"Psychogeography: Disentangling the Modern Conundrum of Psyche and Place" (Photo: Bloomsbury USA)
Author Will Self walks the world to explore what's underfoot and what really matters. He talks with host Bruce Gellerman about his new book “Psychogeography: Disentangling the Modern Conundrum of Psyche and Place.”
GELLERMAN: A few years ago novelist and journalist Will Self decided to take a walk. He walked from South London, where he lives, to the Lower East Side of New York City. Oh he took a plane alright - from Heathrow to JFK, but Will Self walked from city to airport and airport to city, practicing what’s called “psychogeography.”
Will Self may be the world's foremost practitioner of psychogeography - in fact today he may be one of its only practitioners. In his latest book, he invites you to meander with him. It’s called "Psychogeography: Disentangling the Modern Conundrum of Psyche and Place." The book’s a collection of essays about Will Self’s wandering by footmobile. Will Self joins us from the BBC studios in London. Will, it’s good to have you on the show!
SELF: How do you do?
GELLERMAN: You’re in a BBC studio in London, right?
SELF: Yes, I am. Indeed.
GELLERMAN: Did you walk there?
SELF: I did [laughs] I did walk here. I would have cycled but I have a new dog and the dog needed to walk.
GELLERMAN: How far is it?
SELF: Oh, it can’t be much more than a mile and a half, something like that.
GELERMAN: Oh, so that’s just a walk around the block for you.
SELF: Mmm hmm. Mmm hmm.
GELLERMAN: So what is pyschogeography?
SELF: Well the term derives from the French situationalists and specifically from a man called Guy Debord. And he said that, you know, modern society is a kind of spectacle, and specifically modern cities are defined and we start to see them as a function of our human geography - where we eat, where we sleep, where we buy, where we go to work. And we can no longer see them for what they are. So his idea was that, that pyschogeography would in some way deconstruct the urban environment - we’d start to see cities for what they really are again rather than what the powers that be want us to see them.
GELLERMAN: And the major tool of the psychogeographer would be their feet?
SELF: Absolutely. I mean, Debord and the original situationalists used to practice what they called the ‘derive,’ which basically consisted of meeting up at the Parc des Buttes Chaumont in the north of Paris, buying a few cheap bottles of red wine, getting drunk, and drifting down to the Ile de la Cite in the Seine where they’d sleep it off.
GELLERMAN: Well how does walking to an airport, getting on a plane, and then walking from the airport to the city - how does that illustrate what psychogeography is about?
SELF: Well, it does it in many, many different ways. I mean, I’ve walked from my home in central London to Heathrow Airport on three occasions now. And I think the first time I did it, I had the definite sensation that I was undertaking an active exploration more profound probably than anybody can do anywhere in the world, in the sense that I was taking a journey, using a means for that journey that probably nobody had ever, had done since the industrial era. And yet I was traveling the same kind of route, roughly, that tens of thousands of hundreds of thousands of millions of people make every year. So there’s this marvelous sense that one gets of being cut off from the mass of humanity in this very, very simple, very self-directed way. You don’t need any equipment. You don’t need any fancy accessories. You can just get out of your chair and do it and you’re instantly exploring in that way. You’re finding out new things about your environment. The business of the, what I call the airport walks goes further though, because the most curious sensation I had when I walked to Manhattan - and as you said in your introduction, I walked to Heathrow, flew to JFK, and then walked from JFK through East New York through Brooklyn, over the Brooklyn Bridge and into the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Well when I got to my hotel in Manhattan, you know, the body - I think this is kind of an aspect of evolutionary psychology - the body’s conception of space is stronger than the mental conception of space. So that three and a half thousand mile plane flight was as nothing compared to those two full days of walking. So my body was telling me that I had been walking on a continuous land mass. My body was telling me that the Thames estuary had been rammed into Long Island in a kind of unholy miscegenation of continents. And the body was far stronger than the mind. I really thought ‘wow, I’ve walked the whole way here.’ And that for me was a marvelous and epiphanic moment. It was incredibly destructive of this life that I’ve led, and I think a lot of us have led, where we’re catapulted about the globe in these aluminum and titanium tubes and we’re traveling all over the place and yet we don’t really know where we are.
GELLERMAN: It’s interesting on airplanes now, on the backs of the seat in front of you, you can see, you know, a map and you see yourself traveling virtually over this place. But, for all intents and purposes, you’re just in this hermetically sealed airplane.
"Psychogeography: Disentangling the Modern Conundrum of Psyche and Place" (Photo: Bloomsbury) USA
SELF: Yes, and I think it’s a virtuality. I mean, everything about modern flight, which I’ve expatiated on elsewhere in that book, is in fact designed to make the experience boring and dull, it’s designed to virtualize it within a corporate environment. You know, there’s no reason why they couldn’t put much bigger windows in planes. There’s no reason why the stewards and stewardesses shouldn’t wear, you know Ride of the Valkyrie helmets and the captain shouldn’t shout over the P.A., ‘wheee!’ as you take off. You know, they don’t want you to be excited. They don’t want you to know where you are. And in a sense, nobody really wants to know where you are or wants you to know where you are. You know, people who travel for business especially, may go to many different cities in a year, and apart from a tiny little grid of streets around their hotel, they’ll have no real sense of orientation.
GELLERMAN: This line jumped at me, actually. I was surprised to read it. You write that ‘the place chooses you. It’s not so much that you choose a place.’
SELF: I’m not sure whether I mean that literally. But what I think I do mean is that - again, we live in a culture where place is sold to you. We’re kind of accessorized by place. People say ‘oh, I went to x,’ or ‘I went to y,’ or ‘the beaches are fabulous at z,’ or ‘they’ve got fantastic ethnic jewelry in p,’ and ‘why don’t you go to m?’ You know, they’re products. Places are products and travel magazines and travel journalism is by and large a catalog of these products that’s sold to us. And people acquire place as they might acquire any other object in that way, you know, their memory, their digital cameras, you know, they’re loaded up with these vignettes of place just as any collector might show you their Sevre pottery or their beer labels or whatever it is they collect. And I think that, you know, in order to have a profound relationship with place, again coming back to this idea of kind of knowing where you are, you have to look for those places that choose you in that way and say, ‘you know, you’re not going to be here for a day or so or a couple of days, you’re going to have an evolving, perhaps a lifetime relationship with me. I’m a place that you want to know about.’ And I think, you know, for all of us who, who think about, about the world, and who think about our place in it, that that’s true. That has a resonance. And when I look back over my own life, I mean - you know, a couple of the places that I’ve come to think of as kind of ‘my places’ over the years, I didn’t even like them when I went there. It wasn’t about liking. It wasn’t necessarily about having a good time. There was something more profound going on there.
GELLERMAN: Can you experience or practice psychogeography on a bicycle?
SELF: Well bicycles are interesting [laughs], interesting…technologies. I use a bicycle all the time. That’s how I tend to get around in London. I think that the problem for the psychogeographer is that they, there is something about walking. It is my absolutely preferred method of investigating place. I think it’s, it slows one down. I think walking has - it wasn’t me who coined this idea, but I think it might even have been Rousseau – I think walking has the pace of thought in that way. It has the four-four rhythm. It has a strophe and an anti strophe in that way. And I think there’s something about that. I find when I get on a cycle I tend to fall victim to wanting to get from ‘a’ to ‘b.’
GELLERMAN: Seems to me that if you’re walking to airports and getting on planes, you must be traveling pretty light.
SELF: Well, yeah, I mean, when I was in North America last year I was away for two, two and a half weeks and I didn’t take anything, at all. That was a bit extreme and I did that as a conceit in a way. I was interested in this idea of our relationship with material possessions. And I, you know, you go into airports and you see people with 22 sets of matching Samsonite luggage and you kind of think to yourself, or I do, ‘what’s going on here? Are they taking all their pants to Paraguay? Is it to show their pants to Paraguay or Paraguay to their pants?’ There’s something kind of going on here with this movement of chattels. So I was kind of reacting against that, but, you know, even ordinarily I’ve been well below a standard carry on bag for years now.
GELLERMAN: Where’s your next walk going to take you, Will?
SELF: Well, the coast of East Yorkshire in England is the fastest eroding coastline in Europe. It erodes two meters every year. So, it should be possible, unfortunately or fortunately, depending on which way you look at it, for me to take this walk down the east coast of Yorkshire, knowing that nobody will ever be able to take that walk again. That by the time next year comes, that bit of land will have gone.
GELLERMAN: Well Will, thank you very much. I really appreciate it.
SELF: It’s been a real pleasure. Thank you.
[MUSIC Charlie Hunter Trio “Special Shirt” from Mistico (Concord Music Group, Inc. 2007)]
GELLERMAN: Will Self's new book is; "Psychogeography: Disentangling the Modern Conundrum of Psyche and Place." It features 50 illustrations by gonzo graphic artist Ralph Steadman.
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