The SI and the City

This course is entitled ‘Situationists and the City’, and not without reason. The urban environment is the primary location from which the Situationists launched their critique of capitalism. Bearing in mind the Marxist position of ‘the conditioning of life and thought by objective nature’, Debord writes in ‘Introduction to a Critique of Urban Geography’ that ‘It has long been said that the desert is monotheistic. Is it it illogical or devoid of interest to observe that the district in Paris between Place de la Contrescarpe and Rue de l’Arbalète conduces rather to atheism, to oblivion and to the disorientation of habitual reflexes?’[1]

Ivan Chtcheglov’s ‘Formulary for a New Urbanism’, written in 1953 but not published until 1958 in issue 1 of International Situationniste, declares that

A mental disease has swept over the planet: banalization. Everyone is hypnotized by production and conveniences – sewage system, elevator, bathroom, washing machine.

This state of affairs, arising out of the struggle against poverty, has overshot its ultimate goal – the liberation of man from material care – and become an obsessive image hanging over the present. Presented with the alternative of love or a garbage disposal unit, young people of all countries have chosen the garbage disposal unit.[2]

The result of this, in addition to the alienation of labour and desire, is a stultifying and omnipresent boredom. The site in which the Situationists located this boredom and its potential remedy was the city itself. As the arena in which the operations of power are inscribed in stone and steel, and it was logical, therefore, for the Situationists to study it. This was to two ends: firstly, to understand how geography and architecture affects the individual, and secondly, to discover ways of critiquing this urban environment with the aim of producing new urban geographies more conducive to the free play of desires in the society that was to follow this one. To this purpose, the Situationists developed two tools: ‘psychogeography’ and the dérive, both of which I will look at in greater depth later in this lecture.

However, it is perhaps not inaccurate to think of what the Situationists were doing in terms of maps: for example, if one looks at the differing world views exemplified the following. Each of these is a different way of envisaging space, of representing one’s environment in abstract form. The final goes beyond this, and poses the question of what the city could be like? What are its possibilities? These were questions that the Situationists repeatedly raised in their study of the city, and it was through the techniques that I have just mentioned that they attempted to answer them.

Carte de Tendre Map of Paris Guy Debord, The Naked City

Although it is somewhat of an anachronism to use the following quote, written as it was by Iain Sinclair in 1997, it is still useful in shedding light on the essential core of the way in which the Situationists might have wanted to interpret the city:

Walking is the best way to explore and exploit the city; the changes, shifts, breaks in the cloud helmet, movement of light on water. Drifting purposefully is the recommended mode, tramping asphalted earth in alert reverie, allowing the fiction of an underlying pattern to reveal itself. To the no-bullshit materialist this sounds suspiciously like fin-de-siècle decadence, a poetic of entropy – but the born again flâneur is a stubborn creature, less interested in texture and fabric, eavesdropping on philosophical conversation pieces, than in noticing everything. Alignments of telephone kiosks, maps made from moss on the slopes of Victorian sepulchres, collections of prostitutes’ cards, torn and defaced promotional bills for cancelled events at York Hall, visits from the homes of dead writers, bronze casts on war memorials, plaster dogs, beer mats, concentrations of used condoms, the crystalline patterns of glass shards surrounding an imploded BMW quarter-light window, meditations on the relationship between the brain damage suffered by the super-middleweight boxer Gerald McClellan (lights out in the Royal London Hospital, Whitechapel) and the simultaneous collapse of Barings, bankers to the Queen. Walking, moving across a retreating townscape, stitches it all together: the illicit cocktail of bodily exhaustion and a raging carbon monoxide high.[3]

The Situationists practised exactly this sort of engagement with Paris, and what I want to do in this week’s session is to explore the conclusions about the city that they drew as a result, the future they saw for it, and the traditions that they were (knowingly and unknowingly) building upon.


Although they often denied it, the Situationists were by no means the first to identify the city as the prime site for the analysis of the conflicting energies of capitalism, nor were they the first to explore the city through techniques such as the dérive. There is a long history of writers and artists using their explorations of the urban environment as the basis for a critique of the society in which they live that stretches back from the Situationists through to their Surrealist and Dadaist precursors, the German philosopher and literary critic Walter Benjamin, the Parisian poet Baudelaire, through to British writers such as William Blake, Thomas De Quincey and Daniel Defoe.

Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year, depicting London during the year 1665 when the city was torn apart by the horrors of the bubonic plague, is perhaps the first prototype of such an understanding of the city. At that time the ordinary citizen would have had no access to a map, so to successfully navigate the city it was necessary to build an accurate mental picture of its topography. What Defoe manages to capture so successfully in this work is the way in which the course of the plague alters the landscape and atmosphere of the city itself: as the narrator wanders London’s streets he observes as areas become centres of outbreaks, and previously safe environments become threatening and strange. Similarly, Blake’s ‘London’ depicts a comparable reading of the urban landscape:

I wander thro’ each charter’d street,
Near where the charter’d Thames does flow,
And mark in every face I meet
Marks of weakness, marks of woe.
In every cry of every Man,
In every Infant’s cry of fear,
In every voice, in every ban,
The mind-forg’d manacles I hear.
How the Chimney-sweeper’s cry
Every black’ning Church appalls;
And the hapless Soldier’s sigh
Runs in blood down Palace walls.
But most thro’ midnight streets I hear
How the youthful Harlot’s curse
Blasts the new born Infant’s tear,
And blights with plagues the Marriage hearse.[4]

We have in this poem the image of the wanderer, getting lost in the London streets and reading the signs therein. However, the true spiritual predecessor to the Situationists urban explorations was probably a figure from 19th Century Paris whose archetype was the poet Baudelaire: the flâneur.

In the mid-nineteenth century, it was the height of fashion for the gentleman of leisure to engage in the practice of flânerie, that is to go strolling in the shopping arcades and to observe the fashions, the alternating pace of life, the ‘types’ of people who were to be seen in the city. To give you an indication of the pace at which he would stroll through the covered streets, at one point it was considered elegant to take a tortoise for a walk on a leash. The flâneur is at once attracted to and repulsed by the crowd, and it becomes his object of study. Where the pedestrian becomes submerged within the mass, the flâneur refuses to submit to its jolts and agitations. He maintains his leisurely pace and is consequently unable to fully lose himself within the ebb and flow of people, and he is therefore able to divine an aspect of its true nature. Baudelaire, in describing the work of the painter Constantin Guys, delineates the archetypical urban experience of the flâneur – that of a ‘kaleidoscope equipped with consciousness’:[5]

And so, walking or quickening his pace, he goes his way, for ever in search. In search of what? We may rest assured that this man, such as I have described him, this solitary mortal endowed with an active imagination, always roaming the great desert of men, has a nobler aim than that of the pure idler, a more general aim, other than the fleeting pleasure of circumstance. He is looking for that indefinable something we may be allowed to call ‘modernity’, for want of a better term to express the idea in question. … Modernity is the transient, the fleeting, the contingent; it is one half of art, the other being the eternal and immutable.[6]

One of the most extraordinary things about the flâneur is that he could only exist in the time and place that he did: the shopping arcades, the height of fashion in the early to mid 1800s, were rendered obsolete by Baron Haussmann’s remodelling of the streets of Paris between 1850 and 1870. Where before the city was a labyrinth of densely interlocking neighbourhoods, a warren of alleyways and lanes, the boulevards for which Paris is now famous, literally destroyed the fabric of the old city. It is this quality of passing insight that the Surrealists, heeding Hegel’s maxim that ‘the owl of Minerva flies only at dusk’, seized upon. Louis Aragon described the arcades that were the flâneur’s favourite haunt in his novel Paris Peasant:

How oddly this light suffuses the covered arcades which abound in Paris in the vicinity of the main boulevards and which are rather disturbingly named passages, as though no one had the right to linger for more than an instant in those sunless corridors. A glaucous gleam, seemingly filtered through deep water, with the special quality of pale brilliance of a leg suddenly revealed under a lifted skirt. The great American passion for city planning, imported into Paris by a prefect of police [Haussmann] during the Second Empire and now being applied to the task of redrawing the map of our capital in straight lines, will soon spell the doom of these human aquariums. Although the life that originally quickened them has drained away, they deserve, nevertheless, to be regarded as the secret repositories of several modern myths: it is only today when the pickaxe menaces them, that they have at last become the true sanctuaries of a cult of the ephemeral, the ghostly landscape of damnable pleasures and professions. Places that yesterday were incomprehensible, and that tomorrow will never know.[7]

As with Defoe’s plague journals, as the physical fabric of the city changes, the previously submerged currents that were always present in the fabric of the city become released, suddenly apparent. The flâneur, this time embodied by Aragon himself, through virtue of his distance from the crowd, his unique position as neither wholehearted participant nor completely disinterested observer, allows him privileged insight into these changes.

Walter Benjamin, in his unfinished study of nineteenth century Paris, The Arcades Project, provides the eulogy for the flâneur’s passing with the decay of the arcades themselves. Strongly associated with the Surrealists, Benjamin was greatly influenced by Baudelaire’s writings, and identified in the figure of the flâneur the possibility of a critical understanding of the city, a way for understanding it so as to release its revolutionary potential. No stranger to the streets of Paris himself, he saw in the conflicted and contradictory position of the flâneur a certain kinship with the position that the modern intellectual found himself in: ‘at once socially rebellious bohemian and producer of commodities for the literary market’.[8] He describes the experience of the city unique to the flâneur as follows:

But the great reminiscences, the historical shudder – these are the trumpery which he (the flâneur) leaves to tourists, who think thereby to gain access to the genius loci with a military password. Our friend may well keep silent. At the approach of his footsteps, the place has roused; speechlessly, mindlessly, its mere intimate nearness gives him hints and instructions. He stands before Notre Dame de Lorette, and his soles remember: here is the spot where in former times the cheval de renfort – the spare horse – was harnessed to the omnibus that climbed the Rue des Martyrs toward Montmartre. Often, he would have given all he knows about the domicile of Balzac or of Gavarni, about the site of a surprise attack or even of a barricade, to be able to catch the scent of a threshold or to recognize a paving stone by touch, like any watchdog.[9]

If one compares the above to the quotation from Iain Sinclair that I read earlier, one can see at once a similar concern. Although Sinclair decries certain aspects of the flâneur’s experience as ‘fin-de-sciècle decadence’, the same attention to detail, the observation of hidden and repressed patterns and histories, the sense of an almost mystical communion with the very stones of the city is strikingly apparent.

Psychogeography and the dérive

In many respects psychogeography and dérive were actually an evolution and repurposing of ideas that already were common currency within the European avant-gardiste tradition. The terms, although primarily associated with the Situationists if fact have their origin within the pre-Situationist Letterist movement. It was in their journal Potlatch, or, to give it its full title The Bulletin of Information of the French Group of the Letterist International, that the term psychogeography first appears. Here, concepts that were to be later given conrete definition were sketched by Debord and others. For example, in ‘Psychogeographical Game of the Week’ in Potlatch #1:

Depending on what you are after, choose an area, a more or less populous city, a more or less lively street. Build a house. Furnish it. Make the most of its decoration and surroundings. Choose the season and the time. Gather together the right people, the best records, and drinks. Lighting and conversation must, of course, be appropriate, along with the weather and your memories. If your calculations are correct you should find the outcome satisfying. (Please inform the editors of the results).[10]

Although this isn’t really that useful in providing a definition of psychogeography, we can already see the sense of subversion, and, indeed, playfulness that would characterise the later, mature, formulation. Debord’s ‘Exercise in Psychogeography’ followed in Potlatch #2:

Piranesi is psycho-geographical in the stairway.
Claude Lorrain is psycho-geographical in the juxtaposition of a palace neighborhood and the sea.
The postman Cheval is psycho-geographical in architecture.
Arthur Cravan is psycho-geographical in hurried drifting.
Jacques Vache is psycho-geographical in dress.
Louis II of Bavaria is psycho-geographical in royalty.
Jack the Ripper is probably psycho-geographical in love.
Saint-Just is a bit psycho-geographical in politics. (Terror is disorienting.)
Andre Breton is naively psycho-geographical in encounters.
Madeleine Reineri is psycho-geographical in suicide. (See Howls in Favor of de Sade.)
Along with Pierre Mabille in gathering together marvels, Evariste Gaullois in mathematics, Edgar Allan Poe in landscape, and Villiers de l’Isle Adam in agony.[11]

However, with the emergence of the Situationist International from the dissolved Letterists, those involved soon moved away from these early and not entirely helpful explorations of the concept towards a more rigourous approach. In his ‘Introduction to a Critique of Urban Geography’ written in 1955, Debord makes an attempt to provide us with a concrete definition of psychogeography.

Geography, for example, deals with the determinant action of general natural forces, such as soil composition or climatic conditions, on the economic structures of a society, and thus on the corresponding conception that such a society can have of the world. Psychogeography could set for itself the study of precise laws and specific effects of the geographical environment, consciously organised or not, on the emotions and behaviour of individuals.[12]

He continues:

People are quite aware that some neighbourhoods are sad and others pleasant. But the generally simply assume that elegant streets cause a feeling of satisfaction and that poor streets are depressing, and let it go at that. In fact, the variety of possible combinations of ambiences analogous to the blending of pure chemicals in an infinite number of mixtures gives rise to feelings as differentiated and complex as any other form of spectacle can evoke.[13]

Although this seems to be sketching a quite scientific approach, suggesting, as it does to Merlin Coverley, that the psychogeographer is ‘like the skilled chemist … able both to identify and to distil the varied ambiences of the urban environment’,[14] there always remains a distinct lyricism to the Situationists’ approach. The following images are all referenced in various Situationist texts on the city. Most strikingly, Debord describes Giorgio de Chrirco’s paintings as ‘blueprints or models’. Similarly, the paintings by Claude Lorrain were compared to the Paris Metro Map, not in terms of their visual appearance, but the sense of adventure and possibility contained within each.

As with the flâneur of the nineteenth-century, the way that they wanted to access the truths of the city was through walking. The dérive, or drift, was the primary method for the study of psychogeographical effects. Debord considered this technique critical that he wrote a separate article, ‘Theory of the Dérive’, which defines the methodology as follows:

In a dérive one or more persons during a certain period drop their usual motives for movement and action, their relations, their work and leisure activities, and let themselves be drawn by the attractions of the terrain and the encounters that they find there.[15]

The main purpose of the technique was to see the city with fresh eyes, and the Situationists would employ various techniques to do this. They would attempt to deliberately become lost, using the map of one city to navigate another, for example. There are somewhat mythical stories of epic dérives lasting several months, but, as Merlin Coverley notes, it is not unlikely that this is part of the whole self-propagandising nature of the group. It is far more likely that they were in a bar somewhere, having an argument.[16] However, the Scottish writer Alexander Trocchi said of Debord:

I remember long, wonderful psychogeographical walks in London with Guy … He took me to places in London that I didn’t know, that he didn’t know, that he sensed I’d never have been to if it hadn’t been with him. He was a man who could discover a city.[17]

In walks such as these, the Situationists would abandon themselves to the cities topography, explore its effects, its attractions and repulsions, walk its contours. In walking the city, its character would emerge, become clear to the wanderer. The purpose of the dérive was to disrupt the normal ebb and flow of the crowd, to deliberately dislocate oneself from one’s usual rhythms and thus make these currents more apparent.

However, where the flâneur of the nineteenth century, or the Surrealists in the preceding decades wanted only to write about or create art inspired by the urban environment, the Situationists viewed psychogeography and dérive as providing the raw materials for the creation of a new city. As Ivan Chtcheglov famously stated, ‘we are bored in the city’.[18] It wasn’t simply that the Situationists wished to disorientate themselves for the sake of it, for artistic inspiration, but because they believed that through this kind of experimentation they would bring about a kind of chaos which could expose the truth of the society of capitalist production and suggest possible ways that society could be reshaped. In particular, they were interested in harnessing the power of capitalism’s technical and industrial achievements for the creation of new situations, a city conducive to ‘endless dérive’. When they write that they are interested in atmospheres and ambiences, it is precisely because they themselves wanted to use these experiences for the construction and replication of new ones. It is this understanding of the city that led the Situationists to some of their most visionary projects: unitary urbanism and Constant’s extraordinary ‘New Babylon’.

Unitary urbanism

Unitary urbanism was the name that the Situationists gave to the philosophy by which the post-revolutionary city might be designed and built. As such, it was both the result and projected aim of the psychogeographical study of the city. Following the revolution of everyday life that was the eventual goal of the Situationist project, the urban environment would no longer have to conform to the laws of competition and the circulation of commodities that shape it under capitalism, but instead could be created in accordance with the desire and play. Unitary urbanism was intended to bring together both artistic, technological and scientific means for the creation of a new kind of urban environment. However, this was to go far beyond mere city planning, and instead the project was intended to broaden and fundamentally alter our understanding of architecture and space to address the practical ways people lived and interacted with places. When Chtcheglov stated that ‘the hacienda must be built’,[19] it was to be built in line with the principals of unitary urbanism.

Having gone into the city and explored it through the dérive, discovered that certain places are conducive to certain mental states, the Situationists became aware that emotions and experiences could differ according to

the architecture of a space, the arrangements of colours, sounds, textures and lighting with which it is created. The Situationists pointed to the forms of conditioning imposed by shopping malls, nightclubs, adverts, and even police methods of interrogation as evidence of the existence of a plethora of techniques by which experiences, desires, attitudes and behaviour are presently manipulated. The width of streets, the heights of buildings, the presence of trees, advertisements and lights, the circulation of traffic, the colours of front doors and the shapes of windows: urban lives are shaped in the most subtle and neglected ways by these arrangements of space.[20]

By drifting through the city, hints and instructions of a future, post-revolutionary city that would facilitate the creation of situations, the realisation of desire, could be glimpsed. As Chtcheglov notes:

All cities are geological; you cannot take three steps without encountering ghosts bearing all the prestige of their legends. We move within a closed landscape whose landmarks constantly draw us toward the past. Certain shifting angles, certain receding perspectives, allow us to glimpse original conceptions of space, but this vision remains fragmentary. It must be sought in the magical locales of fairy tales and surrealist writings: castles, endless walls, little forgotten bars, mammoth caverns, casino mirrors.[21]

It is this sense of the possibility of the city that is part of what Debord sees in de Chirico’s paintings: these illustrate emotions and states of mind that can be experienced fleetingly in the city as it exists now. In the truly Situationist city, these sensations and any number of others would be created consciously, available in the everyday experience of the city. As he says, ‘Disquieting neighbourhoods of arcades could one day carry on and fulfil the allure of these works.’[22]

Despite his subsequent split with the Situationist International, the most vivid examples of what unitary urbanism might entail come from the Dutch artist and architect Constant Nieuwenhuys. The enormous quantity of designs and models that he created for his utopian city of the future, New Babylon, are truly extraordinary both in their scope and, arguably, craziness. New Babylon was to be a truly plastic and evolving creation controlled and created by its inhabitants, a sum total of their desires. The accompanying images are some of his proposed maps, designs and models for this city. Whilst these designs and were not necessarily meant to be taken at face value, but rather as rhetorical statements of possibility, they serve as a vivid reminder of the scope of the Situationist vision and the possibilities that they saw in a post-revolutionary, post-scarcity world. It is also part of what places the Situationists, amongst other things, as part of a long tradition of utopian socialist philosophers and visionaries, from More, Saint-Simon, through to Fourier. They also illustrate how far the mind can wander when one explores the city and engages in Situationist techniques such as the dérive.

[1] Guy Debord, ‘Introduction to a Critique of Urban Geography’, in Ken Knabb (ed.), Situationist International Anthology, (Berkeley, CA: Bureau of Public Secrets, 1981), p. 5.

[2] Ivan Chtcheglov, ‘Formulary for a New Urbanism’, in Ken Knabb (ed.) Situationist International Anthology, pp. 2-3.

[3] Iain Sinclair, Lights Out for the Territory, (London: Granta, 1997), p. 4.

[4] William Blake, ‘London’, <>, 2007.

[5] Charles Baudelaire, ‘The Painter of Modern Life’, <>, 2007, translation modified.

[6] Charles Baudelaire, ‘The Painter of Modern Life’, <>, 2007, translation modified.

[7] Louis Aragon, Paris Peasant, trans. Simon Watson Taylor, (London: Jonathan Cape, 1971), p. 25.

[8] Susan Buck-Morss, The Dialectics of Seeing: Walter Benjamin and the Arcades Project, (London: The MIT Press, 1991), p. 304.

[9] Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project, (London: Harvard, 1999), p. 416.

[10] Anon., ‘Psychogeographical Game of the Week’, Potlatch #1, <>, 2007.

[11] Guy Debord, ‘Exercise in Psychogeography’, Potlatch #2, <>, 2007.

[12] Guy Debord, ‘Introduction to a Critique of Urban Geography’, in Ken Knabb (ed.), Situationist International Anthology, p. 5.

[13] Guy Debord, ‘Introduction to a Critique of Urban Geography’, in Ken Knabb (ed.), Situationist International Anthology, pp. 6-7.

[14] Merlin Coverley, Psychogeography, (Hertfordshire: Pocket Essentials, 2006), p. 90.

[15] Guy Debord, ‘Theory of the Dérive’, in Ken Knabb (ed.), Situationist International Anthology, p. 50.

[16] Merlin Coverley, Pyschogeography, p. 99.

[17] Alexander Trocchi, quoted in Merlin Coverley, Psychogeography, p. 101.

[18] Ivan Chtcheglov, ‘Formulary for a New Urbanism’, in Ken Knabb (ed.) Situationist International Anthology (Berkeley, CA: Bureau of Public Secrets, 1981), p. 1.

[19] Ivan Chtcheglov, ‘Formulary for a New Urbanism’, in Ken Knabb (ed.) Situationist International Anthology (Berkeley, CA: Bureau of Public Secrets, 1981), p. 1.

[20] Sadie Plant, The Most Radical Gesture: The Situationist International in a Postmodern Age, (London: Routledge, 1992), p. 57.

[21] Ivan Chtcheglov, ‘Formulary for a New Urbanism’, in Ken Knabb (ed.) Situationist International Anthology, pp. 1-2.

[22] Guy Debord, ‘Introduction to a Critique of Urban Geography’, in Ken Knabb (ed.), Situationist International Anthology, p. 7.

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