The Game of the Dérive: Drifting away in the City towards the Comprehension of Human Empathy

During the first weeks of lockdown, the thought of exercising my right to one walk per day never even crossed my mind. It was just as if my flatmate and I tacitly decided to retire in our flat, and our living space spontaneously shrank to fit the walls of our home in Woodlands.

It was just towards the end of May, with the days getting longer and warmer, that I felt the need to escape from the restricting rooms of our building. And that was when my game of dérive started.

As Paola Maria Clemente writes when describing Guy Debord’s theory, the dérive is a personal game, played in the city street in search for a meaningful connection with the urban environment, without demanding a specific destination. It is about letting oneself drift away, guided by the sensations of the moment.

The rules of the game were simple, although at the time I didn’t realise I was a player.

“Orientation originates from personal disorientation”. *

I stepped outside, and for the first in a while I did not have a destination in mind. No rushing to classes, no subway rides to work: the space was there, ready to be explored, free of the reference points from the old, structured life. For the first time I could pay attention to the other pawns in place: the blocks of tenements, the backyards, the long tree-lined roads. In that sea of asphalt and buildings, the freedom of choice was making me feel disoriented and dizzy. I did not have to go anywhere; I could just wander for the sake of it. It was exactly from this urban seasickness that I found a path- or better, the path found me.

I let myself get lost in the flat, intersecting streets of Woodlands. I let the blocks of tenements guide my feet around the corners, through West Princes Street and up to Great Western Road. I followed the tide of sensorial stimuli: a blooming flower bed, music slipping away from an open window, the lazy silhouette of a man sunbathing from his living room. It was this train of impressions that aroused my curiosity as I made my way through the game. I didn’t need to find a path, because the path was revealing itself.

“Look at the immediate surroundings as if you were an alien”. *

Glasgow looked different and the same at once. After several weeks of isolation, everything around me had stayed as it had always been. It seemed incredible to me that the cement and bricks dared to stay there, unmoved and unperturbed, uncaring of whatever might have been happening around them. The inorganic life of the city was inevitably going ahead, and it wasn’t certainly scraped by the waves which were instead shaking our lives.

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What had changed, though, was the way I was looking at the city. After the time spent in quarantine, I felt alienated from the outside space. My gaze was new and fresh, as if I were observing everything for the first time. The roads, once so busy and crowded, looked peaceful and intimate, as the sunset light timidly knocked at the shop windows. The space didn’t belong to me anymore, but the city let me in its own space, and I accepted its invitation, though hesitating like a guest in some strangers’ house. It was this feeling of estrangement that made me look at trivial objects with a renovated surprise, like a child staring at the world for the first time.

“The dérive is the product of the interaction between space and the observer, […] full of a unique meaning accessible only from the person experiencing it”. *

What the dérive really revealed to me was the value of the encounter with the other. While I had left my inner world between the walls of my flat, drifting away in Woodlands reminded me of the existence of a sense of community, of the wonders that rediscovering the other brings with it.

Seeing the city under a new light had made me reevaluate apparently meaningless gestures, like a passer-by’s glance on my way home. His look was incorporating a particular awareness, the awareness of those who have witnessed the loneliness of isolation. It is probably during these striking events that identifying with the other comes easier: while looking at each other, the thought inevitably went to the situation we were living. As excessively optimistic and poetic as it may sound, it was this reflection, my state of mind mirrored in the eyes of a stranger, that made me understand the meaning of empathy and human solidarity. At that moment, it was impossible not to think “I know, we’re all on the same boat”. And it was while I was dragged away by the tide that I realised that I wasn’t alone on the boat, and I wasn’t the only player either.

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This was my dérive, as Guy Debord would define it: letting the city drag me offshore. With no intended destination, I did not look at the city as a means, but as the end of my journey. I didn’t plan the shortest route to the supermarket or the easiest way to the library. Instead, I let the city speak to me in a new language, a secret code that was cracked only through a silent communication with the other.

Note: *Quotes translated from Paola Maria Clemente’s book “La deriva – istruzioni per perdersi”

 

[Silvia Paciaroni, she/her, @silviapaciaroni]

[Images Credit: Silvia Paciaroni, she/her, @silviapaciaroni]

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