A Psychogeographical Exploration of Disappearance and Dis/Orientation in London’s East End

Hannah Lili Boettcher, University of Western Australia

Disorientation is a prerequisite for psychogeography. Only when lost in a city, exploring its streets, and drifting around aimlessly, does the psychogeographer gain a deeper insight into that city. This is not the flâneur’s dignified stroll along Parisian boulevards, but a rather more frantic and at times radical search for those urban locations that might have vanished or have been obscured over the years. The ways in which authors and artists address this disorientation, I would suggest, goes hand in hand with the radical changes that have taken place, for example, in the East End of London, or more specifically Spitalfields, which is the focus of this article. I am particularly interested in those parts of the city and its inhabitants that remain unnoticed at first glance. The hidden, unknown metropolis and its seemingly absent characters and places, which several psychogeographers seek to discover, form the impetus for Iain Sinclair’s and Rachel Lichtenstein’s Rodinsky’s Room (1999) and the audio walk conducted by Canadian artist Janet Cardiff called The Missing Voice (Case Study B) (1999).1 As I will show, disappearance and dis/orientation are very clearly linked in these works.2

Psychogeography has its roots in Paris in the 1950s but it enjoyed a renaissance in London in the 1990s. Since then, its popularity has been unabated, and it has attracted famous contemporary London-based writers such as Iain Sinclair, Peter Ackroyd, and Will Self, to name just a few. Although primarily a literary movement, psychogeography is a rather open term that can be applied to a number of different writing styles as well as other forms of artistic expression. According to Guy Debord, one of the founders of the Situationist International (SI) (1957-72), which invented and promoted psychogeography in Paris in the 1950s, it can best be described as ‘[t]he study of the precise laws and specific effects of the geographical environment, whether consciously organized or not, on the emotions and behavior of individuals’.3 Hence, this practice is a way of researching the impact of urban place on the behaviours of people, which is often expressed through literary texts.4

Maps constitute a crucial tool of psychogeography as they have a very significant meaning in situationist theory, which deals inter alia with the afoot-exploration of the city. Due to the fact that the dérive5 constituted a novel approach to appropriating the city, ‘a new means of representing space on paper’ was needed.6 Thus, Debord and his Danish colleague Asger Jorn designed ‘alternative maps of Paris’ that represented ‘the surreal disorientation of their drifts around Paris by scattering the pieces of [the] map and the arrows showing their routes’.7.)) The aim of this situationist cartography was to expose the spectator to the city in a state of disorder while also simultaneously excavating ‘the strange logic that lay beneath its surface’.8 This paradoxical desire to disorient the viewer differed from the conventional usage of maps as tools for swiftly orienting oneself in the metropolis by gaining an overview from the bird’s eye perspective. Through these situationist maps, the structure of ‘the city was reconstructed in the imagination, piecing together an experience of space that was actually terrestrial, fragmented, subjective, temporal, and cultural’.9 The psychogeographical map was detached from its conventional function and actually served an antithetical aim: to get lost, to become disoriented. However, psychogeographers have long used these cartographical delineations not only to plot their real wanderings through the city, but also to trace their imagined trips, to encode a representation of reality no longer true to scale.10 In ‘Introduction to a Critique of Urban Geography’ (1955), Debord mentions the popular method of ‘arbitrarily transposing maps of two different regions’as exemplified by a friend who walked the Harz region of Germany ‘while blindly following the directions of a map of London’.11 In this case, disorientation clearly provided orientation of sorts, yet it was the act of wandering the city that was decisive, not the destination. Psychogeography’s preoccupation with the urban landscape and the means of rendering the experience of it in a medium such as literature makes this practice an ideal approach for tackling the issue of dis/orientation in the metropolis.

Rodinsky’s Room, co-written by artist, author and oral historian Rachel Lichtenstein and writer and psychogeographer Iain Sinclair, is a story of disappearance and disorientation. It is the story of the vanished eponym David Rodinsky, an Orthodox Jew who led a solitary life in the attic above an abandoned synagogue in the East End of London. But this is also the story of a lost space, the Jewish East End, an enclave that no longer exists in the modern city. The dislocation is twofold, as Rodinsky’s mysterious disappearance also mirrors the vanished Jewish East End.

In 1969, Rodinsky disappeared unnoticed and without a trace from his home in Spitalfields, East London, which had once been the heart of the Jewish Eastern European immigrant community. Only in 1980 was his abandoned room unlocked and found covered in thick layers of dust, untouched for the past eleven years. The attic was full of books, maps highlighting apparently random walks through London (which in the end turned out to have a purpose) and cabalistic diagrams. The state of the room, which implied that its owner was a compulsive hoarder, as well as the eye-witness accounts of locals and a few family members caused a lot of confusion as to whether Rodinsky had been a reclusive genius, as some believed (RR, p. 155), or rather a poor soul hardly capable of caring for himself, as others claimed (RR, p. 110-113). Nevertheless, the room opened up a no longer accessible world, the former Jewish East End, and revealed the sad story of what disorientation in a city that radically (and rapidly) changes can mean to a person who no longer fits in. As British historian Patrick Wright has described the connection between Rodinsky and the area in his seminal A Journey Through Ruins, ‘The story of Rodinsky’s disappearance has become a post-hoc fable of the gentrifying immigrant quarter’.12 Disappearance and disorientation are clearly linked here. Simultaneously it is a disorientation on the part of the two authors who get caught up in a labyrinth of open ends. They try, each in their own way, to piece together the snippets of information they have on Rodinsky, but all they encounter for a long time is disappearance.

  1. Rachel Lichtenstein and Iain Sinclair, Rodinsky’s Room (London: Granta Books, 2000 [1999]). All further references will be incorporated into the text as RR. Janet Cardiff, The Missing Voice (Case Study B). Last accessed 15 April 2013. []
  2. I make the distinction between ‘disorientation’ and ‘orientation’ as opposites on the one hand and the hybrid spelling ‘dis/orientation’ on the other hand. I refer to the latter specifically with reference to the psychogeographical state of mind that, while being disoriented in the city, actually gets a sense of orientation. []
  3. Guy Debord, ‘Introduction to a Critique of Urban Geography’ , Situationist International Anthology, ed. by Ken Knabb, rev edn (Berkeley: Bureau of Public Secrets, 2006 [1981]), pp. 8-12 (p. 8). []
  4. See Simon Sadler, The Situationist City (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1999 [1998]), p. 85. Despite the fact that there is no single definition of psychogeography, Merlin Coverley has compiled a few characteristics which frequently occur: 1. the activity of walking’ (be it the wanderer’s, the stroller’s, the flâneur’s or the stalker’s) 2. a ‘spirit of political radicalism’, paired with ‘a playful sense of provocation and trickery’; and 3. ‘the search for new ways of apprehending our urban environment’. Similarly important, and possibly linked to the third characteristic, is the ‘engagement with the occult’ and a preoccupation with ‘excavating the past’ as well as with ‘recording the present’. See Merlin Coverley, Psychogeography (Harpenden: Pocket Essentials, 2006), pp. 12-14. []
  5. The French word for ‘drift’ is dérive, meaning ‘the aimless stroll’ (Coverley, Psychogeography, p. 90). It is linked to the aspiration of ‘deliberately trying to lose oneself in the city’. See Simon Ford, The Situationist International: A User’s Guide. (London: Black Dog Publishing, 2005), p. 34. The definition the situationists themselves gave is as follows: ‘A mode of experimental behavior linked to the conditions of urban society: a technique of rapid passage through varied ambiances. The term also designates a specific uninterrupted period of deriving’ (Anon (1958), ‘Definitions’, in Situationist International Anthology, p. 52. First published in Internationale Situationniste #1, 1958). []
  6. Sadler, The Situationist City, p. 82. []
  7. Sadler, The Situationist City, p. 82. (These maps were the Guide psychogéographique de Paris (1956) and Naked City (1957 []
  8. Sadler, The Situationist City, p. 82. []
  9. Sadler, The Situationist City, p. 82. []
  10. Simon Foxell, Mapping London: Making Sense of the City (London: Black Dog Publishing, 2007), p. 247. []
  11. Guy Debord (1955), ‘Introduction to a Critique of Urban Geography’, in Situationist International Anthology, pp. 8-12 (p. 11). []
  12. Patrick Wright, A Journey Through Ruins: A Keyhole Portrait of British Postwar Life and Culture [1992] (London: Flamingo, 1993), p. 141. []

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