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Essay | Fighting Against Productivity by Anna Aguilar


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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Iain Sinclair and Will Self on Walking London

Panorama of London by Claes Van Visscher, 1616

I’ve got a new eternal certainty to file alongside death and taxes: if you walk around London enough, and you know what he looks like, you will eventually see Will Self. My friend Hannah noticed him outside a Chinese restaurant near Charing Cross. My buddy Ben saw him on the road between St. Pancras and Euston. I’ve bumped into him on a stroll through Hampstead Heath. One day, it will happen to you too.

This is because he loves walking. He really loves walking. In fact, he and Ian Sinclair are key figures in the modern incarnation of psychogeography; a field that involves drifting around urban areas with a sense of freedom and philosophical inspection. Whilst it’s Parisian mid-century beginnings imbued it with a radical leftist political edge, it’s now become something more playful and therapeutic whilst maintaining its philosophical bent – i.e., it’s still about people reclaiming the streets, it’s just that the meaning of that phrase has changed.

In the tranquil grandeur of the Victoria and Albert Hall’s Lydia and Manfred Gorvy lecture theatre, Will Self and Iain Sinclair – both notable writers of the art of walking – took a break from their endless perambulations around London to talk about what going from place to place on one’s own feet means to them. The great relief of the evening was that, despite the subject’s arcane academic roots and Will Self’s tendency to announce things like “this whole imbroglio is epiphenomenal” on Question Time, the talk was both accessible and fun.

The crucial argument of both Self and Sinclair is that you never really know a place unless you’ve walked around it. It’s how you change London from abstract spaces around tube stops into a vibrant living city – Self explained how you come to feel the physical geography of London as hills leading up from a valley river that lie beneath so many buildings and roads. You communicate with London’s character: he expressed his (surprisingly optimistic) belief that the current trend for landscape distorting skyscrapers and oligarch-funded planning is no match for London’s ‘anarchic, hallucinatory personality’ – when you walk around it enough, you realise that what’s innately ‘London’ is also eternally ‘London’. He was more pessimistic about technology; he’s upset by the sights of people walking the streets with one eye on Google maps on their phone, their minds full of social media rather than architecture and living history. “They’re only half here, and half present on some virtual plane”. People are losing the ability to get truly, beautifully lost.

Urban walking has a surprisingly serious side. Self spoke about how it helped to occupy him after he gave up drugs, and how teaching the subject to recent immigrants to Britain had helped them become more connected with a land they felt alienated from. Walking really aids the mind in so many ways: it’s not for nothing that Nietzsche said “I never trust an idea that didn’t come to me on a walk.”

Self and Sinclair are persuasive champions of the cause, and it was a fascinating, eye-opening discussion. I’d never realised how much walking did for you, and how much there was to think about it. Incidentally, I’d walked to this lecture to get into the spirit of it; a two-and-a-half hour stroll from Hendon station down the Edgware Road. I can authoritively tell you that it does feel really good, and is both far more interesting and less tiring than you might imagine. I really recommend leaving the oyster card at home next time you have to transverse the city. For a talk about an obtuse academic, philosophical field this was hardly abstract, purely theoretical subject matter: it’s something you can really feel – if you choose to get on your feet.

By Rory McCarthy

The V&A are currently doing a series of evening events that you can find out about here.

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