I'm Kate Risheill. Welcome to my blog on writing.

Beyond Setting: Psychogeography in Literature


In college, I took a class on gothic literature. We read works from the Victorian period through to contemporary works like World War Z. It was in that class that I first came across the term "psychogeography." Psychogeography "... describes the effect of a geographical location on the emotions and behaviors of individuals." The concept was first formalized by Guy Debord in the 1950s as part of the Situationist movement. Debord and the Situationists drifted around 1950s Paris, observing the ways in which the city was changing. This wandering, this dérive, or drift, allowed them to explore the city in a playful way, taking note of what neighborhoods and architecture inspired positive feelings and which did not. Psychogeography is particularly concerned with the urban landscape, in examining how "... the landscape is in part producing us" or at least producing certain feelings within us (Kent). Within my college course, we discussed the role of psychogeography, specifically the role of cities and architecture, in gothic literature. 

Cities have their own personalities, their own quirks and histories. Peter Ackroyd's writings on cities in his books London: The Biography and Venice: Pure City explore the histories, people, and unique cultures of these two different cities. Each city has different neighborhoods with different architecture, each eliciting its own feelings. If you believe in the concept of psychogeography, these different settings have different emotional and psychological effects upon the people that enter those spaces.

In my gothic literature class, we explored Alan Moore's From Hell and the concept of a darker, gothic psychogeography. From Hell is a graphic novel, following the Jack the Ripper murders, that has a fascination with dark psychogeography. Moore imagines the architecture, in particular the churches, of Nicholas Hawksmoor as "Theistic Satanism," even going so far as to represent Hawksmoor himself as "... a devil-worshipper terrorizing London with occult architecture." Though taken to an extreme, Moore explores how setting and architecture can affect people in dark ways.

We see this time and time again in haunted house stories, where the house is less a setting for the horror, but is instead an active participant in the horror. In gothic fiction, the setting adds to the general building of dread. The horrible things that happen in gothic stories often take place in liminal spaces or spaces that are otherwise unsettling. The setting at once both inspires the actions of the people who inhabit those spaces and is shaped by those actions. The relationship between people and spaces within the theory of psychogeography is a symbiotic one. People create the urban landscape, but the landscape can equally be said to affect people.

While I certainly find psychogeography to be interesting, why should you care? By making settings more dynamic, writers have the opportunity to create added depth and dimension within their stories. Writers can tease out themes, can create environments that play into a character's desires or fears. By paying attention to the ways in which we move through space and interact with it, we can consciously create spaces within our stories have emotional and psychological resonance. When settings are done well, they transcend mere backdrop and exert a palpable influence over the characters and events of a story.

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