Friday, 23 January 2015

Mindful Walking and the Postmodern Urbanscape – Part 1

Physical agglomerations in the form of buildings, roads, paths, street décor and all the spaces in between, make up our urban landscape. While our towns and cities have gradually developed over time, one of the side-effects of urban planning is that of the homogenisation of the landscape such that it appears to have been that was ‘forever’. Take your regular walk to work as an example: have you noticed how you see new hoardings appear, then later the building work begins behind the hoarding, then upon completion the hoardings are removed and the new building appears in its fullness? In a very short space of time you will have forgotten what was previously in its place. The space will become ‘stable’ again.

Nevertheless, behind these structures sit power-relations in the form of authoritarian schemas: political decisions, competing agencies, organisational collaborations, policy-making and so forth. The schemas which represent the manifestation of structures that appear in urban space have a discourse which supports the ideology behind them: from the gestation of the development plan itself, through to the materialised object. The final project - be it a shopping centre, public housing complex or a new road system - is built on this discourse and becomes a representation of it. As Roland Barthes states in his text ‘Semiology and Urbanism’: “The city is a discourse and this discourse is truly a language” (1967).

However, the formations, processes and narratives that support the urbanscape often have a preference for producing a particular subjectivity in their pedestrian citizens, one of worker-consumer. Postmodern space is neoliberal in its moorings and along with this a habitus is defined which encourages specific behaviours, gestures and actions from us. As discussed by Michel Foucault in Discipline and Punish, power is spatially manifest: operations and procedures applied to the body-politic take place in material structures that appear in concrete form. The authority attached to procedures are oriented in space and come in the guise of statements that become naturalised upon being repeated by not only those designated to do so, but also they become legitimised by being mediated through popular narratives and discourse. Moreover, while the heterogeneity of postmodern space should, theoretically, contain the possibility of a multiplicity of potential subjectivities, subjectivities that do not conform to a neoliberal ideology are discouraged, or at least not encouraged. This means that individual desires that are outwith the project of capital tend to get co-opted by capital, rather than being allowed to run free.

For the pedestrian (for example, the worker or shopper), their individual desires tend to become either rerouted or suppressed by the urban landscape, to the extent that little internal thought arises, to any level of full consciousness, around how the urban space came to be the way it is. Nevertheless, these desires still exist because of the aesthetics of space and the affective response that results, even if it is not consciously acknowledged. This means that to be able to really ‘see’ the city individuals need to be encouraged to move about it in a new way. One could say that they need to be educated to respond to it somatically and aesthetically.

Tuesday, 23 December 2014

A Hysterical Simulacra: “To the established order they are always of the order of the real”.

There was a really interesting article in the 18 December 2014 edition of the London Review of Books entitled 'Writing Machines: Tom McCarthy on Realism and the Real'. McCarthy discusses the real, realism and reality in the context of literature, drawing on the likes of Jacques Lacan (amongst others). Discussing J. G. Ballard’s Crash, in particular the character Vaughan’s staged car crashes, McCarthy invokes Lacan, stating: “This is a real that happens, or forever threatens to happen, not as a result of the artist ‘getting it right’ or being authentic, but rather as a radical and disastrous eruption inside the always and irremediably inauthentic”.

This reminded me of Jean Baudrillard’s ‘The Precession of the Simulacra’, in particular his description of a possible staged hold-up. Baudrillard talks about how to “feign a violation” and goes on to say that:
There is no ‘objective’ difference: the gestures, the signs are the same as for a real robbery, the signs do not lean to one side or another. To the established order they are always of the order of the real.
This got me thinking about what might happen if you staged a faint as a form of intervention: the gestures, the signs are the same as for a real faint. Baudrillard says one would need to create as much disruption as possible, while staying as close as one could to ‘the truth’. This would be required so as to “test the reaction of the apparatus to a perfect simulacrum”. But, he adds, “You won’t be able to do it: the network of artificial signs will become inextricable mixed up with real elements”. Your collapsing/swooning will engender an emergency situation whereby ‘the system’ kicks into play: people will come to your rescue, first aid will be called! As Baudrillard explains: “you will immediately find yourself once again, without wishing it, in the real, one of whose functions is precisely to devour any attempt at simulation, to reduce everything to the real”!

Sunday, 14 December 2014

Outsider Psychogeography

From Walking Inside Out: Contemporary British Psychogeography

This is the final section of the above upcoming book. Please click here for the other sections, The Walker and the Landscape, Memory, Historicity, Time, Power and Place, Practicing Psychogeography/Psychogeographical Practices.

Psychogeography has always had to deal with its detractors, from the criticisms aimed at the SI’s hankering for a lost past to the contemporary disapproval levelled at it in its current incarnations. This is especially prevalent today with the proliferation of online forums, blogs and zines. For example a post entitled ‘How Could Psychogeography Come to This’ appeared in June 2012 on the blog Cosmopolitan Scum which criticised the psychogeography carried out on the London Olympic site in 2012.

Some disciplines can be very welcoming to psychogeography, but this is not necessarily the case in all academic fields. When attempting to justify one’s own practice in what may be a somewhat ‘hostile’ environment, it is easy to come across as apologetic or overly defensive. While the vagueness of the term ‘psychogeography’ enables it to be an inter/transdisciplinary tool, as a field in itself (if we choose to call it that) it is considered unscientific, even if some of the practices employed within it might be used in a scientific way elsewhere and might appear under a different label. For instance, the Recitoire project run by the Grenoble Computer Science Lab, looks at qualitative surveys which involve citizens in their local urban planning projects. While this is not labelled as psychogeography at all, nor is the term used in their documentation, the comparisons are apparent.

The two essays which represent this section reflect the work of two academics who use psychogeography in their own field. They both draw on walking-based literature and philosophy and demonstrate how psychogeography can be used as an interdisciplinary tool which can be incorporated in a discipline in which it might not usually be considered. Chapter contributions for this section are from Alexander John Bridger and Andrea Capstick.

Related Info:
Walking Inside Out – book cover and abstract.

Saturday, 29 November 2014

Practicing Psychogeography/Psychogeographical Practices

From Walking Inside Out: Contemporary British Psychogeography

This is the fourth section of the above upcoming book. Please click here for the other sections, The Walker and the Landscape, Memory, Historicity, Time and Power and Place.

Debord wrote The Theory of the Dérive in 1959, setting out instructions on how to drift through the city in such a way where the participants are in tension between a relaxed state of being open to what may arise on the walk, and a conscious awareness in regard to the controlling force of urban décor. Recommending it as a group practice (even specifying the number of participants), suggesting the duration of the walk and discussing the logistics of the area under observation, we can see the genesis of a methodology unfolding in Debord’s text. He tentatively describes psychogeography as a methodology under development at the time of writing his essay and tells the reader how the dérive can be used as a springboard to further the purposes of the Situationists’ wider project, later laid out in Basic Programme of the Bureau of Unitary Urbanism (1961).

Formulating a methodology for philosophical (or scientific) inquiry is often necessary for an academic in order to propose potential work and to validate the results of findings. There are a number of situations where this might be required, for instance: when presenting one’s work to a particular body (such as an ethics committee) in order to validate a prospective research proposal.

The three essays in this section represent the scholarly work of three individuals from three different fields: performance, urban planning and cultural studies. The authors have developed a methodology for their walking-based practices and named the methodology in order to distinguish their form of walking from other psychogeographical practices. These essays show the development and evolution of a methodology over time, the fleshing out of a process for a specific project, and the practical aspects of applying a methodology to walking-based research.

Contributions are from Phil Smith, Victoria Henshaw and Tina Richardson.

Related Info:
Walking Inside Out – book cover and abstract.

Sunday, 23 November 2014

Power and Place

From Walking Inside Out: Contemporary British Psychogeography

This is the third section of the above upcoming book. Please click here for the first section, The Walker and the Urban Landscape, and the second, Memory, Historicity, Time.

The psychogeographical project, as it was for the Situationist International (SI), was to tear down the spectacle and reorder space so as to express the needs and desires of the community. They did this in a number of ways, such as through their Unitary Urbanism project which involved redesigning city architecture. But in a practical way this was carried out through their dérives. By formulating chance routes through the city, the Situationists challenged the domineering nature of urban décor and offered a new approach to the city. By, literally, chopping out the areas of the city they disliked – for instance, areas dominated by the spectacle or under redevelopment – they reformed sections of existing city maps into quarters of their own choosing. These quarters reflected their own urban preferences and they added ambiances to them to express what they wished for them to represent in their new city, for example, Happy Quarter. The new maps, the Guides Psychogeographiques or the Naked City maps, suggested a new way of moving through urban space that was counter to the capitalist dominated city and encouraged people to reconnect with a city they were increasingly being pushed out of through bureaucracy and urban planning.

While there have been a number of psychogeographical movements since the disbandment of the Situationists in 1972, as there are today, it is the SI that holds a prominent place in our memory when discussing political urban walking practices. The chapters here offer a historical overview of the activist project of the SI in terms of psychogeography, alongside a subjective account of running an urban walking group in the 21st century. These essays are very different to each other in form and writing style and reflect the heterogeneity of psychogeographic writing today. Chapter contributions for this section are by Christopher Collier and Morag Rose.

Related Info:
Walking Inside Out – book cover and abstract.

Saturday, 15 November 2014

Memory, Historicity, Time

From Walking Inside Out: Contemporary British Psychogeography

This is the second section of the above upcoming book. Please click here for the first section: The Walker and the Landscape.

Our relationship with the city is intrinsically tied up with our knowledge and memory of it. If a particular city is somewhere we know - from today or from our past - we are unable to separate our psychological responses to it from the materiality of the place itself. This, in fact, is psychogeography and is what makes us all psychogeographers to a degree. A sense of place connects us to a geographic region in a specific way that becomes apparent when we start to explore the emotions attached to particular urban pockets that spark something in us. It might be a memory from our adolescence, such as an independent record shop in our hometown where we purchased our first piece of vinyl, or a more recent memory we have of the experience of moving to a new town or city and the differing aesthetics of that place compared to our last home.

These memories are not separate from our self, they inform and form us. The experience of the everyday that is played out in space - walking to the train station, going to the supermarket, taking the dog for a walk – make up a significant part of our day. These practices are imprinted on our psyches over time, forming our relationship with space and at the same time are laid down in our memory of that place, creating our attachment to it. What is particularly pertinent to our memory of place is that it is subjective and partial – it cannot be anything other. It is this that lends itself to the multifarious and often contradictory accounts of specific spaces.

In this section contributions range from qualitative research on memory and place, to personal accounts which interweave fact and fiction. They express the variety of styles of writing on place, but also the effects of time and memory in the way that they become part of our own histories.

Chapter contributions for this section are by Alastair Bonnett, Phil Wood, Merlin Coverley and Gareth E. Rees.

Related Info:
Walking Inside Out – book cover and abstract.

Monday, 10 November 2014

The Walker and the Urban Landscape

From Walking Inside Out: Contemporary British Psychogeography

The next few blogs will be introducing each section of the upcoming book (due 2015, Rowman and Littlefield International). I’ll include a short abstract and the authors who will feature in each section.

The solitary walker situated within the landscape is not a modern phenomenon, even if the term psychogeography is. The cover of Terry Eagleton’s The Ideology of the Aesthetic (1990) shows Der Wanderer über dem Nebelmeer (Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog) (1818) by Caspar David Friederich. It depicts a man in a frock coat standing on a craggy rock with his back towards us, contemplating the buffeting sea below. He carries a walking stick, telling us that he is a walker and has not just pulled up in his Landau where his coachman awaits his return. The wanderer is elevated above the sea of which he looks down and is separated from. What this image depicts is the privileged position of this figure in the landscape. Not just because of his elevated position on the rocks, but because he is male, middle-class, Western and white (his red hair is blowing in the wind, the colour punctuating the image). Our protagonist represents both the 18th century coloniser and the stereotype of a classical psychogeographer.

However, in the 21st century psychogeography takes up multiple positions. From the perspective of the background, gender and age of the individual urban walker, to their relationship with urban space itself. Today the walker feels some sort of direct connection to the space s/he explores, even if that is from a critical position. It is no longer about the tourist’s gaze, but a reflexive response where both the walker and the space s/he moves about in is momentarily changed. This section looks at the different perspectives a walking critic might take and provides three different urban spaces in order to demonstrate the variety of places available for interpretation. Taking the perspective of two walkers, and providing one analysis of the writing of a walker, these essays draw upon the place of the contemporary psychogeographer in the everyday landscape.

Chapter contributions for this section are by Roy Bayfield, Ian Marchant and Luke Bennett.

Related Links:
Walking Inside Out – book cover and abstract.