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Psychogeography: Disentangling the Modern Conundrum of Psyche and Place

Psychogeography: Disentangling the Modern Conundrum of Psyche and Place

Author:Will Self With Ralph Steadman
Release Date:2008
Publisher:Bloomsbury Usa

By Darcelle Bleau | Posted 1/30/2008

Psychogeography is an eclectic collage of words and images. In it, novelist and journalist Will Self explores some of life's most perplexing notions: politics and place, memory and forgetting, the ephemeral and the eternal. Fifty-four of the 55 short pieces included in the book were originally published as individual articles in London's Independent newspaper. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas illustrator Ralph Steadman supplies each article with a drawing, and his peculiar artwork both complements and complicates Self's texts.

In the first reprinted article, "South Downs Way," Self reveals his project: "I've taken to long-distance walking as a means of dissolving the mechanized matrix which compresses the space-time continuum, and decouples human from physical geography." To further explain his philosophy-in-process, Self cites Emile Durkheim's observation that "a society's space-time perceptions are a function of its social rhythm and its territory." By walking through a region, Self is able to sense both the temporal and physical properties of the society that populates it. Writing allows him to arrange those properties and express them as revelatory narratives.

Both the topoi and topographies covered in Psychogeography are vast. Some of the articles required months of exploration and research-trips to India, Australia, or Singapore. Others were written from the comfort of an armchair. "Tsunami" contains Self's thoughts about a popular British TV commercial for Guinness beer. In the commercial, a surfer triumphs over an enormous wave, leading Self to postulate about the surfer's ability to ride the world's recent tsunamis. In "Madame Jacquard," Self travels with a London friend to Calais, France, in search of reasonably priced cigarettes. The tabac they patronize becomes a veritable Mecca-one of both place and time. Standing in there, Self and his friend save hundreds of pounds. Their journey to France pays off instantly. But it also erases the need for months of daily trips to their local London tobacconist. This is the type of spatiotemporal consequence that fascinates Self and drives him to write.

Though "Madame Jacquard" reads like Maupassant-inspired fiction, other articles in Psychogeography are more straightforward social critiques. "Decoys in Iowa" details Self's trip to the American Midwest with his son. In the two-page text, Self unapologetically calls every Iowan both fat and gun-toting. Self may be offended more by America than other places-he is half-American and admits to struggling with that aspect of his identity-but he judges other nationalities harshly as well. He paints the Brazilians in Rio de Janeiro as particularly xenophobic and reveals the literary backwardness of Roman Italians.

Self is at his best in pieces such as "Canary Dwarf," a short, sharp review of 21st-century Dublin. He begins with a drive through the city, noting new architectural structures and the cranes erecting more of them. By the end, he has convincingly explained the city's modern moral decay.

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