Essay: Idiosyncratic rituals amidst anomic times: la D’rive as an urban therapy

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  • Idiosyncratic rituals amidst anomic times: la D'rive as an urban therapy
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This paper will explore the relationship between rapid socio-economic development and the ‘invention of ritual’ in the streets of post-war Western Europe. I will address here the question of social disorientation in anomic periods of instability and change, and the ways in which the resurgence of ritual can serve not only as a medium for orienting oneself through a modernizing urban landscape, but also as a symbolic means to resist and subvert it.

Central to my argument is that the psychogeographic practice of la D’rive can be conceptualized as an ‘idiosyncratic ritual’ that lingers at crossroads between anomic normlessness, creative refusal (Graeber, 2013), and a thirst for transcendental experience beyond the lucid architecture of modern city life. In Western Europe, the collapse of the traditional social order kindled schismogenetic (Bateson, 1935) practices of differentiation not so much in relation to the long-established status quo, but rather, against the unfolding anomic one. Instead of a dialectic between two different groups, the schismogenetic process played out between the individual and the urban environment; and as individuals -here, the Situationists- came to notice the proliferation of new social pathologies and existence of psychogeographic forces, radical action was sought out.
urban liminal practice, la D’rive seeks to fracture the ‘stranglehold of the society of spectacle’ (Pinder, 2000), through the creation of new patterns and situations that bring to light the psychogeographic contradictions of late capitalism. Situations are intended to be constructed moments of ‘rupture, of acceleration, revolutions in individual everyday life’ (Debord, 1958); the practice thus, operates as a technique for consciousness modification which seeks to ignite an awareness of such contradictions. I suggest that la D’rive has therapeutic effects in the way it reconciles the individual to the anonymity of the city by allowing him to engage spontaneously with incongruous spaces while dropping aside all his other usual motives for movement and action (Debord and Wolman,1956). Thus, a psychogeographic focus on the phenomenological experience of la D’rive can bring further insight into the way in which culturally shaped perceptions interact with particular environments, and how an alteration of these perceptions can appease the tensions between independent subjectivity and the tingling undercurrents of modern spaces.

Beyond the plastic emotion of the spectacle
In his 1978 film In girum imus nocte et consumimur igny, Debord dramatically utters: ‘Paris no longer exists’. The Paris he had once known back in the 1950s had over the decades been renovated, rearticulated by the public building works overseen by Le Corbusier, and the populations that once harboured city dwellings were being dispersed, disseminated, in the light of the ‘decongestioning’ of the so-called ‘unhygienic’ and ‘diseased’ areas of the city. Such vocabulary of hygiene was widely criticized as it simultaneously was serving as a means for the exclusion of certain social groups, especially immigrant populations, from specific locations (Ross, 1996). The heimliche of urban life had become substituted by the unheimliche, with the changing and the reorganization of the landscape fuelled a sense of rootlessness among the affected stratums of French society, and the plastic emotion mirrored in Le Corbusier’s machine aesthetic (Passanti, 1997) contributed to the crippling sense of alienation that was saturating the writings of the time . This rapidly-spreading new social pathology came to congest the Parisian ecosystem of the 1970s with a profound feeling of uncanniness, as for instance felt in the works of French novelist Georges Perec, Les Choses (1965), Life, A Users’ Manual (2009) and A Man Asleep (2017), which narrate the vagaries of the modern man navigating his way amidst the plastic solitude of his new habitat.
While Paris was rebuilt and its populations scattered about, its political economy was being transfigured with the rise of the society of spectacle, of which the trademark was the production of the homo-economicus, whose existence was atomized and mediated by the laws of consumer markets. A dynamic of anomie, lawlessness and normlessness was growing at the heart of the concrete spaces of the cit’, while a new Weltanschauung, composed of the mass diffusion of consumer images was starting to mediate relationships between people, objects and spaces. The synergistic interaction between the changing physical environment, technology and the division of labour had come to substitute authentic needs with the manufacturing of pseudo-needs (Debord, 1987:33), through the deployment of technologies directed at the sustaining of the fragile fa’ade of modernity.

Psychogeographic transgressions
Against this background, the practice of psychogeography was invented by the Situationists , with for purpose that of exposing how such changes were having psychological effects on the residents that harboured those, and heal the sense of ambivalence that characterized the way in which self-described alienated subjects related to their environments. Despite the fact that psychogeography initially emerged as a ‘revolutionary strategy’, it nonetheless was rapidly implemented in practice by non-Situationist groups and was the object of both political and apolitical inspiration beyond of the francophone world (see Richardson, 2015; Eerola, 2004; Giungato, 2004).
While the Situationists were more concerned with the political effects of the rationalization and segmentation of the visual order (see Scott, 1998), one aspect of the practice did focus on the study of terrains, in light of studying the ‘precise laws and specific effects of the geographical environment, consciously organized or not, on the emotions and behaviour of individuals’ (Debord, 1955). This evokes Mitchell’s (1988) account of British imperial efforts in Egypt, in which he describes the various projects of legibility and the ordering of urban space undertaken with for objective that of ordering social behaviour- which he names, the project of ‘enframing’. Such projects of urban arrangement can moreover be scrutinized through Foucauldian lens of governmentality and capillary power (Foucault, 2012), and their deployment in part responsible for the symmetrical schismogenetic spiral. If the new visual order was the trademark of order and conformity, then a practice of dissidence would uptake the characteristics of creativity and negation of the values diffused by the ruling order, hence the relevance of notion of ‘creative refusal’ (Graeber, 2013).
The finality of the study of psychogeography was to construct alternative maps of the cities celebrating different itineraries, sites and ambiences existing in these (see Sinclair’s imaginative mappings of the ’emotions and humours’ of London, 2002), in the light of exposing the ever-changing states of mind. This quasi animism is well illustrated by Vidler’s work (2002), which explores the link between fear, anxiety and estrangement to the aesthetics of space and the ‘imago’ of architecture. The modern subject is, he argues, ‘caught in spatial systems beyond his control’ (Vidler:1) that have resulted in the interweaving of contemporary forms of psychopathology, such as anorexia, agoraphobia and anxiety, and the oppressive shapes of the megalopolis. Likewise, Simmel’s The Metropolis and the Mental Life (1903) elaborates on the psychological effects of urban hyperstimulation has yielded amongst the population certain blas’ traits, instantiated by the superficiality, greyness and indifference both buildings and members of the spectacle society came to engulf themselves into.
While from a psychological perspective it might be argued that participants are actually projecting their own emotional states onto external landscapes and spaces, and therefore constructing certain associative ideas in relation to these, the focus adopted here emphasizes the way in which those internal states are rooted within specific cultural and historical dynamics such as anomie, alienation from urban changes and the spectacle, and how psychogeography -more specifically the ritual of la D’rive- has therapeutic effects in reconfiguring the individual’s relationship to these.
Aside of an urban exploration, the other dimension of the psychogeographic practice is in turn rather inwardly directed, and held for objective that of reaching a state of emotional disorientation, through a drifting through afunctional city spaces. Quintessentially, with its flow of acts, its gestures, its strolls, its encounters, la D’rive was a quest for psychological deterritorialization (Deleuze, 1977) and exploration of heterotopic spaces (Foucault, 1986). The practice sought to challenge hegemonic notions of order, rationality, structure that, according to the Situationists, the ruling classes had come to inscribe in the city landscapes, and dismantle the consumer boredom which had come to falsify modern social relationships and reach its point of culmination through the society of spectacle.

The methods used for la D’rive originated in Debord’s close study of Saint-Germain delinquents, whose existence and habitus represented symbolically a subversion to that of the dominating system: by adopting their habits, their ‘ethnos’, he argued that one could transgress the functional usage of spaces (including a disruption of traffic and commodity circulation) and Protestant conceptions of time. As such, a number of steps to follow were outlined to ensure efficacy of the practice: those who partake in it should embark on an unplanned journey lasting the duration equivalent to that ‘between two periods of sleep’ (Debord, 1958), in which the ‘aesthetic contours of architecture and geography unconsciously direct travellers to find an entirely new and authentic experience’ (Woolf, 1992). Although individuals can go on a D’rive by themselves, it is recommended that the drifting experience is shared by a small group. La D’rive is meant to be transformative, liminal, self-emancipating: during the practice, participants are encouraged to consume alcohol so that the experience is fully consciousness-altering. Activities can include talking to strangers, walking or exploring prohibited areas, and hitchhiking nonstop throughout a city. Because the D’rive adopted a critical attitude towards the hegemonic scope of modernity, certain areas were intentionally avoided, for these ‘pandered to crass appetites for ultra-visible urban spectacles’ (Basset, 2007).

La D’rive as an urban therapy
At this stage, it could come at ease to question the actual significance of the practice and how it would supposedly differ in practice from say, going for a walk or a stroll in the city. This will now bring me to the point that la D’rive can be best understood as a ritual, embedded within the resurgence of magic and a negation of the secularization of the cityscape. The anomic character of the practice is also here fundamental. I will address the two assumptions made here in light of some further clarification: first, that la D’rive can be conceptualized as a ritual, and second, that the practice can be interpreted as a reprisal against the utopian secular vision both politicians and architects from the modernist wave. What will follow is not so much a discussion of ethnographic data, but rather, a theoretical argument about the function of ritual within this particular cultural context. On this note, that conceptualizing la D’rive as a ritual might be the object of some controversy speaks much about the way in which dominant representations shape individual perceptions, view which has persisted due to the widespread idea that the ‘invention of tradition’ does not create a continuity with the past as much as it distances itself from it (Pels, 2003: 32). If we take the society of spectacle to be the expression of estrangement, of alienation between man and his environment (Debord, 1995:151), and we understand its reterritorializing aspects to be having profound consequences on the collective psyche, as seen for instance with the spread of modern forms of social pathologies, then the hypothesis that the new features of urban spaces and major changes in the ecosystem are affecting psychological well-being and creating new tensions in society remains entirely plausible, and worth exploring.
There has been speculation over the nature and function of ritual within modernism, and the way in which a return to the sacred is taking place through experimental forms in metropolitan spaces. Magic is being used to conjure an aura of yearning, delight and transformation, as well as to offer practices of critique and disorientation that challenge the predictability of the ordinary landscape (Bonnett, 2017). While Pile has attempted to ‘unsettle the prevalent assumption that Western cities are untouched by magic’ (Pile, 2005:305), Colle has argued (in Sadler, 1999) that the rationalization of the environment was having the very opposite effect upon mass consciousness from that envisioned by the reforms of the city. With la D’rive, the ‘state of total and passive submission’ experienced by ‘the man in the street placed before the [Le Corbusian] architectural phenomenon’ was quite the contrary having rather schismogenetic outcomes, entrenched in dynamics of cultural refusal: instead of conforming to the predicaments made by the urban planners of the time, its founding principles generated new forms of resistance for the individual to interact and cope with the artificiality of his environment, through a complete removal of the individual from his function and status in the social fabric, the deployment of recreational practices combining elements of subversion and creation, and finally his reinsertion in the social order with a transformed consciousness, in a manner reminiscent of Carpenter’s They Live (1988). Instead of conforming to its rationalizing principles, the Situationists provided an incentive to rearticulate this relationship, through a technique of ‘construction of situations’ which the different characteristics -despite its unanchored and idiosyncratic aspect- followed very closely to those found in rituals, as understood in the traditional sense of the term.
This will bring me to address the question of ritual. What is it that makes a practice a ritual? What can the conceptualization of a practice such as that of the D’rive tell us about the social and cultural context in which it embedded? Turner’s work among the Ndembu in Zambia (1995), provides an elaborate description on the function of ritual in society, which he draws from Van Gennep’s study on rites of passage (2011). According to Turner, rituals serve as redressive mechanisms for the tensions produced in the secular order (Turner, 1967: 91-94), which allows groups to adjust to internal change and adapt to their external environment. A ritual involves the manipulation of a certain set of symbols that intend to change the cognitive perception of the initiate, and detach him from his former role in society. Symbols can be objects, activities, words, relationships, events, gestures, or spatial units (Turner 1967:19).
In this regard, Van Gennep indicated that all rites are marked by a threefold progression of successive ritual stages: first, the separation or the pre-liminal phase, during which a person or group becomes detached from an earlier fixed point in the social structure or from an earlier set of social conditions; second, the liminal stage, during which the status of the initiate is ambiguous: he is no longer in the old state and has not yet reached the new one; during the ‘consciousness modification’ process, the initiate becomes ‘structurally invisible’ as he adopts a liminal personae. The limino’d is ‘betwixt and between’ the social order, and therefore no longer has a fixed social role. Outside of the structure, he is temporally secluded from secular life, and encouraged to espouse the different emotional and psychological states, leaving aside the rigid moral structuring mechanisms of his society. Last but not least, the post-liminal stage reinserts of the individual into the secular order and is given a new social role in society (Turner 1967:94).
The analogy to be made between Van Gennep’s rite of passage and la D’rive here plays out on several levels. First, there is a marked temporality which takes place in three different stages, and include a temporary transgression of the social order which ’emplot’ the ritual subject in a liminal anti-structure, before he is reinserted into normative everyday life with a modified consciousness. La D’rive can only be a temporary state, and the participant is bound to relapse into secular life at risk of being ‘threatened with explosion, dissolution, dissociation, disintegration’ (Chtcheglov, Debord, Wolman et al., 1981, 38). The narrative of ‘exposing oneself to the hidden forces of the city’ and emotionally disorientating oneself resembles very closely to, on the one hand, a form of enchantment of the potencies of city spaces, and on the other, to a form of therapeutic emplotment, as described by Mattingly (1994), which engulfs the initiate in a therapeutic process through which he disarticulates himself from the webs of capital-intensive living before reinserting himself back into the very same normality of everyday life, therefore having disrupted the psychological afflictions of the architecture of ‘modern’ times.

In this paper, I sought to ground la D’rive in the historical context of its production as a philosophical theory, and to show the ways it exemplifies an alternative to the instrumentality of urban life. I argue that psychogeography as a field of ‘study’ has emerged as a means to come to an ends with the issue of alienation characteristic of anomic post-war urban life in Western Europe, and the socio-economic changes that followed as a result of it. By allowing the individual to navigate through his phenomenological ressentis of the city as a limino’d, la D’rive provides a creative means to actualize his relationship to urban spaces, by transgressing the ‘petrified’ visions of order and functionalism that discolour these. By undergoing the succeeding the stages specific to rites of passage, the idiosyncratic ritual emplots the individual in a plot structure which is deployed to thwart the corroding psychopathological potency of prevailing orthodoxies. This view, in turn, has led me to analyse the relationship between ritual, resistance and anomie, and question the supposed secularizing effect of urban development. Conceptualizing la D’rive as a ritual -of which a predominant feature is its idiosyncrasy- can provide insight into the therapeutic effects of the pursuit of enchantment in the midst of perceived disenchantment; and the schismogenetic politics of the reconfiguration of emotional states in response to shifting environments.

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