The flaneur was always a man who meant to say no: a solitary figure in a city touches a nerve. Obviously, he’s broadcasting a desire for non-doing, opting out of a society by refusing to join, make, or earn in it. But aesthetics, rather than laziness dictate his attitude.
Back in the 19th century heyday, he became strangely central to popular culture. There were many reactions in the new mass-market press: How does he look? What is he seeing? What does he do with what he’s seen? Making sense of outsiders is never an easy task. The more serious-minded dismissed the figure as middle-brow-trivia but a number of bystanders felt a certain grudging admiration.
The flaneur became a staple of popular journalism Every day new copy is needed -and the newly-created genre of the feuilleton helped any writer on a deadline assume the role. Everyone understood the hard-working observer who gaped a bit on the sidelines. At the same time, the more alienated metropolitan creatives had a means to describe their position in the society of capitalism. Wandering the city alone is only a mobile way of practicing what they do.
Finally, much later, postmodern theorists grasped the figure because this kind of 19th-century refusal very nearly seems an an indictment of suburbia in the 21st.
So it’s safe to say that dismissing the figure ignores many layers of importance to what it represents. Flanerie almost always functions as ethnographic commentary on how humans act in a modern city, where every traditional certitude seems bizarre or debunked.
Most critics today examine the ethnographic project. But there’s a facet of the figure’s gaze that’s even more interesting: Seeing is more than a means to observe the strange. It’s also a means to overcome the default wiring of vision, and only then does the understanding of the emerging industrial city get possible. Looking back on the ways that vision is increasingly embraces seen as a cognitive technology reveals the role that one character actor in the ad hoc stage outside informs the most crucial philosophical debates of his day.