Psychogeographical Venice

We know Rumney's side of the story: it was unfair that he was kicked out of the SI for not completing his book on Venice in time. But what about Debord's side? He certainly managed to complete his contribution to the project in a timely fashion.

Submitted by BNB on August 1, 2009

Psychogeographical Venice

We ourselves make the history of culture, but do so in preexisting conditions and not arbitrarily. Urban civilization is a recent creation of capitalism; and the ideological climate particular to the bourgeois regime, in which culture is both an instrument of domination and the successor to destroyed religion (flight from the real), still hasn't allowed one to draw all the consequences of a conditioning that, as a whole, is fundamentally new. The necessity of a theoretical formulation of the possibilities that this mutation opens up, and those possibilities that are made to disappear, is at the origins of all experimental research into an artistic practice that corresponds to today's development of production. Psychogeography is one of the aspects of the [conscious] arrangement of ambiance that one begins to call situationist.

At the close of the 18th century, London -- the most advanced town in terms of Western industrial concentration -- reached a stage of development that caused a qualitative change in its inhabitants' way of life. It was in London and at this time that we discover an ensemble of problems -- given birth to and then transmitted by means of literature -- that delimit the objective terrain of a passionate urbanism and in which a specific sensibility makes it first appearance. The love story of Thomas de Quincey and poor Ann -- who are fortuitously separated and seek in vain to find each other "in the immense labyrinth of London's streets, perhaps a few steps away" -- marks the historical moment of the awakening to psychogeographical influences upon the movements of human passion, and the importance of this moment can, in this regard, only be compared to the legend of Tristan,[1] which dates the formation of the very concept of love-passion.

At that moment, the manufacturing revolution had changed all the conditions of existence, and personal fate -- released from supernatural illusions and simply defined (in France) during the experimental phase of the bourgeoisie as "politics" -- could already be discovered in the material environment constructed by people and in the social relations that corresponded to it.

The hopeless condition of very large numbers of people -- experienced at the same time that the power of human society over nature had increased immensely -- appeared from then on in the culture of the innovators as an even-more acute contradiction between the affirmation of superior passionate possibilities and the reign of a certain kind of nihilism. In Thomas de Quincey, these tendencies were tempered by the recourse to classical humanism, which the artists and poets of the century that followed would subject to an even more radical demolition. Nevertheless, we must recognize in Thomas de Quincey -- that is, when he wandered in London, always vaguely in search of Ann and looking at "several thousand female faces in the hope of seeing hers," that is, between 1804 and 1812 -- an undeniable precursor to psychogeographical derives: "On Saturday evenings, I have had the custom, after taking my opium, of wandering quite far, without worrying about the route or the distance (...) ambitiously searching for my Northwest Passage, so as to avoid doubling anew all the capes and promontories that I had encountered in my first trip, I suddenly enter a labyrinth of alleys, some of them terrae incognitae, and I doubt that they are marked on the modern maps of London."

Today, we consider psychogeography and the derive to be provisional disciplines, methodically defined, with which to experiment on some aspects of the construction of ambiance and new situationist comportments. We think that the transmission of the results, even those apparently derisory, is the capital problem of psychogeography and that, through this transmission alone, it will be in relation with the architecture that we must invent. I believe that, at the moment in which we have begun to experiment with the derive, this activity has for many of us a meaning that is more directly moving. Perhaps there exists a more irrational tendency, a tendency to expect the discovery of a kind of psychogeographical Great Passage, beyond which we will attain mastery of a new game: the adventures of our lives themselves.

In other words, in the current context of alienation, the exteriorization of people -- as one knows -- returns against them. Modern art is arrested by the atrophy of the oeuvre (the impossibility of undertaking an extended construction, the lack of material means and the atomization of individual approaches) and by the evasion of the oeuvre-fragment (the commodity). With the creation of a new sector of action -- a creation that is finally illusory because of the pressure of all the other sectors -- we only desire a pure ludic objectification: we will contemplate ourselves in a world that we have created.

We have grounds to be encouraged by the surprising changes that the derive can bring about in comportment. It seems to me, in any case, that passionate usage can open the route to a really scientific knowledge, itself usable in a more extended situationist experiment [experience], following the schema proposed by Asger Jorn, who defines psychogeography as "the science-fiction[2] of urbanism" when he writes: "Only the imagination can render an object interesting enough for it to become a motivation for analysis, analysis empties the object of its imaginative force. But the new combination between the object and the results of analysis can form the basis for a new imagination."

The development of the productive forces, which breaks all the fixed structures of social life, tends to substitute a three-dimensional framework for the enclosed space in which the game and the flow of passion in time are limited to the forms of previous civilizations. In the era of the reduced exchanges of the Middle Ages, when people and their sentiments had to live and end in place, the greatest feudal virtue was loyalty. Among the fatal antagonisms of the society[3] that is currently decomposing, the acceleration of our era manifests itself on the affective plane in the taste for the speed of the automobile (a psychological compensation for a conformist cowardice acquired since youth by conditioned reflexes), but also in the sentiment of the derive, which -- for the moment -- once must qualify as revolutionary.

Thus, the great industrial towns have completely transformed our landscapes, even on the Map of Tenderness.[4] We must become aware of the role of these builders of the new world. The attempts at making pyschogeographical maps are primarily [attempts to make] guides for derives and, at the same time, new visions of the landscape -- the Corots or Turners[5] of today, if you will. We are still at the stage of extreme primitivism; still at the stage where subjectivity of a magical tendency must cede its place to the collective establishment of objective facts that allow a constructive reaction to the decor that is made for us. Due to the insufficiency of the means available to us, we still do not know how to produce a satisfying psychogeographical representation of a town; but the progress of this cartography is, nevertheless, undeniable, and the truthful criteria with which it identifies itself legitimates all that might appear -- through the narrow optics of common sense -- to be a deformation of known urban plans: in geography, Mercator's projections[6] are another example of utilitarian deformations. There is no other reality, no other realism, than the satisfaction of our desires.

Following the publication of some results of experiments already conducted in Paris and, to a lesser extent, in London, by the groups that came together in July 1957 to become a Situationist International, Venice was [chosen to be] the object of the first exhaustive psychogeographical work applied to urbanism. Ralph Rumney deliberately chose Venice from among so many other equally interesting zones of experimentation because of the sentimental resonance of the town that is tied to the most backward emotions of the old aesthetic. It is obvious that any intent to scandalize is foreign [to our motivations], and in the case of Venice we are only preoccupied with creating a contrast that is clearly instructive. In our eyes, the scandal is the slowness of the world in the belated combat in which it will yield to the forces that will end up changing it. We even think we will go to even more serious extremes than making easy attacks on the good taste of this good society. That which constitutes a situationist ambiance is the preliminary destruction of all the emotions that are opposed to it. We, who do not love countries, we love our epoch, as hard as it is. We love this epoch for what one can do it in it.

Guy Debord
September 1957[7]

[1] The legend of Tristan and Isolde (circa 1150 B.C.E.).

[2] English in original.

[3] The phrase de la societe was repeated twice here.

[4] La Carte de Tendre, drawn by Madeleine de Scudery in the 17th century.

[5] Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot (1796-1875) was a French landscape painter, and Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775-1851) was an English Romantic landscape painter. Both favored Venice.

[6] The Mercator projection is a cylindrical map projection invented the Flemish geographer and cartographer Gerardus Mercator (1512-1594).

[7] Intended as a preface for a book by Ralph Rumney, who was excluded from the Situationist International a short time later because he failed to write it as promised.