My struggle with Danish writing

I really struggle with contemporary Danish writing. Following on from my rant about literary non-fiction in Denmark, or rather lack of same, here’s more.

The cosy literary scene in Denmark feels like yet another closed shop for Team DK only. (OTOH Ken Follett is bizarrely popular.) Whatever happened to life experience and suffering for your art? Issues around creativity, originality and innovation do come up in dispatches now and then. This year we’ve had the Mette Høeg debate (good take from Labeet), plus Peder Frederik Jensen getting it in the neck from the great and the good.

Anyway, here’s some bile on three books which in theory should be right up my street, but which in the end were just another disappointment. The cultural gap here is more Atlantic than North Sea.

The coffee table book

Many books are brick sized (is there a quota?), produced in the best possible taste.

Københavnerne (Copenhageners; excerpt) by Pernille Stensgaard with photos by Anne Prytz Schaldmose, is a portrait of the people and places of Copenhagen. Published in 2013 by Gyldendal with a cover price of DK 350, running to 400 pages and weighing in at 2.2kg, the book is an updated version of København: folk og kvarterer (2002 and 2005), which also appeared in an English edition. Large piles of said edition were on sale at the airport last time I passed through.

Reviews and articles: Politiken | Weekendavisen | Magasinet KBH

The price of Danish books may mean that pple expect something for their buck, but this is ridiculous. You couldn’t even really call it a coffee table book – open, it is the coffee table. Its sheer size is a disincentive to picking it up, let alone to reading it. You can’t exactly curl up with it on the sofa, read it in bed or the bath, or take it with you on the train to dip in and out of. Actually, how can you read it other than at a desk?

I tried that and failed. I wish they’d consider publishing it in separate bits. The prelims will have to tell the story of the 11 areas portrayed – Sydhavn, Vesterbro, Frederiksberg, Nørrebro, Nordvest, Østerbro, Christianshavn, Amager, Ørestad, Islands Brygge and Indre By. Valby must be in there somewhere.

The front cover is of happy Danes bathing in the harbour at Islands Brygge, with the back cover an arty shot of people on bikes. The back endpaper is of Frederiksholm at Sydhavn, but the photo on the front endpaper (?that doesn’t sound right) is something I recognise as closer to reality – a grey portrait of slush on an empty Kalvebod Brygge in front of the Tivoli Hotel doubling as a Soviet apartment block, punctuated by red traffic lights. Leafing through this is pretty much reflected throughout – a minority of RL among the usual city branding shtick. Next, lug the thing back to the library.

The hyped debutante

Koordinater: Københavnertekster (Copenhagen pieces) was published in 2013 by Rosinante with support from the Danish Arts Council. It marks Amalie Laulund Trudsø‘s debut. (Debuts are big in Denmark. Why?) Amalie, born in 1988, recently completed her studies in Danish and Rhetoric at Copenhagen University. In the literary fiction genre, the book retails at DK 149,95 for 92 pages. Litteratursiden went bananas about it, with analysisdebate, more debate, a  book club and a review.

From the publisher’s blurb:

A book about moving to the city – and about the city moving into you…in 60 short pieces, each named after a street in Copenhagen, we follow a young woman getting to know the streets which one after another become part of her daily life. As the seasons change, so do her home and relationships. There’s a bonfire in the park, graffiti in the streets and a hamster on the draining board. And, of course, dancing, kissing and ample red wine.

This sat on my bookshelf for months, until I conceded that I was unlikely to read it. The paragraph free texts presented in the best possible taste just evoke worthy dullness. It’s instructive to note that the place motif was not enough to provoke me to read it. Mind you, in the spirit of transmediality it would be possible to map the 60 streets…

The read deal, but…

Harald Voetmann feels rather more interesting, not least because he has a degree in Latin. (Ironically, in my 20s I practically refused to read books by men. Now I’m going the other way.) Alt under månen (Everything under the moon), a bijou 168 pages for DK 180 (knocking on £20), is an historical romp about three Danish mystics from the 15th century, set on Hven. It takes the form of a diary kept by Tycho Brahe’s assistant and combines an exploration of man’s desire to understand and control nature with a Danish nobleman’s flight from his debts, the hunt for wild sex and the Philosopher’s Stone. All in 168 pages, remember.

If you read Danish there’s a 20 page extract on a journey to Hamburg. Unfortunately in a font to accentuate its historicity, which serves to accentuate Danish’s resemblance to an undeveloped Germanic tongue. Another of my problems with the Danish.

#ot15: my open translation MOOC

OT12, the Open Translation MOOC took place nearly three years ago, but let’s give it a whirl anyway.

Open translation practices rely on crowdsourcing, and are used for translating open resources such as TED talks and Wikipedia articles, and also in global blogging and citizen media projects. There are many tools to help open translation practices, from Google Translate to online dictionaries and translation workflow tools.

Supported by my old friend the Higher Education Academy and run by the Open University, a number of post-MOOC resources are available:

The MOOC used the FLOSS manual Open translation tools as a reference book (see the introduction and why translate for starters), plus NPTEL’s Introduction to translation studies. Useful, both.

The main activities on the MOOC addressed subtitling videos and collaborative translation, looking in particular at quality assurance and workflow issues.

Subtitling videos: making video accessible

Issues related to captioning videos:

  • what to do when what you hear is grammatically incorrect – transcribe or correct? does the better quality of edited captions justify the time and resource needed to edit them? or is automatic captioning ‘good enough’? if so, for what and for whom?
  • acknowledging the translator – do you want your work recognised, or prefer to remain anonymous?
  • difficult to translate directly from a vid – a transcription by a native speaker is a better starting point (well yes)
  • machine translation – often laughably inaccurate, not good at accents, but better than nothing and will get better as the tech advances
  • if the quality of translation is not very high it may still be useful
  • closed captions make video/audio accessible and can also be used for SEO, learning a language, watching something with the sound off, etc

Tools:

  • Google’s automatic captioning for YouTube (vid) – upload a text file with captions and Google takes care of the synchronisation; vid owners can produce transcriptions and also enable viewer-created translations; check options and settings under Subtitles/CC, autotranslations into a range of languages may be on offer
  • Amara – previously Universal Subtitles; an open source platform for subtitling video content from the web; used by Coursera and TED; how to vid
  • more software: Caption It Yourself (info from the US Association for the Deaf) | WinCAPS (priced)
  • VideoNote.es – video watching and notetaking on one screen, could easily be used for subtitling; tried out here

With Danish as a source language opportunites are pretty limited (who does eg The Legacy), although we are back to the issue of post-editing, non-native, etc. For more see MA Translation Studies News, and for a Danish perspective Kirsten Marie Øveraas’ series (De dårlige undertekster | De knap så dårlige | De gode). Subtitling companies include SDI Media Denmark, Subline/Prima Vista.

Collaborative translation

Sections of an OER on the practice of translation (useful!) were translated by participants, using Transifex (open? only 30 day free trial; vid) to manage workflow and crowdsourcing (similar to GatherContent, a content strategy workflow tool):

The Transifex localization platform makes it easy to collect, translate and deliver digital content, web and mobile apps in multiple languages.

Features:

  • autotranslate populates the translation field with a translation from Google Translate
  • suggestions, glossary: “in the context of crowd-sourced translations totally foreseeable decision-making should be part of a clear style guide distributed to all participants before they start work”
  • editing and proofreading – peer review, suggestion and voting facilities

See the FLOSS manual on community managementdictionaries and glossaries.

Issues:

  • the Skopos theory states that you cannot translate a text without knowing the purpose, but for much of the information on the internet the original purpose is unknown; is it possible to deduce the purpose from the context?
  • Mary Snell-Hornby: “a good translator has to be not only bilingual but bi-cultural”; in an age of globalisation does it still hold true? is there a ‘world culture’ that renders culture awareness less relevant (the globish argument – how can you reflect cultural awareness if you don’t know what culture is the target audience)? or is cultural awareness even more important in a global context?

Open translation projects

  • Global Voices Lingua project – translates into dansk, not the other way…see case study
  • TED Open Translation Projectget started; lots of useful resources, but again, into dansk (take another look – some of the TEDxCPH talks must surely be a goer)
  • Wikipedia:Translation – this could be an option; see articles needing translation, search tool and Manypedia, which lets you compare the same page on two Wikipedias; see too Wiki Wednesday…see case study; fiddly mind, and “translating material into other languages from English could be a rather harmful practice as it extends the cultural influence of discourses that developed in the English speaking world into places that might otherwise be protected from them”, quite
  • see also Duolingo (dansk),  a free language learning platform cum crowdsourced text translation platform

Quality assurance

Quality control:

  • should there be a responsibility to ensure the minimum quality of translating and captioning? where does it lie?
  • should there be code of conduct for the people who undertake to translate Internet resources?
  • and what about legal protection?

According to European Standard EN 15038:2006 Translation services: service requirement translators should check their translation in terms of omissions and errors and ensure that specific specifications have been met. Translators cannot revise their own translation, meaning that revision has to be done by another person. Is this relevant and/or practical in the context of open translation, where translators often work as volunteers and may not be professionals?

A ‘good’ translation often depends on how ‘satisfied’ the client is. Can an open translation be measured as such, considering that there is no specific client?

Quality control procedures in on open translation sh/could include

  • a project plan and guide to the common approach (code of practice) shared with the team
  • defined roles and responsibilities
  • a style guide
  • contributor profiles
  • self-check tests and collaboration agreements
  • a forum for queries and sharing resources
  • acknowledge all contributions

Tangible Things: exploring history through objects

My first edX, or rather HarvardX, MOOC is on Tangible Things (@tangiblethings | Facebook), running from 5 August for five weeks:

Gain an understanding of history, museum studies, and curation by looking at, organizing, and interpreting art, artifacts, scientific curiosities, and the stuff of everyday life.

Have you ever wondered about how museum, library, and other kinds of historical or scientific collections all come together? Or how and why curators, historians, archivists, and preservationists do what they do? In Tangible Things, you will discover how material objects have shaped academic disciplines and reinforced or challenged boundaries between people…

In the first section of the course, we will consider how a statue, a fish, and a gingham gown have contributed to Harvard’s history, and you will learn the value of stopping to look at the things around you. In the next section, we will explore some of the ways people have brought things together into purposeful collections to preserve memory, promote commerce, and define culture. Finally, we will consider methods of rearranging objects to create new ways of thinking about nature, time, and ordinary work.

Recommended by someone on #flmuseums, we’ll see how this goes – it looks very American, and that’s not just the Caps Up and added commas.

According to Kathryn Hughes, objects and things have become the dominant way of understanding and interpreting the past, with A history of the world in 100 objects given as an example – objects make better stories than timelines. See its sister programme from last year, Germany: memories of a nation, which certainly worked for me.

Week 1: introductions and Look at the Fish 

After a welcome from the tutors there’s a fun video on how to look at a chair, showed how focusing on different aspects of an object (from the perspectives of environmental science, economics, art, anthropology, history, history of medicine) can open up new ways of thinking about its broader historical or cultural significance:

This is not a chair. Well, it’s not only a chair. As you can see, it can be a tree, a symbol of power, a commodity, a document, a treatment, a sculpture, and much, much more.

List at least five different ways you might redefine a common object in your own house. Explain your choices, using the template: “This is not a _________; it is a __________.” Include a photo if possible.

Another exercise asks when you last visited a museum. What kind of museum was it? Did you learn any history? What was it?

The edX platform is fine, looks more up to date than Coursera and more grown up than FutureLearn, as does the whole thing. To get over the gadzillion responses issue the class is divided into four, three by surname and one for museum professionals, but it’s got cluttered very quickly and isn’t easy to navigate – searching may have to be the way. Self assessment (based on an honour code) in order to get a certificate is on offer, via check boxes for whether you watched the vids, did the exercises or joined the discussion. Neat.

Weird pre-course survey question: What is the highest level of education that your mother and father completed?

OK, let’s look at the fish.

In this unit we explore how investigation begins with close looking. Close looking was the foundation of scientific exploration in the nineteenth century. It is still important today. To begin to understand something, start by simply looking at it. Then, look again.

This is a story about science. But it’s also a story about close looking. It’s a story about the 19th century obsession with material things. In the 19th century, it wasn’t just scientists who looked closely to find information. Poets, politicians, teachers, lawyers, doctors, everyday people collected things as a way to understand the world around them.

There was a belief that you could learn a great deal about looking closely at things, arranging those objects, sorting those things, and in many ways, tracing the shape of nature through your observation of those things.

Facts are stupid things unless brought into connection with general laws. Go back and look at the fish.

And after eight months, Samuel Scudder not only felt that he knew something about fish, he felt that he had learned something about the methods of natural science.

Scudder didn’t begin with a textbook. Scudder began with a fish. And through close-looking, he was able to learn what he needed to understand about this object and its place in a larger system.

…just looking isn’t enough. Observations should prompt questions, connections from other contexts and further research, not start with close preconceived notions setting out to prove a theory.

From the readings: looking closely can improve writing. See also the case study method developed by Harvard Business School.

Choose an object close at hand for this exercise. Choose something tangible and accessible, a physical object you can put on a table in front of you and touch, see, smell—and perhaps even taste. Choose something common but with enough complexity to engage your interest. If you are lucky you could pick something from your garden. Or find an interesting rock, shell, or other thing that piques your interest.

List ten specific observations. Then list ten more.

A pencil is a great eye.” That is, attempt to describe it without words. Photograph it a dozen times, each time from a different angle or focusing on a different detail.

“Facts are stupid things unless brought into connection with general laws”

  • Make a list of questions suggested by your examination.
  • Begin an Internet search for answers to your questions.
  • Search for photographs, art works, or artifacts related to your object.
  • Search for proverbs, poems, or quotations related to your object.

Write a brief paragraph summarizing the most surprising or enlightening thing you discovered. How did your understanding of this object change as you engaged with it? What didn’t you learn through close looking? What are the limits of Louis Agassiz‘s method? What questions emerged from the close looking? What is the difference between physically looking at an object and simply perceiving it on screen?

This approach was outlined in #flmuseums’ final week, and is similar to my idea of curational reading (and writing).

Pretty impressed so far – like #mapmooc, it’s the best of America! I tend to find storytelling a bit tedious, but if it’s well done it does work – I found myself pretty gripped by the fish. From Let’s take another look (in the recommend reading): “I realized I was a presenter of facts, wondering why the students never seemed to understand the concepts…I had been a presenter of learning when I needed to be a facilitator of learning”.

It’s notable that the course doesn’t seem to have any multiple choice quizzes, which I tend to get through via a ‘guess what the teacher is thinking’ approach. To move into long term memory a lesson needs to be associated with what a student already knows (curational), or get them emotionally involved (storytelling).

The team are also behind the Tangible things book, and a post from the Chipstone Foundation hints at how the approach is relevant to #flmuseum’s activist museum, without ramming one message down your throat:

Any material thing is best understood from multiple perspectives, using the tools of diverse disciplines and lessons learned in many different kinds of museums. For now, our challenge is to help our visitors find a way to open these drawers to investigate the contents of these glass vials, to transport them to a lost world far more complex than any one museum can adequately capture.

The rest of the course is released in two units per week, which may result in some dipping in and out. Hopefully we’ll hear from the team more directly in due course – neither #some account has posted since last year’s outing.

Objects linkage: The Brontë cabinet: three lives in nine objects | People’s History Museum’s Object of the Month

The art of exploring: flâneurie in an age of mass tourism

Copious notes from Outbounding’s week long discussion (@outbounding) in May – mainly for distant reading, although qus 8 (identity) and 9 (exploration) are worth a closer revisit.

Particpants: Tina Richardson (@concretepost), John Rogers (@fugueur), Eddie Procter (@landscapism) and Bobby Seal (@bobbyseal1), facilitated by Amy Gigi Alexander (@amyggalexander), plus Linda Lappin (@LindaLappin1; forthcoming book on The soul of place (Amazon US); see Mapping the soul of placeworkshops), and SartreAndSartre (@SartreAndSartre; probably not pretentious at all in RL).

Q1: basic background, definitions

  • the connection between walking urban spaces and navigating the creative imagination – the Romantics used walking as an aid to composition; Coleridge found the pace and meter of steps an effective way of bringing back images sparked by sights on walks
  • the literary character of the Parisian flaneur, the casual wanderer of the streets, was created by Baudelaire in the 19th century, but the idea goes back further to Defoe, Blake, De Quincey and beyond
  • the Situationists, a mostly French political group of writers and artists from the 1950s to 1970s, are quoted as being the inventors of the term: a la ‘‘the study of the precise laws and specific effects of the geographical environment, whether consciously organized or not, on the emotions and behaviour of individuals”
  • they were very practical and walked European cities, mostly Paris, creating maps based on their walks, or dérives, which had some loose rules attached; they could last for hours, even days, were meant to be playful, and based on chance routes taken that made the walkers look at space in a different way
  • the Situationist International had a number of strategies that helped them generate these routes, such as drawing the outline of one European city over another, and walking that route as much as one was able; the newly created superimpositions were then seen as a virtual city, a third city resulting from the overlap of the other two
  • the aim was to question the way the city appeared, however these often cut out swathes of the city that they did not approve of, eg representing areas they thought capital was encroaching on in a disturbing way
  • the Dadaists were an influence on getting people to look and look again, to notice and how to notice what you notice, which might have sparked the process common in Paris of daring to leap into the abyss and explore things in a different way
  • unique and profound images come from discovering an unusual angle or perspective on familiar places, eg going on a long trip then returning home, a repeated journey, revisiting at different times of the year, using a route that is usually used for something else, eg waterways or sewers, to trick the perception

Tina: On a fundamental level we are all psychogeographers, whether we realise it or not, as we all respond, in an aesthetic and psychological way, to urban space – even if we do not consciously acknowledge or recognise that. However, in practical terms a psychogeographical walk would have to have some qualities that are beyond a ‘Sunday stroll’ or a walk ‘down the High Street’ to be called ‘psychogeography’.

  • psychogeographical practice inhabits the territory of metaphysical exploration of the intersection between place, human activity (historical and modern), psychological reaction and the natural world; more specifically liminal spaces, often in an urban or edgeland context away from the familiar and the well-trodden; practitioners root out the places that are overlooked, neglected or invisible to the casual eye
  • psychogeography has generally been seen as urban in focus; in some ways almost anti-rural, certainly uninterested in the conventionally sublime or aesthetically pleasing aspects of the countryside
  • such an approach can be prey to easy caricature as the haunt of earnest devotees seeking out and eulogising the most desolate and God-forsaken urban spaces, however it provides a fresh way to read and interpret geographical space and bring together normally disparate subject matter
  • any spatial entity is equally ripe for psychogeographical enquiry – you can get lost or absorbed in a place or landscape anywhere, seemingly everyday places and spaces almost always have intriguing layers and depth to them, whether urban or rural
  • these place-connections can help us find the wonder in our own surroundings – whether historical, political, ecological or something more spiritual or spectral
  • cf ‘deep topography’, an inclusive and expansive way of describing the sorts of approaches to place we are discussing here, our human response to the places we encounter, often with a lot of personal disclosure (also seen in ‘new nature writing’); it could be argued that this element has become somewhat over-egged…
  • Debord noted the term had a ‘pleasing vagueness’, relating well to how a walk or derive can open up, a sense of looseness and following of unexpected turnings, rather than progressing along a planned route, following signs and the like, with a pleasing tension between a natural urge to know where you are, where you are going – to follow the map – and losing yourself in exploring the moment; a sense of wonder, engaging with the unexplained when least expected
  • writers let a place imprint itself on them rather than the other way around; certain elements can resurface in the mind after you have left a place; by not trying too hard you sometimes discover more, it is a different way of looking at a place; almost actively passive

Greil Marcus: To encounter the unknown facets of the known, astonishment on the terrain of boredom, and innocence in the face of experience.

what is psychogeography?

the short version, via the LRM

Q2: the art/practice of noticing

  • how is ‘noticing’ different from seeing? what are the skills one uses to notice? are there special terms or language used for this kind of experience?
  • looking and looking again – a process of walking through the street which you might know well but using the active process of noticing; transcending the everyday walk into something with an active structure, a deliberate exploration of the space and how it affects the creative mind; the key is adding a structure, so not just looking but looking at the process of how you look
  • various levels of ‘noticing’ – zooming in…on a detail others would drift by, zooming out…a sense of a bird’s eye view looking down on the space (your own internal GPS) to locate yourself in the larger view; then later at home you might realise or discover something else about the space – that is three levels of noticing to start with
  • the repeated journey – how the person connects with the place through which they are moving which brings ’emotional content’, sense data causing mini explosions on our inner map; walking meditation

I strongly dislike it when I have my compass withdrawn by being in a new place and do not having an immediate mapping inside. I am much happier when I know which way is ‘up’. Generally, orientation, for me, starts with an overlay of compass points, and then I need water and or hills and or stations and or monuments (tall buildings, trees, distinct geographical markers, which might be something I, personally, find salient, or might be a wider thing. Usually both, but I have no problem remembering, for example, when in Munich, I am near Max Weber Platz because I think it is AMAZING that an underground station should be named after a sociologist.

  • certain names give you an impression of a walk, for example when places are named after writers; estates and shops designed by the post-war modernists often had sculptures, giving access to art to those who might never visit a gallery, or buildings which could be viewed as sculptural shapes, looking at the everyday in a sculptural way
  • walks which follow the same route during different seasons of the year; collect artifacts and record impressions; the key is to ‘notice’ using numerous senses; the visual stimulants in a given season may not be as pronounced as smells or sounds, or weather
  • looking with a photographer’s eye (artist’s eye, the mindful eye), seeing things in a different light, at different times, means that the relationship with the space evolves,
  • noticing as multi-sense oriented, ie sense-walking, Victoria Henshaw‘s smell-walking
  • we don’t just see the things we’ve been conditioned to see, but make the effort to look and notice for ourselves in a creative way; to experience the city, to construct our own mental map of it, we have to walk its streets looking and exploring; wandering at random, letting the city impress itself upon you – it’s a two way street (pardon the pun) actively practising ‘noticing’ whilst being open to ‘letting’ the fresh imprint land on the mind to shape the mental map
  • memory palaces, dioramas and panoramas also spring to mind
  • the act of noticing is absent in most experiences of place as one is always trying ‘to get somewhere’ and so one’s mind is busy, eg ” I had driven by it every day, and never ‘seen’ it.” Later you mind find out more about what you have seen (the layers again – curation?)
  • but there’s a danger of consciously going out to ‘notice’ stuff rather than submit to the experience and find whatever passes over you – sometimes you might not realise what that experience has been till much later
  • a way to take the pressure off is to take photos and just snap away at anything that catches your eye – trying to make it as spontaneous as possible
  • if you are looking to ‘notice’ something specific for research then that is a different thing – more of a survey, eliminating the random and searching for a trace of a something in particular; targeted looking/noticing

The beauty of a practice that is basically walking and looking and using your imagination is that you can bring whatever it is that you *do* know about to it, and then when talking about it you use your terms of reference, and then in the conversation whoever you are talking to uses theirs, and in that way the conversation is a journey of its own, creating, perhaps, a new glossary as it goes along.

Q3: the flâneur

  • Baudelaire adapted the term flâneur, the male stroller of the city who took the position of a passive and detached observer of urban phenomena; the flâneur of 19th century Paris was usually considered to be bourgeois, or at least independently wealthy, and most likely a writer of sorts, often a dandy
  • the first flâneur appeared in Baudelaire’s 1863 text The painter of modern life, providing Walter Benjamin with material for The Arcades Project
  • today’s flâneur is as flexible and undefinableas today’s psychogeographer, eg the LRM’s Morag Rose calls herself an anarcho-flaneuse, carrying out a feminist flanerie in urban space, oriented in queer theory and challenging structures of power

John Rogers:  I think the flaneur is a bit of a detour. I see them as modernist poets flouncing around in the countryside slurping down absinthe. Aimless drifters. Whereas the Situationists were revolutionaries – there was nothing aimless in their drifts – they wanted to transform everyday life (so they said anyway). However having a wander around in the city gazing at the rooftops is a lovely pursuit in its own right.

Q4: recording psychogeographic journeys – travel writing and more

  • travel writing and psychogeography are not clearly delineated fields, although individuals tend to prefer one term over another; works can be filed in various places in bookshops; sort-of-travel books are usually shelved with actual travel books
  • the methods of recording walks are as broad as the term psychogeography; with social networking and blogging a whole new raft of psychogeographers have been brought to the fore who did not have a voice before; opensource software and GIS have enabled creative walkers to trace their walks and present them in new and exciting cartographic ways
  • is there really a need for a different class of writing? although the idea of a psychogeographic version of a Fodor’s guide is an intriguing one
  • there are certain principles in psychogeography which are absent in traditional travel writing narratives, which often have the goal of going from point a to b with planning and intention; the point here is to offer tools which deepen the travel writing narrative or allow it to come into fruition in new ways
  • a lot of travel writing does involve going from point a to b with planning and intention, but there is a lot of fine travel writing / writing about places which mainly has to do with ‘going with the flow’ or ‘hanging out’ in an interesting place
  • Perec talks about his bedroom and so on – our explorations, after all, are housed in our bodies and work their way out from our inhabited spaces before we ever set foot on a pavement

The best writers seem to be able to both allow themselves to experience a space with fresh eyes whilst also having a process where they can approach a place with a frame of mind which might enable them to capture something different, something others may not have picked up, almost like they are feeling the different layers of time in a place, some parts of which might only reveal themselves much later when writing about it.

  • Lawrence Durrell practised the art of ‘silent identification’ while sitting with his eyes closed and his senses open in the ruins of Delphi, which he describes in his essay The spirit of place; passage from Wordsworth’s Preface to the lyrical ballads, discussing the elaboration of common things and situations through a certain coloring of the imagination to freshen our experience of them, plus his idea about ‘spots of time’, those luminous moments of being which writers snatch out of the dark
  • when we sit down to write about a place, or about anything, we are often surprised to discover how much we do remember, how much we did pick up, and how many sensations and impressions of the atmosphere we have retained without our conscious knowledge; Italo Calvino’s unconscious and remembrance of place

In most modern psychogeographic writing two key features differ quite dramatically from the work produced by the average travel writer; a strong contrarian streak, an attitude that draws writers to ignore the obvious places that people write about and focus instead on the parts of our cities and other landscapes that are unloved and ignored, the margins, very often the places they walk to from their own front door; it’s as if they’re trying to find the extraordinary in the ordinary; the second is a mixing of forms, a blurring of boundaries, merging autobiography, topography, history, myth, fiction, natural history and travelogue.

  • travel writing has many forms, too, but since it is attached to consumption and commercial narratives and other such things, it (can) lack these qualities; the best so-called travel writing has also always adoped this polymath appproach, for instance the work of Patrick Leigh Fermor and Bruce Chatwin
  • quote from Benjamin’s essay: flaneurs prefer  “the scent of a single weathered threshold or the touch of a single tile – that which any old dog carries away” to princely palaces
  • the political angle underpinning writing and practice that might fall under the psychogeographical umbrella, eg issues of land ownership, the tensions between public and private space, trespass, gentrification, displacement of local populations and amenities by corporate or statist development, the list goes on…at a time when walking in certain places and photographing certain buildings can get one into trouble with the authorities, people who like to wander often get an up-close insight into state and corporate power
  • walking in Africa you switch gears and must think like an animal, be attuned to wildlife behavior; in very tangible ways you must resort to a primitive self, and you relate to this landscape as the place where humans began to walk upright
  • walking in Italy or New York I ponder the pentimento effect; this street was something else (a canal) hundreds of years ago, or the lawn was a pasture for sheep; in NYC I walk along streets where I used to live or dine and remember the shops or restaurants long gone, stroll around Grand Central and celebrate that it is no longer filthy; I also explored New York from the waterfront, sailing up and down the Hudson, cruising around Manhattan; it’s like flying; you get a completely different perspective
  • Tina: An Englishwoman in LA: “I was surprised at how different it was to the UK. I had to learn all the rules of being a pedestrian, which were very different to the UK. I think its unsympathetic pedestrian policies made it more exciting.”
  • psychogeography as the study of the many layered connections between  our environment and our psyche, as the deep inner maps we make of the places where we live and transit, in which real experiences mingle with ones imagined, desired, or dreamed
  • do we sometimes connect to a space in a different way once we know the reasoning behind a design? the initial pleasure Walter Benjamin experienced on wandering down a Paris boulevard took on a different perspective once he discovered that Baron Haussmann had designed them with the purpose of moving troops at speed and making it harder for dissenting residents to raise barricades; maybe that it why it is sometimes good to explore a place once without knowing the thinking behind the design and then revisit it with that in mind (layers; the issue with guided walks)
  • generally we inhabit our space without noticing its multiple effects on us; part of the pleasure of exploring places is bound up in learning to see, sense, and read them from many different perspectives
  • the old idea of the genius loci, or governing spirit of location – sites themselves have an indestructible, indwelling spirit or energy that produces certain patterns in life processes taking place there at all levels from the behavior of a single cell to a society; this energy works on most of us at the subliminal level, but it can be also be directed and manipulated for certain ends
  • cognitive or vernacular maps, desire maps, eg Mapping Manhattan
  • gardens as mini representations of the conquered world, displays of power; the ‘world as exhibition’, eg the Paris Exhibition and the World’s Fairs

Q5: mapping

  • maps drawn by hand after or during a walk can yield interesting results, particularly when annotated: what did they smell, feel, hear? people drawing maps can be further enriched by reflecting on their experience
  • Christian Nold’s bio mapping and emotional cartography are also interesting: what is your body saying during your experience? senses are key, see Wendy MacNaughton’s map of Dolores Park and video on drawing on psychogeography
  • maps represent ownership and power: those who control the maps we use exercise a great deal of power over the way we see the world; when we create our own maps we take back some of that power, important at a time when so much of our urban public space is being privatised
  • practical utility in an emotional map, eg for property sales, walkability, sense of a place etc
  • a visual picture of a journey can have more weight than just opening a commercial map or guidebook, see eg Katie Kowalski’s World mapped as pop art and Judith Schalansky’s Atlas of Remote Islands: Fifty Islands I Have Not Visited and Never Will
  • combine approaches into a multi-layer map so you could see the cityscape, the bio readings, and the personal annotations, a different form of writing that slices through the various levels of experience in an accessible way
  • maps are the artifacts of a psychogeographic exploration as much as a guidebook for travel, a form of curation (ha!)

The Yerba Buena map – by using an old 1847 map and annotations, I can stand by the Transamerica Pyramid and realize that waves from the bay would be lapping at my feet, that there are only a dozen or so buildings on the hillside behind me. Then realize that within 7 years, the shoreline would have moved much closer to what it is today. Now I have a new perception of that place. I can never see it the same way again. That’s what mapping and other reporting can do, invite others to re-envision a place.

  • can the maps created by the Situationists as a consequence of doing dérives be used by a third party to trace the original experience? most are more of a philosophical statement than a means to relive their experience; a number of more recent efforts attempt it, and Rebecca Solnit’s INFINITE CITY falls somewhere in the middle
  • Tina: I would use the umbrella term ‘vernacular maps’ for the maps produced by psychogeographers, although the form they take is multiple; they can be emotional maps (Christian Nold), based on a Situationist model (cut-outs) or highly stylised and made in Photoshop; with the use of new technologies they can also involve GIS
  • does psychogeography apply to non-urban landscapes? the focus seems almost exclusively to be on cities, towns and other human developed spaces (ie nature writing not psychogeog); be guided purely by your senses and your internal GPS/emotions – there are ways to begin a psychogeographic journey which would apply to anywhere; there are plenty of opportunities to wander, as Robert MacFarlane does for example, across the countryside
  • Wikipedia: Psychogeography is an approach to geography that emphasizes playfulness and “drifting” around urban environments. This makes sense, as the Situationist movement is very much anti-consumerist, which is not very relevant outside of an urban landscape.
  • in terms of the flaneur being drawn in a direction or directed by the senses, that’s certainly possible anywhere, however it should be a concentrated effort of rediscovery, which also is possible in more remote places but more necessary and profound in a dense urban area
  • that said, we should always try to discover the new in the familiar, whether it’s a city street, a river valley, or a friend; many photographers photograph an area repeatedly, from a slightly different angle, different lighting, etc – finding the thing(s) hidden in plain sight is the payoff

Wild places are political, radical and storied, urban neighbourhoods drip with rich ecosystems, flora and fauna; we really need to get over any outdated binary divide between urban and rural; drift and get lost wherever your feet take you.

Q6: tools and apps:

  • if psychogeography is wandering, why would an app be useful? is wandering directed, if not, can it be both?
  • a false dichotomy – cf using a map of one city to navigate another city – that map is a tool. An app is a tool. Because of using a tool, it’s possible to meander with even less of a preconceived, or unknowingly hidden, agenda. Think of a metronome. A metronome is a tool for musicians to keep the rhythm. Now consider a metronome that purposely and continuously is out of step. Now consider a mobile app that does exactly that in relation to exploring an urban environment.
  • an app or a map is a way to keep time, keep track, or somehow set out a pattern; do apps give a way to plot points or craft a grid of some kind?
  • typically, m/apps streamline; Google Maps easily tells you the easiest route from A to B, but what if an app obstructs taking the obvious route and has you discover your surroundings as a consequence?
  • it’s not about the tool/app, it’s about how you use it – you could use an app/map to keep track of the routes you’ve already traveled and make sure you’re going somewhere new every time
  • what if, instead of the most direct route from A to B, you want to go the most fragrant route? or the quietest? alternate ways to navigate and experience a place, a navigational guide tailored to a variety of needs, desires, etc
  • a number of apps have popped up over the past few years that provide contextual information for given places as you walk, pulling you into certain areas because you’ve been alerted that there’s info about a particular spot; the danger is that you become so focused on the spots that you miss everything else
  • geocaching apps and challenges – having a guiding tool and a purpose doesn’t hurt the experience one bit, since they are still getting lost on directions that come from someone else; it’s a bit like the suggestion above of using the map of a different city, you’re allowing yourself to see the route through another’s eyes
  • techniques such as walking x blocks before turning then walking another x blocks, alternating when I turn left or right, starting on a street starting with “A” and going in alphabetical order as much as possible, using a bingo style card of things you need to spot: something yellow, a sculpture, a brick house, etc. then letting that guide when and where you vary the route (fortunately I seem to have an uncanny ability to get lost without any help)

Q7: photography and video

  • photography – the use of reflections, giving the viewer a conflated view of two or more places and altering the perspective, forcing the viewer to look at a given place in new ways
  • explore a place with all your senses and place no expectations on it – just let the place be without insisting that it deliver any certain type of experience – that’s when the place reveals its nuances and you can capture its essence in a way that a commercial effort usually can’t

Honor your desire to wander. The level of focus and appreciation you develop while genuinely exploring benefits the people in your life – you become more interested and maybe even a little bit more interesting. That level of focus also contributes to improving the quality of the work you do whatever your profession might be.  A flaneur may sometimes appear to be “wasting time” but in fact important inner work is taking place – savoring life.

  • Tina used a Microsfoft sensecam and a Lomography camera on a collaborative project on the British seaside, Reading the Arcades/Reading the Promenades, eg on a  cheeky little psychogeographic walk down the High Street of the coastal town of Hunstanton: Hello! From Hunstanton
  • psychogeography suggests the ‘found object’ of art making – I used to post a lot of pictures of stuff on the ground, or things that seemed to me to make a gallery of the street, whether intentional or ideally unintentional; see mixed in with documentations of actual street art my ‘finds’: citynoise.org/author/elaine

Q8: psychogeography and identity

  • psychogeography as an expression of identity – attached to political ideas; social or anti-social; identifying with certain movements such as feminism, expressing some kind of personal quest or liberation
  • did the practice change or expand the way you see yourself, or the way you relate to a group or idea; how did these connections come into being?
  • Debord saw psychogeography as an anti-consumerist movement – see The Society of the Spectacle
  • by avoiding the beaten path, you’re putting your focus not on the obvious subjects around you, such as typically consumerist symbols (big billboards, store fronts, etc; Danish things…); by doing a dérive you are anti-consumerist by design
  • Debord suggested that, through the derive and other practices, we can develop a way of experiencing the city that is not defined by consumerism or the commodification of our relationships, taking us to the point he called detournment, the turning round of our consciousness
  • writing the body person – I have become chronically ill and can’t ignore it; I’ve been blogging and taking photos in the city since I got ill, it made sense since I’ve always written diaries, and walked; see The Pleasure Bath

Q9: psychogeography and exploration

  • are psychogeographers acting as an explorer in some way? are the environments you find truly the last undiscovered territories? could psychogeography change the genre of travel writing by changing the object of exploration?
  • I am using the word “explorer” for lack of a better word, but it could also be “adventurer” although this doesn’t necessarily have the same connotations of “discovery”. I note “explorer” can be an antiquated term,  attached to certain misconceptions, but for others, it is positive term. 
  • Will Self called psychogeography “the great means we have to actually explore“; anyone could go to a remote indigenous community, but few people can really see the mouth of the Thames river
  • the idea that the world has been seen, discovered, explored almost to the maximum is particularly poignant to the travel writer, who is actively searching for that ‘exploration’ experience, as well as ways to stretch the limits of the genre
  • Tina: I have a slight problem with the term ‘explorer’ due to its colonial connotations – the same goes for some of UrbExing, a lot of which could be described as the domination of space ‘via the phallus’; aside from that, Sinclair talks about this idea of discovery in an article he wrote in the Guardian called ‘Secret Britain’: “These sites, come upon by accident, prick our imagination, provoke reverie” (2009)
  • remember ‘urban orienteering’? implies mapping but doesn’t have an imperialist slant
  • Gertrude Stein wrote after revisiting Oakland and discovering her childhood home was gone: “I find no there there in my hometown; there is no school, no grocery store, no gas station, main street is a ghost town, but for my memoirs I hope to reconstruct it. Researching the landscape has been a wonderful meander into features I did not appreciate when I was young.”
  • Debord’s famous Class War Games
  • geocaching can lead into the experiences to which psychogeography aspires; also Phil Cousineau’s approach of a pilgrimage to drive exploration or experience – you start out looking for one thing and find something else entirely; a true denouement

Finally…

I believe at its heart psychogeography (however you define it) is about
O sharing the hidden stories of our streets and the people who have lived and struggled here
O understanding the hidden power struggles that shape our lives
thinking about who controls space, who uses it and who doesn’t and why
O (re)mapping and (re)imaging where we wander
O respecting the many diverse communities who make our homes what they are
O starting conversations, having a good time and reclaiming the streets for more than shopping

Literary geography: what is it?

The first issue of Literary Geographies (blog cum bibliography) is out! Lots of litcrit, which I’m a bit sniffy about when it appears på dansk, plus a couple of useful articles exploring what we are actually talking about here.

The editorial sees litgeogs going beyond human geography to embrace literary criticism, literary cartography, geocriticism, comparative literature, and the digital and spatial humanities, situating it in the intersection of literary studies, geography and cartography. The journal takes the general position that literary geography is essentially a way of reading, “an approach to literary texts, a geographically-attuned way of reading fiction or poetry or drama” but also “making connections while reading scholarly work in geography and literary studies”.

Up to the 1980s the term was generally taken to refer to the kind of literary gazetteer aimed at reader-tourists discussed by Virginia Woolf in a 1905 review for the Times Literary Supplement. It was not until the ‘spatial turn’ took hold in literary studies nearly a century later that a contrastingly critical literary geography started to gain traction. More recently, the division between academic and creative work on literary geography has also started to be broken down, while literary geographers working on different national canons have also begun to collaborate.

Taking this a step further, Neal Alexander writes in Thinking Space that litgeogs might be regarded as one specific articulation of the cultural turn in human geography. The term can be traced back to 1904, when it meant “little more than the particular places, landscapes, or regions associated with individual writers…a kind of literary geography [which] continues to manifest itself in the form of literary tourism ventures and coffee-table books”, oh dear. In a more academic context he cites Moretti, Andrew Thacker and Sheila Hones, who “offer[s] a model of the literary text as a ‘spatial event’, produced ‘at the intersection of agents and situations scattered across time and space’” (see Narrative space in Let the great world spin). Interesting…

Literary geography is often carried on under other names (imaginative geography, literary cartography, geocriticism, geopoetics, geohumanities) and takes many forms drawing on ideas from a range of disciplines:

  • generating maps from quantitative data as a means of correlating genre with geography or charting the lineaments of a narrative trajectory
  • the nature of the relationship between material and metaphorical spaces
  • literary representations of places and spaces
  • the histories and characteristics of specific genres, such as landscape writing
  • the spatial properties of the text itself as a material object
  • literary geographical readings of early modern drama, realist novels, modernist poetry, and contemporary science fiction

Not quite sure where my ventures might fit in!

Place writing in Denmark: stedssans

The Danish book market is very different from that in the English speaking world. For starters, it’s a very small market, receiving large cash injections from the state via 25% VAT on books, hefty grants and subsidies for the fortunate (some sort of payback for your taxes, perhaps) and an eye wateringly high Public Lending Right Scheme (max UK payment: £6.6K).

The dominance of a single Authors’ School, Forfatterskolen, rather than different flavours of creative writing throughout the higher education system, can be criticised for stifling creativity and producing identikit authors with interchangeable names all writing the same thing in the same style. It would be fun to do some analysis of Litteratursiden’s Årets bedste bøger and ditto fagbøger – eg how many received state support, how many are translations and from what language, how many by women in shifts with n legater…?

And for this UK reader, books are painfully expensive – no £7.99 paperbacks here, or three for two offers, tempting you to impulse buy. Danish books tend to the encyclopedic and the huge, perhaps to justify the cover price. Thank goodness for the excellent Danish library service.

Then there’s the lack of literary non-fiction, my genre of choice. This year’s winner of historical book of the year (Årets Historiske Bog), Ellen og Adam (news story), was praised for taking a ‘new turn’ in literature and being, perhaps, readable. More common is a new publication at  the other end of the scale, a four volume set of diaries written by a member of the Danish government during WW2 – a tad niche, surely? According to P1’s Skønlitteratur, itself rather more highbrow than your average R4 prog, this approach is due to Denmark’s educational tradition, based on the German, with history seen as a science – Wissenschaft – see #sagasandspace, rather than the more populist British approach, public engagement (aka formidling) and all. The Danish higher education system does come over like a mighty dinosaur.

So it’s no real surprise that there’s a lack of writing in the Sinclair/Macfarlane mould in Denmark. (Neither of these two have been translated into Danish, and there’s surprisingly little Sebald on offer). And with Facebook (and Instragram) being the Danish #some of choice, there’s no Twitter or blogging to tap into either. (The blogging thing is weird. Maybe it’s because writing a blog doesn’t make you an Author, plus it’s free in a country where everything has a cost.) Which isn’t to say there is no writing about place or walking, rather that it comes from a rather different…place.

Denmark’s two big cultural exports, Kierkegaard and Hans Christian Andersen, were both walkers. Rather less familiar is Ludvig Feilberg, Denmark’s philosopher of walking, and doubtless Grundtvig had a hand in it all too. A vandringsessay by Kim Skotte in Politiken illlustrates the issues perfectly. Coming in at just over 2K words, I loaded this into OmegaT as a translation exercise, the first time I have used a CAT tool rather than parallel columns in GoogleDocs. The essay was inspired by Frederic Gros’ book  The philosophy of walking, recently published in Danish as . Familiar issues from the start. For example, very short sentences. Alliteration which doesn’t carry over. And at the end of para 3:

Og mens vi går, indhenter vi langsomt os selv.

This is a Kierkegaard allusion. Never mind the spatial turn, this is the philosophical turn.

Turning to books on place, several approach the topic from the perspective of literature, reminiscent of the secondary literature I read on my first degree in German. It feels derivative and unoriginal, and TBH I’m unsure why would you want to read litcrit unless you were studying the lit. Odd.

Anyway, I’m now pulling together the main references on place writing in Denmark I have found – see Stedssans (a sense of place), with posts in the stedssans category.

Dan Ringgaard’s sense of place

Dan Ringgaard is a lecturer in Nordic literature at Aarhus University. He is author of Litteratur in the Tænkepauser series (review) and has undertaken some broader formidling aka public engagement, but as is typical in dansk highered doesn’t blog or tweet.

In an interview from 2013 with Limfjordlitteratur (a little gem!), annoyingly divided into numerous teeny tiny segments, he comes up with the rather fab:

sted = lokalitiet + menneske –> mening, fortællinger

place = a locality + man –> meaning, hi/stories

He also talks about the “national places” found in Danish literature during the 19th century, such as Axel Sandemose’s portrayal of Jante (aka Nykøbing Mors) and its småbymentalitet and Johannes V Jensen’s Himmerland, how place is represented (eg by description, by its interaction with character and plot etc), the resonance of places you know well and the sense of wonder at new places , seeing familiar places in a different light, provins as in umodern vs udkant, and other weighty matters. Good stuff!

He is also at the helm of the section on Literaturens steder from Litteraturens Huse adult education resource?), which also merits closer examination:

As well as all this we have Stedssans (2010; eReolen | review | another; won the Georg Brandes prize), made up of 19 essays in three sections (Pausen, Kloben, Kroppen, Rejsen and Kortet), concluding with Ti teser om stedet, the whole thing based round a critique of Heidegger’s Bauen Wohnen Denken.

2015-06-30 16.18.01

Ringgaard’s Ten theses about place (pn)

There’s a bibliography, but no index. It’s all a bit elitær again, based around litcrit rather than your average Guardian reading flâneur , but there are brighter points – chapters on an airport, an hotel, a big city, a palm island, a mining town which now survives via tourism, plus titles including Palimpsest. Here’s a gallop through the chapters from the outlines at the start of each (plus I’m going to give it another go shortly):

  • Paradisisk Begyndelse – a journey to Brasil (palmeøen), Audrey Hepburn in Rome, Stephen Greenblatt, VS Naipaul in England
  • Heideggers Hytte – discussion of Heidegger and critiques, Paul Celan’s poem Todtnauberg
  • Maigrets Ekstaster – crime fiction
  • Efterretninger fra Greeneland – ie Graham of that ilk
  • Transit, tourist – airports!!
  • Globalt talt – Foucault, Calvino…
  • Fra en stol i Minas Gerais – more Brazil
  • Byens fortælling, byens puls – the big city: Salvador, Brasil
  • Byvandringer – NB, but still litcrit
  • At holde et landskab gående – Morten Søndergaard and AN Other
  • Palimpsest – pot pourri
  • Rejsebrevprovinsbyen
  • Rejsens Sted – Thomas Boberg
  • Stedets VidneCarsten Jensen (closest DK gets to travel lit but old style), and others
  • Kort over Boipeba – palm  island, again
  • Litterær kartografi – Michael Chabon + the usual suspects
  • Korttegnere – novel by Per Olov Enquist
  • Landmålere – Lykke-Per and others