In This Article Psychogeography

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Urban Exploration
  • Critical Studies of Psychogeography

Geography Psychogeography
by
Alastair Bonnett
  • LAST REVIEWED: 06 May 2015
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 October 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199874002-0020

Introduction

Psychogeography developed among European and American avant-garde revolutionary groups in the late 1950s and 1960s. It was later taken up in a range of cultural contexts and has come to be associated with creative, intimate and historically attuned explorations of hidden places and narratives of place. Any overview of the topic necessarily includes both phases. The first is replete with references to the small but influential Neo-Marxist group called the Situationist International and to its principal theorist Guy Debord. The second phase commenced in the late 1980s when psychogeography was both rediscovered and reinvented as part of a broader turn toward the importance of place within popular culture, art and literature. For Debord, writing in 1967, “Proletarian revolution is the critique of human geography through which individuals and communities have to create places and events suitable for the appropriation, no longer just of their labor, but of their total history. In this game’s changing space, and in the freely chosen variations in the game’s rules, the autonomy of place can be rediscovered” (from Guy Debord’s 1983 Society of the Spectacle, thesis 178). Psychogeography is a key technique of this “critique.” It was associated with: 1) the “dérive” (literally translated, “drifting”) which involves an unstructured wandering through the landscape, allowing oneself to be drawn consciously and unconsciously toward those sites and scenes that heighten one’s experience of place and disrupt the banality of everyday life; 2) the construction of “situations,”: temporarily autonomous places of creativity and transgression; 3) the “detournement” of maps and journeys, a kind of geographical culture jamming in which participants set out to disorient geographical conventions by, for example, using the wrong maps to guide them. Beginning in the late 1980s psychogeography was rediscovered. Initially this took place, in Britain at least, through literary works that opened up the visionary and occult character of London’s pasts, such as Peter Ackroyd’s 1985 Hawksmoor and Iain Sinclair’s 1987 White Chappell, Scarlet Tracings. A few years later avant-garde groups in a number of European and American cities began to inject a more political but also self-consciously pseudomystical character into psychogeography. Soon a new generation of artists and writers also began employing the term to identify their interest in practices of walking, exploring, and other forms of landscape intervention. By the late 1990s psychogeography had expanded its audience and lost its moorings to the revolutionary and schismatic enclaves of the ultra-Left. This process continued into the 2000s with the emergence of Urban Exploration. This nascent popular movement, which involves people rediscovering the hidden aspects of local environments, appears to reflect a widespread desire to rediscover place as a site of adventure. Psychogeography is on the furthest margins of the discipline of geography and has attracted little scholarly attention. The range of sources detailed in this article reflect this neglect.

General Overviews

Overviews of psychogeography are not common in the scholarly literature. What does exist tends to focus exclusively on the situationist phase of psychogeography. Coverley 2006 remains unique as a broader overview and can be recommended as a starting point for students interested in the topic. The monographs of Andreotti and Costa 1996 (an edited volume), Pinder 2004 and Sadler 1998 are the best guides to situationist urbanism. Wark 2011 and Sussman 1989 offer more general overviews of the situationists. Plant 2006 and Bonnett 1989 brought a theoretical and critical intent to the field, finding comparisons with postmodern thought. It is to be expected that as work on psychogeography begins to respond more fully to recent developments, such as Urban Exploration, a narrow focus on the situationists will begin to become less common.

  • Andreotti, Libero, and Xavier Costa, eds. Situacionistas: arte, politica, urbanismo. Barcelona: Actar/Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona, 1996.

    E-mail Citation »

    One of the most comprehensive surveys of situationist urban thought, this Spanish- and English-language edited collection provides both a good introduction to the general context of the situationists and to the practice of psychogeography

  • Bonnett, Alastair. “Situationism, Geography, and Poststructuralism.” Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 7.2 (1989): 131–146.

    DOI: 10.1068/d070131E-mail Citation »

    This paper introduced psychogeography and the situationists into the geography discipline. It compares their subversive intent with the ambitions of poststructuralist theorists and finds both parallels and problems in their shared hostility to all forms of power. Unlike Plant, Bonnett considers that this kind of all-encompassing libertarianism is politically incoherent. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

  • Coverley, Merlin. Psychogeography. Harpenden, UK: Pocket Essentials, 2006.

    E-mail Citation »

    A general introduction to the topic, this book surveys both early and later psychogeography work. It is thus a unique resource, since most material on the topic of psychogeography covers either the early (situationist) or later phases of the phenomenon.

  • Pinder, David. Visions of the City: Utopianism, Power and Politics in Twentieth-Century Urbanism. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2004.

    E-mail Citation »

    A fundamental text for geographers interested in the topic, Visions of the City offers a defense of urban utopianism. It focuses on attempts to imagine cities differently, and to change radically their spaces and social relations across a variety of avant-garde movements. Chapters four, five, and six are devoted to the practical and political experiments of the Situationist International.

  • Plant, Sadie. The Most Radical Gesture: The Situationist International in a Postmodern Age. London: Routledge, 2006.

    E-mail Citation »

    An important text that introduced the situationists to an academic audience. Plant updates their message by finding parallels with postmodernism. The later material appears, ironically, somewhat dated today. Plant’s book is a good overview but is thin on psychogeography

  • Sadler, Simon. The Situationist City. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1998.

    E-mail Citation »

    A detailed monograph that is the standard text for anyone interested in situationist urban practice and theory. Sadler analyzes the novelty of situationist psychogeographists but also places their work in its political context. The work is illustrated and brings home the aesthetic as well as political intent of the situationists.

  • Sussman, Elizabeth, ed. On the Passage of a Few People through a Rather Brief Moment of Time: The Situationist International 1957–1972. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1989.

    E-mail Citation »

    This volume was brought out to accompany an exhibition (at the Institute of Contemporary Art (Boston, MA), Musée national d’art moderne (France), and then Institute of Contemporary Arts (London, England). It is richly illustrated and provides an excellent introduction to the avant-garde milieu and activities of the Lettrist International and the situationists.

  • Wark, McKenzie. The Beach Beneath the Street: The Everyday Life and Glorious Times of the Situationist International. London: Verso, 2011.

    E-mail Citation »

    Although introductory in its intent, this book has a particular focus on the situationists’ attempts to create provisional microsocieties as well as their “extreme aesthetics.” Wark steers away from a focus on Debord and introduces the group as a diverse collection of artists and political figures. Wark also has a chapter on the urban designer Constant but appears to have no special interest in psychogeography.

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