Today, February 2nd, is Groundhog Day. In the spirit of the holiday (and Bill Murray), I want to revisit/relive a topic that really moved me some years back.
A few years ago, while working on my thesis, I fell in love with cheap Bordeaux, making xerox prints of modern art, and 60’s French political philosophy. I became consumed with the ideals of the organization “Situationist International“.
Situationiste Internationale was a Leftist French intellectual publication and organization started in 1957. Its ideals, similarly aligned with other Neo-Marxists, served as an inspiration for the ‘68ers and other social and political movements within the country. The organization was around until around 1972, when divisions in thought and internal criticism of DeBord and the adopted slogan, “Ne Travaille jamais” (“Never work) ruptured the movement.
SI’s political and social philosophy led to many advancements in the way we view our cities, shifting focus toward what they believed was the suppression of art by the ‘capitalist mainstream’, the deterioration of the joys of ‘Everyday Life’, and disillusionment of the masses with its grand artifice, “The Spectacle”. Their works proposed the inherent sterility of modern cities and isolated environments dominated by the ‘spectacle’ of the automobile. To followers of Situationist philosophy technological advances, the economics of capitalism, and the consumption of the automobile all led to the social isolation and the suppression of an authentic ‘Everyday Life’.
The Situationist drew connections between an auto dominated culture and the warped perception of time and place, an augmented geography not authentically human in scale. The automobile subtracted any direct interaction with the environment, and in turn, the chance encounters with people and the city the Situationists labeled ‘Situations’ – their diagnosis of the social isolation prevalent in modern life.
This observation became the departure point for my thesis.
The Situationists’ view of Urbanism is where interactions and the people dominate architectural form. To fully subvert the establishment, its people must actively combat the sterile isolated environment created by modernist architects and planners.
The situationist concept of dérive became a tool of combating the inauthentic everyday life. The dérive is defined by Guy Debord as “a mode of experimental behavior linked to the conditions of urban society; a technique of rapid passage through varied ambiences.” They encouraged people to wander around their urban environment, to follow the passage of least resistance to gain an alternate awareness of a city’s terrain, and to remain open to ‘situations’ within their city.
Psychogeography, a term referring to the experience of place, explores how chance encounters during a dérive can affect the perception and remembrance of time and place. The perceptual phenomena is the main subject of Kevin Lynch’s “Image of the City”. Lynch compiled mental maps made by various subjects around Boston, and from them developed planning principles formed from observed commonalities. Each map illustrated how physical features can affect an individual’s sense of time, place, and access, all on the scale of the human. Psychogeography began to have real value for planners, designers, and urban philosophers, because it allowed them to focus on the human experience. Individual behaviours and emotions play a large role on how one moves through a city and views their environment.
Los Angeles is currently going through the evolution of moving beyond being a car-dominated city. Still, most experiences of our city occur from the isolated view from an automobile. Challenge yourself to dérive; discover the nuance of your city. Make an attempt to draw a map of the place, solely from your understanding of it from this purposeful drift. Compare your experiential map to a physical map and chart how closely your mental map and temporal understanding of distance is affected by physical features such as bridges, overpasses, highways, traffic volume, land use, and other characteristics of the path you drifted along.
To learn more about the Situationist or Psychogeography here are a few links and publications to guide you in your journey. Good Luck!
- Situationist International Online
- Debord, Guy, The Society of the Spectacle. 2000, Black and Red ISBN-13: 978-0934868075
- Lynch, Kevin, Image of the City. 1960, MIT Press, Cambridge. 978-0262620017
- Sadler, Simon, The Situationist City. 1999, MIT Press, Cambridge. ISBN: 9780262692250
- Vaneigem, Raoul, The Revolution of Everyday Life. 2nd Edition. 2012, PM Press, ISBN-13: 978-1604866780