Wednesday 15 April 2009

Psychogeography Series

The topic of “psychogeography” has been raised in recent discussion of the April 6th "Beneath the Surface" post. As a geographer interested in narrative, exploration, invention, space, and place, I find that the concept of psychogeography seems both fascinating and quite normal as a category. When I hear other people use the term, I note that they are most always laughing as they say it. Whilst the situationist popularizers of the idea of psychogeography would no doubt appreciate the jollity and appreciation expressed in such laughing (the appreciative deconstruction of situationism is perhaps today most well known through “culturejamming” venues such as Adbusters), the recent psychogeography conversation on OnFiction has inspired me to begin another short exploratory series on psychology, fiction, and place.

The situationists who popularized psychogeography as a pastime were associated with a cluster of French intellectuals, identified most commonly around the figures of Guy Debord, author of the aphoristic classic Society of the Spectacle, and Henri LeFebvre, prolific author whose most salient work to psychogeography that’s been translated into English may be The Production of Space.

Part of what makes the situationists’ psychogeography so appropriate for the contemplation of psychology and fiction in the context of place, space, and setting is their emphasis on what we might think of as an inventive and activist phenomenology. Situationists encouraged people to notice the situations in which they found themselves, and to exert their agency in these situations, reinventing them – both critically and playfully. Psychogeography field trips are still regularly organized in many places, such as Toronto, and the purpose of these events is mainly to make a noticed, examined, and inventive situation out of the fabric of everyday life that would otherwise be recognized (or go unnoticed) as mundane. As LeFebvre explained in this fascinating interview by Kristin Ross (to which I will return), the goal of noticing and critiquing everyday life was an inventive "transformation of daily reality," or instigation of "the creation of new situations."

As I follow this line of thought on psychogeography in biweekly installments across the rest of the season, I would like to emphasize the way that this turning of attention to setting may parallel the attention to character that has been a recurring theme of OnFiction. If authors develop fictional characters by attending carefully to the inchoate characters who populate the environs of our imagination and who speak with our inner voice, is there a parallel process by which authors develop rich settings through the kinds of processes favored by the situationists, in their psychogeographic romps around the city?

Guy Debord. 1967/1994. The Society of the Spectacle. (Trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith) New York: Zone Books.

Henri LeFebvre. 1974/1991. The Production of Space. (Trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith) Cambridge: Basil Blackwell.

Claes Oldenburg & Coosje van Bruggen. 1996. House Ball. Bethlehemkirchplatz, Berlin.

Kristin Ross and Henri LeFebvre. 1997. Henri Lefebvre on the Situationist International; Interview conducted and translated 1983 by Kristin Ross. October 79, Winter.

Comment by Keith Oatley, 16 April
Thank you so much, Valentine ... this is wonderfully thought-prompting. Your idea that, in fiction, setting is not just where something happens, but a complement to character, is lovely. So, although, when I have been writing my travelogue pieces, I have had in mind your expertise as a geographer (which has made me wonder what you might think of my attempts to conjure up pieces of the geographical space around here), the idea that character and geography might be, all the time, in counterpoint with each other in fiction had not occurred to me. I think you are absolutely right.

Of course, in books on how to write fiction there is the idea of setting, but it is more-or-less a preliminary, so I think your idea puts its significance more properly. And, moreover, although people do remember pieces of geography from novels they have liked, the notion is not stressed in the same way as character. I suppose that one might think of three elements that can create a strong triangular structure for narrative fiction: character, setting, and incident. And really, perhaps, they are all of comparable significance.

Here in London there are reminders of writers, for instance with London's little blue plaques on the fronts of houses that say who lived in them and when. I am rather too much drawn to that kind of thing. I love, for instance, walking past John Keats's house, about 400 metres from where our flat is, and thinking of Keats there in 1819 ... I am struggling to write something to connect his nightingale in the trees in front of his house to the current trees and houses, but I have not been able to make anything gel properly so far. I love, too, the idea that George Orwell worked in a bookshop on South End Green. This shop (now a French bakery) is also about 400 metres away.

What about the confluence of character, geography, and incident, in Orwell's 1931 essay in which he describes attending a hanging during the time he was in Burma?
And once, in spite of the men who gripped him by each shoulder, he [the man about to be hanged] stepped slightly aside to avoid a puddle on the path. It is curious, but till that moment I had never realized what it means to destroy a healthy, conscious man. When I saw the prisoner step aside to avoid the puddle, I saw the mystery, the unspeakable wrongness, of cutting a life short when it is in full tide.
Here, I think, is a perfect conjunction: the man's character (with his disposition to push his captors slightly aside), the geography (the puddle), the action (avoiding the puddle): all visible but with the three together reaching towards something invisible (the mystery of life).

George Orwell (2004). "A hanging." In Why I write (pp. 95-101). London: Penguin (Essay first published 1931; one can read it by clicking here).

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