Looking and seeing are different things, and understanding depends on what we do with them; this is where phenomenological perception is vital to our field
Koyaanisqatsi, made 40 years ago, is a movie celebrating the beauties of the Earth, and the impact of modern civilisation upon it; a stream of images upheld by a Philip Glass soundtrack, it’s a kind of horror movie of the history of western civilisation, especially in the USA. Some of the highly spectacular images flash by, some linger, and some are held just long enough… just long enough for a different level of awareness to kick in, and transform the largely passive act of seeing or watching into looking. The passive mind finds itself jolted into action; perhaps the overlong dwelling on a single scene is like a burst of radio silence, generating anxiety, a question about the deviation from normal expectations, while the film itself offers no informational guidance, no explanatory context. It makes you wonder: What’s going on here? And then how did we get here, to this juncture?1
This is the kind of image technique that is deployed in many psychogeographic films, like those of Patrick Keiller2 and Grant Gee’s Patience (after Sebald) (albeit in these cases with a commentary). It’s absolutely not a technique that makes a box office hit, but I find it absorbing, if not always enjoyable per se. Watching Koyaanisqatsi for the first time in four decades recently, I was struck not just by its assertively spectacular visuals, but by its quasi-psychogeographic style, and I wondered if that’s where I picked up my liking for such films. So it was perhaps a predictable surprise when I watched to the very end of the credits and saw among the ‘Special Thanks to…’, the name of Guy Debord, Situationist author of The Society of the Spectacle and instigator of psychogeographic practice − and a figure whom regular readers of NE will probably find familiar. Sometimes such small ‘discoveries’ can feel like minor epiphanies.
This is where the radical praxis of psychogeography works, or should work − by focusing attention unexpectedly, generating the question ‘what’s going on here?’; the implication being that the answer may also be out of the commonplace, perhaps a questioning of the structure of social power, or an insight into the construction of the seen world, when the seen world opens to the usually unseen. A challenge to complacency, anyway.
Round about the same time, a friend referred me to the poem that titles this piece, Para leer en forma interrogativa, by Julio Cortazar.3 Online Spanish translations offer ‘To read interrogatively’, but my friend rendered it a little differently: ‘To look is to ask a question’. If you read the poem you can see my friend’s effort pretty much fits the meaning, too, and is a lot more poetic than Google Translate. And anyway, perfect translation doesn’t really matter in what you take from poetry. He wrote “the key idea for me was in the title”, and he went on to say something very like what I took from Koyaanisqatsi: “just to be aware is to seek knowledge or more importantly, understanding”.
Here’s a snippet:
Has visto / verdaderamente has visto / la nieve los astros los pasos afelpados de la brisa
(you’ve seen / have you really seen / the snow the stars the velvety paces of the breeze…)
Both the films and the poem, or my friend’s rendering of it, work with that moment when attention is arrested, transmuted from the passive to the active. This is the point in our appreciation of places where the principles of psychogeography and phenomenology overlap. It’s where seeing or watching becomes, as in the poem, looking.
Which puts me in mind of how we visit sites. Modern tourism as a whole is built around the leisure industry’s Spectacle: a catalogue of must-see sights, largely shorn of their meaning to local cultures, something separate to locale. Lacking historical depth, they function as contemporary economic resource rather than an appreciation of the place in its geographical, temporal and cultural context. This is the consumerised landscape of sight-seeing, or in our context. site-seeing (having a special interest in ancient or sacred sites doesn’t necessarily get us off the hook). How often have you visited a site and felt nonplussed, impressed but at face value, informed by the guidebook but by little else? We may be looking for some connection, but how do we find that point at which our seeing becomes looking? Some will meditate, some will dowse, some will construct votive activity ranging from ritual or dance to leaving well-meaning tat. It doesn’t always work, and we come away with little more than photos and a fragile memory, and perhaps a feeling of whether getting there was worth the carbon emissions we produced. Of course, if we got there by pilgrimage, the classic technique for turning seeing into looking, then ‘carbon guilt’ is reduced; but in general, if seeing doesn’t become looking, what’s the point?
I am certainly not advocating non-physical or internet travel − many places will link instantly to an inner perception, a state in which we are aware of far more going on than our sight, and a memory far more vivid than a photo. Experience tells me visiting one or two sites rather than a string of them at a time, and prior familiarisation with their historical and cultural context. But more particularly, we could deepen our familiarity with our own hinterland. We may not have the spectacular sites in our backyard, but we have places that offered inspiration and ritual to our forebears, and at a distance at which we can walk, or at least minimise our carbon footprint. We have libraries to help familiarise us with our place. And we can use the techniques of phenomenology and psychogeography to tease out insights, to find or create our own landscapes of meaning and numen nested within our locale, that informed our predecessors’ understanding of place. And it becomes a way of honouring and validating our ancestors in a place.
1. A similar technique is followed in its follow-up, Powaqqatsi. Both titles are from the Hopi language; Koyaanisqatsi is translated as ‘Life out of balance’, Powaqqatsi as ‘Life in Transition’. The former’s message is very clear; the latter less so, and it tends to be Koyaanisqatsi that is more remembered today for its depiction of environmental and human degradation (even more powerful and destructive today than when it was made, to the extent that some aspects of our global human existence are already on borrowed time). Clearly, though, like Margaret Thatcher’s soon-forgotten climate change speech to the UN in 1989, clear as the message was, it didn’t sink in where it mattered.
2. E.g. The trilogy London, Robinson In Ruins and Robinson in Space.
3. Poem by Argentinian writer Julio Cortazar, and song by Catalan jazz musician Eva Fernández. Thanks to David Rivett.
Published NE168 (June 2022), pp.24-25