Psychogeography: Merlin Coverley
“The reason why Psychogeography often seems so nebulous and resistant to definition is that today it appears to harbour within it such a welter of seemingly unrelated elements and yet, amongst this mélange of ideas, events and identities, a number of predominant characteristics can be recognised.”
Lee Rourke interviews Merlin Coverley.
The word “Psychogeography” seems to be on everyone’s lips at the moment, so embedded is it in national cultural lexicon. From Stewart Home’s influential anti-novels, Iain Sinclair’s circular narratives, and even Will Self’s easily-packaged-for-the-masses Independent on Sunday column (although what this column has to do with Psychogeography is anyone’s guess) it seems we just can’t escape its sway. For those of us who want to know more, on purely literary terms that is, Merlin Coverley has written a guide book of sorts, a diminutive literary history of Psychogeography from Bunyan, Defoe, and Blake to the present day; discussing, in the process: the urban wanderer, the flâneur, dérive, détournement, ley lines, Surrealism, and the Situationist International.
This succinct book is a definite first port of call for anyone interested in this most esoteric of theories. A portmanteau of information, a pin-pointing of Psychogeography’s literary impact and standing, and a stimulating read — it is a book that should be considered.
I met up with Merlin (such a wonderful name) in a café in the British Museum, surrounded by chattering tourists, scholars, and bored school children.
3:AM: Why Psychogeography? What is it about this rather esoteric subject that inspired you to write the book?
MC: Well it probably wasn’t an interest in the subject per se, it came through an interest in certain writers, and then having heard of psychogeography I realised that it tended to group together a lot of writers that I’d already read.
3:AM: Which writers?
MC: I was reading, well, mostly contemporary writers such as: Iain Sinclair, Stewart Home, Peter Ackroyd, Arthur Machen, Thomas de Quincey, Michel De Certeau, Charles Baudelaire, Joris-karl Huysmans, and JG Ballard. These are all writers that I have been reading for years. It was Iain Sinclair who probably alerted me to Psychogeography as we know it today. I had no awareness at that time of Guy Debord and the Situationists or any of the theoretical side to it whatsoever. That only came when I began to work my way backwards.
3:AM: So you feel that Iain Sinclair has had a major impact in bringing Psychogeography back into the forefront of national cultural consciousness?
MC: Absolutely. Yeah.
3:AM: Which leads me to the second question I was going to ask you: most people when asked about Psychogeography, they immediately think about Guy Debord, the Situationists, and their manipulative, overtly political usage and practice. Do you think this Situationist stamp can be removed? Do you think Psychogeography is considered to be a wholly French theory?
MC: I think it has been removed, completely. Okay, people still pay lip service to the Situationists and Guy Debord in particular. We are always, for instance, given the theory through this movement but then when you ask people who are interested in Psychogeography what books they are reading they’ll invariably mention Iain Sinclair, Stewart Home, Peter Ackroyd et al who wouldn’t necessarily have been recognised by Guy Debord as, what he considered to be, Psychogeographers…
3:AM: Guy Debord probably wouldn’t have wanted to recognise anyone as anything…
MC: He wanted to cut himself off from everyone, he was completely obsessed, for example, with denying any precursors with the Surrealists who were doing pretty much the same as him before him regarding the practice of Psychogeography and its theory…
3:AM: He wanted world domination.
3:AM: You state in your book that Guy Debord and the Situationists were an “abject failure”?
MC: Purely within the terms of what they set out to do, but then it’s difficult to see what he set out to achieve anyway, it was doomed to failure in that respect. I mean, you say “world domination” and that really was the case.
3:AM: He was in it for himself?
MC: Yeah… Absolutely. I mean you read their theories and it sounds plausible and then you begin to think about what the world would look like ran by Guy Debord and the Situationists and then these theories begin to dissolve…
3:AM: So we really have moved on?
MC: There’s always going to be the link with him, having coined the phrase “Psychogeography”, but we’ve got to work our way back, we’ve got to begin to think of writers such as: Arthur Machen, Robert Louis Stevenson… and further back to William Blake and Daniel Defoe, and then towards André Breton and the Surrealists. We can trace the links between these writers and the current crop like Sinclair and Home.
3:AM: So, were does Will Self, who I find quite an anomaly in this field — I’m thinking of his newspaper column in The Independent here — where does Will Self fit into all this?
MC: He’s the best example, actually, if you want to think about the distance that’s travelled between Guy Debord’s idea of the term and of the way it’s used nowadays. I’m pretty sure if Guy Debord could pick up a copy of The Independent today, and Will Self’s column didn’t have the header it does, it wouldn’t have any bearing, he’d probably skip straight past it and think nothing of it. It has no bearing at all. Nothing.
3:AM: Do you think that the term “Psychogeography” is in danger of becoming a post-modern buzzword, a label that can be attached to a plethora of intellectual activities at will?
MC: I think that’s already happened, definitely.
3:AM: And this Will Self column is a direct result?
MC: Yes, that’s a perfect example of this.
3:AM: So, what’s particularly interesting about your book, then, is how you’ve pinpointed origins, literary origins of Psychogeography. You start with, for example, Iain Sinclair’s idea of the “Triangle of concentration” in Bunhill Fields?
MC: Blake, Bunyan, and Defoe?
3:AM: Yes. Especially Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe and Blake’s visionary urban wanderings? Are these writers the origin of Psychogeography then?
MC: Well, I certainly think they prefigure the term in a literary sense, I mean if you just forget about Debord’s concept and look at it [Psychogeography] in its most general term, the main components: the political aspect, a philosophy of opposition to the status quo, this idea of walking, of walking the city in particular, the idea of an urban movement, and the psychological component of how human behaviour is affected by place. You can read that into many writers but especially Blake, Bunyan, and Defoe, this idea of the dream, or some psychological imprint overlaid on the landscape.
3:AM: Blake: The first literary and urban revolutionist/psychogeographist, surely?
MC: Quite possibly. The political aspect is certainly there in his work. Yet there are numerous possibilities, numerous writers and theories, and this is broadly speaking, for example I just don’t think you can pinpoint Psychogeography to the extent that it came out of Guy Debord’s head circa 1958… even though he would say it did. We have to work backwards, that’s what I set out to do with the book. I mean the easiest place to go to is the Surrealists who really were doing things that, well, the dérive, the aimless drifting, the idea of following your unconscious drive to walking across the city; these are all things that were definitely there.
3:AM: You also mention Thomas De Quincey? An imaginary drifter if ever there was one? In your book you call him a ‘prototype’ of psychogeography? Maybe its first practitioner?
MC: Yeah, I mean people like Defoe, Bunyan, they have these similar themes that appear in their work but De Quincey was literally walking the streets of London and writing about, in his case, the opium dream. This idea of the hidden city, a place we at its surface cannot penetrate, the idea that only the addict can somehow fathom it, crack it or get access to it. That’s exactly what De Quincey was writing about… The Northwest Passage. His way of breaking through the surface of the city.
3:AM: Do you think De Quincey was consciously utilising, for himself, in terms of the skills of Blake and Defoe and what they were doing with the literary imagination and its landscape?
MC: I’m not sure if it was a conscious response to other writers, I don’t think he would have seen himself within any tradition. If it was in a tradition it would have been the Romantics. I don’t think he would have given his wandering of the streets any label, or any conscious attention.
3:AM: So do you think this, as Sinclair puts it, British triangulation bears any influence? I mean, is this more relevant than, say, Baudelaire’s flâneur?
MC: I think it’s a sort of parallel tradition, neither British nor French, and my book serves as a leap of faith in bringing these traditions together. If you look at the flâneur and the history of Surrealism, or Situationism — who follow a pretty clear and similar progression — the flâneur differs slightly; it is more playful for a start, it is also purely aesthetic, there is nothing revolutionary in its design, it doesn’t take itself too seriously in the sense of a political agenda. It’s much more understandable to me the idea of the flâneur.
3:AM: It lends itself to poetry?
MC: Of course it does. Naturally. The act of wandering through the city and watching the world and its inhabitants pass by. This was, it seems to me, the problem with Debord’s and the Situationists’ application: okay, apart from Debord himself, it just seemed that all his acolytes would rather be out wandering the street, sitting in cafés and watching the world go by. When the revolution came they weren’t going to be around.
3:AM: So there is natural conflict in its design: those who want to participate in their environment, those of a political and revolutionary slant, and those who don’t, the aesthetes, the poets?
MC: At the very heart of Psychogeography is a contradiction: the dérive. The aimless wandering, the fact that there is no direction, you follow your own impulse; you follow your feet basically, and where they take you. The difficulty is trying to staple that onto a preordained set of ideas which I guess a writer like Iain Sinclair is trying to do, who is at best poetic and political.
3:AM: I find his writing subtle, he takes the dérive, the flâneur, Debord’s politics, Blake’s idea of the urban revolutionist, and uses each in his writing, poetically and politically — his attack on Thatcher’s legacy in Britain for instance?
MC: Oh absolutely, yeah. Though he sees himself more of a witness to what is and has happened. His objection runs throughout his work. Very anti-Thatcherism. Though I wouldn’t say he has any manifesto as such, he’s just recording what has happened to London and it environs over the last few decades. I guess a way to focus people’s attention on what’s happened to the city. He sees people walking amongst these changes and accepting them quite passively. I don’t think he corresponds to Debord really.
3:AM: Do you think Iain Sinclair is the very pinnacle Psychogeography has thus far reached?
MC: In the literary sense, then yes. I mean, there seems to be two strands, there are quite a few writers who seem to be connected under the Psychogeographic umbrella, Stewart Home being the most practical, but there’s also many groups and societies, mainly on the internet, way outside London and all across Europe, who seem to have a more active sense of what Psychogeography means, not necessarily political but as some form of mass activity.
3:AM: So how do you think they — these extraneous strands — view it? You state that Debord viewed it as a science, something you can distill and extract information from?
MC: The problem I have with Debord is that when you look at the writings, the manifestos, the lists, the plans — it stalls. There is no evidence. People are primed with Debordian ideas and sent out into the field and seem to come back with nothing.
3:AM: So it’s the literary strand that is the most progressive? It’s not as didactic, it gives you room to think, to manoeuvre?
MC: I don’t think writers such as Sinclair and Home have any sense of obligation to Debord. They are extremely digressive for a start. They write pretty much what they want to write about.
3:AM: What’s the secret of Psychogeography’s longevity then?
MC: I think it’s much more accessible than it once was; it’s not avant-garde anymore for example.
3:AM: Do you think it taps into something on a collective and wholly unconscious level?
MC: I think it taps into some, as I state in the book, kind of literary space. History shows that through literature there is a particular way of responding to the city and its environs. Many ways really, but there is one common theme: that if you scratch beneath the surface you can find something else: the different layers, the mapping, the essence of any city is in its oddities, its peculiarities, the particularities of its places, a sense that all this is being continually erased, not just in London, but everywhere, globalisation in particular. There is a sense that this is happening and people are buying into it without any real awareness of what’s being lost in the process. People like Iain Sinclair, I guess, are trying to say ‘hold on… wait a minute’.
3:AM: Can you pinpoint a new, contemporary group of writers, in the same way Iain Sinclair has done with the “triangle of concentration” in Bunhill fields?
MC: I think there are several. Set into two Psychogeographical poles: on one hand you have writers such as Iain Sinclair, Nicholas Royle, and Stewart Home who were initially seen as sitting on the margins and quite underground, and on the other hand we have writers such as Peter Ackroyd, maybe JG Ballard, and Will Self who have gone in the other direction — Ackroyd, for instance, is a very conservative writer who has distanced himself from the term whilst at the same time utilizing its tropes. Though we can’t see both sets or Psychogeography itself as a theory as underground — when a column in a national broadsheet uses Psychogeography as its title you know the game’s up.
3:AM: So, what’s next for you?
MC: Well, a book of occultism in literature. Called Occult London. That should be published ideally in September or October 2007. It’ll be the same format as this book, but looking at occult aspects of London history, and in particular its literary connections, focusing on the Elizabethan era, Georgian era, late 19th century, and then the present day. Hopefully, by the end of this year, the burden of my PhD will have been lifted too and I’ll have that finished. And then a break I should guess.
ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
Lee Rourke is a Mancunian. He is also Editor-in-Chief of Scarecrow and a Co-editor [fiction] at 3:AM Magazine. His collection of short stories Everyday will be published by Social Disease in March 2007.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Saturday, March 10th, 2007.