In a recent opinion piece in the New York Times, author Jonathan Franzen bemoans the pervasive tendency of more and more of us to get lost on Facebook or to drift away on a video game or some other enticing gadget. We are, he argues, substituting “liking” for love, screen surfing for life:
Let me toss out the idea that, as our markets discover and respond to what consumers most want, our technology has become extremely adept at creating products that correspond to our fantasy ideal of an erotic relationship, in which the beloved object asks for nothing and gives everything, instantly, and makes us feel all powerful, and doesn’t throw terrible scenes when it’s replaced by an even sexier object and is consigned to a drawer.
To speak more generally, the ultimate goal of technology, the telos of techne, is to replace a natural world that’s indifferent to our wishes — a world of hurricanes and hardships and breakable hearts, a world of resistance — with a world so responsive to our wishes as to be, effectively, a mere extension of the self. Let me suggest, finally, that the world of techno-consumerism is therefore troubled by real love, and that it has no choice but to trouble love in turn.
This, of course, is not a new idea. Over a century ago, Marx observed not of Internet technology but of the revolutionized social landscape of newly industrialized cities that, “Men can see nothing around them that is not their own image; everything speaks to them of themselves. Their very landscape is alive.” Indeed, the externalization of human desires and identity, the materialization of what was once thought intangible is the centuries’ long project of capitalism. It is what makes advertising “a magic system,” as Raymond Williams once put it, that grants us our deepest desires for love and fulfillment through the purchase of commodities whether they be fetishized material objects or spectacular consumer events or places.
Here in San Diego one of the centerpieces of our economy is the marketing of “spectacular nature” at Sea World, the zoo, or even the “experience” of the beach as mediated by tourist propaganda. Even many of our urban spaces like Old Town, Balboa Park, and the Gaslamp have been carefully constructed and sold as “history” whether or not they bear any resemblance to it. Indeed, to “vacation,” as someone once said, “is to occupy an image.” A vacation offers the consumer packaged “leisure” and “fun” rather than spontaneous play or joy. In the tourist city all that was once directly lived has moved away into the representation. To visit San Diego as it sells itself is to visit no place in particular, to encounter nothing new or even real. Some people live here and know this while others live here their entire lives without ever really being here.
In my first novel, Drift, I explored the idea of what it’s like to live here “beneath the postcard,” through the character of Joe Blake, an alienated Midwestern émigré struggling to see a San Diego beyond its self-promotion. Joe notes that
“he lived in a state with . . . a rich tradition of self-promotion and disillusionment, dreams of Arcadia and apocalypse” but he “doesn’t have the bitterness of a film noir hero because he didn’t believe in the dream. He longed for things he couldn’t buy, things he couldn’t even put into words.”
Joe struggles to find some authentic heart to the city and genuine rootedness, and he bucks up against the slick packaging of the Gaslamp District as he muses about San Diego past and present:
There wasn’t any room left for the cheap theatres or the people who went there. Everything had to be upscale, big money. He hated much of the gentrified downtown, but he realized that many of the old things he loved had started in the same way as these new places. The bright lights and the hype brought out the crowd and Joe refused to give up on the crowd. Even in the midst of the most calculated theme park zone, he thought, was the potential for a newness that superseded commercial intent. You have to learn to be surprised by the place you know, Joe thought, to find wonder and poetry in the street outside your door, to unlock the residual dream in the streets.
No one who commented on Drift noted it, but the title of novel comes from the French word dérive. Joe’s wanderings are a fictional riff on French situationist and May ‘68 revolutionary theorist Guy Debord’s notion of dérive as political practice. In “Theory of Dérive” Debord defines the concept of drifting: “In a dérive one or more persons during a certain period drop their usual motives for movement and action, their relations, their work and leisure activities, and let themselves be drawn by the attractions of the terrain and the encounters they find there.”
For Debord and his comrades, the city was a kind of text, an indoctrination of sorts. As Sadie Plant puts it:
“The situationists pointed to the forms of conditioning imposed by shopping malls, night clubs, adverts, and even police methods of interrogation as evidence of the existence of a plethora of techniques by which experiences, desires, attitudes, and behavior are presently manipulated. The width of streets, the height of buildings, the presence of trees, advertisements and lights, the circulation of traffic, the colors of front doors, and the shapes of windows: urban lives are shaped in the most subtle and neglected ways by these arrangements of space. The situations in which we live are created for us.”
The purpose of dérive is to detourn the calculated space of the city, to turn it around and reclaim its lost meanings. The situationists wanted to see how certain neighborhoods, streets, buildings, or other spaces “resonated” with states of mind or desires. They wanted, as Plant reminds us, to “seek out reasons for movement other than those for which an environment was designed.”
One should use the environment of the city for one’s own ends, not those of the elite, the urban planners, the tourism czars and city marketers. Inspired by earlier avant garde artistic movements like dadaism and surrealism, the psychogeograhic adventures of the situationists were designed to get people out of the “small triangles” of their daily lives, to escape “the narrowness of the real Paris in which each individual lives.” You drift to get lost and you lose yourself to find yourself. This is because, as Rebecca Solnit points out in A Field Guide to Getting Lost, “to be lost is to be fully present and to be fully present is to be capable of being in uncertainty and mystery.”
It is not an unconscious, aimless drift, but a chosen surrender—an end run around the life you got handed to you but did not choose to the living breathing heart of the moment.
And if we get out of the small triangles of our San Diegos, we may surprise ourselves. Franzen ends his essay by reminding us that: “When you stay in your room and rage or sneer or shrug your shoulders, as I did for many years, the world and its problems are impossibly daunting. But when you go out and put yourself in real relation to real people, or even just real animals, there’s a very real danger that you might love some of them. And who knows what might happen to you then?”
So, as you slide past Memorial Day and slip into summer, fall in love with the city as you construct it for yourself. A few general principles to remember:
- The randomness of a dérive is fundamentally different from a stroll—disorient yourself.
- You can use public transit or taxis but you may not drive.
- The average length of a dérive is one day, considered as the time between two periods of sleep. Free yourself from the prison of measured time.
- The spatial field can be delimited or vague—a block, a neighborhood, a series of spaces connected by bus, bike, trolley or taxi. Follow your desire.
- Study the terrain.
- Build in “possible rendevous” with someone whose identity you cannot possibly know. This will require starting up conversations with strangers in the places you choose and random passersby as you move.
- As Debord notes: “a loose lifestyle and even certain amusements considered dubious have always been enjoyed by our entourage—slipping by night into houses undergoing demolition, hitchhiking nonstop and without destination” along with “wandering subterranean catacombs forbidden the public.” Etc.
- Keep in mind that the goal of the dérive is to break down the distances that separate regions or zones of the city “that may have little relation with the physical distance between them.”
- You can drift alone or with a few fellow travelers, but not too many.
- Replace travel as an adjunct to work with travel for pleasure.
- Extend the terrain of play.
- Get lost, San Diego!