detours and intersections

Beneath the street, the beach

I have referred to my wandering walks as drifting. This is a word and a concept that I will return to repeatedly, and as such I should clarify my points of departure from its most well-known incarnation, the Situationist dérive. The dérive was a project of Guy Debord, who described it as ‘a technique of rapid passage through varied ambiences’ (1958, p. 62). The dérive involves ‘playful-constructive behaviour and awareness of psychogeographical effects’ (ibid.) and thus should be regarded as ‘quite different from the classic notions of journey or stroll’ (ibid.).

I felt an affinity with psychogeography and the drift from the moment I first encountered the words. They were effortlessly evocative, hardly seeming to require definition or explication. Even before I began to identify my own walks as drifting, I saw in these words a relationship to place that so perfectly expressed the potential of the ambiguous city. Psychogeography seemed to be at the heart of the game that I wanted to create.

But when the chill of winter foreclosed any further badge experiments and I finally sat down to read Debord’s Situationist texts, I was at first surprised and then put off. In his attempt to convey the essence of the ‘charmingly vague’ (1955, p. 8) concept of psychogeography, Debord communicates something of what I was expecting to encounter in his theories, and have found to be true in my own wanderings: ‘The sudden change of ambiance in a street within the space of a few meters; the evident division of a city into zones of distinct psychic atmospheres; the path of least resistance that is automatically followed in aimless strolls (and which has no relation to the physical contour of the terrain); the appealing or repelling character of certain places’ (ibid. p. 10) — yes, I recognised all of this. But then: ‘Psychogeography sets for itself the study of the precise laws and specific effects of the geographical environment, whether consciously organized or not, on the emotions and behaviour of individuals’ (ibid. p. 8).

Precise laws? Specific effects? This airless rigor is followed by Debord’s assertion that the dérive encompasses not only its implied fluidity of approach but also ‘its necessary contradiction: the domination of psychogeographical variations by the knowledge and calculation of their possibilities’ (1958, p. 62).

What Debord seems to be proposing is a sort of gamified pseudoscience that would dam up the city’s psychic river the better to study its currents. Never has a methodology seemed less suited to the task — and it certainly wasn’t the way into my subtle city.

But of course the Situationists were neither the first nor the last to engage with these ideas. Indeed, the suggestion of a psychic relationship between the city and its inhabitants is as old as the city itself. As Merlin Coverly writes in his (admittedly quite culturally narrow) biography of the subject, ‘psychogeography may usefully be viewed less as the product of a particular time and place than as the meeting point of a number of ideas and traditions with interwoven histories’ (2010, p. 12). Coverly traces these traditions back to a lineage of writers in 18th and 19th century London (Daniel Defoe, William Blake, Thomas de Quincey), who ‘share a perception of the city as a site of mystery and seek to reveal the true nature that lies beneath the flux of the everyday’ (ibid. p. 17). Defoe’s 1722 Journal of the Plague Year is the story of a man who wanders through London attempting to make his own subjective sense of the ‘unknowable labyrinth’ (ibid. p. 20) that the city has become; Blake’s spiritual verse is haunted by the sense of ‘an eternal landscape underpinning our own’ (ibid. p. 23); and de Quincey’s 1821 Confessions of an English Opium-Eater chronicles the author’s own hallucinatory urban wanderings, in which ‘the city becomes a riddle, a puzzle still perplexing writers and walkers to this day’ (ibid.). From here Coverly moves to the flâneurs of Paris (Charles Baudelaire, Walter Benjamin), and then on to the Surrealists’ involvement with psychogeographic ideas, before arriving at ‘the stifling orthodoxy of Debord’s situationist dogma’ (ibid. p. 11), which he characterises as a failed enterprise that ‘was not to provide the last word in the theorising of urban walking’ (ibid. p. 117). T1

T1:Every historical overview must draw its boundaries somewhere, be they in space or time. But what is consistently missing from histories of walking in the city are the voices of women. The writer Lauren Elkin believes that this omission is long overdue for redress.

‘It’s strange: for as long as there have been cities, there have been women living in them,’ observes Elkin (2016, para. 2), ‘yet if we want to know what it’s like to walk thoughtfully in the city, there is only a long tradition of writing by men that tells us.’

‘But there have always been women writing about cities,’ Elkin continues (ibid. para. 4), ‘chronicling their lives, telling stories, taking pictures, making films, engaging with the city any way they can … To suggest that there could be no flâneuse because she wasn’t literally a female flâneur is to limit the ways women have interacted with the city to the ways men have interacted with the city. Perhaps the answer is not to attempt to make a woman fit a masculine concept, but to redefine the concept itself. It’s time to recognise a counter-tradition of the flâneuse, looking back to George Sand, to Jean Rhys, or in our own day to Sophie Calle, or Laura Oldfield Ford. If we tunnel back, we find there always was a flâneuse passing Baudelaire in the street.’

To the ranks of contemporary flâneuse I would add the Australian artist Lesley Duxbury, who walks primarily in remote regions but has also engaged with urban environments (Duxbury 2008); and the Australian writer Sophie Cunningham, whose book Melbourne (2011) was one of the first texts to join the bibliography of this project. ‘Melbourne’s a city you get to know from the inside out — you have to walk it to love it,’ Cunningham writes (ibid. p. 7). Long before I knew the direction that this project would take, I had already highlighted those words.

Ironically, it was Debord himself who guided me toward a more sympathetic theory of the affective city. His snide dismissal of the Surrealists, in their embrace of the imaginary and its surfacing of the unconscious (Debord 1955), piqued my curiosity. I went looking for more of the ’empty babble’ (ibid. p.11) associated with the avant garde art movement, and found both ally and inspiration in contemporary Surrealist Max Cafard (pseudonym of philosopher John Clark). Key to the evolution of The Parallaxis has been Cafard’s essay Deep Play in the City: From the Situationist Dérive to Surre(gion)al Exploration, which proposes a relationship to place that is radically opposed to the psychogeography of Debord (and deeply resonant with Abram’s ecology of magic):

‘Deep play is openness to the experience of diverse, interpenetrating regionalities. We might think that when we engage in deep play we are merely playing some kind of game, or even that we are pursuing some kind of game, that it is like a safari or scavenger hunt for strange objects, which can then be exhibited in our dada collection, or used expand our surrealist resume, or to add a notch on our Situationist revolver. But on the deeper level of analysis, deep play is not a big game hunt, nor is it playing a game in any usual sense. Rather it is entering into the play of the things themselves, and the many interpenetrating worlds of those things themselves (for there is no thing in itself, only things outside themselves and outsides inside themselves). Deep play is the interplay of psychoregion, mythoregion, socioregion, ethnoregion, bioregion, georegion, and all the other interpenetrating, mutually transforming regionalities. In deep play we enter into that interplay. If we want to think of it as our playing a game, or hunting game, we must think of it at the same time as the game playing us, or playfully preying on us’ (Cafard 2008, para. 35).


It’s six months prior to the badge experiments and my subsequent research on the Situationists. I’ve just moved into the valley and have yet to begin my walks along the creek, but without a car I’m walking everywhere through my new neighbourhood. I try to take a different route each time I run an errand, to map this placeless place and to alleviate my boredom. One day on my way to buy groceries I encounter a cryptic footpath epigraph, carved in the cement. My French is rusty; I can’t quite translate the unfamiliar phrase. I take a photo and remind myself to look it up when I get home. T2

T2:Sous les pavés, la plage: Beneath the street, the beach. Situationist graffiti from the May 1968 student protests in Paris (Coulten et al. 2016).