Imagining Future Cities: Guy Debord’s Ghost

Hackney Tours has always been an experimental vehicle, seeking to push the boundaries of conventional tourism and blur it with the arts. Sure, the inspirational radical history of this borough needs to be shared and tourism is one vehicle for doing this. But why is it important, if not to give us the context and big picture thinking to interrogate the present and show us how to shape a better future? In that sense, Hackney Tours has been a very personal search for myself. It’s a quest to make some kind of sense of the world. In that respect, it reflects perhaps the oldest question of all – why are we here?

Last night a bunch of ‘collective sense-makers’ (my words not theirs) at the What’s Next summit explored the subject of imagination and how it might help us to envisage a better world. Why, asked some, is imagination not properly valued? Why are we not encouraged to think beyond the systems we have now? In a time of the existential threat of climate change, surely we are need of the ‘dreamers’ who might come up with solutions to our current carbon catastrophe? As thinker Phoebe Tickell mentioned, the most concrete of our creations started life in someone’s imagination. Look at the devices in our hands: someone had to have the idea of the telegraph, then the telephone, then the mobile telephone and so on. None of these things existed until someone imagined them onto paper and then into physical reality.

‘Sous les paves la plage’ (under the paving stones the beach) – Situationist slogan

As they were talking, I thought back a couple of years to when I had started to use the Situationism of Paris ’68 as a prism through which to explore East London. If you follow the current vogue for Psychogeography back, you arrive on the Left Bank as De Gaulle’s France is rocked by worker strikes and student protests and the CRS riot police crack heads. I have an acquaintance who was maimed by their tear gas canisters. Go a little further back though and you read how Guy Debord’s ‘Society of the Spectacle’ was a critique of a sleepwalking society where spirituality is replaced by consumption. Psychogeography starts not as a quirky way to explore your locality on a Sunday afternoon, but as a way of making clear the hidden walls of the social constructs that dictate the way we live our lives, but become so ingrained as to go unquestioned.

‘…that which appears is good, that which is good appears’ – Guy Debord

With their devices such as the Dérive (drift) to interrupt our autopilots, the likes of Debord hoped we would break through our programming and the unquestioning acceptance of what we are presented with (see above quote) to find our ‘authentic desires’. Why, they asked, had we become so convinced that owning a motor car was such a privilege that we would work all the hours in unrewarding jobs to afford one?

In Culture Jam, Kalle Lasn talks about the need to ‘uncool’ the motor car. Here, in a city where landlords ask for 300% rent increases (see the railway arches debacle or my recent Instagram post on the demise of Stour Space in Hackney Wick) the urban cracks where the really interesting stuff happens feels like it’s getting harder to find. But if we are to move beyond the fatalistic short-termist greed of the property owner in Hackney Wick asking for 85% more rent in the midst of a pandemic, we do need some kind of interrupt to this ‘just market rate’ trope.

As many reconsider their priorities in the lockdown hiatus, some have found that mindfully exploring their locality is a route to sanity. Others are leaving jobs or even the city. Is this the end result the Situationists strove for? Is our cultural programming falling by the wayside for some of us as we ‘wake up’ to what was really important to us all along? I’ve been making my own exploration of the shadow of ‘extractivism‘ here at @containercult. This is the global networks of extraction – minerals, labour, hydrocarbons etc – from the Global South and Middle East – that our consumptive lifestyles rely on.

The imagination crowd want us to keep on dreaming. Because today’s dream could be tomorrow’s reality. Optimistic? Well, the alternative is fatalism, no? Some environmental writers do think it’s actually all too late. But if we scroll all the way back from this dystopian future to Ancient Rome, Marcus Aurelius would advise that we can’t change fate. But we can be the best version of ourselves, if we are of service to others. The Stoics called it Sympatheia – that affinity and interconnection that connects everything, even if we try to atomise. So let’s put our collective imagination in the service of a better world?

See you dans la rue.

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