Psychogeography, or the art and philosophy of strolling through an urban environment, letting the surroundings work on the mind and the mind in turn work on the surroundings, is quite appealing to a subculture of people. I, myself, am an avid psychogeographer. I suspect it derives from my love of Surrealism and such books as Louis Aragon’s “Paris Peasant,” Phillipe Soupault’s “Last Nights of Paris” and Andre Breton’s “Nadja.”
Charles Baudelaire was the prototypical psychogeographer, or as he would have called it “flâneur.” However, it was the French Situationists, led essentially by Guy Debord, who defined and advanced the idea of psychogeography and the act of the dérive. They formulated the concept after encountering Ivan Chtcheglov’s “Formulary for a New Urbanism.”
Theirs was a politically subversive act. The idea being to reclaim the power of a city’s architecture from the status quo, and redefine it. A city is built with a sort of power imposition and the Situationists, like the Surrealists before them, hoped to disrupt it. They sought the ineffable in even the most commonplace, quotidian contours of Paris and elsewhere.
As Debord wrote in “Introduction to a Critique of Urban Geography” :
The sudden change of ambiance in a street within the space of a few meters; the evident division of a city into zones of distinct psychic atmospheres; the path of least resistance that is automatically followed in aimless strolls (and which has no relation to the physical contour of the terrain); the appealing or repelling character of certain places — these phenomena all seem to be neglected. In any case they are never envisaged as depending on causes that can be uncovered by careful analysis and turned to account. People are quite aware that some neighborhoods are gloomy and others pleasant. But they generally simply assume that elegant streets cause a feeling of satisfaction and that poor streets are depressing, and let it go at that. In fact, the variety of possible combinations of ambiences, analogous to the blending of pure chemicals in an infinite number of mixtures, gives rise to feelings as differentiated and complex as any other form of spectacle can evoke. The slightest demystified investigation reveals that the qualitatively or quantitatively different influences of diverse urban decors cannot be determined solely on the basis of the historical period or architectural style, much less on the basis of housing conditions.
Naturally, the concept lends itself quite readily to fiction, influencing everything from Alan Moore’s “From Hell” to, my mind, William S. Burroughs and Thomas Pynchon’s fiction. Read Jean Baudrillard and you’ll also get a sense of the psychogeographic in the simulated reality we occupy. While Baudrillard only seemed to comment on the power imposed by simulated reality (billboards, symbols, video, text, etc.), the Situationists prescribed the cure to making the city, even if done in Dada-like jest, yours.
And so while Broken City Lab’s new iPhone app, appropriately named Drift, is an interesting idea that makes unique use of a smartphone’s GPS technology, it is ultimately misguided. Drift provides its users with a step-by-step process, in which they walk a few blocks, look for something like “an interesting shadow” and then take a picture of it.
The whole point of going on a dérive or drift is to discover what an environment means to you—to subvert an imposed reality. To stare down at an iPhone and allow it to control the drift is a pointless exercise. It’s not psychogeography, it’s a form of guided tour. And guided tours suck. That is not to say that Drift sucks, but I think readers will get the point.
Yes, one can learn something from the Drift app, but it’s a lazy form of learning. It’s a diluted form of psychogeography. The complete antithesis of psychogeography’s aims. The commodification of its anarchist potential.
Now, if Drift introduces more people to psychogeography and the dérive, then so be it. It seems perfectly likely that it will. And the world could always use some more drifting urban dreamers. For that potential, Broken City Lab should be applauded.
Hopefully Drift’s users will eventually ditch their iPhones and undertake their very own unique urban perambulations.