The Thief of Time

‘Procrastination is the thief of time,’ runs the most famous line from Edward Young’s Night-Thoughts. (‘Collar him!’ added Mr Micawber.)

night thoughts

Another of our Mañanarama posters (PDF here). Edward Young was a Fellow of All Souls College, host of the Procrastination Seminar in autumn 2014

Edward Young is today now largely forgotten: his ‘religious enthusiasm and epigrammatic density cost him readers’, his biographer informs us, while his reputation was further dented when George Eliot attacked his ‘radical insincerity’. But the adage lives on.

Here it is in a nineteenth-century Ohio guest book,

Procrastination thief of time ohio guestbook

here in the title of an intriguing set of essays on procrastination (2010)

Andreou White thief of time

as well as a Discworld novel (2001) in which a sinister race of ‘Auditors’ attempt to take the scientific quest to manage time to its logical conclusion—by freezing time through the perfect clock

Terry Pratchett thief of time

and here, most wonderfully, in the 1930s in the hand of Time magazine, in a letter sent to late-paying subscribers.

Letter from Time magazine

From Successful Collection Letters (1941) via Letters of Note (2012)

It was apparently quite successful. As Young reminds us a few lines later, ‘Be wise today; ’tis madness to defer.’

The Sleep Eliminator (1923)

The Isolator, a particularly hardcore anti-procrastination solution (via 50watts.com)

The Isolator, a particularly hardcore anti-procrastination solution (via 50watts.com)

Another of our Mañanarama exhibits, this time a vintage magazine.

The Luxembourg-born Hugo Gernsback invented more than just Twitter’s favourite Isolator helmet in his quest to beat time-wasting. He aimed for nothing less than an end to sleep itself.

If any disease robbed us of a third of our lifetimes, medical research would go wild. To conquer sleep would be ‘a wonderful boon to the race’ and to productivity, Gernsback argued. Slumber was merely a ‘habit… mainly due to astronomical reasons’, and would one day become unnecessary—after all, protozoa and many fish do not sleep (p. 1062).

IMG_9110

His Sleep Eliminator, starring in the March 1923 edition of Science and Invention, used electric currents, oxygen tanks and ozone generators. Together these promised ‘to eliminate sleep for any length of time’ (p. 1114). ‘With methods such as these,’ he concluded cheerfully, ‘there is no probability that the subjects will experience any ill effects, and will not be worse off for having worked a week, or even a month, day in and day out’ (p. 1137).

Sleep eliminator - 23 Jul 2014 22-32

The same magazine issue also included a short story by H.G. Wells (‘The Star’), alongside suggestions for electrical moth-proofing, futuristic submarines, amateur magicians, and very twenty-first-century adverts for strongfortism and ‘The Creative Power of Mind in Action: You Can Create the Things You Desire’.

Today anti-sleep research is largely the province of military scientists. ‘Cures’ include drugs, supplements, masks—and ‘transcranial direct-current stimulation’ via a Gernsbackesque electrical headband.

The Fisher Wallace Stimulator, 'for unsupervised home use'

The Fisher Wallace Stimulator, ‘for unsupervised home use’

If you’d like to meander further, here’s another of our Mañanarama exhibits—on procrastination and science fiction (PDF here; print with impunity).

science fiction procrastination

Cutting the Cord

 

We’re delighted to present Frank Hangler’s ‘Cutting the Cord’, winner of the 2014 Cunctator Prize, as generously judged by Henry Hardy and Mark Pottle of the Isaiah Berlin Literary Trust.

Here’s Frank’s glorious poster (click for PDF); his paper is below.

hangler-procrastination-poster

 

Cutting the Cord: technology as the source of (and solution to?) procrastination

Procrastination is hardly a novel phenomenon, but in the digital era, it may have reached its apotheosis. Today’s Internet user is subject to a constant stream of e-mails, viral memes, addictive games, social media updates, and Wikipedia spelunking sessions. It’s raining lolcats and doges—and it would appear to be wreaking havoc with our productivity. “The hidden cost of Gangnam Style,” a chart recently released by The Economist, tabulates the opportunity cost to humanity of the 140 million hours we spent watching the rapper PSY’s horse dance antics: twenty Empire State Buildings, or six Burj Khalifas, or an entire Wikipedia (“Daily chart: The hidden cost of Gangnam Style,” 2014). No surprise, then, that many employers continue to block “time-wasting” websites such as Facebook or Twitter, or that studies have found that digital technologies are distracting to workers (R. Williams, 2014). Intriguingly, however, in combatting technological temptation, we are increasingly turning to technology itself. Some might grumble about the lack of character-building discipline this entails. But what is more interesting is what this behaviour tells us about life in the digital era.

The use of technology to prevent procrastination and encourage productivity is not new. In the 1920s, Science and Invention publisher Hugo Gernsback invented human blinders: “The Isolator”, a large helmet that restricted its user’s vision and hearing—and even supplied oxygen from an external tank to counteract drowsiness (Novak, 2013). For perhaps obvious reasons, The Isolator never quite took off. Some simpler technologies have been found more fruitful. The Pomodoro Technique, developed by Francesco Cirillo in the 1980s, advocates the use of a kitchen timer (such as the common tomato-shaped variety which lent the technique its name) to break up time into blocks of twenty-five minutes of work, followed by breaks of three to five minutes (Cirillo, 2014a, 2014b). Among other techniques, David Allen’s productivity manual Getting Things Done (2002) suggests a system of forty-three folders—one for each day of the month and month of the year—to help organize physical artefacts and reminders. More unusually, Internet critic Evgeny Morozov locks his smartphone and router cable in a timer-controlled safe, allowing him to work without the distraction of the Internet (Tucker, 2013).

The Isolator in action, via A Great Disorder

The Isolator in action, via A Great Disorder

In the digital era, it’s not surprising that such physical approaches have been either replaced or augmented by technologies running on the very devices that seem to have exacerbated the problem of distraction. Both the Pomodoro Technique and Getting Things Done have their own mobile applications. Some word processors, such as Microsoft Word, iA Writer, and Byword, virtually mimic the narrow eye-slit of the Isolator by offering different kinds of “focus modes”—for instance, by making the application full-screen or highlighting only the line of text currently being edited. At the more extreme end of the spectrum are digital implementations of Morozov’s safe: applications such as Freedom (80Pct Solutions, 2014) and SelfControl (Stigler & Lambert, 2014) that can be used to block the Internet, entirely or in part according to customizable blacklists, for pre-specified lengths of time. Nothing short of a reboot (in the case of Freedom) or specific technical knowhow (in the case of SelfControl) can re-enable Internet access once the digital timer has been set. (Freedom features prominent authors such as Nick Hornby, Naomi Klein, and Zadie Smith amongst its admirers.)

Other technologies exist that are only possible in the digital age. The WiFi-enabled “SnūzNLūz” alarm clock threatens to punish lie-ins with automatic donations to ideologically repugnant causes via direct debit (ThinkGeek, 2014). Though the SnūzNLūz was an April Fool’s joke, the concept of pecuniary punishment of procrastination has found traction in at least two real web-based services, Beeminder (2014) and stickK (2014). These sites reward the diligent, but their very business models are essentially wagers on the fundamental idleness of their customers. A similar service, RescueTime (2014), somewhat more benignly tracks and reports on how users spend their time on their computers from day-to-day—but without the risk of penalty, except for crises of conscience.

Beeminder and RescueTime logos

The names and iconography of these technologies provide interesting clues to how we think of procrastination and unproductiveness. The icon for SelfControl is a skull and crossbones (“death to procrastination,” it seems to suggest); Freedom’s is a clock (“time’s running out”). When we are quite literally left to our own devices, we are incapable of focus, self control, or, ultimately, freedom: we are slaves to our appetites, thralls to unproductivity. The promise of these applications is emancipation. But, some might argue, what about the virtue of actually practicing discipline, restraint, or willpower? Rather than growing in virtue by struggling with our temptations, we are offered the easy route of clicking a button, of being constantly nudged by timers and focus modes, of fooling ourselves into work. Using extrinsic approaches to eliminate distractions altogether seems like a quick fix, a cheat. We have replaced our forty days in the wilderness, with the attendant risks (and character-building rewards), with life in a hermetically sealed room—safe and unchallenging.

SelfControl logo

SelfControl logo

I think this view is self-flagellating, for three reasons. First, it’s possible that we worry a little too much about procrastination to begin with, at least in the sense that we see it as a danger unique to the digital era. The word itself has been attested at least since the sixteenth century (“procrastination, n.,” 2014); the fable of the industrious ant and the lazy grasshopper dates to the classical era. Nor should we begrudge ourselves reasonable leisure. “[H]umanity has at least been entertained,” The Economist wryly comments on their Gangnam Style infographic (“Daily chart: The hidden cost of Gangnam Style,” 2014). Though 16,000 human-years spent watching the video is an initially staggering statistic, it still means that, on average, each of the world’s seven billion inhabitants only spent 1.2 minutes of their time watching. This is hardly excessive entertainment. The Internet can be undeniably distracting; the claims it makes on our attention—possibly the last truly scarce good in the materially-wealthy West (see, for instance, Goldhaber, 1997)—can be profound; in the end, it is possibly even addictive (Young, 1998). But procrastination is not new. It is as old as work itself.

Psy: 'hardly excessive entertainment'

Psy: ‘hardly excessive entertainment’

Second, the notion that we should be alarmed at using digital technology to combat distraction plays into the idea of what the sociologist Nathan Jurgenson has termed “digital dualism”—that online life is somehow separate and distinct from “real” life (2011). Digital dualist narratives also tend to depict the “real” world as somehow purer or worthier than the digital one. The problem with digital dualism, however, is that there is not really any such thing as “cyberspace.” At a very concrete level, the Internet is physically grounded; though we feel as though we are peering through our computer screens into a separate digital world, it is as real as anything else we experience. It is more profitable to think of the Internet in terms of affordances: in other words, the modalities it permits and implicitly encourages, and those it denies or discourages. To return to the issue of attention, it may well be true that Internet technologies can be especially distracting; advertising, for instance, can be more intrusive than in traditional media, with full-page takeovers and auto-playing videos. And many (otherwise) intelligent people are spending a significant amount of time and effort designing ever more attention-grabbing distractions. “The best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make people click ads,” lamented former Facebook employee Jeff Hammerbacher (Vance, 2011). There is an arms race for our attention; faced with the unique challenges of Internet-related distraction, then, we should not feel bad about mustering technological weapons against the abuse of technology. We should not assume that traditional, offline techniques are better or more valid than online ones. Indeed, the proliferation of applications designed to help us focus is more an indication of ingenuity and adaptability in response to the onslaught of hard-to-avoid distractions. “Our brains are so easy to fool that it’s borderline embarrassing; you might as well salvage some self-respect by exploiting that fact,” writes the technology journalist Oliver Burkeman (2010).

Evgeny Morozov, by re:publica

Evgeny Morozov, by re:publica

Finally, we should not unnecessarily elevate the virtue of struggle. To be sure, discipline and willpower in the face of unavoidable temptation are laudable. But there is nothing unseemly—indeed there is something prudent— about avoiding temptation altogether; and thankfully, we need not take such drastic measures as St Francis of Assisi did when he flung himself into a rose bush. When we can help ourselves focus with software, coping with technological temptation by eschewing technology seems unnecessarily scrupulous. Morozov said about his safe, “It’s not that I can’t say ‘no’ to myself. I just waste too much energy having the internal conversation. I’d rather delegate the control to my safe and use my remaining willpower to get something done” (Tucker, 2013). Replying to those who ridiculed the practice, even this deeply techno-skeptical thinker said, “I have no problem with the safe, frankly. It fits very well with my vision for technology. It’s okay to delegate certain things to technology” (C. Williams, 2013). Applications such as Freedom and SelfControl do not operate autonomously. The user must still have the willpower to click the button that blocks their Internet, after all. And though that is a simple act, and is likely to be easier than exerting the full effort of our will to avoid distraction, it is not without virtue (Millgram, 2010).

In sum, then, we shouldn’t castigate ourselves for marshalling what defences we can against distraction, when it does indeed transition from reasonable entertainment to compulsive procrastination. Instead, it is worth pondering what our use of technology contra technology tells us about life in the digital age. It suggests that though distraction and procrastination are nothing new, the affordances of Internet-enabled computing—the near-ubiquitous connectivity, the malleability of web content, the steady stream of notifications—can exacerbate the problem; but other affordances—“distraction-free” modes, the ability to cleanly, easily, and reversibly sever our Internet connections—can similarly help us fight it. Another factor is that we now find ourselves enjoying entertainment on the same device we use for work. This can be undeniably problematic when, for instance, we spend too much time on YouTube rather than programming, researching, writing, or performing other work that is temporarily painful but ultimately satisfying.

But this convergence of uses actually points to another idea. The era of always-on Internet encourages us to actually reassess the idea of procrastination itself. The Silicon Valley venture capitalist Paul Graham writes, “No matter what you work on, you’re not working on everything else. So the question is not how to avoid procrastination, but how to procrastinate well” (2005). In fact, one study suggests that some kinds of “cyberloafing” might actually boost productivity (Academy of Management, 2014). Social media, Wikipedia, and online news are not necessarily “good” procrastination—but they should not automatically be considered bad, either. These activities can strengthen social ties, encourage learning, and invite serendipitous innovation just as much as they can distract us from the more important tasks at hand. Some work profits from long blocks of steady concentration, and for such times, we have applications such as Freedom and SelfControl—or safes. But having information readily available can also be a boon. The novelist Ned Beauman, though himself an avid user of Internet-blocking applications, nevertheless says the Internet is “Inextricably part of my method. [...] I don’t consider Wikipedia a distraction; I find it really useful. Most of the time you’re learning something” (Wilkinson, 2012). What we should encourage is not a complete disconnection from technology to avoid procrastination, nor a condemnation of the Internet as an inherently procrastinatory medium, but rather a contextual approach—aided, when appropriate, by technology itself—that enables us to work when we need to, and surf when we don’t.

macfreedom logo

Frank Hangler is an MSc student at the Oxford Internet Institute, interested in big data, smart cities, and the rhetoric of technology. He has several years of professional experience in design and development. He holds a BA (Honours) in Political Science and a Bachelor of Computer Science, both from the University of British Columbia.

 

References

[Links active as of 13 June 2014]

80Pct Solutions. (2014). Freedom – Internet Blocking Productivity Software.

Academy of Management. (2014). Internet browsing at work? It’s a pause that refreshes workers and enhances their productivity, new research finds.

Allen, D. (2002). Getting Things Done. London: Piatkus.

Beeminder. (2014). Beeminder.

Burkeman, O. (2010). This column will change your life: Is self-discipline the key to success? The Guardian.

pomodoro techniqueCirillo, F. (2014a). Frequently Asked Questions. The Pomodoro Technique.

Cirillo, F. (2014b). Get Started. The Pomodoro Technique.

Daily chart: The hidden cost of Gangnam Style. (2014). The Economist.

Goldhaber, M. H. (1997, April 7). The attention economy and the Net. First Monday.

Graham, P. (2005). Good and Bad Procrastination.

Jurgenson, N. (2011). Digital Dualism versus Augmented Reality. Cyborgology.

Millgram, E. (2010). Virtue for Procrastinators. In The Thief of Time: Philosophical Essays on Procrastination. Oxford University Press.

Novak, M. (2013). Thinking Cap: A Helmet That Seals Out External Sounds and Sights. Pacific Standard.

procrastination, n. (2014). OED Online.

RescueTime. (2014). RescueTime: Time management software for staying productive and happy in the modern workplace.

StickK. (2014). stickK − Change Starts Now.

Stigler, C., & Lambert, S. (2014). SelfControl.

ThinkGeek. (2014). SnūzNLūz – Wifi Donation Alarm Clock.

Tucker, I. (2013). Evgeny Morozov: “We are abandoning all the checks and balances.” The Guardian.

Vance, A. (2011). This Tech Bubble Is Different. Businessweek.

Wilkinson, C. (2012). Shutting out a world of digital distraction. The Telegraph.

Williams, C. (2013). Google is run by adolescents, says Evgeny Morozov. The Telegraph.

Williams, R. (2014). Internet “fuels procrastination and lowers productivity.” The Telegraph.

Young, K. S. (1998). Internet Addiction: The Emergence of a New Clinical Disorder. CyberPsychology & Behavior, 1(3), 237–244. doi:10.1089/cpb.1998.1.237

The Ostrich Pillow (2013)

So to the first of our Mañanarama exhibits.

IMG_9113

The idea for the Ostrich pillow-helmet originated in Spain, and the joy of library siestas. Designed by Key Portilla-Kawamura and Ali Ganjavian of Studio Banana, and crowd-funded through Kickstarter, it promises naps cocooned from external noise and the mocking laughter of passers-by.

ostrich pillow 3

As featured in Powernapping: Smarte Pausen mit großem Erfolg

Despite making the wearer look like the awkward lovechild of the Scarecrow and Admiral Ackbar, the original hand-crafted Ostrich retails at £64.99—and has been featured in every outlet from Glamour to the Financial Times.

ostrich scarecrow ackbar

‘Power-napping improves productivity by 34%,’ promise the Ostrich’s creators. ‘Metamorphose into a walking bulb of garlic,’ say others.

Coming Soon: conference highlights

audioplayerOver the next few weeks, we hope to provide audio highlights from the Procrastination: Cultural Explorations conference held on 2 July. Remember, the conversation will continue with our seminar series from October.

To whet your appetite, you can hear our contributor Pelle Valentin Olsen (Oxford) discussing idleness and Baghdad coffee shops on Radio 4’s Thinking Allowed—along with the political history of surfing.

And in the meantime, we’ll be sharing some of the artefacts from the Mañanarama exhibition that followed the conference…

 

The Telegraph on Procrastination Oxford

The ever-interesting author and critic Jane Shilling provided a rather lovely take on our conference on 2 July for today’s Telegraph. See below—or click here for the original.

 

The Precious Art of Procrastination

Jane Shilling visits the Oxford Centre for Life-Writing to explore procrastination, infamous as being the scourge of creative types

broken alarm clockTo Oxford, that humming hive of academic endeavour and fantastical far-niente, for a cultural exploration of procrastination convened by the Oxford Centre for Life-Writing.

Procrastination is notoriously the scourge of creative types, schoolchildren and journalists. Its patron saints are Dr Johnson, frantically scribbling as the printer’s boy waited to snatch the sheets with the ink still wet upon them; Cyril Connolly, morosely cataloguing the sombre impediments to good art (the pram in the hall, the blue bugloss of journalism, the charlock of sex, the slimy mallows of success, etc) while scoffing gulls’ eggs and failing to write a good novel; and Douglas Adams, the modern virtuoso of procrastination, who cheerily admitted that “I love deadlines, I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by.”

The sacraments of procrastination are coffee, Red Bull, Pro-Plus and a lurid spectrum of less innocent stimulants. Its ceremonies are the missed deadline, the specious excuse and the exasperated riposte of the schoolmaster and editor. (I find there is something strangely comforting—even addictive—about the increasingly desperate enquiries of my editors as to when I might eventually file my copy. I tend to reply in the immortal words of Captain Jack Aubrey’s rebarbative steward Killick. Questioned as to the whereabouts of the Captain’s eagerly awaited dinner, he remarked dourly, “Which it will be ready when it is ready”.)

If procrastination were merely an example of what the Greeks termed akrasia—the habit of acting against one’s better judgment—it would be of compelling interest to philosophers and psychologists, but its role in artistic endeavour would be essentially that of the bad fairy at the christening. Happily, when it comes to creativity, procrastination has the mysterious homeopathic quality of being both poison and cure, inspiration and inhibitor.

The OCLW’s procrastination blog (at ProcrastinationOxford.org) offers a picaresque tour of the procrastinatory horizon, taking in such monuments of the art of stylish cunctation as the flâneur—the 19th-century embodiment of idleness evoked (and personified) by the poet Baudelaire. In his essay, The Painter of Modern Life, Baudelaire described the flâneur, strolling the city streets in purposeful aimlessness: “The crowd is his element, as the air is that of birds and water of fishes. His passion and his profession are to become one flesh with the crowd.”

For the Situationist Guy Debord, strolling was a political act. “La dérive”, or drifting, defined as an unplanned journey through an urban landscape, was a medium both of authentic engagement with the “distinct psychic atmospheres” of the city, and a ludic subversion of the grinding monotony of advanced capitalism.

“Ne travaillez jamais”, Debord scrawled on the wall of the rue de Seine in 1953, and it was a maxim to which he adhered throughout his life (a martyr to the effects of lifelong alcoholism, he shot himself in 1994). A visitor to the Debord household observed that Mme Debord seemed to get very little help with the housework. “She does the dishes,” Debord explained. “I do the revolution.”

The fuzzy boundary between work and idleness was a leitmotif of the conference, with papers on “Idle Days in Baghdad: The emergence of bourgeois time and the coffee shop as a site of procrastination”, and the Egyptian novelist, Albert Cossery’s poitics of laziness. Cossery, who remarked that he wrote “only when I have nothing better to do”, produced eight novels in 60 years, written mostly at the Café de Flore, an establishment to which he once turned up in a wheelchair pushed by a beautiful blonde, still wearing the pyjamas of the hospital from which he had just fled.

It was during a paper on Procrastinating Abroad that the God in the machine made an unexpected appearance. We were considering Hieronymus Turler’s 1585 warning to the concerned relations of 16th-century gap-year travellers: (“Three things come out of Italy: a naughty conscience, an empty purse and a weak stomach”) when from somewhere in the roof came the clarion sound of a duo of distinctly unacademic voices engaged in an animated discussion of air vents. Above the sussuration of ruffled scholarly feathers, a quick-witted attendee remarked, “I hate to tell you, but they’re probably working!”

So seductive a subject could scarcely be despatched in a single day. The conversation continues next term at a Procrastination Seminar, to be held on Wednesdays at 5.30pm in the Old Library at All Souls. Further details are said (appropriately enough) to be “coming soon”.

The big day

CLOCK LOGO 2At long last, today we’re delighted to welcome our wonderful speakers to Oxford for a day of procrastinatory conversation.

For those of you unable to be here, keep your eyes on the website for content from the conference—as well as announcements about our autumn 2014 seminar series…

Last orders

Hurry up please, it’s time. 

Dearest comrades of the last-minute brigade—remember that registration closes at 23:59 this Thursday (26th June). That’s British Summer Time, for those of you who like to rely on the old timezone get-out-of-jail-free card.

Don’t put it off: click here post-haste to sign up.

(And, contrary to rumour, there is no prize for being the last one through the door…)

 

The flâneur

Around 1840 it was considered elegant to take a tortoise out walking. This gives us an idea of the tempo of flânerie —Walter Benjamin

Flaneur 2

From Louis Huart, Physiologie du flâneur (1841)

Flânerie, the art of the flâneur, means strolling, loitering, sauntering with no fixed intent but simply looking. Is the flâneur an exotic cousin of the procrastinator? That depends where you stand, or wander.

Insufferable idleness

Vagrants and prostitutes (the other kind of streetwalker) were increasingly unpopular with the nineteenth-century Parisian authorities. Contemporaries were quick to suspect this new figure too. As one dictionary of ‘popular’ French usage from 1808 defines it, un grand flâneur is

a lazybones, a loafer, a man of insufferable idleness, who doesn’t know where to carry his trouble and his boredom.

From Physiologie du flaneur

From Physiologie du flâneur

(We still see this today: the puritanical workaholics of the OED call him ‘a lounger or saunterer, an idle “man about town”.’ Ouch.) But over the course of a century flânerie was to develop its own rich philosophy.

Baudelaire and Benjamin: a pair of loafers

Though the French verb flâner is considerably older, the invention of the flâneur as icon is often credited to Baudelaire and his famous essay ‘The Painter of Modern Life’ (1863). Dandified but incognito, he strolls amongst the crowds of Paris, just behind his pet tortoise:

The crowd is his element, as the air is that of birds and water of fishes. His passion and his profession are to become one flesh with the crowd. For the perfect flâneur, for the passionate spectator, it is an immense joy to set up house in the heart of the multitude, amid the ebb and flow of movement, in the midst of the fugitive and the infinite. To be away from home and yet to feel oneself everywhere at home; to see the world, to be at the centre of the world, and yet to remain hidden from the world—such are a few of the slightest pleasures of those independent, passionate, impartial natures which the tongue can but clumsily define…

The flâneur, its exponents argued, is a passionate observer of the human species, ‘botanising on the asphalt’ (Benjamin). He is an urban native, a connoisseur—Balzac called the activity ‘gastronomy of the eye’—of the great metropolis and its glamorous manmade ‘sensorium’. The wandering Wordsworth is denied flâneurhood: it is impossible in soggy Cumbria.

The flâneuriat argued that they concealed themselves behind their tortoises; their indolence was a mask. They were quick to differentiate themselves from the dreaded archetypes with which they might (somewhat justifiably) be confused: the idler, the self-absorbed dandy, the tourist, and—heavens forfend—the undiscriminating, slackjawed badaud or gawker. This ‘man of the world’ (and it is invariably a man) does not merely gawp or potter: he is, in the common image, a detective: it’s no accident that Baudelaire became obsessed by Edgar Allen Poe and his short story ‘The Man of the Crowd‘ (1840). The flâneur is an ethnographer with less stamina and better hats.

The impossible flaâneuse? George Sand (Baudelaire tellingly wrote her off as having the morals of 'janitresses and kept women')

The impossible flâneuse? George Sand (Baudelaire tellingly wrote her off as having the morals of ‘janitresses and kept women’)

Free radical?

So is the flâneur another Bartleby, an alternative icon in a world of capitalist drudgery? Benjamin certainly hoped so, resurrecting him as the archetype of urban modernity, empathetic and eye-opening in the face of alienation. Clearly the flâneur presents some small threat of deviancy, or else those sensitive lexicographers would be more relaxed.

Too distracted to see the obstacles of everyday life? (From Physiologie du flâneur)

Too distracted to see the obstacles of everyday life? (From Physiologie du flâneur)

But if he isn’t a simple idler or dandy, he is at best an ambiguously radical figure: a man of leisure, well-dressed, gregarious and late-rising. His love of window-shopping and department stores is a little too close to naked consumerism for comfort—and once women get into these activities they lose all their masculine charm—while his dismay at being seen as a mere gawper or tourist belies his pathological snobbery. The flâneur may be a man of the crowd, but he is no man of the people (‘Ce grand malheur, de ne pouvoir être seul,’ sighs the epigraph to Poe’s story).

It is no accident that flânerie flourished in the great age of boredom (incidentally a word which was not ‘invented’ by Dickens, another famous city wanderer). For his spontaneity and freedom of action, Benjamin himself bracketed the flâneur with such unlovably idle figures as the the gambler, the drug addict and the student (and experimented with drugs and gambling himself). Not only managing but actually thriving in boredom he credited as perhaps the flâneur’s greatest contribution in the age of bureaucracy. The gambler merely kills time, but the flâneur ‘charges time like a battery’ through his attention to novelty, the transient and the ephemeral.

Yet here again we see the flâneur is no radical: his efforts are not especially political, but aesthetic and nostalgic. He does not so much escape boredom and consumerism as revel in it, marking the transition between the dandy of good taste and the dandy who relishes camp with detached, apolitical irony. Against alienation he can set only oh-so-postmodernist fragments of experience, a collapsing kaleidoscope. Is it any wonder that Walter Benjamin was unable to finish his project?

The undercooked flâneur

It is not as an anti-capitalist icon but as a heroic myth for writers that the flâneur owes his survival. He is, says one commentator, ‘the indulgent fantasy of the writer not writing but whose observing eye nonetheless transmits directly to the novelist’s page’, daydreaming his way to a critique of modernity. The problem is that this shortcut often fails to work. Several of the great flâneur-writers became crippled by perfectionism, that handmaiden of procrastination. Benjamin’s own massive work on the Parisian arcades, like Robert Musil’s vast, ambivalent and false-start-filled Vienna novel The Man Without Qualities, was never finished. The cities themselves got the better of the works.

In the end the flâneur met a Rasputin fate, killed by tortoise-crushing traffic, the democratization of city lounging and travel writing, the feminization of his favoured pastimes, and his own internal contradictions. As early as 1877 the writing was on the wall: the feminine word flâneuse appeared—to designate a kind of chaise longue.

'Flaneuse - eucalyptus - toile - fruity - pastel'

‘Flaneuse – eucalyptus – toile – fruity – pastel’

Nonetheless, though nineteenth-century incarnations of the flâneur may have missed it (and even Benjamin could not save him), there is radical potential in urban drifting. Ditching the cigar and top hat, its heirs were Britain’s critical psychogeographers, Guy Debord and the Situationist International—as our speaker Kamel Boudjemil (Sorbonne) will discuss on 2 July [sign up here today].