The Paradox of the Derive

Guy Debord’s writings bring up psychological perceptions of the environment and manifests his ideas through his development of the derive. The derive itself is a paradox, combining subjective and objective methods of observation and interpretation. It emphasizes entrances and exits, something I find surprisingly astute since those are the things we look for most often in an urban setting.

In his writing, Debord cites Chombart de Lauwe, who notes that “an urban neighborhood is determined not only by geographical and economic factors, but also by the image that its inhabitants and those of other neighborhoods have of it.” I found this point extremely poignant (and somewhat foreshadowing for 1958), especially in our modern image-based society where the image is sometimes often, more regarded than the physical subject. Don’t we fuss over our Instagram photos, Facebook feeds, and tweets, paying more attention to the comments than the subjects of our posts? When we travel, do we not obsess over getting that “perfect” photo to share with our friends rather than trying to enjoy ourselves?

Another citation Debord makes comes from Karl Marx: “Men can see nothing around them that is not their own image; everything speaks to them of themselves. Their very landscape is alive.” It reinforces the subjective nature of the derive, suggesting that we’re always projecting ourselves onto whatever we observe and that our observations are always somewhat flawed. The derive attempts to make us more aware of these tendencies to help make the conclusions we draw from our observations more objective. Debord argues that a derive conducted by several small groups of two or three would be even more productive to this end since they can cross-check each other’s impressions.

Debord’s “Two Accounts of the Derive” highlights the difficulties of starting and maintaining a derive according to the guidelines he details in “Theory of the Derive”. It also uncovers an important shortcoming of the derive as a means for documenting the psychogeographical articulations of the city. The Lettrists Debord describes all seem to be fairly affluent, having the time to wander about to conduct their derive. Although last week Edgar Allen Poe demonstrated that those who occupy lower social classes can engage in the derive, I wonder if it inherently excludes certain working classes from conducting their own derives since they will inevitably find that their responsibilities limit their ability to set aside their “usual motives” for movement and action.

One last point I found interesting is that in both accounts is that the Lettrists are active urban participants in their psychogeographical explorations. In a striking contrast to Poe’s piece where the narrator follows his subject unseen, the Lettrists engage in conversation with the people they encounter, even having to evade their own pursuers. It ties back into the notion of the derive as a paradox. Does the Lettrists' participation limit the objectivity of their accounts? Is it possible to observe an activity while partaking in it?

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