On staring at stuff in a weird way: ethnographic surrealism and psychogeography as connectors to everyday matter

“To-day we have naming of parts. Yesterday,

We had daily cleaning. And to-morrow morning,
We shall have what to do after firing. But to-day,
To-day we have naming of parts. Japonica
Glistens like coral in all of the neighbouring gardens,
And to-day we have naming of parts.”

Henry Reed, excerpt from Naming of Parts (1942, p.92)


Recently I’ve been working on a paper with two colleagues from SHU’s Institute of Education. It concerns our exploratory workshop (my part previously reported here) and draws out the similarities in our preoccupations with, and methods for, producing our accounts of a portion of campus space that day. Each of us – in slightly differing ways – exhibited in our accounts a contemporary fascination with the instability (and playfulness of) the experience of place, and also foreground the constitutive role of mundane matter in the reciprocal formation of that sense of being-in-space.

In my piece, the tactic of foregrounding the background – the infrastructural spandrels at this place – was wilfully transgressive and playful – reading Žižek’s minor passage as major. But it was also indicative of the ontological turn, a neo-materialism that seeks to return to their rightful place centre stage in social theory and research “the missing masses” (Latour, 1992) – matter itself, the stuff of the world that enables human social life and yet so often is omitted from it. My account was not written in a technical register – it was intentionally not a building survey report – something functional and/or scientific. No, I chose a register equally alien to practical science as it was to mainstream social theory and research, in its attempt to speak the non (or post) human, consistent with Ian Bogost’s (2012: 34) exhortation that we should write “the speculative fictions” of objects’ “unit-operations”, and do so by foregrounding the background, by fetishising matter and ascribing agency and quasi subjecthood to it. My wilful turn away from the human, and foregrounding of the campus as machine used the dynamic, enthusiastic register of nature writing, and in doing so offered an oddly exuberant depiction of “moments of bold leap, where cabling flew through the air from gully to gully, and strange gathering points at which multiple lines congregated”. Such stylistics would be normal for writing about flora or fauna, but is alien to the depiction of wiring. Cabling is not meant to be the subject of rapt adjectival attention.

But this warping of language and gaze was not a product of reverie. What was “found”, and what was reported was wilfully selected, theoretically informed and shaped by an anticipation of performance (the presentation) and audience (in the workshop, on my blog and for our article). The cables did not present themselves in a moment of revelation. Theory made this wierding possible and permissible, as it was for John Paul Sartre upon his first acquaintance with phenomenology in the early 1930s, an encounter that enabled him to announce with youthful glee:

“nothing appeared to me more important that the promotion of street lamps to the dignity of a philosophical object…truth drags through the streets, in the factories and, apart from ancient Greece, philosophers are eunuchs who never open their doors to it.” (quoted in Kearney, 1994: 3)

This iconoclasm – this return to things (to echo Husserl) – has recently reasserted itself. Sartre’s iconoclasm is returning. In a new, 21st century its talk is of how to find methodological:

“means by which to activate the implicit thing knowledge we already possess, as well as means to become more sensitive to the inherent qualities of things themselves” (Olsen, 2010: 18)

Yet very little has actually been said about precisely how to study and foreground the submerged contribution of material things to places and processes. For now, it is humans writing the “speculative fictions” of things – using language creatively to unmask the non-linguistic – that appears the best strategy despite it seeming a contradiction in terms. Graham Harman shows the unmasking power of creative descriptive writing in his advocacy of a “weird realism”:

“…philosophy’s sole mission is weird realism. Philosophy must be realist because its mandate is to unlock the structure of the world itself; it must be weird because reality is weird.” (2008: 334, emphasis in original)

For Harman – like Bogost – creative writing is a means by which the mundane can be foregrounded by (for example) the Kafkaesque “en-wierding” techniques of horror writers like H.P. Lovecraft. To figure an assembly of overhead cables as having spider-like qualities is to destabilise the normal, directing attention to it. Harman shows this technique to deft effect in a sinister description of a (perfectly normal) local hotel, The Nile Luxor Hilton. Harman destabilises the normal via a surfeit of attentive description and inference of agency, thus:

“Though the outer walls seem to meet at solid right angles, the hue of the concrete departs from accustomed values in a manner suggestive of frailty or buckling.” (Harman, 2008: 355)

In the juxtaposition of imagery and allusion, the given of the mundane material world is destablised and through this destabilisation foregrounded. In a similar vein Highmore argues for a revival of a spirit of “surrealist ethnography” (2002: 82) in which anthropology’s “will to order” is seriously undermined, and the messiness of daily life respected, finding “society as a totality of fragments” (emphasis in original), a phrase reminiscent of Walter Benjamin’s self-described method of social analysis: “rag picking”, a position Highmore describes as being “at the crossroads of magic and positivism” (82). But it is the surrealists who Highmore figures as the epitome of background foregrounding:

“Surrealism is about an effort, an energy, to find the marvellous in the everyday, to recognise the everyday as a dynamic montage of elements, to make it strange so that its strangeness can be recognized. The classic Surrealist can be seen as Sherlock Holmes-like: faced with the deadly boredom of the everyday, the Surrealist takes to the street, working to find and create the marvellousness of the everyday.” (56)

In our article (assuming my co-authors are happy with the draft I’ve just sent them) we will argue that our accounts are characteristic of an emergent “psychogeographical” sensibility, an approach that can both embrace the materiality of the external world as a co-creator of perceived reality, and yet still retain a still powerful constructivist sentiment that aligns experience of (or at least accounting for the experience of) the world in language, affect and subjective experience. This is indeed the realm of a speculative, or “weird realism” (Harman, 2008).

Psychogeography’s relationship to academic research is ambiguous, its promise to date unfulfilled. The term was formulated by Guy Debord in 1955 in the following terms:

Psychogeography could set for itself the study of the precise laws and specific effects of the geographical environment, consciously organized or not, on the emotions and behaviour of individuals. The adjective psychogeographical, retaining a rather pleasing vagueness, can this be applied to the findings arrived by this type of investigation, to their influence on human feelings, and even more generally to any situation or conduct that seems to reflect the same spirit of discovery.” (emphasis in original, Debord, 1955: 5).

In the hands of the Situationists, psychogeography became conflated with 1960s revolutionary playfulness and adherence to any search for “precise laws and specific effects” quickly disappeared from view, but nonetheless – even if in the end he didn’t pursue it himself – Debord conceptually mapped out territory for potential study: that intersection between human affective experience of place, and the materiality of the environment within which (and about which) such encounters occur. Debord also conceptualised the (Surrealist inspired) dérive as a “scientific” methodology – the aimless stroll intended to experience and/or transgress the habitual routes of travel and experience mapped out by the “the ambiance of the street…the path of least resistance which is automatically followed…” (Debord, 1955: 16).

As Coverley (2006) has since argued, contemporary psychogeography (as it is “practised” in the UK at least) is primarily a literary pastime, accessing an English mystic tradition stretching back to William Blake and Thomas De Quincy as much the conceptualising of Debord and the Situationist International. But none the less, the empirical programme framed by Debord in 1955 remains open to engagement within the academy, in addition to its vibrant literary life beyond it. One direction to take the ensuing enquiry is environmental psychology, deploying quantitative (and often perceptual experiment based) approaches to investigation of the environment/person nexus (for example Prestopnik & Roskos-Ewoldsen’s (2000) quantitative study of campus wayfinding strategies). The other direction is to embrace the interpretive, and journey into the marginal territory that lies somewhere between autoethnographic investigation and the creative “literary travel writing” of the contemporary Anglophone literary psychogeography (for example Sinclair, 1997; Sebald, 2002; Papadimitriou, 2013).

Research in this mode cannot offer up “precise laws” (or even generalisable) “specific effects”, but it can present rich, post-positivist reflexive description of the story stacking processes by which instances of place are encountered, and the terms (and sense) of that encounter negotiated between the creative agency of humans and the resistances and affordances of matter.

The paper that I’m working on will argue that a broadly psychogeographical research methodology entails an open, reflexive (and often playful) engagement with language, memory and the physicality of the built environment. It requires an embrace of multiplicity, indeterminacy and contingency, an attentiveness to the agency of matter (and data), and to the flux of temporalities, spatialities and normative orders apparent when one sets out to actively make meaning within seemingly “given” (pre-ordained) mundane, functional places that would normally be passed through and/or used without particular regard.

A connecting thread across my and my collaborators’ research work is a belief that all encounters with place are provisional, coalescing as tentative assemblages of matter and meaning as a function of overlapping strategies, subjectivities and materialities that incline towards conventional (and dominant) registers of experience, but which are never entirely contained by them. The “slip” is irrepressible, and psychogeographic techniques of the drift (dérive) and/or reappropriation (détournement) can be applied as a celebration of these aberrant flows, and whether as a challenge to hegemonic structures of power (as the Situationists intended) or as a “diffractive methodology” to simply bring to the foreground the messy multitude of the experience of place – the swirl of affects, ideas, conventions, artefacts, spatial arrangements and power inherent in the daily experience of learning environments.

We are conscious that our figuration of psychogeography as a playful experiential research methodology side-steps both psychogeography’s radical political aims and its originally conceptualised role as revolutionary reconnaissance. In a recent paper Shukaitis and Figiel, (2013) have reasserted psychogeography’s radical political purpose, and criticised its contemporary denaturing. But psychogeography is – as Bonnett (2009) notes – an increasingly broad church.

The concern of our paper is to consider meaning making and “mattering” (Barad 2007) in one nondescript corner of a University campus. It might well be said that our analysis omits matters of policy, funding and wider political economy. We do not deny the importance of such considerations, but do not consider that the choice is “either/or”. There are many scholars engaged with the structural dimensions of higher education policy and its impact upon campus management. We simply seek to reinsert notions of tactical agency, and affective, embodied experience into consideration of how being upon a University campus is constituted. Critical research into higher education place making tends to lapse into totalising models of “top-down” determinism, and consequently position individuals as dupes of structural imposition. In such readings, the fact that a University can make its physical landscape by arranging matter and symbols is equated with an equally efficacious ability to condition its students (see, for example, the “new model worker” thesis expressed by Hancock and Spicer, 2011). But we (after de Certeau 1984) see the “appellation” (in the sense used by Louis Althusser – that ideology “calls” to its subjects) as less effective, more messy and believe that a psychogeographically inclined investigation of the flux of such human/system encounters can reveal (and potentially) amplify this multivalence. An emergent example of a hybrid political/weird psychogeographic analysis of campus management can be found in Tina Richardson’s (2011) Deleuzo-guattarian variant of psychogeography which explicates the “forgotten” portions of the University of Leeds’ campus, a position somewhat closer than ours to what Bonnett has styled “magico-Marxism” (2009: 45).

Our concern then, is to understand how psychogeography might work as a methodology to explore matter/meaning relations, and we find much suited to our purpose in Shukaitis and Figiel’s depiction of the dérive as:

“a way [of] getting lost, of opening up how one is affected by the world, [that] brings to the fore all the richness (and horror) of the everyday that is typically not paid attention to.” (2013: 3)

This aspiration – in and of itself – has methodological merit, and some precedent as an axiom of both social research and creative enquiry. In his explication of theories of everyday life, Ben Highmore (2002) points to James Clifford’s 1981 essay, “On Ethnographic Surrealism”, which explored the 1920s and early 1930s links between the avant garde and the emergence of French enthnology. Clifford (1988: 121) saw modern ethnology as driven by a need to (in the oft quoted phrase) “mak[e] the familiar strange” (a particularly important dictum for research conducted within the researcher’s own cultural reality). But his invocation was more dramatic than those words portray, in embracing the destabilising principles of surrealism, Clifford advocated an ethnographic surrealist practice which “attacks the familiar, provoking the eruption of otherness – the unexpected” (146). He situated “surrealist ethnography” as revelling in difference and semantic indeterminacy (in healthy contrast to the taxonomic – naming and ordering) impulse of a “scientific” ethnology. Clifford’s ensuing methodological prescription co-opted the surrealist practice of collage, assemblage forming in which “the cuts and sutures of the research process are left visible; there is no smoothing over or blending of the work’s raw data into homogenous representation” (1988: 147).

Except – of course – that there will always be blending, an at least partial sense making (and committant ordering) of unfamiliar or de-familiarised reality. There will be re-constitution by the observer, in dynamic exchange with the multitude of things in the world beyond. Our concern should therefore be to explicate (after Karen Barad) how matter is made to matter by human interlocutors, and how matter has its own abilities to impose significance upon the social world.


Barad, K. (2007). Meeting the universe halfway: Quantum physics and the entanglement of matter and meaning. London: Duke University Press.

Bogost, I. (2012). Alien Phenomenology or what it’s like to be a thing. London: University of Minnesota Press.

Bonnett, A. (2009). The dilemmas of radical nostalgia in British Psychogeography. Theory, Culture and Society, 26(1), 45-70.

Coverley, M. (2006). Psychogeography. Harpenden: Pocket Essentials.

de Certeau, M. (1984). The practice of everyday life. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Clifford, J. (1988). The predicament of culture. London: Harvard University Press.

Debord, G. (1955). Introduction to a critique of urban geography, Les Levres Nues, 6, Retrieved from  http://library.nothingness.org/articles/SI/en/display/2.

Hancock, P. and Spicer, A. (2011). Academic architecture and the constitution of the new model worker. Culture and Organization, 17(2), 91-105.

Harman, G. (2008). On the horror of Phenomenology: Lovecraft and Husserl. In R. Mackay (ed) COLLAPSE IV. Falmouth: Urbanomic.

Highmore, B. (2002). Everyday life and cultural theory. London: Routledge.

Kearney, R. (1994). Modern movements in European philosophy. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Latour, B. (1992). Where are the missing masses? The sociology of a few mundane artifacts. In W. E. Bijker & J. Law (Eds.) Shaping technology/building society: Studies in sociotechnical change (pp. 225–258). Harvard: MIT Press.

Olsen, B. (2010). In defense of things – Archaeology and the ontology of objects, Plymouth: Alta Mira Press.

Papadimitriou, N. (2013). Scarp. London: Sceptre.

Prestopnik, J. and Roskos-Ewoldsen, B. (2000). The relations among wayfinding strategy use, sense of direction, sex, familiarity, and wayfinding ability. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 20, 177-191.

Reed, H. (1942). Naming of Parts. New Statesman and Nation. 24, no. 598, 92.

Richardson, T. (2009) A Schizocartography of a Redbrick University. Spaces and Flows: an International Journal of Urban and ExtraUrban Studies, 1(1), 119-128.

Shukaitis, S. and Figiel, J. (2013). Metropolitan strategies, psychogeographic investigations. Cultural Studies <=> Critical Methodologies. Retrieved from http://dx.doi.org/10.1177/1532708613503781.

Sebald, W.G. (2002). The Rings of Saturn, London: Vintage.

Sinclair, I. (1997). Lights out for the Territory, London: Granta.

Žižek, S. (2009). Architectural parallax – spandrels and other phenomena of class struggle. Retrieved from http://www.lacan.com/essays/?page_id=218


About lukebennett13
Reader & Course Leader, BSc Hons Real Estate, Sheffield Hallam University, UK. I TEACH: built environment law to construction, surveying, real estate and environmental management students. I RESEARCH: metal theft; urban exploration & recreational trespass; occupiers' perceptions of liability for their premises. I THINK: about the links between ideas, materialities and practices in the built environment. I WAS: an environmental lawyer working in commercial practice for 17 years before I joined academia in 2007. I EXPLAIN: the aims of my blogsite site here: https://lukebennett13.wordpress.com/2012/02/15/prosaic/ LINKS: Twitter: @lukebennett13; Archive: http://shu.academia.edu/lukebennett. EPITAPH: “He lived at a little distance from his body, regarding his own acts with doubtful side-glances.” James Joyce, Dubliners

8 Responses to On staring at stuff in a weird way: ethnographic surrealism and psychogeography as connectors to everyday matter

  1. Cathy Dreyer says:

    This is fascinating. It makes a sort of sense of my own project and articulates lots of concepts that could be very useful. So thanks very much. I wonder, though, if comparing cables to spiders destabilizes the cables. Could you explain a bit more? I would love that to be true. Lots to think about. I think I’ll have to read it again at least once. Thanks.

    • Thanks Cathy. Yes, often equating one thing with another can somehow limit or reduce the foregrounded thing – so, to depict cables as spider like excludes all the non-spider aspects. But my point is that you can amplify the sense of background things by attaching them to things or images that are primed to trigger attention. The other point to add is that I meant to invoke spider webs rather than spiders themselves. But the cables did also look like splayed spider legs. I also stared at pipe assembles on the sides of the buildings – they did look creature like in the way they were clinging on / cloaking the building. Parasitic, with thoughts of Giger’s alien.

      • Cathy Dreyer says:

        Myabe I’m misunderstanding the way you are using the word destabilising. I am currently interested in Didcot Power Station which I can see from my daily walk. It’s a huge statement about the way people have used the planet but it’s not ‘meant’ to be part of a beautiful rural view. I like to talk about it as part of a beautiful rural view because firstly I think it’s beautiful and secondly, just as you shouldn’t (in my view) eat meat if you wouldn’t yourself kill animals, so you shouldn’t enjoy the natural world if you’re not prepared to look at the cost of contemporary comforts we all take for granted (central heating etc). So there’s politics too. I think, to be bold, that what you’re doing with the cables is similar – foregrounding stuff we take for granted but don’t want to look at and edit out of our daily views of the world. Are you (we) destabilising our sense of the world, rather than the cables/power station? I’m probably using all the wrong concepts and terms but I’m genuinely interested in my question, not trying to score points. I suppose I’m trying to say that we should look at, view, the anthropocene, not some Wordsworthian tradition of pastoral poetry which even he never really represented, let alone Blake, with his dark satanic mills.

  2. Cathy Dreyer says:

    Feel free to delete all these comments if you find them annoying, or if I’ve msised the point. But this, from the poet Robin Robertson, on the dust jacket of John Burnside’s Black Cat Bone, is at the heart of my preoccupations:
    ‘ … an unusual possibility: that when the search for what we expected to find – in the forest or in our own hearts – ends in failure, we can now begin the heard and disciplined quest for what is actually there.’
    I love the playfulness of your project btw and am rather envious of it. In hymnodising Didcot Power Station, I am being provocative, to some (although I’m not alone in loving DPS) but I’ve moved past that too. Anyway, enough from me. Great blog. Cathy x

  3. Yes – it’s a very interesting question and in many ways goes to the heart of what I’m trying to get to grips with in these blog posts: why would a certain type (of whom I’m happily one) want to develop a deviant aesthetic that celebrates the ugly or unremarkable? But I don’t think its actually all that deviant – there are plenty of ingredients in late twentieth century culture that point towards this: deindustrialisation, environmentalism, disenchantment with truth, concept driven arts etc. For me it has an extra twist in that my former professional background (environmental lawyer) was in writing about factories, rubbish, abandoned buildings for a living. I’m now interested in how the technical realm which quite happily finds a way to write of such places and their features on a daily basis, could be placed into collage alongside – and for – a more arty register and audience. What happens then? That’s what’s often driving these posts. I think it’s also about accepting the world that we are in, and making the most of it – rather than yearning for a pastoral idyll and wishing that factories didn’t exist. I grew up in a household where ‘industrial estate’ was quite possibly the rudest word anyone could think of. My adult life has been a reaction to that 😉 There’s more on this specific strand at:


  4. Cathy Dreyer says:

    Yes to all of that. I once wrote a poem based on the instructions for using epoxy glue … ‘instructions for bonding’ … I love the mucking about with registers exemplified by the beautiful ‘Naming of parts.’ The recording is strange though (the one I found online). Some class thing going on. I will look at that other post when I’m back from touring A roads on school issues. Cathy x

  5. As an interesting postscript to this thread, and my post above: I’ve just read Gareth Rees’ (@hackneymarshman) piece on the fiction/non-fiction overlap (meld?) as a way to get at the nature of place. Gareth’s essay comes at it from a literary direction, whilst my piece above is primarily social science based. But we end up saying something similar I think…


  6. dobraszczyk says:

    Rather late in replying, I afraid, but I enjoyed this post very much Luke. Lots to think about in relation to how one engages ones own subjective responses to the built environment with others.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: