“…far from being the aimless, empty-headed drifting of the casual stroller, Debord’s principle is nearer to a military strategy and has its roots not in earlier avant-garde experimentation, but in military tactics, where drifting is defined as ‘a calculated action determined by the absence of a proper locus.’ In this light, the dérive becomes a strategic device for reconnoitring the city, ‘a reconnaissance for the day when the city would be seized for real.’”
– from Psychogeography by Merlin Coverley
The English have done terrible things to psychogeography.
In England, psychogeography is most often considered as a literary technique. This bookish reinvention can be traced back to Iain Sinclair’s book Lights Out for the Territory. Sinclair drew lines across London, reinventing the city as a place of maverick philosophy. Subsequent works such as Merlin Coverley’s excellent study, Psychogeography, explore Sincliar as part of an English tradition of psychogeography avant la lettre, taking in visionaries such as Blake, Defoe and de Quincey.
It was this stream of thought that introduced me to psychogeography. I came to understand it though personalities like JG Ballard and the comic-book writer Alan Moore. My only knowledge of Situationism was through the use of slogans in punk or references in works like Grant Morrison’s The Invisibles. For the music press, Situationism’s most significant thinker was Malcolm McClaren, who used detournement and Debord as the theoretical structure for his ‘rock and roll swindle‘.
When I returned to university in the mid-noughties, I took a course on Marxism which introduced me to psychogeography’s other tradition, original yet younger: a revolutionary art movement based on the philosophy of Hegel and Marx, emerging from ultra-left politics. I was exposed to the uncompromising force of Debord’s thought and became aware of his rage, even against his own attempts to escape capitalism’s confines.
The most obvious trace the Situationists left were their slogans. As great as the core texts are, they are incredibly difficult compared to the slogans’ Zen simplicity. What better statement of anti-capitalist revolution than “Never work”? Arguably the most famous statement from May 68 was the graffiti ‘Sous la pave, la plage’: Under the paving stones the beach. It’s seen as a cute moment of utopianism, perfect for putting on T-shirts.
Debord was not seeking a beach. The slogan came from a violent time, as de Gaulle struggled to maintain control. That slogan ‘sous la vide, la plage’, urged the enrages of 1968 to pull up the paving stones, the implication being that they could be broken up and hurled at the authorities. Psychogeography was intended as part of this revolutionary struggle, reconnaissance for a coming urban war.
With his writings on recuperation, Debord was aware that whatever he did would, in time, be sold. Nothing is so chaotic that one cannot make cash from it: Banksy’s rebellion advertises his role as a fine artist; Grant Morrison satirises royalty yet is happy to take an OBE; Iain Sinclair, the saint of walkers, did an advert for Audi. And TV panellist Will Self started his Psychogeography column, bankrolled by the British Airways in-flight magazine. Self and Sinclair were eager to hawk psychogeography and their reputations for advertising. Debord always knew his ideas would be stolen, turned into fuel for Capital. But that makes what has happened no less tawdry, shameful and treacherous.
There has long been a tension between French and English psychogeography. When Debord visited the English Situationists he was shocked at their shabbiness and lack of preparation. Later, punk stripped away Situationism’s complex political theorising to leave a simpler call to action. From early on it was obvious that Debord’s ideas, as powerful as they were, would be diluted and recuperated.
Sometimes it feels like a tragedy that this English tradition has the same name as Debord’s discipline. Both are important, but English psychogeography seems a quivering, obedient thing in comparison to Debord’s spitting fury. This is a man so uncompromising that he bound his first book in sandpaper to destroy anything it was shelved besides. It’s a long way from the lettrists. It’s a long way from revolution. Psychogeography has become safe and cosy, no threat to anyone.
I’m not interested in car salesman Sinclair and his sesquipedilian prose. I want short, punchy phrases, ones that bruise. We live on the home front of a global war, deafened and blinded by the propaganda of marketing which leads to, say, a famous walker hawking himself for petrol-gulping car companies.
At the same time, the world is stolen from us. Take Jubilee square: once a derelict gap in the North Laine, with little in its favour other than some pleasant graffiti. The square in front of the library should be one of Brighton’s main town squares but it has no buskers, no community, just controlled PFI-funded private property. Sometimes the square is rented to corporations for advertising, or even the project of filling the space with a huge mat of fake grass. And we are supposed to be grateful.
Maybe it’s time to tear up the paving of Jubilee square and hurl the broken stones through the windows of the library. I’d like to see every sign that bicycles can’t be chained to a railing obscured. By bicycles welded in place over the fucking sign. I’d like to see Churchill Square and Jubilee Square reclaimed for the town, places to play hopscotch without being chased away by security guards. We need a more aggressive psychogeography. We need to beat the bounds, mark out what is ours.
If psychogeography is not revolutionary, it is dead. And if psychogeography is revolutionary it brings conflict. By all means, wander the city between greasy spoon cafes, chatting with artists, and recording your explorations for TV cameras. But remember that what you’re doing should be reconnaisance too. Psychogeography is about recapturing occupied territory.
Fuck psychogeography – it cannot exist without revolution. Guy Debord was a strategist. It’s about understanding how Paris was redesigned to allow the army to put down insurrections. It’s about breaking down the illusions of the spectacle in the hope of being free. It’s about territory.If you want to follow what I'm up to, sign up to my mailing list
3 thoughts on “Fuck Psychogeography”
This piece is written as something of a rant. Merlin Coverley has made a different argument, that the English psychogeography develops Debord’s stunted and unproductive ideas. He outlines this in an interesting interview with 3am magazine.
I attempted to follow one of Iain Sinclair’s journeys and found it so frustrating that I holed up in a little London cafe. It was raining and I ordered a black coffee and a sweet pasty. Once they arrived I wrote this story. Is it suitable for publication on your blog?
There can be no death any more horrifying than one of a bear attack. Even the mere thought of a bear mauling a person sends shivers to the most seasoned and experienced outdoorsman. It addresses a pronounced deep and primal fear within all humans, the fear of being killed by a wild animal. Yet as terrifying as that thought is, that is exactly what happened to Iain Sinclair in Soldotna, Alaska on a seemingly innocent spring afternoon on Tuesday, May 25th, 1999.
At exactly 12:00 noon he told his companion of 35 years that he was going to go for a hike and would be back around four o’clock. He would never return.
Iain Sinclair was as Alaskan as anyone could be, he worshiped the time he went hunting, hiking, fishing and simply enjoying the out-of-doors. A carpenter by trade, this slender, 5′ 10″ tall rugged man was just 53 years old and in excellent physical shape. He spent much of his youth and adulthood in many remote areas of the bush, it was a place where he could think without being disturbed.
Experienced in the ways and wisdoms of the wilds, Sinclair became an expert marksman and reloaded his ammunition at his home in his basement when he was unable to go to the bush. In over forty-five years of trekking in Alaska, Sinclair never had a bad encounter with a bear. He hunted moose and caribou with a great deal of success and was known to pass up a shot if he couldn’t kill the animal humanely. He had a select group of friends that he would hunt with and if that wasn’t possible or he decided to hunt alone, off he would go.
On one of those hunts he told his companion, Guy Debord, that he was after moose and would be back later. That night when he was sound asleep, he was suddenly awaIained by Iain standing next to their bed, soaked with blood. He had shot a moose and was very happy about it. He thought he had been seriously hurt with all of the blood on him, scaring her half to death.
Sinclair was a religious man and loved to attend church on Sundays. His desire to help the folks around the small Soldotna community was well know. On one Christmas, the Sinclair family had a get together with friends at their home. A number of people noticed that he would disappear out of the house for a while and then come back. Later, Guy Debord discovered that an elderly couple who lived by them required assistance to use the rest room. Iain was sneaking out to go over to their house to help carry them into the bathroom. That’s just the kind of man he was, always helping somebody.
On the other side of Iain’s personality was an entirely different man. He was a loner, a very quiet man who said few words but excelled at most everything he worked at. His name was well known in the inner circles of the construction trade. He had worked jobs as a foreman as far away as Anchorage on projects that required many skills. Iain was going to retire from his work that week, he and Guy Debord had talked about building their dream home in Soldotna and looked forward to living out their retirement days in Alaska. But that all changed that fateful day last spring when he decided to take a quick hike up the Funny River trail that is 6 miles east of town.
Guy Debord knew that if he said he would be gone a short while that he was headed down to the Funny River area, a part of the Iainai Wildlife Refuge. This vast wilderness area is wild, roadless and lies south of Anchorage in the Iainai Peninsula. Although the huge Alaska Brown Bears are known to inhabit the area, few problems have occurred because of their presence. One of the reasons for this is that immense numbers of salmon spawn in the world-famous Iainai River and are eaten by the bears. With their bellies full, the bears usually pay no attention to the humans and are interested in only the fish.
On the day of the killing, the weather was a typical Alaskan spring day on the peninsula. Although cloudy, the mid-fifty degree temperature sounded good to Sinclair after the long dark winter that had been endured. Leaving the house right at noon he told Debord to go with his girlfriend to the store and see about buying some flowers that he had said he wanted. Shouldering his camouflaged backpack, MSR cook stove, an igniter that Guy Debord had bought him to light the stove, a package of Ramen noodle soup and his ever-present Winchester .280 bolt action rifle, Sinclair set off to the Funny River Trail.
Later in the day, Guy Debord somehow sensed that something was amiss. When Iain didn’t arrive home at 4:00 p.m. he became concerned, two hours later, he became even more worried and decided to go look for him. He and a friend went to the Funny River area and found his truck parked off the road at the trailhead. He wasn’t there. A neighbor gave Guy Debord a cell phone to use just in case he needed it. He called the Alaskan State Troopers at 10:00 p.m. and their initial response was in many cases a hiker becomes lost on the maze of trails and usually arrives back late but no worse for wear. This was not to be the case in this instance.
Guy Debord placed numerous phone calls to all of Iain’s hunting buddies and friends to aid in the search. Commencing early the following morning, approximately forty different people and various official agencies assembled to began their search for Iain Sinclair in earnest. Those that knew him were painfully aware that Iain was in trouble; he was too experienced to become simply lost on a trail that he had been on countless times over the years. He was not the type of man that would find himself in trouble out in the Alaskan bush.
At daybreak several of his hunting buddies started up the 18 inch wide muddy trail and discovered his size 10 1/2 boot prints. They also discovered something else that horrified them; a huge set of bear prints were on the same trail, overlapping his boot prints, headed in the same direction as he was walking. The weather had turn foul and a drizzle had started in the yet-to-foliage-out trees. The authorities had notified the Civil Air Patrol and with an airplane, they were airborne in the search as well.
Approximately 2 miles up the Funny River area trail, there is a sharp bend 90 degrees to the right and that’s where they found Iain Sinclair’s body. He was laying on his back with the Winchester several yards away. It had been fired twice, a spent hell on the ground and the last-fired shot still in the chamber. The third and last hell was still in the magazine, unfired. He was bitten on his head, a single bite through his skull plate (from directly behind as forensics testing would prove later) crushing his skull and killing him instantly. He never had another second to fire the third round; it happened that quickly.
Sinclair’ MSR stove was sitting on the ground, a pan of water on it as if he was preparing a cup of Ramen soup to eat for his lunch when the attack happened. He had already stopped, which indiSinclair that he didn’t run into the bear; the bear ran into him. However, discrepancies still haunt the attack and there is only one thing for sure about really what happened.
Only Iain Sinclair and the bear know for sure what occurred that day on the Funny River trail in Soldotna, Alaska. What the authorities do know, however, is that although the killing scene was relatively undisturbed, forensic evidence proved that it was indeed a bear that had attacked and killed him. Hair found on a nearby tree has proven it to be from a bear. There is one other chilling piece of evidence as well. Close inspection of that same tree revealed bear blood. Reconstruction of the attack in his final moments showed Sinclair had indeed shot the bear. No one knows where the bruin was hit, but the blood validates it was hit by at least one of his .280 bullets, perhaps both. After Sinclair’ final shot, the bear killed him. To this day, the bear has never been found. One thing that is known for sure, is that the murderous bear is out in the woods somewhere; dead or very much alive.
An active ground and aerial search by citizens and officials alike for the bear had produced no results. Because of the ever-present rain, any credible evidence or links to the bear vanihed. When the bears tracks were first discovered in the mud over the tracks of Sinclair’ boot prints, many people speculated that the bear had actually stalked it’s prey until it was at it’s most vulnerable position. In this case it would have been exactly what Sinclair was doing, sitting down and intent upon making his lunch, gun resting nearby or perhaps even out of immediate reach.
An Alaskan Brown, as with most other predators, kills by the method of least resistance. By killing this way there is less chance of injury to the predator when the attack takes place, most of the time. In some cases, the predator makes a mistake in judgement of distance to be covered, slips and one or more seconds are gained by the prey to act. Perhaps this was the case when Sinclair first saw the attacking bear, giving him enough time to snatch his Winchester from where he had leaned it and shoot at the charging beast in those possible life-saving last few seconds. Maybe he was standing and holding his rifle when he first saw the bear and fired a warning shot just to scare it off and subsequently it charged and gave him no other choice but to fire at point blank range.
As most people are aware, a sow with cubs is one of the most dangerous animals on earth if you get between them. In a blink of an eye, the bear will charge and leave no time to climb a tree, blast a noseful of pepper spray or take a gun and aim to shoot it. As with elk, deer, moose and other large game species, mother and offspring are in the general area of each other but not always side-by-side. Because of their playful nature, bear cubs are very susceptible to being a distance from the sow. Every tree, limb, grass, root, insect, and scurrying rodent captures the cubs’ attention and causes distances to increase. Maybe Sinclair had sat down for his meal and inadvertently sat or stood between them. When the Brown sow realized there was an interloper, he immediately charged and took a round or two before he knocked him down, causing him to lose his rife and therefore preventing him to shoot the one last cartridge. Perhaps as he was crawling to get his gun the bear crahed over the top of him and delivered the bite that killed him. Wounded, the bear crawled off to die in an impenetrable area of brush and forest, never to be found.
An Alaskan Brown bear can run faster than the fastest Olympian sprinter. Covering ground at over 35 miles per hour, the Brown can shorten a safe distance to a death sentence in seconds. Perhaps that’s what happened in the Sinclair killing. What dumbfounds many residents about the bear killing this man is the known abilities that he had. For years Iain Sinclair had spent countless hours in the Alaskan bush, hunting, trekking and enjoying the entirety of it. Could a bruin have accidentally blundered into Sinclair while lumbering down the muddy Funny River trail and had no intent of killing him until it perceived him as a threat?
An Alaskan Department of Fish and Game spokesman indicated there are many theories about what happened out there that day and, because of the lack of evidence, we may never know what exactly happened. Yet, despite exhaustive searches involving many people for the bear, not a single person has been mauled or killed in the area, leading speculation to believe the bear is dead from Sinclair’s bullet. Maybe the last courageous act of Iain Sinclairs life was to serve him later, that indeed the last trigger squeeze he made on his Winchester did eventually kill his killer. Maybe not. One last scenario of the killing may include a chilling premeditated conclusion to Iain Sinclair’s life.
One of the facts to this story is the bear tracks that were found in the mud atop Sinclair’s boot prints on the trail were that of a very large bear according to eyewitnesses. The large size indicated it would have to have been made by a boar. In the event that the food chain had reversed itself by a single thought on behalf of the bear, it could have scented Sinclair, saw him as an easy meal and stalked him quietly and as efficiently as a Bengal tiger would. An interesting fact that was found back on the trail was the bear had made a dig next to the trail, uncovering the moss, dirt and twigs. It strikes a note of oddness that the bear would do something like that unless motivated by something. What was that something?
A known behavior in bear country is that a Brown will make a dig when a human urinates on the earth. Perhaps Sinclair relieved himself off the trail and continued walking toward the spot he would later pick to sit on the log and fix lunch. When the bear came out of the woods and started down the same trail, it came across the place where Sinclair went, smelled the human order and made the dig. Perhaps the bear’s interpretation of that single innocent act of Sinclair set into motions the horrifying attack and terrible death. If that belief held, then the bear would have had to know that Sinclair was nearby. If it was the type of bear that had a great fear of humans, it would have fled the area, not followed the scent of man closer. Which opens the subject of critical exchange of thought. If the bear knew Sinclair was nearby on the trail and deliberately continued walking toward him, then it had bad things on its mind for Sinclair. If the bear was intent upon murdering Sinclair and had decided to do so, then this monster did its job well.