Is flânerie a lost art? Is the postmodern society incapable of producing such a character thats primary purpose is grounded in observation, empathy, and intimacy, but marked by a level of estrangement? Probably. Nevertheless, while we will likely never see a postmodern flâneur, we can adapt new ways of utilizing old forms–a hallmark of postmodernity.
Walter Benjamin’s flâneur, the 19th century observational, nostalgic, revelatory peruser of the streets, was able to transcend time and space through a perpetual dream-like state; by having extensive knowledge of the past, he is able to form a sort of parallel between the past and the present. (Benjamin, The Arcades Project)
Carl Sandburg, flâneur in his own rite, wrote many poems that juxtapose past and present. The one that caught my attention, “Passers-by,” describes how the faces of strangers he meets on the street evoke memories of past times, and how the sounds of their steps and voices replace an “old silence” ( Chicago Poems).
While Sandburg served his purpose then as a modern flâneur by documenting the present-day progress, effects of industrialization and capitalism, the ordinary occurrences of everyday life etc., how is this useful to us now? Well, the answer is pretty simple. All that objective observation he, and others like him, did, offers we poor postmodernites a candid glimpse of history over a period of time. Additionally, when put in writing the flâneur’s literal movement through time and space in the modern era allows us to experience it as they did–a vicarious revisiting of the past and the past’s past, if you will.