Flânerie and Rambling

In my psychogeographical researches I have used two particular key-words from the literature to describe the individual engaged in psychogeographical practice; the flâneur and the robinsonneur, along with associated terms such as flânerie and robinsonnage. Since I completed Vectis I have had time to critically assess my use of these terms, and I have come to see some faults, particularly in the use of the word flâneur.

The flâneur, which translates literally as something like ‘stroller’ or ‘lounger’ (implying simultaneously in the original both movement and idleness) comes to the modern psychogeographer from the writings of Charles Baudelaire, via Walter Benjamin. Baudelaire’s flâneur was a man (always a man) of leisure, who observed the dramas of the city (always the city) whilst not participating in them directly. In Benjamin’s Marxist critique, the alienation of the flâneur was dealt with, and Baudelaire’s essentially romantic figure was seen as symbolic of an urban condition that had been destroyed by consumer capitalism. Since then, the flâneur has come to take on a broader meaning in terms of psychogeography, reborn as a post-modern observer and urban wanderer.

The problem is that the term has never quite escaped the strictures of its origin. First, there are the political implications. To Baudelaire, the female equivalent of the male flâneur was a street prostitute, a distinction that later writers have recognised as implying an urban space that is, quite literally, created by the male gaze. There is also the matter of class, dealt with by Benjamin. The flâneur’s leisure and exalted position as a recorder of events comes from the fact that he has independent wealth that absolves him of the dirty necessities of participating in the city’s economic life. In the contemporary city, this class status is challenged by the existence of the precariat, the unemployed or underemployed class who have leisure and a passive status in economic life thrust upon them. Figures such as Patrick Keiller and Iain Sinclair who practice the peculiarly mystical British form of psychogeography, reject to some degree the traditional aloofness of the flâneur. Bound up with this, necessarily, is the status of the flâneur as a white European. To sum it up, the flâneur, especially in the original conception, is a privileged cultural insider who is (more or less willingly) taking on the role of the outsider. I cannot, of course avoid the fact that I, myself, am a possessor of these same privileges, or that they necessarily inform my view. To set aside the concept of the flâneur is not an act by which I intend to obscure these biases, but instead to recognise them, and my replacement concept must reflect this recognition.

The central problem in applying the concept of the flâneur to my own work is that the flâneur is, no matter the context in which he is discussed, an urban figure. As Baudelaire says “The crowd is his element, as the air is that of birds and water of fishes.”. Although I skirted around it, I failed, in Vectis, to fully engage with an idea that has since become self-evident to me; that it would be necessary, not simply to critique the urban focus of psychogeography, but to expound a different mode of psychogeography; a rural mode, an insular mode, adapted conceptually to deal with the subject at hand. I have made some inroads in to this already, and now it is time to begin to put a more solid conceptual and critical framework around my work in this field. Thus, I have decided to abandon the flâneur as a conceptual actor, and to create (or, more accurately, appropriate) a different figure to assume pride of place in my work; the rambler. This not only allows me to solidify my personal methodology, but also absolves me of having to grasp around for the awkward circumflex â on my English language keyboard, thus saving me untold seconds.

The rambler traces back a much more distant literary origin than the flâneur. We can trace it all the way back to the 10th century Anglo-Saxon poem The Wanderer. From this route we can see a clear connection to the ursprung of the ‘siþ-motif’ that is central to so much of the corpus of British literature. This motif refers to works of literature that involve ‘a physical journey that brings enlightenment, usually about one’s Weird; the journeys are usually not pleasant and the realizations are not always happy’. This motif links together a body of literature that stretches from the Arthurian grail quest through to The Lord of the Rings, via Gulliver’s Travels and the Rime of the Ancient Mariner. Another major historical touchstone must, almost inevitably, be the romantic notion of the wanderer constructed in German literature of the 19th century, portrayed in Caspar David Friedrich’s iconic painting Der Wanderer über dem Nebelmeer, the importance of which to my practice I have already incidentally noticed. The wanderer is in many ways the rural, Teutonic counterpart of the urban, Gallic flâneur. His relationship with nature is similar to the relationship of that other figure with the city. He observes, rather than participates, and under his gaze the dramas of nature are reconstructed artistically as symbolic of an internal life that is assumed to be universal, but is in fact in most respects highly specific, both to the wanderer’s own culture and to his place within it. Like the flâneur, the wanderer is of a specific, privileged gender and class. In fact, in some ways the wanderer is even more problematic in this regard than the flâneur, because of his placement in the narrative of culture vs. nature, that places all that he is not (the woman, the peasant, the non-European, the Roma) into the same category as the wild vistas from which he draws his inspiration. Indeed, there are through-lines from the romantic wanderer through to Nazism; via Wagner in one direction, and via the Wandervogel youth groups in another. This makes it difficult to identify with the wanderer in the modern age; and apart from this, it is a very specifically German concept. The rambler, on the other hand, is fundamentally British.

The improvements the rambler offers on the concepts of the flâneur and the wanderer are numerous. For a start, the rambler includes or allows the same unavoidable privileged perspective but is not bound by it. Though the specific rambler may be male, white and middle class, the general rambler can be male or female, of any race and of any class. Thus, adopting the rambler, I hope, allows me to create a methodology that can be extended or interrogated by others who are different to me in these respects. Secondly, the rambler is not a passive figure, pretending at political neutrality whilst implicitly upholding the status quo. The organisation The Ramblers, formerly and perhaps still more popularly known as the Rambler’s Association, outline five aims:

  • To promote walking
  • To safeguard paths
  • To increase access for walkers
  • To protect the countryside
  • To educate the public

These aims have resulted in several high-profile legal and political battles in order to keep public access to footpaths and other rights of way. These aims locate the rambler within a broader tradition of radical resistance to the enclosure of land and the seizure of common land-use rights by the moneyed elite that has been a central part of the history of socialism in Britain. The rambler is not just a walker of paths, they are a path-maker, a path-maintainer and a path-preserver. When the rambler walks, they are not simply observing nature as a magnificent externality. They are active figures, helping to create the complex interface between human activity and natural processes that is at the core of rural life. They could be seen as fighting a rearguard action against the social changes wrought by the industrial revolution, in so far as the enclosure of land was instrumental in the urbanisation of Britain. This form of resistance is not, however, necessarily reactionary, though it should not be suggested that the rambler is necessary a radical or even left-wing figure. The politicised nature of their walking does not imply or necessarily link to any broader aims; the rambler can be a little-englander, or an anarchist. What it does do, however, is fundamentally alter the position and affect of the rambler’s observation of the world around them. The rambler is not on the land, but in the land.

This serves as a broad outline. Obviously there is more development of the concept to be done, more aspects to be explored. Examples (both obvious and more subtle) of the rambler in literature need to be examined. The relationship of the rambler to other users of the land needs to be explored; is this relationship always on some level antagonistic to the land-owner, who might wish to have sole use of their claimed territory? And what of the rambler’s implied camaraderie with others of their position, or the fact that (unlike wandering and flânerie) rambling can be undertaken as a social activity? What of the public house or tea-room that is often the rambles end-goal? What of the connections that can be drawn between the ramblers maintenance-by-use of public rights of way and the traditional practice of ‘beating the bounds’, and thus the connection between the Ordnance Survey map and the Saxon perambulation document? What about the possible mystical and occult connections? What of pilgrimage and the Jarrow Crusade? These and many other questions await answers.


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