An NPU project

Towards a metaphysical geography


A paper for TRIP Conference, Manchester, friday 20th June 2008

So-called exact sciences are finally imploding from within and from without: a world crammed with material objects - quantity - is starving for quality. Modern cartography, spurred by the ‘discoveries’ (massacres) of the 17th century, fails to encompass the fundamental aspect of every journey: its quality. Perhaps, in a not so distant future, psychogeography and its experiments will be seen as the seeds of a new geography, one in which the observer will always be an inseparable part of the geography in which s/he operates and the cartography that s/he produces. This presentation will examine those seeds as well as related traces of inner/outer geographies in ancient western literature, concepts of landscape and contemplation, trying to work towards a metaphysical geography.


Paesaggio: Larzac, Francia. Acquerello di viaggioOften, whilst travelling, we are struck breathless at the sight of a landscape: the majesty, the beauty, the coherence of forms, colours and movement of the natural environment is overcoming. Our eyes, misted up by ordinary sights, poisoned by the ugliness of modern artificial landscapes, finally get some relief.
And sight is but one of our senses of perception. Magnificent must appear the world to those who have not forgotten how to absorb it with more than one sense at a time. Those men are lucky. And rare, due to the widespread incapacity to live fully the reality of the space surrounding us, as well as our inner reality.
Drawing landscapes is an excuse to spend some time plunged in those visions. These active contemplations foster a slight alteration of consciousness: space is perceived as «direction» and time as «situations», the qualitative – rather than the quantitative – aspects of the world.
Visual impressions become brighter, richer. And they feed us, as impressions are food, just like what enters the body through mouth and lungs. (Not only territories are a source of food through the ploughed fields, but also of contemplative, poetic food.)
But the level of environmental decay reached by our civilization has brought to a gradual poisoning of this visual nourishment (not to mention the pollution of water, food and air). Today, all the activities by which men create an artificial environment around themselves inevitably bring about a qualitative impoverishment of landscapes and, as a consequence, to a mental regression and brutalization of those who feed on it: us.
As Guy Debord wrote in 1971: «A society more and more sick, but more and more powerful, has recreated everywhere the world as a backdrop for its illness».1

Limits of rational geography (necrophilia is the secret name of science)

Geography is the name of the science entrusted to measure and describe this decay. Just like all the other so-called «exact sciences», it is obsessed with quantity and figures, and simply chooses to ignore what it cannot measure – namely: quality.
Rational sciences do not pursue a real quest, they limit themselves to taking notice of «what is», to observing and classifying the status quo. Under their prying lenses the world is an inanimate object, it is dead. (And under the violence of their activities the world dies.) Necrophilia is the secret name of science. Western medicine offers a good example of this, as it sets out to cure the living through the study of corpses, willingly ignoring the fact that a human being is greater than the sum of its organs.
Rational sciences are but a collection of numbers and notions, and their growth is horizontal: they grow fatter through the incapacity to digest knowledge. They foster erudition (the opposite of true knowledge), automation and frenzy (the opposite of true action). All this favours greediness and, as a consequence, intellectual obesity.
This pattern of growth is typical of cancer: cancerous and carcinogenic are the products of modern sciences, from the uncontrolled urban sprawls to the information overload on the media.
True knowledge, on the other hand, grows vertically: human thought digests impressions, becomes slender and light, raises above the horizontal plan of phenomena, finally embracing the opposites. True knowledge entails a never-ending search. Answers are shunned, as they only represent a calcification of the quest.
Of course, one could object that mechanical sciences do work: surgery removes cancers and today's maps allow calculable and precise movement and travels. This is true, but purely on the level of quantity. But think about how numbers reveal their deceptive nature when one discovers to be affected by a statistically insignificant disease, or when a long planned trip turns into a deadly boredom for lack of «situations». (Ordinary maps are unable to record quality.)

Death of the impartial observer

Rationalism teaches that the observation of positive facts is the unique foundation of knowledge. Reality is narrowed down to what is observable, but the observer himself is estranged from the processes he is trying to study, becoming an impartial entity. This pillar of science has been mined by an interpretation of the findings in quantum physics, where some researchers postulated that somehow the observer influences the phenomenon observed.2
The Copernican revolution deprived man of its role as a centre of perception, transforming him in an object of observation, as if it were possible to understand ourselves from a truly neutral point of view. It is not a case if the subject that western science ignores the most is the mind itself.
It is our opinion that no science can observe from without, no geography can do without the mind that perceives the environment. Space is a moving reality. Man is in the world and it is in the world that he can know himself.
Fragments of metaphysical geography
In the Illiad and the Odyssey, often the heroes pause in front of the sea when they are distraught, sad or melancholic. The contemplation of the blue expanse mirrors their inner feelings. Contemplation of the landscape gives man comfort, he sees himself in the cosmic distances, and raises above everyday troubles. Ever since the inner psychology of the observer has been inextricably linked with the geography in which he lives. Dante's Comedy offers the best example of this. He describes his spiritual inner journey as a physical voyage through the otherworlds, punctuated with precise geographical remarks.
There was a time when the Earth lay at the centre of the universe. And, as a reflex, so did its thinking cell: man. A time when the axis of the world coincided with the spinal cord of every being.
Geography was a sacred science: temples, houses and city were not built at random or to the fancy of architects, but according to precise studies (feng shui). The regions of space were seven: besides the four cardinal points, there was the zenith, vertically upward and the nadir, downward. The seventh one was the centre itself, the point without dimensions from which space origins: the centre of observation.

Come and undress

Psychogeography has no need for new fancy maps. However interesting, everything drawn from «above», «outside» and were the observer pretends to not exist, is limited and limiting. Psychogeography will never do without the observer.
The problem then is knowing the subject who observes and how he does it, as our perception of reality is distorted by a series of deforming lenses: cultural, social and personal.
The environment influences its inhabitants. Well known is, for example, the link between functionalistic urbanism and social alienation,3 or common traits displayed by all islanders alike, from Britons to Sicilians.
Less obvious is the way a cultural perception of an environment ends up transforming it. For example, the snowy slopes of the Alpes have lost their repulsive character after a century-long slow change of perception, which began within the bourgeoisie and progressively spread to other social classes. Not only this change of view was the preamble for the use of the mountain as a place of playful activities, but led to its exploitation as such, culminating with flocks of skiers on the slopes.4

Thus the essential premise for a psychogeographical action: overcoming those layers of social and cultural conditioning, thought patterns, preconceived ideas and stale feelings. Geographical studies go hand in hand with self-study. Psychogeographers are caught between two worlds: one they do not recognize and one that does not yet exists,5 they shun labels and national identities.
But if it is possible to get rid of cultural and social layers, it is extremely hard to break our personal conditionings: we remain an «I within a skin».
To proceed one must implacably follow mystical maps and for the time being be content with those rare moments in which the intensity of some natural sequences is such to penetrate by itself the various layers that suffocate us and protect us at the same time. In those moment we are filled with «the intransigence of the beauty»:

«Thus are the dawn and the aurora, the sunset and the twilight; the perfect movements of an animal: the flight of a bird or the run of a deer; maternal heat, the delicacy of a skin, of a wool; the silence of the evening, the continuous and yet different sound of a waterfall, the singing of a bird, the rustling of a tree; the sparkling of the stars, the reflex of the moon, the crystalline purity of dew or of a tear; the ever new perfume of a flower»6

1. Guy Debord, La Planéte malade, Gallimard, Paris 1971
2. Possible view of "Copenhagen interpretation" of quantum theory developed by Niels Bohr, Werner Heisenberg, Wolfgang Pauli, and others.
3. Henry Lefevbre, [add ref]
4. Bernard Debarbieux [add ref]
5. Raoul Vanaigem [add ref]
6. Hervé Bailey, Glossaire (unpublished), Cantercel, Site expérimental d’architecture, La Vaquerie, Montpellier, France.

- For a thorough discussion on quantity e quality see: Renè Guenon, Le Règne de la Quantité e les Signes des Temps, Gallimard, Paris 1945.
- For an excellent discussion on metaphysics see: Elémire Zolla, Archetipi, Marsiglio, Venezia 1984, p.7.

APPENDIX #1: Cartographies of power

Modern geography has its roots in the cartographic rush which followed the conquests of European powers as from the 1600. An explorer was the first modern cartographer, a murderous avant-garde of colonial genocides and slavery to follow. Geography was – and still is – a military technology.
The false illusion that there are no more unknown places, the apparent exactness and omniscience of modern maps promote deception. Already in antiquity, impudent generals convinced Greek kings to go to war against Asia, by showing them maps were the continent appeared no greater than Greece. Well known, but still common, the distortion of the rectangular planisphere, with the regions nearest to the poles (North America, Europe and Russia) magnified, and equatorial regions shrunk. To note, feeble attempts to compensate, like the «orange peel» map.
Less obvious, the orientation north-south, that sets the west in a position of dominion on the «south of the world». Let's remember that for centuries maps showed the east in the superior part, as still suggests the term «to orient»: turning eastwards.

APPENDIX #2: The psychogeographical break away

They pursued adventure, but refused ordinary maps, the Situationists of the late 50's. They looked for their own escape route with rigorous un-scientific explorations, wandering aimlessly through Paris as a boat going adrift (literraly: à la dérive). A new fluid city opened up before them. The conclusions of those psychogeographical explorations were the same to which inevitably comes whoever repeats the experience with a little attention: the brutal violence of the cement sprawl, the ugliness of all modern buildings (all too often sterile ego masturbations of star architects), the disappearance of the aura that still glows in the old part of town...
And in the 50's this «urban leprosy» – as they called it – had not fully submerged the city and surroundings as it has today.
What to do? Caught between inner brutishness (alcoholism or conformism: two mirrors of environmental ugliness), and revolt without compromises, they lived their moment of glory in May '68, keeping a clearer vision than everyone else in the moment of collective hypnosis. Then, they slowly scattered and melted away.
Very little survived: the spectacle,* the war machine that permeates every aspect of existence, engulfed the remnants.

* Guy Debord, La societè du spectacle, Gallimard, Paris 1992.



More on mental maps: NPU web site/ mental maps

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