Oh, Flaneur—

I’d like to share a concept that I have grown to adore and utilize widely in my life.

It’s an old French ideal, something probably upper-class and white and readily eyebrowed, but the art of the flaneur is a specific take on observation: Wikipedia says the word means something along the lines of “to stroll” or “saunter” or “loaf,” which alludes to that principle at the core of flanerie, which is to do nothing; to have no objective, no destination, no prerogative or goal in mind, except to observe in any way you might like the surroundings you encounter.

Historically, the flaneur has been important in some strains of academic thought including urban modernization, class conflict, and architecture. Important theoretic contributors include Charles Baudelaire, Georg Simmel, Susan Sontag, and Nassim Nicholas Taleb; of course there are lots of interesting learnings pent up in each of these contributions to the theme, but this being a blog and you having the Internet, I will let you explore ad libitum and I’ll proceed with what I’d actually like to write about.

I have now begun my semester studying abroad. Except for when I’ve had to participate in program-scheduled activities (picking classes, orientation etc.) I have had a great many hours of entirely unstructured time. Like most humans I do often enjoy the company of others and so I have certainly been getting to know the other international students as well as my host family and an interesting handful of native Argentines. But when I wake up on Friday and Saturday and Sunday (literally, every day this weekend) with nothing that I must do, I think to myself, I’ve made it. I’m here, this is what I’ve been waiting for. Enter, the flaneur.

I am in love with the idea of eschewing purpose, first in any location, as it matters not where you look but how, but with even more gusto in some place new and fantastic. Not that I have any problem with having guiding purpose in your day or life, as you would be idle to be without it. But so often, our purpose lends us spectacular clarity upon our destination and utter blindness to anything that might be even a degree off-course.

There is a nice parable that illustrates this idea, in which a rich man leads a crowd of people to see that he had laid out a trail of dollar bills on a sidewalk stretching as far as the eye could see. Immediately the crowd swarms, racing and elbowing each other to pick them up first. When they arrive, breathless, at the end of the trail, the rich man points so as to lift their gaze ever so slightly, to see that he had also hung hundred dollar bills from the trees on either side of the sidewalk. In the distance, not yet far from the starting line, a single man had noticed the hanging money and was about to climb the fourth tree.

To be alone in a crowd; to be one with its ebbs and flows, its conflict and resolution; to notice and admire each grand story as it marches past, mysterious forever; invisible (unless someone else is watching me, and then let them). Baudelaire looked to be one with the crowd. I look to be one part of it. A tiny part, scarily small, or perhaps the world is scarily large, and I’m still normal-sized. Perhaps I am enamored with this concept of relativity, that suddenly I’m not so important; I tire of placing myself on such a false pedestal, like why should I care so much about myself? I can answer this question only evolutionarily, and perhaps economically as I will likely someday contribute some value back from where I’ve taken it. But ethically, I am an arbitrary prince, my value arbited by fickle luck. In my selfishness I am disgusted. But I digress..

Now, im not so idealistic as to suggest that all of you with your busy lives and money-trails should suddenly stop these activities and squat on city corners for hours each day. In my luxurious moment, I am able to begin and end the day without having accomplished a single goal, except to have observed, and that is a truly precious privilege. However, I also have lived the busy life, and this mindset has not only just occurred to me in these spare minutes. For it is that exactly: a mindset. Often I’ll set aside a time slot,- nothing outrageous, perhaps half an hour, during which time I’ll set the single goal of getting razors and body soap from the CVS nearby. Unless each of our days are so routinely unfortunate that each task forever bleeds into the next, I think we are generally able to allot a bit of extra time for oneself at strategic points in our days. To do what? To do nothing. For me, I have seen the most hideous and the most beautiful things in these times, the most banal and the most surprising. If you are so jaded to experience that you do not feel the attraction to this activity (or lack thereof), then you should read my last post, which explained slightly why I like to keep my eyes open.

An interesting adaptation of this concept is that of the cyberflaneur, in which this mindset of not being always-purposed is applied to our use of the Internet. Trends indicate that we increasingly use the Internet only functionally. In an article published in the New York Times last February, Evegny Morozov commented that our increasing societal single-mindedness is reflected on the Internet:

Something similar has happened to the Internet. Transcending its original playful identity, it’s no longer a place for strolling — it’s a place for getting things done. Hardly anyone “surfs” the Web anymore. The popularity of the “app paradigm,” whereby dedicated mobile and tablet applications help us accomplish what we want without ever opening the browser or visiting the rest of the Internet, has made cyberflânerie less likely. That so much of today’s online activity revolves around shopping — for virtual presents, for virtual pets, for virtual presents for virtual pets — hasn’t helped either. Strolling through Groupon isn’t as much fun as strolling through an arcade, online or off.

(Side-question: is social media helping or hurting our discovery of interesting things? Morozov seems to think that it’s a distraction from our own perusing, but technosociologist Zeynep Tufekci doesn’t quite agree; is there a ‘filter bubble’? Is seeing new and exciting articles from our friends on FB a new flaneurism, or is it the ‘daily me’?)

Again, not that I think we should all sit around flipping through page after page of Wikipedia or Reddit or TED, but in actuality, I do! Everything in moderation, but these tools of modernity can connect us with troves of brilliance and creativity, information about history, art, all of the academica under the sun, etc.

Set parameters. Fifteen minutes. Forty-five. Don’t allow yourself to over or under-do it. If you get so wrapped up in a wikipedia binge that you only look up two hours later, the next time you might have ten minutes free, you’ll think “I don’t want to start, because then I won’t be able to stop.” Not that self moderation is easy for everyone, but give it your all..

Be an active observer of your world. Loaf both on the curb outside Starbucks and then again inside; sip your latte, but use their WIFI to read about the folks that might have a cure for HIV in infants. Follow your money trail, but look to the trees! You might see a monkey 8-] (or a mantis??)

On (not) Choosing Paths

Yesterday I went to a high school reunion party (or so I’ll call it) at my friend’s house. Just about all of my good friends from those ever glorious high school days were there. It was great to see everyone and catch up with people and see how they’ve changed and grown and progressed. We collectively sighed with relief. Finals are over. Done with our first semester classes. It’s almost Christmas (well, I guess it’s Christmas Eve now). Good. Life is good. Now what.

Well, a month(+) to sit around and sleep and waste time and, at least for me, ponder the future. At the reunion party, I found that in every group of people that I talked to, someone (and occasionally I) inevitably wound up asking questions like, “what are your plans next semester,” or, “what are you going to do after college,” or “what are you going to be doing in a year/decade/tell me your plan for the rest of your life.”

Jeesh. These are big questions. They really are- don’t mistake my tone in the previous paragraph for a belief that these questions are unimportant or unnecessary or wrongly timed. Because that’s what’s scary- these are the questions that we should start to think about at this point. And by “start to think about,” I really mean that we’ve gotta make decisions, STAT. It’s a little bit incredible to me. I feel like this point in my life- where decisions actually matter and my most pressing daily dilemma is not what to get after track practice from the vending machine- has snuck up on me. BOO! OK now choose: Doctor? Lawyer? Congressman? Cog in the gearbox of a rigged capitalist system? An English professor or a neurosurgeon? Or a bum. On the streets. Because if you don’t become a doctor-lawyer-congresswoman-cog-in-gearbox-of…(etc), you’ve failed whatever silly expectations you impose on yourself (or are imposed on you).

Now I certainly don’t mean to lecture anyone about making decisions or on how to lead your life or to say, “you can be anything you want to be” or anything hokey like that. We have all been made conscious of expectations before- from ourselves, from our parents or friends, from our college counselors and high school teachers- all epitomized by the competitive world of academia. But I want to formally ask these questions of you, (my friends+fam), but also really anyone at any age and at any time, because these questions will be with us always after now. 

What are you good at? BRAG. Tell me what you’re skills are, what you are passionate about, what do you pride yourself in? (1)

What do you want to get good at? What skills do you want to develop? What can you do, learn, or think about that will help you to achieve whatever goals you’ve imposed on yourself?

What goals DO you impose on yourself?- or rather- what are your goals for the future? Separate your goals into time segments, or life sectors (ex. academics, occupation, romantic/sexlife/lackthereof/michaelchizazu).

Or “simply,” what do you want to do with your life? In your brief existence on Earth, what mark will you choose to make?

Sorry. Chill, chill. I know there are people on both sides of the rope- some of you saying “hey, I know perfectly fine what I’m doing with my life,” and then some of you saying “holy shit holy shit hoLy SHIT!” And both of you are perfectly justified in your reactions. We’re all at different points and have different perspectives on the issue. But the one thing that is now universal among us and our age cohort, I think, is that we must think about it. We cannot evade these questions, because by evading them, we implicitly answer them. Music time.

Freewill is a great song- Rush is the best of the 70’s and 80’s prog rock movement. But really I just love its chorus:

You can choose a ready guide in some celestial voice
If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice
You can choose from phantom fears and kindness that can kill
I will choose a path that’s clear
I will choose freewill

“If you choose not to decide, you still had made a choice.” This truism, first highlighted for me by my father, is what I wanted to write about. Big questions must be asked and answered- now- because every day we move closer to one goal and farther from another. Are you cogent of what goals you’re approaching, and conversely, which goals you’re leaving behind? Are you sure that you’re advancing towards the “right” one, whatever that is? I am challenging each of you to question your faith in your alleged life plans; are you actively advancing yourself towards and away from the goals that you genuinely believe are correct or incorrect for your individual life?

Many of you are. Most of you are. But some of you are not. Life will not change by itself. It’s physics, dude. No object will move unless an outside force acts upon it. Ask yourself those questions, or at least read them out loud. Try to answer them out loud, too. Saying things makes them more real than just thinking things. After all, what are thoughts? After the fact, they don’t seem to really exist. I forget most of them anyways.

Here’s one last and important question, which I already kind of asked. But for emphasis,

What goals are you moving away from? Perhaps they are goals that you set at an early age or stage in your life, or maybe they are even now appearing to fade in importance as you continue through life. What doors have closed? What doors are closing against your wishes? What doors have you consciously closed?

Close doors. That is my advice to you, the proverbial royal reader. Close doors. Carefully, of course- don’t slam the door on the way out, don’t throw tantrums or spew crazy bullshit to family members, and don’t close a single door without making sure, with exquisite care, that you can justifiably do so. Some of what clouds our vision into our future is the stunning and overwhelming array of things that you can do in this world.

Don’t categorize yourself. Just choose the categories that you’re not going to be part of. It’s like the blacklist vs. the whitelist in Self Control (if you have a Mac and have ever had to do homework). Don’t limit yourself to all of a single category. Even those who say pre-med, pre-law, pre-biz (did I just make that up?)- I would say practice the same exercise as “the undecideds.” Pick out the things that you don’t what to become, but retain a list of the goals or aspirations that you aren’t currently acting on. Life is surprising and cyclical. Who knows what you’ll really end up doing.

Think about it. Really, think about it. Wake up from whatever stops you from controlling your fates and live deliberately.

Happy Holidays and best of luck in the New Year. Make some resolutions? Why the hell not.

(1) Post your brag anonymously below in the comments. Of course, all the fun will be in guessing who wrote what 😉