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Photography @dashahcowley

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31 March 2023

Fascination Street: Edinburgh and the Dérive 


Whilst of course a rite of passage for students in Edinburgh there comes a point, perhaps at the latter stage of your third ascent, when for all its revered beauty and accompanying sense of accomplishment, Arthur’s Seat becomes a hill.


I often find a similar crumbling of preconceptions takes place amongst the most visually attractive parts of the University. When despite best efforts to romanticise your trip to dissect the gently growing mound of deadlines as simply a by-product of the ‘dark academia’ lifestyle you signed up for, the Old College becomes a building. The Old Medical School too, richly veiled in history and architectural magnificence, becomes reduced to little more than a swipe-card accessed door holding some seats and desks upon which the aforementioned mound probably won’t change size. 


This phenomenon is probably why the bottomless supply of TikToks and such, describing Edinburgh’s beauty are not in fact made by an overworked 4th year student whose daily routine seldom allows for an off-the-cuff appreciation of their surroundings. Bar perhaps some American students trying to convince their friends back home that they are indeed still having a fabulous time, and Victoria Street does indeed still look like a Harry Potter set, these videos are more likely made by tourists. Possibly why City Breaks tend to last 3 days and not three weeks, continued and authentic appreciation for the beauty of one’s surroundings is no easy feat. 


I often find myself sending my family a photo of the Castle looking suitably brooding in the rain, in a manner not dissimilar to how one would offer up a carefully curated selection of screenshots from their new talking stage’s Instagram to a group chat. In the hope of a response that straddles approval and reassurance. This (the former) invariably prompts an ‘Oooh lovely’ from my mother, accompanied by a string of thoughtful yet rarely relevant emojis. Whilst it’s entirely possible that they too have grown bored by now and are merely being nice, I can’t help but envy my family’s not yet subdued wonderment for my city. 


It is worth noting at this stage that I’m not a philistine who thinks that scale replicas of the Nucleus building should replace these aged academic havens, and that The Meadows should be paved over to accommodate a second library (although maybe come back to me on that at the end of term…). Thankfully, I’m also not a thoroughbred pessimist. Rather than succumbing to unwavering acceptance of two more years of apathy for Edinburgh, I’ve decided to treat it as merely a rough patch between us. My solution, as yet unfounded, lies much in the musings of Guy Debord. 


Behind the façade of his Marxism and alcoholism lies a fairly positive outlook on the ways in which dejection prompted by life’s rigidity can be overcome, most notably in the concept of the Dérive. Characterfully lacking in definitive clarity, the best summary I could find lies in the December 1958 issue of the ‘Internationale Situationniste’ publication (the eponymous group of which he was a founding member). In this passage, Debord describes Dérive as:


"A technique of rapid passage through varied ambiences."


You would be forgiven for deciphering Debord’s initial description as not particularly different from the classic notions of journey or stroll, but one is soon disabused of this notion as he goes on to state that:


"Dérives involve playful-constructive behaviour and awareness of psychogeographical effects and are thus quite different from the classic notions of journey or stroll."


It is no doubt an over-complication of an idea that has been so prolifically described in single worded terms. Without wishing to take away from Debord’s thinking, it does appear that; saunter, wander, roam, amble, drift, meander, range and rove all serve a similar purpose without the agent having to undertake an introductory course to French postmodern philosophy before they set off. Whilst the psychological intricacies of the Dérive do slightly breach the boundaries of my comprehension, it’s in the fundamentals that the concept’s attraction lies. 


Debord claims that the difference between general walking about in the city and the Dérive, lies in purpose. The merest trace of intention behind a walk immediately denounces it from the school of Dérive. Even the subconscious decision to amble in a certain direction because you have something on later in that part of town? According to Debord you might as well not even try. Rather, a true fully fledged Dérive-er will entirely dispel all pre-existing duty and responsibility, disregard any regular motives for a journey and leave themselves entirely submissive to the geography of their surroundings, or as Debord puts it:


"Let themselves be drawn by the attractions of the terrain and the encounters they find there."

In the initial description, the work of urban sociologist Chombart de Lauwe is referenced. He theorised that the overall size and geography of a city became almost entirely irrelevant when the spheres of existence formed by an individual’s daily practise are realised. He cited the day-to-day movements of a Parisian student across the course of the year, with the results indicating she kept a fairly rigid triangle with ‘no significant deviations’ between; the School of Political Sciences, her residence, and that of her piano teacher. 


Perhaps substituting the piano teacher for the Marchmont Crescent Scotmid or local pub, I realise my weekday-to-weekday itinerary is not massively different. Anomalies aside, I have to concede I conduct an existence Debord describes as prompting "outrage at the fact that anyone’s life can be so pathetically limited". Whilst recovering from this crushing condemnation, I began to see my condition in a new light and self-diagnose my indifference towards sights most would dream of existing amongst as simply a result of overexposure. 


Through the Dérive, I will ideally unlock a novel enjoyment for even the most mundane elements of Edinburgh. Through abandoning intent and mental ‘to-do’ lists, the listless wrong turn down a street I’ve never before seen will apparently prompt dramatic change of my understanding of this city. Debord claims that carrying out this practise in groups delivers the optimal results, but I think a solo Dérive sounds more appealing. Perhaps I’ll even forgo listening to music as to best immerse myself? 


I’m well aware it does sound all a bit Emperor’s new clothes-esque, and chances are you won’t see me navigating the deepest unknowns of Bonnington with soles worn thin and a strange far-away expression on my face. All the same, nothing ventured, nothing gained (although maybe even ventured sounds too intentional for Debord).

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