dialectic of flânerie

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“Dialectic of flânerie: on one side, the man who feels himself viewed by all and sundry as a true suspect and, on the other side, the man who is utterly undiscoverable, the hidden man. Presumably, it is this dialectic that is developed in ‘The Man in the Crowd’.”  Benjamin, W., Eiland, H., & McLaughlin, K. (2003). The Arcades Project. Cambridge, MA,: Harvard University Press.

Firstly, of course Benjamin uses only the word “man” here, as opposed to ‘the person who feels themselves viewed by…”. Secondly, these couple of sentences exemplify the problem of the flâneur. What of an Arab flâneur in Berlin? Or a black flâneur in a swanky part of town? Could they not, in their wandering, be made to feel “as a true suspect”? Would he not be “viewed by all”? The experience of “undiscoverability” is not the same across the board for all types of flâneurs.

The “Man of the Crowd” is a short story by Edgar Allen Poe  which begins with the line, “Ce grand malheur, de ne pouvoir être seul“. This translates to “This great misfortune, to not be able to be alone.” Solitude is a luxury. The flâneur wishes to be unseen, to be lost in the crowd, alone.

This point feels slightly ironic as several accounts of the (white, male) flâneur include his observations of others, his inability to leave others alone in their solitude. For example, in another post I wrote about possession and belonging, Dr Lauren Elkin recounts Hemingway’s idea that he feels entitled to and that he can simply feel he has ownership of all that he sees. In one account (of his own writing), there was a young woman at a café that he noticed but he realized that she seemed to be waiting for someone. Elkin points out that, because of her previous commitment, Hemingway was unable to use her the way that he wanted to in his writing, or even, one might suppose, to strike up a conversation with her. In my experience, and that of my female friends’, whenever we wish to be alone (to be hidden and undiscoverable), there are people that attempt to draw us out from hiding, to point out our presence to others, or to force an identity or a role on us that they wish for us to play. So yes, ce grand malheur, de ne pouvoir être seul, indeed.


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