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Essay | Fighting Against Productivity by Anna Aguilar

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Psychogeography: the study of the precise laws and specific effects of the geographical environment […] on the emotions and behaviour of individuals”

Guy Debord, Introduction to a Critique of Urban Geography, 1955

Despite the academic jargon that is so intricately connected with the term “psychogeography”, its study is not only universally approachable, but necessary in our contemporary reality. London, the nightmarish hive we have created, continues to grow vertically and horizontally while its inhabitants remain oblivious to the intricacies of their environment.

Our lack of proximity to nature in the city requires constant effort to consciously read our surroundings. Despite our understanding of the artificial construction of the city, the inner workings of buildings, cars, computers or anything else around us is illegible to natural beings. We don’t really understand how everything around us functions beyond the superficial. Hence, we associate nature with peacefulness and contrastingly feel the necessity to ‘escape’ from the city towards something less overwhelming.

We often forget, or disassociate, from the fact that London is built on top of the same thing as its green outskirts. The city doesn’t exist in a vacuum, but rather follows the landscape of its surroundings. When we walk from Piccadilly to Oxford Circus we don’t recognise that we are walking up a hill in the same way as we do walking in the countryside. Concrete skews our perception of topography.

I recently spent a week in an unremarkable town in South West England. Throughout the day, which I spent alone, I found myself feeling trapped and anxious. There was nothing to do because the town centre had no consumer goods that interested me. My life in London had triggered a craving for a constant input of artificial information. I craved being surrounded by intense movement and by people equally hungry for goods; innovation, technology, fashion.


On the last day I decided to leave the house and walk. I found a blackberry bush and had a feast, and continued to wander around the town and its outskirts thinking about how some spaces held similarities to home. I did not do this with any particularly revolutionary intent, but in hindsight realised I had undertaken a dérive; an aimless wander aimed at studying the effect of the environment on the psyche.

The dérive is a far more challenging activity now than it was at the time of its conception. While walking was a common activity in 1950s Paris, it has become an increasingly obsolete form of transportation. London’s immensity and fast-paced movement encourages the use of the quickest form of transport available, walking to a destination that is more than an hour away is seen as an oddity.

As Will Self famously explores through his unlikely walks to airports through barren deserts or busy motorways, walking to certain destinations is becoming increasingly complicated. Entire routes are designed exclusively for motor vehicles, assuming nobody will ever need to walk from one point to the other.

The wide availability of GPS navigation has consolidated the strife for purpose-fuelled movement. Alternative route possibilities are completely disregarded in name of the most efficient one. Our journeys are being increasingly transferred from reality into the virtual world; you are, for the duration of the journey, suspended from your immediate reality. This disassociation is similar to jumping on a plane, where you sit and distract yourself from the fact that you are moving through space, and then arrive at your destination.

Every aspect from our lives is being directed towards this idea of purposefulness. The concept of indoor gyms, for example, is designed to maximise the benefits of physical exercise in a shorter, albeit less enjoyable, period of time. Locking yourself in a room and lifting heavy pieces of metal before commuting to your office job is framed into the idyllic contemporary healthy life-style. Coincidentally, anxiety and depression are steadily on the rise.

It would be unreasonable to suggest that the dérive is the solution to mental health issues, but so much of what causes anxiety in our contemporary society can be eased through movement. Olga Tokarczuk states in her fragmentary novel Flights, “a thing in motion will always be better than a thing at rest; that change will always be a nobler thing than permanence; that that which is static will degenerate and decay, turn to ash, while that which is in motion is able to last for all eternity”. I expand this idea by stating that mechanical motion, commuting, won’t suffice— you must be deliberate in your actions.

“I can only meditate when I am walking. When I stop, I cease to think; my mind only works with my legs”.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Confessions, 1782

Bruce Chatwin’s novel Songlines beautifully explores the Australian Aboriginal mythology, which lyrically maps the continent’s topography, creating a mythic map that connects culture with place. By singing the song which maps a specific route, one is able to traverse vast distances.  On the opposite side of the globe, Inuit’s remarkable geographic knowledge allows them to navigate lands with equal lack of topographical features. Travel orientation is prioritised as one of the most important means to survival.

The correlation seems clear; the easier something becomes, the worst we get at it. The need for orientation is becoming increasingly null, and with it our capabilities. We can find ourselves completely lost in the city we live, only a few streets down from the path we usually take. Perhaps we should hark back to our origins to realise how important our connection with the physical world is and remind ourselves that we are, after all, animals.

The dérive, in whichever way you decide to undertake it, can be a source of all this introspective knowledge that is currently camouflaged by our capitalist reality. The purposelessness of the act shifts our understanding of our environment, which is otherwise concealed behind the lens of commodity fetishism. Consumption is not only the root of our hyper-productive mentality but itself is a form of productivity. Refusing to consume means refusing to participate in society and is as equally ostracised as refusing to work.

Some critics such as Dawn Foster have made contemporary psychogeography a particularly female action by arguing that women suffer from the social obligation of efficiency more so than men. Furthermore, wandering the streets has distinct implications for women and non-cis individuals who to this day suffer from routine verbal harassment and constant fear of physical violence. Some women may feel empowered by the act of taking up physical space or transgressing their role as the ‘supermother’. The effect of the dérive can vary for different groups of society, making it an intensely personal experiment, but is by no means exclusive.

Despite the rise automation and artificiality, we remain human beings intensely affected by our physical environment. Without understanding how our surroundings affect our behaviour, we become increasingly disconnected from ourselves and from everybody around us, mindlessly buying into what is being sold to us as progress. Through the continued assessment of how our surroundings affect our psyche and instil our awareness of the city, psychogeography can be a key factor in the transformation of social and personal consciousness.

Words by Anna Aguilar.

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Essay | A Journey Through Silence by Georgie Knaggs

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The chat stops. We rise to our feet, step back over our benches. My foot hunts for its flip-flop.

I am nine years old. It is a mid-week evening. Supper has finished and the school is about to say grace. We must be silent. We must not move. This is normal.

The thick rubber of my flop is jammed beneath the bar of the bench.

‘… for what we have just received …’

My toes stretch outwards, then curl to a grip.

‘… may we be truly thankful.’

The shoe moves … then slips out of reach.

‘Amen.’

We turn to face the teachers at the top table as they line up to leave the hall. I start to panic. I shall be in big trouble. My shoe should have been on my foot.

Half-swivelled, I jab my foot forward. My big toe hits the leg of the bench and a sharp, fierce pain stabs through it … my cry is swallowed by relief. I have my shoe.

I force my foot into it – nothing said, nothing noticed – and limp out. The crocodile of silent children is complete.

That night my foot throbs and I cannot sleep. I am afraid but I don’t want to tell anyone. It will get better by itself, I think.

But it does not. In the morning, I study my sore toe. There is a black line, the width of a pencil, which runs from a jagged edge just above the white of my nail, right down to the flesh. It is a piece wood from the bench that has got stuck beneath my nail. I do not know how to get it out, and I am too afraid to tell anyone. Why did I take my shoe off?

The days pass, only a few but they feel like forever. I limp between the ‘listen-to-me’ and ‘repeat-after-me’ hours of class. I am okay sitting down.

Term ends soon. I shall tell someone then if my toe does not get better.

There is one problem … Sports Day  on the last day of term. I am knock kneed, flat footed, and last in everything – the limp will not change that but my toe is too sore to run.

I lie awake in the dormitory after ‘lights out’. Twenty other beds fidget around me. I have to tell someone that I cannot run tomorrow.

Morning dawns. I put on my white shorts, and my white tshirt, and line up by the basins to brush my teeth. Everyone is excited, except me. I am scared.

I am scared because my foot hurts, because I took off my shoe when I was not supposed to. I am scared because I never told anyone. I did not want to get into trouble … and now it is worse.

I cannot keep my big secret in any longer. It bursts out of me as soon as I see my parents. There are frowns and questions, and then a rush to the doctor.

My toenail is sliced open. It is sore but nobody gets cross. The teachers don’t because my parents are there. My parents don’t because the teachers are so helpful. And I don’t because I know I shouldn’t.

That is how it was in the country where I grew up. We were newly independent and unravelling into a civil war. There was more to worry about than being soft on school children.

Nine years after the toe incident, I finish school. I am soundly educated, deferential to authority, and know how to hold my tongue and survive. I am the product of hard working parents, two boarding schools and a racially divisive civil war.

By the time I leave school, the country, in which I was born and raised, has changed its name four times since my birth. It is now Zimbabwe.

I step out into the world unaware that my life has been fenced apart by censorship and sanctions. I see and hear what those in power wish me to see and hear … and I believe them.

It takes a year of travel to loosen my point of view – to start to feel the joy of my generation.

University in Scotland follows. I am in a small department with a professor who prefers research to examinations. He sends me to Spain and back to Zimbabwe where the silence has lifted. The country is noisy with hope.

I write my dissertations and I graduate. I am 25 years old when I marry a man in the British military.

Another silence descends. This silence lasts a quarter of a century. It is the silence of ‘loyalty’ – of attachment to a member of a nomadic, hierarchical system caught in a time of slippery conflict.

I know silence. It is not a friend. I regress and so does the land of my birth.

When the new millennium arrives I visit my father who is ill in Zimbabwe. The country is trapped beneath the chaos of land redistribution and government ambition. Silence spreads like a bruise. It deadens.

Fourteen years later, in the south of Italy, I meet silence again and its grip is tighter than any I have known.

We are based just outside Naples, surrounded by a powerful mix of history, grace and crime in an ancient, volcanic landscape.

‘The mafia are here to stay,’ a local friend tells me. ‘I know them, I know them all. Sonno tutti mafiosi … but I say nothing. I say buongiorno and I smile. They know I know … but I am afraid for my children.’

I understand this silence that creates accomplices.

In Naples itself there are plaques, memorials to the dead, to the victims of organised crime, but I do not photograph them. I do not write about them for they fill me with dread and questions. Are they to honour the fallen or to warn those that remain?

A young American arrives in Naples. She is full of the certainty of faith and the passion of work to be done. There is joy in every positive step … but it fades.

‘We were promised the building for our work. It must be where the need is greatest. But always there is some reason we cannot start.’

She is earnest and determined, but she is alone. Then one day she is gone. Visa problems we are told.

Above her, the waters close. I bob on the surface, eyes to the sunshine while tides rip beneath.

This is corruption polished to a high finish but the people dance as they always have– gracious, defiant, captivating, faithful to their city and its beliefs. Who am I to judge?

Now, we are back in England. It is 2017, a year of anger and disbelief, a year where influence fights across the new frontier of cyberspace, where power resorts to camouflage, and truth is hard to trust.

Today, I am in a café in rural Dorset. It is the day London’s Big Ben falls silent. The day that the moon blots out the sun across the USA.

A young man paces the floor, mobile to his ear. His voice penetrates the barista’s clatter and steam. He is out of work and job-hunting.

‘I was a CEO. I had a team in Rome … people in Brazil … staff of 70 … ‘

Conversations cease. Newspapers rustle uncomfortably. We listen to the man parade his corporate credentials.

‘What is the goal of the company? Is it to grow the top line or the bottom line?’

We ponder the question, unwitting members of his interview panel. The verdict, unanimous it seems, is that he must try again elsewhere. He does. He makes one call after another – a large piece in the café’s jigsaw of noise.

I am happy to be here, free to speak and to listen in, privileged by freedoms earned by others.

A young family, armed with electronic devices, enters the café – mum, dad, and two children. The youngest is no more than four. They order their hot chocolates then, slouched and silent around their steaming mugs, they disappear into worlds we cannot see. Only their bodies remain on our shore.

I watch and I wonder if the empathy Shakespeare showed us will be smothered or amplified by digital space. Will this family emerge stronger from its new worlds … or weaker?

Behind me, giggles wriggle through the pot plants. A little boy chases his sister around the table.

My mind drifts through the noise. I re-read what I have written. Silence beckons me backwards. Why say anything? Why write anything?

Then all the words I have never said scrabble against the sides of my mind. They spell out the consequences they have witnessed in silence – fear. Shame. Corruption. Contamination. Cruelty. Collapse.

I look away. I look down. Platforms click across my screen.

All I have to do is find my voice.

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