The Crimes of the Flaneur, Tom McDonough

Emily Bell
The Crimes of the Flaneur, Tom McDonough

McDonough opens up for us a duality with which we all may be mutely aware in our own interactions in the city coming upon strangers in the street. The flaneur has assumed changing roles in the city according to normative models in the city. In particular, McDonough will identify the flaneur as both detective and as criminal. Is the wanderer absent minded or maliciously motivated, passive or dangerous? This discussion opens of a realm of “tenuous nature of urban order: the way that our everyday routines are always subtended by other possibilities” in this case other possible uses of the public realm.
McDonough is interested in the transformation of Reinvention of the figure of the urban stranger, the passerby on the street “as an object of anxiety.” As McDonough sites, Benjamin challenges the petit bourgeois fantasy of the stranger as the “perfect bonhomie,” a notion of the city as a perfectly friendly picture of little social difference. This, Benjamin would argue, disguised the nature of social life. He identifies something opaque and unsettling about the stranger. The storyline becomes that of criminals among a swarming boulevard, hidden in plain sight. We follow a transformation of the subject “from an instrument of panoptic surveillance- the boulevardier first as botanist of street flora, then as nascent criminologist of the pathological crowd- to a figure indistinguishable from the urban throng itself.”
This role of detective vs criminal, follower vs. followed is addressed in Acconci’s artistic work, Following Piece, in which the artist tracks subjects as they move through public spaces. However, these roles are not so clear cut- is Acconci a detective tracking a suspect, or is he in fact the psychopath who stalks his victim? Craig Dworkin comments on this ambiguity or displacement, arguing that “pursued and pursuer become mirrors of each other- Acconci is the artist blending seamlessly with the city, the crowd around.
All of this is commentary on a moment where the modes of urban behavior were shifting from propriety and decorum and rather than being replaced not by a “trusting egalitarian utopia but by…a classical dynamic of suspicion.” How might suspicion make its way into architectural expression and representation of the urban spacila conditions? Tschumi in his project, “The Park,” represents the park as a filmic experience, a re-representation of the conditions of the park. This draws attention to the fact that the way architecture and public space is presented to us and to the public is normative, that modes of drawing or recording can be challenged. In the case of Tschumi’s project, McDonough calls attention to its rather classical narrative, of “murder, hunt and arrest made familiar in the endless permutations of the detective story.” With each panel comes increasing order. McDonough also points out the reversibility of the positions of the pursuer and pursued. McDonough calls this a “mutual choreography through the city,” propelled by a shared desire for the other. This would be followed in the 70’s by a favor of automotive over pedestrian access, a turning away from the street, and massive structures forming micro-universes in the city and abolishing public spaces. This, perhaps, was an elimination of the streets potential for volatile mixing of people and uses. These “indoor theme parks” gave the experience of a street without the associated dangers.
However, today is an era not of suburban sprawl but of a return to the city from suburban retreats. Arguably we are also in an era, though, of increased paranoia and surveillance brought on by technology. What are the implications of an era of suspicion and decreasing sense of privacy for the interactions of strangers in the city? Are perhaps strangers in the city paid less attention to by mutual “flaneurs” and increased attention and fear is paid to more abstract powers of surveillance attached to technologies? Does the downplaying of personal interaction that comes along with personal devices of communication at hand at every given moment (cellphones etc.) also downplay our suspicion or attention paid to the stranger in front of us, or could the effect be the opposite and in fact we are increasingly aware of the masked identity that one assumes over the airways and internet?

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