Tag Archives: Guy Debord


index‘Thinking about the city from the standpoint of a Marxist, and about Marxism from the standpoint of an urbanist, is fraught with a lot of difficulties’, says Merrifield, and he is right. Collected here in Metromarxism, however, are all of the key figures who have attempted this in some form or other. An engagingly-written introduction to Marxism and geography for a beginner, and a thought-provoking review for those well into it, with a chapter each on major thinkers. The only thing lacking in here is the ladies, their absence as critical thinkers apologized for by Merrifield. The folks in here are also all white. This raises some questions and concerns about both geography and Marxism, but I’ll leave those for now as I wrestle with that a lot.

It begins with Marx of course, and a few insights I quite liked that don’t immediately have to do with property. The way that action on the external world changes us internally as well, subject and object both mediated by practice. This revolutionary practice thus involves changing people and ideas and ‘ideas about ideas’, to ‘educate the educator himself’ (18, Marx 422). There follows a review of the dialectic, always useful. It primary characteristic that of change, with Capital as a study of movement. The roots of this constant change lying in contradiction, ‘incompatible elements within an entity that both support and undermine that entity’ (25). And he nails what I like most about Marx:

Marx asked us—we of radical bent, that is—to grasp the dual character of the world, to see it singly in its duality, to envision it simultaneously as a process and a thing, as a social relation and an object, an observable outcome with an unobservable ‘law of motion’. (27)

Of course, as Merrifield notes, Marx wrote very little on the city itself, or even property. This was really the province of Engels.

What Engels described in studying the slums of Manchester is so familiar to me given my knowledge of today’s slums, it is hard to find insight in it. In itself an insight. I love that he understood how poverty is really an act of violence against those living in it, what he calls ‘social murder’ (49, quoting p 127). He stripped the acts of city redevelopment of their social justifications, understanding that slum clearance – so often claimed to be the solution then and now by business and liberal reformers – simply shifted the problems elsewhere. ‘As long as the capitalist mode of production continues to exist it is folly to hope for an isolated settlement of the housing question or of any other social question affecting the lot of the workers’ (46, Housing Q p 368).

I love Walter Benjamin, but my love for his work hasn’t helped me much in understanding the way that academics have tried to use it theoretically. I found this useful in the ways that Benjamin thought about the commodity and opens up the experience of the arcades, the spectacle of this aspect of the city, the crowds and the lights and the beautiful objects, as a commodity for further theorising. And this, on his relationship to Brecht and Marxism:

Thus, dialectical crudity and utmost theoretical subtlety would split Benjamin’s Parisian exposes: He’d proceed to mix the dignity of the library with wisecracks of the street, intellectual high life with everyday lowlife, rhapsodic verse with ribald curses. At its best, Benjamin’s Marxism of the city would get ‘the mediation’ about right, would give a new depth of experience to metropolitan Marxism, taking the dialectics of both to a new height, with a new richness, adding dream to the negotiation of the commodity form. Benjamin was the first Marxist to appreciate the capitalist city as a profane illumination, as revolutionary within the revolution, as a veritable city of light. With open wings and head turned backward, the angel Walter can help us understand the pile of debris that accompanies the storm of progress (68).

Henri Lefebvre is another theorist I love and struggle with, definitely someone requiring hard work to pluck the nuggets from the meanderings. I like Merrifield’s take on him, for example his thoughts on the everyday:

Everyday life, instead, possessed a dialectical and ambiguous nature. On the one hand, it’s the realm increasingly colonized by the commodity, and hence shrouded in all kinds of mystification, fetishism, and alienation….On the other hand, paradoxically, everyday life is likewise a primal site for meaningful social resistance, ‘the inevitable starting point for the realization of the possible’ (79).

Thoughts on contestation:

contestation was absolutely crucial; it helped ‘link economic factors (including economic demands) with politics’ (L 65). Contestation names names, points fingers, merges institutions and men, makes abstractions real, and is one way ‘subjects’ express themselves, ceasing to be ‘objects’. Contestation means a ‘refusal to be integrated’ (L67); it is ‘born from negation and has a negative character; it is essentially radical.’ It ‘brings to light its hidden origins; and it surges from the depths to the political summits, which it also illuminates in rejecting them’. Contestation rejects passivity and fosters participation. It arises out of a latent institutional crisis, transforming it into ‘an open crisis which challenges hierarchies, centers of power’ (L68, 87).

Lefebvre also began this theorization of the connections between real estate and capital, the way that surplus value could be generated through real estate investment and built environment, the investments in fixed capital that constitute a secondary circuit alongside that of production. In The Production of Space he began to examine how this secondary circuit worked, how space itself became ‘colonized and commodified, bought and sold, created and torn down…’ Back, as Merrifield argues, to Marx’s obsession with returning to the roots of things, to the process, to production. ‘The shift from theorizing ‘things in space’ to the ‘production of space’…mimicked Marx’s shuft from ‘things in exchange’ to ‘social relations of production’ (89).

Debord follows, situationist and a student of Lefebvre. Merrifield quotes Lefebvre on Debord, forgive my nerdiness but I love that. On the practice of derive (drifting through a city, psychogeography, etc) Lefebvre writes that it is…

‘more of a practice than a theory. It revealed the growing fragmentation of the city. In the course of its history, the city was once a powerful organic unity; for some time, however, that unity was becoming undone, was fragmenting, and the Situationists were recording examples of what we had all been talking about….We had a vision of a city that was more and more fragmented without its organic unity being completely shattered. (97)

Thus the ‘unitary city’ of the situationists, a battle against the fragmentation caused by planning and efficiency and market-driven development. A ‘disruptive and playful’ movement to reunite, bring together. This reconstruction of place is:

predicated upon spatial (geographical) appropriation: it reconstructs the urban environment ‘in accordance with the power of the Workers’ Councils, of the anti-statist dictatorship of the proletariat’ (Thesis 179). This reconstruction would necessitate a ‘sense of place,’ a sense of what the place was, is, and what it might be. To detourn an urban context—to reappropriate it in other words—one needs to know what it possessed and what it lacked; one needs to know that place, that neighbourhood, that city (such was the point of ‘psychogeography,’ after all); and one needs to be able to straddle the dialectic between its particularity and its generality. (105)

I find that stuff more exciting than the society of the spectacle – as indeed it embraces the idea of the spectacle and how it is employed through urban form.

Castells! I read City and the Grassroots and was blown away, this helped me resituate it, regard it more critically. I’ve also read The Urban Question, but long ago, it is something I need to read again. I do remember his critique of Lefebvre for lack of rigor. But also for looking at how his theory of the urban revolution obscures the class revolution, as the motor is no longer worker exploitation but alienation. Castells argued for urban relations as an expression of social relations, not the source. Initially taking on Althusser’s ideas of complexity structured in dominance – which I find particularly persuasive and useful myself – and argued against Lefebvre

while the city threatened capitalism, it somehow had become more functional for capitalism. Indeed, the city, Castells writes, had become the ‘spatial specificity of the processes of reproduction of labor-power and of the processes of reproduction of the means of production’ (C443, 119)

Thus the state involves itself in regulating the urban in a way conducive to capital through planning. But Castells moves away from Althusser, Merrifield labels The Urban Question as perhaps too formalist, while City and the Grassroots is too skewed towards practice and too removed from structure. I loved that about it myself, starting where the people are is standard in my own tradition of popular education, so I’m not sure how I would judge it now that I am more fluent in theory and a believer in its value. At the time of this writing Castells had all but left the Marxist fold, but hearing him speak to Occupy at St Pauls I’m not sure if he isn’t back.

Of course David Harvey has a chapter. I’ve read much more of him than anyone else, and much more recently as well. I agree with the prodding to read his Limits of Capital, as it’s impossible to do justice to that kind of work in a single chapter. I always imagined he wrote it to work through a full Marxist theory of rent only hinted at in earlier works, and I was right. I also appreciated the distinction between his work and early Castells:

Havery’s Marxist theory, like Lefebvre’s, thereby accredits a much more offensive role for the city and for space under capitalism. Space and urbanism don’t just help reproduce labor-power, as Castells believed, in a relatively defensive manner: the very spatial dynamics of urban land and property markets, to say nothing about ‘fixed capital’ infrastructure…actually boost the accumulation of capital. Urban space under capitalism is an ‘active moment’, proactively productive and not merely passively reproductive; it is, Harvey argues, a unit of capital accumulation as well as a site of class struggle (142).

There is as well a review of his engagement with postmodernism, taking from it new understandings of race and gender and identity without relinquishing Marx.

The final chapter is on Marshall Berman, he was the only theorist I had not read at all and I regretted that immensely (I have since read him, find posts here on All That is Solid Melts into Air, and here on his thoughts on the role of the intellectual.). A return to the more creative, descriptive, literary theorization. Words thrown around like urbicide, the murder of the city. He was there during Moses’s bulldozing of swathes of NY and there is no better term for it. But I love that he seems to have thought about what happens after. The good that can come from it, the ways that people deal with it. Merrifield calls it a ‘Marxism of affirmation’ (170), and interestingly puts this into opposition with the work of Mike Davis. I think he is far too dismissive of Davis who I don’t think theorizes quite the ‘Marxism of closure’ or ‘urbanism evacuated of agency’ (171) that is stated here, but it is undoubtedly focused on the structures of power and its destructive force. I am looking forward to reading Berman, see if he manages to describe a city without doing that. It Is hard in this day and age I believe.

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…


The Situationist Beach Beneath the Street

10325403If anyone can rescue the Situationist International from a descent into artistic inconsequentiality, it is McKenzie Wark. I always saw amongst their work sparks of interest, but limited sparks. Dying embers maybe. This shifted some of my thinking, and there is a lot here, I think, that continues to demand theoretical and practical work. Perhaps because it is firmly rooted in practice, written by someone who wishes to change the world. Changing the world is always where I though the Situationists fell down the most, their self-published words and collages  greatly removed from the very really battles then and now shaping the dialectic between our physical environment and our lives and the shape of our thought. Where their work is useful for imagining change, you can find it here, and in a lovely selection of their own words in tom mcdonaugh’s edited collection the situationists and the city. But more on that soon, with more focus on their work itself.

Before Wark I hadn’t quite realised just how much thought the situationists had put into this relationship between space and life, between cities and residents.

As Guy Debord later wrote:

It is known that initially the Situationists wanted at the very least to build cities, the environment suitable to the unlimited deployment of new passions. But of course this was not easy and so we found ourselves forced to do much more.”*

I don’t know that their journey into art and abstraction did in fact do more, but the impulse behind it is clear. But first some situationist basics — basics often left out of accounts of their work I find, as these were basics I did not know:

The Situationist International was founded at a meeting of three women and six men in July 1957. All that remains of this fabled event are a series of stirring documents and some photographs, casual but made with an artist’s eye, by founding member Ralph Rumney.1 The Situationist International dissolved itself in 1972. In its fifteen years of existence, only seventy-two people were ever members. It was born out of the fusion of two and a half existing groups, the Movement for an Imaginist Bauhaus, the Letterist International and the London Psychogeographical Society (the last represented by its one and only member, Rumney). Its founding conference took place in Cosio di Arroscia a little Ligurian town where founding member Piero Simondo’s family had a small hotel. Or at least that’s the official story. Debord writes in a letter to Jorn: “I think it is necessary for us to present the ‘Conference at Cosio’ as a point of departure for our distinct organized activity.”2 From the beginning, Debord has a fine hand for the tactics of appearances. (145-146)

And perhaps they were a bit more on the edge of struggle than many others in the French intellectual establishment. I laughed out loud (on the tube no less) at this I’m afraid:

If anything, theory has turned out even worse. It found its utopia, and it is the academy. A colonnade adorned with the busts of famous fathers: Jacques Lacan the bourgeoismagus, Louis Althusser the throttler-of-concepts, Jacques Derrida the dandy-of-difference, Michel Foucault the one-eyed-powerhouse, Gilles Deleuze the taker-from-behind. Acolytes and epigones pace furiously up and down, prostrating themselves before one master—Ah! Betrayed!—and then another. The production of new dead masters to imitate can barely keep up with consumer demand, prompting some to chisel statues of new demigods while they still live: Alain Badiou the Maoist-of-the-matheme, Giorgio Agamben the pensive-pedant, Slavoj Žižek the neuro-Hegelian-joker.5 (17)

It was probably Derrida, the dandy-of-difference that did it. There are a few other digs at academia that I enjoyed immensely:

If there is one abiding purpose to psychoanalysis, it is to make bourgeois lives seem fascinating, at least to those who live them. That it is a form of bourgeois thought is attested by the status of the real in Lacanian doctrine. (216)

This also:

Reading Foucault is like taking a master class on how the game of scholarship is to be played, and with the reliable alibi that this knowledge of power, of knowledge as power, is to be used in the interests of resistance to something or other. Détournement, on the other hand, turns the tables, upends the game. (102)

But I think I like with where he is headed with this low theory idea:

What is lost is the combined power of a critique of both wage labor and of everyday life, expressed in acts. What has escaped the institutionalization of high theory is the possibility of low theory, of a critical thought indifferent to the institutional forms of the academy or the art world. A low theory dedicated to the practice that is critique and the critique that is practice.” (19)

I also like the rescuing of the group from the great-man driven rememberings, and the placing of them in concrete moments of space and time.

Even when the Situationists are treated as a movement, the supposedly minor figures often drop out of the story, or become mere props to the great men among them. Alternatively, in order to make a coherent narrative and write the biography of a movement as if it were a subject, the differences among its members are suppressed, or turned into the stakes of a mere drama of personalities.9 Here, instead, is a large cast of disparate characters, some more celebrated than others, where Guy Debord and Asger Jorn rub shoulders with Patrick Straram, Michèle Bernstein, Ralph Rumney, Pinot Gallizio, Jacqueline de Jong, Abdelhafid Khatib, Alexander Trocchi and René Viénet. Where they come together, where they create something, is a situation. But situations are temporary, singular unities of space and time. They call for a different kind of remembering. (21-22)

Which has to go alongside Debord’s particular talents for promotion:

Guy Debord spent a lot of time working on how to remember situations, how to document them and keep them in a way that could ignite future possibilities. For the most part, he created legends. ” (24-25)

I quite love this summing up of Debord as well,

Debord was in search, not of the organic intellectuals of the working class, but of what one might call the alcoholic intellectuals of the non-working classes.  (50)

I should probably end the blog on that high note, but no. Still, alcohol and drugs play a heightened kind of role that makes me wary, as I usually find they make people intensely boring. But some of the other things on this list are interesting:

Here are some techniques for discovering the way into the total semantic field that they détourned, alone or in combination: alcohol (Debord), opium (Trocchi), psychosis (Chtcheglov), mania (Spur), synaesthesia (de Jong), fatigue (the dérive), obsession (Constant), love (Bernstein), revolution (May ’68), solitude (late Debord). (361)

I’ve already posted some of the choice insults hurled at Le Corbusier, but there is quite a lot of insight here about just why he should be their sworn enemy — because of so much in common:

Le Corbusier was the bête noire of the whole Situationist project, but it is worth pausing to consider what the thinking of Le Corbusier and Chtcheglov had in common. Le Corbusier wrote that “architecture, which is a thing of plastic emotion, should, in its domain, also begin at the beginning, and use elements capable of striking our senses, of satisfying our visual desires, and arrange them in such a way that the sight of them clearly affects us through finesse or brutality, tumult or serenity, indifference or interest.”4 This understanding of the city as a totality of sensory and emotional affects, this at least they share. (57)

There is also this curious passage I am still pondering, since I am in the midst of writing a little about their relationship to France as Colonial power and to the struggle of Algerians — which is to say, their lack of one in any but a very tangential way which is vaguely disapproving of it all. Wark writes:

A Situationist ethnography has its own distinct methods. It emerges out of Debord’s close study of Saint-Germain delinquents. It adopts their habits, their ethnos, and turns it into method. The Letterist International are ethnographers of their own difference, cartographers of an attitude to life. This life did not lie outside the modern, Western one, but inside, in the fissures of its cities. It did not yearn for a primitive life from before history, but rather for one that was to come after it. In the life of the Saint-Germain delinquents’ tribe could be found particles of the future, not the past, and not from some colonial Donogoo Tonka but from the very epicenter of what history had wrought: the colonization of everyday life at the heart of empire. (61)

I am still not sure how this fits with the times they were living in, not clearly demarcated or described here, sadly. The civil war with Algeria, freedom fighters who have taken up arms and are giving their lives on a massive scale in both Algeria and France itself to free themselves from a physical colonization, the fall of French government after government through their failure to subdue this revolution, the curfew against Arabs. These highlight a difference treated very differently than any the situationists might have experienced. It bothers me immensely, this privileged ability to think completely outside life and death struggle, with the exception of Abdelhafid Khatib of the Algerian section. And so I think something vital is missing from this description — and yet it contains much to think about all the same:

What meaning can there be in the freedom to walk at night, through the Paris of the mid 1950s, the curfew of the occupation lifted and the curfew of the Algerian war not yet descended? The dérive appears almost as if it is a direct answer to this question. The dérive is the experimental mapping of a situation, the trace of the probabilities of realizing a desire. There is still the police to contend with, and delinquent Letterists and their friends would occasionally end up in jail for the night. But the dérive is more than the no-man’s-land between consciousness and facticity, for-itself and in-itself, freedom and constraint. It is rather the flux, the monist dialectic, which produces as one of its effects the experience of the gap between in-itself and for-itself in the first place.

Practices like dérive, détournement and potlatch, which will become the defining practices of the Situationist International, produce among other things the possibility of new concepts outside of Sartrean dualism. The interest is not in consciousness and its freedom, but in the production of new situations as an end in themselves. (140-141)

This brings us to the dérive and almost past it (apologies for liking dérive so much more than détournements), but I hadn’t yet stumbled across the meanings of the word itself:

It’s a curious word. A note in the Letterist International’s journal Potlatch gives some of its resonances. Its Latin root “derivare” means to draw off a stream, to divert a flow. Its English descendants include the word “derive” and also “river.” Its whole field of meaning is aquatic, conjuring up flows, channels, eddies, currents, and also drifting, sailing or tacking against the wind. It suggests a space and time of liquid movement, sometimes predictable but sometimes turbulent. The word dérive condenses a whole attitude to life, the sort one might acquire in the backwaters of Saint-Germain-des-Prés. (62-63)

I like thinking of it as a new way of being in the world, a new practice:

The dérive cuts across the division of the space of the city into work, rest and leisure zones. By wandering about in the space of the city according to their own sense of time, those undertaking a dérive find other uses for space besides the functional. The time of the dérive is no longer divided between productive time and leisure time. It is a time that plays in between the useful and the gratuitous. Leisure time is often called free time, but it is free only in the negative, free from work. But what would it mean to construct a positive freedom within time? That is the challenge of the dérive. The breakaway Letterist International created a new practice, a new way of being in the world, out of which to derive a new kind of practice. (68)

I like thinking of it as a new kind of knowledge:

The Letterist International invent a new kind of knowledge, a street ethnography, whose primary method is the dérive. What the dérive discovers is psychogeography: the lineaments of intersubjective space. In place of the chance encounters of the surrealists, they create a practice of play and strategy which invents a way of being, outside of commodified time and outside of the separate disciplines of knowledge—including geography. Henceforth the city will not be a site for fieldwork but a playing field, in which to discover intimations of a space and time outside the division of labor. The goal is nothing less than to invent a new civilization which will make a mark on historical time with the grandeur of the Temple of the Sun. (75-76)

Of course ‘The dérive was an intervention against geography as much as against psychoanalysis.’ (71) And thus:

“Psychogeography is a practice of the city as at once an objective and subjective space. It is not the city as mere prompt for surrealist reveries. Nor is it a thing apart, to be dissected by social science, no matter how well-meaning. The city of Debord, Chtcheglov and their friends is a complex beast, always in process, with its own rhythms and life cycle, as it is for Chombart.(74)

City as form AND process, change, movement. All those things most academics had never seen before. I had never realised just how much in dialogue this movement was with the thinking and theorising of Henri Lefebvre, cited continually these days as a kind of founder of the “spatial turn” and an end to treating space as simply a backdrop or container.  I knew a vague relationship but they complement each other so well, surely drove each other on. What I have always loved about Lefebvre is his understanding of this:

In Lefebvre the real is the fulcrum of action …It is by attempting to transform everyday life that the contours of the real are encountered. (217)

It is in struggle that we encounter the limits — they are only imagined until we actually try and shift something. I imagine they are not really where many academics believe them to be. This is where I think the usefulness of Lefebvre’s thought and Situationist practice may come to the fore, but only where linked to the brutal fighting now taking place in almost all cities — over segregation, displacement, gentrification, redevelopment or actual occupation. Not to displace play, but to ensure it helps us fight harder against injustices, rather than make it easier to submit to them or worse benefit from them, even as others suffer.

This is why I have always been sceptical of so much of this movement, why this slogan of Debord’s has always bothered me, though this is perhaps its best possible defense:

Debord’s first major work, by his own later accounts, was a simple three-word graffiti that translates as “Never work!”23 Rather than reduce the working hour, avoid it as much as possible. But if there is no work, then there is no leisure either. It is rather like Nietzsche’s annunciation of the death of God which is also the death of a certain understanding of Man, since God and Man form a conceptual couple, each made in the other’s image.24 Debord’s “Never work!” frees time from its binary form of work time and leisure time. The dérive then becomes the practice of lived time, time not divided and accorded a function in advance; a time inhabited by neither workers nor consumers. (69)

Still. I am still thinking it through, still sifting for what is meaningful. A few last thoughts —

Psychogeography made the city subjective and at the same time drew subjectivity out of its individualistic shell. It is a therapy aimed not at the self but at the city itself…

And it is a collective one. The derive is best carried out in groups.I like the idea of the collective, though the Lettrists and Situationists spent a lot of energy fighting amongst themselves and expelling people from the movement.

Wark makes this final point, and I am still not sure what i think about it, but again, find it worth thinking about:

The Letterist International discovered the power of a kind of negative action. They show what cannot be done within the limits of actually existing capitalism. (81)

and again

“The Letterist International passes on to the Situationist International the practice of a negative action, which lays bare the gap between everyday life in twentieth century capitalism, and what it leaves to be desired. (110)

Did it? Perhaps it did.

A few other tidbits — the city as pinball machine:

Debord and Wolman had already proposed a détournement of pinball, in which the “play of the lights and the more or less predictable trajectories of the balls would form a metagraphic-spatial composition entitled Thermal Sensations and Desires of People Passing by the Gates of Cluny Museum Around an Hour After Sunset in November.”13 They abandoned this idea, for Paris was already a pinball machine. All that remained was to bounce around it like a shiny silver ball, and find its psychogeographic centers of gravity. (185)

We too stumbled around the Cluny Museum at regular intervals in our brief Paris stay. So returning to this made me laugh.

I knew nothing of this playfulness with language, but I like it:

Produced outside of the Situationist International and without Trocchi, the Situationist Times turned out to be a somewhat different beast. It was multilingual, and even its English-language texts were written in what one might now call netlish—transnational English unapologetically cast as a second language patterned after the writer’s first language.25 The era of French as the lingua franca of the avant-garde was over. (271)

The book ends on a good note as well, with what continues of the situationist project today, détourned as of course, it must be:

What continues unabated, regardless of what anyone writes, is the détournement of the Situationist project. Beneath the pavement, the beach. Wherever the boredom with given forms of art, politics, thought, everyday life jackhammers through the carapace of mindless form, the beach emerges, where form is ground down to particles, to the ruin of ruins. There lies what the old mole is always busy making: the materials for the construction of situations. (366)

Of the many things I’ve been reading on the legacy of the situationists lately, this is far and away the best.

[Wark, McKenzie. (2011) The Beach Beneath the Street: The Everday Life and Glorious Times of the Situationist International. London: Verso.]

* From Guy Debord, “On Wild Architecture,” in Elizabeth Sussman (ed.), On the Passage of a Few People through a Rather Brief Moment in Time: The Situationist International 1957–1972, MIT Press, Cambridge MA, 1989, p. 174.”


Debord & Jorn in Limehouse — and the best single objection to planning you will ever read

In 1955, the London Times published this piece of garbage:

London’s Chinatown is threatened with extinction. That labyrinth of squalid streets, mysterious passages, and shuttered hovels a mile or two east of Aldgate pump is doomed. The planners have been told to go ahead. By the end of the year much of Pennyfields will have been demolished to make room for blocks of flats. After that, it is only a question of time before the rest of it will vanish like an opium smoker’s dream.

Tenacious as the type of Oriental who jumps ship and settles within the purlieus of London’s Docklands is, he is helpless under the New Order. Whatever he and his compatriots may feel, they cannot hope to frustrate the designs of the modern builder. The series of rabbit warrens, from which a Chinese head was once wont to pop out with disconcerting suddenness, must give place to neat and tidy dwellings fitted with “h. and c.” and a sanitation calculated to make the old time denizens of London’s Chinatown shudder.

For it has never been the dwelling place of the Mandarin, much less the hiding place of the communist plotter. But it has been, and still is, the home-from-home of the Chinese Common Man, who, sick of the sea, had found the precarious existence to be derived from gambling, catering for his fellows, or pandering to curious visitors much to his liking. (49)
–anonymous, “Limehouse Nights in the 1930s: Chinatown of Romance and Fable Receives its Death Blow from the Planners.” London Times, August 31, 1955

In response, Bernstein, Debord, and Wolman write in Potlatch no. 23 (October 13, 1955):

We protest against such moral ideas in town-planning, ideas which must obviously make England more boring than it has in recent years already become.


Anyway, it is inconvenient that this Chinese quarter of London should be destroyed before we have the opportunity to visit it and carry out certain psychogeographical experiments we are at present undertaking.

Finally, if modernization appears to you, as it does to us, to be historically necessary, we would counsel you to carry your enthusiasm into areas more urgently in need of it, that is to say, to your political and moral institutions. (52)

Bam. I almost like them again.

3621776_0bcc87ccIn McKenzie Wark’s The Beach Beneath the Street: The Everday Life and Glorious Times of the Situationist International, he describes their brief stay in Limehouse, in the building that formerly housed the British Sailor’s Society. A building on Newell Street, one of my favourite streets in all of London, and this building one I have puzzled over after noticing the plaque. Wark quotes a 2008 property advert that describes what it has become — and then goes on to describe what it once was:

“Newell Street, London, E14 7HR. £1,250,000: A beautiful Grade 2 listed house formerly headquarters of The British Sailors Society. Built circa 1802 for one of Horatio Nelson’s captains, the property retains many naval features including one of London’s only Victorian swimming pools, originally built to teach sailors to swim. The property is laid out over three floors and consists: large entrance hallway, drawing room, conservatory, four bedrooms, two bathrooms, studio room, sauna, private garden and two parking spaces. The property has also been used for filming, including Beginner’s Luck and Dead Cool and has been graced by stars such as Rosanna Arquette, Liz Smith, and Julie Delpy.”1

It’s easier to sell a property with a story, but beneath these stories lie others. The ad neglects to mention that the same address formerly housed the homeless, or that it was once disgraced by the anti-celebrities of the Situationist International. In preparation for the 1960 London conference, Debord and Jorn embarked on a dérive of the city looking for a suitable venue. They settled on this hall in the Lime-house district, mythologized by Charles Dickens as a seedy warren of opium dens. (253-254)

It’s so much more than that of course, I don’t much care for Edwin Drood, but I quite love knowing more about this little piece of it.


Situationist insults (take that Le Corbusier!)

Here they take on the urbanists, insults from Constant in ‘Unitary Urbanism’ a lecture from 1960:

The failure of modern urbanists can be attributed to their opportunism, their passive attitude to the problems confronting them, their uncritical deference to an obsolete cultural convention, to the existing image of society. What nowadays counts for urbanism confines itself to the more or less aesthetic solution of current socio-economic problems; for the most part housing and traffic problems. For pragmatic reasons, that is for the sake of a quick provisional solution, urbanists isolate these problems from the totality of social life, they see them as detached from the cultural issue. (112)

Here is the proof that today’s urbanists are indeed to blame for the failure of the modern city as a human habitat, for the disappearance of a social space in which a new culture could arise. (113)

Then there are the existentialist digs — Sartre, Camus and Simone de Beauvoir among others lived on Saint-Germain-des-Prés, frequented the two cafes there, Café de Flore and Les Deux Magots. Hemingway and Picasso hung out there too, but maybe not together. These cafés became centres of tourism where Americans waited anxiously for wisdom to fall into their laps (only the coolest people know that Baldwin also wrote much of Go Tell It on the Mountain here).

A certain Saint-Germain-des-Prés, on which no one has yet written a word, was the first unit working at the scale of history on this ethics of dérive. This egregore, secret until now, is the lone explanation for the enormous influence that three blocks of houses have exerted over the world, and that people have tried to rationalize through the insufficient fields of clothing and song, and more stupidly through questionable aptitudes for prostitution… (Gilles Ivain (aka Ivan Chtcheglov) Internationale situationniste no 1 (June 1958), p 41)

But the very best are reserved for Le Corbusier, they are delicious:

The modulor Protestant, Le Corbusier-Sing-Sing, the dauber of neo-Cubist smears, is making the “machine for living in” work for the greater glory of God, who created carrion and crows [corbusiers] in his own image
‘Skyscrapers by the Roots, Lettrist International, Potlatch no. 5, July 20, 1954 (p44)

and this:

We leave to monsieur Le Corbusier his style that suits factories as well as it does hospitals. And the prisons of the future: is he not already building churches? I do not know what this individual–ugly of countenance and hideous in his conceptions of the world–is repressing to make him want thus to crush humanity under ignoble heaps of reinforced concrete, a noble material that ought to permit an aerial articulation of space superior to Flamboyant Gothic. His power of cretinization is vast. A model by Corbusier is the only image that brings to my mind the idea of immediate suicide. With him moreover and remaining joy will fade. And love–passion–liberty. (35)
‘Formulary for a New Urbanism’ Gilles Ivain (aka Ivan Chtcheglov) Internationale situationniste no 1 (June 1958)

You realise Debord is actually the least exciting of insult-writers:

Since Le Corbusier has made of his work an illustration of and a powerful means of action for the worst oppressive forces, this work–certain of whose lessons should however be incorporated into the next phase–is promised a complete bankruptcy.
Statement by Lettrist International Delegate to the Alba Congress – Guy Debord (92)

There are more, but I tired of the exercise…

[these translations from the wonderful compilation by Mcdonough, Tom. (2009) the situationists and the city. London, NY: Verso.]

Coverley’s View on Psychogeography

1003489There’s so much I love about the approach and all of the authors in here but damn, are they white, male and privileged. I think Rebecca Solnit is the only woman to grace these pages, apart from the prostitutes and the beautiful women the surrealists stalked through the city… The one Situationist who did seem to actually try to practice psychogeography and write about it was forced to desist after several prison stays–apparently the police didn’t appreciate a Black Algerian immigrant name of Abdelhafid Khatib experiencing aimlessly in public spaces, especially after immigrant curfew time. What the hell were his comrades doing about that? I’d like to know.

But still, back to the thing itself. An initial description of psychogeography’s main characteristics

‘For psychogeography may usefully be viewed less as the product of a particular time and place than as the meeting point of a number of ideas and traditions with interwoven histories’. [11]

amongst this melange of of ideas, events and identities, a number of predominant characteristics can be reconised. The first and most prominent of these is the activity of walking. The wanderer, the stroller, the flaneur and the stalker… psychogeography also demonstrates a playful sense of provocation and trickery…seeks to overcome the processes of ‘banalisation’ by which the everyday experience of our surroundings becomes one of drab monotony…a perception of the city as a site of mystery… [12-13]

Which leads to gothic representations, ‘a focus on crime, poverty and death…’ I love the gothic with a deep love, but I don’t think the city as a site of mystery had to go this way–it’s just slumming, innit? Nor must it stay here really. It fits in with the wealthy male voyeurism, but if poor women started engaging in it, poverty would hardly be mysterious. They’d have to look deeper. A working class gothic, new strands of mystery, and most exciting at all, a kind of desire that has nothing to do with exploitative johns…

The book opens with literature, those inspiring psychogeography as we know it today: Defoe, Blake, de Quincy, Poe, Machen, Stevenson. Watkins’s work on ley lines. Walter Benjamin, Louis Aragon and Andre Breton, poets Rimbaud and Baudelaire. Today of course, it has been brought into the present by Ballard, Iain Sinclair, Stewart Home, Peter Ackroyd, and the films of Patrick Keillor. Coverley writes:

‘the programmatic approach of social theorists and geographers is in this instance unable to accurately refect the imaginative reworking of the environment that has been conducted so successfully by those writers whose works celebrate contemporary London. [25]

For Machen it is a freeing of the self from all geographical and historical markers, an adventure through the unknown. But at times it becomes Sinclairs delving deep deep into history, or Ackroyd’s circular theories of geographical convergences. You have Poe’s creation of a new urban type in The Man of the Crowd as cited by Benjamin and Baudelaire – ‘an isolated and estranged figure who is both a man of the crowd and a detached observer of it and, as such, the avatar of the modern city’. [60]

I was rather disappointed by the schoolboy idiocies of Potlatch and the lettrists, but then it gets a little more interesting, from De Bord’s ‘Introduction to a Critique of Urban Geography’, 1955:

The word psychogeography, suggested by an illiterate Kabyle as a general term for the phenomena a few of us were investigating around the summer of 1953, is not too inappropriate. It does not contradict the materialist perspective of the conditioning of life and thought by objective nature. Geography, for example, deals with the determinant action of general natural forces, such as soil composition or climatic conditions, on the economic structures of a society, and thus on the corresponding conception that such a society can have of the world. Psychogeography could set for itself the study of the precise laws and specific effects of the geographical environment, consciously organized or not, on the emotions and behavior of individuals. The adjective psychogeographical, retaining a rather pleasing vagueness, can thus be applied to the findings arrived at by this type of investigation, to their influence on human feelings, and even more generally to any situation or conduct that seems to reflect the same spirit of discovery.

Taken up with the situationists, there is no mention of Lefebvre where I thought there would be. They define psychogeography as ‘The study of the specific effects of the geographical environment, conspicuously organised or not, on the emotions and behaviour of individuals. [93] The invented the derive: A mode of experimental behaviour linked to the conditions of urban society: a technique of transient passage through varied ambiences. Also used to designate a specific period of continuous deriving’ [93] And the detournement: The integration of present or past artistic production into a superior construction of a milieu.

Here the theoretical grounding, carried on by Vaneigem and de Certeau. And the final chapter on rehashing some of the awesomeness being produced about London. And it is awesome. But still, so white, so male, and what is a movement if it is only produced in two cities? Surely it must lie beyond, surely there are walkers and writers around the globe. I have a lot of questions, but for my first foray into what psychogeography actually is after hearing the term kicked about, this is quite all right.