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Flâneur


The most important characteristic of the flâneur was his anonymity. It wasn't his deliberate walk through the Parisian arcades, his observant eye, the turtle on his leash. It wasn't his detached, blasé perspective on the world as it passed or the notebook that he carried in his pants pockets, full of mutterings about cafés and about steam rising from locomotives in train sheds.

Rather, it was the fact that he seemed preternaturally adept at evading surveillance: that he observed but was not observed; that he disappeared into the whorl of people on the street. His anonymity was a threat to capital. It allowed the flâneur access into the otherwise-unseen crevices of newly-modern life. Capital invented new technologies to surveil him -- photography, detective bureaus, fingerprinting, gas street lamps.

Then it suddenly discovered the obvious truth. The best way to bend him into the service was to pay him. In Benjamin's estimation, the flâneur ended his days as the sandwich man, tucked between boards of advertisements. He was anonymous at last, all right. Hiding in plain sight, pedestrians stared straight at his body, but saw only adds for toothpaste, aquariums, top hats.

Now, what counts as the flâneur? The flâneuse? The same incomplete story about slow-walking one's way from Brooklyn to Washington Heights; from the Quartier Latin to Montmartre, from Noe Valley to North Beach.

Except there's no anonymity now. Flânerie isn't anonymous anymore, which seems to eliminate the possibility that it's even flânerie. One posts pictures, videos, moving images, clips, observations. All of them are voluntarily and involuntarily tagged, traced, timed, and pinned to the observer. Together, the metadata is sold, and used to sell to consumers. The city is observed only for the purpose of being sold or to sell.

What counts as the new perspective then? What is the new flâneur? How does one retain anonymity? Is it the hacker, moving through the web and observing quietly, exposing loudly, then retreating? Is it the terrorist, who knows the city's soft spots and its secrets, but uses his knowledge only in the interest of an aesthetics of violence?

What happened to just walking around in a top hat?

The least observable, most anonymous thing to do now is to do what the flâneurs did: go hang out in the park and do nothing but look. It seems too reactionary, doesn't it? The suggestion that what cities need are people who produce work secretly. Never for public consumption. Batman-like characters who jot down their observations and then disappear back into the shadows of the cities.

Masked figures with notebooks, skulking obviously but unseen by masses staring at handheld screens, and dodging the facial recognition bots, and the targeted ads. They write it all down and then burn the notebooks to keep warm in their apartments, hour upon hour outside the city limits, in the suburbs that have suddenly become affordable again in this inverted social landscape.

Sounds kind of nice. To dart in and out of the screen-obsessed masses and write silently and for no one.