Psychogeography: A Walk In Manchester Wednesday January 30, 2013

Cities are “relationships between the measurements of its space and the events of its past” – Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities.

Psychogeography blends, as the name suggests, the fields of psychology and geography. It was defined in 1955 by Marxist and critical theorist Guy Debord as “the study of the precise laws and specific effects of the geographical environment, consciously organized or not, on the emotions and behaviour of individuals.” Debord wrote an interesting book called The Society of the Spectacle which consists of a collection of ideas expressed in short paragraphs. It concerns topics such as the degradation of human life, and commodity fetishism. The ‘spectacle’, he said, is a confluence between advanced capitalism and mass media. It is “a social relationship between people that is mediated by images.” This corresponds to a critical reading of advertising and its psychological manipulations and how – more than ever – ‘image’ relations replace ‘real’ relations between people as seen with reality television, internet communications, and the marketing of personalities described as celebrity culture.

Psychogeography is a fluid subject which I wouldn’t seek to define in any fixed way. Rather, it describes a series of interests and practises which are both theoretical and practical: which is where I am interested in the activity of city walking. My passion is mountain walking but I don’t do this as often as I would like. I am therefore extending my interest to urban environments, trying to reconfigure the experience of streets into something with more substance and nuance than the habitual stroll to shops and work.

Psychogeography applies equally to the top of a mountain. There is no division when the common factor in both cases is you – your perceptions, your responses, your feelings, wherever you are. I do not however subscribe to the view that differences between the rural and urban environment consist of nothing more than the idea of such places. I find that ludicrous, but it is peddled by people such as writer Will Self who says the only reason we enjoy a mountain is because Romanticism tells us to do so: that it is sublime, beautiful or transcendent because we think it is. This is hyper-intellectualism, with destructive ramifications. The idea of a place does condition how we perceive it and before Romantics such as Wordsworth the Lake District – for example – was regarded as a place of natural horrors. It is nonsense however to suggest there is no ‘real’ difference between Great Gable and London or Manchester streets. The differences are both profound and important insofar as they prompt necessary questions about human relationship to nature, environmental damage, and legitimate concern about our collective future living on a planet with diminishing resources.

In EM Forster’s Howard’s End Leonard Bast carries a novel in his pocket and sits and reads it quietly in his squalid rooms. His middle class friends are surprised by this and surprised again when he goes for a walk in the night, leaving London. He is confined firstly by his working class poverty, secondly by his lack of education and thirdly by the limits of the city. He is a psychogeographer; he reflects on the impressions of his walk fully aware of its eccentric but revealing character. Novels are a form of escape in some respects similar to walking. Although the sensory and physical experience is utterly different, both allow an imaginative freedom which is not confined by social constraint. In Howard’s End, the city is contrasted against the country in the form of two dwellings: the cottage which is the name of the novel, and London residence. I too have an acute sense of this division in terms of my walking hobby. There is a far greater density of psychogeographic layering in a city such as Manchester, compared to the Lake District. This does not however make it a superior or – in my view – preferable place to live.

There is a psychological layer to all environments. We experience thoughts, feelings and associations with the character of a place whether it be the Buttermere valley or London’s Oxford Street. Manchester, like London, has a significant architectural history with specific reference to the Victorian era and the birth of the Industrial Revolution. As such, Manchester streets invoke those associated topics. The city has undergone an astonishing revival in the last ten or fifteen years with architectural developments wherever they were possible. It was before the economic crash, when investors realised there was a vast area of decrepit and unused space for profiteering development. Some of the architecture is undeniably impressive as you find at the two ends of Deansgate in the centre of the city: Beetham Tower at one end, and a residential block sitting on top of the commercial space of Harvey Nicholls at the other. Northern cities have always competed for attention, always battling against the power of London. It’s a vain idea except where it concerns some endeavours such as football and music: Tony Wilson, the Hacienda, the Stone Roses, Oasis, Happy Mondays and ‘Madchester’ stamped the city on a world map as with its football. The Beatles have a greater eminence, coming from nearby Liverpool, but Oasis derived some of their creative ideas from the previous band: there is something about the north which inspires youth towards music. Nearby Salford University has, I understand, a highly regarded music course.

Writer Jeanette Winterson describes Manchester as an alchemical city. This has connotations for its industrial past – where the revolution began which was partly the basis for former British power – but also for the recent developments. I’m not sure this an entirely deserved idea: I think the development was partly just luck, a fortuitous wind, which traced back to the IRA detonating a bomb which in turn cleared away unpleasant architecture for the possibility of something new. When that looked good, other people moved in. Similarly, the cotton industry which gave Manchester its former might derived from the natural resource of rain and rivers to power the mills; much as the nautical potential of Liverpool was the reason for its own former glory.

Psychogeography has been described as “a slightly stuffy term that’s been applied to a whole toy box full of playful, inventive strategies for exploring cities. Psychogeography includes just about anything that takes pedestrians off their predictable paths and jolts them into a new awareness of the urban landscape” (Joseph Hart, Utne magazine, July / August 2004). I find this quite accurate regarding the vagueness of psychogeography, and how anyone can undertake a psychogeographic walk because the practice – such as it is – consists merely of walking and observing the impact of impressions. This can, in turn, develop into political ideas because cities trace back to political initiatives: no more clearly than in Manchester which has the remnants of what Engels described as the dark satanic mills.

In The Society of the Spectacle Debord says “the spectacle cannot be understood as a mere visual excess produced by mass-media technologies. It is a worldview that has actually been materialised, a view of a world that has become objective.” Cities, in this respect, can be decoded like a text to reveal politics, economics, and sociology. Debord again: “The society based on modern industry is not accidentally or superficially spectacular, it is fundamentally spectaclist.” This obscure remark from the French suggests Manchester as a former industrial city is necessarily tied to “spectacle.” To examine that further you have to go deeper into what Debord meant by “spectacle” which is not my aim here. As a post industrial city dense with what Jeanette Winterson described as bling: Beetham Tower, Number One Deansgate, Number One First Street – glass and steel constructions – Manchester is a fertile place to walk and practise psychogeography. I don’t think Debord is a necessary part of psychogeography but the succinct definition he provided leads you to his work: it is “the study of the precise laws and specific effects of the geographical environment, consciously organized or not, on the emotions and behavior of individuals.”

Manchester photographs