Rethinking Flâneurie


From: From Louis Huart, Physiologie du flâneur (1841)

While wandering about the urban neighborhood, the other day, I got to thinking about Samuel Clemens the ultimate American flâneur. Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain) steadfastly refused transportation in favor of walking whenever he visited a town or city. Could I in my practice of flânerie, I wondered, be a Clemens interpreting the urban milieu of my day as did Clemens of his day?

Back to the books and some catch-up reading on the flâneur.

In the Modernist literature of the turn of the twentieth-century there appeared two very distinct types of urban males: the flâneur and the Stranger. The flâneur, introduced by Edgar Allen Poe (although not in name) and fleshed out by Walter Benjamin, was the collector of the bizarre, fringe, and foreign. The flâneur in literature is the solitary hero of modern culture, the democratic individual who revels in his “sociability of one,” or as we say today, “the power of one.” The Stranger (given life by the works of the German philosopher, Georg Simmel, himself a wandersmänner), on the other hand, is the country man from a foreign land who desires to become part of the urban crowd, yet even when apparently having done so, remains an outsider, always a foreigner.

Modernism was born in the metropolis, and it is the modern metropolis that gave birth to both capitalism and Marxism. Both the flâneur and the Stranger are essential, in a metaphorical sense, to the growth of capitalism, which at the turn of the twentieth-century was a new concept in competition with Marxism for the dominant role in the emerging modern culture. Against this metaphor, in the Modernist literature of flâneurie, is set the crowd, a foil to both the flâneur and Stranger. The crowd (masses) is in transition from the “ignorance” of pre-modernism to enlightened modernism. Hidden within the crowd, but not yet known to the crowd, are the “advantages” (“commodities”) of modernism, advantages that both the flâneur and the Stranger seek.

In their seeking, or more accurately, because of their seeking, both the flâneur and the Stranger are displaced by modernism, yet the displacement is different for each. The flâneur freely chooses displacement, in fact, creates, as we will see, his own displacement, while the Stranger is displaced, not by his own choosing, but by the crowd. Inherent to modernism is the dichotomy of displacement: the great American Dream set against the loss of community. It is this dichotomy, I believe, that is
propelling modern culture in post-modernism.

Be that as it may, for Benjamin and the Modernist of his day, the flâneur is the modern role model par excellence, not in spite of, but because of his displacement. For Benjamin, the flâneur is the epic hero replacing the mythic gods. To succeed in the modern capitalistic society one must purposely function outside of the crowd, he must always be the “society of one.” The Stranger fails solely because he believes that to participate in the wealth of capitalism he must first become part of the crowd.

The Stranger seeks to be accepted and is willing to pay the price, i.e., play the game, to be part of the crowd; nevertheless, always the Stranger, always the foreigner who can never truly identify with the crowd or become one of the elite. The flâneur, on the other hand, is the manipulator of the crowd to his own ends. What the flâneur observes becomes the commodity that he sells; his observations are his capital. The flâneur, as elaborated by Benjamin, furthers modern culture in the commodization of
his observations of modern culture. The flâneur is of a mixed mind, simultaneously both loving and loathing the metropolis and what is hidden therein. He both consumes and rejects the commodities offered up by the metropolis. Thus he is both arbitrator and judge. To put it bluntly, the flâneur functions as much ballyhooed “Captain of Industry,” of capitalism.

The role of the flâneur in the emerging modernistic era is to interpret the metropolis as a capitalistic explorer. The birth of capitalism was not inconsequentially concurrent with the Golden Age of the European Empire, which flooded European cities with foreign goods, wealth, and foreigners (Strangers). The flâneur was the mythical urban explorer discovering hereto hidden commodities of an increasingly capitalistic European Empire in the hinterlands of the urban wilderness.

The flâneur consumes the benefits of capitalism, while the Stranger in his desire to be a capitalist becomes both the producer of capital and human capital, yet never truly consumes as a capitalist. If the flâneur can be compared to the capitalist, the captain of the crowd, the Stranger is the one seeking to move up the corporate ladder, while the crowd become the faceless workers, the rank and file, living for the pay check (while yet wanting all that capitalism holds out to him as necessary to live a full and
productive life), necessary to make the modern capitalistic society function. The Stranger as human capital becomes a commodity to be exploited by the flâneur. Can we find better example of the human capital of the Stranger than that of the ecstatic reception throughout European cities of the “American Savage” of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show? The “American Savage” was wined and dined by royalty, making appearances in the best circles of capitalistic culture, yet always as the “American Savage,” a commodity to be exploited in his strangeness, and his desire to be accepted.

The Stranger, like the flâneur is essential to capitalism. Capitalism requires productive producers of capital; consumers, who desire to become capitalistic captains, but never quite achieve their end. The Stranger is Europe’s Horatio Alger, the one who succeeds in his dreams in spite of adversity. Without Horatio Alger, without the Stranger, there would be no capitalistic wealth. The Stranger is more than the producer of capital; he is the one who drives the production both in his consumption and in his management of the rank and file. For capitalism to flourish the Stranger must by into the myth that anyone can rise to the rank of Capitalist. Capitalism needs producers, human capital.

In viewing the flâneur as separate from the crowd the Stranger erred in believing that the flâneur was first part of the crowd, the individual who rose up from the rank and file through adversity to become the Capitalist.

The Stranger misunderstood the source of displacement of the flâneur. The flâneur was a stranger in his own right, not just because he stood apart form the crowd, but primarily because he was never part the crowd. The flâneur is the man of leisure—one of the bourgeois. Already apart from the crowd the flâneur has the time and the wherewithal to practice the art of flânerie, a luxury not available to the Stranger who alone (one) in a foreign land had to make a living to exist. [In the mind of the Modern
European, displaying the American Savage was ethical because he was “being paid to exhibit himself.”] The Stranger inhibited by his own lack of capital and his foreignness can never become the flâneur.

The flâneur, as we noted, was a manipulator the crowd. To do so, the flâneur became the “dandy,” the pimp and prostitute of capitalism, who dressed himself to attract attention, and thus, capital, and in so doing he becomes a commodity to be purchased by the highest bidder. [The prostitute (one of the two roles for women in early capitalism; the other being mother/wife) was thought of as a commodity.] Ironically, the flâneur became the Stranger, a commodity, no longer the Captain of Capitalism.

The shift from Captain to commodity parallels the contemporary shift from individual capitalist to global corporations who function in their own right as a “society of one.” The capitalist is now the CEO or Chairman of the Board, but no longer the Capitalist in the true sense of the word.

A popular novel during this period was A. Dumas’ Les Mohicans de Paris. The flâneur seeks to become the Mohican, the “savage” who covers his tracks from his pursuers, yet ever standing out in his dandy-ness — the capitalistic foil to the “un-guarded,” de-indivualized, colorless, crowd. Although in the book we are never quite sure who, or what, these pursuers are, or even if they exist outside the mind of the Savage, the pursuer becomes a metaphor for the tow-faces of capitalism: the pursuit of capital and its attendant debt.

The flâneur and Stranger are flip sides of the seductive and displacing draw of capitalism: always seeking, never fulfilled; always demanding its pound of flesh.

These are my thoughts as I read. As I put my thoughts to words it seems to me that my observations must become more in tune to the subtle cultural shift from Modernism to Post-Modernism that is largely going unnoticed by urbanists and urban planners. Capitalism, as it is currently practiced, is in an epic battle for dominance with the new, yet-to-be-known capitalism of post-modernism. The problems that we are experiencing in our urban centers (and elsewhere) are in my opinion the fruits of the current model of capitalism. Greed in all of its capitalistic guises still seeks to drive agendas – the flâneur’s commodity of “what’s in it for me” – or the Stranger, wanting to be part of the agenda, offers different versions of the same capitalistic drive. Preoccupation with growth – a capitalistic concept – stands in stark contrast to the post-modern city. The issue is no longer growth, but sustainable management. Career, political, and perceived financial security – again, current capitalistic concepts – fly in the face of what is needed.

Less I be misunderstood, I need to clarify a point. Although there is present in much of the Post-modern thought a belief that capitalism is a cancer that must be removed, I would suggest that capitalism per se is not the issue. In fact, capital, rightly used, can resolve any number of urban ills.

The issue, as I see it, is greed, greed that the misuse of capitalism has spawned. In the 1950’s capitalism changed its direction from that of producing a needed commodity at a fair price to that of creating the need for commodity at any price. Interesting from a historical perspective, it was at the mid-century that the role of the flâneur lost its importance. At the same time we began to experience the birth of the Global Economy and subsequently the worldwide economic dominance of global corporations functioning as the “society of one.” In recent years such functioning has been codified, corporations now have the legal right to function as individuals.

It is also toward the end of the 1950’s that the discipline of urban planning, concurrent with the social engineering of urban renewal comes into its own. “Blight” and other such negative terms became the de rigeur. Today’s debate about eminent domain is one result of this change of direction. Could we not say that the emphasis changed from that of flâneur to the Stranger, that is, the need for more human capital
(one of today’s trendy business terms) rather than more capitalists?

As I reread Walter Benjamin, Gorg Simmel, and other chroniclers of the flâneur and the Stranger I cannot help but believe that these mythic characters of literature, driven, perhaps even unknowingly, by greed, each in their own way, were harbingers of what was to come, duel metaphors of the root cause of our individual feelings of displacement and of neighborhood alienation.

The question remains, is there a capitalistic way to observe and participate in the post-modern urban milieu that gives birth to a model of urban planning that is both ethical and brings about a rebirth of koinönia community – a community in which full participation and belonging is practiced and enjoyed by all – and neighborhood healing?

The post-modern model of capitalism suggests that if money is a kind of power controlled and licensed by authority, both corporate and governmental, the power inherent in other forms of capital can provide us with a radically reformed and unrestricted reserve that will grow the power of the disenfranchised who inhabit our urban neighborhoods, while healing these same neighborhoods.

Suggested Biblography:

Baudelaire, Charles, The Painter of Modern Life & Other Essays, trans. Jonathan
Mayne (London: Phaidon Press, 1964) ISBN: 0714833657 (1995 edition).
Benjamin, Walter, The Arcades Project, trans. Howard Eiland & Kevin McLaughlin
(Harvard: Belknap Press, 1999) ISBN: 067404326X.
—– Select Writings, Vol. 4, 1938-1940, ed. Michael Jennings (Harvard: Belknap Press, 2003) ISBN: 0674010760.
—– The Correspondence of Walter Benjamin, 1910-1940, ed. Gershom Scholem &
Theodor W. Adorno (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994) ISBN: 0226042375.
Simmel, Georg, The Sociology of Georg Simmel, ed. K.H. Wolff (NY: The Free Press, 1950)
Tester, Keith, ed., The Flâneur (NY: Rutledge, 1194) ISBN: 0415089131.

© Frank A. Mills 2009, 2013