Dériver to Flâneur

But rather than jump back to ancient antecedents, I want to drift more directly in the biblio-tracks of Situationist Guy Debord. The origin of his technique of urban exploration, the “dérive,” or drift arises from Baudelaire’s ideal of the “flâneur.”

“The crowd is his element, as the air is that of birds and water of fishes. His passion and his profession are to become one flesh with the crowd. 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.” (“The Painter of Modern Life.” 18??)

The “Flâneur” strolls the city streets, moving with the crowd while remaining aloof, wryly observing, a connoisseur voyeur. He keeps his own pace. The flâneur is not rushing to make an appointment like the busy businessman or the harried worker. He is not shuffling along gawking like a tourist awestruck by the big city, wary of every official street sign, yearning with every tempting advertisement. (The “gawker,” or “badaud,” might be the prototype of Debord’s dumbstruck member of the modern society of the spectacle.) A flâneur never gawks. As a supremely cultural animal, the city is the flâneur’s “natural” habitat. His instinct is for irony.

The theory of the flâneur was inspired by a strange story by Edgar Allen Poe, “The Man of the Crowd” (1840) translated by Baudelaire as “L’Homme des Foules.” Walter Benjamin explains:

“Poe’s famous tale ‘The Man of the Crowd’ is something like an X-ray of a detective story. It does away with the drapery that a crime represents. Only the armature remains: the pursuer, the crowd, and an unknown man who manages to walk through London in such a way that he always remains in the middle of the crowd. This unknown man is the flâneur. That is how Baudelaire understood him when, in his essay on [“the painter of modern life” Constantin] Guys, he called the flâneur “l’homme des foules.” But Poe’s description of this figure is devoid of the connivance which Baudelaire’s notion included. To Poe the flâneur was, above all, someone who does not feel comfortable in his own company. This is why he seeks out the crowd; the reason he hides in it is probably close at hand. Poe purposely blurs the difference between the asocial person and the flâneur. The harder a man is to find, the more suspicious he becomes. Refraining from a prolonged pursuit, the narrator quietly sums up his insight as follows: ‘“This old man is the embodiment and the spirit of crime,” I said to myself. “He refuses to be alone. He is the man of the crowd.”’ (“The Paris of the Second Empire in Baudelaire.”)

For “asocial person,” perhaps read sociopath. Stepping from the pages of Poe’s weird tale into the actual modern city, Baudelaire’s voyeuristic dandy could be confused with any old foppish creep. But could more than one flâneur gather together and evolve into Situationist activists, buoyed by youthful enthusiasm, erupting into revolutionary vandalism and violence in May 1968? Could a man of the crowd, “the embodiment and spirt of crime,” organize to become men of the mob? “…rebellious tendencies among the young generate a protest that is still tentative and amorphous, yet already clearly embodies a rejection of the specialized sphere of the old politics, as well as of art and everyday life. […] signaling a new spontaneous struggle emerging under the sign of criminality…” (The Society of the Spectacle #115)

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