On the birth of the flâneuse

Walter Benjamin and The Arcades Project 

In his magnum opus “The Arcades Project”, Walter Benjamin wrote: “The city is the realization of that ancient dream of humanity, the labyrinth. It is this reality to which the flâneur, without knowing it, devotes himself”.

Benjamin’s flâneur experiences the urban scene as a “cityscape”, while the “old Romantic sentiment for landscape” is replaced by a new Romantic conception of landscape. As the old Romantic experience of landscape was spatially located outside the city, the metropolis has become “the properly sacred ground of flânerie”.

In his one thousand pages project, Benjamin attempts to map the city of modernity by offering a “panoramic vision of the city” (Gilloch, 102).

It is important to keep in mind, as Susan Buck-Morss wrote, that “The Arcades Project” was deeply informed by political interest in contemporary society. Benjamin focused mostly on cultural history “leading from the soothing cityscapes of the physiologists through the urban allegories of Baudelaire, and ending in Baron de Haussmann” (Paetzold, 117).

The introduction of the grand boulevards of Haussmann and the emergence of the department stores ultimately destroyed the sources for flânerie. 

If the arcade is the classical form of the interior, which is how the flâneur sees the street, the department store is the form of the interior’s decay. The bazaar (Warenhaus) is the last hangout of the flâneur. If in the beginning the street had become a interior for him, now this interior turned into a street, and he roamed through the labyrinth of merchandise (Labyrinth der Ware) as he had once through the labyrinth of the city (Benjamin 1973, 57).

The department store was, as Benjamin described, the flâneur’s “final coup”, the death of the flâneur. Benjamin argued that the city of Paris and the rise of the department stores slowly contributed to the transformation of the flâneur into a consumer and a window shopper. However, the subversive nature of the flâneur is highlighted by Benjamin in the statement: “The flâneur likes to have the turtles set the pace for them. If they had had their way, progress would have been obliged to accommodate itself to this pace” (Benjamin, 1973, 57). This particular insistence upon the pace of the stroller is closely connected to Benjamin’s critique on the speed of the city of modernity. This city is described by Benjamin as a chaotic environment of the rapid industrial and commercialisation era. Benjamin critiques as well the detachment and self-assertion that are now prominent in the city in comparison to the wandering ambiguity of his flâneur. Consequently, the outsider trait of the flâneur is explored in The Arcades Project, depicting  the flâneur’s “authoritative urban vision”, as Parsons argues in her book “Streetwalking the Metropolis”:

The fate of the flâneur after the loss of his arcade habitat is a desperate attempt to retain an authoritative urban vision, which he attempts through a retreat to the detached and overlooking position above the city streets, implicitly a retreat to the authority of the past, the spectatorship of the eighteenth-century urban dandy (Parsons, 35).

The authoritative urban vision that Parsons describes in the fragment above is exclusively male. Parsons writes that the prostitute and the passante, two female figures well-known from Baudelaire’s poems and Benjamin’s “The Arcades Project”, are figures in opposition to the flâneur, and, most importantly, they are objects of his gaze.  Women are regarded as objects of the male gaze, situating themselves at the other side of flânerie. Benjamin depicts the female figure as well as a figure of erotic fascination for the urban poet in his 1939 essay “On Some Motifs in Baudelaire”. Parsons writes in “Streetwalking the Metropolis” that Benjamin describes the arcades as a place for consumption, where souvenirs and women are displayed on the same shelf. The arcades presents an “organic and inorganic world”, full of “the female fauna of the arcades: whores, gristles, old witch-like saleswomen, female second-hand dealers, gantieres, demoiselles” (Benjamin, 241).

Even though the female presence is acknowledged by Benjamin in “The Arcades Project”, the female stroller is perceived as an object, always ready to be consumed by the male gaze. However, while the department stores of the late 19th century city were on the rise, threatening the existence of the old-fashioned flâneur, the flâneuse was making her first strolls on the streets of the modern city. 

The Death of the Flâneur, the Birth of the Flâneuse

In the Arcades Project Benjamin explores the flâneur’s “final coup” which is strongly connected with the changes of the modern city and the rise of the department stores and of a consumerist society.  However, even though the flâneur-friendly city of Paris was rapidly changing, the cultural, social, political changes that emerged from the modernisation and industrialisation of the city paved the path of the flâneuse in the modern city.

The female observer emerged during these times in the 19th and early 20th century when women were “achieving greater liberation as walkers and observers in the public spaces of the city” (Parsons, 6). The female urban vision drastically changed during this time, while “modernization effected a deterritorialization and revaluation of vision”. Deborah Parson argues that men and women responded differently to this deterritorialization, which ultimately resulted in “gendered models of urban vision” (Crary, 149).

In a way or another I can argue that what led to the traditional flâneur’s demise encouraged the apparition of the flâneuse in the city and in the modern society. The flâneuse encompasses, besides the traditional values of the flâneur, a highly self-conscious awareness of herself as walker, writer, observer of the modernist city.

The flâneur became the focus of feminist critiques of hegemonic modernism in the late twentieth century. As mentioned in the introduction of this project, a number of female writers including Janet Wolff, Griselda Pollock, and Elizabeth Wilson, denied the existence of the flâneuse, because they viewed the flâneur as a “particularly socio-historical figure”. In their opinion, “the modern urban world is equated with the artistic style of the male artist” (Parsons, 6). Wolff’s essay focuses as well on the socio-sexual divisions of the 19th century and while she accepts the presence of public women in Bauedelaire’s poetry, she also views them as “diametrically opposed to the position of the flâneur”.

However, it is important to acknowledge that even though Wolff accepts Walter Benjamin’s social description of the flâneur, she fails to observe his use of the concept as a metaphor for a “style of observation adapted to the modern city” as Deborah Parsons explains in Streetwalking the Metropolis. For Wolff the “in so far experience of the modern” occurred mainly in the public sphere and it “was primarily a men’s experience” (Wolff, 2011, 40). Parsons defends the female experience of that time which, in her opinion and, my opinion as well, was not exclusively concerned with the domestic world: 

The experience of “the modern” by women has only been defined in opposition to this gendered version, and hence in acceptance of it. For example, by asserting that female experience concerns the domestic world, critics such as Wolff and Pollock only serve to exclude women from the “modern altogether and resituates her in the Victorian home” (Parsons, 40).

Parsons continues her argument by explaining that Wolff and Pollock fail to distinguish the characteristics of flânerie from the feminist theory of the male gaze.

To accept Benjamin’s idea of the flâneur as a figure of surveillance is to overlook the fact that Benjamin’s text itself is ideological, and based on an attempt to relieve the male anxieties of the turn-of-the-century and modernist period. Wolff and Pollock, therefore, do not examine fully the concept of the flâneur in its transmutations from nineteenth to twentieth centuries (Parsons, 40).

The particular socio-historical context of the beginning of the 20th century that Parsons comments on in the paragraph above redefined the concept of the flâneur and made way for the flâneuse. In the following post, “The Dangerous Crowd”, I will explore the various literary representations of the modern flâneuse from the shop girl to the new woman, in the literature of that time.

Works cited

Benjamin, Walter. Charles Baudelaire: A Lyric Poet in the Era of High Capitalism. Translated by H. Zohn, London: New Left Books. 1997. Print.

Benjamin, Walter.  The Arcades Project. Cambridge MA: Belknap Press. 1999. Print. 

Crary, Jonathan. Techniques of the Observer: On Vision and Modernity in the Nineteenth Century. MIT Press. 1992. Print. 

Giloch, Graeme. Myth and Metropolis: Walter Benjamin and the City. Polity. 1997. Print.

Paetzold, Heinz. Walter Benjamin and the urban labyrinth. Filozofski Vestnik 22 (2):111-126 (2001). Web. 10.10.2018. philpapers.org

Parsons, Deborah. Streetwalking the Metropolis: Women, the City, and Modernity. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2000. Print. 

Wolff, Janet. “The Invisible Flâneuse: Women and the Literature of Modernity.” Theory, Culture and Society2.3 (1985): 37-46. Web. 5 Mar. 2018. 

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