Live in the Moment: The Situationists & Pokemon Go

by Jeff Sparrow/Overland

Over the last few days, the streets have filled with Situationists*, as Pokemon Go sends its legions of players out on prolonged dérives.

OK, the comparison’s slightly ridiculous. Yet consider Situationist pioneer Guy Debord’s description of the dérive, the psychogeographic technique his coterie was trialling in Paris in the fifties:

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.

Anyone who’s downloaded Pokemon Go knows exactly what that’s like.

The game’s buggy. The app empties your battery and it eats your data and its servers are constantly overloaded. Yet for all its flaws, it manages – at least temporarily – to set you wandering a city landscape that’s been re-enchanted, a place where monsters appear in everyday streets and where familiar landmarks serve new purposes according to the logic of a different universe.

Look at the photos Pokemon users are uploading.

An Avian Duodo poses outside a KFC restaurant; a Psyduck sits at the bottom of an aquarium. Two senior citizens wander unknowingly into the path of menacing creature twice their size. A Bulbasor frolics in a university lecture theater.

That’s the beauty of Pokemon Go’s augmented reality – it defamiliarises and thus repurposes the places that we know.

“We are bored in the city,” writes Ivan Chtcheglov in his ‘Formulary for a New Urbanism’, “there is no longer any Temple of the Sun. Between the legs of the women walking by, the dadaists imagined a monkey wrench and the surrealists a crystal cup. That’s lost. … We are bored in the city, we really have to strain to still discover mysteries on the sidewalk billboards. … A mental disease has swept the planet: banalization.”

The augmented reality of Pokemon Go offers, we might say, a downloadable alternative to that banalization, presenting players with startling juxtapositions between the city as is and the city as dreamed. Hence the remarkable testimonies circulating about the game’s effects, with, for instance, The Mary Sue collecting tweets from those afflicted with depression and other mental illnesses discussing how they’ve been inspired to leave the home and socialize.

Look, for instance, at the photo posted by reddit user Haloi, an image showing dozens of Pokemon players gathered at 11pm on Friday evening on the steps of the State Library of Victoria, Australia, drawn there by a number of active ‘lures’ – an in-game version of Debord’s “currents, fixed points and vortexes.”

The building’s a beautiful piece of architecture, with a rich and fascinating history. But Melburnians take the library for granted, and young people don’t, as a rule, hang out there on Friday night. Suddenly, though, it’s become the locus for a temporary community, invisible to all the non-players passing by.

Of course, that’s only part of the story.

“If you visit the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory site while using Pokemon Go,” tweeted @BenRegenspan a few days ago, “you get three free Pokeballs.”

The comment crystalized some of the unease I’d been feeling walking around Melbourne and observing the virtual city springing up alongside the real. The system incorporates prominent landmarks – buildings, sculptures, statues, etc – into its gameplay, retooling them as PokéStops and gyms.

On the one hand, that’s way cool – suddenly, the old pub near your house is inhabited by monsters.

On the other, there’s something faintly distasteful about the recuperation of specific real histories into a billion-dollar corporate mythology. Nearly 150 people lost their lives when the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory burned to the ground, entirely needless deaths caused by the atrocious working conditions of the garment trade. The tragedy became a rallying point for the trade union movement, the name of the factory, a shorthand reference to employers’ greed.

Now, though, it’s three free Pokeballs.

We might also say, then, that, even as the game leads players to embrace the dérive, it also offers a remarkable demonstration of the phenomenon that Debord critiqued.

“The whole life,” he wrote, “of those societies in which modern conditions of production prevail presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles. All that once was directly lived has become mere representation.”

In particular, Debord emphasizes the remarkable ability of the modern city to destroy its own past.

“The ‘new towns’ of the technological pseudo-peasantry,” he argues, “are the clearest indications, inscribed on the land, of the break with historical time on which they are founded; their motto might well be: ‘On this spot nothing will ever happen – and nothing ever has.’ Quite obviously, it is precisely because the liberation of history, which must take place in the cities, has not yet occurred, that the forces of historical absence have set about designing their own exclusive landscape there.”

Augmented reality might defamiliarize urban banality but it does so by colonizing fantasy for multinational branding: nothing says “forces of historical absence” like an elaborate mythos created by years of corporate marketing.

Then again, why should it be otherwise? Capitalist banalization inevitably seizes every aesthetic critique of capitalist banalization, while utopia and dystopia always shadow each other.

And there’s something still deeply attractive about a game that invokes, even for a minute, the new kind of urbanism about which Chtcheglov mused:

The architecture of tomorrow will be a means of modifying present conceptions of time and space. It will be both a means of knowledge and a means of action. Architectural complexes will be modifiable. Their appearance will change totally or partially in accordance with the will of their inhabitants.

Isn’t that the vision that makes Pokemon Go so addictive – the momentary glimpse of a world that might be?


Jeff Sparrow is the former editor of Overland. He is the co-author (with Jill Sparrow) of Radical Melbourne: A Secret History and Radical Melbourne 2: The Enemy Within, the editor (with Antony Loewenstein) of Left Turn: Essays for the New Left and the author of Communism: a love story, Killing: Misadventures in violence, and Money Shot: A Journey into Censorship and Porn. On Twitter, he’s @Jeff_Sparrow.

*Editor’s note: The Situationists were a small Paris-based group of revolutionaries active from the late 1950s to early 1970s. They wrote prolifically about psychology, political theory, militancy and revolution. Some of their most famous texts are Society of the Spectacle by Guy Debord and The Revolution of Everyday Life by Raoul Vaneigem. Their ideas had a major influence on the May ’68 student and worker revolts in France as well as the broader New Left. Visit The Anarchist Library and Situationist international Archive for more information on the Situationists.

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