Merlin Coverley: Psychogeography

This book is a chronology of the advent of Lettrist and Situationist psychogeography, through to the contemporary  works of artists such as Iain Sinclair.


To paraphrase, the book opens with MacFarlane’s beginners guide to Psychogeography; that is to open a map and draw a circle around the rim of the glass and then follow the line as closely as possible to record the experiences as you come across them. Look out for coincidences, analogies, metaphors etc.

Coverley then explains that the definition of the genre is difficult. He concludes that it the weaving of literary, political strategy, new age ideas and avant- garde practice.

Originally, in the 1950’s it was a undertaken as a platform to encourage social transformation with the driver being firstly for aesthetic reasons and then later for political reason. Guy Debord was the prominent and defensive owner of psychogeography that as a Situationalist he developed further from that the Lettrist predessors had started.

Walking/ wandering/ flaneur/ derive/ treks are the consistent theme in the urban environment to explore marginal areas and also to challenge political climates in contemporary practice.

Importantly Coverly observes that psychogeography “seeks to overcome the banal…. practitioners share the city as a site of mystery and seek to reveal the true nature the flux of the everyday.”

“So the scene is set” and the book follows a chronology of the evolution of the subject. I am going to jump to the chapter about the apparently dictatorial Debold and the events of 1957 when a series of defining statements were produced. Disowning the surrealist heritage, psychogeography was to become a political tool. The term itself didn’t appear in two major papers (Diebold The Society of the spectacle and Vaneigem’s The Revolution).

The chapter explains the works of Chtchglov who describes the banality of modern life, his thoughts on the remedy. The ‘continuous Derive’ was born and later refined by Diebold. and the advent of ‘Potlatch’ of a journal (influences of Dadaism) that presented a ‘game of the week’.

The game was upped by Diebold with a paper entitled ‘Introduction To A Critique Of Urban Geography’ where he talks about ‘Pleasing vagueness’ where studies of the precision of geography can be made in an organised way….or otherwise.

Romantic approaches were discounted and in place would be an analytical approach.  Debold did go on to describe similar notions of an ideal urban environment that Chetchelov had spoken of where different zones of a city bring to the fore different emotional responses.  The zones couldn’t be defined by architecture alone but by the derive (aimless wander).  Out of this came ‘Naked City’ map.

After 1957 the Situationists evolved into a radical political organisation and itt sought to overthrow the bourgeoisie Lettrist Marxist roots.

Interstingly, the aimless wander isn’t quite as simple as it first appears as it seems that Debold’s approach to Derive is strategy with military reconnaissance overtones.

Ultimately, the movement was dissolved in 1972 – failing to live up to its ambitions.

Michel De Certeau:

De Certeau is the next protagonist who dropped Marxism and instead upheld French contemporary theory. His concerns of patterns of every day life were documented in his 1984 book “The Practice of Every Day Life”. This approach made use of poetics and semiotics to illustrate modern urban life. One project was set in New York that looked at the walker on the street and the voyeur on the skyline. Here he taps into the need to remain connected on street level and how that connects to power and the powerful voyeur looking on.

It is the novelist and poets rather than theorists who are now at the fire in their investigations of the city again.

One of the contemporary psychogeographers referred to is Ballard. Apparently he is of the opinion that the idealised zones that Situationalists had spoken about would actually be rendered to a breakdown of communities. He also believes that it is the suburbs that provide more interesting narratives.

The most notable person perhaps for us to consider is Iain Sinclair who has complex approach. He describes his approach as ‘stalker’ like. Aimless walking has evolved to a targeted way of being. Drawing on historic influences of surrealists and using historic, autobiographic and poetic references, he merges these topics to produce a unique personal narrative to his observations of locations – in particular London.

Ackroyd’s practise looks at how the occupants of different areas of London have their own sub cultures unique to that given area. The behaviours repeat as if a hidden power is governing. He likens the theory to that of the shape of a house affecting the behaviour of its occupants. Time is the other factor where changes seem to occur at different rates in different places and how that affects individual character and identity.



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