Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Walking as reading, walking as writing

urban"flaneur", circa 1890...

crowded streets in the Philippines today

Vicente Rafael's discussion of the role of the crowd reminded me of a much older and very different way of looking at the act of going out onto the street, that of the flaneur. As discussed in Baudelaire's Painter of Modern Life, the act of walking through the city was an act of reading. His flaneur (derivative of "to stroll") distilled the experience of the city through walking and observing, and ultimately capturing this experience in some form of art, be it painting, poetry, etc. In this notion of the city as experience, being an artist in the city required first being a spectator, a consumer of culture. Artistic production required 'reading' the city by wandering its streets, sitting in cafes, and people-watching.
Rafael's use of the crowd is almost the opposite: "Relinquishing their position as spectators, [Filippinos] now became part of the crowd..." In Rafael's essay, walking in the streets of the Philippines means being immersed in a crowd, and it is more a degree of expression, rather than consumption. Crowds, like cell phones, hold the promise of far-flung communication, of initiating social change. Far from the flaneur's desire to read the city, Filipinos wanted to move beyond the city's crumbling infrastructure and corrupt government. But paradoxically, while the crowd's power to effect change would seem to give the participant agency, it erases individualism. Although a Filippino can 'escape' their physical surroundings in the promise of the crowd, they must do so at the price of their individual voice. Protest requires collective expression with the impossibility of individual expression. In this way, maybe the work of the flaneur as "reader" and artistic interpreter offered a more real form of agency than the trascendence promised by the crowd. Although the conditions surrounding the flaneur and the Filipino crowd are entirely different and I can't argue that one technique can be used in the other setting, these ways of understanding the act of walking through the city--and an individual's way of relating to other inhabitants--raise questions about the effectiveness of production and consumption in gaining a sense of agency.

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