The Flâneur and the City, from Baudelaire to the Postmodernists
The notion of flneur - employed since the late 19th century to designate poets and intellectuals that critically observed people's behaviour while strolling among the crowds, and codified in Benjamin's influential work on the "Passages" of Paris - is once again of central interest (in social science, philosophy, literature, and cinema) as a tool for identifying a specific mode of travel and exploration of places, a particular type of reflective relationship with people and spaces. For Giddens the flneur is a symbol of advanced modernity. Sennett emphasises how diminished use of public places reveals the impoverishment of relational experiences. Bauman speaks of "privatisation" of the flnerie. These are only a few of the many contemporary thinkers that, from startlingly different vantage points, have addressed the topic of flneurs. Urban animals par excellence and trained at the difficult school of modern metropolitan existence, flneurs embody many things: the wanderlust typical of individuals trapped by territorial, ideological, and professional constraints; rebellion against mass consumerism, especially fast-food tourism; the desire to enjoy life at a slower pace; the cultivation of sensitivity as a form of knowledge. Relocated from the Parisian arcades to contemporary suburbs and commercial malls, the use of the concept of flneur seems to reflect the modern sense of bewilderment, as well as the craving for new relationships with both places and their inhabitants.
Giampaolo Nuvolati teaches Urban Sociology
at the university of Milan-Bicocca.