Saturday, 12 January 2008

flaneurie - the passionate observer

‘the flaneur is a loiterer, a stroller who ambles through the city without apparent purpose but is secretly attuned to the city, its history and secrets’. (Edmund White)

the origin/birth of this diary coincided with or subconsciously prompted by national archaeology week, transported me from the depths of prehistory through museology, the industrial revolution, to urbis, a veritable emblem of modernity and suitable symbol of Manchester and the endless paradox and duality of its reflexivity and commodification. its recent situationist weekend, with its active interventions into the city, the preferred tactic of the situationist, psychogeographer or postmodern flaneur, is another coincidence in this flotilla, this personal voyage of curiosity, of new ways of contemplating and reacting to my modern life, my navigations into the cultural landscape, the dichotomies of ‘now’.

the situationists - adbusters, graffiti artists, punks and poets - with their activism, their urgent calls for resistance, their provocative, proactive struggle against spectacularisation in all its forms, their radical associations with 1968, student riots and french intellectualism, are perhaps a little too direct, a little too 'out there' for an english bluestocking like myself. whilst debords' powerful manifesto is a revelation and a reassurance that one is not alone in sometimes despairing of the relentless march of 'progress', i prefer for now to watch from a more secluded distance, from the shadows of 'flaneurie', a more sheltered harbour for my infant enquiries!!

the cultural figure of modernity, the flaneur, as walter benjamin developed in his arcades project, is perhaps the embodiment of how to approach not only the city, but modernity itself; a voyeur, an observer, detached from the crowd, able through this detachment to penetrating reflections. the flaneur is the secret spectator of the spectacle of the spaces and places of the city, and consequently flaneurie is the act of strolling and looking carried out by him. to chris jencks the flaneur is an analytic form, a narrative device, an attitude towards knowledge and its social context. to jencks, 'the flaneur is a multilayered palimpsest that allows us to move from real products of a critical appreciation of the states of modernity and its erosion into the past'.

so far so good...but what about the notion of a flaneuse? a 19th century dandy or idler, essentially male, white, gentrified, his vision and insights are perhaps a little narrow, too exclusive for my needs. there is little of the female in this narrative device, even though the history of the 19th century is littered with daring females, explorers, rebels, trangressors of social mores, curious figures in a customarily male world. perhaps the flaneuse offers a space inbetween that of the elitist, celestial gaze of the flaneur, or the confrontational tactic of the contemporary situationist, operating on the peripheries, an outsider, a time traveller, whose perspective provides an altogether unique gaze, that of the transgressive, intrinsically subversive body of the edwardian bluestocking, at once spectacle and observer.

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