Psychogeography of Asturias

From Eating Asturias, the Encyclopedia of Asturian Gastronomy

Psychogeography describes the effect of a geographical location on the emotions and behavior of individuals. While most often associated with the ideas of urban exploration and critiques of the civic landscape of cities, it is, I believe, equally useful for interrogating the built environment of the Asturian culinary landscape. Underneath it's outer shell of subverting the tyranny of city planning, it is a toolbox for understanding the effect of the built environment on the behavior of its inhabitants.[1]


Coming out of the Situationist International and heavily influenced by the French nineteenth century poet and writer Charles Baudelaire, the idea is:

Geography, for example, deals with the determinant action of general natural forces, such as soil composition or climatic conditions, on the economic structures of a society, and thus on the corresponding conception that such a society can have of the world. Psychogeography could set for itself the study of the precise laws and specific effects of the geographical environment, consciously organized or not, on the emotions and behavior of individuals.

— Guy Debord, Introduction to a Critique of Urban Geography, 1955

Debord was expanding on earlier development of the concept, originally done by the avant-garde movement Lettrist International in their journal Potlach. Particularly important was the work of Ivan Chtcheglov, who wrote:

Architecture is the simplest means of articulating time and space, of modulating reality, of engendering dreams.

— Ivan Chtcheglov, Formulaire pour un urbanisme nouveau, 1953

Rural Psychogeography

It is important to pay close attention to the clause "...consciously organized or not..." in Debord's definition of psychogeography above. This opens the idea up to more than a simple reaction to the over-planned urban space the Situationists concerned themselves with. Geography certainly is not a purely urban discipline, and there is no reason to think that psychogeography should be either.

It would be a serious mistake to imagine that the building of cities was the only (or even main) way that humans transform and rationalize the seemingly chaotic world around them. Every open field surrounded by forest is a subtractive architecture. Every cluster of buildings in a remote farmstead is a constructive architecture. But neither of these, nor the market town that serves them, can escape the landscape they inhabit and become part of. No matter how remote or close a town or farmstead is, it is bound by geography.

Men can see nothing around them that is not in their own image; everything speaks to them of themselves. Their very landscape is alive.

- Guy Debord (misattributed by Debord to Karl Marx), Theory of the Dérive, 1958

As a human construction, it has an unbreakable relation to the necessities of human existence. Not only the shelter it provides, but its location relative to water, to means of getting food, to opportunities for social interaction. A rural architecture is just as enmeshed in the web of human concern as an urban one, though perhaps less obviously so.

So then we can speculate that just as the urban milieu either informs, limits, or at least partially constructs, the conception the urbanite can have of the world, then so to does the rural milieu. The aesthetics of urban psychogeography are not those of rural psychogeography. But the processes remain. The set of tools remain as well. They serve just as well to pick apart how humans make meaning out of rural landscapes and built environments as they do to interrogate urban corners and lanes.

Indeed, it might be said that urban psychogeography is naught but an attempt to return to the rural tendency to wander, drift, stroll, and make "irrational" connections between natural and built. Could it be that Chtcheglov and Debord were attempting to return their minds to a rural mode - the mode where finding personal meaning in the things around you is easier because they are not so obviously locked behind the rationalized constructions imposed on your eye at every moment? Were they perhaps reacting to a deeply felt lack - of folklore, forgotten constructions, and the natural interplay of constructed and grown that define rural vistas?

Asturian Psychogeography

How does this apply to Asturias, you ask? Much as the various practices gathered under the umbrella of psychogeography existed before the Lettrists and Situationists began thinking about them, so have people drifted through them on ambling walks designed solely to see what is to be seen and perhaps glimpse what is not to be seen. In my opinion, Spaniards are natural drifters, amblers, flâneurs, psychogeographers. Walking, without any real goal or destination, but instead to detect changes in the psychic fabric of the area, is the singular preoccupation of Spanish gentlemen of a certain age. And while they amble through every lane in every Spanish, interrogating every nook and cranny for hidden changes and treasures, city, they did not learn these peripatetic skills in those cities.[2]

They learned them in the pueblo, in the mountains, in the fields and forests. From village to village through dizzying mazes of secret lanes between farm fields they went, stopping in each bar they passed. In such a way they presaged Debords Theory of the Drift with its equal parts restless movement and alcohol-fueled talk. [3] Debord, for his part, denounces the rural dérive: "Wandering in open country is naturally depressing, and the interventions of chance are poorer there than anywhere else. " This is obviously a man who has never spent a minute of his life in the constant carnival of chance that makes up a rural walk.

The ambling Asturian will encounter roads blocked by tractors whose drivers want to chat, errant cows who join the dérive for a time, foxes and jabalí who dare one to follow them, neighbors patrolling the laneways, persons unknown in the area furtively absconding with mushrooms, chance encounters with other walkers who kidnap one away to the closest bar...

These laneways; these hidden passages through forests to other fields; the psychogeographic maps that tie them together into a net of relations; the tiny villages that gather the threads toward them, and anchor them with a bar; these chance encounters that make up most of the entertainment that is (or was) available in the mountains of Asturias - they create who Asturians are. Not only does "everything speak to them of themselves", it molds and forms them into who they are and what they see.

  1. Legard, Phil, et al. Almias: Rural Psychogeography. pp . Harrogate International Festivals, 2010.
  3. Debord, G. (1958). Theory of the Dérive. In C. Nieuwenhuis (Ed.), P. Hammond (Trans.), International Situationniste (Vol. 2, pp. 62–66). essay.