‘Flâneur’ vs. ‘Dérive’

The ‘Flâneur’ (approximatively equivalent to ‘roamer’, ‘wanderer’) was invented by Baudelaire and was a key figure in late 19th century and early 20th century decadent literary movement. It is a gentleman who strolls the city in order to experience it, as a detached, gently cynical observer. The flâneur is a passive figure, he observes the dynamics of the city from a disengaged point of view. Baudelaire called the flâneur ‘a botanist of the sidewalk’.

The Surrealists reused the concept, putting a greater emphasis on the role of random chances in the activity of ‘flânerie’. The Surrealist version of the flâneur was to devise experiments involving randomness and chances in order to experience the city without being blinded by mundanity. For example, follow beautiful female strangers across the city, or visit a city while guiding oneself using the map of another city. The ultimate Surrealist goal was to reach a higher level of truth by attaining the point where ‘reality’ and ‘surreality’ converge. By playing with random occurrences while strolling the city, the surrealist flâneur expected to gain a higher awareness of the city, beyong immediate reality. Therefore, the Surrealist flâneur is already a more active explorer than its decadent ancestor.

In ‘Theory of the Derive’, Guy Debord defines the concept of the ‘Dérive’ which he explicitly defines as opposed to ‘different from the classic notions of journey or stroll’. The ‘dérive [literally: “drifting”]’ is ‘a technique of rapid passage through varied ambiances’ that ‘involves playful-constructive behaviour and awareness of psychogeographical effects’. The participants of a Dérive must ‘let themselves be drawn by the attractions of the terrain and the encounters they find there. Chance is a less important factor in this activity than one might think: from a dérive point of view cities have psychogeographical contours, with constant currents, fixed points and vortexes that strongly discourage entry into or exit from certain zones.’ A Dérive implies the ‘domination of psychogeographical variations by the knowledge and calculation of their possibilities’. This phrasing has connotations of the scientific explorer, almost of the military strategist. Indeed, Debord compares the mindset of the Dérive to those of the ‘ecological science’, and the act of ‘Dérive’ is a tool in the Situationists’ revolutionary project.

Debord explicitly takes position against letting chance take a too important role in a Dérive, because ‘the action of chance is naturally conservative and in a new setting tends to reduce everything to habit or to an alternation between a limited number of variants. Progress means breaking through fields where chance holds sway by creating new conditions more favourable to our purposes.’

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One Response to “‘Flâneur’ vs. ‘Dérive’”

  1. Very interesting, but I would take issue with the statement: ‘Therefore, the Surrealist flâneur is already a more active explorer than its decadent ancestor.’ certainly with respect to Debord

    “This apparently serious term ‘psychogeography,’” writes Debord biographer Vincent Kaufman, “comprises an art of conversation and drunkenness, and everything leads us to believe that Debord excelled at both.”
    And did he not famously say: ‘I have written much less than most people who write, but I have drunk more than most people who drink’ ?! A wonderful statement (confession?)

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