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.
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).
...(download the rest of the essay above)