“A mental disease has swept the planet: banalisation”, wrote French theorist and poet Ivan Chtcheglov in 1953 in his urban manifesto “Formulaire pour un urbanisme nouveau” (“Formulary for a new urbanism”).
Chtcheglov was a part of The Situationist International (SI), an international organization born in the cafés of Paris, made up of social revolutionaries: avant-garde artists, intellectuals, and political theorists. They criticised and challenged urban space they saw heavily being transformed by capitalism in the 1950’s and 60’s.
According to the SI, the urban space of rapidly modernising post-war Paris was quickly being transformed by a “hypnotising” capitalistic culture of consumerism: the rise of mass advertising and the recreation of a heteronormative nuclear family-centered image was enforced by popular culture. Cities grew to accommodate new residents coming to find opportunities after the slim decades of war, displacing and demolishing many existing urban communities or building entire new ones in the periphery. The SI feared that the privatisation of urban space will end up with standardised and dull places in the city with little space for imagination and surprise, resulting in people being alienated from one another. They saw that the mystery and poetry of the streets had been drained from the city and history was being erased in the name of progress and profit. Citizens were seen to be mere trinkets in the “city as a machine”, where different functions of life – work, leisure, consumption, home – would be spatially separated from each other.
“Sous les pavés, la plage!” (“Under the pavement, the beach!”), they demanded. The SI criticized the holistic and rational perception of modernist urban planning and its starchitects, who see the city as an entity to control and govern from above. Where is space for the spontaneous and surprising, they asked. In Chtcheglov’s visions time, space and memory entwine together and the city grows organically according to its natural rhythms, on its residents’ terms.
The Situationists envisioned a labyrinth city, where the streets offer improvisation, play and creativity. Because the chances for a loose movement to change the street layout of Paris from a strict grid plan to a medieval winding layout were nonexistent, they had to stick to creating surprising situations on the streets which intervene with the “banal rhythm of modern everyday life”. Philosopher Henri Lefebvre discussed the significance of celebration, a fête, that disrupts everyday life and provides pleasure, joy and wonder on the streets.
What does play and pleasure mean in practice, other than a vague demand and critique of capitalism from seven decades ago? What is fête and surprise in a 2020 city? Who creates it and who takes part? Is playfulness in the city an anti-climax as a demand, what about the climate crisis, the housing crisis, the financial crisis, the corona crisis?
Drifting as critique?
One of the SI’s most well-known forms of resistance against “the crushing force of modernism on humans’ creativity and imagination” was dérive walking. These drifty walks through the city were unplanned, where the motivation for movement was to be found in the attractions of the terrain and one’s own inner world, all the while making observations of how you subjectively react to the environment’s attractions. What draws you in, where is it forbidden to walk, what reactions do you get from your surroundings? It involves a playful aspect, a certain naivety. According to one of SI’s key figures, Guy Debord, the dérive is a technique where the individual leaves behind their relations, work, and any other activities and roles as well as their usual motives for movement in the city and let themselves be drawn by whatever catches their interest.
Attention is given to the drifter’s mood while they amble through different urban spaces and their ambiences. The aim is not to get anywhere specific but to observe one’s own relation to urban space and everyday life. Revolution starts with individual reflection.
Urban researcher David Harvey reminds us that we are all in the position of a critical flâneur and that we are able to dismantle the fetish of the city by observing it. Observation can be done for example by analysing characteristics of your lived spaces: places to gather, places to rest, noises, smells, greenery, attainable services, transit, ambiances, safety, social encounters, non-commercial spaces…
Walking offers chances for spontaneous meetings but the gains are difficult to measure, personal and flickering, and do not fit the positivist rationale of urban planning. According to urban theoretics, such as Jane Jacobs and Richard Sennett, walkable streets with their chances for encounters are in the core of the definition of the city and also important for democracy and civility. Walking is a way to inhabit the city, although it is often “hidden before our eyes” in planning and research. However planner Jeff Speck contends that although planners have for decades known the benefits of walking for the attractiveness, health and wealth of cities and its residents, the problem is the disconnection between planning and decision-making.
Drifting through the city is not an equal deal: if you are able-bodied and fit the normative image in your environment, you will most probably feel more free to explore hidden urban terrains in “a playful way”. In other cases, as for example for people of color, ethnic minorities, younger ages and non-binary genders, walking in the city can be a frightening and anxious ordeal. There is a lot of work to be done in planning to understand these power dynamics and even them out in the physical city and its architectures.
Although the Situationists have been criticised for their incoherency, exclusivity, sense of moral superiority and obscure methods, I contend that they were on the right track of how walking produces emotional and bodily knowledge. Luckily, contemporary psychogeography has a more two-way focus today: in addition to examining the drifter’s emotions on the streets, it examines the conditions in which these streets were constructed in the first place. Who plans and what pressures impact their planning?
An observative walk can be a useful tool of critique as we aim to shed our customary motivations for movement and objects of our attention to look at places in a new way, against the grain. Ask yourself as a pedestrian, where is your attention focused at, what kind of opportunities for inhabiting the city do these places offer? Which routes do you prefer, which do you avoid? Where are you scared, where are you annoyed? Why? Where do you repeatedly gravitate to and where do you pause? Which characteristics do good places have? Could there be more of them in your living environment? Do you trust that the things you find important are being advanced in politics or would you have a chance to advocate them?
Debord, Guy. 1958. Theory of the Dérive. Käännös englanniksi Ken Knabb. Internationale Situationniste.
Geronta, Antigoni. 2010. Psychogeography. Radical Movements and Contemporary Practices.
Haladyn, J. J. (2008). Psychogeographical boredom. Drain: Journal of Contemporary Art and Culture, 5(2).
Hancox, Simone. 2012. Contemporary walking practices and the Situationist International: The Politics of Perambulating the Boundaries Between Art and Life. Contemporary Theatre Review 22:2, Taylor & Francis.
Virnes, Antti. 2007. Kohti arjen vallankumousta. Lyhyt johdatus situationistiseen ajatteluun. Paatos 1/2007.