Psychogeography: A Brief Definition

Psychogeography: a comparatively modern label for a theme the new book ‘Soul City Wandering‘ seeks to embrace. But what does it mean?

In the 1950s, the French writer Guy Debord defined it as the interpretation of “specific effects of the geographical environment, consciously organized or not, on the emotions and behavior of individuals.” In other words, it is a journey of emotional interaction with your surroundings, or the act of experiencing a place on a sensory level. Beyond that, it’s an ambivalent term.

Merlin Coverley in Psychogeography (2006) contends the reason why the subject is so nebulous and resistant to definition is that it appears to harbour within it such a welter of seemingly unrelated concepts. As it has mutated, the derivatives have allowed engagement via multiple metaphysical dimensions, traits, currents, vortexes, senses and imprints. So, to start, it might be worth defining more expansively, in as much as that is possible, this intriguing field.

‘The Difference’
In helping to define psychogeography, it might help to understand what it is not. It is not strolling from A to B while studying interesting buildings. It is not turning off a sat-nav in the hope of discovering something new or unexpected (the sat-nav is not anathema here. It is simply a digital map, and maps are relevant to psychogeography). And it is not deviating from a standard route just for the sake of doing so.


1: The Drifters
The dérive or drift tradition of psychogeography. Was developed by the French writer Guy Debord’s Situationist group in the 1950s. This generally involves spontaneous journeys by groups of three or four people through the urban landscape in an arbitrary dream-like wandering. The objective is that the emotional disorientation of a randomly encountered space may lead to ‘Situations’ which can be projected as an artform (a sort of Abstract Impressionism) or act as a catalyst to create radical change.

2: The Matrix
This branch involves the search for linear connections or structural intention between existing locations, landmarks or architecture. At first glance, this smacks of the oft-derided pseudoscience of ley lines, but the theory can be intriguing. In Lud Heat, Iain Sinclair suggested that the mapping of architect Nicholas Hawksmoor’s London churches reveals geometric patterns connected to Egyptian mythology. The more Sinclair connected the dots, the more there seemed to be something emotive in it. The general theme is also explored in Merlin Coverley’s Occult London (2008).

3: The Wasteland
This strain is a perception of space or non-place, typically unspoken, unrecorded or non-historic, such as wastelands, industrial parks or non-descript habitation, where a new sense of being may be created, or where an erased culture may be rediscovered (if you look hard enough). If you want to get deep-down and dirty with this version of psychogeography, the outer suburbs of London are a rich hunting ground. The poet John Betjeman was a trail-blazer here, romanticizing the mundane London suburbs in his 1973 documentary Metro-Land.

4: Sense & Sensibility
Relying on a specific sense can also be part of an experience. The writer Will Self, who taught a psychogeography module at Brunel University, remembered that he once had to physically feel his way home along his regular path, as a thick London fog had descended, making navigation by sight impossible.

5: Pillars of the Earth
This tradition considers the repetitive patterns of human behaviour over time, including divergent or migratory paths which paint a new dimension on the urban landscape. The problem with this element in the heart of London is that human imprints may be difficult to experience as the residue is weak. To counter this, a softer strain of psychogeography has been introduced that explores the mental impact over time of a compact locale or tangible structure on the local populace. This is sometimes referred to as ‘persistence of place’. Although there is a susceptibility to ‘drift’ into conspiracy theories and the occult, this version, for me, is absorbing, enjoyable and rewarding, and is the main inspiration for Soul City Wandering.

Published by Soul City Wanderer

Soul City Wanderer is the alias of London journalist and author Frank Molloy, a writer on the city’s history and culture. Born south of the river, he has an MA in London history (Birkbeck) and lectures at various institutions including the Museum of London and the National Portrait Gallery. He is also a fully-qualified Blue Badge Guide (MITG), Westminster Guide and City of London Guide.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: