Suis-je flâneur?

“Flanerie” flickr photo by IaninSheffield https://flickr.com/photos/ianinsheffield/36383892350 shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC-SA) license

Several happenstances intersected to bring me to the point where I’m embarking on a different approach to my analysis which is more coherent with my overall study, as I outlined here. The purpose of this post is to put a little more flesh on the bones of the initial phase in which I explore data.

There were two strands which, though unconnected, brought me to this point. The first, as I mentioned in the previous post, was Martina mentioning the process of ‘data walking’ by Eakle (2007). The second was exchanges with Deborah and me becoming intrigued by her blog title, the édu flâneuse and then captured by the quote with which she subtitles it:

“For the perfect flâneur, for the passionate observer, it’s an immense pleasure to take up residence in multiplicity, in whatever is seething, moving, evanescent and infinite: you’re not at home, but you feel at home everywhere, you’re at the centre of everything yet you remain hidden from everybody.” Baudelaire

When I began to explore further, there seems to a small but significant (and eclectic) body of research which draws on the notion of the flâneur in different ways. First it might help if I outline the origins:

Introduction

Tester (1994) locates the flâneur for us in the streets of 19th century Paris, as typified through the writings of Baudelaire and Balzac. The flâneur (and given the times, it was perhaps unsurprisingly a he) was an observer of the urban environment, through which he was ideally placed to comment on the unfolding emergence of ‘modernity.’ Flânerie, the activity in which a flâneur was engaged, is ‘observation of the fleeting and the transitory’ (Tester, 1994:7) whilst strolling through the urban landscape of Paris. Although ‘strolling’ might imply a gentle, leisurely perambulation, Shields (1994:65) cautions us it is more than that:

It is a special practice of specific sites, the interior and exterior public spaces of the city. These include parks, sidewalks, squares, and shopping arcades or malls. … It is more than taking the air or going for a walk.

There is a sense of purpose, and the flâneur is more than merely the privileged dandy taking the air, in the way that some early writers proposed. The flâneur is also not only an observer and casual notetaker, but a social commentator and active producer of texts, be they literary, illustrative or journalistic (Frisby, 1994:83). I became struck that one might easily associate some of the activities of the flâneur with those of the ethnographer, but more of that later.

We start to get a sense of the ambiguity of the flâneur, as both spectator and producer. Sometimes casual observer and yet often perceptive detective. Rather liminal, in being both separate from and of the crowd. A naturalist in an unnatural environment who goes ‘botanizing on the asphalt,’ as Walter Benjamin (translated by Eiland & McLaughlin, 1994) puts it. This ambiguity is no more apparent than in the Baudelaire quote Friedberg (1993:29) provides in which the flâneur indulges in:

…a paradoxical pleasure: to be at home away from home, in the midst of the world and yet hidden from it, impassioned and yet impartial, here and yet elsewhere.

… which in some ways might be describing me as a researcher.

Flâneur in a digital space?

Given its origins in the city and the preoccupation with urban spaces and happenings, it’s perhaps no surprise that flânerie attracted the attentions of urban geographers, art historians and scholars of architecture. With the advent of the World Wide Web, the flâneur had a whole new realm to explore and on which to expound. Or perhaps a new breed of cyberflâneur was born? Since flânerie ‘involves the observation of people and social types and contexts; a way of reading the city, its population, its spatial configurations whilst also a way of reading and producing texts’ (Jenks and Neves, 2000), it’s not hard to see how that could be adapted for digital spaces. If we substitute ‘the city’ with Twitter, then perhaps we are getting close to the activities in which I’ve been involved for the past few months.

The cyberflâneur that Hogan (2016) constructs as ‘network ethnographer,’ however, sits less comfortably with me. ‘Wandering through the links of hyperspace and collecting information from websites, blogs’ and especially ‘following the links of associations’ with its relevance to actor-network theory, is fine and apt. However, when this turns to collecting corpora of tweets in order to produce and interpret network diagrams, as flâneur, that seems to be a process once removed. For me, this would be akin to the analogue flâneur conducting business using an A to Z guide. Even though the online world is already a mediated space, it’s important I feel to obtain a primary sense of the terrain, activity and interactions, by being there. And yet, perhaps data in a different format simply produces different knowledge, a different way of ‘seeing’ the (cyber)city?

The ‘information flâneur’ that Dork et al (2011) describe is on a different quest and is an information seeker. Whereas the seeker may be involved in ‘searching,’ where they come to the web with a specific intent, or ‘browsing’ which is somewhat less purposeful, more open and more casual, the flâneur is more of a serendipitous explorer, receptive to whatever comes along. They are a combination of curious explorer (having no goal other than to experience city life), critical spectator (balanced analyst, seeing beauty, but aware of social inequities), and creative mind (an interpreter who renders the urban landscape legible).

There’s something of me and my study in all of this, but I don’t think it completely represents what I do. The explorative nature, following links and observing activity are fine, but the flâneur appears to be an isolated individual. Within and of the crowd, but separate. The members of the crowd are not involved in his flânerie, other than as objects. As I discussed in the preceding post, I’m lucky to be far from alone in my research and, as Jenks and Neves (ibid) put it, more ‘confidant’ than ‘voyeur.’ At least that was true for ‘fieldwork,’ but perhaps I should return to where I began this piece and the reasons through which I was drawn here.

And the analysis?

I came to this seeking a more open, less reductive approach to data analysis, but got (productively) side-tracked into methodology. I couldn’t help it; the literature took me there. In returning to flânerie as a process through which to analyse rather than generate data, I’m struck that the literature appears more sparse. A research gap to exploit? More indicative of the fact that I’ve lacked the time to undertake a robust literature search? Or simply a daft idea?!

In order to lay the foundations for the principal analysis of ‘plugging in with theory’ that I described previously, I need to be clearer which threads, concepts, data and theories will benefit from being diffracted. For that reason, I come initially to my data as flâneur, a curious, critical, creative explorer, observer and note maker. I’m browsing and gazing, inspecting and noting, being intentional, but receptive to serendipity. In practice, this means I read the tweets, blogs, transcripts and research notes, annotating and memoing things of interest. I’m seeking ‘epiphanies,’ although not quite in the Damascene way that Soukup (2012) sees them when ‘…the blurry analogue routine of everyday life is briefly drawn into high-definition focus with remarkable clarity.’ But certainly like the tiny temperature fluctuations seen in the cosmic background radiation images. I become receptive to small islands of potential meaning in a sea of data.

“Nine Year Microwave Sky” NASA/WMAP Science Team

This ties in with ‘thinking with theory’ which seeks to disrupt the reductionist desire to seek and generate commonality and sameness, and instead reveal differences and disjunctures.

Some claim that the flâneur should remain consigned to the past and that contemporary manifestations have over-extended the concept (McGarrigle, 2013). I tend to subscribe to Kramer and Short’s (2011) view that flânerie is ‘alive and well,’ but for me is serving different needs. It partially describes my methodological approach, or at least the participant observation strand within it – a flânography perhaps? And it partially describes one aspect of my analysis – a flânalysis? Perhaps flânerie has been trapped for too long on the streets and sidewalks?

Benjamin, W. (1999). The Arcades Project, trans. Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin.
Dörk, M., Carpendale, S., & Williamson, C. (2011, May). The information flaneur: A fresh look at information seeking. In Proceedings of the SIGCHI conference on human factors in computing systems (pp. 1215-1224). ACM.
Friedberg, A. (1993). Window shopping: Cinema and the postmodern. Univ of California Press.
Frisby, D. (1994). The flâneur in social theory. In K. Tester (Ed.), The flâneur (pp. 81-110) Routledge.
Hogan, A. (2016). Network ethnography and the cyberflâneur: evolving policy sociology in education. International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, 29(3), 381-398.
Jenks, C., & Neves, T. (2000). A walk on the wild side: Urban ethnography meets the Flâneur. Journal for Cultural Research, 4(1), 1-17.
Kramer, K., & Short, J. R. (2011). Flânerie and the globalizing city. City, 15(3-4), 322-342.
McGarrigle, C. (2013). Forget the flâneur. In Cleland, K., Fisher, L. & Harley, R. (Eds.) Proceedings of the 19th International Symposium of Electronic Art, ISEA2013, Sydney
Shields, R. (1994). Fancy footwork: Walter Benjamin’s notes on flânerie. In K. Tester (Ed.), The flâneur (pp. 61-80) Routledge.
Soukup, C. (2013). The postmodern ethnographic flaneur and the study of hyper-mediated everyday life. Journal of Contemporary Ethnography, 42(2), 226-254.
Tester, K. (Ed.). (1994). The flâneur. Psychology Press.

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