Psychogeography Signs and Signifiers

Is this the first published use of the term ‘psychogeography’?

“The science of anthropogeography, or more properly speaking, psychogeography, deals with the influence of geographical environment on the human mind.”

J. Walter Fewkes, Bureau of American Ethnology, (1905)




First definition?

Presented in  a paper ‘Climate and Cult’ published in the Report of the Eighth International Geographic Congress. 1904, pp.664-670, (Washington: Washington Government Printing Office, 1905).



Jesse Walter Fewkes (1850 – 1930) was born in Newton, Massachusetts and initially pursued a career as a marine zoologist at Harvard. From 1887, he turned his attention to anthropology and ethnological studies, particularly the culture and history of the Pueblo Native Americans. Fewkes made some of the first recordings of their music. In 1895 he embarked on various archaeological explorations of the American Southwest for the Smithsonian’s Bureau of American Ethnology. In 1918 he was appointed chief of the Bureau and retired in 1928, dying two years later.

The paper Fewkes presented to the Congress examines the relationship between climate, food supply and ritual ceremony, (what Fewkes calls ‘cult’). One example  given is the rain ceremonies of the Hopi people. Fewkes argues that the Hopi’s strong connection with their arid landscape led them to develop a set of beliefs, practices and rituals to appeal to the sky gods to deliver rain. In these ceremonies, the gods are represented through masks, idols and other symbols and in order to influence the “magic powers of these personages” the worshipper employs signs or gestures, songs, verbal incantations or rituals of imitation. For example, water is poured into a medicine bowl from its four sides to show that water is desired from all world quarters; a cloud of smoke represents a rain cloud. Sacred kivas (rooms used for rituals) are painted with symbols of falling rain and lightning to remind the gods of the Hopi people’s need for water.

As a conference paper, it is very much of its time but interesting in that it specifically mentions ‘psychogeography’ and clearly relates this to a linkage between the effect of the environment on the human mind. We have never seen it referenced before in any of the psychogeographic literature.

References to the origin of the term ‘psychogeography’ often refer to Guy Debord’s Introduction to a Critique of Urban Geography, (1955) and his definition:

Psychogeography sets for itself the study of the precise laws and specific effects of the geographical environment, whether consciously organised or not, on the emotions and behavior of individuals.

Whilst the Letterists and Situationists clearly developed their psychogeographic activities, during the 1950s, in an urban environment, it is interesting to learn that the  relationship between the environment and the human mind was being considered as ‘psychogeography’ in a non-urban context at the turn of the century.

Now playing: Éliane Radigue – Elemental II.

Encounters Happenstance Observation Poetry Quote Signs and Signifiers Symbol

Plants, potters, webs: On forms, usefulness and emptiness

With the clocks about to go back this weekend, autumnal hues cloak the body and seep into the skin. The piercing light of summer is almost emptied out. Weak threads of sunlight dissolve amongst russet, ochre and blanket skies of grey.

Here then, some small cups of blue:




……………upon the sky





in a breath


The potter makes the earthen pitcher out of earth selected and prepared specifically for it.  The potter … shapes the clay.  No – he shapes the emptiness.

Martin Heidegger

When posting the above image on twitter, I received, by return, a digital echo from Andrew Male, (@AndrewMaleMojo). A fragile image, of the same unknown plant, etched in glaze and fire; ‘cupped’ and bleeding into blue.

(c) Andrew Male

The bowl  was made by the potter Beresford Pealing who ran a studio-pottery at Harnham Mill, West Harnham, Salisbury, Wiltshire from 1966-1972. Pealing created hand-thrown domestic stoneware оf а type pioneered by Bernard Leach working іn аn Arts & Crafts tradition.

Beresford Pealing
Beresford Pealing’s studio-pottery at Harnham Mill. (c) Wiltshire Museums

The image of Pealing’s bowl resonated with the image of that flower cupping light, sky and time and somehow reminded me of Martin Heidegger’s late thought, particularly his Bremen Lecture of 1949, Insight into That Which Is:  

When we fill the pitcher, the liquid flows into the empty pitcher … The thingness of the container in no way rests in the material that it is made of, but in the emptiness that [it?] contains. 

I’m not sure if Heidegger ever acknowledged it, but it seems too much of a coincidence if this passage was not influenced by the arguably more poetic rendering in the Tao Te Ching:

Shape clay into a vessel;
It is the space within that makes it useful.

(Tao Te Ching: Chapter 11, translated by Stephen Mitchell, 1988)

or in an alternative translation:

Hollowed out,
clay makes a pot.
Where the pot’s not
is where it’s useful.

(Tao Te Ching: Chapter 11, translated by Ursula K. Le Guin, 1998)

A random moment this week threaded together that plant inked against the sky and Beresford Pealing’s bowl. Opening the front door, an empty form cupping the autumn light:


Overnight, a dweller on the threshold had constructed possibly the perfect form of useful emptiness. A filigree construction allowing the world to pass through and bring whatever bounty may stick on the way…

And of the unknown plant?

When the photograph was taken, I had no idea what it was, although A, who is the gardener, told me that it would soon ‘explode’. She didn’t know the name either.

Fraser MacDonald @JAFMacDonald kindly identified it as Agapanthus and sent a link to this stunning time-lapse film. Enjoy the white stars exploding in all their glory. All within fifteen seconds:


But there is one final act of synchronicity. Re-watching the film clip today and revisiting Heidegger’s lecture, I come across his thinking on the emerging technologies of 1949 (for example film) and specifically, their ability to collapse time and space. An example that he gives is:

the sprouting and flourishing of plants which remained hidden throughout the seasons is now openly displayed on film within a minute…

We can only imagine what his response may have been to the webs spun by modern technologies. Lots of un-useful emptiness? Perhaps we can learn from the spider. Spin the web, shape the emptiness and see what sticks.

Many thanks go to Andrew Male and Fraser MacDonald for their invaluable contributions to this post.

Now playing: Brian Lavelle – Empty Transmissions.


Martin Heidegger, Insight into That Which Is, Bremen Lecture, 1949 (Indiana: Indiana University Press, 2012)

Lao Tzu. The Tao Te Ching, various translations.

Observation Signs and Signifiers

Grangemouth Rapture

The Grangemouth petro-chemical complex sits on the shores of the River Forth with another industrial behemoth – Longannet Power Station – on the opposite side. Both are visible for miles around and at night it is difficult not to be utterly captivated by the dazzling, artificial white light, belching steam and orange flares which shoot into the sky. A curious mix of dark satanic mill and industrial city from the future. On 9th October, the orange flaring was the most extreme that I’ve ever seen. Whilst the pictures are not great it should give a flavour of the eerie effect created.

This was originally posted on twitter on 9th October:


Looks like the Rapture is beginning over Grangemouth tonight.

Flame on!

DSCN0238Now playing: Fire! Orchestra – Exit


Field Trip Observation Poetry Psychogeography Signs and Signifiers

Wheel of Life




retired tyre


wheel of life