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.

6 replies on “Is this the first published use of the term ‘psychogeography’?”

Interesting…this does highlight the division between the situationist ‘political’ use of the term (utilising psychogeography as a means of changing the world?) and everything that bubbles up from the Sinclair et al quasi-mystical wellspring…Marx versus Magick. Maybe we need to introduce some subtle code into the lexicography to differentiate.

Thanks. Yes, although equally interesting is that, in their definitions of ‘psychogeography’, Fewkes and Debord appear broadly similar. I also think Sinclair is fairly political, albeit non-Situationist, in his approach. However, as you say, there are a whole bunch of other practices that do tend to get lumped in or self-defined as psychogeographic. The one common thread that appears to run through all of it is the effect of an environment on a subjective individual. I think everyone has probably experienced instances where a certain environment makes them feel something, such as being ‘out of place’, a sense of awe, or noticing the change in ambiance when moving through different areas of a city. I suppose it’s when we start to consider the ‘why this is’ and could it/does it need to be changed, or even preserved, that leads into the political dimension. Personally, I think this has been going on since humans started to move across the earth and could apply equally in an urban, edgeland or rural environment. Everyone a psychogeographer! (whatever that means) 🙂

Yes…I think you are right. The more I pondered this question after my rather precipitate essentialist response the more I began to see that there were as many types of psychogeography as there are fish in the sea or trees on the land. The Situationists were maybe an aberration rather than progenitors. Oddly, when I responded I was sitting in Cafe Oto waiting for :Zoviet*France to appear and as they played I felt a certain reference to (unknown) places that was also psychogeographic…as you say, “Everyone a Psychogeographer’

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