Academic journal article Americana : The Journal of American Popular Culture, 1900 to Present; Hollywood

The Flapper and the Flâneur: Visuality, Mobility, and the "Kinaesthetic" Subject in the Early Twentieth Century American Press, 1920 to 1930

Academic journal article Americana : The Journal of American Popular Culture, 1900 to Present; Hollywood

The Flapper and the Flâneur: Visuality, Mobility, and the "Kinaesthetic" Subject in the Early Twentieth Century American Press, 1920 to 1930

Article excerpt

Introduction

The figure of the flapper emerges in the early twentieth century press as a jazzed-up kinetic counterpoint to Charles Baudelaire's wandering urban flâneur. Feminist theorists and cultural historians often contend that an unprecendented visibility produced the modern feminine subject (see Berger, Hansen, and Conor). In the popular literature and film of the early twentieth century, the figure of the flapper offers one example of this novel subjectivity. She appears in silent films that warn about the presence of women in the urban scene (Conor 34), in works of literature as the debauched heroine of the jazz age (Prigozy 43), and in the popular print media of the day, under editorials and opinion pieces with titles like "Flapper Americana Novissima" (Hall 771). The flapper on the street also was subject to a kind of tongue-and-cheek flânerie. Social commentators frequently describe her as one moving part in the urban spectacle. Descriptions of the "new woman," however, point to another subjective experience of urban modernity, one constituted by auditory and kinetic sensibilities - often through new music and dance cultures - as much as in sight and spectacle. Hence, articles in the popular press about the "Flapper Americana Novissima," illustrate the limits of both flânerie as a practice, and the flâneur as a stand in for the subject of urban modernity in America.

The Flapper and the Flâneur

Zelda Sayre's marriage to F. Scott Fitzgerald in 1920 set the stage for his prolific career, and for many popular narratives formulated around the figure of the flapper. Sayre's notorious antics, often showy acts of defiance, provided fodder for Fitzgerald's accounts of the jazz age. Fellow debutante Virginia Foster Durr recalls the spectacle of Sayre at a debutante ball in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1919:

Zelda was like a vision of beauty dancing by. She was funny, amusing, the most popular girl; envied by all others, worshipped and adored, besieged by all the boys. But she did try to shock. At a dance she pinned mistletoe to the back of her skirt, as if to challenge the young men to kiss her bottom. (qtd. in Cline 36)

For Fitzgerald, the flapper came to represent the perils of American modernity, and, in particular, the moral bankruptcy of image and spectacle. Sayre's behavior at the Christmas dance, however, demonstrates her ambivalence about this visibilty and suggests a subjective experience grounded in new kinetics as well.

The experience of modernity often has been imagined in relation to sight alone and thus to certain Western and arguably masculine episteme: positivism, objectivism, rationalism. In contrast to the modern woman constituted through spectacle, Baudelaire's strolling man of leisure stands in for the masculine subject of urban modernity in the West. The figure of the masculine flâneur surfaces in nineteenth century literature as one who "goes botanizing on the asphalt": a connoisseur of commodities and people, a fickle window shopper and most significantly, an urban scientist who stands remote from the objects of his observation (Benjamin, Charles Baudelaire 36). His roving look both spectacularizes and fortifies against the "jostling" and amorphous crowds of the city. In Benjamin's essays, the flâneur figures as a shock-absorbent, impervious to most sensory affronts. Benjamin writes: "Baudelaire speaks of a man who plunges into the crowd as into a reservoir of electric energy. Circumscribing the experience of the shock, he calls this man 'a kaleidoscope equipped with consciousness'" (Illuminations 175). That "kaleidoscope" contains, in its tunnel vision, the ''peripatetic" fragments of the urban spectacle. The flânuer's defense against constant visual assault, the "shock" of urban modernity, is a look that delimits and moves (Shields 93). In this way, flânerie, as Benjamin describes it, means to guard against the liminalities of the crowd, to sustain through remote observation and evasive mobility, the cogent ego-boundaries of the Western, masculine subject. …

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