Psychogeography was originally developed by the avant-garde movement Lettrist International in the journal Potlach. The originator of what became known as unitary urbanism, psychogeography, and the dérive was Ivan Chtcheglov, in his highly influential 1953 essay "Formulaire pour un urbanisme nouveau" ("Formulary for a New Urbanism"). The Lettrists' reimagining of the city has its precursors in aspects of Dadism and Surrealism. The idea of urban wandering relates to the older concept of the flâneur, theorized by Charles Baudelaire. Following Chtcheglov's exclusion from the Lettrists in 1954, Guy Debord and others worked to clarify the concept of unitary urbanism, in a bid to demand a revolutionary approach to architecture. At a conference in Cosio di Arroscia, Italy in 1956, the Lettrists joined the International Movement for an Imaginist Bauhaus to set a proper definition for the idea announced by Gil J. Wolman "Unitary Urbanism - the synthesis of art and technology that we call for — must be constructed according to certain new values of life, values which now need to be distinguished and disseminated." It demanded the rejection of functional, Euclidean values in architecture, as well as the separation between art and its surroundings. The implication of combining these two negations is that by creating abstraction, one creates art, which, in turn, creates a point of distinction that unitary urbanism insists must be nullified. This confusion is also fundamental to the execution of unitary urbanism as it corrupts one's ability to identify where "function" ends and "play" (the "ludic") begins, resulting in what the Lettrist International and Situationist International believed to be a utopia where one was constantly exploring, free of determining factors.
In "Formulary for a New Urbanism," Chtcheglov had written "Architecture is the simplest means of articulating time and space, of modulating reality, of engendering dreams". Similarly, the Situationists found contemporary architecture both physically and ideologically restrictive, combining with outside cultural influence, effectively creating an undertow, and forcing oneself into a certain system of interaction with their environment: "ities have a psychogeographical relief, with constant currents, fixed points and vortexes which strongly discourage entry into or exit from certain zones".
The Situationists' response was to create designs of new urbanized space, promising better opportunities for experimenting through mundane expression. Their intentions remained completely as abstractions. Guy Debord's truest intention was to unify two different factors of "ambiance" that, he felt, determined the values of the urban landscape: the soft ambiance – light, sound, time, the association of ideas – with the hard, the actual physical constructions. Debord's vision was a combination of the two realms of opposing ambiance, where the play of the soft ambiance was actively considered in the rendering of the hard. The new space creates a possibility for activity not formerly determined by one besides the individual.
However, the Situationist International may have been tongue-in-cheek about some parts of psychogeography. "This apparently serious term 'psychogeography,'" writes Debord biographer Vincent Kaufman, "comprises an art of conversation and drunkenness, and everything leads us to believe that Debord excelled at both."
Eventually, Debord and Asger Jorn resigned themselves to the fate of "urban relativity". Debord readily admits in his film A Critique of Separation (1961), "The sectors of a city…are decipherable, but the personal meaning they have for us is incommunicable, as is the secrecy of private life in general, regarding which we possess nothing but pitiful documents". Despite the ambiguity of the theory, Debord committed himself firmly to its practical basis in reality, even as he later confesses, "none of this is very clear. It is a completely typical drunken monologue…with its vain phrases that do not await response and its overbearing explanations. And its silences."
Before settling on the impossibility of true psychogeography, Debord made another film, On the Passage of a Few Persons Through a Rather Brief Unity of Time (1959), the title of which suggests its own subject matter. The film's narrated content concerns itself with the evolution of a generally passive group of unnamed people into a fully aware, anarchistic assemblage, and might be perceived as a biography of the situationists themselves. Among the rants which construct the film (regarding art, ignorance, consumerism, militarism) is a desperate call for psychogeographic action:
|“||When freedom is practiced in a closed circle, it fades into a dream, becomes a mere image of itself. The ambiance of play is by nature unstable. At any moment, "ordinary life" may prevail once again. The geographical limitation of play is even more striking than its temporal limitation. Every game takes place within the boundaries of its own spatial domain.||”|
Moments later, Debord elaborates on the important goals of unitary urbanism in contemporary society:
The atmosphere of a few places gave us a few intimations of the future powers of an architecture that it would be necessary to create in order to provide the setting for less mediocre games.
Quoting Marx, Debord says:
|“||People can see nothing around them that is not their own image; everything speaks to them of themselves. Their very landscape is animated. Obstacles were everywhere. And they were all interrelated, maintaining a unified reign of poverty.||”|
While a reading of the texts included in the journal Internationale Situationniste may lead to an understanding of psychogeography as dictated by Guy Debord, a more comprehensive elucidation of the term would come from research into those who have put its techniques into a more developed practise. While Debord's influence in bringing Chtchglov's text to an international audience is undoubted, his ability to practise the 'praxis' of unitary urbanism has been placed into question by almost all of the subsequent protagonists of the Formulary's directives. Debord was indeed a notorious drunk (see his Panegyrique, Gallimard 1995), and his assertions regarding the veracity of the affects of the psychogeographical process (derive, constructed situation) must be questioned by this personal weakness. The researches undertaken by WNLA, AAA and the London Psychogeographical Association during the 1990s support the contention of Asger Jorn and the Scandinavian Situationniste (Drakagygett 1962 - 1998) that the psychogeographical is a concept only known through practise of its techniques. Without undertaking the programme expounded by Chtchglov, and the resultant submission to the urban unknown, comprehension of the Formulary is not possible. As Debord himself suggested, an understanding of the 'beautiful language' of situationist urbanism necessitates its practice.
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