Dérive 0: Why Psychogeography?

To say that humanity is alienated isn't just to state the painfully obvious. It is to describe a truth that applies so thoroughly, and to everything in human existence, that it almost describes nothing. We are alienated from ourselves, each other, our labor, our human-made and natural environments. We are, as Marx observed, not ourselves when we work. And as the logic of work as exploitation insinuates itself deeper into all aspects of life, we wonder, can we ever truly be ourselves?

Alienation is, at its most basic and fundamental, a geographic and temporal experience. Both where we are, and when we are there, are mediated and shaped by the needs of profit and exploitation. The spans of time in which we can do what we like and the space to shape our surroundings are extremely limited. And even when we are able to do either they are often, openly or covertly, also done so within parameters designed to maximize our pliability to the needs of capitalism.

Under the threat of homelessness and starvation we are required to be at the location of our job by a certain time. We are trained and disciplined to give the time we spend there to someone else's,  grand design and for the sake of their betterment well before our own, in place of our own.

Our time outside of work is spent in a dwindling number of public and pseudo-public spaces increasingly and evermore tightly wound around efforts to facilitate the extraction of profit. Even the spaces in which we spend our private time are determined  by what we can afford, as is our ability to change them. So are the items we consume -- be they cultural or otherwise -- to relax and be "not at work;" they are somehow and to some degree at ease with the metabolism of the same exploitation we experience at work because they emerge from the same processual logic. Our time is not our own, and the space in which we exist is beyond our shaping it. Everyone feels this, everyone knows this deep down.

History is beyond our reach, and until the creativity to shape and control our space and time is returned back to us, it always will be. Cities, those brilliant constructions that bring together people and experiences from near-infinite cultural and historical backgrounds, which might be a pinnacle of collective human development and achievement, are instead stymied by their the function they currently serve as concentrations of capital. We experience them in their present state as our own mausoleums.

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One of the ongoing projects at Say It With Paving Stones... will be an attempt to (re-)discover how this might be undone. Of course there is a straightforward and simple answer that our exile from history can only be ended with the abolition of the current system. Capitalism will not relinquish any of its grip on our cultural existence without its economic base being uprooted and destroyed. But a question of imagination, of our conception of the possible, still remains. How are we able to see ourselves as able to radically transform our environments when their shape and size and functions are so masterfully dictated to us from the top down?

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Properly understood, psychogeography is the study (or at least the examination of) effects of geographical setting, consciously managed or not, acting directly on the mood and behavior of the individual. It's about pushing back against the cognitive effects of traffic and advertisements and regimented time, whether by the organization of production or of consumption. If we are to develop and articulate a vision of a mass, collective Right To The City then psychogeography is to our designs as is reconnaissance to an army in the field.

The main mechanism of psychogeography is the dérive, which only means "drift," to be pushed and pulled by the contours of geography and the interventions of chance as if they were ocean currents. The dérive is the technique of locomotion without a goal, or at least without an intended physical destination; there are surely desired outcomes. One is the construction of situations; moments of authenticity designed to be lived by its constructors as participants at a time when the present arrangement depends on spectators. Another is an intimate knowledge both of the city -- not only as a series of locations, but as an entity -- and of the way in which it development capital constantly reshapes our lives and psyches. This is important for us individuals, who are so adapted to the artificial rhythms of everyday life, as an exercise in the maintenance of our subjectivity. It is important for us collectively, as a movement is a complex sum of its components.

On this blog, at (somewhat, hopefully) regular intervals, we will be sharing our recorded thoughts on our own wanderings, our own dérives, through the urban wastelands of primarily Los Angeles but also Chicago, London, and wherever else we might find ourselves. We do this not to “revive” the concept -- there are in fact other “psychogeographers,” and of all stripes -- but to help re-root it in a materialist, dialectical, and thoroughly Marxist methodology, and in doing so to explore how these concepts might be made relevant to a new, dynamic and chaotic socialist left and workers movement.

Psychogeography is a practice with deep roots in Marxism, from Walter Benjamin’s reworking of Baudellaire’s flâneur up through the situationists themselves. Today it has been pulled far from these roots and infected with neoliberal new age nonsense. So much so that Laura Oldfield Ford, one of the most incisive psychogeographic artists working today, shuns the term entirely. Whether we can "take back" a term that was never all that popular to begin with is secondary to whether we can popularize a methodology for experiencing the city as participants and not merely spectators. Plenty of us walk on occasion, to the corner store, to "get in shape," or just to go for a leisurely stroll. Far too few of us set out on foot to analyze, to discover, and to make determinations. It doesn't exactly sound fun and it certainly doesn't sound like a productive use of our precious time. In fact, the dérive is meant to challenge both conceptions of play and of productivity.

To become a historical subject unavoidably means having the power to construct and reconstruct the world around you, and a left that has had virtually all of its cultural, physical and temporal space stolen from under it is unable to rise to this challenge. It is our hope that with some of these recorded geographical experiments, these “dérive diaries,” can help to widen these avenues of inquiry.