Senses of place

Karrie Higgins is a writer based in Portland, Ore.

In 1950s and 1960s Paris, amid Le Corbusier-style modernism and urban renewal, the Situationist International attacked city planning as an ideology of organized social isolation, concerned primarily with the smooth flow of automobile traffic. Cities, the group charged, offered nothing more than capitalist spectacle -- “air-conditioned kindergartens” that educated people into prescribed patterns of movement and behavior.

Liberation required a radical rethinking of cities and space. One of the most prominent Situationists, Guy Debord, called for an investigation into the effects of the environment (both constructed and natural) on emotions and behavior. He called this area of study psychogeography. Psychogeographers set out on derives (literally, driftings), forgoing all the usual motivations for movement, instead allowing themselves to be attracted or repelled by the world around them or through some element of chance. It is this sensibility that novelist Will Self and artist Ralph Steadman have taken up in a new collection of essays and illustrations titled “Psychogeography.” (Much of this material first appeared in a column Self writes, also called “Psychogeography,” for the British newspaper the Independent.)

Self begins “Psychogeography” with a long “introduction” describing a walk he took from London to New York. That such a thing is impossible is part of the point entirely: The idea is to walk from his London home to Heathrow Airport before flying to JFK, where he will set out again, on foot, for Manhattan. Here, Self sets up the strategy of his book by giving a nod to Debord while at the same time mapping out his own psychogeographic territory.


His long walks neither emulate nor resemble the derives of the Situationists, in part because he carries his usual purposes and motivations -- promoting a book, say, or attending a meeting. He has no intention to “outfox prescribed folkways,” but he also delights in exploring true “Empty Quarters,” those zones that lie outside urban boundaries and off the paved paths. For him, these are the true frontiers, the last places left to discover and explore. Strangely, he never reflects on what may be his most dramatic deviation from the Situationists -- the tendency to head directly for a tourist attraction, whether it be the John Hancock Center in Chicago or Rome’s “obligatory round” of monuments: “the Colosseum, the Pantheon, St Peter’s, the Trevi Fountain, the Spanish Steps, Prada, Bulgari.”

On the one hand, such differences seem to betray a misunderstanding of psychogeography, which finds direction in indirection; on the other, Self reveals a profound truth about place and our contemporary psyche. Some 50 years after the Situationists set out on their first derives, we live more isolated -- and yet more surrounded by spectacle -- than ever. At the same time, in the wake of Sept. 11, no corner seems free from the reach of surveillance. Can any place be new? Can any place be liberated? So perhaps a radical re-imagining of psychogeography is in order.

Self prefers purposeful walks to random ones for a truly radical reason: He wants to “drag other people” into his “oetechnical worldview.” In “South Downs Way,” Self takes 10 hours to walk to a meeting, something he confesses to his host. The effect is profound: “My interlocutor goggles at me; if he took ten hours to get here, they’re undoubtedly thinking, will the meeting have to go on for twenty?” Cars and bullet trains may speed up our transit time, but they do nothing to enrich the quality or depth of our interactions. On the contrary, because we arrive so fast, we have no reason to make occasions of anything. By nudging others into this consciousness, Self acts as “an insurgent against the contemporary world.”

Even when Self seems to commit outright psychogeographic treason, he has radical motivations. After an afternoon of overload at a local mall, he escapes to the suburbs with his kids, where he reflects on how interzones -- those places where “country and city do battle for the soul of a place” -- excite him. This suburban expedition is Self’s way of dragging his children into their own consciousness of place. He wants to yank them “out of all this intense urbanity” and expose them to the suffocating pressure of “the sheer orderliness of all the neat verges and linseed-oiled garage doors” -- just like the teenage Self once felt. Once again, the insurgency: Self watches as his son tenses on his way into the suburbs and relaxes on his way home to the city, his psyche penetrated.

This book’s vision is also very much post-Sept. 11, as Self meditates not only on space, but also on our desire to wander off the margins of the map -- to occupy no space at all. We watch in awe as the world’s greatest superpower fails to locate the world’s most wanted terrorist. For Self, this is an object lesson, showing us that as “long as there are fugitives in the world there remains a certain mystery at its margins; all has not been discovered, snooped into, X-rayed by the CIA.”

Self, of course, becomes a fugitive every time he enters an Empty Quarter. And as a dual British-American citizen, he can’t help but reflect on being a man without a country as well. In one walk to his mother’s childhood neighborhood in Queens, he discovers she was a fugitive also: She never told him that her childhood neighborhood looked exactly like his in the United Kingdom -- nor that, in moving across the Atlantic, she had effectively created her own Empty Quarter in which to hide.


Of course, one cannot ignore some of the failures here, such as Self’s “digression” that no female psychogeographers exist because women supposedly lack men’s special infatuation with “orientation.” This is demonstrably false (there are female psychogeographers, yours truly among them), and one wonders why he even includes it; after all, place pierces the psyches of all genders. More to the heart of the matter, the point of psychogeography is not orientation; it is investigation.

In addition, some of the essays and illustrations, most notably the account of a trip to Iowa, are, quite simply, too easy. Does it take psychogeography to call Iowans fat?

Steadman’s illustration of Iowa outdoes the essay: Malls appear like distant mountains on the horizon, natural features of the landscape, conveying perfectly the vastness and isolation of the Midwestern vista.

Throughout, Steadman’s illustrations dazzle in their imagination, wit and fancy. His vision of the Vatican relocated to a naval fort on the sea, a la Sealand, makes literal the absurd isolation and smallness of Vatican City. Likewise, his image of a future city in which “cantilevered decks” protrude dangerously from “multi-storey blocks” because the concepts of up and down are merely “contingent facts” fulfills perfectly the Situationist call for a radical revolution of space.

Ultimately, “Psychogeography” is most profound when Self and Steadman turn away from the Empty Quarters and, instead, reflect on the tractor-beam pull familiar places exert.

Self’s trip to Gaudi’s La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona unveils the architect’s feminine vision -- how he taps into everyone’s desire “to be a pink, fluffy girl in her pink, fluffy bedroom.” Steadman’s illustration deftly portrays the feminine wave that overtakes visitors. Suddenly, this familiar site seems new again.

And so, much like when Self drags his kids to the suburbs or announces how long a walking journey has taken him, “Psychogeography” nudges readers into a new consciousness, turning us toward a different worldview.

Perhaps we can make even those “prescribed” movements into something meaningful. After all, we transform every place into a frontier simply by paying attention. *