Column: Psychogeography

Psychogeography is the effect of place upon the psyche and the importance of the psyche within the landscape. The term was first discussed in the early 1950s by Guy Debord of the Situationist International, who attributed its coining to “an illiterate Kabyle.” The concept itself is simple, ancient, and foundational to an animist view of the world.

In his essay “Introduction to a Critique of Urban Geography,” Debord defines the term rather dryly and pseudo-scientifically as “the study of the precise laws and specific effects of the geographical environment, consciously organized or not, on the emotions and behavior of individuals.” The occultist and writer Alan Moore (who explores psychogeography in his graphic novel From Hell and in his novels Voice of the Fire and Jerusalem) adds another layer of nuance to Debord’s definition by emphasizing that consciousness also embeds itself into the landscape in turn: “in our experience of any place, it is the associations, the dreams, the imaginings, the history—it is all the information that is relevant to that place which is what we experience when we talk about a place.”

In adding Moore’s definition to Debord’s, we see that psychogeographical influence is not a one-way street in either direction. It is not just the effect of the material environment upon the individual, nor is it simply a figment of the human imagination (nor is that what Moore suggests). Rather, it is a reciprocal process, a relationship—or rather, an entire web of relationships.

Source of Discord

In a culture that has overwhelmingly lost its embodied sense of relationship to place, however, the landscape is choked and blighted by the demands of power and wealth. A recent article entitled “Why You Hate Contemporary Architecture” notes that since World War II, a dominant trend within architecture has been to produce monolithic buildings that are “intentionally chaotic and grating,” shunning all ornament, symmetry, and beauty—features of traditional architectures across the world. Traditional Chinese architecture, for example, incorporates features such as curved roofs, guardian statues, and “ghost walls” specifically to prevent the entry of unwanted spirits into the building. Modern architecture does the opposite.

[Public domain.]

In China, the Boxer Rebellion of 1898-1900 targeted churches and factories for their disruption of feng shui with intrusive steeples and smokestacks (and telegraph poles for the same reason), as well as railroads and mines for offending the ancestors and land spirits. For the polytheist Boxer rebels and most other Chinese people at the time, an understanding of “psychogeography” or feng shui was incorporated into everyday life. Therefore, the destructive transformation of public space by missionaries and modernization was fiercely contested.

The Boxers were defeated through Western intervention. In the West, the psychogeographical terrain has also largely been lost to the ruling class, who have not hesitated to consolidate their control. On a material level, Debord notes that during the second French empire (1852-1870), Paris was redesigned to include “open spaces allowing for the rapid circulation of troops and the use of artillery against insurrections” but inimical to use by ordinary people.

However, Debord argues, psychogeography cannot simply be reduced to the assumption that “elegant streets cause a feeling of satisfaction and that poor streets are depressing.” Indeed, the opposite is often the case, as is horrifyingly apparent when gentrifiers attempt to pave over neighborhood soccer fields and community gardens with parking lots, or to replace murals of gods, saints, and ancestors with cookie-cutter condos. Anyone who is paying attention knows that there is more to the world than the material.

Therefore, “the revolutionary transformation of the world, of all aspects of the world, will confirm all the dreams of abundance,” Debord writes. Similarly, Moore argues that a mythical understanding of one’s surroundings has the potential to change everything:

If they understood the richness under the paving stones that they walk every day, if they understood the astonishing mythologies that were connected to these places, the histories, then they might feel more that they were walking through the eternal, golden city. If they were to internalize that, they might start to feel like the empowered and mythical creatures that inside they want to be.

Comfort to the Restless

The situationists developed the practice of the dérive or “drift” as a way to both break out of prescribed social activity and to explore the psychogeographical landscape. In his article “Theory of the Dérive,” Debord quotes a study of a student’s movements over the course of a year, which depressingly found that “her itinerary forms a small triangle with no significant deviations, the three apexes of which are the school of political sciences, her residence and that of her piano teacher.”

Breaking out of psychically impoverished loops such as the political science student’s, however, does not mean abandoning oneself to complete chance. Rather, it entails a complex engagement with the existing landscape:

In a dérive one or more persons during a certain period drop their relations, their work and leisure activities, and all their other usual motives for movement and action, and let themselves be drawn by the attractions of the terrain and the encounters they find there. Chance is a less important factor in this activity than one might think: from a dérive point of view cities have psychogeographical contours, with constant currents, fixed points and vortexes that strongly discourage entry into or exit from certain zones.

Sarah Kate Istra Winter, in her book The City is a Labyrinth: A Walking Guide for Urban Animists, suggests that an “animist dérive” would “use similar methods but with a more overtly metaphysical approach” (7). Such an approach might include (but not be limited to) making offerings to local spirits and gods, incorporating divination and omen interpretation into one’s dérive, or praying to gods (such as Hermes, Mercury, or Odin) who are themselves known for being wanderers. Truly, “chance is a less important factor in this activity than one might think.”

[Arthur Rackham, public domain.]

Toil of the Steed

In “Introduction to a Critique of Urban Geography,” Debord wonders about the religious implications of psychogeography:

It has long been said that the desert is monotheistic. Is it illogical or devoid of interest to observe that the district in Paris between Place de la Contrescarpe and Rue de l’Arbal? conduces rather to atheism, to oblivion and to the disorientation of habitual reflexes?

While the thought that certain modern architecture is atheistic in its tendency towards oblivion is certainly interesting, from an animist perspective, both the desert and the city are filled with spirits. However, Winter observes that “many polytheists and animists still think of the spiritual world as something only, or primarily, accessible in nature” (2). Her book is explicitly intended to broaden that perspective, especially for those of us who find ourselves spending time in cities (whether we wish to be there or not).

In Chinese polytheism, not only does each city have a tutelary deity who fills the office of Cheng Huang Sheng (“god of the moat and walls”), but local land deities who fill the role of Tu Di Gong (“lord of soil and ground”). In certain cities in Taiwan, the specific spirit filling the role of Tu Di Gong may vary from city block to city block. The town of Jinze outside Shanghai, famed for its canals and bridges, formerly had some sort of deity shrine at every single bridge. Though at least one of the shrines no longer exists in physical form, people still remember its location and worship there during festivals. This is psychogeography in practice.

[Heathen Chinese.]

Animism cannot be learned from a book or the internet. An animist relationship to the world can only be cultivated through direct engagement and experience. As the Anglo-Saxon rune poem reminds us:

Riding seems easy to every warrior while he is indoors
and very courageous to him who traverses the high-roads
on the back of a stout horse.

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