Mythogeography

Gum Galaxy: Where the pavements are covered, like a rash, in chewing gum, use chalk to draw lines to connect the pieces of gum in stellar constellations. Name them in Latin (if you don't know any Latin make it up).
Excerpt from Mythogeography (148)

‘Mythogeography’ is a relatively new addition to the lexicon of literary walks. It finds its expression in a range of books, videos, and events by Phil Smith, often using the pseudonym ‘Crab Man’. Despite Smith’s position as principal practitioner, he encourages collective walking, which privileges the peripheral observations of the group in favour of following a leader. At the same time, his publications give freedom to the individual mental flights that propel almost all walking literature. Its roots in theatre practice are evident in the way Mythogeography makes walking into a site-specific performance. Mythogeoraphy is also rooted in the Situationist analysis of the society of the spectacle, and the practice of the dérive. But it is not necessarily an urban practice: it is the practice of walking ‘sideways’, as Crab Man puts it, adapted to any location. The mythogeographer can construct situations or perform a mode of walking which is an implicit protest against the paths and speeds demanded by the free movement of capital, and which revivifies place. Of Smith’s numerous books on the subject, this post focuses on just one: Mythogeography: A Guide to Walking Sideways (Triarchy Press, 2010).

against psychogeography

The name ‘mythogeography’ invites comparisons with ‘psychogeography’, but while Smith explicitly names Guy Debord as an influence, he distances himself from ‘anglo-psychogeography’, and much writing about walking, which he dismisses as too writerly and insufficiently devoted to the practice of walking. The likes of Rebecca Solnit are ‘too interested in writing’ (Mythogeography, 172). Well, do we want a book or a walk? Smith tries for both.

Equally, in a capsule critique of ‘anglo-psychogeography’, it is clear that literariness is its main crime: ‘the fate of anglo-psychogeography is a caution: not so much because of the depredations of its dalliance with the occult, but rather that its effect has been to attach its dérive to literature’ (129). Iain Sinclair is afforded a few mentions in Mythogeography, at one point called ‘Audi Sinclair’ (157) – a reference to the preposterous promotional-puff-film that Iain Sinclair and Chris Petit made for Audi in 2009. Despite their shared interests, the respective writings of Smith and Sinclair are sufficiently different in temperament that I don’t imagine the authors getting on.

Smith is also responsible for ‘Counter-Tourism‘: an active critique of the heritage industry. This overlaps with Mythogeography as a serious criticism of the commodification of historical sites combined with humorous, playful action. A collection of short videos demonstrates some ‘Tactics for Counter-Tourism’. Some are symbolically potent, others simply daft. Here are a couple of examples:

‘Fire’

‘Visit Museums and Galleries when they are Closed…’

Having seen these tactics (full playlist of 31 short films here), I do wonder Sinclair had Smith in mind when he said this:

I gave up on the term flâneur a while back. I went for [fugueur] instead, like the mad walkers of the 19th century who took off on enormous journeys across France. There was a plumber from Bordeaux who walked out the door one day and finished up in Moscow. Then some dreadful writers took up with it and within a few months, the middle classes were all on the road pretending to be [fugueurs]. I feel a bit like that now with this whole walking fetish. Now everywhere you go, you find people doing strange conceptual walks, taking photographs of road signs and trying to get arrested in the car park of IKEA. I copyrighted that a long time ago.

(Iain Sinclair, talk on ‘The Last London’, 2017; I’ve corrected what I took to be a mis-transcription of ‘fugueur’)

Whatever the tendency towards silliness, Smith’s works evinces a dedication to living and activating the promise contained in the aesthetic aspects of situationist theory. He is less influenced by Hegel and Marx than Debord was (and more by Gilles Deleuze), but he is still ethically and politically motivated, while exploring on the cusp of materialism and transcendentalism.

is it mythic?

Smith’s work is of particular interest to me for its serious engagement with theories of myth. Mythogeography does contain a detailed explanation of his understanding of myth (following Claude Lévi-Strauss to a certain extent, 131-37), but I found it elusive when it comes to tying it to his mythogeographical practice. I’ll spare you the full extent of my thoughts on how his reading of myth corresponds with my own, but offer this example from ‘The Mythogeographical Manifesto’:

[Mythogeography] is also a geography of the body. It means to carry a second head or an appendix organism, in other words to see the world from multiple viewpoints at any one time, to always walk with one’s own hybrid as a companion (113).

I don’t know if Smith is aware, but in this he echoes Belgian classicist Marcel Detienne on the mind of Classical Athens. Detienne viewed the ancient Greeks as having ‘two heads’: a mythological and a philosophic. ‘Each one rules his territory and the first seems undisturbed by the discourse of the second. Moreover, the philosophic head shows no intention to dominate his mythological neighbour. No tensions, no conflicts’ (Detienne, The Creation of Mythology translated by Margaret Cook, 117). This openness to ‘multiple viewpoints’ in which the rational or ‘philosophic head’ is able to exist harmoniously with mythological perspectives is at least one area where ancient and modern approaches to myth are in agreement.

the book

Image from Mythogeography (181)

Mythogeography is attributed to numerous pseudonymous authors and ‘The Central Committees’, but credited to ‘CrabMan (Phil Smith)’ on the Triarchy Press website. Despite the  professed collaborative nature of the book, the authorial voice is too distinctive to maintain the illusion. It is a familiar mixture of reportage, memoir, socio-political observations, and local (secret) histories, but given a unique presentation as a self-contradictory, experimental handbook that defies categorisation and contains its own critique.

The text is complicated by numerous footnotes (which are not at the foot of the page) and endnotes (which are not at the end of the book) which discourage a linear path through the book. Once or twice I found the compulsive addition of references, puns, annotations, and digressions infuriating when I was trying to follow the flow of the text, but it’s another technique of mimicking the walking brain: introducing new thoughts and diversions.

Mythogeography includes a main narrative section, which follows the walk of Crab Man as he re-traces the steps of Charles Hurst who, in 1906, planted scores of acorns along a two-hundred-mile walk from Manchester to Rutland, described in The Book of the English Oak (1911). As he walks, Smith’s situationist-inspired observations are combined with a gentle whimsy, as in this recollection of a previous walk:

In the South D— town of N—- Abbot, an agitated man had approached a ‘drifting’ group who were pausing at, sketching, noting and arguing over a sessile oak set in a grassed bowl of land within a suburban estate. The man was angry, accusing the group of being property developers, come to take away a fiercely defended space of green. But on learning the functionless and vague nature of the group, his anger melts . . . and he explains how this dell, when full of water had been a decoy pond where ducks were lured to their deaths. Later redundant, it became infested by rats and was drained. He invites the group into his garden where he serves tea and cakes, and the drifters admire an eel swimming upstream in the small rivulet at the bottom of his garden. This is part of an elastic journey, for both eel and drifters. In the case of the eel, one that has crossed an ocean; a journey that was once a short swim downstream, but over aeons has stretched as the continents divided, and beginning grew further and further from the end.

Walk like an eel; let your journey be stretched by what moves around you.

(Mythogeography, 45)

Equally, Smith does not neglect the occasional trials of his walk:

And so begins a day of something like nightmare. For; to get off the roads, the Crab elects to walk The Viking Way. Soon he realises why it’s called The Viking Way – because until he came along no one since the Vikings has been stupid enough to walk it. It’s not a bridleway at all; gateless, it’s been churned to mush by cross-country vehicles and dried to rock-hardness by a fortnight of sun. To avoid a broken ankle he must walk with his eyes fixed to the ground. . . . Fixed to the ground he begins to disappear inside himself. (96-7)

He comes to a pub, closed for a private function – ‘This is the cruellest privatisation of public space yet!! And on screaming blisters he limps to S—stern, harassed by a pair of weedy but malevolent hoodies on mountain bikes’ (97). At the next pub, he unwittingly eavesdrops on crude conversations, and encounters difficult dogs. When he leaves the pub,

He is no longer the dispersed and open pilgrim, but steely, closed and angry, sick of harshness, sick of the lack of communality, sick of the assumption that you have no right to the road without a machine, sick of the swathes of property, sick of ‘beware of the dog’. He stops waving to motorists, cuts through the country as sharply as he can, until he’s mellowed by the friendly village of South W–ham.

(98)

This frank depiction of the opposition and isolation experienced on the walk is striking for its expression of the difficulty of achieving a successful dérive, and the possibility of a walk utterly failing to produce an open, ‘dispersed’ self.

Elsewhere, Smith writes of ‘disrupted walking’ as a ‘rolling thought experiment’ (38) which involves the same sorts of imaginative responses to the environment seen in Nick Papadimitriou’s ‘proximity flight’. Like Papadimitriou, Smith takes what could be seen as aggrandised daydreaming as a serious artistic practice. He also helps us understand the situationists’ caution around using ‘chance’ as a tool, preferring ‘instinct’:

Get rid of rational way-finding! At worst use chance (dice or sticks) to determine which way to go, but best is to go by instinct. If it feels equally good or bad whichever way you turn, then you have come to a ‘plaque tournante’ and your life will be radically different depending on which direction you choose (nothing but strength of will can help you make this decision, you are Buridan’s Ass, everything else is equal).

(119)

In one pseudonymous section, the book allows an angry, typo-strewn complaint, which laments this being yet another book by ‘white blokes wit degrees’, which ignores the walking that is done non-philosophically: whether water-carrying, in refugee flight, going to the shops, or going to work (156). Indeed, Smith seems acutely aware of the problems inherent in being seen as another (white, male, educated) leader of a walking practice. This democratic theme is elaborated upon in the section ‘The Significance of Walking’ (198-202):

today a majority of people continue to walk from necessity rather than choice. And those that walk by necessity are those held in contempt and fear for their presence on the highway. This necessity is not always a symptom of poverty but also of prejudice.

In this sense the dérive is an obscenity and a privilege. Philosophical walkers should always walk with extreme sensitivity to the feelings of others. And with an obligation, for they will never be able to walk comfortably until walking is a choice for everyone physically able to make that choice. Nor until those who are not physically able have, wherever possible, access to equivalent mobility.

(200)

Smith aligns these egalitarian hopes with the ecological necessity to abandon private transport. Ten years on, their realisation remains beyond Smith’s (and our collective) political powers. Meanwhile, the dériviste ideal is approachable, for those who are able. Smith builds on the familiar individualist fantastical walks of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries to emphasise the pleasures of the group:

Mythogeographical walking is a participatory, rather than an immersive or distanced, flow state, in which self and world and time slide within each other . . . . Changes of step and rhythm effect changes of consciousness.

(198)

online mythogeography

Do explore mythogeography.com. Phil Smith’s book reviews (here) will introduce you to tangents that are beyond the scope of my short survey on this website.

The Mythogeography book is usually available from the publisher, Triarchy Press, with an enticing discount. However, the press has put delivery of physical books on hold until further notice (due to the virus), and the e-book contains only the text, and not the images of this sumptuously illustrated book. If you’re keen, it is available from the usual online bookshops. Smith has written several other books on walking, and has an active presence online. A longer film, The Devil’s Footprints, is also on Youtube, in three parts:

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