Flâneur (pronounced: [flɑnœʁ]), from the French noun flâneur, means "stroller", "lounger", "saunterer", or "loafer". Flânerie refers to the act of strolling, with all of its accompanying associations. A near-synonym is boulevardier.
The flâneur was, first of all, a literary type from 19th century France, essential to any picture of the streets of Paris. The word carried a set of rich associations: the man of leisure, the idler, the urban explorer, the connoisseur of the street. It was Walter Benjamin, drawing on the poetry of Charles Baudelaire, who made this figure the object of scholarly interest in the 20th century, as an emblematic archetype of urban, modern experience. Following Benjamin, the flâneur has become an important symbol for scholars, artists and writers.
The terms of flânerie date to the 16th or 17th century, denoting strolling, idling, often with the connotation of wasting time. But it was in the 19th century that a rich set of meanings and definitions surrounding the flâneur took shape.
The flâneur was defined in a long article in Larousse’s Grand dictionnaire universel du XIXe siècle (in the 8th volume, from 1872). It described the flâneur in ambivalent terms, equal parts curiosity and laziness and presented a taxonomy of flânerie—flâneurs of the boulevards, of parks, of the arcades, of cafés, mindless flâneurs and intelligent flâneurs.
By then, the term had already developed a rich set of associations. Sainte-Beuve wrote that to flâne "is the very opposite of doing nothing". Honoré de Balzac described flânerie as "the gastronomy of the eye". Anaïs Bazin wrote that "the only, the true sovereign of Paris is the flâneur". Victor Fournel, in Ce qu’on voit dans les rues de Paris (What One Sees in the Streets of Paris, 1867), devoted a chapter to "the art of flânerie". For Fournel, there was nothing lazy in flânerie. It was, rather, a way of understanding the rich variety of the city landscape. It was a moving photograph (“un daguerréotype mobile et passioné”) of urban experience.
In the 1860s, in the midst of the rebuilding of Paris under Napoleon III and the Baron Haussmann, Charles Baudelaire presented a memorable portrait of the flâneur as the artist-poet of the modern metropolis:
The crowd is his element, as the air is that of birds and water of fishes. His passion and his profession are to become one flesh with the crowd. For the perfect flâneur, for the passionate spectator, it is an immense joy to set up house in the heart of the multitude, amid the ebb and flow of movement, in the midst of the fugitive and the infinite. To be away from home and yet to feel oneself everywhere at home; to see the world, to be at the centre of the world, and yet to remain hidden from the world—impartial natures which the tongue can but clumsily define. The spectator is a prince who everywhere rejoices in his incognito. The lover of life makes the whole world his family, just like the lover of the fair sex who builds up his family from all the beautiful women that he has ever found, or that are or are not—to be found; or the lover of pictures who lives in a magical society of dreams painted on canvas. Thus the lover of universal life enters into the crowd as though it were an immense reservoir of electrical energy. Or we might liken him to a mirror as vast as the crowd itself; or to a kaleidoscope gifted with consciousness, responding to each one of its movements and reproducing the multiplicity of life and the flickering grace of all the elements of life.— Charles Baudelaire, "The Painter of Modern Life", (New York: Da Capo Press, 1964). Orig. published in Le Figaro, in 1863.
Drawing on Fournel, and on his analysis of the poetry of Baudelaire, Walter Benjamin described the flâneur as the essential figure of the modern urban spectator, an amateur detective and investigator of the city. More than this, his flâneur was a sign of the alienation of the city and of capitalism. For Benjamin, the flâneur met his demise with the triumph of consumer capitalism.
In these texts, the flâneur was often juxtaposed to the figure of the badaud, the gawker or gaper. Fournel wrote: “The flâneur must not be confused with the badaud; a nuance should be observed there…. The simple flâneur is always in full possession of his individuality, whereas the individuality of the badaud disappears. It is absorbed by the outside world…which intoxicates him to the point where he forgets himself. Under the influence of the spectacle which presents itself to him, the badaud becomes an impersonal creature; he is no longer a human being, he is part of the public, of the crowd.”
In the decades since Benjamin, the flâneur has been the subject of a remarkable number of appropriations and interpretations. The figure of the flâneur has been used—among other things—to explain modern, urban experience, to explain urban spectatorship, to explain the class tensions and gender divisions of the nineteenth-century city, to describe modern alienation, to explain the sources of mass culture, to explain the postmodern spectatorial gaze. And it has served as a source of inspiration to writers and artists.
While Baudelaire characterized the flâneur as a "gentleman stroller of city streets", he saw the flâneur as having a key role in understanding, participating in and portraying the city. A flâneur thus played a double role in city life and in theory, that is, while remaining a detached observer. This stance, simultaneously part of and apart from, combines sociological, anthropological, literary and historical notions of the relationship between the individual and the greater populace.
In the period after the 1848 Revolution in France, during which the Empire was reestablished with clearly bourgeois pretensions of "order" and "morals", Baudelaire began asserting that traditional art was inadequate for the new dynamic complications of modern life. Social and economic changes brought by industrialization demanded that the artist immerse himself in the metropolis and become, in Baudelaire's phrase, "a botanist of the sidewalk". David Harvey asserts that "Baudelaire would be torn the rest of his life between the stances of flâneur and dandy, a disengaged and cynical voyeur on the one hand, and man of the people who enters into the life of his subjects with passion on the other".
The observer–participant dialectic is evidenced in part by the dandy culture. Highly self-aware, and to a certain degree flamboyant and theatrical, dandies of the mid-nineteenth century created scenes through self-consciously outrageous acts like walking turtles on leashes down the streets of Paris. Such acts exemplify a flâneur's active participation in and fascination with street life while displaying a critical attitude towards the uniformity, speed, and anonymity of modern life in the city.
The concept of the flâneur is important in academic discussions of the phenomenon of modernity. While Baudelaire's aesthetic and critical visions helped open up the modern city as a space for investigation, theorists such as Georg Simmel began to codify the urban experience in more sociological and psychological terms. In his essay "The Metropolis and Mental Life", Simmel theorized that the complexities of the modern city create new social bonds and new attitudes towards others. The modern city was transforming humans, giving them a new relationship to time and space, inculcating in them a "blasé attitude", and altering fundamental notions of freedom and being:
The deepest problems of modern life derive from the claim of the individual to preserve the autonomy and individuality of his existence in the face of overwhelming social forces, of historical heritage, of external culture, and of the technique of life. The fight with nature which primitive man has to wage for his bodily existence attains in this modern form its latest transformation. The eighteenth century called upon man to free himself of all the historical bonds in the state and in religion, in morals and in economics. Man's nature, originally good and common to all, should develop unhampered. In addition to more liberty, the nineteenth century demanded the functional specialization of man and his work; this specialization makes one individual incomparable to another, and each of them indispensable to the highest possible extent. However, this specialization makes each man the more directly dependent upon the supplementary activities of all others. Nietzsche sees the full development of the individual conditioned by the most ruthless struggle of individuals; socialism believes in the suppression of all competition for the same reason. Be that as it may, in all these positions the same basic motive is at work: the person resists being leveled down and worn out by a social-technological mechanism. An inquiry into the inner meaning of specifically modern life and its products, into the soul of the cultural body, so to speak, must seek to solve the equation which structures like the metropolis set up between the individual and the super-individual contents of life.— Georg Simmel, "The Metropolis and Mental Life"
Writing in 1962, Cornelia Otis Skinner suggested that there was no English equivalent of the term, "just as there is no Anglo-Saxon counterpart of that essentially Gallic individual, the deliberately aimless pedestrian, unencumbered by any obligation or sense of urgency, who, being French and therefore frugal, wastes nothing, including his time which he spends with the leisurely discrimination of a gourmet, savoring the multiple flavors of his city".
Architecture and urban planning
The concept of the flâneur has also become meaningful in architecture and urban planning, describing those who are indirectly and unintentionally affected by a particular design which they experience only in passing.
In 1917, the Swiss writer Robert Walser published a short story called "Der Spaziergang" ("The Walk"), a veritable outcome of the flâneur literature.
Walter Benjamin adopted the concept of the urban observer both as an analytical tool and as a lifestyle. From his Marxist standpoint, Benjamin describes the flâneur as a product of modern life and the Industrial Revolution without precedent, a parallel to the advent of the tourist. His flâneur is an uninvolved but highly perceptive bourgeois dilettante. Benjamin became his own prime example, making social and aesthetic observations during long walks through Paris. Even the title of his unfinished Arcades Project comes from his affection for covered shopping streets.
The crowd was the veil from behind which the familiar city as phantasmagoria beckoned to the flâneur. In it, the city was now landscape, now a room. And both of these went into the construction of the department store, which made use of flânerie itself in order to sell goods. The department store was the flâneur's final coup. As flâneurs, the intelligensia came into the market place. As they thought, to observe it—but in reality it was already to find a buyer. In this intermediary stage [...] they took the form of the bohème. To the uncertainty of their economic position corresponded the uncertainty of their political function.— Walter Benjamin, "Paris: the capital of the nineteenth century" (1935), in Charles Baudelaire: a lyric poet in the era of high capitalism)
The flâneur's tendency toward detached but aesthetically attuned observation has brought the term into the literature of photography, particularly street photography. The street photographer is seen as one modern extension of the urban observer described by nineteenth century journalist Victor Fournel before the advent of the hand-held camera:
This man is a roving and impassioned daguerreotype that preserves the least traces, and on which are reproduced, with their changing reflections, the course of things, the movement of the city, the multiple physiognomy of the public spirit, the confessions, antipathies, and admirations of the crowd.— Victor Fournel, Ce qu'on voit dans les rues de Paris (What One Sees on the Streets of Paris)
The most notable application of flâneur to street photography probably comes from Susan Sontag in her 1977 collection of essays, On Photography. She describes how, since the development of hand-held cameras in the early 20th century, the camera has become the tool of the flâneur:
The photographer is an armed version of the solitary walker reconnoitering, stalking, cruising the urban inferno, the voyeuristic stroller who discovers the city as a landscape of voluptuous extremes. Adept of the joys of watching, connoisseur of empathy, the flâneur finds the world "picturesque."— Susan Sontag, On Photography, pg. 55
Other uses of the flâneur
The flâneur concept is not limited to someone committing the physical act of a peripatetic stroll in the Baudelairian sense, but can also include a "complete philosophical way of living and thinking", and a process of navigating erudition as described by Nassim Nicholas Taleb's essay on "why I walk". Louis Menand, in seeking to describe the poet T.S. Eliot's relationship to English literary society and his role in the formation of modernism, describes Eliot as a flâneur. Moreover, in one of Eliot's well-known poems "The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock", the protagonist takes the reader for a journey through his city in the manner of a flâneur.
In "De Profundis," Oscar Wilde writes from prison about his life regrets, stating "I let myself be lured into long spells of senseless and sensual ease. I amused myself with being a flaneur, a dandy, a man of fashion. I surrounded myself with the smaller natures and the meaner minds."
- Gregory Shaya, "The Flâneur, the Badaud, and the Making of a Mass Public in France, circa 1860–1910," American Historical Review 109 (2004), par 10.
- Turcot, Laurent (2008). Le promeneur à Paris au XVIIIe siècle. Paris: Gallimard. pp. 10–43. ISBN 2070783669.
- "Grand dictionnaire universel", vol. 8, v. flâneur and flânerie.
- Victor Fournel, Ce qu'on voit dans les rues de Paris, p. 268.
- Walter Benjamin, Charles Baudelaire: A Lyric Poet in the Era of High Capitalism, Harry Zohn, trans. (London, 1983), p. 54.
- Victor Fournel, Ce qu'on voit dans les rues de Paris, (Paris, 1867), p. 270. See Shaya 2004.
- See, among others, Buck-Morss, 1986; Buck-Morss, 1989; Wolff, 1985; Charney and Schwartz, 1995; Tester, 1994; Ferguson, 1994; Prendergast, 1992; Feathersone, 1998; Friedberg, 1993.
- Saltz, Jerry (Sep 7, 2008). "Modern Machinery". New York Magazine. Retrieved 9 May 2011.
- Turcot, Laurent (2010). Rachel Thomas, ed. "Promenades et flâneries à Paris du XVIIe au XXIe siècles: la marche comme construction d’une identité urbaine ", Marcher en ville. Faire corps, prendre corps, donner corps aux ambiances urbaines (in French). Paris: Ed. des Archives Contemporaines. pp. 70–78. ISBN 9782813000262.
- Paris: Capital of Modernity 14.
- Cornelia Otis Skinner, Elegant Wits and Grand Horizontals, 1962, Houghton Mifflin, New York
- Taleb, Nassim Nicholas (2010) . The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable (2nd ed.). New York: Random House. ISBN 978-1-4000-6351-2.
- "Practical Cat". The New Yorker: 81–89?. September 19, 2011.
- Wilde, Oscar, De Profundis
- Charles Baudelaire,The Painter of Modern Life, (New York: Da Capo Press, 1964). Orig. published in Le Figaro, in 1863.
- Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project, Rolf Tiedemann, ed., Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin, trans. (1999).
- Walter Benjamin, The Writer of Modern Life: Essays on Charles Baudelaire, Michael Jennings, ed., Howard Eiland, Edmund Jephcott, Rodney Livingstone, and Harry Zohn, trans. (2006).
- Brand, Dana (1991). Spectator and the City in Nineteenth-Century American Literature. New York: UP Cambridge. ISBN 0-521-36207-5. This book argues that there are also flaneurs in 19th century US cities.
- Susan Buck-Morss, The Dialectics of Seeing: Walter Benjamin and the Arcades Project (Cambridge, Mass., 1989).
- Susan Buck-Morss, "The Flâneur, the Sandwichman and the Whore: The Politics of Loitering," New German Critique 39 (1986).
- Leo Charney and Vanessa Schwartz, eds., Cinema and the Invention of Modern Life (Berkeley, 1995).
- Anne Friedberg, Windowshopping: Cinema and the Postmodern (Berkeley, 1993).
- David Harvey, Paris: Capital of Modernity. (New York: Routledge, 2003).
- Priscilla Parkhurst Ferguson, "The Flâneur: The City and Its Discontents," in Paris as Revolution: Writing the Nineteenth-Century City (Berkeley, 1994).
- Louis Huart, Physiologie du flâneur. (Paris, 1841).
- Gregory Shaya, "The Flâneur, the Badaud, and the Making of a Mass Public in France, circa 1860–1910," American Historical Review 109 (2004).
- Georg Simmel, The Metropolis and Mental life, adapted by D. Weinstein from Kurt Wolff (Trans.) The Sociology of Georg Simmel. New York: Free Press, 1950, pp. 409–424
- Keith Tester, ed., The Flâneur (London, 1994).
- Laurent Turcot, "Promenades et flâneries à Paris du XVIIe au XXIe siècles : la marche comme construction d’une identité urbaine", Marcher en ville. Faire corps, prendre corps, donner corps aux ambiances urbaines. sous la direction de Rachel Thomas, Paris, Ed. des Archives Contemporaines, 2010, p. 65-84.
- Laurent Turcot, Le promeneur à Paris au XVIIIe siècle (Paris, Gallimard), 2008.
- James V. Werner, "American Flaneur: The Cosmic Physiognomy of Edgar Allan Poe", Studies in Major Literary Authors Series (2004), retrieved March 6, 2006.
- Elizabeth Wilson, "The Invisible Flâneur," in New Left Review I/191 (1992).
- Janet Wolff, "The Invisible Flâneuse: Women and the Literature of Modernity," Theory, Culture and Society 2 (1985).
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