Brief of Psychogeography
Cities have always been confusing places to live. The natural landscape is left distorted by a built environment informed by social and political norms. Urban environments are not merely arenas where social struggle takes place, but places by which each player in a conflict attempts to better the other. As such, the landscape can be considered an important aspect of the practice of power. A critique of said landscape is a critique of the extension of power itself. This is true at all levels of life, from the terrifying operations of the nation-state to the individual paranoia of the lonely student.
From 1953 to 1960 the social revolutionary group Situationist International developed Unitary Urbanism as a critique of their contemporary urban environment. Not only were the cities themselves targets of critique, but so were other urban theorists of that period. The critical engagements by structuralists fell short of providing revolutionary insight to individuals on a relatable, everyday level. To overcome these shortcomings, such as relying too heavily on universalizing models and concrete theorems, the Situationists developed a tactic called psychogeography.
This strategy deploys the individual as an agent, capable of using the simple embodied practice of the “derive,” which means drift, in order to re-situate oneself in their urban environments. This approach to geography emphasizes the individual’s own understanding and awareness of place and encourages playfully engaging with the surrounding environment. Briefly put, the drift can be taken quite literally. Let the body and mind uncouple from the rigidity of routine, the violence of fixity. Let yourself float, wandering through this luminous, whirring machine nerve centre of culture and capital.
On the theory end of this, experiments in derive contributed to spatial and urban theory by showing the growing fragmentation of the city and the undoing of its dynamic, organic power under fierce subordination by capitalism and spectacularized mass media. By providing a curiously innovative synchronic account of the historical process of a disappearing socio-structural harmony, psychogeography was a way to engage with one’s urban environment in a creative way that went beyond critique by developing a methodology to combat this change.
But what does this have to do with the vulnerable student body, tired of abstract theory and transplanted into a new spatialized political cadaver? Despite being very quick and conceptual so far, this discussion will hopefully show how it basically has everything to do with our position as vulnerable forms of life.
Toronto is a magnificent sphere of inclusivity, but it still resists our collective desire for comfort in the form of friendship and confidence. Beyond the intellectual fear of global political discord, there is a much more personal fear of being lost, being unwelcome and generally being unfamiliar with-and-to the city. Psychogeography’s historical use has shown us why it is helpful, but more importantly supplies the canon of tactics that can be developed, meaning how this fear is to be overcome by letting friendship and belonging bloom like a strawberry bush, a tumbleweed, an algae. But I digress—let’s now take a look at some fun methods to creatively throw oneself into the city to overcome the anxiety of dis-orientation by further dis-orienting ourselves.
FLEXI-SYLLABUS OF DRIFTING STRATEGIES
Pick a starting position—it can be arbitrary or intimately connected with the self. Choose a function to follow and a movement to apply this to. This could be the movement of your body or a duration of time. Follow this function as such—let your movement through the city be guided by parameters of your own design, not elements entirely out of your control such as deadlines or efficiency’s sake. Examples include first-right-second-left, a spiral, or walk north for 26 minutes.
This is similar to algorithmic walking strategies, but with variable flexibility. This has less to do with ascribing limits on what your body does regardless of your environment and focuses more on being choosy over the environment. Try taking only alleyways one day, or forcing yourself to find new unconventional or even inefficient routes between a common A-to-B priority.
A friend of mine once told me how subjective translation is. It is more of a personal process than one of scientific overcoding. In translation we find trance-elation, a heightened state of awareness akin to meditation. To achieve a place trance-elation, try printing off a map of your hometown and superimpose the position of your house there with your house here. If that doesn’t work, try some other place you have an attachment to such as a school or library. Use your familiarity with your hometown and its map as a device to extend your familiarity over your current situation. An uncommon, coincidental similarity between these two places will foster a silly engagement with your new home, stirring up old memories and creating new ones. The ghost of your past will haunt your future confidence over this city.
There are lots of dead ends and short-stops in Toronto. Oftentimes, these alcoves have a unique stillness to them because they don’t receive a lot of continuous traffic. Fight the commuter rush through impracticality. Let your body wander down a pointless road and then have to turn back up, wasting time and energy for the sake of exploration.
Ever feel inexplicably uneasy in certain spots around the city? We sometimes know why, but other times massaging out the cause of said impulse takes a while. There are stressful points around the body of the city just as there are across all our freaked-out, overworked, exquisite corpses. Make note of these places and open yourself up to the comfort levels of others. Understand that certain peoples’ feelings of unease in the present are motivated by past traumas that you may not have any understanding of, or might not even be able to understand. Still, discuss issues you have with streets, crosswalks, corridors, classrooms and all the people in them. The act of fostering self-aware engagement is often a perfect starting point for larger societal therapy. Think of ways in which positive change might be enacted through your immediate surroundings!
These walks can be used as haecceities, an event without clear comparison, beginning or end—queer engagements, if you will. They are somehow in space by feeling out of time, resistant to time’s instrumentalization. They defy the dominant view of optimizing our lives within a built environment conceived in order to put us to work. Do not be afraid of exploring, of engaging with our shared built environment. Like the weather, the city impacts all living within it, yet it affects us in different ways. Celebrate these differences. Explode outwards into new unforeseen directions. Walk with strangers and invite others to explore our common home on the sidewalk.
If anyone wants to go on weird walks,
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