A flaneur is an observer and philosopher of modern urban life. The original French term, which Baudelaire used, meant something of a loafer or stroller along the streets and avenues of Paris. Walter Benjamin took it a step further, bringing the term into his analysis of Nineteenth Century Paris in what eventually (well after his death) became the book The Arcades Project. This is a book full of quotes from the literature that Benjamin was reading in the Paris library and from observations of his own on modern urban life and related subjects, including architecture, literature, philosophy, etc. Maybe the model of The Arcades Project was one of my inspirations when I first conceived this blog in 2006.
There is something disparaging in the term “flaneur” but I don’t think that Benjamin meant it that way. Benjamin championed thinking outside the “box” of academia. That’s what a blog does in essence. We don’t get “rewarded” by academia for publishing blogs, as opposed to academic articles and books. Over the years I’ve become more interested in people who think outside the academic box. Maybe that’s one reason I continue to keep this blog up, even though more “traditional” academics would argue that it’s a waste of time. But “waste” is what we flaneurs do best. When I walk the streets of Shanghai, or for that matter, Bangkok, Boston, or Barcelona, I’m writing books in my mind. My walking tours of Shanghai for the group Shanghai Flaneur (which has also inspired me over the years) and other groups I’ve been part of over the past decade or so are what I call my “walking talking books.”
For more insight into the figure of the flaneur, check out these online essays: