Barring those in casual possession of concrete, a bulldozer and extensive planning permission, there isn’t much students can do about how our town has been built or arranged. The facts of our environment are, by and large, fixed; what isn’t fixed is how we inhabit it. There has been a centuries-long tradition of discussing how people, or historically, dour men, move through and relate to their surrounding urban spaces, but that conversation need not be so insular. Reconsidering how we split and share the pavement can reveal some stark and strange facts about ourselves.
The figure of the “flâneur” recurs in the observational writing of nineteenth-century France, and serves as a peculiar case study. Flâneur loosely means idle wanderer, and flânerie, the practice of being a flâneur, entails aimlessly yet attentively drifting around town. The French poet Charles Baudelaire emphasised how a flâneur is a “man of the crowd,” one who paradoxically confirms their status as outsider by throwing themselves into urban bustle. For him, the flâneur acquires unique insights about encroaching, unsettling modernity, such as the sterilisation and commercialisation of a small university town to suit the interests of a few middle-aged wealthy tourists, while at the same time their wary whimsy stands as an emblem, or acute symptom, of that very modernity. The contradictions don’t stop there. Writer Luc Sante once said it was “crucial for the flâneur to be functionally invisible,” yet philosopher and cultural historian Walter Benjamin noted that around 1840 some flâneurs enjoyed walking turtles around the Parisian arcades in order to “set the pace for them.”
Yet despite its evident silliness, flânerie’s idiosyncrasy was also pointed. Benjamin’s claim that the flâneur’s persistent air of leisure was a “protest” against “the division of labour” and “industriousness” might feel far-fetched, until we recognise the uncompromising efficiency and cold avidity with which we barrel down Market Street. Moving fast and slow, through the centre or down obscure wynds, when it’s light or dark, looking up, down, or side to side — these aren’t neutral choices. In her book Flâneuse, writer Lauren Elkin explores female flâneurs, less typically afforded the privileges of dawdling or invisibility in busy urban spaces. Equally, academic Tori Hoover has been developing a project on ‘The Black Flâneur,’ which investigates novels by African American writers from over the last century and maps the routes walked by their central characters. Black flânerie, not least in its literary carnation, revises white myths about how people should occupy urban spaces, and who does or doesn’t get to wander idly.
Still, flânerie is only one approach. Dandies were another distinct social type in Baudelaire’s time. The dandy isn’t a man of the crowd, instead clearly separating themselves from it, and underscoring this distinction with fabulous, often androgynous dress. Where the flâneur shirks the bureaucratic urgency of professionalism, the dandy’s “solitary profession”, as Baudelaire writes, “is elegance.” Affected, prissy, and ostentatiously blasé, the dandy holds the city at arms length, but ironically must always be seen doing so. To some this might sound grating; to me it sounds like fun. Like with cosplay, hypervisibility comes with the territory, expressed both through bemused looks from hairy golfers, and through spontaneous conversations and compliments from strangers in the queue for the IT services helpdesk.
Unfortunately the extent of aesthetic refinement exuded by and expected of dandies meant their members were usually solely aristocratic — and yes, though you might get the occasional quaintrelle, the technical term for a female dandy, the category is overwhelmingly blokey too. But for a movement that has “fluidity” as a defining characteristic, a dandy would be dopey, not to mention devoid of self-awareness, to gatekeep the style. That kind of casual, interpersonal policing is precisely what these new modes flout. Throwing gender norms to the wind, strutting where they should be stepping, inviting chatter and perhaps even competition, dandies, like flâneurs, can disrupt the stifling routines and orthodoxies expected of urbanite students. There are countless more ways we could reconfigure our individual relationships with our town, but the key is to continue questioning and experimenting. One day there will be flâneurs all over Fife, dandies across Dundee.
Illustration by Hannah Beggerow