The notion of the dérive
was created by French surrealists
, circa the twenties. The first surrealist movement was looking for means to tap the unconscious mind and reach new ideas and experiences that united dreams and reality. Automatic writing
and random collaborative games
were among their tools. They conceived of the dérive
(literally: drift) as a walk through town that would strip away all of our conscious control over our destination, by using some random means (usually a nice portable die
) to decide which way to turn at the end of the block. The resulting merger between the participant's previous context and his or her new environment - not likely to be a context he or she would normally be found in - revealed unexpected new aspects of reality. Also, the act of walking without purpose or destination was intended to boggle and confound witnesses
of the act, and perhaps provoke in them a new vision of their everyday city life.
Dérive was later adopted and refined by the Situationist International. Guy Debord and his pals were disdainful of the random methods employed by the Surrealists, and seemed to feel that it was beneath a real revolutionary just to let dice lead you around town and have a good time. They started with the idea "that in the city one could create new situations by, for example, linking up parts of the city, neighborhoods that were separated spatially. [...] It was done first in Amsterdam, using walkie-talkies."1 Debord, however, apparently grew to think of that kind of purposefulness as a red herring. He writes in "Theory of the Dérive" in 1958: "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. But the dérive includes both this letting-go and its necessary contradiction: the domination of psychogeographical variations by the knowledge and calculation of their possibilities." He (unfavorably) compares the surrealists in the earlier, random experiments to tadpoles in a circular pool, and calls their developments "imbecilities."
This venom stands to reason when you remember that the SI wanted to reengineer society through precise hacks, whereas the Surrealists mainly wanted to pry open its cracks. "... The situationists' desire to become psychogeographers, with an understanding of the 'precise laws and specific effects of the geographical environment, consciously organized or not, on the emotions and behaviour of individuals', was intended to cultivate an awareness of the ways in which everyday life is presently conditioned and controlled, the ways in which this manipulation can be exposed and subverted, and the possibilities for chosen forms of constructed situations in the post-spectacular world. Only an awareness of the influences of the existing environment can encourage the critique of the present conditions of daily life, and yet it is precisely this concern with the environment which we live which is ignored."2
Both viewpoints are vaguely magical in nature, but where the Surrealists are reading tea leaves, the Situationists are hunched over a cauldron and a spell book, cackling as they write a recipe for world domination. The seed of dérive as a meditative technique was planted by Surrealism, but the Situationists hold that you're only doing it right if your mindset is properly resolved, held and focused. You might look at the Soto and Rinzai schools of Zen Buddhism for an analogue, although that doesn't quite nail it. (Me, I think of it as the difference between counting your breaths as a novice Zen sitter, and not counting - merely focusing your attention on the qualities of the breath and your passing thoughts instead. When I told one co-meditator that not everyone said you had to count breaths, he scoffed and said, "Well, you don't have to meditate." So, opinions are strongly held. The lighter, Surrealist dérive and the hardcore Situationist version might be seen as counting the breaths versus not counting, or training wheels versus no training wheels... or, as different practices altogether. Whatever!)
Some people I've talked to claim that the Surrealist game-sense of dérive is also known as Drunkard's Walk, but this name seems mainly to refer to a math/CS conundrum.
1"Henri Lefebvre on the Situationist International," interview conducted and translated 1983 by Kristen Ross, http://www.notbored.org/lefebvre-interview.html
2Sadie Plant, The Most Radical Gesture: The Situationist International in a Postmodern Age, Routledge
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