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  • Dorian Winter

The Agoraphobic Flâneur

Meeting the Flâneur:

I’ve recently become obsessed with the term ‘flâneur’, translated from French to mean “stroller” or “lounger”. It seems to be an easily digestible word, something that we might all be, after all, don’t we make a point of absorbing the cultural atmosphere of our world through spectating?

But there is a strange nuance that comes with this abstract figure, since if you think about it, there is no empty observation, we are always somewhere, doing something, thinking something else. And especially with phones in hand & music in ears, is such a life attainable?

To build a profile of what makes a flâneur a flâneur, we must put ourselves in his shoes.

You wake, ambivalent and cloudy-minded, your room filled with freckles of golden trinkets and materials, and you set out to mark off your to-do list - observe. Observe not to write, or to paint, or to cherish - but to simply lay your eyes upon humanity, like some idle god.

But oftentimes the spectator is a consumer, not only of the world around him but also of the material. There is a certain level of privilege that comes with simple observation, to not have to worry about the dogfights of the crowd but instead how it makes us feel. There is security in being a flâneur, not because it is a job, but because the prerequisite is often a mountain of wealth.

The flâneur has been described as both a wanderer and an alien, like the kinds described by Water Benjamin. In Benjamin’s works, he looks at the flâneur and the badaud, the flâneur being a hallmark of individuality who simply digests the world like an amuse bouche, and the badaud as a kind of earthworm absorbing the soils and waters of the outside world, an “impersonal creature… part of the public, of the crowd” (Fournel, 1867).

Agoraphobia & Identity in the Digital Age:

I make the argument that it is very easy to be a flâneur nowadays, but not a badaud, especially in the age of social media, and in the ever-enclosing psychological threat of agoraphobia. We become used to our rooms, they are a place of comfort and also a place of consumption. We have the world at our fingertips, we have virtual bookshelves filled with information.

Flâneur-ism means that we can build a secret brand for ourselves, a sort of digital profile, and “observe” but never absorb. I see this phenomenon being well-pronounced in ‘aesthetic spaces’, like dark academia and cottage-core, where there is a sense of wandering around a digital environment and simply observing. Observing the aesthetic, the un-aesthetic, and everything in between.

Traditionally, Baudelaire describes the flâneur as finding a home outside of home :

For the perfect flâneur, for the passionate spectator, it is an immense joy to set up house in the heart of the multitude, amid the ebb and flow of movement, in the midst of the fugitive and the infinite. To be away from home and yet to feel oneself everywhere at home; to see the world, to be at the centre of the world, and yet to remain hidden from the world—impartial natures which the tongue can but clumsily define.

But what if we didn’t need to leave to spectate?

Meeting the Cyberflâneur:

Cyberflâneur, a new term popularized by the likes of Roseanne Ganley and Steven Johnson, examines the way we explore cities and outdoor spaces from the comfort of our computers, leading virtual footsteps from browser to browser (Ikiz, 2023). Is it even possible to be a cyberflâneur?

Some say no, since the aim of being one revolves around aimless experience and observation, which can be borderline impossible in an age of constant news and algorithms tailored to personalized media. The world has never been shaped around us and our desires, until today, where the simple gaze of a machine-learning algorithm can determine what we want to see next, and which city we want to wander into. Is the fate of the flâneur, and cyberflâneur at risk? (Chacoff, 2021). I’m not sure.

By asking for meaningful exploration, we neglect the goal of aimless spectating, and so recommending things like active browsing takes away the entire essence of the flâneur. But in a world, especially a digital one, where performance seems to be central - where we want to be seen as having a goal or motive - how can we submit to being aimless? Experiential? Is it possible?

Final Notes (From my Bedroom Computer):

It might just be the fact that I’m avoiding the humid Australian heat, and don’t really want to leave my room, or it could be the case that I continue to spiral down the hallways of Instagram posts and TikToks and thus don’t want to escape - but something about flâneur-ism feels so close yet so distant to me. I sometimes feel myself, alone in my room, wanting to look out at the world and trying to replicate that through browsing.

But there is something so secondhand about the whole experience, the curated fantasy of the algorithm doesn’t speak to me the same way the visceral realities of hot asphalt and melted ice cream do.

The flâneur was also once coupled with the gothic, with a sort of curiosity yet fear of what the world (and especially the urban landscape) had in store.

If everything is too perfect, too curated, and too artifical, aren’t we just observing an art gallery instead of the world?

If you are still here:
  • Consider liking & commenting. I always want to hear your thoughts, as well as any recommendations for future articles. I don’t take writing these too seriously, mostly a stream of half-researched consciousness, but I want to hear any thoughts from my readers.

Sources (for those interested):

Baudelaire, Charles (1964). The Painter of Modern Life. New York: Da Capo Press. Originally published, in French, in Le Figaro, 1863.

Alejandro Chacoff (2021). Is the Digital Age Costing Us Our Ability to Wander?

Serra Utkum Ikiz (2023). Walking, internet, and the Cyberflâneur: How is technology changing our way to experience cities? 

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Manu Ilapavuluri
Manu Ilapavuluri
Dec 18, 2023

"If everything is too perfect, too curated, and too artificial, aren’t we just observing an art gallery instead of the world?" I really loved this line; it was an excellent way to end your post! <3

Manu Ilapavuluri
Manu Ilapavuluri
Dec 18, 2023
Replying to

Yes! I always found discussion on aesthetics and the categorisationalism of our modern world to be an interesting topic of conversation. If I remember correctly (I'm so sorry if I'm wrong) but I think you touched on it in your post titled "are we scared of beauty? a design manifesto". I just think, while the terms and names given to these aesthetics can give them their own identity and individuality, it may also lead to a consumerist desire to maintain flawless image and a curated brand? Idk, interesting topic, food for thought. I still very much play into it in my own life as a self-proclaimed chaotic academic lmao

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