As in the Streets, So in the Mind: Flânerie as a Way of Thinking and Living
Flânerie refers to the concept and lifestyle practice of walking aimlessly (typically around a city, with Paris being the epitomical city of the flâneur — the street wanderer). I analysed this concept in a previous post, touching on its historical, philosophical, literary, and cultural dimensions. However, flânerie extends well beyond the limits of the city, or I should say, it has implications for the inner world of exploration, not just the outer.
The legendary ancient Egyptian sage Hermes Trismegistus famously remarked in the Emerald Tablet, “As above, so below, as within, so without, as the universe, so the soul…” This means that what happens at one level of reality also happens on another level; there is a correspondence between the macrocosm and the microcosm. I would like to borrow this phrasing from the Emerald Tablet, and the notion behind it, to suggest that flânerie can exist as a much broader philosophical mode of thinking and living, reflecting the approach of the flâneur in the urban landscape. So we can say, “As in the streets, so in the mind.”
While flânerie refers to walking aimlessly, without a goal in mind, this doesn’t mean the practice isn’t fruitful or based on any motives. The flâneur might not be trying to get anywhere in particular when walking, but they still walk down streets, stop, start, observe, and make turns from a place of instinct, intuition, spontaneity, and intrigue. The flâneur possesses a desire to better understand the nature of people and their interactions, which are uniquely expressed — aesthetically, socially, culturally, and politically — within the context and structure of the city.
And the same applies to this broader idea of flânerie I have in mind, which we can call philosophical or psychological flânerie. This denotes exploring thoughts and ideas in a spontaneous manner, following lanes of interest that seem natural and inviting, rather than pre-set directions, with a clear endpoint in mind. When you follow intellectual pursuits with the attitude of a flâneur, you become open to a tangential way of thinking — and therein lies the joy of discovering the unexpected, the surprise of making connections between the previously unconnected.
But philosophical/psychological flânerie, as a mindset, changes the way you act in the world as well. As a way of living, it can involve altering the course of one’s career, projects, hobbies, relationships, travels, and conversations based on intuition, rather than outside influence. The flâneur in this sense, then, can be expected to be someone high in the personality trait of openness, making them naturally curious and attracted to novelty. Nonetheless, it is not mindless novelty that the flâneur wants but new directions that feel organic and authentic.
Interestingly, the concept of flânerie has also been applied to the way we use the internet. In a piece for The New York Times titled “The Death of the Cyberflâneur”, published in 2012, the author Evgeny Morozov describes discovering an obscure essay from 1998 that celebrated the rise of the so-called “cyberflâneur”, which “painted a bright digital future, brimming with playfulness, intrigue and serendipity”. The author of this 1998 essay said that “what the city and the street were to the Flâneur, the Internet and the Superhighway have become to the Cyberflâneur.”
Morozov, however, mourns the loss of this cyberflânerie potential, due to the way the internet has developed, with social media being particularly to blame. We can see this effect in multiple ways.
Consider, for instance, that the flâneur, in a traditional sense, preferred to stroll incognito. As the Polish sociologist Zygmunt Bauman once stated, “The art that the flâneur masters is that of seeing without being caught looking.” The flâneur intended to be an observer of crowds, without blending in; amongst people, but in solitude; taking their time, with everyone else in a hurry. Morozov writes:
It’s easy to see, then, why cyberflânerie seemed such an appealing notion in the early days of the Web. The idea of exploring cyberspace as virgin territory, not yet colonized by governments and corporations, was romantic; that romanticism was even reflected in the names of early browsers (“Internet Explorer,” “Netscape Navigator”).
Online communities like GeoCities and Tripod were the true digital arcades of that period, trading in the most obscure and the most peculiar, without any sort of hierarchy ranking them by popularity or commercial value. Back then eBay was weirder than most flea markets; strolling through its virtual stands was far more pleasurable than buying any of the items. For a brief moment in the mid-1990s, it did seem that the Internet might trigger an unexpected renaissance of flânerie.
Yet social media is in tension with this approach to cyber exploration. Social media companies track us (to better advertise to us), meaning that we do not observe incognito. We cannot remain anonymous. These sites also compete for our attention, leading to hurried scrolling, not mindful and patient viewing.
Architectural and city planning changes in Paris (as well as in cities around the world) have frustrated the ability to engage in flânerie, especially since modern cities have been designed for cars (and drivability) instead of people (and walkability). Urban landscapes have increasingly shifted from being heterogenous to homogenous, aligned with the goal of utility, which is antithetical to the flâneur. Being bombarded with advertisements stifles the spontaneity of our gaze and where we go. We see similar changes when it comes to the internet.
Morozov argues the internet has lost its original playful identity: “it’s no longer a place for strolling — it’s a place for getting things done.” No one really “surfs” the Web anymore. The way we use the internet, like the way most of us walk the streets, is centred on speed, efficiency, and productivity. As in the streets, so much of today’s online activity revolves around shopping.
Furthermore, we spend so much time on the narrow lanes of social media sites themselves, rather than going down internet rabbit holes. What we consume online is, moreover, often driven by social media algorithms, search engine optimisation (SEO), advertisements, whatever is trending, and whatever everyone else is sharing. Curiosity, risk-taking, and mystery become sidelined. We may also find ourselves drawn to certain content (partly) because sharing it will impress others. And in some ways, different levels of reality reflect each other: social media can affect how we physically navigate the outside world, for example, since we often seek out locations and sites for photos that will ‘perform well’ online.
This is not to say that a flâneur or cyberflâneur is somehow free from concerns about self-image and social approval, but these concerns don’t really influence their activity in the same way.
The German writer Franz Hessel believed that “in order to engage in flânerie, one must not have anything too definite in mind.” The point of the flâneur’s aimless wanderings is that they don’t know what they care about; that’s what they’re out to discover. But the highly deterministic world of the internet conflicts with this mode of thinking and living.
This doesn’t necessarily mean that cyberflâneurs should be despondent about the state of the internet today, however. In a research article published in the journal Culture and Organization, Jeremy Aroles and Wendelin Küpers explore how flânerie can influence the way that social researchers engage with digital worlds. They argue that this non-conventional methodology, which they call digital flânerie, offers a more open and explorative approach to digital research. The authors state that the flâneur forces “us to value instinct, to rethink velocities and rhythms and to challenge processes of boundarisation.”
There can be a way of working through empirical material that is “like walking perceptively, observantly and astutely in a spirit/ethos of flânerie.” The authors add that “in the phenomenological spirit of an engaged letting-go, digital flâneurs (also as researchers) do not attempt to manipulate, master or control things, but instead, let things and phenomena (also in the digital manifestation) be how they appear.”
By embodying the spirit of flânerie, the researcher can move away from “instrumental and calculative modes so prevalent in our technological era” towards more “contemplative thinking”, “mindful attunement”, and “slowing down”. Yet these benefits of digital flânerie or cyberflânerie, as I have tried to argue earlier on, can apply to manifold aspects of life. Flânerie is a general sensibility that can help us relate to ourselves, others, and the world at large in a way that is less rational and instrumental and more open and poetic. By tuning into our immediate sense impressions and how our instincts animate in response to them, we can adopt the vision of the flâneur — not just in the streets, but everywhere.
Originally published at https://www.samwoolfe.com on September 5, 2022.