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Situationist Comedy


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Not all who wander are lost. — J.R.R. Tolkien

'TURN RIGHT at Pottery Barn and left at the food court," the Hallmark Store employee told me. I was in Valley Fair partaking in what the Situationists would call psychogeography, and I needed directions to the Papyrus place so I could buy a notebook to write all this down.

The Situationist International, a revolutionary French anarchistic art-as-life political movement originating in the '50s, advocated psychogeography—that is, a form of urban exploration where you map emotions onto the physical constructs of the environment in an attempt to avoid work and the banalities of the everyday urban experience. In French, it's related to the concept of derive, which literally translates as "drifting" and in Situationist parlance refers to locomotion without a goal or to a "mode of experimental behavior having to do with a technique of rapid passage through varied ambiances." The Situationists directly influenced the student riots in Paris in 1968, and many have suggested—right or wrong—that these delinquent intellectuals also indirectly influenced the Sex Pistols and the rise of London punk in the '70s.

Guy Debord, one of the Situationist heavyweights, explained psychogeography this way: "The sudden change of ambiance in a street within the space of a few meters; the evident division of a city into zones of distinct psychic atmospheres; the path of least resistance which is automatically followed in aimless strolls (and which has no relation to the physical contour of the ground); the appealing or repelling character of certain places—all this seems to be neglected."

Basically, go walk through Sunnyvale guided by a map of Los Gatos. That's what he's talking about. It's like life as performance art.

My dérive began across the street from Valley Fair in Santana Row, the Las Vegas of San Jose. After leaving a media luncheon with the San Jose Earthquakes soccer team at Maggiano's, I freeloaded a beer from a pal at Yankee Pier and then headed over to Valley Fair, a constantly changing place. It seems like they're always adding new stores to the mall. The Victoria's Secret store is huge. No, I did not lurk near the fitting rooms.

I did, however, visit the manly home-away-from-home Restoration Hardware, where a stack of books unrelated to hardware immediately caught my eye: Peter Bowler's A Superior Person's Second Book of Weird and Wondrous Words. On the back cover, one finds the word "neoteny" defined as "An indefinite prolongation of the period of immaturity, with the retention of infantile or juvenile qualities into adulthood."

With that clearly in mind, I went back to Victoria's Secret and gawked at a few orgasmic-looking 20-year-olds flipping through a pile of bras. Three employees in five minutes asked me if I needed help finding something.

Outside in the parking lot, I passed by the Organized Living store, which had a huge sign that read, "Going out of business." (Of course they're going out of business—who the hell would want an organized life?)

Then I waltzed across Winchester to Music Music Music, a sheet-music establishment I grew up playing piano inside of. I just had to sit down with the sheet music for "La Vie en Rose" before I left.

The urban drift wound up back in Santana Row with a few Stellas and a Pernod at Left Bank, a swanky but unpretentious French restaurant. Inside Left Bank, you really feel like you're in France, especially since Bastille Day is tomorrow, July 14.

According to Debord, in a dérive, one or more persons during a certain period drop their relations, their work and leisure activities and all their other usual motives for movement and action and let themselves be drawn by the attractions of the terrain and the encounters they find there. Chance is a less important factor in this activity than one might think: from a dérive point of view, cities have psychogeographical contours, with constant currents, fixed points and vortexes that strongly discourage entry into or exit from certain zones.

Vive La Révolution!

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From the July 13-19, 2005 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2005 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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