When my father was proof reading my first academic book and my brother was doing the desk top publishing work for me (due to my legendary technical incompetence) they used to ring each other up and ask: ‘How many made up words did you find today?’ Made-up words?? I would splutter, on a note of rising indignation. I supposed they were referring to the tendency of academic or intellectual inquiry to create new terms for well-known phenomenon that intend to add extra layers of meaning to our understanding of the concept. In that respect, psychogeographies is a really good one. In many ways it ties together all the ideas that inform the notion of genius loci, or the spirit of place, which in its original format often referred to a small, furry supernatural being (a guardian animal, or puck, or elf), but more generally describes the mishmash of culture, history, architecture, memories and events that converge in any given location. It’s not so surprising that we talk about ‘memory lane’ or suggest that ‘the past is another country’, or even contend that ‘you can’t go back to a place where you were happy’ because our sense of being is so very closely tied to the houses, cities, forests, beaches and small, provincial towns in which we have lived. Maps may be very detailed and accurate representations of space, but they tell us nothing about the spirit of the place; that can only be ascertained by actually being there, and is then, inevitably, dependent on our own subjective experience. So places need people the way that people need places – they make sense of each other, and they bestow historical depth on each other. And the term psychogeographies refers to the artists, writers, filmmakers and theorists whose work has been particularly fascinated by this relationship.
One of the original, great psychogeographers (although of course he would never have referred to himself that way) was the poet Charles Baudelaire, who coined the term of ‘le flanêur’, or the idle wanderer, submitted to chance and caprice in his perambulations of a changing Paris. The city Baudelaire strolled about in was undergoing a huge transformation at the hands of the architect Baron Haussmann. A half century of barricades and revolutions had taught Louis Napoléon that if he wanted to discipline Paris he needed to reorganize it to his liking. It had been full of labyrinthine streets, mazes that only the locals knew their way about in, and it was unsanitary, confusing and impossible to get the army through. Haussmann bulldozed the slums and constructed these big broad boulevards, he put in street lighting and drainage, and he built – for the first time – shopping and business districts. But the thousands of workers brought in from the provinces to do the work, and the sheer scale of the changes that had been made, meant that Paris was now a city of strangers. Where once a person would have been surrounded by friends, family and acquaintances, now there were only isolated and diminished individuals in amongst the masses, simply faces in a heaving crowd. Baudelaire’s poetry was just brilliant at bringing this moment of transition to life. He found beauty in the new, gaunt lines of buildings, and in the faces of the urchins playing in the rubble of their old homes. He found ugliness in the delirious, striving entertainment-obsessed social whirl that sprang up around the cafés and theatres, and he found the erotic in the eyes of a woman who passed him on the street and whom he would never see again.
So Baudelaire has a bit of everything wrapped up in his poetry; political comment on the changing face of society, emotional responses to the new world around him, fading memories of how things used to be, the transformation of the city into a huge and complex book of signs that require reading and deciphering. In modern times, JG Ballard and Peter Ackroyd are authors who have taken up the gauntlet and created hellish modern dystopias (Ballard) or plunged into the historical and supernatural depths of their chosen landscapes (Ackroyd). But as I was thinking about this concept, so it struck me that it’s also a striking strand in blog writing. I started to think about the posts I’d been reading and admiring over the past couple of months and it occurred to me that many of them worked in precisely the same territory – the interlocking stories of person and place, laced with politics, spiced with love and lust, and often alive with humor, insight and the unexpected. Sometimes it’s the simplest things that spark off a beautiful post – like Everything In Between’s moving and resonant account of going for a run just before a thunderstorm, or Emily’s brilliantly funny anecdote about eavesdropping mobile phone calls in an airport lounge. Independence Day provoked a number of excellent posts, in particular Ombudsben’s subversive enjoyment of clashing ideologies in his local parade. On similar lines, I also adored Charlotte’s witty account of the German love of marching. And remember Baudelaire and the woman on the street? Two of the most talented writers in the blogosphere, the Hobgoblin and davidbdale both have their own tales of the unexpected erotic encounter, one at the bookstore cash desk, one at the traffic lights. Isn’t the quality of writing on blogs absolutely amazing? I should devote more time to celebrating it, I think. What Baudelaire did in the nineteenth century that earned him a hallowed place in the canon of world literature, bloggers do every day as a matter of course. Now all we need is for someone to think about the psychogeography of this crazy cyberspace we all write in. Hmmm, give me time to think about that one…. I’ll get back to you.