D is for Psychogeography

| March 10, 2014

My old mentor and friend Frank used to say that the most vital educative experience you can embark upon was to go someplace outside of your comfort zone. “Go some place you don’t know and deal with it.” His point was that you can’t really grow if you stay comfortable and safe. It is by exposing ourselves to the unknown that we learn more about the world, as well as ourselves.

Well, this week I traveled to Los Angeles for a conference on language learning at UCLA. The hotel was arranged by the conference since it was “near campus”. I was on my department’s tab, and I had no legitimate justification for renting a car. So the only way to explore was by foot.  I arrived on Thursday afternoon and I left the hotel to see some of the city. So I walked… and walked… and walked. It’s a well-established trope that LA is not a pedestrian-friendly urban environment, and very spread out, but both truisms are truer than I can adequately illustrate. The hotel I was staying in was situated at the base of a colossal mound of earth that was more than a hill, not quite a mountain. (English really does have room for more words describing geological formations). Atop the hill/mountain sat the Getty Museum, a pristine beacon of modernist architecture that somehow manages to evoke a timeless Mediterranean aesthetic. I’d been there before, a decade and a half earlier. It’s heavenly, and I don’t mean that hyperbolically – it’s a transcendantly placid museum complex where the beauty of the setting itself eclipses the content of any collection it could hold.

Having arrived from a still wintery New York March, I donned my shorts and took a few minutes to breathe in the warm, dry desert air. I was eager to ascend the hills, but Los Angeles had other plans for me – an unexpectedly circuitous journey lay ahead. What unfolded in my urban mis/adventure might constitute something akin to Jacques Debord’s “derivé”:

In psychogeography, a dérive is an unplanned journey through a landscape, usually urban, on which the subtle aesthetic contours of the surrounding architecture and geography subconsciously direct the travellers, with the ultimate goal of encountering an entirely new and authentic experience.

In a dérive one or more persons during a certain period drop their relations, their work and leisure activities, and all their other usual motives for movement and action, and let themselves be drawn by the attractions of the terrain and the encounters they find there. Chance is a less important factor in this activity than one might think: from a dérive point of view cities have psychogeographical contours, with constant currents, fixed points and vortexes that strongly discourage entry into or exit from certain zones. But the dérive includes both this letting-go and its necessary contradiction: the domination of psychogeographical variations by the knowledge and calculation of their possibilities. (Debord, “Theory of the Derivé,” 1956.)

As I set out on my afternoon aesthetic odyssey, I tried at first to stick to the normal urban markers of ‘safe pedestrianism’: sidewalks, crosswalks, any kind of paved way. But this soon proved untenable, and I found myself hopping tenuously through brush, dirt mounds, and desert foliage, lest I find myself stuck on a 4-lane highway like the hapless amphibian protagonist of Frogger.  LA isn’t just a pedestrian-wary urban environment, it inflicts a looming menace on the unprotected biped. For the unsuspecting flaneur, violence is always a step away.

If the constructed infrastructure of the city dissolved magically, my hike would have been a delightful hour – a brisk walk up the mountain. But between me and the beacon on the hill lay countless fences, concrete walls, freeways, and throughways where human communication is conducted exclusively through blinkers and horns. What I hoped would be a whimsical promenade from point A to B became a crash course in alien alphabets.

Once I successfully navigated the canyons of Sepulveda and found safe passage under the monstrous 405, I arrived at the north basin of Mount Getty, where a retro-futurist mirage awaited me: a tram! Tram’s are such strange transports – confined to the likes of theme parks and airports. While I actually hoped to climb the remaining way on my own feet, alas, this was forbidden! One must submit oneself to the iron-railed chariot to ascend Mount Getty. In my head I heard Wendy Carlos’ retro-synth Beethoviana as we wound our way up the hill – myself and a group of Chinese tourists eagerly snapping pictures of themselves the whole way up. What is this world?

As the tram arrived to the mountain top, time stopped. I was entering the sacred gates of this earthly heaven, overlooking the disjunct madness of the city below. From here, my words fail me – I will surrender to the image…


Inevitably, time asserted itself and the museum grounds were closed. Thus began my journey back. It was essentially the same experience all over again, but this time I knew what to expect. I was ready to deploy my nascent mastery of the terrain, which held no more menacing surprises on my return trip. (I conquered you!)

Psychogeographic Postscript: When the Landscape Consumes You

The tectonic geography of California has a particular unpredictable volatility to it that we don’t live with here. All of our natural catastrophes come from the sky or the ocean, but in California the earth can open up and swallow you. There was an earthquake in LA while I was staying there – one that measured 3.2 on the Richter. I had a dream that night while I rested there in my hotel at the foot of the mountains – these mountains were actually volcanoes. I was with what I think were friends, none of whose faces I can place, and we found ourselves in the middle of a beautiful, fantastically horrifying eruption. The lava seemed a safe distance away, and so we felt inclined to inspect this natural wonder, but all of a sudden it started flowing like a river and we realized we wouldn’t be able to outrun it.  The only option was to brace ourselves in some structure or safe elevation. After I unwittingly melted my shoes, I ran for the safety of a large truck – the very thing that had inflicted terror on me earlier in the (waking) day, as a way to protect me from nature’s wrath. But it soon became clear that the lava was going to penetrate the roof of the vehicle and there was no sanctuary from the earth’s beautiful terror…

And that’s when I awoke.