Thursday, January 10, 2013

An obscure coincidence

Hello and happy new year! OK, it's not so new now. I started writing this a week ago, but got side-tracked by laptop dramas which involved losing nearly a year's worth of photos (and my temper). Fortunately I managed to recover the photos (and regain my composure).
I'll give you a full report of my Sydney adventures soon, but before I get around to that, I have another one of those freaky little coincidences to share. 
While I was on holidays I read The Lost Art of Walking, which included a (somewhat mocking) chapter on psychogeography, a concept completely new to me even though the practice isn't.
Last Thursday evening Luke and I brought forward our regular Friday night burgers and gelati date and I picked up a copy of Frankie magazine to read while eating my meal.  While flicking quickly through it, I thought I saw the word 'psychogeography' zip past my eyeballs. 'No, surely not!' I thought. 'That would be far too great a coincidence.'
I paged through more slowly and guess what? There was a little story on psychogeography! It was headed: The art of psychogeography or how to make fartarsing about seem legitimate and intellectual. Ha! (No, I did not rip the page out of the magazine or nick the whole thing.) The story, by Eleanor Robertson, reads: 
Travelling through human environments, especially cities, is usually a means to an end. Anything else is variously known as 'dawdling', 'wasting time' and ' for god's sake would you stop fartarsing about'. In 1955 social theorist Guy Debord legitimised the practice of fartarsing about as a meaningful and valuable activity called 'psychogeography'. Actively encouraging aimless daydreamy wandering, it turns urban spaces into objects of wonder, rather than simply points between A and B.
The idea of familiar cities as something to savour originated in 19th century France with the flaneur, or wanderer, a concept that really got going in critic Walter Benjamin's analysis of poet Charles Baudelaire. The flaneur is a social and literary archetype: a privileged intellectual man who, instead of working for a wage, uses his wealth to bunk off employment in favour of strolling  the streets of Paris. The flaneur is an observer, someone who experiences urbanity for its own sake. He doesn't hurry through the streets and passageways; he enjoys being in them on purpose. 
Psychogeography is best thought of as bushwalking in cities. Bushwalking is satisfying because nature is beautiful, and with attention and some luck, you can experience a bunch of cool things happening...The same is true for cities, with  buildings and architecture creating the landscape, and people creating the interest and drama. After laying dormant for half a century, psychogeography is becoming popular again, mainly because having a smartphone makes it easier and less stressful  to amble about without getting seriously disoriented....

Part of psychogeography is trying to alter your perception of what's around you in order to appreciate the historical dimensions of where you are. Ivan Chtcheglov, Guy Debord's friend and collaborator in revolutionary project Situationist International, said:  "All cities are geological; you cannot take three steps without encountering ghosts bearing all the prestige of their legends. We move within a closed landscape whose landmarks constantly draw us toward the past."  Or in less airy-fairy terms: what landmarks are around you? Who built them and why? what are they trying to tell you about your city?
Another part of psychogeography is the idea of leisure for its own sake. The Situationist International was heavily into seeking experiences "outside capital" - a Marxist way of saying that society doesn't really provide for our need to play and explore because we're all too busy  working. Most of our human-made environments and the activities we consider 'normal' to perform there, are centred around either making money or spending it. "Radical leisure" uses those places for pure fun, gaining enjoyment from a place without being productive in the economic sense of the word. 
So what does this all mean to you? ...go for a walk!... Pretend you're a tourist in your own city or suburb. Pay attention to what you see and how you feel about it. What's unexpected? Watch people around you, interacting with the landscape in different ways. And remember to take pictures...
Can I call myself a psychogeographer, do you think? It'd be nice to be a flaneur and spend my days strolling about observing stuff, but sadly I'm lacking the wealth to enable a life of bunking off employment. Sigh. 


Andrew said...

I want to be one of them, but where do I find the time? You more than me, but me included, haven't made a half bad start.

a work in progress said...

you are DEFINITELY a psychogeographer!

DiscoveredJoys said...

By some strange coincidence I received 'The Lost Art of Walking' too at Christmas. I've made a start but I have a pile of books to read now.

One of those other books is the translation of 'The Arcades Project' by Walter Benjamin. A very literary, very big, unfinished project of more than a thousand pages. I don't expect to read it page by page, but I hope to dip into it. Wikipedia has an article on the Arcades Project.

Benjamin linked the Paris Arcades to the city's distinctive street life and saw them as providing one of the habitats of the Flâneur (i.e., strolling in a locale to experience it).

Several artistic works, including street photography, have been inspired by the Arcades Project (also known as the Passagenwerk).

Another coincidence, or just a hidden thread pulled into the light?

Jayne said...

@DiscovereJoys Another coincidence! The Lost Art of Walking isn't a new release either, which makes this coincidence even more surprising. And the fact you also have Walter Benjamin's book to read... well! It never ceases to amaze me how these little coincidences crop up.

Another interesting, but perhaps less obvious, coincidence is that Melbourne has a lot of arcades, laneways and alleys which add quirkiness and character to the city. And I quite enjoy walking in them.