The 21st century flâneur — a call to arms (or legs?)

In 2016, the act of walking with no purpose other than observation is close to a radical act. No money is changing hands, nothing is being consumed or advertised, personal brands are not being built. Observing city life at walking pace means spending time thinking about the lives of people around you, maybe even empathising a little.

Recently, I read Luc Sante’s book The Other Paris, an outsider history focussing on the lives of thieves, bohemians, sex workers and other folks that often never make it into history books. Sante was only able to write about many of these people through descriptions he found in the work of the flâneurs.

The flâneur was a literary type who strolled the streets of Paris in the 19th century observing, cataloguing and reflecting on life around them. Some flaneurs saw themselves as observers or ‘botanists of the sidewalks’ as Balzac put it. Others inserted themselves more flamboyantly into city life with eccentric acts like throwing a leash around their pet turtle and taking it for a walk. All were passionate spectators of the poetry of urban existence.

Baudelaire reached peak flâneur in his essay The Painter of Modern Life:

Maybe this all sounds a bit quaint and touch irrelevant in our selfie worshipping, digitally obsessed times. On the contrary, I believe that we are seeing a rebirth of the flâneur. While admittedly smartphones do have the potential to make Smombies out of us, they are also driving a golden age of flâneurie.

In her collection of essays On Photography published in 1977, Susan Sontag recognised the role of the camera in the art of flâneurie:

Most of us are now packing at least an eight megapixel when we hit the streets. Beyond the duckfaces and gym mirror six packs, smartphones are inspiring a whole generation of urban explorers to document, share and comment critically on the world around them.

As Sante’s book shows, recording the lives of everyday people and culture is important, especially now with our increasingly celebrity saturated media. So I plan to hit the streets of Melbourne to try out some flâneurie, smartphone in pocket to observe and describe what I see. I urge you to do the same.

Dean Sunshine walks the streets of Melbourne documenting and writing about graffiti culture.

This Instagram account documents life in and around the Gatwick Hotel in St Kilda.

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