Wednesday, 13 May 2009

Psychogeography's Affordances

Psychogeography might be considered an action-oriented branch of phenomenology. In today's installment of my exploration of psychogeography as a domain of the relationship between psychology and fiction relating to setting, I reflect on the way that psychogeography's creative approach to places involves a radical receptivity to the affordances provided in environments.

A significant part of the point of psychogeography is thinking about and noticing the experience of place. This noticing is often then used to serve thinking about what has made the place -- a reading of the landscape that could help to reveal the power undergirding daily reality. In so revealing this power, psychogeographers such as the Situationists hoped to encourage inventive "transformation of daily reality," or to instigate the creation of new situations and new relationships with settings.

One common mechanism of the Situationist practice of place exploration known as the dérive involves disrupting usual wayfinding in a place by mutilating or re-inventing a map. The dissonance between the mapped space and experienced space helps to draw attention both to what is actually experienced in the place and also to the ways that experience of a place is mediated by the kinds of expectations mediated by a map. Perhaps even more traditional is the technique of simply wandering, or drifting, in which one might introduce randomness or disrupt habit by using an algorithm such as a coin toss to decide direction at choice points.

However much these mechanisms may be associated with a particular way of exploring places, they are really merely the training wheels of psychogeography: tools to break the habits of everyday automatic interactions with place and perceptions of place as real and given. Disrupting such habits leaves mental resources for more exploratory stances toward the environment, in which explorers tune in to the behaviors or emotions that the situation and setting most afford.

Associated frequently with the psychologist James Gibson, the idea of affordance is central to the tradition of phenomenology: in Gibson's vocabulary, affordances are all action possibilities perceived in an environment; in Heidegger's vocabulary, a hammer, for example, in its very design, affords a particular readiness-to-hand, or way to be used. The behaviors and emotions that particular settings afford are central to our experience of place, and to our consequent ways of imagining, behaving in, maintaining, and reproducing places -- both material and fictional, as I have argued in my effort to show the similarities between constructing characters and constructing settings.

The radical exploration of urban affordances of the Situationist dérive can be perceived in tension with phenomenological traditions of engagement with places that sought to create in the landscape character of a different sort -- often national, or white, related to homeland and security. Rhetoric inheres powerfully in setting, partly because it is so often perceived in a taken-for-granted way as a given. So while coin-toss or ripped up and re-taped together map guided rambles may seem silly from some perspectives, from others - and particularly, perhaps, from the sympathetic view of fiction writers who have considered the task of setting the scene - such disruptions of assumptions about place can be seen as powerful tools of invention.

James J. Gibson (1979). The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Martin Heidegger (1927/1962) Being and Time. New York: Harper & Row.


Keith Oatley said...

Thank you Valentine, for these thoughts about how people respond to geography. I remember reading that P.D. James said that her novels always started with a place, and the place set in progress the ideas that led to a story. I very much like the notion that places offer affordances. Do geographers draw on Jay Appleton's (1975) book The experience of landscape which is not about landscape as such but about paintings of it. He proposes that places are aesthetically appealing when they display such features as refuge and prospect?

Kirsten Valentine Cadieux said...

Prospect and refuge theory (as it did, indeed, become) inhabits a rather interesting place in geography -- one that reveals, I think, some telling tensions that wrinkle the relationship between the sciences, social sciences, and humanities. Let me turn this idea over for awhile, and work it into the substance of the next installment on psychogeography on the 27th.

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