Flânerie and the Dérive, Online and Off

Had I been really ambitious with yesterday’s post, I would have attempted to draw in a little controversy over the practice of flânerie earlier this week. You may be wondering what flânerie is, or if you know what it is, you may be wondering why on earth it would spark controversy.

Short answers today. First, flânerie is the practice of being a flâneur. The flâneur is a figure from the city streets of nineteenth century Paris who made his way through the crowded avenues and arcades watching and observing, engaging in what we could call peripatetic social criticism. He was popularized in the work of the poet Charles Baudelaire and the literary critic Walter Benjamin.

The recent mini-controversy revolved around the practice of cyber-flânerie, playing the part of the flâneur online. The debate was kicked off by Evgeny Morozov’s “The Death of the Cyberflâneur” in the NY Times. Morozov drew a spirited response from Dana Goldstein in a blog post, “Flânerie Lives! On Facebook, Sex, and the Cybercity”.

Morozov is a champion of the open, chaotic web of the early Internet. He is a fierce critic of the neat, closed web of Google, Facebook, and apps. Here is the gist of his argument (although, as always, I encourage you to read the whole piece):

“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.


Something similar has happened to the Internet. Transcending its original playful identity, it’s no longer a place for strolling — it’s a place for getting things done. Hardly anyone “surfs” the Web anymore. The popularity of the “app paradigm,” whereby dedicated mobile and tablet applications help us accomplish what we want without ever opening the browser or visiting the rest of the Internet, has made cyberflânerie less likely. That so much of today’s online activity revolves around shopping — for virtual presents, for virtual pets, for virtual presents for virtual pets — hasn’t helped either. Strolling through Groupon isn’t as much fun as strolling through an arcade, online or off.”

Further on, Morozov lays much of the blame on Facebook and the quest for frictionless sharing. All told it seems to me that his critique centers on the loss of anonymity and the lack of serendipity that characterize the Facebook model web experience.

For her part, Goldstien, who has done graduate work on nineteenth century flânerie, questioned whether anonymity was essential to the practice. Morozov cited Zygmunt Bauman’s line, “The art that the flâneur masters is that of seeing without being caught looking.” Goldstein on the other hand writes, “The historian Della Pollock, contra Morozov and Bauman, describes flânerie as ‘observing well and…being well worth observing’ in turn.”

Yet, even if we did grant Bauman’s characterization of flânerie, Goldstein still believes that much of what we do online qualifies as such:

“Seeing without being caught looking. Is there any better description for so much of what we do online? Admit it: You’re well acquainted with your significant other’s ex’s Facebook page. You’ve dived deep into the search results for the name of the person you’re dating, the job applicant you’re interviewing, the prospective tenant or roommate. On the dating site OkCupid, you can even pay for the privilege of “enhanced anonymous browsing,” in which you can see who checks out your profile, but no one can see which profiles you’ve looked at yourself. On Facebook, one of the most common spam bots promises to reveal who’s been looking at your profile. It’s so tempting! People click and the spam spreads, but it’s a trick: Facebook conceals users’ browsing histories from one another.”

I should say that I have no particular expertise in the study of the flâneur beyond a little reading of Benjamnin here and there. My hunch, however, is that the tradition of flânerie is wide enough to accommodate the readings of both Morozov and Goldstein. Moreover, I suspect that perhaps a metaphor has been unhelpfully reified. After all, cyber-space (who knew we would be using “cyber” again) and physical space are only metaphorically analogous. That metaphor is suggestive and has generated insightful analysis, but it is a metaphor that can be pushed too far. Cyberflânerie and, what shall we call it, brick-and-mortar flânerie — these two are also only metaphorically analogous. Again, it is a rich and suggestive metaphor, but it will have its limits. Phenomenologically, clicking on a link is not quite the same thing as turning a corner. The way each presents itself to us and acts on us is quite different.

Additionally, to complicate matters, it might also be interesting to draw into the conversation related practices such the dérive popularized by Guy Debord and the Situationists. That, however, will remain only a passing observation, except to note that intention is of great consequence. Why are we engaging in this practice or that? That seems to me to be the question. Stalking, flânerie, and the dérive may have structural similarities (particularly to the outside observer, the one watching the watcher as it were, but not knowing why the watcher watches), but they are distinguished decisively by their intent. Likewise, online analogs should be distinguished according to their intent.

Although, having just written that, it occurs to me that the dérive analogy does have an interesting dimension to offer. Regardless of our intentions, when we go online we do often find ourselves very far afield from whatever our initial reason for going online might have been. This is something the dérive assumes as an integral part of the practice. Also, while varieties of flânerie involve acting to see and to be seen in debatable portions, the dérive, in analogy with psychotherapy, is less focused on the seeing and being seen altogether. Here is Debord on the dérive:

“One of the basic situationist practices is the dérive, a technique of rapid passage through varied ambiences. Dérives involve playful-constructive behavior and awareness of psychogeographical effects, and are thus quite different from the classic notions of journey or stroll.

“In a dérive one or more persons during a certain period drop their relations, their work and leisure activities, and all their other usual motives for movement and action, and let themselves be drawn by the attractions of the terrain and the encounters they find there. Chance is a less important factor in this activity than one might think: from a dérive point of view cities have psychogeographical contours, with constant currents, fixed points and vortexes that strongly discourage entry into or exit from certain zones.”

This practice seems to better fit (metaphorically still) the online experience of either the early web or its more recent iteration. The difference, it would seem, lies in the object of study. Flânerie oscillates between social criticism and performance. The dérive takes one’s own psychic state as the object of study insofar as it is revealed by the manner in which we negotiate space, online and off.

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