Wilfried Hou Je Bek on Tue, 13 Aug 2002 17:44:07 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> pedestrian culture through the ages

after research into the socio-political aspects of
walking for the 'generative psychogeography' project
this article was written. comments welcome.




In the long history of pedestrian endeavours like
constrained walks, psychogeography and peripatetic
drifts 'Captain' Robert Barclay Allardic stands out as
the one who had to suffer most. In the summer of 1806
Barclay successfully betted that he could walk one
mile in each of 1000 successive hours. This incredible
challenge was met with great interest of the London
public, whose fascination had less to do with
admiration for the severe sleep deprivation and
physical exhaustion Barclay had to go through than
with the reward of 16.000 guineas that was at stake,
320 times the average year wages.   

Captain Barclays extraordinary achievement took place
in what is now regarded as the heyday of
'pedestrianism', a period in which these kind of crazy
long distance walks were a popular spectator sport.
And a welcome occasion for gambling. Barclay himself
once lost 1.000 guineas on the bet that he could walk
90 miles in 21 hours. Foster Powell was another
pedestrian who became well known after he had walked
the 402 miles between London & Leeds in just 5 days
and 15 hours. 
It can't go unnoticed that Barclay often interrupted
his rigid training-program for boozing. He died in
1854 after being kicked by a horse.

Examples of constrained walks, of which Barclays one
was the most heroic, are nowadays to be found in
abundance. Husk.org for instance did one in which they
walked from North to South London without crossing the
borders of a column in the A-Z. The IAA, the Institute
of Applied Technology, generates constrained walks by
way of their iSee application that plots routes
through Manhattan streets which are [still] without a
surveillance camera. La Monte Young's Fluxus piece
'draw a straight line & follow it' constrained walking
into a new dimension in 1960.      

The constrained walk is also the dominant method
behind the writings of Iain Sinclair. For his 'Lights
out over the Territory' Sinclair walked large scale
V's, X's and circles juxtaposed over the city's street
grid. The gonzo reports of these strolls are
supplemented by a wide range of unbelievable obscure
facts that are the product of Sinclair's habit of
having read every second hand book that was ever on
sale in greater London for the last 20 years. While
making his way through the city, the scenery of
streets, buildings, unexpected encounters and crowds
evoke memories from Sinclair's past and from books
long forgotten of ever having read them. Sinclair adds
his psyche in the geography and after this stream of
thought canalised into his highly compressed,
information dense, style we have got the most perfect
of psychogeographical writers at work today. 

But Sinclair also takes his place in the ancient
tradition of peripatetic writers.   
Peripatetic, from the Greek 'peripatein' = 'to walk
about' or 'peripatos' = 'covered walk', originally
refers to the teaching method of Aristotle. 
To clear his thinking Aristotle lectured while he and
his students were walking in circles through the
Lyceum. Later it would come to mean 'travelling
especially on foot'. Scholars studying Victorian
literature are very fond of the term as they often
diagnose writers as being a 'peripatetic'. Many
writers from that period discovered that making walks
helped them crystallize their unconnected thoughts
into coherent language. Walking and thinking/writing
became indistinguishable. Edgar Allen Poe, William
Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge are all known
to prepare themselves for writing by explorations
through "such knotty problems of alleys, such
enigmatic entries, and such sphynx's riddles of
streets without thoroughfares" as Thomas de Quincey,
the archetype of the pedestrian-writer wrote. All
these writers also have in common is that they used a
lot of drugs, it's hard to say how this folds into the
peripatetic line of argument. There are however
countless other writers who walked to write but stayed
far away from drugs: Robert Walser, Henry David
Thoreau, Immanuel Kant and Pope Gregorius XVI to name
just a few. The latter was accustomed to making long
walks to help him solve problems but as superstition
said that popes can't go by foot trough Rome because
it will bring bad luck, he had himself transported to
the countryside every day. Victor Hugo reports in his
diary (November 1845) that Gregorius liked to make
pace, "it's a curious thing to see this eighty year
old pope pas through the fields in his white garments
and his red velvet hat, followed by a procession of
gasping bishops and prelates".
Perhaps the enigmatic connection between intellectual
activity and walking can be explained as the
intoxication of one's own endorphins: runners high as
writers doping.    

Baudelaire used the work and biographies of the before
mentioned British writers to arrive at the his image
of the flaneur, the distinguished pedestrian slacker.
Largely through Walter Benjamin's articles on the
subject the tortoise speed of the flaneur has become
an icon in the 'time war' against the accelerating
rush of western civilization. In reality the flaneur
portrayed as an agent concerned with socio-political
problems is largely Benjamin's own interpretation of
the actual facts. Baudelaire's flaneurs were stoned
out of their heads from hashish. It was under the
influence of this drugs that they took so long to go
nowhere and found so much hilarious interest in even
the most boring aspects of things. 

Protest marches are the most obvious link between
urban pedestrianism & politics, but historically the
most powerful links between the two can be found in
the exploration of nature. The adventures Thoreau
undertook as a recluse in the Concorde for instance or
the British eccentrics and vagrants who, travelling by
means of their 'shank's pony', in the 18th century
sought to commit the new crime of trespassing in
resistance to the privatisation of common lands. This
was in the same time that "Foreigners were struck by
the size of Englishwomen's feet, a consequence of the
English addiction to walking" as Donna Landry explains
in her brilliant essay 'Radical Walking'. The most
prolific example however remain the German

The Wandervögel were a youth movement without a
central organization and without leaders other then
charismatic personalities who were delegated command
over the group by the group. In the pedagogue Gustav
Wyneken the movement found it's main spokesperson. In
1913 Wyneken proclaimed the ideas behind the
Wandervögel by stating that the youth had the right to
live according to their own ideas, outside the rules
of society in which there were born involuntarily.
Bored with the industrial artificiality of urban life,
disgusted by the hypocrisy of life they fled into wild
nature. they drifted for days, sometimes weeks on end
through the woods. They lived on the food nature
provided, in the evening the partook in excessive
community singing around bonfires. The nights were
dedicated to the first detours in the field of
sexuality. Youth psycho-navigating through forests
without parental supervision was shocking enough by
itself, that these groups contained both sexes was a
outright provocation against Prussian prudery. These
'entartete' walks promised more moral disintegration
than most adults thought society should tolerate. But
the Wandervögel were no activists, with the rise of
the NSDAP some people hoped that they would adopt a
more political stance but they refused to talk
politics beyond their own personal freedom. The
movement was eventually dissolved by the Nazi's in
Curiously enough Walter Benjamin who was to become the
great interpreter of the flaneur in opposition against
the commercialisation of life in the booming
metropolises is known to have been involved in the
forest romanticism and the Gnostic rural rebellion of
the Wandervögel.          

The Wandervögel took their desires for reality and
followed them into unknown territories, it's that
quality which turns them into psychogeographers in the
classical sense. From all desires at work in the human
brain the (male) sex drive is one of the most
powerful, often overriding common sense in the
construction of individual behaviour. The promiscuity
found in inner-city cruising, a dérive by libido, is
only the most visible of all these sexual
psycho-peripatetic activities.  
Testosterone driven mobility is by far the most
occurring form of psychogeography in every day life.
When turning to literature we find all these things
embodied in Henry Miller. There are many facets about
the compulsive drifts Miller made through Paris and
New York. His walks were not just a desperate search
for a booty call; only when making daylong walks
Miller felt he was unchained by the disciplinary
customs of ordinary life. Walking in his mind became
synonymous with freedom and freedom he sought after
more then anything else. The noises of the streets,
his random encounters with strangers from every
thinkable social class and background are the
lifeblood of his writing, they provided him with
material to write about and at the same time he had to
feel the energy of the street to be able to write as
well. The honesty which is the key value in Millers
books, manic recollections of his drifts, were
considered a threat to the mental health of the public
and consequently banned for over 20 years. Like the
Wandervögel Miller saw his right to express his
personal desires in the way he seemed fit put under
stress. Involuntarily Miller became a political

Also on the level of crossing the invisible borders of
social stratification, such a strong motivation behind
psychogeography, Miller showed the need for drifting
to overcome our own self evident truths. Trough his
walks Miller learned to appreciate the way the Jewish
community dealt with interpersonal relationships,
something that got the anti-Semitism of his parents
out of his system. Miller later became a great lover
of Jewish cantoral music. 

Wilfried Hou Je Bek 


Captain Barclay



Radical Walking, by Donna Landry

Iain Sinclair

Flaneur Culture


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