A flâneur in Westfield

October 4, 2017

An inspiring documentary by Patrick Keiller recently brought my attention to the work of Charles Baudelaire and Walter Benjamin. “London”, which was shot over the course of 1992, is now a sort of social document. The fictional narrator ‘Robinson’ is our flâneur, in Baudelaire’s time a literary figure, and later urban explorer.

Perhaps the flâneur has been such a successful archetype because he has so many sides to him. A product of the city, there is no word in English that describes him better. He is a gourmet wanderer; an observer, utilising public space as a source of investigation. Robinson, the flâneur in Keiller’s creation, is a more political figure. Not content with merely observing events, he seeks control over his environment.

It is twenty years too late to do a film review, you’ll have to see it for yourself. At this point it is a period piece but is still strangely salient, if only as a point of reference and indeed, it is so much more. It puts Keiller in the role of a street photographer, if more advanced than the daguerreotype variety. Lingering shots of London which, sometimes, almost look like stills are set to no actuality, but rather a voice over, music and intermittent atmosphere.

I came away with the feeling that I had watched something ahead of its time, but he hadn’t plucked it from the air. The modern flâneur is Robinson, concerned with his own psychology; being a product of an urban space over which he could exert no control. He is an activist or, at least, an advocate of the redistribution of power. The Marxist geographer David Harvey could be regarded in the same terms, having written recently about a ‘right to the city’ and the need for a reimagined labour movement in the atomised service sector. He argues against conventional thinking on how labour is organised within cities. For domestic workers, there is no shop floor.

The psychogeographic journeys made by Iain Sinclair in London Orbital, or by Laura Oldfield Ford represent the new style of the flâneur. Ford, in her zine “Savage Messiah”, marries together quickly sketched images of her subjects to haiku-like descriptions (less in terms of structure than in her writing; short, pertinent bursts). She deconstructs the intentions behind new building projects, and old. The utopianism of 1960s architects, the fortress-like malls, the New Labour vanity projects. One feels having read her that the flâneur is reduced to surveying the wreckage.

In London Orbital, a questionable result is produced. The structure is loose, meandering, and a bit much really – like the journey Sinclair is on, as he walks the entire length of the M25, recording what he sees along the way – but perhaps it is for effect. I think though, that it is probably not.

I visited Westfield today – a sort of cathedral of fetishism and desire. I was reminded of why Walter Benjamin, writing in the 1930s, regarded the department store as the flâneur’s “final coup”:

“As flâneurs, the intelligensia came into the market place. As they thought, to observe it – but in reality it was already to find a buyer. In this intermediary stage [...] they took the form of the bohème. The uncertainty of their economic position corresponded the uncertainty of their political function.” (Walter Benjamin, 1935)

No one can stand outside the system of capitalist reproduction, but it is a neat example of the conflict felt by the average conscientious person who feels they should know better. It is not a corrupting influence – the corruption has already taken place – but flâneurs should be imbued with a self-awareness which allows them to remain aloof. They stand apart enough to observe the strange dichotomy of consumer choice and elite control at work in the city and, in doing so, enfranchise its citizens in the very place that produced them.

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© David Murphy 2020