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Psychogeography was defined in 1955 by Guy Debord as "the study of the precise laws and specific effects of the geographical environment, consciously organized or not, on the emotions and behavior of individuals." Another definition is "a whole toy box full of playful, inventive strategies for exploring cities...just about anything that takes pedestrians off their predictable paths and jolts them into a new awareness of the urban landscape."
Psychogeography was originally developed by the Lettrist International in the journal Potlach. The originator of what became known as unitary urbanism, psychogeography, and the drive was Ivan Chtcheglov, in his highly influential 1953 essay "Formulaire pour un urbanisme nouveau" ("Formulary for a New Urbanism"). The Lettrists' reimagining of the city has connections to predecessors like the Dadaists and Surrealists, while the idea of urban wandering relates to the older concept of the flneur, theorized by Charles Baudelaire. Following Chtcheglov's exclusion from the Lettrists in 1954, Debord and others worked to clarify the concept of unitary urbanism, in a bid to demand a revolutionary approach to architecture. At a conference in Scotland in 1956, the Lettrists joined the International Movement for an Imaginist Bauhaus to set a proper definition for the idea announced by Gil J. Wolman "Unitary Urbanism - the synthesis of art and technology that we call for – must be constructed according to certain new values of life, values which now need to be distinguished and disseminated." It demanded the rejection of functional, Euclidean values in architecture, as well as the separation between art and its surroundings. The implication of combining these two negations is that by creating abstraction, one creates art, which, in turn, creates a point of distinction that unitary urbanism insists must be nullified. This confusion is also fundamental to the execution of unitary urbanism as it corrupts one's ability to identify where "function" ends and "play" (the "ludic") begins, resulting in what the Lettrist International and Situationist International believed to be a utopia where one was constantly exploring, free of determining factors.
In "Formulary for a New Urbanism," Chtcheglov had written "Architecture is the simplest means of articulating time and space, of modulating reality, of engendering dreams". Similarly, the Situationists found contemporary architecture both physically and ideologically restrictive, combining with outside cultural influence, effectively creating an undertow, and forcing oneself into a certain system of interaction with their environment: "[C]ities have a psychogeographical relief, with constant currents, fixed points and vortexes which strongly discourage entry into or exit from certain zones".
The Situationists' response was to create designs of new urbanized space, promising better opportunities for experimenting through mundane expression. Their intentions remained completely as abstractions. Guy Debord's truest intention was to unify two different factors of "ambiance" that, he felt, determined the values of the urban landscape: the soft ambiance – light, sound, time, the association of ideas – with the hard, the actual physical constructions. Debord's vision was a combination of the two realms of opposing ambiance, where the play of the soft ambiance was actively considered in the rendering of the hard. The new space creates a possibility for activity not formerly determined by one besides the individual.
However, the Situationist International may have been tongue-in-cheek about some parts of psychogeography. "This apparently serious term –psychogeography,'" writes Debord biographer Vincent Kaufman, "comprises an art of conversation and drunkenness, and everything leads us to believe that Debord excelled at both."
Eventually, Debord and Asger Jorn resigned themselves to the fate of "urban relativity". Debord readily admits in his film A Critique of Separation (1961), "The sectors of a city–are decipherable, but the personal meaning they have for us is incommunicable, as is the secrecy of private life in general, regarding which we possess nothing but pitiful documents". Despite the ambiguity of the theory, Debord committed himself firmly to its practical basis in reality, even as he later confesses, "none of this is very clear. It is a completely typical drunken monologue–with its vain phrases that do not await response and its overbearing explanations. And its silences."
Before settling on the impossibility of true psychogeography, Debord made another film, On the Passage of a Few Persons Through a Rather Brief Unity of Time (1959), the title of which suggests its own subject matter. The film's narrated content concerns itself with the evolution of a generally passive group of unnamed people into a fully aware, anarchistic assemblage, and might be perceived as a biography of the situationists themselves. Among the rants which construct the film (regarding art, ignorance, consumerism, militarism) is a desperate call for psychogeographic action:
|–||When freedom is practiced in a closed circle, it fades into a dream, becomes a mere image of itself. The ambiance of play is by nature unstable. At any moment, "ordinary life" may prevail once again. The geographical limitation of play is even more striking than its temporal limitation. Every game takes place within the boundaries of its own spatial domain.||–|
Moments later, Debord elaborates on the important goals of unitary urbanism in contemporary society:
The atmosphere of a few places gave us a few intimations of the future powers of an architecture that it would be necessary to create in order to provide the setting for less mediocre games.
Quoting Marx, Debord says:
|–||People can see nothing around them that is not their own image; everything speaks to them of themselves. Their very landscape is animated. Obstacles were everywhere. And they were all interrelated, maintaining a unified reign of poverty.||–|
By definition, psychogeography combines subjective and objective knowledge and studies. Debord struggled to stipulate the finer points of this theoretical paradox, ultimately producing "Theory of the Drive" in 1958, a document which essentially serves as an instruction manual for the psychogeographic procedure, executed through the act of drive ("drift").
|–||In a drive one or more persons during a certain period drop their usual motives for movement and action, their relations, their work and leisure activities, and let themselves be drawn by the attractions of the terrain and the encounters they find there– But the drive includes both this letting go and its necessary contradiction: the domination of psychogeographical variations by the knowledge and calculation of their possibilities.||–|
In the SI's 6th issue, Raoul Vaneigem writes in a manifesto of unitary urbanism, "All space is occupied by the enemy. We are living under a permanent curfew. Not just the cops – the geometry". Drive, as a previously conceptualized tactic in the French military, was "a calculated action determined by the absence of a greater locus", and "a maneuver within the enemy's field of vision". To the SI, whose interest was inhabiting space, the drive brought appeal in this sense of taking the "fight" to the streets and truly indulging in a determined operation. The drive was a course of preparation, reconnaissance, a means of shaping situationist psychology among urban explorers for the eventuality of the situationist city.
From 1980 to today, psychogeography has flourished and diverged mostly through the re-emergence of the London Psychogeographical Association. As situationist theory became popular in academic circles, avant-garde, neoist and revolutionary groups emerged, developing the praxis in various ways. This interest survives today, manifested in a number of groups practising contemporary psychogeography.
Between 1992 and 1996 The Workshop for Non-Linear Architecture undertook an extensive programme of practical research into classic (situationist) psychogeography in both Glasgow and London. The discoveries made during this period, documented in the group's journal Viscosity, expanded the terrain of the psychogeographic into that of urban design and architectural performance.
The journal Transgressions: A Journal of Urban Exploration (which appears to have ceased publication sometime in 2000) collated and developed a number of post-avant-garde revolutionary psychogeographical themes. The journal also contributed to the use and development of psychogeographical maps which have, since 2000 been used in political actions, drifts and projections, distributed as flyers. Since 2003 in the United States, separate events known as Provflux and Psy-Geo-conflux have been dedicated to action-based participatory experiments, under the academic umbrella of psychogeography.
Psychogeography also become a device used in performance art and literature. In Britain in particular, psychogeography has become a recognised descriptive term used in discussion of successful writers such as Iain Sinclair and Peter Ackroyd and the documentaries of filmmaker Patrick Keiller. The popularity of Sinclair drew the term into greater public use in the United Kingdom. Though Sinclair makes infrequent use of the jargon associated with the Situationists, he has certainly popularized the term by producing a large body of work based on pedestrian exploration of the urban and suburban landscape. Sinclair and similar thinkers draw on a longstanding British literary tradition of the exploration of urban landscapes, predating the Situationists, found in the work of writers like William Blake, Arthur Machen, and Thomas de Quincy. The nature and history of London were a central focus of these writers, utilising romantic, gothic, and occult ideas to describe and transform the city. Sinclair drew on this tradition combined with his own explorations as a way of criticising modern developments of urban space in such key texts as Lights Out for the Territory. Peter Ackroyd's bestselling London: A Biography was partially based on similar sources. Merlin Coverley gives equal prominence to this literary tradition alongside Situationism in his book Psychogeography (2006), not only recognising that the situationist origins of psychogeography are sometimes forgotten, but that via certain writers like Edgar Allan Poe, Daniel Defoe and Charles Baudelaire they had a shared tradition. Psychogeography, as a term and a concept, now reaches more British eyes than ever before, as novelist Will Self had a column of that name which started out in the British Airways Inflight magazine and then appeared weekly in the Saturday magazine of The Independent newspaper until October 2008.
The concepts and themes seen in popular comics writers such as Alan Moore in works like From Hell are also now seen as significant works of psychogeography. Other key figures in this version of the idea are Walter Benjamin, J. G. Ballard, and Nicholas Hawksmoor. Part of this development saw increasing use of ideas and terminology by some psychogeographers from Fortean and occult areas like earth mysteries, ley lines, and chaos magic, a course pioneered by Sinclair. A core element in virtually all these developments remains a dissatisfaction with the nature and design of the modern environment and a desire to make the everyday world more interesting.
In a practical sense the many flourishing groups of urban explorers often are practising psychogeography, perhaps unknowingly; they certainly often draw on modern psychogeographic writers as an inspiration.
After few years of practicing the psychogeography group around Urban Squares Initiative  and [Aleksandar Janicijevic] , main figure in organizing and leading this group came up with the working definition of this procedure as: – The subjective analysis–mental reaction, to neighbourhood behaviours related to geographic location. A chronological process based on the order of appearance of observed topics, with the time delayed inclusion of other relevant instances– . Bill Humber [Executive Director, Revitalization Institute, Toronto, Canada  , participant in few of our walks, described our intentions in his article about psychogeography like this: –In discovering a small world we discover the whole world.–
Psychogeography is practiced both experimentally and formally in groups or associations, which sometimes consist of just one member. Known groups, some of whom are still operating, include:
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