Psycho-geography (On The Ritual Casting of a City)
Emotional geography has developed a stream of consciousness that could help completely reshape our urban existence.
Mrs. Dalloway walked down the streets of London guided by an “internal tide” that made her stop somewhere, enter a store, turn at the corner and continue her journey, as if she were adrift. La dérive or the act of being adrift, was defined by Situationists as the ‘technique of locomotion without a goal’, in which ‘one or more persons during a certain period drop their usual motives for movement and action, their relations, their work and leisure activities, and let themselves be drawn by the attractions of the terrain and the encounters they find there’. In other words, la dérive is an unplanned journey where the aesthetic contours of architecture and geography unconsciously direct the travelers to find an entirely new and authentic experience.
Mrs. Dalloway knew what she was doing. In The Most Radical Gesture, Sadie Plant defines this state of existence as: “To derive was to notice the way in which certain areas, streets, or buildings resonate with states of mind, inclinations, and desires, and to seek out reasons for movement other than those for which an environment was designed.”
Before it was given that name, in the 1950s wandering was already an essential part of psycho-geography. When the word psycho-geography was invented, it gathered an entire torrent of physical, corporeal, tides which had been described a thousand times in literature and in intimate diaries. But if psycho-geography is one thing, it’s practice. It is not a field of studies that can be researched from afar and in the coldness of the printed word. The charmingly vague adjective, psycho-geographic, can be applied to the influence cities have on humans and, widely speaking, to any situation or behavior that seems to reflect a spirit of discovery within the outline of the known. But it is necessary to experience it, and it is here that its spirit resides.
Unfold a street map… place a glass, rim down, anywhere on the map, and draw round its edge. Pick up the map, go out in the city, and walk the circle, keeping as close as you can to the curve. Record the experience as you go, in whatever medium you favor.
—Robert MacFarlane, Psycho-geography: A Beginner’s Guide.
During a legendary conference, hosted by theVictoria and Albert Museum in London, Iain Sinclair, forefather of modern psycho-geography, spoke of the methods of the technique’s employed by modern practitioners. As if he was summoning ghosts, he mentioned De Quincey, Baudelaire, Mallarmé and J. G. Ballard, and recognized them as the fathers of his endless walks through cities like New York and London, where he embarked on the explorations that would be registered in his books.
People like him, or Will Self or Rebecca Solnit, have proven the eternally elegant practice of walking through cities and suburbs is a subversive act where spectres are called forth, while they establish connections that leave bustling crowds behind. The latest, Solnit, analyses the act of wandering as a philosophical and bodily occupation, but, above all else, she conceives walking as the manner we have chosen to reclaim the world.
Practicing psycho-geography is an attack on the conventions walking through a city entail, letting the picturesque guide us through those streets specifically designed for “strolls”; it profoundly hacks the way in which we should live a city, the way in which we should perceive it and the meaning it should have. It is an emotional search through an urban map that traces the specific effects of certain corners, arteries, passages and lights, transforming the body into an information receptacle, and thus literally transforming the space.
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