Key Word: Psychogeography
There are about ten songs I repeat in my mind, which I’m not sure make them my favorites, but nonetheless, one of their lyrics is: “I got tired of living with depression so I went for a little walk” (“Hands in the Dirt” 2011). This punchy song is a young adult’s Southern reckoning with a loss of thrill. And it’s practical. The instructions are a how-to for coping with grownup sadness. After your walk, if all else fails, “stick your hands in the dirt.”
My mom used to leave the house for an hour each evening when we were old enough to bath ourselves and walk in the darkness of the neighborhood. I became a walker shortly after. I continually choose to walk alone over rotting leaves and through foreign cities to peek at the unknown.
If you keep walking, eventually you’ll end up far from where you started. This is when psychogeography takes hold, because you’ve changed, and the land saw it happen.
Psychogeography is coined an ‘art term’ by the Tate in London: “[It] describes the effect of a geographical location on the emotions and behaviors of individuals” (“Psychogeography”). When I first heard this term, I had no idea what the internet had concurred to define it as, but my gut immediately knew. Something important is in this name because I’ve felt it my whole life. In our human bodies we have operated with-by-through psychogeography to write origin stories, fulfill desire, and ultimately glimpse “home.” Everyone has.
Guy Debord christened psychogeography (1955) via his avant-garde background of Marxist theoretical systems: “Philosophy must become reality” (qtd. in Chambre and McLellan). He credits land as an ultimate reality as a start for the environmental justice-combination. That 1960’s name might yet bring “climate change” down from lofty politics and back to the moral space. “Environmental justice!” is a cry by BIPOC communities, from a deep respect for psychogeography: America’s most polluted environments are intentionally established in areas where people of color and the poor live and walk.
Inspired by the concept of the flâneur, an apolitical observer of modern life (Charles Baudelaire, 1863; “this wanderer of the city, chronicler of the present, and contradiction-laden figure of the crowd, has always been a myth”(qtd. in Livingstone and Gyarkye)), Debord emphasizes the importance of play (“drifting”) when attempting a “less-functional” navigation of modern architecture and spaces. He writes, “reflective nostalgia is a form of deep mourning that performs a labor of grief both through pondering pain and through play that points to the future” (qtd. in Boym 54). He was a founding member for Situationist International (1957) which organized creatives who longed to engineer radically different situations in opposition to culture, to expose previously unrecognized forces of homogeneity. Walking is one of the first things they could agreed upon as a revolutionary action. He writes that, “activities like walking the city aimlessly were reimagined as statements against a society that demanded production, and maps were cut up and reassembled to facilitate wandering”(“Situationist International”).
With this history in mind, I understand psychogeography as a reconciliation. To the absurd, to the exhausting, to the places our food comes from, to the quiet, to the uncontrolled, to the other stories, to “…the possibility of hidden patterns, patterns that, if unearthed and understood, would somehow explain me -my life- to myself”(Birkerts 5). Walking takes us away from the noise of stories we’ve always heard so that we can remember what we’ve always known. As Debord writes, “one becomes aware of the collective frameworks of memories when one distances oneself from one’s community…. Collective frameworks of memory are rediscovered in mourning” (qtd. in Boym 55). When reconciling with alternative narratives of living, simultaneously one is distanced from a previous reality: a continual cycle of loss. So we keep walking.
Loss is not necessarily an automatic trigger for sadness. Sally Mann writes, “ultimate beauty requires that sweet edge of decay, just as our casually possessed lives are made more precious by a whiff of the abyss” (Hold Still). Walking towards a deep, futuristic horizon is putting a finger on the source for why we’re sad. Theorist Ann Cvetkovich argues, “investigating public ‘epidemics of depression’ recognizes long-term histories of violence tied to colonization and power and might offer ways to ‘come to terms with disappointment, failure, and the slowness of change’ in response. Such negative emotions might sometimes be antisocial, but they may also serve to catalyze creative forms of affiliation or relationality” (qtd. in Cohen 72). It is normal to think with our bodies. Our physical bodies can translate abstract heritages of violence in ways that feel too distant for cognition. In walking, I activate my body knowledges and simultaneously, reorient myself to notice the other stories on the land: As Sara Ahmed puts it, “depending on which way one turns, different worlds might even come into view. If such turns are repeated over time, then bodies acquire the very shape of such direction” (qtd. in Rifkin 2). A thought paradigm of moving and listening to bodies could work its way down to our feet, to remind us that our feet are on the ground, that we are never disconnected from this soil. Our responsibility to seek justice for the earth systems is referenced by these walking-feet.
Noticing the effects of psychogeography is never an unbiased or neutral experience. Walking and processing psychogeography is a methodology for reexamining perspective: As Claire Atherton writes, “history haunts landscapes to become a part of our gaze” (“Living Matter”). Or as Kathryn Yusoff writes, “looked at through the lends of geography and slavery, the descriptive opacity of the Anthropocene as a reckoning with geologic relations seems disingenuous” (“The Inhumanities”). Walking can be a beginning. The psychogeographic reimagining of space is kin to Dada and Surrealism because it depends on the subconscious and its capabilities to alter our perspectives. Our subconscious humbles us, as does walking, and I think this is a mighty combination for making displacement from land and ecologic relation (ours and alternative histories) intelligible.
I am interested in the future of thinking. As a globe, processing histories of colonialism and pain, walking is a labor that enhances our thinking into the depths of our bodies. This holistic thinking mends loss while causing it and if the loss of uniformity, popular stories, comfort, and understanding don’t freeze us, the reply of movement starts “a future.” Environmental justice is a horizon that urges us to keep walking, to come closer.
Atherton, Claire. “Living Matter.” Bomb Magazine, September 2019, vol. 148. Retrieved March 2021. https://bombmagazine.org/articles/living-matter/
Birkerts, Sven. The Art of Time in Memoir: Then, Again. Minneapolis: Graywolf Press, 2007.
Boym, Svetlana. The Future of Nostalgia. New York: Basic Books, 2001.
Chambre, Henri, and McLellan, David T. “Marxism.” Britannica. Retrieved March 2021.
Cohen, Brianne. “Towards a feeling of animacy: Art, ecology, and the public sphere in Vietnam.” Afterimage, Vol. 47, no. 3, pp 66-90. 2020.
Livingstone, Jo, and Gyarkye, Lovia. “Death to the Flaneur.” The New Republic. Retrieved March 2017. https://newrepublic.com/article/141623/death-flaneur
Mann, Sally. Hold Still. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2015.
“Pyschogeography.” The Tate London. Retrieved March 2021. https://www.tate.org.uk/art/art-terms/p/psychogeography
Rifkin, Mark. Beyond Settler Time: Temporal Sovereignty and Indigenous Self-Determination. Duke University Press, 2017.
“Situationist International.” The Art Story. Retrieved March 2021. https://www.theartstory.org/movement/situationist-international/
Yusoff, Kathryn. A Billion Black Anthropocenes or None. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2018.