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Debord Debord

The Ages

by Wilfried Hou Je Bek

In the long history of pedestrian endeavours like constrained walks, psychogeography and peripatetic drifts 'Captain' Robert Barclay Allardic stands out as the one who had to suffer most. In the summer of 1806 Barclay successfully betted that he could walk one mile in each of 1000 successive hours. This incredible challenge was met with great interest of the London public, whose fascination had less to do with admiration for the severe sleep deprivation and physical exhaustion Barclay had to go through than with the reward of 16.000 guineas that was at stake, 320 times the average year wages.

Captain Barclays extraordinary achievement took place in what is now regarded as the heyday of 'pedestrianism', a period in which these kind of crazy long distance walks were a popular spectator sport. And a welcome occasion for gambling. Barclay himself once lost 1.000 guineas on the bet that he could walk 90 miles in 21 hours. Foster Powell was another pedestrian who became well known after he had walked the 402 miles between London & Leeds in just 5 days and 15 hours.

It can't go unnoticed that Barclays often interrupted his rigid training-program for boozing. He died in 1854 after being kicked by a horse.

Examples of constrained walks, of which Barclays one was the most heroic, are nowadays to be found in abundance. Husk.org for instance did one in which they walked from North to South London without crossing the borders of a column in the A-Z. The IAA, the Institute of Applied Technology, generates constrained walks by way of their iSee application that plots routes through Manhattan streets which are [still] without a surveillance camera. La Monte Young's Fluxus piece 'draw a straight line & follow it' constrained walking into a new dimension in 1960.

The constrained walk is also the dominant method behind the writings of Iain Sinclair. For his 'Lights out over the Territory' Sinclair walked large scale V's, X's and circles juxtaposed over the city's street grid. The gonzo reports of these strolls are supplemented by a wide range of unbelievable obscure facts that are the product of Sinclair's habit of having read every second hand book that was ever on sale in greater London for the last 20 years. While making his way through the city, the scenery of streets, buildings, unexpected encounters and crowds evoke memories from Sinclair's past and from books long forgotten of ever having read them. Sinclair adds his psyche in the geography and after this stream of thought canalised into his highly compressed, information dense, style we have got the most perfect of psychogeographical writers at work today.

But Sinclair also takes his place in the ancient tradition of peripatetic writers.

Peripatetic, from the Greek 'peripatein' = 'to walk about' or 'peripatos' = 'covered walk', originally refers to the teaching method of Aristotle. To clear his thinking Aristotle lectured while he and his students were walking in circles through the Lyceum. Later it would come to mean 'travelling especially on foot'. Scholars studying Victorian literature are very fond of the term as they often diagnose writers as being a 'peripatetic'. Many writers from that period discovered that making walks helped them crystallize their unconnected thoughts into coherent language. Walking and thinking/writing became indistinguishable. Edgar Allen Poe, William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge are all known to prepare themselves for writing by explorations through "such knotty problems of alleys, such enigmatic entries, and such sphynx's riddles of streets without thoroughfares" as Thomas de Quincey, the archetype of the pedestrian-writer wrote.

All these writers also have in common is that they used a lot of drugs, it's hard to say how this folds into the peripatetic line of argument. There are however countless other writers who walked to write but stayed far away from drugs: Robert Walser, Henry David Thoreau, Immanuel Kant and Pope Gregorius XVI to name just a few. The latter was accustomed to making long walks to help him solve problems but as superstition said that popes can't go by foot trough Rome because it will bring bad luck, he had himself transported to the countryside every day. Victor Hugo reports in his diary (November 1845) that Gregorius liked to make pace, "it's a curious thing to see this eighty year old pope pas through the fields in his white garments and his red velvet hat, followed by a procession of gasping bishops and prelates".

Perhaps the enigmatic connection between intellectual activity and walking can be explained as the intoxication of one's own endorphins: runners high as writers doping.

Baudelaire used the work and biographies of the before mentioned British writers to arrive at the his image of the flaneur, the distinguished pedestrian slacker. Largely through Walter Benjamin's articles on the subject the tortoise speed of the flaneur has become an icon in the 'time war' against the accelerating rush of western civilization. In reality the flaneur portrayed as an agent concerned with socio-political problems is largely Benjamin's own interpretation of the actual facts. Baudelaire's flaneurs were stoned out of their heads from hashish. It was under the influence of this drugs that they took so long to go nowhere and found so much hilarious interest in even the most boring aspects of things.

Protest marches are the most obvious link between urban pedestrianism & politics, but historically the most powerful links between the two can be found in the exploration of nature. The adventures Thoreau undertook as a recluse in the Concorde for instance or the British eccentrics and vagrants who, travelling by means of their 'shank's pony', in the 18th century sought to commit the new crime of trespassing in resistance to the privatisation of common lands. This was in the same time that "Foreigners were struck by the size of Englishwomen's feet, a consequence of the English addiction to walking" as Donna Landry explains in her brilliant essay 'Radical Walking'. The most prolific example however remain the German Wandervögel .

The Wandervögel were a youth movement without a central organization and without leaders other then charismatic personalities who were delegated command over the group by the group. In the pedagogue Gustav Wyneken the movement found it's main spokesperson. In 1913 Wyneken proclaimed the ideas behind the Wandervögel by stating that the youth had the right to live according to their own ideas, outside the rules of society in which there were born involuntarily. Bored with the industrial artificiality of urban life, disgusted by the hypocrisy of life they fled into wild nature. they drifted for days, sometimes weeks on end through the woods. They lived on the food nature provided, in the evening the partook in excessive community singing around bonfires. The nights were dedicated to the first detours in the field of sexuality.

Youth psycho-navigating through forests without parental supervision was shocking enough by itself, that these groups contained both sexes was a outright provocation against Prussian prudery. These 'entartete' walks promised more moral disintegration than most adults thought society should tolerate. But the Wandervšgel were no activists, with the rise of the NSDAP some people hoped that they would adopt a more political stance but they refused to talk politics beyond their own personal freedom. The movement was eventually dissolved by the Nazi's in 1934.

Curiously enough Walter Benjamin who was to become the great interpreter of the flaneur in opposition against the commercialisation of life in the booming metropolises is known to have been involved in the forest romanticism and the Gnostic rural rebellion of the Wandervšgel.

The Wandervögel took their desires for reality and followed them into unknown territories, it's that quality which turns them into psychogeographers in the classical sense. From all desires at work in the human brain the (male) sex drive is one of the most powerful, often overriding common sense in the construction of individual behaviour. The promiscuity found in inner-city cruising, a dêrive by libido, is only the most visible of all these sexual psycho-peripatetic activities.

Testosterone driven mobility is by far the most occurring form of psychogeography in every day life. When turning to literature we find all these things embodied in Henry Miller. There are many facets about the compulsive drifts Miller made through Paris and New York. His walks were not just a desperate search for a booty call; only when making daylong walks Miller felt he was unchained by the disciplinary customs of ordinary life. Walking in his mind became synonymous with freedom and freedom he sought after more then anything else. The noises of the streets, his random encounters with strangers from every thinkable social class and background are the lifeblood of his writing, they provided him with material to write about and at the same time he had to feel the energy of the street to be able to write as well.

The honesty which is the key value in Miller's books, manic recollections of his drifts, were considered a threat to the mental health of the public and consequently banned for over 20 years. Like the Wandervögel Miller saw his right to express his personal desires in the way he seemed fit put under stress. Involuntarily Miller became a political activist.

Also on the level of crossing the invisible borders of social stratification, such a strong motivation behind psychogeography, Miller showed the need for drifting to overcome our own self evident truths. Trough his walks Miller learned to appreciate the way the Jewish community dealt with interpersonal relationships, something that got the anti-Semitism of his parents out of his system. Miller later became a great lover of Jewish cantoral music.

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