Merlin Coverley – Psychogeography (Oldcastle Books)
Here is the new updated version of Merlin Coverley’s Psychogeography.
I started the Materialist Psychogeographical Affiliation with Mark Rainey and hung around the fringes of the MAP group and received post from the LPA and many other groups in the 1990s. I then spoke at TRIP, MMU Manchester in 2008. I also registered a PhD on British Psychogeography groups in the 1990s at Goldsmiths and had Chris Jenks down to supervise.
I went to a few events and then was horrified enough to drop the subject. Pas de regrets, Mr Debord.
I was cited on the last page of the first edition of this book, interviewing Patrick Keiller about how Psychogeography now boiled down to the Time Out Book of London Walks (which is still in the bibliography here as recommended reading).
The new conclusion is much less acid, which is not to my taste. In fact the aggrieved might suggest this review is sour grapes on my part for being left out of the new edition – apart from the surviving reference – but my take on Psychogeography remains largely unchanged, something which is evidenced by my 2007 article ‘Mind The Gap, Psychogeography as an Expanded Tradition’, for Street Signs, the Centre For Urban and Community Research journal.
Coverley’s book in any edition has never been a history and it still isn’t. What it does is run a timeline through seemingly arbitrary figures such as Defoe – included because Patrick Keiller makes intertextual use of Defoe’s work – into increasingly less arbitrary figures such as Alfred Watkins, and then on into surrealism and the Situationists – where the subject really starts – then out into what I have called ‘psychogeography as an expanded tradition’.
But ‘psychogeography as an expanded tradition’ is actually what Coverley gives us – even though he isn’t explicit enough about this. The Telegraph blurb on the cover which says the book ‘examines, explains and whets the appetite’ is actually a good description of the book’s strengths.
The more positive note Coverley ends on in this edition, which essentially places Nick Papadimitriou at the head of that tradition, is a good one too. If there is decent published work being done it is by him and a few others.
However, I cannot say the same for the figure he lumps in with Papadimitriou, Will Self. Self is that quintessentially English figure, the scoffing, jeering, privileged intellectual who also manages to be anti-intellectual at the same time, witness his trolling and then baiting Zizek like a common badger. Self, surely, is the perfect replacement for all those slimy Victorian flaneurs, and not to be celebrated at all.
I suspect Chris Jenks, as VC of Brunel, had a hand in Will Self’s appointment to teach there. Jenks also doffed his cap to Her Royal Highness and awarded himself some stupefying pay rises while he was at it: Radical.
Will Self’s column ‘Psychogeography’ was about specific things that happen in specific places. In the less successful versions ‘site specific’ becomes a mere fetish of the ontological strangeness of place. It therefore opens itself to class or ethnic tourism because ‘strange’ is rarely your own living room. If even less successful it simply opens itself wide to vacuous indulgence and stays there.
Coverley brings in Self’s walking and his struggle against addiction as a replacement for the romantic tropes he can no longer use: The Sorrows of Young Self. We’ve been through far too much of this kind of nonsense to be tolerating it now.
The anti-intellectual intellectual. How very England, 2018. He is the self-loathing that England seems to have become en masse. A sort of nasal sneer on legs. A kind of virus with shoes, if the death drive were able to be a virus. Anti-thinking – unless it’s done by him – and anti-European: How very English.
But both Papadimitriou and Self have history as addicts and I guess Coverley places them in ‘the lineage’ because of this, running back one assumes to De Quincey. But Coverley misses the recent research on De Quincey as a biological racist. Is that in this book? No.
The literary dimension of this book – Coverley is a bookseller – means that ‘The Canon’ is in the background, unspoken, all the way through. Harold Bloom, Leavis, that lot, all of them.
Coverley’s climax of Papadimitriou and Self then tends to collapse somewhat under all this. It’s the usual applause of the addict if the addict is supposed an intellectual rather than an estate junkie on the rob.
If it’s in cool clothes and the LRB then it’s oh so very wonderful darling, as much as the scum down the road are the direct opposite. It also puts some extra metaphysical nonsense into the act of walking, walking high, walking with access to occult knowledge, all of it sets up and lifts aloft a priesthood and we’ve definitely been through far too much of that nonsense.
Jeff Nuttall once moaned to me that some of his colleagues in the People Show with their ‘posh Sunday paper cred’ wanted to remain ostentatiously free to do whatever they pleased and Psychogeography definitely attracts that kind of pseudo-anarchist narcissism.
If Psychogeography is anything now it is where the art and geography schools meet in universities and in particular art scenes. The list of psychogeographic film in this book reveals a particular taste fetish as much as it shows a collection of aesthetics or particular epistemologies.
Pyschogeography is taught in universities as solidly as romantic literature was, although its largely practical nature has meant that it has replaced cricket as the thing to do on Wednesday afternoon. It has become the new extracurricular activity.
‘Psychogeography?’ we did some of that at university. I put it to you that cricket is far less jingoistic an activity than Psychogeography.
Here comes someone now, to tell me ‘psychogeography as an expanded tradition’ really is an open, hybrid, totally inclusive rainbow. Unless, of course, you are negative about that inclusive rainbow, at which point he will exclude you.
In my experience this kind of supposedly avuncular micro-trolling actually constitutes a hard core of the subject. Via one particular figure who has monopolised the discourse the MPA now exist in corners of the world, in art gallery discussions, in MA theses, typecast as miserable puritans when he never went to a single one of their events, cocktail drifting included. In fact, only Mark Rainey and I ever went to one.
The thing that the middle classes do is make borders between themselves and their neighbours. In the hipster, new cultural capital is being generated constantly by a particular haircut, a certain piercing, an even tinier bicycle. These are, after all, the real borders that matter to Psychogeographers: ‘I’m a Neo-Metageographer‘.
In contemporary British universities there is a direct but inverse relationship between the testimonies to radicalism and the radicalism that can be found there. The louder the boast the deeper the lack of radicalism in the university in which it is being declared. The university now is a place completely intolerant of any real radicalism. No wonder that any discussion of the subject – including the one that will come after this review – tend towards one-upping lippiness.
This is before we even start on ‘Prevent’ duty towards Islamic radicalism being rolled out in universities at the same time as this nauseating middle class posturing about ‘being radical’ happens (and is then written up and submitted for RKE funding).
The most interesting recent article on Psychogeography was Andrea Gibbons’ ‘Salvaging Situationism: Race and Space’, which was concerned with the Algerian section and the dropping of Psychogeography by the Situationists thereafter. The Algerians couldn’t like drift, man, they were under curfew and surveillance.
Anthony Hayes’ and others have given shitty responses to Gibbons’ article as the sad armchair orthodox party-line toers of a party that barely existed in its own time. Hayes has that neo-Debordian tone of sheer male pomposity and arrogance that characterises the very worst of the Psychogeography tradition. The S.I. may have railed against France in Algeria but they dropped the Derive and ran off in their nice but scuffed brogues. Is a robust discussion of any of that in this new edition? No.
The urge to mystify and therefore exclusivise quite simple practices is at the root of the contemporary expanded tradition of psychogeography. I walk around and think about stuff. I walk about and get ideas from the landscape. I take a notebook and camera and write things down then make work later. Good journalists and writers have been doing this forever. Walking in a circle is useless. Walking in a ghetto is not, a rich ghetto, a poor ghetto.
The attempt to make intellectual and cultural capital out of this mirrors the way the market more widely hoovers everything into commodity form. Here the end result is offered to the university, which after the Consumer Rights Act was applied to it a few years ago is now one more branch of British consumer industry like any other. And therein can be found most of the supposed spectacle-busting radicals and pretend anarchists.
But none of this is particularly amazing to me. The absolutely amazing thing about this new edition is that it inhabits a bubble which appears to have wombed its author away from the last ten years of politics in Britain completely.
Alastair Bonnett wrote a paper for Theory, Culture & Society in 2009, on identifiable strains of nostalgia within ‘radical’ political groups. Among his examples are the Situationists and British Psychogeography groups. Earlier, in 2006, Bonnett described the:
‘…idea of nostalgia as a removable stain upon the bright clothes of proper politics, something that anyone who is not a fearful conservative can and should have nothing to do with. Yet, as we have seen, the most outrageous revolutionary politics of the last century contained clear nostalgic tendencies. Nostalgia isn’t a disease, nor is it a virtue. One can turn away from it, but it remains nevertheless.’ In this, I think, it is possible to detect the strains of romantic nostalgia emerging from beneath the surface of Bonnett’s paper. He wishes to ‘…show that a newly confident politics of nostalgia can be glimpsed within this milieu: at the counter-cultural margins of society radicalism is (once again) becoming tied to a popular politics of loss.’
A popular politics of loss is strongly detectable within leftwing discourses, and Bonnett places them there, but for ‘radicalism’ the UK far right organisations the English Defence League and British National Party now give the most strikingly retrograde view.
The Situationist International, or 1990s British Psychogeography groups, none of them are Britain First or the EDL. But what all those organisations share is their use of a radical collage loaded with signs, which then become fragmented and re-ordered within an entirely new regime of meaning. Politics and aesthetics have always been a deadly mix. Crucial to this process of symbolic and social collaging is the simple fact that a popular politics of loss was being urged for by Bonnett, right at the moment when popular politics was lost, a haunted, staggering, zombie figure.
Popular politics is now back, it is what Bonnett wanted, and it is fascist. I’ve been saying this since the articles came out, but nobody dare publish the point, or they have been far too ignorant.
But this hard right romantic populism isn’t new either, it has just come to the fore. In 2010 The British National Party attempted to exploit fears regarding a possible undermining of ‘community’ via a leaflet with Winston Churchill on the front cover, his face merging with a union jack flag. The expression on Churchill’s face in the portrait the BNP used seemed to express a mixture of gravity and pride. The BNP were mobilising Churchill as a signifier of Britain under attack during World War II.
Not only does the BNP leaflet attempt to connotationally re-map the ‘attack’ of World War II on to processes of immigration, but it also attempts to re-vitalise the kinds of nostalgia which might look back to the ‘blitz spirit’ as a positively imagined form of community, in the face of its presumed lack in the present.
Interestingly, the BNP also highlighted in their leaflet what they clearly saw as an ‘irrational’ mapping of borders by the European Union: They re-presented a map of all the counties in the ‘Manche region’ of European governance, which includes Cornwall, Devon, Dorset and Hants, as well as Somme, Calvados, Cotes D’Armor, etc., across the Channel.
It doesn’t matter that this new significatory whole falls apart in your hands with just a little unpicking. It may be epistemological hypochondria, but it ‘works’. That leaflet also counts as Psychogeography.
Well, that was eight years ago and look where we are now.
Alastair Bonnett made his points well and nostalgia does, I think, present us with a series of dilemmas. In the Psychogeography groups Bonnett describes, we have another form of looking-back to reinclude previous traditions, ideologies and historical material, in order to look forward. Here is another set of cultural collages fakely presented as a lineage or great tradition: Merlin Coverley’s book on Psychogeography is an ‘expanded tradition’ in that it re-includes a-historical material to create an ideological collage for the present which is declared as history.
The examples I use here all share this ‘fake collage’ approach, and they are not directly linked to the writing of history in an academic sense, to be clear, or to simplified histories taught in schools. These collages are deployed on the ground by supposedly ‘autonomous’ cultures empowering themselves with aestheticised rhetoric.
Bonnett outlines how for him nostalgia and looking forward can somehow resolve into a worthwhile creative praxis. Bonnett’s understanding of his subject is genuinely complex, he sees nostalgia as simultaneously ‘refused and deployed’ within the sprawling psyche of the subject. But nevertheless, he is interested in finding resolution within ‘radical nostalgias’.
I am much less interested in resolution, and I see much British Psychogoegraphical literature as intentionally, radically, unresolved. The search for ‘resolution’ is always also the search for ‘home’.
Bonnett goes on to examine the work of Iain Sinclair – an important literary fiction writer, influenced by occult forms of psychogeography – in relation to some of the 1990s psychogeography groups, and what he has to say here is telling in this respect:
‘These groups shared with Sinclair a quixotic, love-hate relationship with the past. Like Sinclair, they emphasized historical re-readings of the everyday landscape and exhibited an uneasy combination of deracinating modernism and folksy localism.’
Bonnett describes how Sinclair made his own books, bread and yoghurt. We hear nothing of Sinclair’s wife’s job as a schoolteacher in Hackney, or the commune they gradually bought out there. This ‘folksy’ localism, which Bonnett describes positively, still sits and moves around on the old base-and-superstructure of property ownership.
Living frugally in a nice area where things are cheap is allowed by wider forces and social contexts than just the desire to do so. Sinclair doesn’t make his own books anymore, most of the titles on my shelf were printed in Guernsey, but someone will have to ask him about the bread and yoghurt.
That was then, now we have the mass social cleansing of London.
Attempting to make laudable the politics of nostalgia and loss back then, in the face of a still relatively free market economic system, hoovering up vast tracts of capital in what David Harvey described as a ‘re-capitalisation’ was a stretch. Now it’s nauseating.
What is really happening here is that some are accumulating, and that accumulation is always tied to the dis-accumulation of others, and its attendant geographies. These arguments have an increasing relevance, particularly when aestheticised forms of localism seem to be the default defensive responses to the repeated failure of the compact of neoliberal government and consumer capital to provide anything like a stable social apparatus.
This is heavily underscored by the crash of 2008, and its still-ongoing aftermath. But of course ten years later we can see the popular politics of nostalgia Bonnett loved was heading to the alt-right, Brexit and the rise of everyday racism and a spike in racist attacks and violence all along. Bravo. Well done all. Is any of that in this book? No. Is Bonnett still referenced uncritically? Yes.
I could write a cracking book on this subject, but it would be a total waste of time, as the field is so clearly populated by the inheritors of Richard Neville’s ghastly Playpower, at the same time as those people claim to be everything but.
But of course the great smoking gun of Psychogeography and its transformation of all the world is there for everyone to see, isn’t it?
Perhaps they need to move on from Psychogeography to Psychoanalysis.
– Steve Hanson