Academic journal article The Modern Language Review

Walter Benjamin's Myth of the Flaneur

Academic journal article The Modern Language Review

Walter Benjamin's Myth of the Flaneur

Article excerpt

This article challenges the substance of what is accepted as a critical key to nineteenth-century urban experience: Walter Benjamin's concept of the flaneur. Benjamin's concept is based on incorrect readings of Baudelaire and Poe, and is conceived in opposition to earlier, journalistic depictions in which the flaneur features as an empirically observed and observing stroller within a whole spectrum of metropolitan types. The article exposes Benjamin's concept of the flaneur as a myth supporting his one-sided understanding of modernity as involving self-loss, alienation, and fetishization and shows that some of the journalistic sources he dismisses can assist an understanding of modernity in terms of a dynamically growing public sphere.

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The notion of the flaneur, developed by Walter Benjamin at the height of 1920s and 1930s modernism when the 'surreal' potential of the previous century's industrial urban space was explored, has exerted considerable influence on the way we now interpret nineteenth-century depictions of the city. The concept has gained unquestioned cognitive status--a sum of insights to be taken for granted--in contemporary cultural theory. It is the contention of this article that Benjamin's idea of the flaneur is not only of limited value for an understanding of nineteenth-century urban experience, but can be seen positively to hamper it. This detrimental effect results from Benjamin's dogmatic application of a high-modernist, aesthetic concept of self-loss, derived from a (flawed) reading of Baudelaire and Poe, to the interpretation of earlier, journalistic sources conceptualizing the flaneur. Compared with the mode of viewing formulated by Poe and Baudelaire, the kind of urban observation presented by these ephemera of the 1830s and 1840s is dismissed as lacking cognitive value. This dismissal has led to a neglect, if not downright demolition, of a whole genre of nineteenth-century city sketches in 'deconstructive' criticism. What has shielded Benjamin's pronouncements from being questioned is not only their own critical thrust informed by Marxist and Freudian theory, but their apparently solid foundation in empirical textual study. In order to question the substance of his arguments and to expose his notion of the flaneur as a modernist myth, I shall first discuss Benjamin's theorizing of modernity in relation to the idea of the city stroller. It was his aim to enlighten modernity about itself, but his critique has, I argue, had an obfuscatory effect which was both unintentional and necessary, given the peculiarities of his thinking, and which has been perpetuated by Benjamin-inspired cultural theory. As a second step, I shall discuss some nineteenth-century materials to illustrate my critical points against Benjamin and to show that his ideas have handicapped our understanding of precisely those journalistic sources (e.g. the Physiologies) from the study of which his statements derive some of their claim to authority.

Langsam durch belebte Strassen zu gehen, ist ein besonderes Vergnugen. Man wird uberspielt von der Eile der anderen, es ist ein Bad in der Brandung. Aber meine lieben Berliner Mitburger machen einem das nicht leicht, wenn man ihnen auch noch so geschickt ausbiegt. Ich bekomme immer misstrauische Blicke ab, wenn ich versuche, zwischen den Geschaftigen zu flanieren. Ich glaube, man halt mich fur einen Taschendieb. (1)

Franz Hessel's Spazieren in Berlin (1929), from which this passage is taken, contains motifs that are central to Benjamin's idea of the flaneur. These include, on the one hand, delight in immersing oneself in the crowd, the object of observation, and on the other hand, being viewed with suspicion since the keen 'reading' of urban physiognomies shows an affinity with the business of criminals and detectives. Given Benjamin's friendship and collaboration with Hessel (who in 1926 introduced him to the 'Kunst des Spazierengehens' in Paris and was his co-author for a planned essay on arcades), (2) it is not surprising that the first-person observer of Hessel's Berlin sketches should be closely related to the third-person flaneur depicted in Benjamin's later work. …

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