The ins and outs of Psychogeography: An Interview with Merlin Coverley
Merlin Coverley is a London based author who has written six books: London Writing, Psychogeography, Occult London, Utopia, The Art of Wandering, and South.
Sense of Place Pod: So, first things first, if you could just tell us a bit about yourself. The kind of books you write, and how you got into the world of psychogeography.
Merlin: Well I was studying a PhD in 19th and 20th century London Writing about 15 years ago. On the back of that, I wrote a book called London writing. So, my interest in psychogeography tended to come out of a lot of writers that were subsequently seen as being psychogeographical, for example, Daniel Defoe, Thomas De Quincy, Arthur Machen and a few others. I'd been reading around and studying notes for a few years, and then I started writing about psychogeography I think in about 2005 - retrospectively. I hadn't heard the term before, but I just noticed the writers I mentioned all seemed to share something that was psychogeographical, so I guess it started from there.
Sense of Place Pod: Psychogeography itself, is a pretty complex subject. It covers numerous themes from political ideologies to fictional works. As you mentioned, literature from the likes of Machen and Defoe have been retrospectively labelled as psychogeographical, meaning, as a concept it’s quite recent really. But before we get into the details of that, in a nutshell, how would you describe psychogeography as a whole to a complete novice? What's the general gist of it?
Merlin: Well its seen as an indecipherable and complex subject and I'm not sure that it is really. I mean it's more of an umbrella term under which lots of things come together. As the term suggests, psychogeography is really the point when psychology and geography meet. So, it’s this notion of the impact that places have on one, broadly speaking. But within that I mean it's just become a very broad church under which lots of things happen.
The practice of psychogeography can be simply walking and exploring cities, or this idea of political upheaval where the term originally came from in Paris. Lots of people I guess who are interested in the subject are interested in the various aspects of it ranging from the political to the more creative side.
I mean there seems to be a lot of discussion about psychogeography in terms of definitions. A lot of people go back to Guy Debord’s idea and are quite protective of this quite specific role of psychogeography. But it seems, at least in the way it's been rediscovered in recent decades, it's a much looser term. I think I prefer that. Psychogeography seems to me to be anything that really people want it to be within the context of walking and writing in cities.
Sense of Place Pod: Yeah, I have to agree with you there actually. I prefer the term being used in a looser context. Partly because I'm not so into the political side of it, to be honest. I know that's where the term originated from in a non-retrospective way, but I think it's a lot more accessible now as it isn’t such a rigid term. It gets people exploring, walking and seeing the world in a different way which I think is a good thing.
Merlin: Yeah I agree. I mean there's room for the political aspect to it, that’s fine. I don’t think that it’s necessary to set up some form of antagonism between the literary aspects to it and the political aspects to it.
Sense of Place Pod: Yeah no definitely. Talking of politics though, I’d like to get on to Guy Deboard and the Situationists in more detail. If you know the slightest bit about psychogeography Deboard is a name you hear come up time and time again, as Debord is the man who supposedly coined the term psychogeography. Would you be able to tell us a bit about him and the Situationists movement, and what their take and perspective on psychogeography was?
Merlin: It’s where all the complexity that is unnecessarily applied to psychogeography comes from. The Situationists were an avant-garde movement that sprang up in Paris after the war in the 1950's. It was the Lettrist movement that gave way to the Situationists, and they were really quite obscure small numbers of people on the fringes of avant-garde society in Paris. Out of these people, Guy Debord was the prime mover in this movement. His project was to remodel Paris in this revolutionary sense. He wanted to create a new built environment based on the emotional, psychological and behavioural aspects of the people who lived in the city. The idea of a retrospective literary tradition didn't exist then, and he was adamant that his ideas and the ideas around Situationism and psychogeography were original.
It's from him that the hard stuff; the technical, complex and often completely impenetrable ideas that surround psychogeography developed. I think a lot of people who are particularly interested and supportive of Debord’s ideas see it predominately as an avant -garde or a political movement and wouldn't have much time for what they say is this 'monster' that has developed, particularly in London, over the last 30 years or so under the likes of Peter Ackroyd and Iain Sinclair.
Sense of Place Pod: I read in your book 'Psychogeography' that Debord was trying to make psychogeography a science. Do you think this has some merit to it at all?
Merlin: It is difficult to say. He had this idea that it was going to be this rigorous revolutionary thing with people out in the field mapping the cities emotional ambience and then return back and report their discoveries.
I think to describe it as a science would be to rather overcook it. Especially when you look through all the massive archives of Situationist writing. There isn't actually a great deal of what he described as ‘psychogeographical thoughts’ or ‘psychogeographical writing’. Although it had quite a dominant position in early Situationist writings, psychogeography seemed to go by the wayside somewhat and it wasn't mentioned in any of the later major aspects the cause was known for. It then disappeared and reemerged in this new form years later.
Sense of Place Pod: As you mentioned a little bit earlier there were other movements like Lettrist International before the Situationists. Alongside these movements were concepts such as the Flâneur, which have become well associated with psychogeographical writing. Would you be able to explain what the Flâneur was, and how the Situationists eventually developed this concept into their supposedly more scientific version - the Dérive?
Merlin: Yeah. The Flâneur is a French figure found in 19th-century writing. He was this aimless wander, the man of the crowd, who is somehow both a member of the crowd and this detached observer. The Flâneur really comes from the writings of Charles Baudelaire in the 19th century and then through Walter Benjamin later. So this figure has its own established tradition. More significantly, the Surrealists and Debord had their own idea of this automatic walking – resulting in the Dérive. The Dérive is the planned act of aimlessly wandering.
Sense of Place Pod: As you mentioned in your book, a number of old literary works were psychogeographical in practice before the term even existed - they were then retrospectively labelled psychogeographical years later. Would you be able to tell us about some of these writers like Defoe, Blake and so on, in more detail and how their writing styles fit into what psychogeography is?
Merlin: Once you strip away all the jargon that surrounds Debord's writing what you basically have is this figure of an aimless walker wandering through the city and reporting back on what experiences he has. And on that basic notion this tradition of the writer and walker, this length between describing the environment by walking through it with no fixed plan just aimlessly going - there's a huge history of that, especially in writing about London, and some of these writers are actually acknowledged by Debord.
Debord describes De Quincy, as being a psychogeographer retrospectively. Once you follow this backwards with De Quincy, for example, there's several others that you can pick up along the way - Robert Louis Stevenson, Daniel Defoe and Arthur Machen. All of these writers in their works that inspired London (and the means of exploring it) have a sense of this Metaphor of London as essentially a labyrinth, and the only way it can be explored is on foot. You then get this aimless wanderer. This figure is someone who has this particular skill to search out the labyrinth as if they're walking through virgin territory. They pick up the signs and understand what they mean.
Defoe and De Quincy write about themselves in terms of discovering their way through the city - which has a great deal in common with the ideas of psychogeography and what Debord was writing.
Sense of Place Pod: Do you think psychogeography's prominence in Paris has dwindled as it has become very focused on London? Because you always tend to hear about it in London these days.
Merlin: It is very focused on London but I mean I think it's a global movement. There's an appendix in my book which is ‘psychogeography online’ and literally every city it seems to me if you look for it, has psychogeographical studies, practitioners, movements and online groups. So it's a completely global phenomenon. I live in London and have done for years and years, that's the reason I'm interested in London's literary history, and figures - that's why I write about them. But I’m sure a similar project could be undertaken in most major cities to trace their own history of this.
So, no, I don't think it is something that you only find in London or Paris. Although in terms of literary fashion it has become enormously fashionable in London. The idea of writing about a city by recording your experiences of walking through it is a literary genre in itself, but I don't think it means at all that it's something solely confined to London, on the contrary, it’s something going on in all countries.
Sense of Place Pod: Yeah. I feel like the Internet must've really helped psychogeography get a bigger audience. It's just so easy to talk about it with other people, read and share articles other people have written on it from all over the world.
Merlin: Yeah I’m sure that's true. I mean psychogeography under Debord was one of various marginal activities, and as I say that went into abeyance and then it reappeared in London in the 1980's. But once again, very much through the writings and practices of a very small group of people. It was only really in the 1990's, I suppose - largely through writers such as Ian Sinclair and later Will Self and Peter Ackroyd, that it became a buzz word in the media. It became a publishing phenomenon.
I mean it's certainly gone mainstream and there has been a reaction against this. The idea is so endlessly, and exhaustively used that people have rather had enough of it - or at least rather had enough of the term. I think the practice goes on to re-brand what it’s doing and in different ways.
Sense of Place Pod: How does 1990's psychogeography differ from psychogeography of the 1950s? Why do you think it got so big? Obviously, Ian Sinclair is at the front of it. He's made this re-branded psychogeography which has more of a focus on old literary works rather than politics - I mean it has political tones to it, but overall, it’s a lot less focused on that.
Merlin: I think that's the main difference. I mean psychogeography wasn't a central practice in what Debord was trying to do it was just one part of a larger project which was principally political. People have some disdain for the term because they believe it's gained mainstream acceptance and it's lost its radical edge – the politics. But whether that's true or not it seems to have become a more aesthetic and literary enterprise at least in the way it's been written and understood in London. Sinclair who I guess is the single writer most responsible for the new-found popularity the term has gained didn’t have any intent to make it this. He's just become a popular figure associated with this rather obscure, and occultist way of looking at London. I mean if Debord was to encounter the way psychogeography is understood and used now, he'd hardly recognise it.
Sense of Place Pod: Yeah. I agree with you there. I do think sometimes psychogeography can be a bit pretentious and up itself in the way it goes about things. Why can't people just enjoy the aspect of what it is on a basic level? The guarding of what it was in Debord’s day seems unnecessary. Things evolve and it has evolved, and I don't really see that as a bad thing.
Merlin: Yeah I mean in part it seems like such a basic activity the idea of walking and writing. It seems very simple and it has become buried under this vast superstructure of technical and academic jargon, and it seems a lot of people are very keen to either say ‘well yes this is psychogeography’ or ‘this isn't’ and that doesn't seem necessary.
Sense of Place Pod: Exactly, yeah.
Merlin: New terms have appeared in recent years, for example, there's lots of spin-offs from the idea of psychogeography. In essence, it's walking the city and following your feet and reporting back on what you find. I think at heart it's quite a simple idea that's become buried beneath this endless obsession of defining just what is the nature of psychogeography.
Sense of Place Pod: Yeah, sometimes you can just really get lost in the jargon if you know I mean it's just not clear.
Merlin: Yeah, particularly when you're writing academically. I mean once you're looking for a particular word you begin to see it everywhere. Psychogeography is everywhere now, but when I was studying it was the flâneur in every other article. I mean that's just the way academic and intellectual fashions go. It becomes a more common term until eventually you reach saturation point and people try to go beyond it to create something new.
Sense of Place Pod: Yeah. I wanted to ask, when it came to writing your book, how did you even begin? How did you decide the way in which you were going to lay out the variety of branches to psychogeography in a coherent manner? Because as we have discussed there is so much to psychogeography, and it can be overwhelming at times trying to order and understand it.
Merlin: I mean I used psychogeography really as the label for a lot of writers and ideas that I was interested in and that seemed to me to be engaged in similar ideas following much the same tradition. So the idea of psychogeography was sort of overlaid on the top of it really.
Sense of Place Pod: I see, so you sort of came at it from a different angle and then labelled it as psychogeography.
Merlin: Yeah exactly. I mean it was the literary tradition present that I was interested in and I wanted to write about - going back to the origins in English literary history with the likes of Defoe, Blake, DeQuincy and so on.
Sense of Place Pod: Yeah, I see. I found that really interesting actually, that side of it. Because when I first heard of psychogeography I came to it from the simple perspective of walking, and the way you look at a city. And to be honest it's one of those things I felt like I've always done anyway without realising it’s ‘a thing’,
Merlin: Yeah, that's it. This act has always been there anyway. I mean I didn't just want to go back to the origin of the term in the 1950's. I wanted to place Debord's ideas within this wider context that showed, in essence, this is something far from necessarily being new. It's something that has continued throughout history. And so, I guess what I wanted to do was to contextualise and demonstrate the fact that it didn't need this narrow focus on Paris in the 1950's. Rather than obsess about that period I just wanted to show it has a much wider historical context.
Sense of Place Pod: Yeah definitely.
In some ways, I feel people still see 1990's psychogeography and it’s figures like Sinclair and Ackroyd as ‘modern’ psychogeography. But if you actually look at it there is other people on the scene now who are evolving the term again. For example, there’s a guy named Daniel Raven Ellison who's walked around parks and recorded his emotional response to them. He's trying to make London a national city park. There was also a book by John Reppion called ‘Spirit's of Place’ which, although isn’t classed as psychogeographical comes under that umbrella. It tries to take psychogeographical writing away from London and Paris and looks at more in terms of the aspect of just perceiving the landscape around you, and the stories that are embedded within it.
Do you think this evolution away from traditional associations with psychogeography is a bad thing, or do you think that it's good that we're actually just moving away from these old associations?
Merlin: No no. I don't see that as a problem. It doesn't seem to me that it should be necessary to maintain and guard Debord’s ideas and protect their purity. It seems the idea has just naturally evolved and headed off in new and unexpected directions.
I mean I think psychogeography as a term. Whether as a practice I don't know, but in terms of the term there’s definitely been a period of peak of psychogeography - the 1990's, on through the turn of this century. Since that point at least, people have been trying to escape from the term and are going off in all different directions. I mean often the directions are difficult to distinguish from the old ones, but the terminology has changed and it’s certainly attempted to re-brand psychogeography into something new escaping from London and Paris. I mean it wasn't confined to London and Paris in the first place despite the association.
Sense of Place Pod: Yeah. I guess if you don't know vast amounts about psychogeography you just think ‘oh it's London and Paris’, but actually it does go on a lot further, and now it's a bit more mainstream to other people, other areas are coming up within it.
Merlin: Yeah, I mean it was a starting point, not the final word. The book is just my way of showing how these ideas evolved historically. I mean there's no sense that it's all confined to London or Paris. It's all the way across the UK, in the states, across Europe, I mean as I said before - globally. It has inevitably mutated, in particular, these ideas have evolved and changed utterly from the time of Defoe, Blake and up to Sinclair but they somehow still share a sort of common ancestry.
I mean if there's one message I’m trying to get across in the book it's the idea that it's not a rigid term, it's not a fixed term that's captured by looking at the terminology. It’s something that's constantly in flux and changing and it is a broad enough history to allow people to explore it in any way they like.
Sense of Place Pod: Yeah, absolutely.
I’d like to go back a little bit now to the period of New Age psychogeography, which is concerned with the likes of ley lines. Could you tell us a bit more about that, when this period was, and what ley lines were all about?
Merlin: Well this stuff probably completely exasperated the supporters of Debord and psychogeography in its original conception. The idea of ley lines were originally written by this armature archaeologist Alfred Watkins in the 1920's. Ley lines were basically a network of straight alignments which ran through historical sites of importance. At this time, they weren’t contributed to any archaeological significance in understanding the landscape.
Ley lines then re-emerge in this mutated occulted form in the 1960's, and these original ideas lined up to create a new way to describe the construction of the landscape. It had absolutely nothing to do with psychogeography or Debord, as people knew it. London in terms of ley lines (and patterns linked with this) then went on to be written about in a psychogeographical context. A lot of writers somehow overlaid this occultism and esoterism and welded it onto psychogeographical ideas.
Sense of Place Pod: Do you have a particular favourite author who has written about psychogeography? Whether that’s one who has retrospectively been labelled psychogeographical or purposefully written about the subject.
Merlin: I suppose the historical figure I enjoy the most is Arthur Machen. A Welsh writer who was writing in the late 19th century. Machen came to London to make his way as a writer. He had a very mystical Christian background that he brought with him from the landscapes of Wales, and he superimposed this upon his writing about London.
Machen spent most of his adult life in London and in the early part of the 20th century he wrote a couple of volumes of a biography called ‘The London Adventure’ and really, it's just based around a series of walks with the aim to comprehend London in its entirety by walking it.
So what you have would have been quite a factual historical act of walking London, but it's written in the light of this esoteric mystical world Machen had in his mind, and they're fused together to create this. So, he’s probably the writer, out of those related to psychogeography who's work I got the most pleasure from.
Sense of Place Pod: You know you said you applied the label of psychogeography when you were researching and reading about all these past writers, how did you realise that that was psychogeography? How did you make that link?
Merlin: Well, if you look at someone like Machen and De Quincy. Let’s take for example De Quincy, he writes quite specifically about walking through London under the effects of opium and describes the city as this sort of labyrinth. Similarly, Machen, when he writes his London adventure, talks about being an explorer trying to find London’s outer limits and the narrative in a lot of books by these writers is sort of driven by the idea of setting off with this unknown destination that drives the book.
I then found this thread - one writer seems to be moving onto the next, you find this sort of unbroken tradition. The same thing was there with Baudelaire and Benjamin, Andre Bretton and surrealists in France.
When looking through books you find this theme that describes the walks that the authors conduct, and also, this rather mystical sense of London as somehow mundane and every day on the surface but concealing something far more mysterious beneath it. Then you find this signature runs through numerous books and numerous writers, and you can move from one through the other chronologically, and form this retrospective tradition.
Sense of Place Pod: When you just said the element of making ‘the mundane seem interesting’ I think that's something that appeals to me with psychogeography. Likewise, if you think of other related acts such as urban exploration, I think that's a big draw for people – taking the ordinary but looking at it in a different and mysterious way.
Merlin: I think that's probably the element that's there throughout. What is appealing for everybody is this idea that while life on the surface might seem mundane, retracing those same steps home from work every day - the idea that those who know how to look beneath the surface to find that there is something magical, unknown and esoteric that you can access - it gives you a whole new way of looking at the city.
It allows you to hold the more mundane aspects of city life at bay and to see your own interaction with the city in a different light. And that's exactly what the writers I mention have been doing. They all for one reason or another whether native Londoners or those who found themselves there, have tried to counter this sense of oppression that the city can sometimes have by going out on foot and exploring it. That's exactly what animated Machen and De Quincey - and urban explorers today. I mean it's essentially the same practice, it's laden with psychogeography
Sense of Place Pod: Yeah, definitely.
Well, to round things up, I wanted to ask, other than your own book (which I'd say is a really good starting point if you want to know about psychogeography) would you say that the book by Machen you mentioned would be one for people to read if they want to understand and get into psychogeography more?
Merlin: Well I mean that’s purely from a Londoner’s perspective. I mean as I say this isn't a practice confined to London or Paris you can create the same retrospective tradition of people trying to get beneath the surface of their city anywhere. But if you're someone who lives in London, then yeah, Machen would be a great starting point. His work is very appealing, it's very fresh - you read Machen and it certainly affects how you see the city today...
If you'd like to find out more about Merlin and grab yourself a copy of his book 'Psychogeography' as well as any of his other titles. Check out his books here or on Amazon.