By Conal Dougan
One of the benefits of being a part-time student is that, in the first year at least, the whole summer becomes an unofficial extended reading week. While the full-time students are busy working tirelessly on their dissertations, the part timers are left with five months off from May to September – the perfect time to start that novel that you’ve always wanted to write, or go travelling, or just plough through six seasons of Sex and the City while your brain turns to mushed tuna.
To avoid frittering away the summer months, I decided to get stuck into some psychogeography, a perhaps slightly unfashionable oeuvre, and one which doesn’t really come up much in the Society and Space course. So I read Guy Debord for the first time, free from the burden of having to make notes and come up with informed questions for a seminar discussion, and thought about how his take on the urban landscape could relate to some work that I’d been doing around running in cities.
Psychogeography, while defined by Debord in the 1950s, has a history arguably dating back to Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, permeating through time with the films of Patrick Keiller and the contemporary writing of Iain Sinclair, Will Self and Robert MacFarlane. Essentially, it approaches geography through playful drifting and mapping of urban environments, latching upon the varied ambiences and emotions of the city. For Debord, it was a way of combatting the emerging capitalism of Paris, which was turning the city into an arena of dulled senses and boredom.
As part of the Experimental Geography module in the second teaching block of the first year, I had played around with running as a unique way to experience the immediate urban environment. Now, I could see how running could provide a new form of psychogeographic wandering. Debord enjoyed necking a litre of cheap wine and staggering around Paris at night, his view being that such a dérive could tackle the nefarious consumerism of the city around him. I thought that running – sober – could provide a similar experience.
Thanks to a handy little tax refund, I booked a flight to Paris to test out my theory. With little idea of the layout of the city, I set off from my seedy hostel at dawn in order to run through the streets, my journey influenced by the atmospheres I felt around me. With the streets empty of traffic, I was able to run in the middle of the road for much of the time – the capitalist ideal of ‘perfect traffic flow’ had little influence over my legs, and I felt pretty chuffed at having overcome what Debord called the ‘dictatorship of the automobile’. My journey was impacted little by consumerist forces, and at no point did I feel like I was being steered towards centres of commerce, which is pretty fortunate as going shopping in a sweaty running vest is rarely pleasant for anyone, including other shoppers.
Once I got back from Paris I decided to write up my trip in the form of short piece for the journal Cultural Geographies in Practice. While my paper is yet to be published – or even received as far as I’m aware – both the experiment and the writing up did indeed prevent my brain from disintegrating over the summer. And I still had time to watch all of Sex and the City.