Psychogeographies

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.

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18 thoughts on “Psychogeographies

  1. Thanks for the nod, Litlove. It looks like you and I were of one mind today, as I did a little celebrating of good writing myself! As for psychogeographies, whether it’s a made-up word or not, I like it. I think because blogs are not prescriptive as books or commissioned articles tend to be, people are able to free associate in their writing – and look what comes up.

  2. Charlotte – and yes, I’ve just found your post today – great minds clearly think alike! I’ll be right over to leave a comment with you. I love the way bloggers explore their experience through writing and I think you’re quite right. The medium encourages creativity and play in very productive ways.

  3. Don’t you sometimes think that one of the best bloggers will be a sort of future Baudelaire? It’s an entirely new medium, and I think that historians, linguists, sociologists will be studying the earliest blogs to learn more about us. Just as the oral tradition eventually turned into the publishing industry, the blogosphere is starting to financially reward certain bloggers who are able to live entirely off the proceeds from the ads on their blogs.

  4. I’ve not read Baudelaire, but know him through an essay of Alain de Botton (of How Proust Can Change Your Life fame) in which Alain explores Baudelaire’s fascination with transient places. Docks, train stations, the sight of a parting cloud – all of these excited in Baudelaire a sense of the ephemeral, and perhaps, given your post, of the mercurial nature of any genius loci.

    There seems to be an interesting overlap between the zeitgeist of a place and its psychogeography – how would you distinguish the two? Is it merely a question of scope?

  5. That story about Paris is very interesting. A very similar thing happened to the Bronx in the 1950s (I think–I don’t know the exact dates) when Robert Moses bulldozed huge tracts of middle-class African American neighborhoods to build the Cross Bronx Expressway. The results are pretty obvious: Just say “south Bronx” and watch people cringe.

  6. Made-up words have always been with us. They are the absolutely basic building blocks of language. The names of things and ideas. All words were once made up. Providing the new word strikes a resonance with a large enough group of people than it will change from a “Made-up” word into a recognised OED entry. There will always be the “portmanteau” (now there is a recursive word) words but there is another group of Made-upednesses (sorry 😉 ) which are portmanteau ideas. These are the insights which poets bring to us. Juxtaposing two unrelated thoughts, images or sights, often creating a new word in the process, to bring a new idea into being. The fact that some poets choose to write prose makes no difference. It is in the poetic wordsmithing that new ideas are born.

    Blogging may be the modern way of “workshopping” your writing. Instead of holding a physical weekly writer’s meeting and reading your work to your peers, blogging provides a wider audience who can help a writer develop their work. There will be successful novelists, playwrights and poets who come out of the blogs. Then critics and students will need to add the author’s blog to their study materials.

  7. Thank you, litlove, you’ve just given me the perfect word for what I’m looking for when I read submissions to our travel list – that undefinable sense of place that defines a writer’s canvas, makes you want to read on, and leaves a lasting impression when you’ve finished. And I agree with you, the quality of writing on some blogs is extraordinary – maybe we should see blogs as similar to but better than the salons (or even coffee houses) of old.

  8. Dewey – I couldn’t agree with you more! Blogs are fascinating combinations of social and personal history and I only hope I’m around to see what people will make of us, pioneers that we are! Phil – you’re absolutely right about the transience that fascinates Baudelaire, and what a good question! I had to think quite hard about that. I think that the Zeitgeist or genius loci would be experienced by anybody entering that point in time and space, whereas psychogeographies refer to the unique relationship between the individual and his/her environment, even if parts of that relationship are about community and history. I hope that makes some sense! Hobgoblin – that’s extremely interesting and a part of history I knew nothing about. I’m going to look into that some more – thank you. Archie – sending a big cyber hug for your comment today! Quite agree – loved the rehabilitation of the ‘made-up’ (which is after all another word for creative), and I do agree that blogs are a paradise for people who want to practice their writing (like me). Rainbow – hello and welcome to the site! And you are very welcome! I also think you are spot on when you talk about the blog as the modern form of the salon. I’ll be coming to visit as I’d love to know more about your travel list.

  9. Oh, I love the coffeehouse comparison. I just finished Clive James’ Cultural Amnesia, and he writes about so many philosophers and writers from the golden days of the Viennese coffeehouses, most of whom are unfortunately no longer remembered by anyone but other scholars.

  10. I am so incredibly flattered to be included on such an extraordinary list. I admire your blog so much and often find myself thinking “if only I could express myself 1/4 as well as litlove…” so to see myself included here is extremely humbling. Thank you so much.

  11. You know, Litlove, your pairing me with Hobgoblin sent me directly in search of his post that made your comparison so apt. You put readers and writers in touch with one another every day, of course, but never so immediately as with posts like this one. Thank you very much for the mention, and for thinking of me in such fine company. I had no idea I was exercising psychogeography, but I’ll certainly accept it as a compliment.

  12. Dew – I have such a fascination for groups of artists who clustered together in cafes or at salons to share ideas, woes and opportunities. I love the thought of creating a 21st century version in cyber space! Courtney – you are a wonderful writer and the feeling about quality of expression is entirely mutual! David – I could link to every one of your flash fictions with a different literary reason each time, they are so rich and creative. I’m delighted if you’ve found new blogs to visit; finding writers I admire and building up friendships with them has been one of the most unexpected and most rewarding consequences of blogging for me.

  13. The internet seems like such a placeless place in some ways, and yet your point makes perfect sense that many people write beautifully about their particular places there. People talk about how the internet can draw us away from our local communities — its attractions keep us indoors, we develop internet relationships instead of relationships with “real people”, etc. — and yet why can’t writing on the internet bring us back to our local communities too?

  14. I love your made-up words, Litlove (and thanks for the nod). Psychogeographics is a wonderful word — if you’re going to go anywhere etymologically, I say go portmanteau.

  15. Gentle reader – I confess I do love it if a post gives food for thought – thank you for your kind words! Dorothy – what a fabulous point – I think it’s part of the blogger’s need to situate themselves for their readers, and in that way we all get to peek at other people’s communities, as well as see our own afresh through the imagined eyes of the reader. Ombudsben – what a lovely one! I’ll have to see if I can get it into general conversation now! Madeleine – non-native speakers are brilliant at contorting languages in very creative ways! I like that very much.

  16. You and Charlotte are doing a great job these days of making me turn beet red. However, I love the way you’ve both commented in different ways on some of the truly terrific writing out here in the blog world.

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