flâneur

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In airport, we looked at how Augé’s non-places are maybe not so ‘non’.  They are places not merely of circulation, communication and consumption but creativity too.  This suggests perhaps a further liminal characteristic of non-places – their identity is not merely singular but multiple; and these identities blur.  It is a view proposed by Peter Merriman in his exploration of the geographies of the M1 motorway.  He views these landscapes – airports, shopping malls, service stations – as “more complex, heterogeneous and multiplicitous” than Augé suggests (Merriman, p. 160).   For an example, in an airport frequent flyers, flight crews, air traffic controllers, baggage handlers, first-time flyers are likely to have “different experiences of movement, dwelling, familiarity and belonging” (Merriman, p.152).

But how do stories relate to these non or non-non places?  Imagine you are passing through an airport or railway terminus (which, by the way, seem increasingly happy to erase their history – their existence as anthropological space – by assuming a shopping mall identity).  Do you ever wonder about the travellers you see?  Who they are, where they have come from, where they are going?  You may spot clues, clothing for example.  Shorts in January suggests Dubai rather than Finland.  As you board the railway carriage, you see a passenger manoeuvring a suitcase with the baggage label still attached.  Are ever you tempted to take a peek?

Snatches of conversation provide other evidence.  Marooned at Singapore airport for several hours, I amused myself by trying to work out a narrative to explain the American family who, in an obvious hurry, joined the cafe table next to me.  They barely had time to devour the food they had purchased, before the mother, anxious not to miss a connecting flight, herded her protesting husband and children down the corridor, cups spilling on the abandoned table and half-consumed wraps stuffed into pockets and rucksacks.

Karl Weick notes how stories “impose a formal coherence on what is otherwise a flowing soup” (Weick, p.128).  They gather strands of experience into a “plot that produces an outcome” and such “sequence is the source of sense”.  By imposing a temporal frame of past, future and present we can comprehend the random, multiple and puzzling.  The stories we create to explain our fellow travellers is a way to contain this ‘soup’.

In doing so, perhaps we also become contemporary flâneurs.  This stroller among the crowds of 19th century Paris was “a figure keenly aware of the bustle of modern life” (Shaya, p.47).  Their natural habitat was, as Walter Benjamin described, “the arcades…glass-covered, marble-panelled passageways…lighted from above…lined with the most elegant shops…so that such an arcade is a city, even a world, in miniature” (pp.36-37).  Rather like a modern airport perhaps?  In Benjamin’s study of the poet Baudelaire he observes that, for the flâneur, “the joy of watching is triumphant…the result is the amateur detective.”  He highlights Baudelaire’s translation of the Edgar Allan Poe story The Man of the Crowd, where the narrator, installed the behind a window of a London coffee-house watches the passing throng.  From here, he makes deductions, mini-narratives, from the details he observes: a man whose ears stick out indicates he must be a clerk who stores his pen behind his ears.  And what does a detective do but turn “equivocal happenings into meaningful stories characterized by a distinctive plot” (Patriotta, p. 369)?

So, as we sip our espresso in the ‘open air’ cafe of a shopping mall; tap away at our laptop in an airport lounge or wait on the concourse for our invariably delayed train to arrive – we are not just ‘customers’, ‘passengers’, ‘commuters’ but also the true and noble descendants of the frock-coated, top-hatted flâneur.  Observing, watching, making our deductions and spinning our stories to explain the passing, random and confusing bustle around us.

Benjamin, W. (1983). Charles Baudelaire: A Lyric Poet in the Era of High Capitalism. Verso

Merriman, P. (2004) ‘Driving Places’, Theory, Culture & Society. 21(4–5), pp. 145–167.

Patriotta, G. (2003) ‘Sensemaking on the Shop Floor: Narratives of Knowledge in Organizations’, Journal of Management Studies. 40(2), pp. 349–375.

Shaya, G. (2004) ‘The Flaneur, the Badaud, and the Making of a Mass Public in France, circa 1860-1910’, The American Historical Review, 109(1), pp. 41–77.

Weick, K.E. (1995). Sense making in Organisations. Sage.

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