In some circles, the "flaneur" is a key idea. The flaneur is a person walking, watching, stopping to pay attention and otherwise engaging with the city as it presents itself to someone in motion and on foot.
It’s an idea discussed by some of the most gifted observers of contemporary life: Baudelaire, Simmel, Benjamin, and Sontag. Indeed, it has become so fashionable that it has become a kind of pose. (Baudelaire’s great fear realized.)
The cost of the pose is high. Some of the hard and most urgent work of noticing in the city goes undone. Some flaneurs are so busy posturing and so very scrupulous about what they notice (the post modern list is a short one), they can’t actually see the city very clearly. Thus does our self-impoverishment perpetuate itself. Some of the people blessed with the time and education to noticed the city particularly well have been removed from usefulness.
Compare if you will, Sontag’s concept of the city as a "landscape of voluptuous extremes" and the somewhat more practical advice of our own Morgan Friedman, above. It’s a slide from Morgan’s presentation at Interesting2008 at FIT in NYC on the weekend.
While the flaneur is busy swanning the city scape engaged in acts of self exaltation, the Friedmanesque observer is running the city down, seizing every opportunity it gives for further investigation. Here (image 2) Morgan suggests we take advantage of the people with time, the knowledge, and the incentive to act as our guides.
Thus while the flaneur is posing moodily at a local cafe, hoping that someone will mistake the laundry list before him for a poetic expression of his delicate and yes, of course, heroically tortured sensibility, Morgan and those of us who walk in his footsteps are chatting up a fixture of the neighborhood who has the unforgivable temerity of being badly dressed, and, actually, wait for it, old.
Everyone retired to the Black Door for drinks after the conference and Morgan and I fell into conversation. And this is when I learned he’s the guy who created Overheard in New York, that magnificent website that allows flaneurs to pool their observations of city life. Brilliant. See below my poor effort to take one of the conversations that Morgan has retrieved from city life, and convert it for analytic purposes.
I fell to wondering what else we could do to bind people together in the more thoroughgoing, less fashionable, investigation of contemporary culture and city life. In a manner of speaking this is what Pepys did in the 17th century. It is more or less what Lewis Henry Morgan did when he reached out to people in the 19th century. It is what Mass Observation did in Britain in the 20th century.
The good news is that our noticing skills are rising. We have superbly gifted noticers like Morgan, Eric Nehrlich, Jan Chipchase, and Russell Davies… well, the list is a long one. (See Davies’ superb noticing on behalf of bacon and eggs.) We have the makings of a noticing conspiracy. Morgan came very close to recruiting everyone at Interesting2008, turning all us planners into flaneurs. Now if we could only persuade flaneurs to act like planners. Morgan Friedman offers a path to redemption.
McCracken, Grant. 2007. Overheard in New York. This Blog Sits At the Intersection of Anthropology and Economics. March 13, 2007. here.
More on Friedman and his several projects here.
The wikipedia entry on the flaneur here.
Jan Chipchase observes how a city wakes here.
See Walking Paris with Henry Miller here.
Images are from Morgan Friedman’s presentation at Interesting2008 as taken by Michael Surtees here.
For further reading, I quite enjoyed Edmund White’s “The Flaneur”.
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Interesting and enjoyable but apropos of Flâneur from Baudelaire it’s important to keep in mind that the definition or characteristics of the Flâneur has never been static. Benjamin himself takes the “concept” from the Dandy, to the Flâneur, to the Journalist, to the Rag picker and finally the Sandwich man. As for engagement, this practice would have been an abomination to the original Flâneur, who kept an “aristocratic or aesthetic distance from the object he, originally only he, observed.
Observation is a wonderful thing and engagement is a wonderful thing. The problem, I believe for Benjamin and other is that when the Flâneur takes his/her observations to the marketplace and turns them into a commodity for sale. The implication is that the marketplace will then determines the value of this or that observation, encouraging greater production of and competition to acquire for a “type” of observation. The Flâneur, a product of the 19th Century Parisian Arcades and Boulevards and finally, department stores, can be reimagined, I imagine on freeways and even on the web—bouncing from blog to blog. The danger to consider here at least to my mind is not the poseur and his or her self-regard, who is basically harmless, but the ignorant observer who confuses his or her understanding of the object, with the object itself and then project his or her limited or confused or simply wrong interpretations out into the world.
As for the list it is nice, but in offering a guide for Flaneurie, Mr. Friedman merely provides another kind of consumerism, which is, at its heart, the enemy of true Flaneurie, which is enriched by spontaneity and accident and discovery of the incidental, etc.
In closing, where did you find that lovely quote of Sontag: “landscape of voluptuous extremes.”