Getting Started With Psychogeography
Nicole Brandon runs What's Your Story here at Scottish Book Trust. When she's not working to inspire young writers, she's exploring the city through her writing with psychogeography. Confused? Don't be. Nicole is here to tell us what it is and how to use it in your writing.
This is going to seem a bit circuitous, but stick with me.
About three years ago I bothered an infinitely patient librarian by enquiring about books on psychogeography. She was annoyed that she’d never heard of the word, and further annoyed by the revelation that each definition she came across for it was more perplexing than the last. Suddenly she was hunting it down with a vengeance through the guts of the internet while I sat trying to (quietly) explain it was okay, it was a weird word and it thrived on being a total pain to pin down. A similar search today shows how crafty and mischievous the word and its concepts still are, but these three definitions can triangulate the area we’re looking in.
Psychogeography: an understanding of the 'precise laws and specific effects of the geographical environment, consciously organized or not, on the emotions and behaviour of individuals'
Psychogeography: is an approach to geography that emphasizes playfulness and "drifting" around urban environments.
Psychogeography: is the hidden landscape of atmospheres, histories, actions and characters which charge environments.
The librarian asked me why I was interested in this. I told her I’d gotten an introduction to it at university and I wanted to learn more about it as an approach for my writing. Our stories almost always contain people existing in places, and psychogeography felt like a way to shake up my perspectives on that relationship.
More questions – good questions – were asked. Books employing psychogeography were referenced. Writers were discussed. Finally, the patient librarian asked where the idea for psychogeography came from.
I said it came from French Situationists. Kind of.
Our stories almost always contain people existing in places.
And then she felt less bad about me leaving her library with nothing but our conversation. But true to the confounding spirit of psychogeography, not getting what I went searching for meant I found something more useful: a purpose. You shouldn’t have to go to university to hear about such a potentially useful tool for writing, and it shouldn’t be something that wantonly alienates librarians.
So I began to look for ways to explain psychogeography as a research method for adventurous writers, a toolkit of strategies for writers willing to push boundaries and risk frustration in the search for different ways to see our world. The work is far from done, and I’m still pretty new to this – but if you’ve ever wondered about new ways to bring your imagination into direct contact with your environment, this blog can get you started, at least.
Those French Situationists, whose mention released the patient librarian from the obligation to understand psychogeography in concrete terms, explored their idea of psychogeography through an activity called the dérive or “drift”. Guy Debord, one of the founders of the very undisciplined discipline of psychogeography described it as, “A mode of experimental behavior linked to the conditions of urban society: a technique of rapid passage through varied ambiances.”
In a way writers could find useful, I’d interpret it as using rules to render what you experience as a person in an environment as different and strange to you. A way of alienating yourself from the humdrum normality of life in your native environment by behaving in a way you would not normally behave.
A few dérives
- Starting in a place you know, and then going forward for one minute, left for one minute, right for one minute; repeating this pattern until you are actually lost.
- Doing absolutely everything that each street sign tells you to do.
- You can only go where there are cracked paving slabs.
- Keeping your shadow on your left at all times.
- Cross the road only (and always) when somebody wearing yellow crosses your path.
- Give yourself ten seconds to rush out of hearing range every time you hear a piece of music.
- Get a tourist or google map of your home town, take a ruler and draw a diagonal line right through it. Try to traverse that line.
That is the experimental behavior part, and what happens when you commit to it is a very swift de-familiarization with your environment. Your purpose for being in a place changes, and so does your criteria for successfully navigating it. You aren’t sticking to routes to and from your local haunts anymore; the most important thing isn’t speedily and safely going from place to place. You exist in the city in a different way than you usually would.
Ask yourself, is your city still your city when you can’t move freely and normally in it?
Is this what it feels like to be a stranger to town? Or to be constrained by some kind of force or expectation that would make for a character struggle worth writing about? Does experiencing this help you find the words to convey an environment that’s threatening, or confusing, or alive with qualities that complete your story’s setting or drive its plot? Are you noticing details about city life that you never paid attention to before? (Like how bossy the traffic signs are, or how many cracked paving slabs you stroll over every day.) Have you wound up going through and to places you never would have visited before? Did you discover something you didn’t know about a place’s history or a people’s environment, and which you want to write about?
Is your city still your city when you can’t move freely and normally in it?
Can you write a more real and interesting city and its citizens by exploring and researching with psychogeography? I’d say ‘yes’, every time.
And the technique’s uses aren’t limited to creative non-fiction or historical or literary fiction. Carefully chosen dérives can mean psychogeography helps you empathize with fantastical situations by getting you to experience them in a live environment. It’s not the original intended use of the technique, but so long as you keep your focus on the environment’s connection to the constrained behavior created by the dérive you’re still using psychogeography.
What if you were a magical being who had to keep their shadow on the left at all times or else it took their place? What if you lived in a future society where listening to a tune for more than ten seconds meant you had to pay the musician? What would the city you write need to be like for either of these characters to a) survive or b) not be penniless?
What if in your imagined village, people wore yellow as a sign they were from a higher caste than your protagonist, and nobody was allowed to share the sidewalk with them?
Use your imagination, then get out there to conduct some field research and ask the city yourself.
Ready to get started?
- Take a notebook and pencil or pen. You might need to draw maps, copy patterns, get strangers you meet to write things down for you, or indeed – write!
- Take a camera. This is for research and recollection. Photos can help prompt memories of what you thought in the moment when you’re back at your desk, and capture discovered detail you may want to weave in to your writing.
- Don’t take your headphones and music, unless they are part of the dérive. Your regular aural environment is just another way to make your experience normal to you.
- Do take your mobile phone, record verbal memos in to it rather than writing it down if that’s easier for you.
- If it fits with your dérive, take a map – a tourist map, or a printed map from the internet will work well. Be prepared to enact mischief on the map, or on the city via the map. Used incorrectly, maps are a great way of getting yourself lost!
- Take your common sense! You don’t abdicate responsibility for being safe in pursuit of your dérive. Wear suitable clothes, take a drink, and don’t trespass or wander into danger.
For those of you who’d rather approach psychogeography through reading and discussion first, we have a psychogeography book list for you to explore. You can also follow psychogeographers on Twitter, and join societies around Scotland. (Or found your own group, true Situationist-style!) There’s also a well-tested smartphone app which can help you to get started with convenient and random dérive ideas on the move.
My best advice for any rookie psychogeographer (like myself) is to be patient with yourself, but ambitious about what you can achieve, too. Be willing to practice, and you’ll find that your thoughts begin to adapt to it and your imagination rallies at the chance for exercise out on the street. Just as your eyes might adjust to low light, the new conditions you put yourself in as a result of psychogeographic explorations will cause your imagination and your writing to adapt. Be circuitous, just like this blog, and you’ll make your way somewhere worth writing about.