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Walking Inside Out: Contemporary British Psychogeography

0 Comments 🕔01.Dec 2015

The origins of “psychogeography,” at least in its self-conscious, semi-theorized form, lie in the 1950s, when the maverick Marxist Guy Debord and his comrades in the so-called Situationist International, influenced by their predecessors the Surrealists, first codified their random, often drunken excursions in the streets of Paris and other cities as part of an avant-garde strategy for reappropriating the metropolitan space expropriated by capital. Psychogeography offered to map the complicated topography of the postwar metropolis using not the technology of architects, engineers, and urban planners, but simply the peculiar psyches of the individuals, or ragged groups of individuals, traversing them on foot. It celebrated the city, then, as a kind of epic poem, albeit a fragmentary, incomplete one in a constant state of reinscription – its quartiers like books, its blocks like stanzas, its streets like prosodic lines, its buildings, its pavement, the bits and pieces of its street furniture functioning like so many tropes or figures. In this respect, it was a Romantic enterprise, committed to the re-enchantement of the metropolis at a time when it was being rationalized, reorganized, and reified by postwar capitalism.

These days, psychogeography persists as a reflex, or spasm perhaps, of the romantic anti-capitalist tradition. Indeed, the term has never enjoyed so much popularity. But its political potential, which was fairly slight even in its Situationist form, has been more or less systematically emptied from the enterprise. As a “method,” or even “methodology,” for instance, it has recently been pressed into service in Business Studies departments in the United Kingdom’s university sector. An article published in the Electronic Journal of Business Research Methods in 2009, in spite of its well-meaning tone, probably read the funeral rites over the political ambitions of psychogeography. Entitled “Claiming the Streets: Feminist Implications of Psychogeography as a Business Research Method,” it sets out “to establish a claim that the techniques of psychogeography may be advantageously employed in business research in order to provide a new perspective on how organisations are experienced.” It argues that strolling slowly and attentively through the streets of London or Paris can function as a useful mode of “organisational research” in a commercial context, presumably because this artful disposition mimics the innocent and unthinking one of typical urban consumers as they bumble along the high street with their wallet or purse in hand. And in reinforcing its claim, it emphasizes (ungrammatically enough) that “other techniques employed by psychogeographers – reading relevant literature, observing environments and engaging key actors within those settings in dialogue are well recognised within mainstream qualitative business research.”

In short, the term psychogeography is all but bankrupt today. In the face of its appropriation by Business Studies, it seems to me, it is almost impossible to foresee a future for it as a radical theory or practice. Better to discard the term “psychogeography” and start again, as the brilliantly original Nick Papadamitriou has done in practicing what he calls “deep topography.” Tina Richardson and the other contributors to Walking Inside Out, a diverse and lively assortment of literary and more scholarly essays that constitutes a collective intervention in debates about the continued valence of walking as a species both of politics and aesthetics, are less cynical than I am. In her own contributions to this volume, and especially in the Introduction and Conclusion, Richardson herself concedes that psychogeography, in Iain Sinclair’s phrase, has become a “franchise,” but affirms nonetheless what she calls “the new psychogeography.” It is difficult to see what precisely is “new” about the “new psychogeography,” beyond its current viability for Business Studies students and its popularity among hipsters. And in so far as it is merely a form of “mindful walking,” as in the final pages of the book Richardson asserts it should be, it isn’t clear that it is psychogeography at all, at least in a sense that the Situationists would recognize or valorize. But Walking Inside Out, which is full of beguilingly written essays detailing their authors’ gloriously idiosyncratic trajectories through one landscape or another, whether urban or rural, does open up an important space for debating the political and aesthetic value of walking in cities and their fringes in an epoch of rampant, even epidemic gentrification, when entire neighborhoods in London, for example, are being cleansed of their working-class populations, and their histories, as a result of property developers’ imperial ambitions.

Reviewed by Matthew Beaumont, University College London.

Walking Inside Out: Contemporary British Psychogeography
edited by Tina Richardson
Rowman & Littlefield International
Hardback / 272 pages / 2015
ISBN: 9781783480852

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