Psychogeography and the urban walk

Breton and crew

One place to examine walking as a cognitive technology is the field of psychogeography.  This tongue-in-cheek “science” was pronounced as such by the Situationist Guy Debord in 1955.  In Introduction to a Critique of Urban Geography, he describes it as the “”the study of the precise laws and specific effects of the geographical environment, consciously organized or not, on the emotions and behavior of individuals.” As a concept, it was archly serious, especially for Debord, but he was not the first to make it formal exercise.

The Surrealists had adopted the practice of “deambulations” which were organized walks that traversed both city and countryside as a means of achieving a state of hynosis and disorientation, probing the boundaries between waking and dream life, no doubt from exhaustion. As Breton explained, walking was a strategic device to to relinquish conscious control, submit to risk and chance, and to reveal the unconscious zones of urban life. And to succeed in this endeavor a walker must adopt an “ultrareceptive posture” to “put oneself in a state of grace with

chance” so that “something will happen.”

So walking is an aesthetic, educational,  and political practice, in fact one that is prescribed as a means to effect real changes in the mind of the stroller.

The Situationists updated the practice in the 50’s and 60’s in a way that supported their more socially radical agenda.  Since the situation of capitalism valued work, play was the type of action that would help vanquish the seductions of the spectacle. And play was a serious business that involved the planning and execution of events (“situations” ) that released this impulse. Tactics in deliberate confusion called “detournement” (“diversion” or “subversion” ) moved the process of revolution along. Like and unlike were scrambled in just about every art form, including architectural models for the urban space.

Organized derives (or drifts) were particularly prized as means to transform both body and mind.  Participants were instructed to wander through an urban landscape, guided only the  subconscious contours of the streets and architecture.  Debord specifically describes it as a “technique” which, with some argument, can be defined as something akin to a technology of sight and exhaustion. A formal derive was ” “a mode of experimental behavior linked to the conditions of urban society: a technique of rapid passage through varied ambiances.”

However, one aspect gives me pause in connecting psychogeography with my focus on walking technology: As a field, psychogeography examines the effects of the urban space on the mind and emotions of the walker. To be a true cognitive technology, the emphasis should be on how the forces of vision and cognition transform the space and potentially create a new one. The practice should’nt be seen  as a means to observe the mind while walking the landscape. The training involved should be creating a new set of brain processes that are more creative and adaptable, not just awakened.