I’m giving a talk next month on ‘psychogeography’. I originally agreed back in February, when June was a long way off. I’ve spoken about the subject before, so it could be easy to do; but as the talk approaches, I’ve become increasingly troubled.
I’ve spoken in the past about some of my problems with psychogeography. But at the moment what concerns me is how the subject is dominated by white men. Beyond the issues of representation, it’s a massive flaw that a subject about perceptions of the city is often blind to how these are affected by privilege. Experiences are described as universal without noting the groups for whom these activities are contentious or dangerous.
To be absolutely blunt: hiking around a city is difficult when women face harassment and intimidation on the streets; when walking into new areas can be dangerous for some groups.
A damp funk of blokeyness has grown up around psychogeography. As Lauren Elkin wrote in her book Flâneuse, “The great writers of the city, the great psychogeographers, the ones that you read about in the Observer on weekends; they are all men, and at any given moment you’ll also find them writing about each other’s work, creating a reified canon of masculine walker-writers. As if a penis were a requisite walking appendage, like a cane”
Elkin goes on to quote Will Self in a footnote. Self writes: “A digression: do I believe that men are corralled in this field due to certain natural and/or nurtured characteristics, that lead us to believe we have — or actually do inculcate us with — superior visual-spatial skills to women, and an inordinate fondness for all aspects of orientation, its pursuit, minutiae and — worst of all — accessories? Absolutely.”
Amy Sharrocks, founder of the Walking Women project, describes being at a talk by Iain Sinclair and Will Self at the V&A on the history of walking art. No women were mentioned in the talk; Sharrocks said “I asked Iain about it and he said that there weren’t any women doing this kind of work. Established male artists and curators have a responsibility from their positions of power to do better research, as do we all.”
Psychogeography is an interesting subject, but it tends to regurgitate the same names and figures. It would be easy to give the talk I gave in 2011, with a few updated references, but doesn’t seem good enough. I want to be able to communicate my enthusiasm while acknowledging these issues. And, at the same time, I need to make it entertaining and approachable, so that the politics is not the central point. It’s going to be difficult, but if I’m going to give this talk then I need to find a way around it.