Dérive and Psychogeography: Situationist practices of urban space

by Claire Richard

We did not search for the formula to overthrow the world in the books – but by wandering. It was a day-length drifting, where nothing was ever like the day before, and that would never end. – Guy Debord

In May 68, in Paris, revolution briefly seemed to be here for good. Factories were on strike, universities were occupied, there were barricades in Paris and people queuing for fear of oil shortage – and cops and students fighting in the street guerilla-like. Quartier Latin burst with a new sense of possibility and rediscovered a basic truth: revolution is a spatial matter. It is about changing the dividing lines, drawing new ones, opening new spaces for inedited functions. It is about hijacking the flux of the city: flux of workforce and money, but also flux of desire, anger, fear. No group knew this better than The Situationist International (SI, 1957-1972), an avant-garde whose writings sparked early May – and maybe no avant-garde has been as much devoted to this question.

From their early years as Lettrists, between 1954 and 1957, situationists focused their critic of advanced capitalist society and modern-life alienation on the everyday life. Their influences were wide: Marx, Nietzsche, anarchists like Stirner and Bakunin, sociologists and anthropologists (notably Huizinga) but also poets, De Quincey and Lautreamont, and a few artists: early Dadaists. Their critique of capitalism was indivisible from a critique of urbanism: both fusing in the critique of everyday life – anticipating the “personal is political” sixties slogan. Life had to be made passionate again. Art could no longer do the job, they stated, and they devised their own practices, all intended in a “playful-serious” mode (ludique-serieux).

Their basic principle is “détournement : “short for détournement of preexisting aesthetic elements. The integration of present or past artistic production into a superior construction of a milieu” (Andreotti Costa; 70). Détournement is a politics of re-appropriation, a devaluation process of the initial artifact by altering its context. The French term means diversion, with connotations of rerouting, hijacking, misappropriation, corruption… It is a subversive approach in the etymological sense (go under): a micro-politics that works to extend the interstices and loopholes – to provoke implosion. The situationist approach to urban landscape must be understood as such.

“Situationism was founded upon the belief that general revolution would originate in the appropriation and alteration of the material environment and its space” (Sadler: 13). It elaborated a cluster of practices: psychogeography, dérive and unitary urbanism – producing a “détournement” of the city as existing under capitalist conditions, and proposing an experimental approach to it that would eventually lead to a revolutionary situation.

In the 1950s, Paris still retained a lot of its medieval architecture – despite the renovations of the 19th century that did away with almost a third of it. Postwar decades changed everything. Whole areas deemed “insalubres” (unhealthy), many of these old, were destroyed or radically transformed. Narrow and dark streets made way for modernist architecture. Its main realization was to be the “grands ensembles”, big housing schemes on the outskirts of Paris, and villes nouvelles (suburbs created from scratch). The development in public transportation was deeply changing the organization and physiognomy of the city: bigger traffic, creation of express trains (the R.E.R) to the suburbs that accelerated the fragmentation between living and working spaces, as well as the exodus of immigrants and working class to the cheaper suburbs. Old places and landmarks had to make way for the new Paris: les Halles, that had been the biggest marketplace of Paris since the 12th century, were destroyed to build an RER station. The social profile of the city changed too. Between 1954 and 1974, the percentage of workers had declined by 44 percent, while the number of inhabitants from management classes increased by 51 percent (Sadler: 55). Advanced capitalist society had imprinted its mark on the city.

Situationists paid a great attention to these developments. They saw urban rationalization as a manifestation of control and authority, and its enthusiast rhetoric as a glamorization of state and corporate power:  “The development of the urban milieu is the capitalist domestication of space” wrote members Kotanyi and Vaneigem (Andreotti Costas; 116). Their critics focused on traffic, HLM (housing schemes) and general poverty of modern life. Themselves loving unknown parks, working-class areas, Algerian bars and generally sketchy places, they foresaw the disappearance of the city they loved. Psychogeography and dérive are a reaction to, and a détournement of, this modernist city.

The first issue of the Situationist Bulletin gives the following definitions:

Derive: a mode of experimental behavior linked to the conditions of urban society: a technique of transient passage through varied ambiances. Also used to designate a specific period of continuous deriving.

Psychogeography: the study of the specific effects of the geographical environment, consciously organized or not, on the emotions and behavior of individuals.

Unitary Urbanism: the theory of the combined use of arts and techniques for the integral construction of a milieu in dynamic relation with the experiments in behavior. ( Andreotti Costa: 68-70)

Dérive (that could be translated by straying or drifting) is the opposite of urban planning and classical data gathering. It is an organic experience of the city, through walking and getting lost. It forsakes any planning for a surrender to the intrinsic laws of space: “The element of chance is less determinant than one might think: from the derive point of view cities have a psychogeographical relief, with constant currents, fixed points and vortexes which strongly discourages entry into or exit from certain zones”, writes Debord in his “Theory of the derive” (Andreotti Costa: 22). With the dérive field-trips, psychogeography can map out the “emotional” city – as opposed to urban functional space built to facilitate dynamics of control and capitalist exchange. Space is considered from the individual and affective point of view, not from functional or economical one. Psychogeography considers there is an inner logic to space, independently from its rational organization. It looks for the specific affective currents that irrigate a neighborhood, creating its “unities of mood”– created by social, architectural, and other diffuse and unexplained factors. These units are described topographically, and analyzed vaguely as “depressing” or “mysterious” in field reports. They are also charted in unusual maps.

Made by Guy Debord and Asger Jorn from a 1956 Paris map, The Naked City presents a graphical view of psychogeographical center of Paris. Big chunks cut out from the regular fabric of Paris now float freely, only related by arrows that indicate “psychogeographical currents” – like a chart for a yet unknown continent. This map is a metonymy of the whole situationist process, a mix of critic, graphical poetry and actual information (at least SI considered it as such). It shows how much psychogeography is a “détournement” of rationalized modernist urban space. It offers an experimental re-appropriation of the city through wandering bodies, opened mind, and acceptance of serendipity and transience – all values hardly compatible with the consumer society emerging.

How serious was SI about psychogeography? Simon Sadler takes it seriously, as an early social geography providing actual documentation. It seems that Debord and others considered psychogeography as a valuable science, if still in infancy. Yet later on, it became clearer that it had more to do with a personal experience of the city. As Ralph Rumney, founding-member of the SI, puts it: “I mean, we tried to crack it up as a science, as it were, or something. It’s in fact a very – an extremely individual pursuit . . . . It really is just dérive.” (Woods, 70).

What about “Unitary Urbanism”? “Architecture is the simplest means of articulating time and space, of modulating reality, of engendering dreams” read one of the founding text (Andreotti Costa: 14). A true situationist city would be ever-changing, always challenging acquired habits and opening for revolutionary life.  SI offered some scattered suggestions: open up jails to free access, put switches on lamppost so that public can control street lighting, open the metro tunnels at night (Debord: 203-207). Again, hijack and subvert. But there was no such things as a detailed plan. In 1962, Kotanyi and Vaneigem explained that SI had invented “the architecture and urbanism that cannot be realized without the revolution of everyday life – without the appropriation of conditioning by everyone, its endless enrichment, its fulfillment” (Androetti Costa: 118). Revolution, finally, would have to come first, and the situationnist city remains to be built.

Romantic, unrealistic, arrogant, inapplicable, dreamy, extreme – the situationist view on urban space is certainly all that. But it is also poetic, poignant, and the truth it holds is obvious to anyone who likes to walk cities and get immersed in their power. The number of laws that have been created recently to restrict hanging out in public space reminds us how disturbing can idle derive be.

The situationist city is a utopia. Its concrete existence does not matter. What matters is that it lingers in our consciousness, as the image of a possibility, and a reminder of what to strive for in an increasingly sanitized and controlled space.