‘Flâneur’ vs. ‘Dérive’

The ‘Flâneur’ (approximatively equivalent to ‘roamer’, ‘wanderer’) was invented by Baudelaire and was a key figure in late 19th century and early 20th century decadent literary movement. It is a gentleman who strolls the city in order to experience it, as a detached, gently cynical observer. The flâneur is a passive figure, he observes the dynamics of the city from a disengaged point of view. Baudelaire called the flâneur ‘a botanist of the sidewalk’.

The Surrealists reused the concept, putting a greater emphasis on the role of random chances in the activity of ‘flânerie’. The Surrealist version of the flâneur was to devise experiments involving randomness and chances in order to experience the city without being blinded by mundanity. For example, follow beautiful female strangers across the city, or visit a city while guiding oneself using the map of another city. The ultimate Surrealist goal was to reach a higher level of truth by attaining the point where ‘reality’ and ‘surreality’ converge. By playing with random occurrences while strolling the city, the surrealist flâneur expected to gain a higher awareness of the city, beyong immediate reality. Therefore, the Surrealist flâneur is already a more active explorer than its decadent ancestor.

In ‘Theory of the Derive’, Guy Debord defines the concept of the ‘Dérive’ which he explicitly defines as opposed to ‘different from the classic notions of journey or stroll’. The ‘dérive [literally: “drifting”]’ is ‘a technique of rapid passage through varied ambiances’ that ‘involves playful-constructive behaviour and awareness of psychogeographical effects’. The participants of a Dérive must ‘let themselves be drawn by the attractions of the terrain and the encounters they find there. Chance is a less important factor in this activity than one might think: from a dérive point of view cities have psychogeographical contours, with constant currents, fixed points and vortexes that strongly discourage entry into or exit from certain zones.’ A Dérive implies the ‘domination of psychogeographical variations by the knowledge and calculation of their possibilities’. This phrasing has connotations of the scientific explorer, almost of the military strategist. Indeed, Debord compares the mindset of the Dérive to those of the ‘ecological science’, and the act of ‘Dérive’ is a tool in the Situationists’ revolutionary project.

Debord explicitly takes position against letting chance take a too important role in a Dérive, because ‘the action of chance is naturally conservative and in a new setting tends to reduce everything to habit or to an alternation between a limited number of variants. Progress means breaking through fields where chance holds sway by creating new conditions more favourable to our purposes.’

Psychogeography in popular culture – rural space

A short post today. I am reading different things and need to leave the information rest before I can really write about it.

To Andy’s suggestion, I am reading about Psychogeography. There is not much reliable source about it. Guy Debord wrote an article in 1955 Introduction to a Critique of Urban Geography and made a psychogreographic map of Paris. Then the situationnists seemed to have got disinterested in the idea and did not elaborate on it any further. Later on, different people took the concept of psychogeography and made their own thing with it. The closest to a reference is the book Psychogeography by Merlin Coverley (2006). This book has the merit to study earlier practionners of psychogeography, such as William Blake, who reinvented their cities long before Guy Debord invented the word, and to give an introduction to contemporary psychogeographers such as Iain Sinclair. This book is mostly interesting in giving the reader directions for further research. In itself it is quite flawed: city-centric and intellectual-centric, ignoring the long folk tradition of “spirit of the place”. The author only talks about exploring London and Paris as though psychogeography could only be done in the urban landscape. He makes a reference to the term “genus loci” (guardian spirit of a place in roman mytology, that turned into the contemporary concept of “spirit of the place”) but links the origin of the concept to neo-romanticism (late 19th century). No reference to the obvious roman origin of the word, nor to the fact that the same concept is very strong in Celtic mythology, and in folk culture from various places generally.

In “Lud Heat and Suicide Bridge”, Iain Sinclair plays with an esoteric interpretation of how the 6 London Churches of Architect Nicholas Hawksmoor are disposed on a map. This amused me as it reminded me of popular film Hypnotic whose plot was based about churches by a fictional architect forming a pentagram on a London map and being used for some dark purpose … I am wondering whether they ripped off Sinclair’s book, or both took inspiration from similar London urban legends.

I found another reference to psychogeography in one of my favourite book Den amerikanska flickan by Monika Fagerholm (The American girl, no yet translated in English). In the French translation, a reference is made of a teenage character being “à la derive” (going wild) with in brackets the playful comment “(il avait lu un livre)” = “(he had read a book)” which is obviously a reference to Debord’s theory of the “dérive” (wandering, aimless roaming, drifting). The idea behind the pun of wild teenage lifestyle finding justification in obscure avant-garde theories amused me a lot … The whole book itself is concerned with psychogeography. It is set in the early 70’s in a sleepy small town on the south coast of Finland, and observes the slow process by which the remote, boring location is invaded by rich people from the capital (Helsinki) who build summer homes there, and by urban feminist intellectuals and artists living in a commune there during the summer months. In summer, the city invaders clash with the locals. The clash is aggressive and literally an invasion: the whole coast is built up with private posh summer residences, so that the shore becomes private property and the locals loose access to the sea (this really happened on most of the south coast of France, the cote d’Azur). At the same time, it is liberating: local teens seduce the rich invaders into giving them an escape to the big city, or go off by themselves after discovering avant-guarde theories from hanging on with the commune residents. Yet in winter, when the city invaders depart to more hospitable climates, the place reverts to its former self of a harsh self-contained world where time moves slowly. The place identity is strongly infused by the memory of the mysterious disapperance in 1969 of a visitor (the American girl of the title). This local tabloid-type news item takes the scale of local mythology. Bengt, the boy “à la dérive” obssessively draws maps of the place containing obscure symbols referring to his own theories about the American girl’s mysterious fate. During the winter, local teens invade the deserted posh summer house and wreck havoc in them, as a form of radical reappropriation of their stolen territory. I myself grew up in a backward, remote and boring village and recognised the situations described by the author. Teens from backward places develop an instinctive talent for psychogeography, as weapon against boredom. While in cities, places usually have a set purpose (the cinema, the ice rink, the bowling …), teens from dormitory suburban areas and backward villages need to claim their territory and assign a purpose to them: the bus shelter, the supermarket car park become centres of sociability. At the same times, streets rarely have names in small French villages. Common names are assigned to them by the locals, often referring to names of old residents or local landmarks. Getting about in those villages requires to be coopted in the community and educated in the local lore. In small French villages, people tend to stay in place 20 years or a whole lifetime. It gives enough time for local gossip and news to be transformed and reinterpreted into some sort of informal local mythology.