In a post-modern world dominated by
technology our attention has turned to the aesthetic experiences our digital
screens can offer us. Our zombie-like presence in the realm of the digital era
has, however, affected our ability to engage with the natural world, the city
streets and other passers-by. Digital technology has influenced the emergence
of the cyberflâneur, which is “the flâneur in cyberspace, a fast-forward
flâneur, a net flâneur or a virtual flâneur” (Cutting Edge Women’s Research
Group, 2000, 93). The flâneur is already nostalgic of its role of understanding
place and indulging itself in the cultural and sociological history of its
existence. But, with the ever-increasing exposure of information online, we can
now, instead, avoid the outside world. In The Encyclopaedia of Trouble and
Spaciousness, urban wanderer Rebecca Solnit acknowledges the phenomenon that to
understand a place and how it exists geographically is to engage with the
“braided narratives” (Solnit, 2014, 1) of our time. Have we destroyed our own
aesthetic experiences of the spaces we inhabit? Or has digital technology
provided us with new ways of seeing? By discussing some contemporary
perspectives of the flâneur, to imagining its rebirth in a post-humanist
setting, we can grasp a better understanding of its origins and importance in a
literary context where digital technologies are blurring the distinctions
between natural and urban spaces.
The term flâneur originated from the French
verb flâner, meaning to stroll or loiter. The flâneur as a socio-cultural
figure of modernity was first brought into being by Charles Baudelaire, and was
described as “an anxious wanderer, lost and terrified, at constant risk of
encountering the grotesque and Gothic dwellers at the heart of the maze [of
London.]” (Ridenhour, 2013, 80). Inspired by Edgar Ellan Poe’s story The Man of
the Crowd (1840), Baudelaire concluded the invention of a “new urban type, an
isolated and estranged figure who is both a man of the crowd and a detached
observer of it and, as such, the avatar of the modern city” (Coverley, 2013,
80). To redefine the flâneur in the present day, according to Deborah Parsons,
is firstly to “acknowledge its related but distinct uses as a conceptual term
and as a socio-historical phenomenon, it is to clarify a term which is
currently at once too vague and too exclusive” (Parsons, 2003, 9). Issues still
arise as to the assumption of the flâneur (Wrigley, 2014, 327). Women wanderers
however were more often known to be prostitutes, widows or murder victims and
were given the impression that they were never allowed to stroll alone in the
In the age of robotics, self-service
machines and multi-functional phones, it has become apparent that digital
technologies are blurring the distinctions between natural and urban spaces. As
our landscape faces the disastrous consequences of an Anthropocentric world
that is ever increasingly dominated by humans, to be a flâneur in the present
day is, as Lash refers to it, to “stroll, or better stagger, among the ruins of
dead landscapes, cityscapes, ‘culture-scapes’” (Lash, 1998, 311). In his
article ‘Being after time: Towards a politics of melancholy’ Lash goes on to
define our own human subjectivities existing only as "points or nodes in a
network” (313) in the post-narrative age of information. We have discarded our
own bodily connections to the outside world and are now in the age of “hyper
surveillance, in which the past, digitised and stored, is available all of the
time” (313). Our vision is perpetrated through the eye of the digital screen or
lens. Digital technology has invaded our privacy and deferred the meaning of
being and the self. Consequently, all that is left is a body that “roams the
abstract spheres of cyberspace today” (Hartmann, 2004, 112) disengaged and cut
off from its surroundings.
It can be
argued however, that the cyberflâneur can adopt new ways of redefining itself
with the “possibility to create content for/within the medium [of digital
technology]” (Hartmann, 2004, 121). The cyberflâneur in its new state of
existence can have a relationship with the crowd and is the modern-day voyeur
of cyberspaces who “knows the net rather well, since he constantly speeds
through” (127). If we are to imagine the future of the flâneur then we must
transgress the boundaries and redefine the term from an ungendered perspective.
A constructive way of achieving this is by referring to the flâneur as a cyborg
entity and a non-body that is resistant to the politics of gender and allows us
to “write counter-histories of the future in which hybrids and syncretism are
not outside the norms.” (Shields, 2006, 219). This averts, also, any
assumptions to be made that the flâneur is not able to adapt with the times or
have a new reason for its existence. It is, instead, a multi-layered complex
figure, that is not easily labelled and can adapt with the times.
The post-modernist vision of the female
flâneur is one whose “gaze is more tolerant than authoritative, and more
connective than detached” (Reus and Usandizaga, 2008, p.189). Urban spaces are
no longer being “conceived as a male space, in which women are either repressed
or disobedient marginal presences” (Parsons, 2003, p.2). By redefining it as
the cyberflâneur, we can reimagine its purpose as an “open and migrational one,
available to female as well as male walkers of the city street” (9). Inventor
of the term flâneuse, Lauren Elkin also attempts to redefine the role of the
woman in Flaneuse: Women Walk the City in Paris, New York, Tokyo, Venice and
London. Elkin explores how females “were once the objects of the gaze” (Elkin,
This all changes however, when
“as street haunters we become observing entities, de-sexed, ungendered” (Elkin,
2016, 86). This is not too dissimilar to Virginia Woolf’s essay ‘Street
Haunting’ which discusses the circumstances at which it is acceptable for a
Woman to wander the streets alone in the early twentieth century. Woolf reveals
that when we go outside in the evening “we are no longer quite ourselves” and
that “we shed the self our friends know us by and become part of that vast
republican army of anonymous trampers, whose society is so agreeable after the
solitude of one’s own room” (Woolf, 11). The flâneur is thus a stroller through
the city, an artist, a cultural figure of modernity.
The cyberflâneur, geared towards social
reality, seeks to transgress gender boundaries by “naming herself in a female
category and thereby referring to a whole array of behavioural possibilities
that have arisen from the flâneuse’s history” (Cutting Edge Women’s Research
Group, 2000, 102). This justification of the female flâneur has presented women
with the ability to identify with subjects and objects through the initiation
of the gaze, showing a willingness to join in with the crowd. The purpose for
the existence of the cyberflâneur according to Cutting Edge Women’s Research
Group is to “engage with city strollers who take in a lot of information and
find their specific ways of dealing with it” (102). This is in comparison to
the virtual city which is “partly a dreamscape and as such it offers itself to
the cyberflaneur” (102). This can be seen in relation to the relationship
formed between humans and digital technology or the cyborg of the city, which
is best known as the informatics of domination by Donna Haraway (1991) with its
purpose to “iteratively enact the human subject as the monocular centre of any
and all space” (Shaw, 2015, 238). The borders between other living entities
however, “between living and non-living, sentient and nonsentient, human and
animal and object and subject becomes increasingly unstable” (238). The
cyberflâneur has consequently, been reduced to “a rootless, displaced subject”
as discussed by Bull in his essay ‘The end of the flânerie’ (Bull, 2013, 152).
This poses a threat to the future credibility of the cyberflâneur and its role
in contemporary literature.
continual presence of mobile devices allowing the spectator to surf the web
restricts our experiences of real spaces and questions our role as unidentified
subjects existing in a virtual world. The emergence of technology has caused us
to be distracted and to prevent our heightened sensual awareness of the spaces
we inhabit. In the age of the post-urban “cities are hyper-realised as
experiences in themselves” (Shaw, 2015, 232). The post-urban being a space that
presents itself in terms of information regulation rather than “the living and
working bodies of its inhabitants” (232), the city streets are now monitored
with security cameras and projection screens affecting the flaneur’s
involvement with digital and physical spaces.
The flâneur in the present day therefore
has more of a virtual presence than an actual one. In his article for The New
York Times, Morozov discusses that the very stance of popular technology,
including the suggestion that the existence of the frictionless sharing of news
on Facebook is “killing cyberflânerie: the whole point of the Flâneur’s
wanderings is that he does not know what he cares about” (Morozov, 2012, 6)..
Increasing access to social media and other external sites of information means
that we often experience the lives of others through a camera lens, or screen
and thus, reality for us becomes second nature. Morozov, further to this,
argues how Google servers are destroying the possibility of cyberflânerie and
all that defines it; “solitude and individuality, anonymity and opacity,
mystery and ambivalence, curiosity and risk-taking – is under assault” (4). The
act of being watched or surveyed in the City can activate fear in the
individual, having a detrimental effect on their own visual perceptions and
sensory experiences. The flâneur then acts as the fieldworker for the
capitalist state by “posting images of exotic destinations on social media
sites.” (Shaw, 2015, 236) as a kind of knowledge-making with the rest of the
world. Rather than just basing the flâneur on a cultural figure that roams the
streets, it is also one that fuses itself with the world of the virtual in the
mechanical age of reproduction. This suggests that the future of the flâneur
will be better accommodated online, in a virtual world rather than existing
beyond the screen. This also poses the question of what the significance will
be “if we replace the windscreen with the television or computer screen, so that
the viewer is not in a vehicle moving through a landscape but sits in front of
the screen which is used to transport images and information to the recipient?”
as discussed in Featherstone’s book on virtual public life. (Featherstone,
1998, 911). Technology will have an overarching effect on how we mentally
record impressions or store information leading to “the retreat from sensation
characteristic” (916) associated with “a more general decline of public space”
(917). The post-modern era therefore poses unknown questions about the future
credibility of the flâneur.
To conclude, technology has been at the
forefront of our being for the last decade or so. It has colonised and
inhabited us, walking us into a new way of existence. If critics such as Michael
Bull and Maren Hartmann are already discussing what happens after the end of
technology, then, it is important to be well equipped in redefining the
cyberflâneur as an androgynous, ungendered entity, that exists beyond an online
network and that may not necessarily be human but crosses all boundaries and
exceeds all limitations. As Hartmann says, the cyberflâneur is “a transitional
figure, which serves to reveal that moment when a new technology passes from
its initial restricted application to widespread social uptake and social
normalisation” (Hartmann, 2004, 276). The flâneur has already undergone a
dramatic transformation since the beginning of the twentieth century, but still
has its place in society, and has potential to move forward with the times. It
represents the first of the next generation of users of the internet that
“roams the abstract spheres of cyberspace” (103) and is, in my opinion, a
central figure for the present day.
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© Roseanne Ganley. This article is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International Licence (CC BY).