Topic: A Northwest Passage

Psychogeography and Time


Psychogeography has always been as much about time as it has been about space. As Ivan Chtcheglov had it: ‘all cities are geological; you cannot take three steps without encountering ghosts bearing all the prestige of their legends.’[1] In cities, the spatial orders of various eras are superimposed upon one another with no regard for temporal succession. Within the City of London, for example, glass towers jostle for position within the confines of a medieval street pattern, whilst a short distance away in Hackney or Islington it is not unusual to find Georgian town houses abutting 1960s municipal housing and contemporary ‘luxury’ apartments.

The lesson that the Situationists drew from such juxtapositions was that the technologies of spatial construction developed through history could be appropriated for the creation of a city whose guiding principles would be freedom and desire rather than labour and consumption. In Situationist psychogeography, the spaces of history become the materials from which an un-alienated space might be constructed, and in this they looked to the past for the materials from which they might build a different future.

Late capitalist culture and politics conducts its affairs in a relentless present tense. Historical images circulate within an economy of signs which cannot itself articulate the present’s relationship with the past as history. In The Society of the Spectacle, Guy Debord noted that the motto of the ‘new town’ might be: “On this spot nothing will ever happen – and nothing ever has.”’[2] British literary psychogeography has often discovered similar insights. In London Orbital, Iain Sinclair explored similar amnesiac territories in the hinterlands of London’s M25. Coming across ‘Porters Mansion’, a former manor house converted to luxury flats, he picks up a brochure:

‘For centuries this house and its surrounding estate were a dominant feature of the local landscape and witness to many changes not least its encirclement by Shenley Hospital in the 1930’s … The Mansion has had a fascinating history.’ Has had. Present perfect. History, once again, put in its place. The future all used up.[3]

If Debord’s ‘new town’, at the same time as it overwrites space, overwrites history, Porters Mansion makes much of its historical status, but only insofar as it adds monetary value.

For Debord the point of rediscovering the ability to think historically is to generalise, on the level of both the individual and the collective, not the alienated irreversible time of production or the pseudo-cyclical time of consumption, but a ‘generalized historical life’.[4] British literary psychogeography, if it shares something of the Situationist search for such a time, it does so not at the level of the collective, but as a compensatory activity pursued by bohemians in the margins and interstices of an increasingly encroaching economism. As Patrick Keiller has put it: ‘as individuals, we can’t rebuild the public transport system, or re-empower local democracy, but we can poeticise our relationship with their dilapidation.’[5] It would therefore seem that to rediscover psychogeography as a critical, or perhaps more specifically, anti-capitalist practice, it would also seem to be necessary also to renegotiate its relationship with time.

[1] Ivan Chtcheglov, ‘Formulary for a New Urbanism in Situationist International Anthology (Berkeley, CA: Bureau of Public Secrets, 1995), ed. and trans. by Ken Knabb, pp. 1-4 (p. 1).
[2] Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle, trans. by Donald Nicholson-Smith (New York, NY: Zone Books, 1995), p. 126.
[3] Iain Sinclair, London Orbital (London: Granta, 2001), p. 125.
[4] Guy Debrod, The Society of the Spectacle, p. 116.
[5] Patrick Keiller, ‘Popular Science’, in The View From the Train (London: Verso, 2013), pp. 65-73 (pp. 71-72).

One Song to the Tune of Another

New Islington hoarding

Earlier this month I took an excursion into Manchester to mark the beginning of a new project: A Northwest Passage: Towards A Mancunian Psychogeography, to be published with Manchester University Press. My PhD focussed on the writing of Iain Sinclair, perhaps the figure who has done more to popularise the notion of psychogeography (that is, to cite a well-worn definition, ‘the study of the precise laws and specific effects of the geographical environment, whether consciously organized or not, on the emotions and behavior of individuals’) in the UK than any other. Throughout this research it became more and more clear to me that Sinclair’s version of psychogeography was very different to that developed by its first practitioners – the French revolutionary avant-garde the Situationist International. Whilst I still think that Sinclair’s body of work – and in particular his early poetry and novels – is superb, I also believe that the London focus of his writing and its often gothic character weighs very heavily on the British interpretation of psychogeography.

My intention in A Northwest Passage is to redress this balance somewhat: I want to remind British psychogeography of the idea’s revolutionary and utopian underpinnings: to ask what is Marxist about psychogeography (and indeed, what is psychogeographic about Marxism). As the birthplace of industrial capitalism, the streets of 19th Century Manchester (both buried and extant) are the first examples of a spatial order which is now global in scope. More recently, the city has seen successive waves of (more or less utopian) spatial engineering, from the slum clearances of the 1950s and 60s, the construction (and eventual demolition) of social housing such as the Hulme crescents, through to more recent successive experiments in gentrification in Castlefield, Ancoats, Salford Media City (if the reader will permit my inclusion of Salford as part of Greater Manchester) and along Oxford Road. There is therefore no better place to rediscover (or invent) the materialist first principles of psychogeography; moreover, where else could one hope to find the ‘Northwest Passage’ to another way of life that the Situationists were searching for?

New islington hoarding

Psychogeographic praxis seems to alter depending on circumstances: Paris, as a city of successive revolutions, produced in the 1960s a revolutionary psychogeography; London in the 1990s, under the aegis of Iain Sinclair, produced a somewhat more literary (and more Gothic) variant. Manchester, one might suppose, will offer different possibilities. A Northwest Passage intends to explore these possiblities, and the thread that will reconnect its speculative Mancunian psychogeography to its Parisian origins is the attempt to rediscover the practice’s utopianism, a strand within Situationist thought most clearly evident in the work of the architect Constant Nieuwenhuys. Fredric Jameson, in Valences of the Dialectic, makes a somewhat unlikely attempt to imagine Wal-Mart as a form of utopian space, urging us to attempt to discern

the shape of a Utopian future looming through the mist, which we must seize as an opportunity to exercise the Utopian imagination more fully, rather than an occasion for moralizing judgments or regressive nostalgia. (Fredric Jameson, Valences of the Dialectic, p. 423.)

In this vein, the inaugural excursion utilising the classic method of navigating one city using the map of another (what might be termed the ‘I’m sorry I haven’t a clue’ dérive) proved ambivalently successful. Accompanied by some brave (but foolhardy) companions (they know who they are) and with a London A-Z as our guide, we headed out from the Hacienda apartments in search of London’s Smithfield Market, site of a cattle market since medieval times, then headed northwards up St John Street to sample the pleasures of Islington. This took us to Whitworth Park (via Hulme), and then to the serendipitously named ‘New Islington’. Whilst some of these sights were disappointingly familiar – my companions and I are certainly well enough acquainted with south Manchester – we did find some of the utopian flashes that I’d hoped to discover. I would submit that New Islington, in particular, seemed especially promising in this regard.

New Islington street view New Islington graffiti - 'Is this the way to treat a listed building?'