to abandon psychogeography in favour of what was, for him, a more objective political theorizing?

In the final chapter, Coverley turns back to contemporary psychogeographers, all of whom are English writers. Psychogeography is very popular at the moment, he notes; it “remains alert to the increasing banalisation of our urban environment that preoccupied the Situationists, and it continues to provide a political response to the perceived failures of urban governance,” but it is also a literary form based around London (111). The first contemporary psychogeographer Coverley discusses is the novelist J.G. Ballard, whose books explore “the behavioural impact of urban space” (112). Ballard’s writing draws on surrealist imagery and techniques, but his fiction provides “a more detailed psychogeographical map of the modern urban hinterland than any situationist survey could ever hope to replicate” (116). Ballard believes that modern life leads to a loss of emotional sensitivity, but his fiction challenges the Situationists’ belief that this loss would lead to banality; instead, he presents the non-places of contemporary suburbia “as liable not merely to provoke boredom but to result in more extreme forms of behaviour that increasingly mirror the violent and sexualised imagery that surrounds us” (116-17). “In this sense the spectacular society”–Coverley is riffing on the title of Debord’s famous book–“will, of its own accord, produce that element of unpredictable and even revolutionary behaviour that Debord himself hoped to engineer,” but for Ballard, that behaviour “will constitute a full-scale descent into savagery, sexual perversity and complete breakdown as the brand of community living engineered by the tower block or executive village dissolves into a series of individual retreats into personal obsession” (117). Unlike other contemporary psychogeographers, though, Ballard has no interest in history or literary tradition, nor does he care about “occult connectivity” or walking (118). “By dispensing with these themes,” Coverley argues,

Ballard is able to pare down his prose into a simple allegory of modern urban life that focuses solely on the relationship between individual and environment. . . . This is psychogeography rendered in its most stark and unforgiving manner, and these texts have mapped, in advance of anyone else, the layout of a future city characterised by a transient population living lives of anonymous isolation. (118)

Next up is Iain Sinclair, who is, Coverley contends, more responsible than anyone else for the current popularity of psychogeography (119). Sinclair’s complex “London Project”–made up of poems, novels, documentary studies and films–sets out to restore that city “to its dominant psychogeographical position” (119). Sinclair’s work has little connection to the Situationists, but he is “heavily indebted both to the surrealist drift of Breton and Aragon and to the visionary tradition of London writers from William Blake to Arthur Machen,” but his greatest influence is Alfred Watkins and his theory of ley lines, especially in his early writing (119). In works like the 1975 book Lud Heat, Sinclair espouses a belief that lines of force mapped between architect Nicholas Hawksmoor’s remaining London churches can reveal “the true but hidden relationship between the city’s financial, political and religious institutions” (119). Sinclair’s writing is, Coverley suggests, a “delightful blend of paranoia, occult imagination and local London history” (120). Sinclair is a walker, too, but not a flâneur–his pedestrian activities are too directed, too focused on his task of challenging the modern city (120). Sinclair’s “peculiar form of historical and geographical research displays none of the rigour of psychogeographical theory”–as outlined by Debord, I think he means–“and is overlaid by a mixture of autobiography and literary eclecticism,” but it is politically engaged and furious about the legacy of Thatcherite redevelopment in London (121). That anger displays his debt to Aragon, Coverley suggests (121). London Orbital, which I have written about in this blog, offers Sinclair’s “own highly successful brand of psychogeography in which urban wanderer, local historian, avant-garde activist and political polemicist meet and coalesce” (122). Sinclair’s writing is so successful that “he appears to have inaugurated an entirely new genre of topographical writing centred upon London which has gone some way towards displacing Debord and situationism as the official psychogeographical brand” (122). This success “has inevitably blunted its impact, as what was once a marginal and underground activity is now offered mainstream recognition” (123). That complaint–it’s not cool any more because other people like it–is unworthy of Coverley, in my opinion, but then again, I’m a fan of Sinclair’s writing and of his psychogeographical methodology as well.

Peter Ackroyd moulds psychogeography “into a conservative and irrational model diametrically opposed in both spirit and practice to Debord’s conception,” Coverley argues. Ackroyd’s difference from Sinclair–both wrote about ley lines and Hawksmoor’s churches–is that he believes that the spatial correspondences he identifies in the city are “not only governed by historical resonances inherited from the past, but are also subject to temporal patterns through which the city may be subdivided once again,” an idea Ackroyd calls “chronological resonance” (124-25). He also believes that these resonances have “observable effects upon the behaviour of Londoners themselves” (125). Ackroyd “follows the implications of his theory to their logical, but unverifiable, conclusions, eventually moving from London to the country as a whole and identifying two opposing strands of national identity”: rational Protestantism and irrational or visionary Catholicism (125). The latter is able to reveal the city as it truly is, and enables us to recognize the magic beneath its mundane surface (126). Other Londoners who were “attuned to the revelatory vision of the city” are named “Cockney Visionaries” by Ackroyd, and among their number he includes Blake, Machen, and Sinclair (126). For Coverley, “Ackroyd’s theory grows ever more mystical and all-embracing, becoming a quest for the defining characteristics of English national identity in which the spirit of scientific inquiry is rebutted by Ackroyd’s irrational and wholly subjective sense of time and place” (126), and “his insistence that the city is eternal and illimitable,” “governed by a cyclical current that views the present merely as the past revisited,” is even more damaging to Ackroyd’s “psychogeographical credentials, at least in their situationist form” (126). That’s because Ackroyd’s cosmology obviates any call for revolutionary change; it leaves us “stranded within a kind of eternal recurrence in which the flux of the present is subsumed within a mystical sense of eternal stasis that renders all political engagement redundant” (126-27). “If psychogeography is the behavioural impact of place,” Coverley concludes, “then Ackroyd’s historic-mystical version is at odds not only with its revolutionary forbears but also, despite any superficial similarities, with the current brand favoured by Iain Sinclair and his acolytes” (127). I have little patience with mysticism, and had no idea that the author of London: The Biography, among other important books, held such–let me say it like I feel it–silly beliefs. That doesn’t mean, though, that I should ignore his writing; it could be important.

Stewart Home is the third contemporary psychogeographer Coverley discusses. Home was “a prime mover within the resurgence of psychogeographical and avant-garde groups in the 1990s but his relationship with those groups remains tangential and obscure,” Coverley writes, although I’m not sure what that would matter (128). Home is associated with the London Psychogeographical Association, and he is “responsible for a deluge of psychogeographical pamphlets, statements and events,” often humorous (128-29). Home “combines a peculiar blend of occultism, avant-garde theorising and radical left politics,” but he seems unable to take himself or his subject too seriously” (129). He is a provocateur, in other words, and yet, Coverley suggests, that should not obscure “the accuracy of his critical commentary upon the avant-garde movements that he has sought to revive” (131). (Coverley is clearly interested in these groups; I am not.) Because he combines humour with an awareness of psychogeography’s roots and its relationship to earlier traditions, Home “appears to have successfully wrong footed those critics unable to work out what he’s up to and unsure how to respond” (132). In other words, Coverley concludes, “Home has effectively liberated psychogeography from the constraints of any one set of practices or aims, creating a highly effective weapon in his assault upon the artistic establishment” (132-33). I’d never heard of Home before reading Coverley’s book, and I have no idea if his writing is available in North America, but I must say, after reading Coverley’s discussion, that it’s Sinclair’s work that interests me more than the others’.

“Instead of seeking to change their environment,” Coverley concludes,

psychogeographers in their contemporary incarnation seem satisfied merely to experience and record it. In this sense, psychogeography has overlooked its political and ideological roots in situationism in favour of a return to the primarily artistic concerns of earlier avant-garde and literary traditions. These authors certainly voice dissatisfaction with the political shortcomings of the present but are unable to supply any practical measures to alleviate their concerns. (136)

In that sense, they are not like Defoe, “in whom the figure of novelist, pamphleteer and radical combined to provide a lasting template for a future psychogeography in which literary endeavour and political activism are once again inseparable” (137). But what did Defoe actually accomplish politically? And what “practical measures” does Coverley think can address contemporary political problems? Why does he expect writers to provide the answers to political questions? The world is a complicated place, and who among us really understands how to address our collective challenges?

Despite Coverley’s disappointing conclusion, and his apparent belief that the Situationists accomplished something tangible, this is a useful book. I do wonder if other writers on psychogeography see historical antecedents in Defoe and Blake and de Quincey, or if they begin, simply, with the Situationists. I could find out. I also wonder if the kind of activity that falls under the rubric of psychogeography must take place in an urban environment. Couldn’t one walk and think and research the history of rural areas as well? Is that a possibility, despite the lack of attention to the world outside of Paris and London by psychogeographers? And, of course, Coverley’s list of references provides an excellent starting point for looking further into psychogeography–if that’s something I’m going to do. I’m not sure yet; I’ll need to think about it.

Work Cited

Coverley, Merlin. Psychogeography. Pocket Essentials, 2010.

——. Ways of Wandering: The Writer As Walker. Oldcastle, 2012.