Sunday, January 30, 2022

What is Psychogeography? A Journal of the Plague Year

According to Merlin Coverley, the first psychogeographic survey of London was Daniel Defoe's A Journal of the Plague Year. The book, in his telling, is "an imaginative reworking of the city in which the familiar layout of the city is shown to be transformed" (Coverley, p. 37). I dove into the novel without much knowledge about it. It is a completely fascinating book that, in my opinion, is in no way a psychogeography. 

Basically, the book is a fictional story of a saddle maker, who decides to remain in London during the plague of 1665. Defoe published the book in 1722, basing it on his childhood memories, statistical data, and many works that had already been published. In a very journalistic style, the saddle maker talks about what life is like being isolated and about the city when he often goes out around town, which is very life threatening. All those who can have left for the countryside. He has to stay because of his business, and he doesn't have adequate funds to leave town. He reports on conversations and stories, and on people screaming in pain, people wailing in grief from the discovery that their family members were ill or had passed away, people trying to continue to work, people escaping London to live in the forest, and so on. During his relatively short complete isolation, the saddle maker's friend, a doctor, came over, and, like everyone today, the saddle maker was so glad to talk with his friend. Importantly, I started reading a version of the book, which had been rewritten in language of today, which was very easy to read. I also read another version with language of the time, which took some getting used to reading. The whole book is just so interesting about what life was like at that time. I highly recommend it. 

Now, I don't think that the book is psychogeography. He talks about London, but it seems like a newspaper reporter going out and talking about all the crazy things he sees. Here is my earlier discussion of psychogeography, which, in my opinion, doesn't include this (great) book.

Sunday, January 9, 2022

What is Psychogeography? Rorschach Theater

I have had a very enjoyable time doing the first two boxes of "Chemical Exile," the psychogeographical theater piece by the Rorschach Theater. Each of the seven boxes directs you to a specific location and provide you photos, letters, objects, etc. as a chapter in the "Chemical Exile" storyline. The theater's definition of psychogeography is:

It’s the intersection of psychology and geography and while the idea existed long before him, the term was coined by philosopher Guy Debord in the 1950s as an instruction for urban exploration.


  • WANDERING as you explore your physical world in a leisurely way
  • SUBVERTING your everyday relationship with the city through a fresh perspective
  • DISCOVERING the present through the prism of the past
  • ...and maybe a dash of the occult

As a sociologist, I tend more towards the understanding psychogeography as a method of urban exploration, but the theater is working within the literary tradition of psychogeography, which Merlin Coverley's Psychogeography fascinatingly and convincingly argues is even more important. 

Regarding the theater's definition, the wandering is different from drifting because we "audience members" are directed to a location and are exploring the psychological and geographical experiences of the main character. Of course, our own experiences of the spaces are interwoven and are encouraged in the call to be leisurely. 

People swimming in Marie Reed pool
Regarding subverting my everyday relationship with the city, I greatly appreciated going to a new part of Adams Morgan. Seeing the pool (see left image), the mural (see image below), and the wonderful picnic tables at Marie Reed Rec Center, as well as other very cool destinations, made the city even more marvelous! These destination also made me re-discover the present through the past. As Coverley writes, "the topography of the city is refashioned through the imaginative force of the writer [or the theater]...a kind of historical consciousness that exposes the psychic connectivity of landscapes" (p. 16). This was definitely the case. 

The occult also appeared! This play is in some sense about the city changing in confusing ways. In the midst of Box 2, which is very much about this, I ended up walking behind three men. I met one of them, Jerome, who was just explaining to his friends how different the area was from when he was growing up and pointing out the new buildings all around. I feel as if these kinds of woo-woo synchronicities are an important element of psychogeography. They highlight or emphasize a point or a significance in the space.

The theater piece sent me walking in new directions, which I am very grateful about. Among other things, I saw a strange portico on the side of a row house near 16th and Florida St, NW, (see below, any ideas about that??), and a kind of informal gallery or political statement near Ontario and Kalorama (see below). On the side of a garage planned to be razed was a series of photos of houses on the 1700-block of Seaton Place/Street, NW. In Shirikiana Aina's movie "Brick by Brick," the fight by the residents of this block to stop eviction as a result of gentrification is documented (here is more information, saying they were one of the first groups to use the new TOPA rules).

"Chemical Exile" is a great psychogeographical experience so far!


Saturday, January 8, 2022

What is Psychogeography? Drifting

As discussed in my previous post, one psychogeographical method is aimless strolling and drifting through the city. First, French situationalist Guy Debord understood this drifting as a way investigate the emotional terrain of the city. Everyone senses the mood or ambiance of different parts of town. Here Debord suggests that we systematically explore the "zones of distinct psychic atmospheres," their currents, and their edges, as a way to understand the city in a deeper way (Coverley's Psychogeography, pp. 81-103). 

Second, these strolls might move in a more sociological direction, as a way to detect multiple social worlds crossing through the city. Sociologist Ruth Glass understood London as an often invisible constellation of many unfamiliar worlds:

We can see them in the mean streets, in luxury flats, along the roads of suburban ribbon development; in places like Eel Pie Island, where various cliques of teenagers congregate; in jazz clubs, coffee bars, Soho joints, and expense account restaurants; in the withdrawing rooms of earnest religious or political sects; at Speakers’ Corner in Hyde Park or the Earls Court Road; at meetings in Trafalgar Square; in public libraries, senior common rooms, and at soirĂ©es of the Royal Society. We get an inkling of the existence of other remote and yet nearby worlds through migration statistics; through fascist news-sheets and...scrawls on the walls of back alleys; through unsavoury court cases or complaints before rent tribunals; in reading Press items about witch rites, ghost hunts, visits from Martians, and take-over bids. And then again, we may hear of the ‘hidden’ societies through reports of hospital almoners [officials who determine if someone qualifies for assistance], N.S.P.C.C. [National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children] inspectors, or social workers who bring ‘meals on wheels’ to lonely old people. It is an amazing, still largely obscured, panorama that thus begins to be visible— a conglomeration of groups who move, so to speak, on separate tracks, even if they do meet occasionally at a station. (Glass, introduction to London: Aspects of Change, 1964)

Aimless strolling (and other methods) builds on our already existing human abilities to pick up on this panorama of social worlds and expand our understanding of cities beyond mass media and real estate's simultaneous "cliches of urban doom" (Glass 1989) and celebration of, what she termed, "gentrification" (Glass 1964). 

Third, drifting also accesses our unconscious/subconscious and its amorphous knowledge of the city, which might also be considered a psychogeographical method. Back in September, I did a drift through Georgetown. I was born in Columbia Hospital for Women, and my family during my first year of life lived in a basement apartment in a Georgetown rowhouse around 27th and P Street, NW. So, I started on that block and drifted with the idea that my unconscious/subconscious might have retained knowledge of that time or might be open to knowledge embedded in the geography. Animals defined the drift. After being accompanied by crows flying overhead, I found myself in Mount Zion Cemetery/Female Union Band Society Cemetery, where I spent some time. Walking around Dumbarton House (the national headquarters of The National Society of The Colonial Dames of America) and along Oak Hill Cemetery, I didn't feel like going into this cemetery, but I did and followed a cardinal to two headstones with family names -- Boswell and Merrick -- related to my Capitol Hill research. I believe that I walked down 29th St. On tiny Cambridge St, which made me think of Cambridge, MD, and Harriet Tubman (though maybe not the intention of the street name), I encountered a small rabbit on someone's side lawn. I returned to 29th on Dent St, possibly named after the large-scale enslavers from Charles County, MD. Paying attention to people and further animals, I mysteriously found myself again at Mount Zion Cemetery/Female Union Band Society Cemetery with at least one hawk flying overhead. And I walked down the hill to the Rock Creek path below. I found the aimless strolling very interesting. Obviously, my drift picked up on certain historical connections in the geography, while others would likely have a very different drift. To try to make sense of the drift, I took notes immediately, described the entire drift on paper soon afterwards, and drew a map.

I'm soon going to experience the Rorschach Theater psychogeography, which, of course, begins in Mount Zion Cemetery/Female Union Band Cemetery...

Saturday, January 1, 2022

What is Psychogeography?

For some time, I've been intrigued by psychogeography. A couple of weeks ago, I received a letter from the Rorschach Theater on H St, NE, saying that they had been doing some psychogeography theater. I signed up (and paid) to figure out what they are up to and just received in the mail this box as part of a series of boxes: 

I haven't yet experienced this project, but I wanted to explain why I find psychogeography interesting (and certain practices problematic), which is based completely on a very useful book, Merlin Coverley's Psychogeography:

1) Psychogeography generally involves walking in a city.

2) Psychogeography is a method of exploring cities in new ways. For example, one might take a drinking glass and draw a circle around its base on a city map and then follow, as best one can, the circle through the city. One could also throw dice to make walking decisions. Alternatively, one can take "a drift," in which one follows one's subconscious to figure out new connections, places, "zones of distinct psychic atmospheres," etc.

3) Psychogeography is a perspective that views the city as a mystery, which requires secret knowledge to understand. On the one hand, one might follow Peter Ackroyd and see the city as having an ancient, eternal nature understood through hidden signs, codes, etc. On the other hand, one might observe the movements of working class groups through the city as they map their own labyrinthine, secret city (like in Edward P. Jones' Lost in the City). 
4)  Psychogeography is a perspective in opposition to the homogeneous city, the city of gentrification and standardization that makes all cities the same, as well as different also in the same ways. This view allows us to sense the marvelous city and how opaque areas of or certain past activities in the city remain around us in a kind of layering, a palimpsest. 
5) Psychogeography might be a way to take the city from developers, real estate agents, and others who seek to erase the city, displace the working classes, and create a "Great Blight of Dullness." One might follow Stewart Home and usurp the claims of these real estate actors, leave secret codes for others, and take and transform the city. 
6) Psychogeography can be imperialistic. For example, some psychogeography groups call themselves astronauts. If one walks through DC viewing oneself as an astronaut, then one might see other people as foreign beings, potentially dangerous aliens, and definitely not as neighbors or as people with a "right to the city." One can follow other traditions of psychogeography to hopefully avoid this; these traditions are discussed in Merlin Coverley's great book Psychogeography