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??)