The spirit of discovery: a word of welcome from the psychogeographical travel agency by Sebastian Groes

By star guest on 8 Apr 2011
Sebastian Goes c. Andrew Porter

Sebastian Groes c. Andrew Porter

Ahead of his event with Will Self, at the Museum of London, on the 12th of April, Sebastian Groes talks psychogeography…

In July 1992, my father went to Los Angeles for business, and took me with him. I was seventeen and, as a boy from a Dutch hamlet, knee-deep in polder mud and accustomed only to endless fields of tulips beneath a light blue skyscape. Soon I was bored of the endless visits to overheated warehouses and air-conditioned offices, and my father decided to drop me at Venice Beach. It was a working day, and nothing much was happening; the beach was deserted. I got bored again, and, lacking a sense of perspective and dimension, did something that, in hindsight, was a tad dangerous: seized by the spirit of discovery, I walked back to our motel on Sunset Boulevard.

It was hot out, and I hadn’t drunk anything for hours. I thought I had a clear sense of where I was going, and I walked in what I thought was a straight line toward the Hollywood sign in the distance. Los Angeles was deserted; only occasionally a car whizzed by, shrouded in silence except for the contented hum of the air-con. The diseased, radioactive light bleached out the cityscape. For a moment I thought I was lost in a desert. The dirty air with its green shimmer punched me in the chest, and my sight started to flicker.

I look up and see blackened tree tops of scorched palms; the air smells of smoke and anarchy. Shopping trolleys with TVs and stereos and booze are carelessly abandoned in the middle of the street. I close my eyes, and hear shouts and curses, angry and desperate voices rising up in protest – or is it their echoes? Shattered glass crunches beneath my feet, and blood, sticky like oil, wells up from the cracks in the pavement, spilling out over my Converse All-Stars. The air pressure of choppers passing overhead pushes me onto the blood-soaked pavement. I hear gun shots; the bounce of army boots marching in the street; I hear war. Men are shouting, mad with anger and revenge and desperation, and women are weeping, and babies are wailing, ceaselessly, and their cries mingle into one single overpowering scream of injustice. 

I snapped out of this dark dream when a bus pulled up next to me. The doors opened with a squeak and sigh. ‘You look lost,’ a voice said. It was the bus driver, a black lady, who waved me in. She asked me where I was going, and I said, ‘Hollywood’. The startled look on her face told me that I was in trouble. I sat amongst the city’s poor and mad, cooling down, listening to her comforting voice.

‘You take care now,’ she said an hour later as I stepped back into the diseased light, and I heard a voice on the radio saying: ‘Please, we can get along here.  We all can get along.  I mean, we’re stuck here for a while.  Let’s try to work it out.  Let’s try and work it out.’ I was on Sunset Boulevard and walked. 

Here I was, in what Ian McEwan describes as ‘a city at the end of cities […] a vast, fragmented city without a centre, without citizens, a city that exists only in the mind,’ only to find the opposite i.  Rather than a city of egoistic individuals skirting shallow surfaces, my fugue through this psychopolis had shown the desperation and anger of an underclass held prisoner in a wandering maze: the madness of modern urbanity, but also the kindness of a stranger, my bus-driving Samaritan, who had recovered a sense of the human scale. 

This autographical path is methodologically reckless and unnecessarily self-indulgent but it illustrates what psychogeography can mean. It can give us an insight into the spirit of place beyond the stone-cold and hard materiality of things, and how the lived experience is injected by memory and the imagination. This is my definition, which owes much to the work of Arthur Machen: psychogeography is a way of seeing place differently from the routine vision of everyday reality that tends to cloud our potentially mythic and poetic understanding of the modern experience. In his visionary circumnavigation of the King’s Cross area, Vale Royal (1995), Poet Aidan Andrew Dun puts it well when he says that ‘In wide arcs of wandering through the city / I saw to either side of what is seen / and noticed treasures where it was thought there were none.’ ii  Art and literature particularly allow us to see behind the surface of material things and events because they transfigure the lives of the city and its inhabitants by means of their idiosyncratic, creative power of the imagination.
The ‘official’ definition of psychogeography was formulated by great leader of the Situationist International, Guy Debord, and runs as follows:

Psychogeography could set for itself the study of the precise laws and specific effects of the geographical environment, consciously organised or not, on the emotions and behaviour of individuals. The adjective psychogeographical, retaining a rather pleasing vagueness, can thus be applied to the findings arrived at by this type of investigation to their influence on human feelings, and even more generally to any situation or conduct that seems to reflect the same spirit of discovery iii.

The whole thing was a bit of a joke to Debord anyway, and the vagueness of the concept contributed to its allure. The whole point of the project was to escape and subvert the increasingly technocratic, rationalised modern world of all-consuming capitalism, not to submit to its logic. Beneath the pavement, Debord noted playfully, you will find the beach. Laziness, doing nothing, is the best way of resisting capitalist modernity; staging violent protests is just another form of consumption within the society of the spectacle.

 There are long-standing and disparate traditions of psychogeography before and beyond Debord. One of them comes to us via William Blake and a branch of London visionaries that includes Arthur Machen and recent practitioners such as Peter Ackroyd, Stewart Home and Iain Sinclair. Another distinct line can be traced from Michael Drayton and Daniel Defoe’s mappings of England, in Poly-Olbion (1612) and Journal of the Plague Year (1722), as a living and breathing personality with a mind of its own. In this cartographical tradition we also find a contemporary writer such as W. G.  Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn (1995), a mapping of post-imperial England slowly being ground to bits. Another drug-infused tradition appears in Thomas De Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium Eater (1821), which, after the Surrealist project of the 1920s and 30s, resurfaces in the 1960s, where, again, drugs are used as a productive way of creative transfiguration. Acidic vision forms resistance to, and a seeing against, imprisoning and rationalising structures. 

Although Paris features importantly within the history of psychogeography, London was there first. Unlike the rationalised Paris of Baron Hausmann, London’s figure ground (the layout of its streets) is characterised by a medieval, messy and organic structure that is the result of the city’s history of liberal government. London is in many ways a happy accident, and its irregularity of topography has offered many writers the opportunity to explore the idiosyncratic, uncanny aspects of the metropolis. 

It is perhaps no coincidence that the most famous poem of, and about, modernity, Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922), is a London poem and an overlooked psychogeographical work. It presents us with the phantasmagoric metropolis, declared an ‘Unreal City’, iv  a metropolis that forms a wandering maze of endless possibilities, a site in between dream and idea, which provides us with a spiritual landscape profoundly intertwined with the modern experience and consciousness.

What Eliot injected back into our mechanised existence was mythical vision, the ability to see within everyday life patterns that transcend its apparent triviality. Eliot’s London is a palimpsest city whereby the mythological dimension is extracted from the minutiae of quotidian lives, so that the universal and eternal is made visible in poetry we find just below the surface of experience. The profane, secular city, corrupted by disfiguring forces of commerce and politics, makes way for the sacred cities of classic writers, including Dante’s underworld, Rome, Shakespeare’s London and Baudelaire’s decadent Paris. Simultaneously, Eliot pits London’s voices as antidotes to the tyranny of History and as forms of knowledge which the powers of the state and commerce are less easily able to commodify or exploit.

Another important mental traveller is the radical and controversial author J. G. Ballard. In 1962, the magazine for speculative fiction, New Worlds, published his manifesto, ‘Which Way to Inner Space?’, in which the writer urges us to explore the complexities and contradictions of the self rather than the extraterrestrial worlds of traditional science fiction. Ballard himself explored the effects of changing geography and climate in short stories and apocalyptic, eco-critical disaster novels such as The Drowned World (1962), a prophetic novel set after the polar ice caps have melted.  Rather than walking the city, his suburban characters drive the peripheral post-industrial wastelands of London to chase the ‘perverse’ sexual power of the motor car, thus establishing a postmodern mythology for the late twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

Recently, ‘psychogeography’ has been getting a bad name amongst the various cultural ambulance chasers that Old Man London tends to cough up. The concept has become mainstream, worn out, politically impotent. So do we really need another discussion of London and psychogeography? We do. Over the past thirty years, since the rise of Margaret Thatcher to power, London has undergone mind-boggling changes at the hands of national and global business, local and national government, city planners, architects and urban developers. The result can be seen all around, from Canary Wharf to the Millennium Dome, from the Gherkin to its new architectural rival, the Shard. There are various ways of looking at the changes London undergoes. This is a city increasingly rationalised, over-planned, over-worked and over-watched – a penitentiary metropolis, part Gotham City, part Dubai, patrolled by security guards and surveiled by forests of CCTV cameras. Or maybe this ancient city is opening up, reinventing itself, embracing the twenty-first century and getting ready for a new cycle within its long life. Despite the economic downturn, there is a spirit of optimism, a new pulse of brightness and light in this brave new London, which needs to be captured and understood.

Whichever way you look at it, it seems that now, with the dominance of science and technology in our contemporary lives, we sorely need a new form of psychogeographical travel. What we need are reinventions of alternative ways of seeing, of poetic and mythical vision, of Debord’s spirit of discovery.

Will Self is an author who has appropriated and reinvented these ideas in his ‘Psychogeography’ columns and the fictional memoir and criticism of the current celebrity-obsessed culture, Walking to Hollywood (2010). Chutzpah-meister Self literalizes psychogeography – he associates it with psychosis – and mixes it with a Sebaldian spirit by obsessively mapping connections within the contemporary world, and also with the gonzo journalism of Hunter S. Thompson. The resulting linguistic fireworks and drug-fuelled vision are a representation of, and an antidote to, the mad sanity of modernity, which would have certainly amused Debord. 

Another imaginative reinvention of psychogeography can be found in the work of artist-scientist Christian Nold, whose agglomerate of projects (www.softhook.com – external website) revolves around the creation of semi-scientific mappings of human emotions in relationship to the urban environment. Nold equips his subjects with a GPS-system that logs their whereabouts and with a lie-detector that measures their stress levels. His software projects their bodily reactions onto a map of the territory and repeats this with various ‘patients’, thus creating a ‘biomap’ that visualises the stress points in the city.  

Currently, psychogeography is also being propelled into the twenty-first century by the secret society called the Office for Mnemography ([email protected]), an underground network of individuals who have taken it upon themselves to inscribe private and collective public memory into new mythical cartographies of the ever stranger psychic territories of these infinite and infinitely fascinating Londons.   

i  Ian McEwan, ‘Psychopolis’, in In Between the Sheets (London: Vintage, 2006), p. 110. First published by Jonathan Cape in 1978. 
ii  Aidan Dun, Vale Royal (London: Goldmark, 1995), lines 13–15. 
iii Guy Debord, ‘Introduction to a Critique of Urban Geography’, in Ken Knabb (ed.), SItuationist International Anthology (Berkeley, California: Bureau of Public Secrets) p. 5.
iv T. S. Eliot, The Waste Land (London: Faber and Faber, 1969), pp. 59–80, lines 60, 207.

Sebastian Groes in conversation with Will Self
Fee £6
(concs £4.50): advanced booking required. Book here (external website)
In partnership with Palgrave MacMillan
Dates and times
Tuesday, 12 April, 19.00 – 20.00

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