Estrangement

 “And so it was, on the fine and pleasant afternoon of Saturday 8th April 1995, that I found myself trying to walk in through the front entrance of the Barbican Arts Complex and being treated like a Bogside bomb-carrier.  This sensation is not uncommon in the new City.  It’s how they want you to feel, uncomfortable: the stranger in town.  They want you to carry a card, with a photograph and number, that defines you as some sort of non-person lowlife.  You don’t belong.  You’re wearing the wrong clothes.  You’re walking with no destination.  You don’t have the credentials that will get you inside.”

So writes Iain Sinclair in Lights Out for the Territory.  His description of alienation and of being an outsider in the city chimes strangely with that of Nazneen.  The contrast is revealing: Sinclair is affronted by the exclusion.  He is able to analyse it in context and to present the disenfranchisement as a kind of manipulation.  It’s how they want you to feel.   

Sinclair demonstrates that for the psychogeographer alienation is presented as a game.  It is something to be sought, manipulated and challenged, not an intrinsic state of being, and he seeks hostile landscapes as a way to facilitate his exploration of ‘the creativity born of disorientation and his own profound sense of loss’. As with many other psychogeographers, Sinclair’s push towards the exploration of in-between spaces and urban voids demonstrates that the appeal of these places to the dériviste is that they do not require him to adopt an antagonistic or antithetical position in order to discover a different side to the city. In an attempt to be able to observe the city as an outsider they must exile themselves from it. within or against the existing societal, political and economic structures.  It demonstrates an awareness of the individual as an economic and political being with agency whose actions are meaningful within the urban realm.  The psychogeographers’ engagement with landscapes in which they attempt to escape social roles in turn shows a degree of both belonging and of consciousness of their own influence.  It is an acknowledgement, in other words, that ‘accounts of spatiality are not as abstract and generalised as they may claim: they are freighted with their conditions of production and social positioning of the producers.’

Even with central urban environments Sinclair’s wanderings within the city demonstrate a kind of contrived exile which is at odds with his degree of situated knowledge and capacity to carry out these explorations at will.  As Bonnett observes in his paper on the artificiality of psychogeography,  ‘What is most intriguing about Sinclair’s travel narratives is their ambivalence‘ (emphasis original).  He traces the development of psychogeography from the Lettrist and Situationist Internationals, who performed a transgressive wandering around and through the many barriers, forbidden zones and distinct atmospheres of the city, which in turn evolved from the tradition of the flâneurs who roamed aimlessly around the streets and recorded their impressions. 

The idea that meandering through the streets can somehow give an unmediated view of the city is loaded with pretensions to naivety. Indeed, it can go to the other extreme: speaking of Joyce’s Ulysses, a key text in the analysis of the changing representation of cities in the twentieth century,  Raymond Williams says that ‘in a way there is no longer a city, there is only a man walking through it’. Bonnett, who himself has a background in psychogeography, concludes that ‘To conflate psychogeography with transgression was misleading’ and ends by recognising the position of comfort and privilege from which the pursuit emanates. 

“Nazneen, hobbling and halting, began to be aware of herself.  Without a coat, without a suit, without a white face, without a destination.  A leafshake of fear – or was it excitement? – passed through her legs. 

But they [the passers-by] were not aware of her.  In the next instant she knew it.  They could not see her any more than she could see God.  They knew that she existed (just as she knew that He existed) but unless she did something, waved a gun, halted the traffic, they would not see her.  She enjoyed this thought.”

Contrast this passage with that from Lights Out for the Territory.  Nazneen is a stranger in a way that Sinclair can never be.  Her sense of not-belonging is not something that is pushed upon her but which is inherent to her identity, and she walks in the city she is aware of everything that Sinclair describes: of being wrongly dressed, of having no purpose, of having no right to enter, of being on the outside. The sense of not-belonging, of being exiled from the city, is not something Nazneen is manipulated into feeling by the implementation of artificial barriers; it is an inherent part of her presence as an individual.  She is wearing the wrong clothes, walking without a destination, but not through choice or some deliberate attempt to undermine or transgress social structures.  She is simply introducing herself into the wider urban environment, and in doing so is a rogue element.  As such she is able to exist outside the environment she observes and with a certain kind of invisibility.  For Nazneen the landscape exists, but she is erased against and within it. 

Iain Sinclair, Lights Out for the Territory: 9 Excursions in the Secret History of London (London: Granta Books, 1997)

Alistair Bonnett, ‘The Dilemmas of Radical Nostalgia in British Psychogeography’, Theory, Culture & Society, 26 (2009), 45–70

Liz Oakley-Brown and Anne M. Cronin, ‘Urban Spaces: Gender, Genre, Mediation’, Feminist Review, 2015, 1–5