RELATED TERMS: Alienation effect (Verfremdungseffekt); Defamiliarisation, Ostranenie or making strange; Psychogeography; Situationist International

Within the practice of designing narrative environments, detournement may usefully be articulated with ontological metalepsis, as a creative and critical technique.

Détournement is the reuse of preexisting artistic elements in a new ensemble. It has been a constantly present tendency of the contemporary avant-garde, both before and since the formation of the Situationist International.

The two fundamental laws of détournement are the loss of importance of each detourned autonomous element, which may go so far as to lose completely its original sense, and, at the same time, the organisation of another meaningful ensemble that confers on each element its new scope and effect. (Internationale Situationniste, 1959)

Bonnett explains further that detournement involves taking elements from a social stereotype and turning them against it, by means of mutation and reversal, so it is disrupted and exposed as a product of alienation.

This achieves a destabilisation of the spectacle that modern life (i.e. life in the period after the Second World War in Europe) has become, shocking people out of their isolation and passivity. Detournement is a kind of antidote to particular forms of social conditioning.

The Situationists took detournement to be a revitalisation of the Dada and surrealist traditions of the ‘ready-made’ and Andre Breton’s call to divert the object from its ends.

Detournement resembles the ideas of defamiliarisation and estrangement first developed in Modernism, although the Situationists sought to give it a more politically combative than aesthetic accent (Brooker, 2003: 210). It is intended to have a wide potential application, for example, to architectural styles and the built environment, and to everyday situations with their associated gestures, manners and rituals.

In Debord’s theorisation of Situationism, detournement is closely aligned with derive and psychogeography. Derive translates literally as drifting but it entails a more active and purposefully disorienting strategy than this suggests. Debord defines derive as an experimental mode of behaviour linked to the conditions of urban society. It is a technique of transient passage through varied ambiances

The combined effect of the ‘derive’ and ‘detournement’, therefore, is that an urban environment is encountered, as if by an acutely observant stranger, as an event or situation in all its limitations, risks and possibilities . In being newly experienced and perceived, it is thus in effect destabilized, as is the urban mentality of the psychogeographer (Brooker, 2003: 210).


Bonnett, A. (1989). Situationism, geography, and poststructuralism. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, 7 (2), 131–146.

Brooker, P. (2003). A Glossary of Cultural Theory, 2nd ed. London, UK: Arnold.