Guy Debord on psychogeography & the dérive

7041009With my article on psychogeography and race and the city done and dusted and accepted by Salvage, I suppose I should finally finish off these half finished blogs collecting my favourite quotes from tom mcdonaugh’s wonderful book of new translations, the situationists and the city. There were a  lot of them, too many for one post really, so I’ve mixed it up a bit with Wark’s Beach Beneath the Street to look at Constant and Jorn, my favourite piece by Ivan Chtcheglov and adventures in Limehouse. This one on Guy Debord, and one more and then I am done.

I liked Chtcheglov’s piece so much more than these more widely quoted pieces from Guy Debord, but they’re still interesting. Also infuriating.  From ‘Introduction to a critique of urban geography’
(Les Lèvres nues no. 6 (September 1955)):

Of the many sagas in which we take part, with or without interest, the sole thrilling direction remains the fragmentary search for a new way of life.

I do like that very much. But then there comes the causal reference to an ‘illiterate Kabyle’ that I hate, and hate also that he (or she) remains unnamed. It taints the definition that follows, though it is an interesting one…

The word psychogeography, suggested by an illiterate Kabyle to designate the general phenomena with which a few of us were preoccupied around the summer of 1953, is relatively defensible. It does not stray from the materialist perspective of the conditioning of life and thought by objective nature… Psychogeography will aim to study the precise laws and specific effects of the geographic milieu, consciously planned or not, acting directly on the affective comportment of individuals.

I enjoy their fanciful parallels:

It has already been a long time that one has been able to say the desert is montheistic. Would it seem illogical, or devoid of interest, to declare that the quarter running in Paris between the Place de la Contrescarpe and the rue de l’Arbaléte inclines rather to atheism, to oblivion, and to the disorientation of customary routines?

I like this as well, with its quote that brings us back to King Lear, or Faulkner, both of whom would have found Haussman rather incomprehensible. I do wonder how historical it is for governments to want open spaces for the rapid circulation of troops however, so what exactly is he trying to say there…

It is right to possess a historically relative idea of the utilitarian. The concern to have at one’s disposal open spaces allowing for the rapid circulation of troops and the use of artillery against insurrections was at the origin of the beautification plan adopted by the Second Empire. But from any standpoint other than that of law and order, Haussman’s Paris is a city built by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. (59)

On privilege, of which Guy Debord had more than a little really, and some other interesting things:

Since we run into, even with such slight justification, the idea of privilege, and since we know with what blind fury so many people–who are nevertheless so little privileged–are willing to defend their mediocre advantages, we are forced to declare that all these details partake of an idea of happiness, a received idea among the bourgeoisie, maintained by a system of advertising that includes Malraux’s aesthetics as well as the imperatives of Coca-Cola, and whose crisis must be provoked on every occasion, by every means.

The first of these means are undoubtedly the spreading, with an aim of systematic provocation, of a host of proposals tending to make of life an integral, thrilling game, and the unceasing depreciation of all customary amusements… (60)

The revolutionary transformation of the world, of all aspects of the world, will prove right all the dreams of abundance.

The abrupt change of environment in a street, within the space of a few meters; the obvious division of a city into zones of distinct psychic atmospheres; the strongly sloping contour (with no relation to the unevenness of the terrain) that aimless walks must follow; the appealing or repellent nature of certain places–all this seems to be neglected. (61)

I love the description of beauty here:

…in speaking here of beauty I don’t have in mind plastic beauty–the new beauty can only be a beauty of situation–but solely the particularly moving presentation, in one case and the other, of a sum of possibilities.

But I am not so sure of the usefulness of impostures in achieving any kind of aims at all, much as I love their maps:

situationist-mapThe forging of psychogeographic maps, and even various impostures like correlating (with little justification or even completely arbitrarily) two topographical representation, can contribute to illuminating certain displacements of a nature indeed not so much gratuitous but utterly insubordinate to usual attractions–attractions of this order being catalogues under the term tourism, that popular drug as repugnant as sports or purchasing on credit. (62)

So I’ll just throw in a few quotes from ‘Plan for rational improvements to the city of Paris’ (Potlatch no. 23, 13 October 1955), that exemplify all of the division of my feelings between loving their challenge and their call to reimagine the city, retheorise the city, rethink how we live in the city and move through it — and everything else that shows a lack of empathy, compassion, respect or connection to the real struggles of the time.

Everyone agrees to reject the aesthetic objection, to silence the admirers of the portal of Chartres. Beauty, when it is not a promise of happiness, must be destroyed.

On trains:

Gil J. Wolman demanded the complete suppression or falsification of all information about departures (destinations, times, etc). This would encourage dérive.

I was trying to imagine the chaos this would cause with trains, the lifeline between myself and my own true love and the horrible thought of heading in an opposite direction from him when trying to get to Bristol and wanting to hit Mr. Gil J. Wolman. Is a dérive forced upon you by a half-baked French intellectual still a dérive? I think not.

This same article asks

Is it possible to see a cemetery without thinking of Mauriac, Gide or Edgar Faure? (70)

Which I found somehow irrepressibly funny for some reason, but that brought to mind another ridiculous prank by Marcel Mariën as related in ‘The Commanders Gait’ (Les Lèvres nues no. 5, June 1955) where he moved crosses around in a graveyard to be playful, to ‘favourably stimulate the minds of those who visited this spot…’ (57).

Fuck that guy, even if this is simply a provocation. What made it worse was that he wanted to move rich people’s grave markers but they’re all massive stone things, so instead he wrote of moving the humble wooden crosses of the poor, fucking with people’s relationships with their dead and every belief they hold most dear, rather than their perceptions of space or any empty boredom of their lives (presuming this exists).  It highlights the arrogance of young intellectuals who think they know best, which means they are never able to think very deeply or learn from who and what is around them. To me this kind of thing (and it is hardly unique) makes harder attempts to take seriously this movement more or less as a whole.

So I’ll return to fragments… back to to Guy Debord, and the ‘Theory of the dérive’ (Les Lèvres nues, no. 9, November 1956)

I enjoyed the dig at the surrealists:

An insufficient distrust of chance, and of its always reactionary ideological use, condemned to a dismal failure the famous directionless ramble undertaken in 1923 by four Surrealists… (79)

But on the whole I found this less interesting than I had hoped, being very definitional…useful but not so interesting.

Dérive‘s lessons permit the drawing up of the first surveys of the psychogeographic articulations of a modern city. Beyond the reconnaissance of unitary ambiances, of their main components, and of their spatial localization, their principal axes of passage, their exits, and their defenses would be perceived.

This I liked, but it’s fairly obvious after all:

The distances that effectively separate two regions of a city are measured, distances that cannot be gauged with what the approximate vision of a map may have you believe.

Such certainty, I can’t imagine feeling this kind of certainty about everything, whether hopeful posturing or not:

Everything leads us to believe that the future will precipitate the irreversible transformation of current society’s comportment and setting. One day, cities will be built for dérive. Certain areas that already exist may be used, with relatively light touching up. Certain people that already exist may be used. (85)

What is it about Guy Debord that makes me hope his vision of city built for dérive won’t actually come true?

For more on situationists and psychogeography…

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