A1 in Psychogeography: Interview with Karl Whitney

Posted October 1, 2014 in Arts & Culture Features


Karl Whitney has been described as ‘Dublin’s best psychogeographer since James Joyce’. It’s a large accolade, and Whitney is careful to refer to it with a degree of hesitancy that thankfully has not prevented him from becoming Dublin’s most public interpreter of psychogeography as well. In Hidden City, a collection of twelve essays about Dublin written in the last half-decade, Whitney mixes memoir and design in his efforts to understand not just how the city works, but how it works upon its citizens. In the chapter on Tallaght, where his parents bought their first home, he remembers that ‘the subjects I studied at school – geography, history, literature – all seemed to refer to places unlike the place I was from.’ In part an exploration of Dublin’s isolated edgelands, Hidden City puts all three of these disciplines to use in an attempt to correct this analytical blindspot. Elsewhere, Whitney gets shot at while walking through fields as he traces the flight path from Clongriffin to Dublin airport, gets followed as he visits every Dublin house Joyce lived in, and gets wet as he descends beneath the city with two Dublin City Council workers to trace the path of its hidden rivers. This interview took place in the Irish Film Institute. When we came to discuss Whitney’s time beneath the city, Down Under by Men at Work started playing in the background. I mention this with hesitancy and offer no interpretation.

What is Hidden City about?

Hidden City is about investigating Dublin in a different way, looking at the edges of the city, but also the underground aspects of its centre: the hidden rivers, the sewer system and so on. It’s about tracing certain elements of the city that we either take for granted or just don’t know about. I wanted to treat the city as a landscape rather than just a city centre that is full of heritage and then some suburbs that are more recent and less remarkable.

The Sunday Times review speaks of the book’s ‘polemic’. Do you view it as a polemic?

I can see where the reviewer is coming from. There is a certain subdued anger and something that is not quite resignation underpinning the book. Hidden City about describing the city, it’s about the history of the city, but it’s also inescapably about the period during which I was researching all this stuff, which was broadly between 2010 and early 2014, when the final chapter about the Liffey takes place. It’s not an explicitly political text, but its methodological source material – that of the Situationists – was undoubtedly political. I’d also argue that Georges Perec’s Lieux project, another influence on the book, was political in its own way. He worked on it during a time of personal political commitment. So it does have that element to it. It’s concerned with houses. It’s concerned with where I lived when I was a child, where I moved to, what the apartments in Priory Hall are like, what Tyrrelstown is like. But I wouldn’t say it’s an angry book. During the collapse, anger became this sort of safety valve which allowed things to be discussed and nothing to be done. All this rolled-up newspaper stuff, shouting at Pat Kenny on Frontline. Anger didn’t seem to get Ireland anywhere. It also became a very mainstream way of dealing with the crash. I wanted to avoid that tone in the book. So ‘polemic’ is possibly a bit strong.

The term ‘psychogeography’ has attached itself, or has been attached, to the book. What do you understand the term to mean?

Psychogeography attached itself to the book thanks to Susan Tomaselli of gorse journal. I don’t know if it’s credited, but she’s quoted on the jacket copy. I knew as soon as I saw her comparison between Joyce and me as psychogeographers of Dublin that it would come up in interviews. I did a PhD on Henri Lefebvre, the Situationists and Georges Perec, a three-hander which takes the city and everyday life as its focus. To me, psychogeography is the Situationists. They’re the originals, I suppose, though they were stealing from the Surrealists as well in some ways. The Situationists defined psychogeography in fairly simple terms: it’s the psychological effect of a place on an individual. When they mapped the city, they’d divide it into fragments. That was my starting point for looking at Dublin. When you choose to write about a topic, you want to narrow it down as much as possible. A good way was to look at places in Dublin that are specifically interesting to me. Tyrrelstown was one such example, because of the killing of Toyosi Shittabey, but also because of the way it looks on a map. It’s a circular area with no straight lines. It looks weird.

You mention Perec. His influence on the book seems to be most profoundly felt in those Oulipian chapters [Oulipo is a constrained writing technique] where you impose a set of restrictions on yourself and your course through the city. In ‘Bus Game’, for example, you get on the first bus that comes, get off after ten minutes, flip a coin to decide which side of the road you’ll wait at, get on the next bus that comes, then repeat.  In what way does Oulipo relate to psychogeography?

Oulipo was a very abstract movement before Perec. At its outset, I think it was a reaction by its founding members, Raymond Queneau and François Le Lionnais, to certain notions of political commitment that were in the air at the time because of Sartre, Camus and so on. Oulipo seemed to be trying to make room for a form of writing that was purely literary. It was a literature that drew itself away from realism. With the arrival of Perec, however, Oulipo’s practices become spatialised. Following the Situationists, Perec in his Lieux project divides Paris into twelve places, some of them autobiographically relevant, others not so much. Where he differs from the Situationists is in his intense preoccupation with notation and transcription. This is something I tried to follow – to carry a notebook at all times, write down everything that happens, anything that was unremarkable but somehow remarkable. That’s where this obsession with writing everything I ate along the way comes from.

Do you think the Oulipian game is genuinely revelatory? Is there not an extent to which these activities are helpful only insofar as they dictate a new structure for the essay itself?

What I like about Perec is that his work is an engagement. It attempts to reveal this essential city, and in a way, through this process, it actually sets itself an endpoint that it can never reach. I suppose that’s what happens in my bus chapter. With an activity like that, where am I actually going to find in Dublin? It’s not as if I’m going to go down the rabbit hole and suddenly this place that I’ve never been to before will appear.

You write in that essay: ‘I became aware of my ten minutes slipping away yet again. Mentally I urged the bus onwards. Again, I was responding like a commuter in a rush.’  You speak of an unreachable endpoint, but it seems like the game’s actual (and achievable) endpoint is narrative itself. Do you think the Oulipian essay as conceived by Perec, say, is capable of exposing anything other than itself?

There’s so much projection in psychogeography. This is one of the issues I’d have with it. With the walks I take in the book there’s a large extent to which I expect I’ll know what I’m going to come across. But with the Oulipian essay, you set yourself a sort of challenge that you hope you’ll never complete, because the narrative emerges from that incompletion, from what happens along the way. One of the things I was interested in about Perec’s work is the recurrence of the word ‘attempt’. To me it reveals his work’s relation to the essay, to the idea of the essay as an attempt, and with an attempt, I like the implication that it’s a failed attempt. To me that’s much more interesting than something that claims to have squared the circle. The work ceases to be about revealing the city in the here-we-are, here-it-is sort of mode. By trying to escape this form of narrative, it becomes a different type of narrative.

Unless we think of the city itself as a work-in-progress – one with no reachable endpoint.

It’s interesting you say that because, when this book was first conceived, the city seemed to have frozen. Dublin had all the appearances of a city that had reached completion, for a moment at least. It was obviously incomplete as well: it was ragged at the edges, and that was something I wanted to look at. It’s the sense of incompleteness about certain parts of the city that seemed most interesting to me. People had been sold this vision, these utopian visions. In a way, you might think of these visions as drawing on the Situationists, who had a very strong utopian strain. They imagined these other places, the city-as-other. What we saw was that form of thinking, or something like it, becoming commoditised in the brochures for the four-storey, five-storey apartment blocks on the fringes of the city.

The brochures are sort of surrealist documents, then.

You could certainly think about them as found-objects, especially given the way that time has elapsed, the incompleteness of the projects, the ruins of the period and so on. It’s also interesting to consider what people thought they were getting. As a result of market acceleration, people became very willing participants in imagining utopian futures. What was surprising to me was just how shabby some of the brochures seem when you look at them now. But at the time, when everything was being hyped up, they must have made these places look great, like they had everything. I’m interested in the recurrence within this sort of literature of the notion of the garden-city, when what was more often than not being described were five-storey apartment blocks built on the edges of the city in disused fields.

A couple of the chapters where you impose a set of restrictions on yourself – the ‘Bus Game’, for instance, or the chapter on the houses Joyce lived in – only work, or only seem possible, by breaking those rules or restrictions. Do you think this is a function of a city planned corruptly, a city built on broken rules?

Obviously there was no master-plan for Dublin in the same way that something like Haussmann’s Paris had one. I mean, you can see how Oulipo emerged from such a city, because it’s so rationalised, because it’s a grid. Dublin, on the other hand, consists of a museum-like city centre and a series of jerry-built suburbs. I’d be interested to see what Dublin would have or could have looked like: I mean, there are plans. The Abercrombie Plan, which was published in 1922, projects these visions of a city with broad boulevards leading out to garden suburbs. We do have garden suburbs of a type – Crumlin or Marino, say – which is one the places I get stuck in during the bus chapter. But these are isolated suburbs without the grand plan. One of the ideas that seemed to gain currency while I was writing the book was the rejection of any grand plan as just another Celtic Tiger vanity project. It’s something that makes me a little irate. Take the rejection of the Metro to the airport: it’s a service that other cities find essential, but in Dublin it’s like, ‘well, you know, there are buses to the airport, and there’s roads, and people can get there, so we don’t really need it yet’. I’m hesitant to say there’s a lack of vision, but whatever vision that does exist is often compromised into a lame, perverted version of itself. So, we’ll probably get high-speed buses to the airport in their own lanes, but not the metro. The breaking of the rules in Dublin and the rejection of this master-plan has created the city we live in now. I think the city is always compromised in some way, whether it’s by traffic on the street, by delays or what have you. Our experience of the city is shaped by systems failure.

At several points you write of being able to envision what the city was like in the nineteenth century. Has Dublin changed less than other European cities since then?

At the centre, it hasn’t changed a great deal. There’s a school of thought that sees the 1960s and 1970s as terrible decades in which all these Georgian terraces were destroyed and replaced by banal office buildings. This is true to an extent, but not nearly as much as in some other places. From a preservationist point of view, the destruction of what would subsequently have been listed properties is always going to be tragic. But, if you look at somewhere like Newcastle, it’s a case of the wrecking ball being brought in. Granted, fragments of it were preserved; so today it still has these beautiful Georgian curving streets, some of the best examples in Britain, as far as I can tell. But there’s also railways going through the grounds of the castle and other strange things like that. There’s a retro-futurist attitude to urban space in Newcastle because there wasn’t this overriding sense of preservation at all cost. The railway has this weird loop-line. You can travel north from Gateshead on one bridge through the central station, then south on another bridge and continue on your way. The line, which dates back to the mid- or late-nineteenth century, is circular. The attitude towards the city seems always to have been very playful. At times it’s almost like something out of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. This is partially because of the height of the city. Because it sits very high above the Tyne, the bridges are very high, and so there’s an attitude to height that has never existed in Dublin. There’s a real rejection of height in Dublin.

Do you know why that might be?

If Dublin had been cleared like other cities were, if there had been more tall buildings in the city centre, I think that people’s attitude to height would have changed. I’m not saying there should have been, but it hasn’t helped our attitude to height to have the isolated example of Liberty Hall. People look at it, they say, ‘Isn’t that terrible?’, and I think this has bred a certain attitude not just towards height and urban density, but also towards what a building should look like. There seems now to be a general agreement that Dublin should be at most maybe six or seven storeys tall, that the city should be mock-Georgian in height if not in style. There are some very beautiful parts of the city centre, but I think there’s a degree to which this attitude to height has created quite a stagnant urban environment.

Hidden City: Adventures and Explorations in Dublin by Karl Whitney is available now, published by Penguin Ireland.


Words: Kevin Breathnach

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