An Introduction to (and some questions surrounding) Psychogeography: ‘The London Perambulator’

‘The London Perambulator’ is a documentary by John Rogers about Nick Papadimitriou (the eponymous London Perambulator) – a writer, researcher, and self-described ‘deep topographer’ – “a man whose life is dedicated to exploring and archiving areas beyond the permitted territories of the high street, the retail park, the suburban walkways”.

It is a great introduction to contemporary psychogeography; very interesting and also very entertaining at points, and actually I think the particular combination of those two qualities speaks to an intriguing anxiety around psychogeography which crops up a lot in the documentary.

Nick Papadimitriou puts it best – “It’s about getting a very very dangerous balance between finding the overlooked and showing it to the other people who have an eye for the overlooked, and not making the overlooked into something that is gazed at.” In other words, where is the line between, on the one hand, genuine ‘authentic’ psychogeographic interest, and on the other, the superficiality of ‘entertainment’? I think this is really a key hang-up for psychogeography, or at least it clearly is for people like Iain Sinclair and Will Self who have made a living from writing about it.

Sinclair describes psychogeography as having become “rather a nasty brand name… it really got into the popular mind as a way of describing almost anything to do with cities, any activity or anything to do with walking became psychogeography”, and on that account he says that he has rejected ‘psychogeography’ in favour of Nick’s ‘deep topography’, which represents to him a more genuine form of the practice.

Clearly the motive here is to preserve the radical, ‘liminal’ status of the practice itself, which is understandable. But I think this is inevitably bound up in a kind of guilt or anxiety (clearly more present in Sinclair and Self than in Papadimitriou) that their engagement with and writing about such places is ultimately a sort of bourgeois indulgence and entertainment, as opposed to being genuinely serious or radical. It seems that this is perhaps the implicit reason for Sinclair’s rejection of ‘psychogeography’ as a term; because it has been corrupted as a result of its popularisation; because popularity would inevitably constitute a confirmation of that bourgeois anxiety. If books (or documentaries!) about psychogeography take on a mass-appeal, then it potentially loses its claim to being ‘radical’, and even worse, it may find itself complicit in the very systems of mass-market consumerism that it sought to resist in the first place.

Anyway, it seems this paradox kind of haunts the documentary and psychogeographic culture in general. Can psychogeography succeed in its radical attempts to oppose consumerist culture, and ultimately to forge a new way of thinking about space and place in society, if it continues to remain the preserve of eccentric and isolated individuals? On the other hand, is there any way that it could become ‘popular’ without betraying its radical impulses, and crucially without betraying itself to the mass-market / consumerist culture it fundamentally opposes? To what extent can the average person make a “genuine” or “authentic” claim to psychogeography? Are we inevitably doomed to feel bourgeois guilt for finding it entertaining or enjoyable? I don’t know the answers to these questions, and I would love to hear people’s thoughts!