radical walking and the problem of the flaneur

On Friday 17 February, I gave the opening talk at the Radical Walking conference, part of the Radical Voices season at Senate House Library.

The audience were a good mix of academics, postgraduates and activists, including people from the Loiterers Resistance Movement group of Manchester and Croydon Modernist Society.

The speakers included the inspiring David Rosenberg of East End Walks , Michael Eades of the Bloomsbury in a Box project, and Blake Morris, discussing the Walking Library for Women project. These were the most activist and 'applied' projects of radical walking.

I and Rosenberg in particular spoke about why walking - using the eyes of history to examine the traces and parallels in the past - is an activist practice, and one connected directly with politically activist histories. Morris picked up on this also, observing how when on a walk of suffragette London, his group tried to find monuments to any women en route and failed to find any.

The other speakers focused more on the literary and philosophical elements of walking and its interpretation. Their papers were great and worthy scholarship. Nothing against this approach at all - do read it!

But hearing them made me realise more about how what I do and how my own intellectual trajectory is developing is drawn much more from human and cultural geography rather than literary studies. My references to David Harvey and Doreen Massey seemed a little lost among the constant reference by everyone else to Michel de Certeau and Guy Debord. And what matters to me most now is thinking about how my historical research can inform present day debates, why it is relevant today. That is not to say that the literary papers did not do this, but they did so in a less direct way with completely different reference points.

So I devoted some of my talk to why I feel dissatisfied with the flaneur as a concept.

the problem of the flaneur
one of my slides

Psychogeography, especially its French version rooted in Guy Debord and the Situationists, still seems to have an influential popularity among literary scholars, especially those of Romanticism. And that's fine - I dallied with it myself in my mid to late teens - through the gateway Fagin of Jon Savage's England's Dreaming on Malcolm McClaren. And as Morris noted in his talk, studying psychogeographic texts is a gateway in itself to thinking about how to subvert space in creative and exciting ways - precisely because it is often a 'bedroom' discovery that you find yourself - it feels yours. And De Certeau's The Practice of Everyday Life remains a key textbook for changing the way in which you're taught to think about space. So there's nothing wrong with any of this.

Where I diverged from the literary scholars, however, was on the concept of the flaneur.

There has already been much criticism of literary scholars' obsession with the flaneur, not least because the character is generally a white elite or bourgeois man, who has the time and proclivity to wander round urban streetscapes or Romantic rural idylls or sublime landscapes dreaming of the effect the environment is having on him. And even when some of the literary scholars widened the definition to flaneuse, a modern female in a modern city, there was debate over whether the woman was inclusive or exclusive.

George Walker, Costume of Yorkshire, the collier
'The Collier', 1814, definitely not a flaneur

Most people aren't flaneurs.
They don't care about the derive.
They walk because they have to go to work, or walk for pleasure, but they don't then think deeply about the experience.
Some can't walk.
and those who engage in activist psychogeography do so with a political purpose, to subvert norms rather than just to wax lyrical about the streetscape
and those who walk for pleasure, often do so collectively.
the flaneur seems to privilege the elite perspective of the landscape viewed from a distance - which is a very old debate in cultural geography about Denis Cosgrove's focus on representation in Iconography of Landscape - that is now roundly superseded by cultural geographers interested in phenomenology and non-representational theory.

I expressed my embarrassment on twitter that I had dissed the derive and the flaneur in my talk, only to be followed by two panels foregrounding the flaneur and its uses in literature.

I felt that the conference needed a talk or two on landscape punk - for example that practised by the authors Gary Budden and David Southwell - the latter in his superby incisive 'Hookland' concept. Hookland's twitter commented how walking has become somewhat fetishised (cf a discussion I had with postgraduates after the conference about their love-hate relationship with Iain Sinclair, and also the arrogance of Will Self), in the same way that the current focus on 'edgelands' has also 'derailed writing on place', with scholars using the word 'liminal' when they really mean threshold.

Cultural examples of deep mapping and landscape punk could also be said to include A Field in England, and to some but not whole extent, some of the works produced on the Ghostbox label (though its links or not with hauntology are another matter) or indeed by the KLF back in the day (Bill Drummond's derives with Sinclair notwithstanding).

I will blog later about why I think landscape punk is  so much more akin to my own historical interests than current literary conceptions of place, but here are some brief thoughts about what landscape punk is:

- it parallels 'deep mapping' in cultural geography - a desire to encompass the many different layers of place, including phenomenological, folklorist and mythological, experiential as well as representational
- it encompasses a richer sense of the historical boundaries and unboundaries inherent in place, from knowledge of parish regulations, common rights, physical and administrative changes in rights over the landscape, place names, antiquarianism
- it admits the darkness in the English village and county, and psyche, and eccentricity
- but it can also be ordinary, that wet green field and scrubby woodland the morning after a school camping trip in rainy midsummer

Gary Budden indeed expresses this feeling much better than I can in his blog: http://www.newlexicons.com/landscape-punk-1/2016/1/31/albionimhomesicknow

... But what I have never got, so far, from these works was a sense of the world I really live in, the person I am and the people I know. If I think of birdwatching, it’s not just lyrical and breathy recollections of a nature somehow removed from man. No, for me, it’s eating damp sandwiches in an RSPB car-park as rain pummels the van roof.

More anon....

The last word, as often, goes to the late Doreen Massey in that wonderful essay she wrote on landscape and disposession:

Massey quotation: 'this is not local protectionism but a critique of disposession'


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