Saturday, 28 July 2012

The Perturbed Psychogeographer: Contemplating Olympic Space, the Shard and Architectural Phalluses in General

The oversubscribed Olympic space in London has got me thinking lately. In the run-up everyone who was anyone was talking about what the East End meant to them (Paloma Faith, Dizzee Rascal, et al). Then in addition all the 'psychogeographers' were also providing their responses, albeit rather less publicly or media-led. I pondered on what I would do if I was a London-based psychogeographer. Would I just refuse to talk/write/blog about it? Would I get out of London and write about somewhere else instead, by way of protest? Or, would I try to do something really unconventional? (if that is at all possible within an already unorthodox domain).

Coincidentally I came across a paragraph by Henri Lefevbre this week in The Production of Space where he mentions this oversubscribing, or over-inscribing, as he calls it. He says:

"Both natural and urban spaces are...'over-inscribed': everything therein resembles a rough draft, jumbled and self-contradictory. Rather than signs, what one encounters here are directions - multifarious and overlapping instructions. If there is indeed text, inscription or writing to be found here, it is in a context of conventions, intentions and order (in the sense of social order versus disorder). That space signifies is incontestable. But what it signifies is dos and don'ts - and this brings us back to power. (page 142)"

Needless to say, these manifestations of power are what many psychogeographers are interested in in the urban sphere, but this paragraph above also reminds us of how those who are moving in, around and out of the Olympic area (or London in general) will be responding directly to the urban décor placed there to control their behaviour. What the Situationists described as "fixed points and vortexes that strongly discourage entry into or exit from certain zones."

In this sense - as symbols and phenomenon of seemingly latent power - Freud may be useful for explaining how the signs in the urban environment operate on us unconsciously. His term 'overdetermination' is often used in dream analysis. It demonstrates that many different elements appearing in the manifest dream can be traced back to a smaller number of latent elements. For instance - and to be both obvious and facetious - the broken stick on the pavement, the knife in the drawer and the clipped off end of the cigar, are all manifestations of the fear of castration that might appear in this hypothetical dream.

So on that note I'll leave you with a great big phallus - London's newest, which I photographed last autumn while it was still under constructions, The Shard. It is a perfect example of the superego in operation in public space. In my slightly-more-than-amateur analysis it represents: erection (in both the architectural and male sense), power and domination over those below (see De Certeau's opening to 'Walking in the City') and 'the voice of the father' (if you don't try and seduce your mother, or kill me, you can have all this too)!

The Overdetermination of the Space of the University

Lefebvre, Henri. 1991. The Production of Space, trans. by Donald Nicholson-Smith (Oxford: Blackwell).

Sunday, 22 July 2012

The Scopophilic Psychogeographer and The Other-as-Exhibition

© Simon Bradley

This is me looking into a window of a small shop in Holbeck, Leeds. It is an area that I am particularly interested in because it is on the edge of one of those Urban Village projects which is a short distance away at the South side of Leeds railway station: Holbeck Urban Village. This photo was taken in, what I call, 'Holbeck Proper'. It is an area that is a large square of terraces that you can see here:

These terraces are gradually being pulled down by the council, although this has come to a temporary halt because they have run out of money (a local solicitor informed me). If you walk around this area, you can see the gaps left where some of the terraces were standing not long ago.

Holbeck Proper is an area of Leeds that is part of the urban regeneration programme. It is not a very well-off area and properties are selling at around £60,000 at the moment. I am not sure what the council are offering - money-wise - to those who they want to move in order to redevelop the area. I also heard that at some point the postcode will be changed to LS1 so as to include it in the Central Leeds region. The repercussions of this move are far-reaching in relation to property values and for those who will be priced out of the market in an area that is currently considered to be mostly working-class (unlike Holbeck Urban Village).

I find this a really intriguing area for many reasons. But I also have a problem with my own interest in the area. I like it, aesthetically, because it is a concentrated area of lovely back-to-back redbricks, which have a long and fascinating history in relation to urban planning. It is also interesting in regards to the demographic, with areas of white working-class and also first, second and third, generation Asian locals. I did find an online article in a US paper recently that mentioned some tensions between the youths of these two groups in the context of a discussion on two 'rival' groups in New York.

My problem is not new in the field of ethnography (not that that is my field) or in any field where one is observing another group where there may be issues relating to power in regards to representation in socio-political life. It has a long history in relation to the postcolonial other, so there is much written about it, especially in cultural theory. My own concern is with regards to my own practice, that of psychogeography. Much of the time this isn't a problem, as I am usually the one who is challenging the boundaries of power. This is mostly manifest in the classic security-guard-phenomena whereby they often seem to be ignorant of a law whereby providing you are standing on public property, you can take a photo. For my own experiences on this, see the following two blogs:

What troubles me is that while psychogeography is a psychological response to urban space that takes in all the senses, being a psychogeographer can be a very scopophilic pursuit (the love of looking). And while this isn't an issue in regards to power most of the time, in certain situations it does feel like it is. I don't mean that I am a scientist observing another culture in an anthropological sense, but that I am in someone else's space, observing it, photographing it, and commenting upon it. And there are more than ethics involved in this process of observing "ethnoscapes"(Arjun Appadurai).


Saturday, 7 July 2012

Cutting up Space, Part 2: The Laws of Form

G. Spencer Brown's fabulous book on the calculus of indications, The Laws of Form, begins thus:

The theme of this book is that a universe comes into being when a space is severed or taken apart. The skin of a living organism cuts off an inside from an outside. So does the circumference of a circle in a plane. By tracing the way we represent such a severance, we can begin to reconstruct, with an accuracy and coverage that appear almost uncanny, the basic forms underlying linguistic, mathematical, physical, and biological science, and can begin to see how the familiar laws of our own experience follow inexorably from the original act of severance.

Who would not want to continue reading this book after that enticingly fabulous introduction? Especially someone like myself who is interested in both language and urban space (specifically psychogeography and poststructuralist theory).

While the above paragraph sounds very philosophical, the book is nevertheless a mathematics-based book also, which includes Boolean algebra, the algebra of logic. This mostly appears in the form of symbols and simple formula, most of which is beyond me. However, I do understand the philosophical material, al lot of which is redolent of non-dual eastern philosophical discussion - and indeed G. Spencer Brown was a student of R. D. Laing (many of the terms Brown uses are translatable into psychoanalysis: for example, condensation and compensation). The concepts can also be applied to theories of self and other, of which Laing has written.

The book was described in its day as a mathematics of consciousness and became useful as a springboard into the theory of autopoiesis (Maturana and Varela) and in second-order observation.

The basic symbol of the theory is the cross: the 'mark' or cross'.

It is a mark that forms a boundary, separating one space from another by creating a distinction. An inside and an outside, or a 'this' and everything else that isn't 'this, if you will. It also assumes an observer of the differentiation. Various actions can then be taken that involve crossing the boundary - once or twice, crossing then returning, etc. - and the result of carrying out these transactions. This mark, the cross, when it exists creates a marked state. When it does not it is an unmarked state, or the void, or nothingness (hence it's relationship to non-dual Eastern religion).

Already you may be able to see the potential relationship with deconstruction and its interest in the binary oppositions inherent in language. Not as much as you might expect has been written about the relationship between the two, although Niklas Luhman has done so, since he is a proponent of second-order observation theory too. There is also some parergonal logic in the Brown text. As discusses by Jacques Derrida in The Truth in Painting (in very simple terms, where the framing of the artwork creates both a division but also a bridge, this concept also being applied to theory itself).

My potential interest in the book in relationship to its uses in psychogeography are around the ideas of inclusion/exclusion, directions of observation, urban planning and zoning, crossing boundaries, self and 'the other', etc. I'd be interested in any mathematical psychogeographers who might have some more thoughts about it.

I'll sign off with this brilliant passage from the notes at the end of the book:

[In order for the universe to have the function of seeing itself] evidently it must first cut itself up into at least one state which sees, and at least one other state which can be seen. In this severed and mutilated condition, whatever it sees is only partially itself. We may take it that the world undoubtedly is itself (i.e. is indistinct form itself), but, in any attempt to see itself as an object, it must, equally undoubtedly, act so as to make itself distinct from, and therefore false too, itself. In this condition it will always partly elude itself.

NB: I have a beautiful second edition copy of the book. I had wanted a copy for a long time so treated myself to one for completing my Masters. It has a great 1970s-esque cover, shown below:

Please click here for Part 1 of this blog: Cutting up Space, Part 1: L = S - [l + c + i = e + p]