The Art and Practice of Flanerie

I am in the midst of preparing my course materials for a writing class I will teach in Scotland next summer through the Cooperative Center for Study Abroad (CCSA). The focus of the class will be the art and practice of flanerie.

I believe this is an ideal framework for a group of writers who will explore the streets of Edinburgh and Glasgow as well as the Scottish Highlands, because I know that a study abroad experience teaches as much (or more) about yourself as it does about the places you visit. I also want to design an experience where we study what happened in those places, who lived in those places, and what those places mean — and in the process we can better understand our own places, our own identities, and our own meanings. That is what flanerie means to me — the simple art of wondering and wandering and writing about both.

For me, this marriage of wandering, wondering, and writing, is a wonderful tool that should be applied not just to special occasions such as a class or writing retreat, but also to everyday life. As George Ritzer notes in the Blackwell Encyclopedia of Sociology,” flanerie is “a way of seeing the world and being in the world.” Too often we do not spend enough time simply seeing and being and active engagement in flanerie is a way to do more of this. We all need more writing and reflecting about our world and our place in it.

Artistic reflection as well as the collection, and curation, of social artifacts is a central part of flanerie, as described by Aimee Boutin in Rethinking the Flâneur: Flânerie and the Senses. Flanerie is more than a simple travelogue or diary because the experience of the urban (or rural) landscape is unique to each flaneuse. In The Death of the Cyberflâneur Evgeny Morozov explains that the flaneur surveys “both his private self and the world at large.” In The Return of the Flâneur, Walter Benjamin says that through flanerie we combine both our own history and the history of the place we wander which leads to “the immense drama of flânerie.” I love this idea of unique and immense drama that flanerie makes possible. We all need more wondering in our lives.

It is also the very lack of specific direction and planning that appeals to me, because our world does its best to discourage such behavior. We must travel fast (by automation) and with a specific destination in mind, but flanerie is best done by foot with frequent stops and as Franz Hessel observes in Spazieren in Berlin, “In order to engage in flânerie, one must not have anything too definite in mind.” We all need more wandering, without purpose or plan, in our lives.

Read more about the art and practice of flanerie:

And related articles:

I fervently believe we all need more flanerie — wandering, wondering, and writing — to help us make sense of our world and our place within it. Do you agree? What are your thoughts about flanerie and when did you last engage in it?

Artwork is Paris Street; Rainy Day, 1877, Gustave CaillebotteArt Institute of Chicago