Castles in the Air

In a university town on the west coast of America, tents are floating in the sky. First one, then another is lofted into the air, each held up by its own rig of white balloons. In front of of the plaza’s main building – a grandiloquent bit of collegiate neoclassicism – a banner reads OUR SPACE in letters fifteen feet high. It too is held up by balloons, a kind of sky-writing that won’t disperse.

Nearby, a small bivouac of books has already popped up, each volume propped open on the ground like a child’s line-drawing of a tent. 

Where did it come from, this wonderland architecture of floating dwellings and drink me miniaturism? 

What can it mean?


Looking at those airborne tents, at the encampment of books spread through Sproul Plaza by Occupy Berkeley protesters, the first thing that came to mind was Constant Nieuwenhuys. Constant, as he called himself, joined the Situationist International in Paris in the 1950s. Berkeley’s weird manifestations wouldn’t have looked out of place in one of the designs for ‘New Babylon’, the theoretical city that Constant conceived and planned between 1957 and 1974. New Babylon was a concept for a post-capitalist (and anti-Corbusian) version of urban living with all repetitive manual labour automated out of existence, all land and resources held in common for the better realization of homo ludens, playing man.

As a way of life, homo ludens will demand, firstly, that he responds to his need for playing, for adventure, for mobility, as well as all the conditions that facilitate the free creation of his own life. [Before New Babylon], the principal activity of man had been the exploration of his natural surroundings. Homo ludens himself will seek to transform, to recreate, those surroundings, that world, according to his new needs.

Constant saw his new city not as a fixed structure, but as a network. It would bring into being what he, and other situationists like his more famous colleague Guy Debord, had taken to calling ‘unitary urbanism’: the continual recreation of the lived environment by the collective activity of its inhabitants. In Hausmann’s Paris, urban redevelopment had become an overtly military project. (Later, Thatcher’s London with its reinforced flowerpots and anti-car-bomb benches purified the style into an architecture of siege.) In New Babylon, urban architecture would instead become playful. Creativity, rather than war or work, would be the principle of construction.

But Constant quarrelled with Debord. He was less willing to tolerate those who saw the Situationist International as a movement within which they could continue to produce individual works of art. When he finally left the group, in 1960, New Babylon went with him. ‘The urbanists,’ he wrote to Debord, ‘are trying to find solutions which are not taking account of a new vision of life… You know as well as I do that we can’t expect anything from our painter friends…’ 


In Britain, in the twilight years of the last Conservative government, a loose group of writers and artists began to look for new ways in which to understand, perhaps even to affect, the transformation of urban space. Against the further dedication of the city to an ethic of economic necessity, the Situationist International seemed to offer an adaptable and intelligent aesthetic of resistance. After a while there emerged a constellation of practices that are now often grouped under the rubric of ‘psychogeography’, a term Debord had coined in part for its ‘rather pleasing vagueness’.

At the heart of Situationist psychogeography and its revivified form in 1990s London was what Debord had called ‘drifting’ – in French, dérive – defined as ‘a technique of passage through varied ambiances’:

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. 

What dérive allowed you to do was re-map the city, so that your presence in particular spaces was no longer predicted and governed by an approach to urban zoning based solely on economic policy. The novelist Will Self, who in 2007 published a book of his various walks under the title Psychogeography, says more or less the same thing: ‘that by walking you can decouple yourself from the human geography that so defines contemporary urbanity.’ And here is Iain Sinclair at the beginning of his Lights Out for the Territory, a touchstone of the British psychogeographical literature, describing a similar process: ‘The notion was to cut a crude V into the sprawl of the city, to vandalise dormant energies by an act of ambulant signmaking.’ 

Constant, as a Situationist, also liked the idea of dérive. In fact, it suggested the first name for the imaginary city which became New Babylon: Dériville. But Constant’s drifting followed a different current from Debord’s. Constant liked to take walkie-talkies and couple different points in the city by means of technical communications. He built models of city blocks which would exist as pure reticulated volume gossamer-strung from point to point. He understood, more fully even than Debord, that dérive wasn’t something you could do on your own. If Debordian drift was an abandonment of the social – a messianic call in the face of which all your prior relations had to be dropped – then Constantine drift was something quite different. For Constant, what was important wasn’t the walking, but the new network of social relations that the walking produced, and what you could do with that network. His dérive was less a vector of movement than a kind of psychic infrastructure, less a line of force than an electrified web.


British writers adapted pretty easily to the idea of the psychogeographical dérive; although it might be more accurate to say that they adapted the dérive to their own ideas. What was Debord’s wine-soaked wandering, after all, if not a garlicky, gallic-y version of the Sunday stroll? And it was certainly from Debord that the popular British versions of situationism and psychogeography took their bearings. That fact helps to explain something unexpected that happened in the rediscovery of Situationism, and in its transplantation to Britain.

It became Romantic. 

You can see this quite clearly in Self’s selection of his walking forbears, especially De Quincey and Poe. You can see it in Sinclair’s trailing in the footsteps of John Clare, or in Peter Ackroyd’s fascination with the poet Thomas Chatterton. You can see it, above all, in the psychogeographers’ apotheosis of William Blake. The psychogeographical impulse, transported in time and space, activated a current of Romanticism that still runs deep in English culture, showing how urban fabric, like pastoral landscape or wild country, could be made to arrange itself according to the interpretative optic of an adventurous and leisured observer. In this residually Romantic mode, the walk becomes a way to glorify the reasoning mind through an encounter with the sublime, the difference being that the encounter which threatens the mind’s coherence – the encounter that demands the intervention of reason to preserve psychological integrity – is not an encounter with the mountain crag or ocean squall, but with the fathomless interconnectedness of the occult city. 

Space thus comes to be organised around the author who moves through it, and this urban world is never the world of working, moving, thinking people. The world, in fact, turns out to be something quite like a book. It isn’t something to be participated in, and you can’t establish a connection with it except through other books, through myths repeated and recycled and revised. It’s just there to be represented. And yet, without the sense of a wider connection, the dérive goes the way of all novelty. Someone prints up a guide to ephemeral waste lands. Tour parties muscle in. Connection, like syntax, flickers away into associative thinking and a thousand Baedeker raids from Birkbeck to the ley-lines of Stoke Newington. 

In the process, the real occluded forces of desire and ideology, the operations of unfettered capital and the unconscious life, get recoded into pagan cosmology and Masonic ritual. Ideology is misdescribed in its caricature form, conspiracy. Nothing wrong with this as metaphor. Yet something disappears. An idea that began in the conviction that a lived environment could be reshaped around the whole being of the society dwelling in it dissipates into a Romantic paranoia which arranges and maps the world’s signs around its own centrality.

Another Romantic walker, pausing above Tintern Abbey, felt the presence of something ‘far more deeply interfused’ between the human and the non-human:

Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
And the round ocean and the living air,
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man –

Wordsworth – this version of Wordsworth, yearning to ‘connect / The landscape with the quiet of the sky’ – would have understood the symbolism of a dwelling borne aloft on an updraft of collective will. But even Wordsworth came to exchange his early revolutionary sympathies for the practicalities of the civil list pension. So too, British psychogeography has pruned away political content, grafting only the shadow of an idea on to the wilting stem of Romanticism. 


Here in England, the most prominent occupation of public space in the recent wave of popular dissent began in the yard of St Paul’s Cathedral on Saturday 15 October last year. The protestors who took up residence there had originally planned to occupy Paternoster Square, the site of the London Stock Exchange and privately owned property of Mitsubishi Estate Company Ltd. Finding the square sealed off, they pitched their tents round the corner at St. Paul’s, where the camp remained until its eviction and dispersal by police in the early hours of Tuesday 28 February. One surprising aspect of the media buzz surrounding the occupation, to me at least, was the absence of certain voices who might have been expected to respond with particular vigour. The extraordinary symbolic presence in the City of London of an embedded resistance to the triune power of church, state, and brokerage seemed to demand a response from those writers who had made that confluence their own beat. Here were the BBC and Sky. Here was the rolling news. Where were they?

They were walking. 

They were limbering up for Olympic park jeremiads; they were trudging across Clapham Common or London Fields. They were on the move, because that – according to Debord – is how the spaces created in conformity to capitalism’s ethic of production can best be subverted. They were reading the signs of decline in the city, while the decline elsewhere was being felt. As the tents went up and the protest settled in, they remained mobile, because walking is political

If you’re booted up for dérive, the encampment seems like just another non-place along the way. But while the psychogeographers were lacing their boots, the Occupy movement was slowly changing how millions of people thought of a single public space. One remembered, suddenly, that staying still can be political too, provided you can persuade enough people to stay still together in one place, provided the numbers involved are enough to change the nature of the place itself, and – the greater gamble – provided enough of us still possess the ability to imagine uses of space that can resist, however briefly, the more authoritarian demands of economic governance.

There are, perhaps, two stories here, which may be parts of the same story. One, or one part, is about a neglected schism in Situationism itself which has had heavy consequences for the way in which we think about the relationship between writing and the sense of place. In this story, Debord and Constant may as well represent the two possibilities. Where Debord is a devotee of the vector, of the moving point, Constant represents the wider totality. He, rather than Debord, is the patron saint of the kind of network now emergent in cities around the world.

The other story, or part of the story, has to do with what might be called the invasiveness of psychogeography. Like many imported species, the Debordian account of the relation between space, thought and politics has driven out some otherwise well-adapted local strains. What’s in danger of being lost as we converge on Hawksmoor churches and the London Stone is a legacy of political action that extends from the Levellers to the Labour movement of the 1930s and on to Greenham Common and Claremont Road. 

It was eighty years ago this month that a Lancashire hiker named Benny Rothman led a small army of ramblers up from Hayfield in the Peak District to the top of Kinder Scout, a high plateau owned and operated as a shooting moor by the Duke of Devonshire. The Duke sent his gamekeepers to chase the ramblers off. A few of the ramblers were arrested. When one of the gamekeepers was injured, the ramblers stopped to help. That act of peaceful mass trespass was in part responsible for the successful passage in 1939 of the first Access to Mountains Act, and laid the groundwork for later efforts to open up the countryside. It wasn’t a dérive. It was an act of networked awareness undertaken by a strong collective movement. 

But mass trespass isn’t the only available model. While the Lancashire ramblers were disturbing the Duke of Devonshire’s grouse, the adherents of the Mass-Observation movement were wandering British cities in search of a similarly transformative relationship between social life and the spaces in which that life takes shape. These exemplars of protest and inquiry make it possible to think of the British Occupy movement within a long tradition of dissent that reaches back to a time well before Situationism and the événements of the late 1960s.

What now seems to be emerging is a new kind of network-mindedness: a way of thinking, fostered by always-on communications, which reveals the inadequacy of Debordian drift in resisting the corporate mismanagement of daily life. 

True, no network can exist except as the composite of a number of individual vectors and connections. But in the present arrangement of things, it makes sense to rethink our engagement with space and history in ways that attend to networks themselves. In a few places we’ve already begun to think less as single bodies moving through space than as collectives finding the will and the means to change that space in new ways. It takes a collective will to put tents in the sky, and an act of imaginative community to conjure a field of canvas from a rucksack full of paperbacks. 

But perhaps we need to see, too, how these new ways of transforming space are also ways of transforming historical time. In their imaginative expansiveness, no less than in their transformation of squares and plazas, such projects link contemporary dissent to a history of resistance which is itself both domestic and international. Quixotic or utopian as it must at times have seemed, that is a history that local protest movements would do well to remember, better still to invoke.