Towards a legal psychogeography: counter-reverie, overdetermined texts and the ghosts of waterlogged ditches


“Momentarily distracted from his plans by the chirping of some unnameable night bird, he looks eastwards across the brightly lit Edgware Way, towards the high ground at Edgewarebury. Perhaps moved by some spontaneous memory of childhood holidays spent in the New Forest, his imagination lingers in the woods and fields like a slowly drifting plant community and then dissolves into ditches lined with black waterlogged leaves – a residue of previous summers – and the ghosts of dead insects”

Nick Papadimitriou (2012) Scarp: In Search of London’s Outer Limits, London: Sceptre, p.20).

I’ve recently had a substantially revised version of my chapter for Tina Richardson’s (2015) Walking Inside Out: Contemporary British Psychogeography edited collection published in the French geography journal, Revue Géographique de l’Est. Its free to access here. In the article I keep my play with two passages from Scarp, and my desire to examine counter-reverie, the way in which dry, serious, mundane reality crashes back to mind after the type of momentary drift into the elemental undergrowth as depicted by Papadimitriou in the passage above. But whereas in the original book chapter I came to this point by introducing psychogeography to the potential for fertilisation with contemporary legal geography (and its fascination with the prosaics of background dry, serious, mundane reality) in the French journal version I’m writing for a legal geography audience, so run the intro in the other direction: introducing legal geographers to psychogeography.

In Spatial Detectives (Bennett & Layard, 2015) Antonia Layard and I endorsed Braverman et al’s (2014) call for legal geographers to engage more widely with other disciplines. We also noted legal geography’s emerging interest in how individual minds and bodies in interaction with the material world come to create subjectivities which mediate spatio-legal formations. This increasing interest arises from a new found attentiveness to pragmatism (the processes by which meaning is formed in – and in turn informs – social action) by North American legal geographers (Delaney, 2010; Blomley, 2014) and to the increasing influence of the “more than human” (Whatmore, 2006) turn in British geography with its attentiveness to an affective materiality (Bennett, 2010) between human and non-human bodies. We suggested that, as a result of this conjunction, legal geography could now embrace a fully holistic study of the co-constitution of law and space, one that gives proper regard to the influence of the “affective geographies of matter” (2015, p. 419) upon the experience of place and the resulting situated normativities. But this would require a new open-mindedness: an actor-centred interpretive approach which was both attentive to, and capable of, portraying how this sense-making necessitates a constant filtering of myriad stimuli and contexts, in which sometimes – but only sometimes – a legal frame of reference comes to the fore in an actor’s understanding of their situation. This article explores how legal geography might develop these analytical tools – and looks to the concerns and methods of psychogeography as a possible aid and ally.

In Spatial Detectives we noted that law does not appear to be present as the primary guiding force in ever spatial scene and accordingly we argued for an attentiveness to context, primarily in the form of a commitment to a deep, analytic explication of the actual law present within a scene. We felt that in existing legal geographic scholarship the content of the law itself is often left under-examined, and that only a deep analysis (one that included analysis of the law itself) would explain how a specific scene was constructed. But we also acknowledged that in our day to day lives we are all already legal detectives, we all necessarily enact moment-by-moment interpretations of law, translating law’s abstractions into spatio-material circumstances, and thereby guiding our interaction with places and objects. Thus, to explicate law’s involvement in actors’ cognitive (conscious, deliberative) and affective (subconscious, felt) engagement with the world legal geographers would need to act reflexively, as self-aware spatial detectives, finding ways to render explicit the influence of spatio-legal normativities. My article argues that bringing that dynamic mix of half-thought assumptions and carefully deliberated translations of law clearly into the analyst’s view may require creative exaggeration and/or surrealist-inspired distortion, in order to see, and/or to question, law’s spatial influence.

Our view that law is not always to the fore, and that at times it is at best a barely perceptible background noise has found positive development in Andreas Philippopoulos-Mihalopoulos’ (2015) theorising of law’s tendency to recede – or withdraw – from view, leaving its situational ‘lawscape’ often not readily noticeable. The task of the legal geographer then should be to explicate law’s quiet shaping influence over the normativities of place. Accordingly, in this article I pick up on (and develop further) one aspect of Spatial Detectives, namely that a truly holistic legal geography would express “an embrace of the limits of law’s reach, its logic and even its coherence when encountered within the daily world-making of individual actors” (Bennett & Layard, 2015, p.417). In other words, that legal geography would find a way to be comfortable about discussing the irrational and the inchoate within any particular situation and it would strive to resist the temptation to render everything down to a neat account of law’s shaping presence (and whether that is foregrounded or withdrawn).

Irus Braverman (2014) has argued that geographically inclined lawyers are well placed to investigate the way in which places are constituted, because, their training gives them a familiarity with the bureaucratic practices and dispositions of place-makers and imposes a rigor in analytical (forensic) delineation of law’s presence and directive power. In short, a legal analysis can cut through the cacophonous noise of reality to find underlying semantic and normative frameworks. However, this set of talents can also be a weakness, for the urge to explicate underlying legal (and/or power) structures re-imposes an analytical order and clarity that the scene (and the minds of the actors under observation) may not actually have.

I then reveal my concern to show a potential role for psychogeography in the extending legal geography’s project by finding ways a consideration to the ebb and flow of subjects’ regard for law as a constitutive framing of a spatial situation, its jostling for influence alongside other frames, moment by moment; and how a creative embrace of incongruity can be used to challenge the tendency of law to withdraw into the shadows in most ‘everyday’ situations. In enlisting aims and methods from psychogeography, I thereby end up sketching out the common ground of a legal psychogeography.

I explain to my audience that the term ‘psychogeography’ was coined by Guy Debord to define a mode of urban investigation that linked directly to the Situationist International’s (S.I.) radical political aim of revealing the cultural logics by which passivity and conformity is achieved in modern, consumerist society, with particular regard to the pacification induced by urban spatial arrangements. Like many new Left intellectuals, Debord’s primary concern was to understand why the revolution predicted by Marx’s scientific socialism had not occurred.

In an early programmatic text Debord positioned psychogeography as a systematic project, one which “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 behavior of individuals” (Debord, 1955, n.p.). Debord had studied law at the University of Paris in the early 1950s (but left early and never completed his studies), and thus would already have been aware that legal laws shape the environment, and people within it. But oddly psychogeography never saw investigating the influence of such laws within the generation of urban-political affects and subjectivities as a part of its project. By 1955 Debord was embracing Marxist theory (and its material determinism) and (consistent with the emergent ‘spatial science’ paradigm then ascendant in geographical analysis) was seemingly instead thinking of psychogeography as a way of revealing the ‘social laws’ beloved of classic positivistic sociological analysis.

Influenced by the surrealists, psychogeography developed seemingly playful, unconventional methods with which to expose the oppressive normativities of urban life: the détournement (using something in an unintended way – such as using a map of London as a means to travel across Paris – in order to reveal constraints and possibilities) and the derive (urban drifting) in which through open-minded movement ignoring all constraint and pre-supposition, the mind would be opened to encounter with all phenomenon without differentiation or respect for spatial-territorial conventions.

Thus, whilst concerned with explicating urban normativities per se, psychogeographic practice from its inception had a blind spot: it paid little (if any) attention to the role of legal laws in the constitution of the urban condition. After the failed revolution of 1968, the S.I. (in Paris and its affiliates in other cities around the world) reduced in political valence, and psychogeography slowly became rebranded as an aesthetic critique of urban life (rather than an explicitly revolutionary programme), surviving mostly within art schools and the outer fringe of cultural politics. The roots of contemporary British psychogeography can be traced to early 1990s London, where it surfaced as a loose, playful aesthetic practice stripped of its originally declared political reconnaissance rationale. Contemporary British psychogeography is primarily a literary practice – with derive and detournement being deployed as a spur to follow-on poetic write-ups for the individual’s psychogeographical adventures.

And this is where my deconstruction of Papadimitriou comes in. I use (and arguably abuse) two of his passages for my own ends. After the original 2015 version was published, Papadimitriou contacted me for a copy, and from his subsequent reply I think he was a little baffled by the detournment that I’d inflicted upon his own text. Seemingly I’d read rather a lot into two passages that he’d only ever regarded as incidental. But that doesn’t matter. These passages have a life of their own, it doesn’t really matter what he meant by them. They (like laws and “ditches lined with black waterlogged leaves”) things that are out there now. They have their own lives to live and their own potential effects and influences to weave.

References: please see the citation list in the article

Image source: M.C. Escher (1952) Puddle via