( This is the article that I wrote for ‘Therapy Today’ , with added sketches – so longer than usual but hopefully interesting enough to hold your attention to the end!)
Unfortunately I missed the 4th World Congress on Psychogeography held in Huddersfield this year. I then discovered that the 4th World Congress was actually the second – the first took place in Huddersfield and Leeds last year – and the next gathering will probably be the 4th World Congress too. Also, although delegates voted that the next congress will take place in Copenhagen, it is likely to be held in Huddersfield again!
This might just seem silly, but as with Monty Python, some serious comments can be made through absurdity. A professional organisation demonstrating its importance through an expensive ‘world congress’, uncritically situated in the globalised economy and at home in fashionable Copenhagen is exactly what psychogeography is not! Psychogeographers are a more radical and diverse assortment of varied professionals, artists, amateurs and others with roots in surreal and absurdist critiques of society, who are more likely to be found at the edges and in the margins. They seem to me to combine intelligent, thought provoking analysis with the refreshing capacity to laugh both at their own pretensions and those of others, and I think they have interesting ideas to share with psychotherapists.
Psychogeography sprawls across many traditional academic demarcations and, like psychotherapy, is a model of multi-disciplinary cross fertilisation. This makes a concise definition difficult, and that flexibility is perhaps one of its strengths. There seem to me to be two key elements to the definition: psychogeography is concerned with the effect of geographical location upon emotion and behaviour; this is tied to an emphasis upon walking, paying critical attention to the (generally but not exclusively) urban landscape and the power structures that have shaped it. There has been much written about the impact of the ‘natural environment’ and its part in therapy, but I want to focus here upon ‘urban’ living – whilst acknowledging that the boundary between ‘natural/rural’ and ‘man made/urban’ is by no means straightforward.
For a detailed appraisal of the current definitions and varieties of psychogeographies, I would recommend Tina Richardson (2015). Here however I want to introduce psychogeography via those pathways that first attracted me, in the hope that along the myriad routes there will be something that resonates with each reader. So I have sketched out a map and invite you to walk with me through a landscape where psychotherapy and psychogeography can enrich each other.
The starting point for me is the relational environment. Group psychotherapy pays sustained and concentrated attention to the power of the relational environment that both clients and therapists inhabit and make. It is the context of others that shapes who we are, and who we in turn shape. In groups, especially long term, we witness this process whereby members insistently draw out and co-create their relational environment, until hopefully liberated by a growing capacity to understand and challenge each other’s attempt to shape the environment.
Any account of being human that reduces an individual to a singleton in a world of singletons is missing the point. We are who we are in the context of others. Although this may be at its most obvious in group psychotherapy, it is clearly just as crucial in any individual therapy. Liz Bondi (2005) suggests that this relational psychotherapeutic perspective can benefit human geography, which often ascribes emotion to individual subjects rather than taking a systemic view.
Starting out from this relational environment, it is a small step to embrace the physical. It might not even been necessary to move, but just to look around at the space in which therapy takes place. In our own therapy rooms we may attempt to create spaces that are containing but not intrusive, calm but not cosy, interesting but not over stimulating. However most of us work at times in spaces that we have no control over, which are hostile to the task in hand; rooms full of desks, cupboard sized spaces, consulting rooms with beds and screens, stained carpets, noisy corridors and so on. Neither patients, clients, students nor therapists can fail to be aware of the powerful intrusions from the physical environment.
What is said is linked to where it is said; to disclose our most intimate feelings we need a sense of emotional and physical security that derives in part from the place we are in. Spatial metaphors abound in the psychotherapeutic vernacular. A safe space, where you’re at, stuck in a corner, deep in a hole, falling through space; we so often turn to geography to find words for our experiences, so should not be surprised that geography shapes experiences. The unwelcoming ‘counselling room’ that clearly is also a cluttered storeroom will affect the communicative web between therapist and client despite all attempts to ignore it.
Of course we can explore this impact, and the possible resonance it has with previous environments. It could well lead into a consideration of power; who controls this space, who decides its usage, who is excluded from the decision-making, for example. This way it becomes even clearer that not only who we are is profoundly shaped by place, but that place involves power.
We have reached a place on the map that we will return to from many different approaches. Here psychogeography brings our attention clearly to the ways in which the spaces we move through and inhabit may be controlled by particular interests. Gated communities, CCTV cameras, car dominated routes, huge parking areas, gentrification, regeneration, lighting, signage, street furniture, graffiti, litter; places where men may walk but women avoid, no- go zones, threatening streets; the more we question the ways in which our environments are designed, built and used, the more we become aware of the values and interests that are shaping the terrain.
In October 2016, the United Nations held the Habitat III conference in Quito, Ecuador, to agree on a ‘New Urban Agenda’ in the face of the massive increases in urbanisation globally. The UK Economic and Social Research council is undertaking a collaborative research project with China, South Africa and Brazil, mapping the web of water, power, energy, food, transport and behaviour within cities. Important elements are “lock-ins” and “path dependencies” Both are features that inhibit certain developments and favour others – regulations facilitating new developments may prevent green transport systems, for example, or the historical ghettoization of one community may be a block to innovative possibilities.
Thinking about this on an everyday walk in our own areas may be an eye opening exercise.
‘Looking around at our streets, it’s startling when you first notice it: like waking from a dream and forgetting where you are. A moment of disorientation as your eyes make sense of the shadows and see the room for what it is.
After that, it’s unmistakable: our streets are not our own. From the parked cars that line the roads to the traffic that speeds along them, in many of our cities we are second-class citizens if we’re not inside a motor vehicle’ ( Laker 2016)
This is one reason why psychogeographers walk rather than drive. Walking can bring us into contact with the environment in a visceral and attentive way where we have time to look closely, to think and to explore. Walking in a psychogeographical sense is not the same as a stroll or ramble; it is observant, analytic, and self-reflective. It finds unfamiliar routes, individually or as part of a group, wanders without preconceived ideas of route or destination, and records the subjective experience in a multitude of styles. The kinaesthetic qualities of movement combine with reflection and analysis in a way that Rose (2015) suggests –
‘affords the opportunity to rupture the banal and disrupt the monotony of capitalism, (re)connecting with space, (re)mapping according to personal affect and (re)creating with multitudinous new stories’ (p.161)
Whether we walk or not for our own purpose, and so many do (“A good wander unveils the city” 2016 ), as psychotherapists and counsellors we recognise its potential. As therapy, or part of therapy, it is used in many different formats; in groups, individually, with mindfulness, with or without therapists, in conjunction with other interventions or on its own. It appears to have an effect that does not relate to energy expenditure or exercise per se, and is often recommended as a component in the treatment for depression (Robertson, Robertson et al 2012).
Therapists working with the elderly, especially with dementia, will recognise the way in which places remain embedded in even the most fragmented of memories. Andrea Capstick (2015), using walking interviews, finds that communications thought to be meaningless can accurately reference particular places in the past. She challenges the act of locating ‘amnesia’ solely in the individual rather than in a society that undervalues and forgets its own past.
The destruction of memory lies as much in the outer world with its demolition sites, road widening schemes, bomb damage, slum clearance and gentrification as it does in the ‘damaged’ brain of the person with dementia’ (p212)
Identity is bound to place. This systemic thinking forms the major highway between psychogeography and psychotherapy. The environment is not the backdrop, but is woven through our identity. One early strand of psychogeography clearly rejected the idea of environment as backdrop, seeing it instead as the screen upon which the experiences of growing up in a gendered body became symbolized and played out. (Stein and Neiderland 1989).
Exploring identities – our own and that of others – involves an appreciation of the powerful influence of place. The word ‘home’, for example, conjures geographical location, emotional resonances, attachments, images and memories, and more. It straddles the external and internal landscape in a way that demonstrates the permeable boundary between the two. We each, according to Fitzgerald and Rose (2015), inhabit
‘not an ‘objective’ space, but our own cognitive map of place and space, freighted with affects and memories, with its risks and hazards, its threats and lures, its familiarities and alien places, its locales of sanctity, solidarity, support, and much more’.
We find ourselves attracted not only to particular people but to places; like a fingerprint, we have a unique patterned response to our environment created through our experience. Certain landscapes, streets, atmospheres, colours, sights, sounds and smells resonate, teaching us much about our own selves, if we pay attention. Exploring our own relationship to place can be a rewarding pathway to personal development.
There is a substantial body of research looking at the impact of space upon mental health. Laura McGrath (2015) examines the impact of different types of space on those with mental illness, and argues that experiences of distress, rather than being determined by static internal processes, are contextualised. Those deemed to be ‘mad’, who once would have been in the designated space of an asylum, are now ‘in the community’; a similar redesignation of space has happened with children’s homes and special schools, for example. Losing the allocated space and becoming part of the ‘community’ creates a context that often belies the warm connotations of the phrase. For many the reality is dominated by surveillance rather than support whilst some find themselves in the least attractive margins of available public space – rough sleeping in derelict areas, underpasses, etc.
Osborne (2015) writes about the milieu – the space we live in, ‘cut from’ the environment material available. Cities, he suggests, are overlapping series of diverse and contradictory milieus –
‘milieus for some and not others, milieus for the rich, milieus for certain kind of business enterprise, milieus for consumption, and so on but not a single milieu of any sort. And for the excluded and dispossessed, cities are indeed simply environments.’
It seems to me that therapy cannot afford to ignore issues of space any more than it can ignore social justice. Psychogeography offers a radical, subversive, challenging critique of space that psychotherapy can benefit from.
In addition, if offers fun. Winnicott would certainly have applauded the playfulness and creativity that psychogeography embraces. Walks may be directed by rolling a dice, for example, or following the gaze of a CCTV camera; arbitrary, whimsical, free associative wanderings that allow unconscious processes the space to flourish. Critical psychologist Alex Bridger (2015) uses walking based research methodologies derived from psychogeographical ideas, arguing that their playfulness can challenge routine behaviour and assumptions and promote creative rethinking of urban space. Psychogeography challenges the dominance of the cognitive in understanding the world, pushes against boundaries and conventions, honours the subjective experience – surely enough common ground to establish a mutually enriching relationship with psychotherapy?
Now we have visited, albeit briefly, most of the places marked on the map and it is time to consider the map itself. It seems that map making is an activity that is wired into humanity. The Bedolina petroglyph at Valcamonica in Italy is one of the oldest known maps still to exist, carved about 4,000 years ago. (Harmon 2004) We constantly map what is around us – the terrain, routes, geology, seas, space – and what is within us– MRI being the contemporary ‘scientific’ version. Maps are our attempts to orient ourselves in an environment and to grasp not only where we are, but who we are.
‘We all travel with many maps , neatly folded and tucked away in the glove compartment of memory – some of them communal and universal, like our autonomic familiarity with seasonal constellations and the shape of continents, and some as particular as the local roads that we have all traipsed.’ (Stephen Hall, p.15 in Harmon 2004)
Psychotherapy has a close association with maps. As we ‘walk alongside’ the client, we travel through internal landscapes of desired utopias and feared hells, in order to find new pathways through old and scarred territory. We examine and unearth buried cities and civilisations, patiently expose skeletons and artefacts, draw up timelines and map future projects. Geography, geology, archaeology, and cartography all meet in my experience of psychotherapy.
As psychotherapists and counsellors we are engaged in the vital challenge to understand and communicate at depth with different cultures, races, and experiences. We recognise the on-going struggle to relate at depth to the other, and its central place not only in the work that we undertake but the communities that we live in and the societies we help create. In our thinking too, we need to cross boundaries. Engaging with other disciplines is part of the process of expanding our cross-cultural communicative possibilities and understandings. Encountering psychogeography is simultaneously like greeting an old friend and discovering a stimulating, quirky, innovative and challenging new acquaintance. As Stephen Hall (p.18 2004) writes-
’(T)he most important thing a map shows, if we pause to look at it long enough, if we travel upon it widely enough, if we think about it hard enough, is all the things we still do not know.
Bondi, Liz. (2005). Making connections and thinking through emotions:
between geography and psychotherapy, online papers archived by the Institute of
Geography, School of Geosciences, University of Edinburgh.
Bridger, Alexander John. ‘Psychogeography, Antipsychologies and the Question of Social Change,’ pp.227-240 in Richardson, T. ed(2015)
Capstick, Andrea. ‘Rewalking the City: People with dementia remember’, pp. 221-226 in Richardson, T. ed (2015)
Fitzgerald, Des, and Rose , Nikolas (2015) ‘The Neurosocial City’ http://www.urbantransformations.ox.ac.uk/debate/the-neurosocial-city
Hall, Stephen S. ‘I, Mercator” in Harmon,K (2004)
Harmon, Katherine (2004) You Are Here: Personal geographies and other maps of the imagination. New York: Princeton Architectural Press
Laker, Laura.( 2016) ‘Will car drivers ever learn to share the road with bikes?’ Guardian Cities https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2016/sep/28
McGrath, Laura. (2012) ‘Heterotopias of mental health care: the role of space in experiences of distress, madness, and mental health service use’. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/263964602
Osborne, T. (2015) ‘Should we look to develop a renewed vitalism of the city?’
Richardson, Tina, ed. (2015) Walking Inside Out: Contemporary British Psychogeography. London: Rowman and Littlefield
Robertson R, Robertson A, Jepson R & Maxwell M (2012) Walking for depression or depressive symptoms: a systematic review and meta-analysis, Mental Health and Physical Activity, 5 (1), pp. 66-75.
Rose, Morag. ‘Confessions of an Anarcho-Flaneuse, or Psychogeography the Mancunian Way’, pp147 -164 in Richardson T. ed (2015)
Stein, Howard F. and Neiderland, William G (1989) Maps from the Mind: Readings in Psychogeography. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press