Antonin Proust by ManetThe identity of the Flâneur

By implication the Flâneur appears as a bourgeois figure, one who has time on his hands and who can afford to dawdle. Therefore, the Flâneur could be portrayed at best as a dilettante and at worst an individual who takes pleasure in idleness. The flâneur is the aimless, complacent, haughty bourgeois who wanders through the urban complex in search of nothing more than diversion, to see and to be seen. As Benjamin observes, 'Around 1840 it was briefly fashionable to take tortoises for a walk in the arcades' (CB p. 54).

However, the more recent efflorescence of interest in the flâneur has revealed more dimensions to this figure. First of all it seems that the flâneur was a type of person with a real historical existence, as this anonymous description from Paris (1906) shows (adapted from Wilson, 1992: 94-95):

A 'gentleman' who spends most of the day roaming the streets observing the urban spectacle -- the fashions in dress and adornment, the buildings, the shops, the books, the novelties and attractions. A kind of voyeur with an endless curiosity for witnessing the ordinary scenes of city life.

His means of support are invisible, there is the suggestion of private wealth (he is possibly a rentier) but an apparent absence of family, business or landowning responsibilities.

His interests are primarily aesthetic and he frequents cafés and restaurants where actors, journalists, writers and artists gather.

For the flâneur a significant part of the urban spectacle is provided by the behaviour of the lower orders (workers, soldiers, street vendors and street people).

He is a marginal figure, tending to be portrayed as isolated from those he observes, a solitary figure in crowds.

No-one knows just how widespread this social type was in the Paris and other cities of nineteenth century Europe. In many respects the significance of the figure of the flâneur lies not so much in the historical phenomenon as it does in the observational stance it denotes. The flâneur is an intellectual figure speaking to the new conditions of modernity. Flânerie - a leisurely amalgam of strolling, loitering and, importantly, gazing at the urban spectacle - only becomes possible in the social conditions provided by the big cities of industrialising Europe. Thus, the flâneur can be considered to typify the experience of modernity's public places.

Photography of Shopping ArcadeThe flâneur, strolling through the city streets and preserving his incognito in the anonymity of the crowd, witnesses a variety of situations which are seen at a safe and detached distance. Watching the world go by lies at the heart of the flâneur's stance: simple observation, not prescription or remedy. Vision is paramount: 'the flâneur moves through space and among the people with a viscosity that both enables and privileges vision' (Jenks 1995: 146). For the flâneur the city is not a home but a showplace. The labyrinthine images of metropolitan culture provide an endless source of fascination tinged with mystery. 'This inconspicuous passer-by' says Benjamin has 'the dignity of the priest and the sense for clues of a detective' (cited in Frisby 1985: 229-230). In varying degrees flânerie is evident in the novels of Charles Dickens (Benjamin specifically identifies Sketches by Boz), the documentary reports of the Victorian 'social explorers' like Booth and Mayhew, the 'man in the crowd' of Edgar Allen Poe, the sociology of Georg Simmel, as well as Benjamin's own reflections on Paris (the Arcades Project).

Feminists have highlighted the taken-for-granted associations implicit in the flâneur figure as a bourgeois, bohemian and male. From one point of view the non-existence of the role of flâneuse symbolises women's restricted participation in public places as well as the malestream bias of some of the classical literature on modernity (Wolff 1985). The invisibility of the flâneuse underscores how the freedom to roam was very much a male freedom: the flâneur's licence to watch the city sights can be regarded as the walking embodiment of the 'male gaze'.

Janet Wolff argues bourgeois women were consigned to the interior, to the private sphere of the home and family. It was considered disreputable for women to be unaccompanied in public spaces. In effect women in public space were women out of place and subject to sanctions and negative connotations. The terms 'woman of the street' and 'streetwalker' provide evidence of restricted opportunities for women in urban public spaces. Wolff notes the exclusion of the 'invisible flaneuse' from the urban environment. Moreover she argues that 'the experience of anonymity in the city, the fleeting, impersonal contacts described by social commentators like Georg Simmel, the possibility of unmolested strolling and observation first seen by Baudelaire, and then analysed by Walter Benjamin were entirely the experiences of men' (ibid: 58). Women 'could not stroll alone in the city' (p.41) and that 'the particular experience of 'modernity' was, for the most part, equated with experience in the public area' (p.45). Thus, Wolff argues: 'the literature of modernity describes the experience of men' (p.34).

Other feminists have argued that there is a risk of overgeneralising this argument. They point out that women’s' experiences of the urban life, even in the nineteenth century, varied from city to city and from class to class. Thus Elizabeth Wilson (1992) has suggested that it is misleading to claim that women were comprehensively excluded from public spaces in late nineteenth century England. She maintains that the growth of department stores, tea rooms, railway station buffets, ladies-only dining rooms, public conveniences with female attendants and so forth, made it possible for middle and lower middle class women to experience public places and thus afforded at least some women the opportunity for flânerie. These issues connect to more contemporary empirical investigations of behaviour in public places.


1. The flaneur is often depicted as a male dandy or dilettante - a popular figure in the novels and sketches of the late 19th century, particularly in France. Given this rather particular persona do you agree with Wolff that a female 'flaneur' is impossible?

Read: Elizabeth Wilson, 'The Invisible Flaneur', New Left Review, no.191, Feb 1992.


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