Monday, November 14, 2016

Book review: Psychogeography by Merlin Coverley



"Psychogeography: The study of specific effects of the geographical environment, consciously organised or not, on the emotions and behaviour of individuals," definition from the International Situationiste movement.

This is a useful guide to an idea that is a much literary these days as it was originally political.

With roots in the works of Defoe, with his plague year trawl through London, and Blake's thoughts about London and Jerusalem, the idea of charting and reacting to an environment went political with the situationist movement in the 50s and 60s. Figures like Guy Debord set about defining psychogeography and underlining the idea of people using it as a tool to find their own space, to create something new.

But in a modern world which seems to work against the pedestrian it has become less about trying to change the environment than sharing a reaction to it.

That's not to say the current psychogeographers do not bemoan modern planning and Sinclair was particularly vocal about the development of the Olympic Park and there has been plenty of criticism of the way Thatcher changed communities during her time in office.

But as Michel de Certeau noted in the 80s things had started to change and even experiencing the environment was becoming a varied experience.

Voyeurs look down from the sky scrapers and walkers are down below. Psychogeography is about giving the emphasis back to the walkers. The vouyeur loses the individual and sees the city as a homogeneous whole.

"Their story begins on ground level, with footsteps," writes de Certeau.

Technology is working against the walker surveillance and closed areas etc as a result the novelist and poet not the psychogeographer who is able to capture the emotions of a city.

London has again become the centre with JG Ballard, Iain Sinclair and others.

Walking is again being seen as a tool for the writer. If someone wants to immerse themselves in the city then they need to do it on foot.

My only concern, which isn't dealt with in the book, is that not only has modern technology made it harder for the modern psychogeographers physically getting in touch with the ground but also in terms of having an open mind.

One of the themes of the book, whether it be about London, Paris or New York, is that psychogeographers can somehow find secret parts of the city and unlock hidden truths.

In the age of social media I find it hard to believe that rose secrets would remain so for very long or that it would be possible to walk to a destination keeping an open mind to allow the feelings it sparks to be felt genuinely.

In summary this is a very useful guide to the main ideas and people involved with psychogeography. Very interesting for anyone who has read Ballard, Sinclair, ackroyd or has an interest in major cities and a passion for walking in them.

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