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Saturday, September 26, 2015

Did shops kill the flâneur?

Back in the nineties I was a flâneur.

Flâneur is a stroller, an avid observer of life, someone who walks, takes part in his surroundings without really making himself felt present. The flâneur, according to Walter Benjamin, was a curious detective, understanding the urban landscape around him, strolling around just for the beauty of the discovery and not in order to actively participate in the activities of the crowds. In other words, we can’t find this character in shops. First, it is unlikely to visit the shops solely for the ‘gastronomy of the eye’, and secondly, even in the unlikely scenario that the flâneur is there only in order to observe, he can’t remain invisible. The amount of security cameras, at least in the UK, make sure that everyone is on display.

But when I was living in Moscow, the possibility to be a flâneur was definitely there. I was constantly on a stroll. You see, in the Soviet Union, it was unthinkable to think about a trip to the shops, because there were hardly any and when there were any shops they were hardly selling anything.

But then things started to change. The reforms that Gorbachev put in place had an initial effect of small starvation problems. Shops became even emptier and when a product would appear, everyone was after it, regardless of what it was: a vacuum cleaner, some bread, pants, bras or coats. Obviously, with such development, shops acquired a new status. They became interesting.

With it my experience of flânerie was changing but not yet disappearing entirely. The square near all underground stations reflected what was going to happen, but it was still eluding me, that this was the future. Instead of students gathering for political discussions or dating, these places were now full of ‘larioks’, small shops where one could buy stuff. For a while all of them were selling bananas (I reckon that this was the first major import that Russia experienced as an independent country) but later they switched to selling cola, foreign cigarettes and tampons.

But yes, these lareks were more a curious sight rather than a proper destination for unwinding, spending some quality time and relaxing. Of course, this is far from the truth nowadays. When I do visit Moscow now, shopping malls there would leave any Londoner or New Yorker in serious doubt as to whether their own state regimes care enough about them as consumers. Today there are gigantesque monsters decorating the city in all possible and impossible streets, providing satisfaction not seen anywhere else.

Yes, nowadays, it is the same as elsewhere, with shops being the ultimate destination for passing by time, providing the fake feeling of happiness and absolute delight when entering a shop, leaving it, going to another and so on, like an act of exorcism making you feel like a drug addict desperately waiting for the next dose of treatment.

So, I do agree with Evgeniy Morozov that the flânerie is dead, and it is shops which killed it. All other forms of being a flâneur, including cyber-flâneur are simply impossible when everyone’s attention is focussed on the next gadget to buy.

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