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...

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