On Walking Now

From the flâneur to the surveilled self


The recent translation of Franz Hessel’s Walking in Berlin provides another occasion for walking to return as a topic—a topic that has acquired a new significance in an era in which terms such as ‘lockdown’ have become a sort of commonplace. Originally published in 1929, it inspired, in part, Walter Benjamin’s development of his own conception of the ‘flâneur’. In addition, Hessel’s work provided a decisive element of the thinking that prompted Benjamin’s The Arcades Project. In Benjamin’s review of Hessel, he wrote that what the city discloses is ‘the limitless theatre of flânerie’. The link between the city and theatricality—thus the city as an object viewed by a subject, the subject-spectator—is of great importance and that link’s return will prove decisive for understanding the walking subject today. 

Clear elements of historical specificity surround Hessel’s work. There is a connection through Benjamin to the Swiss writer Robert Walser. Benjamin’s reference to Walser is of significance here. Indeed, Hessel’s Walking in Berlin, and Walser’s own preoccupation with walking and his brief text A Little Ramble, all complement each other. Consequently, viewed through one lens the network of connections between these proper names creates a setting. However, it is the nature of that setting that is now in question. The aim here is to track how the questioning of such a setting emerges. The first point to note is that Hessel and Walser are names that now can be viewed as marking a threshold. Elements of Benjamin’s work can be located in the same domain. At that threshold, in the vanishing of their concerns, what arises is another topos; it is in terms of the latter that walking today has to be understood. The very question of the theatricality of the city has changed. That change is key. There has been a radical reconfiguration of what counts as viewing. At the threshold therefore there will be other answers to the question: what is walking now

Every now has its own history; a history that now can be constructed for it. The point of departure is that the history of walking is intertwined with the history of subjectivity. It is thus not surprising that René Descartes established the centrality of the cogito and thus the centrality of the thinking subject by allowing for, if not demanding, the refusal of any possible philosophical priority being attributed to the moving body. An instance of the latter is the ambulatory subject. For Descartes thinking was all; to be human was to be a ‘thinking thing’ (res cogitans). Pierre Gassendi, writing in the 1640s, attempted to counter the exclusion of the body in his reply to Descartes’ Meditations. Gassendi’s proposition was stark: ambulo ergo sum (‘I walk therefore I am’). The claim would be that the sentient and feeling body—its literal ambulant presence—would be sufficient to ground human being. Descartes’ rejoinder was naively literal, his writing humourless: ‘the motion of the body sometimes does not exist, as in dreams, when nevertheless I appear to walk’. As though the dreamt body were not enough; as though dreams stood for a sense of unreality that would encumber thinking and thus any subsequent conception of subjectivity that had to incorporate it. It is not just the reality of the dream, and what Sigmund Freud would come to call the traumarbeit (‘dreamwork’) with its opening to reality that awaits, as a possibility, that complicates Descartes’ resistance to dreaming. Even Descartes’ contemporaries would use fantastic voyages, visions and the fiction of dreams to intervene within and make claims about the real. Cyrano de Bergerac’s L’autre monde (1657) is a clear case in point. Here fantasy and vision dominate, allowing a critical stance to be taken precisely because it is premised on another source of so-called unreality—that is, the imagination. 

Whether moving, static or imaginary, other bodies were not just always possible; to be effective they have to be projected and in flight. And yet, they are the same bodies that think. The difference is of course clear. Even though for Descartes thinking has a form of unconditionality, the movement of bodies within the urban—perhaps even the city as a form of stage—still endures. Ambulo ergo sum remains as a recurrent possibility. 


There is, of course, an entire history of the body’s response to the urban field. A history in which the walking becomes part of the experience of the subject’s worldly encounter. Walking names a subject–object relation. étienne-Louis Boullée wrote in the eighteenth century about ‘character’, by which he referred to the affective dimension of architecture. ‘Character’ identifies a form of encounter. Equally, the eighteenth century deployed the language of ‘taste’ (gout). Indeed, Marc-Antoine Laugier’s famous Essai sur l’architecture (1755) defines an approach to the city that seeks order and thus to reorder the given—namely, the city’s then present state—in terms of ‘le gout des embelissements’ (‘the taste for beautification’). Walking and seeing occasioned these encounters. The city continued to be viewed and thus experienced such that both the cognitive and the affective had to be deployed to account for the staged relation between subject and object. The body’s activity elicits cognition because the body is the locus of the responsive spectator. There is a dynamic relation between subject and object. While walking continues, it can be argued that, with Jean-Jacques Rousseau, there is a modification. Could another subject position be seen as emerging in Rousseau’s Les Rêveries du promeneur solitaire—a change, it might be argued, that allows for Hessel and Walser? As a generalisation it can be suggested that in these cases the walker’s gaze is all. The dynamic staged relation begins to disappear and a form of given-ness takes over. The subject’s experience attains centrality; the affective predominates. Aesthetics reigns.

Inevitably, however, there is a complicating factor. What is given has its own complexity. Note Walser’s much-quoted final two sentences of his A Little Ramble: ‘We do not need to see anything out of the ordinary. We already see so much’. The ordinary is given depth for the subject. The walk affords the rambler ‘pleasure’. The subject becomes absorbed into the activity of walking and in so doing, in this instance, becomes absorbed into himself. It is as though the solitary were all. At the centre of this formulation, with its easy urbanity, there has been an excision. The solitary is produced, effected within the effacing of the complexity of relationality. For example, the complex gendered nature of walking remains unnoticed by Walser. Moreover, these lines were written in 1914. It might be conjectured that they would not have been possible after the transformation of swathes of Europe into a theatre of death during the ensuing four years. A minor inflection is occurring here. Absorption, and the possibility of not noticing, of not having noted, encounters an imperative to see. The suggestion is clear. Seeing and walking are themselves continually accompanied by not seeing—experiencing but not experiencing. It is in terms of this possibility that Walser’s lines need to be read. (Parenthetically, an engagement with the refusal to see place as traversed by already present relations of power is an organising force in Kate Grenville’s The Secret River.)  The interplay of seeing and not seeing structures the subject’s gaze. The simple opposition between walking and thinking that characterised the clash between Descartes and Gassendi no longer obtains. Even the evocation of an insistent subject–object relation orienting the aesthetic and the affective no longer holds absolutely. There has been a fissure within experience itself. Hessel writes of Berliners that they ‘still know how to gape at things, just like in the old days when they weren’t in such a hurry’. However, these ‘old days’ might be premised on a form of not seeing.

If there is a way into this seeing it resides in the relationship between walking and not seeing. In his famous engagement with architecture in The Work of Art in the Age of its Technical Reproducibility, Benjamin observed that architecture is often experienced ‘in a state of distraction’ (in der Zerstreuung). Distraction needs to be understood as that state in which the object of experience occupies the lives of subjects in such a way that the possibility of any form of critical distance vanishes. More emphatically, therefore, vanishing—‘distraction’, as a naming of vanishing—is the absorption of the particularity of objects into a unifying experiential field. The brilliance of Benjamin’s insight was his twofold recognition that, firstly, if there were to be a transformation—thus an overcoming of the ‘state of distraction’—then it would not be premised on a return to the contemplation of single objects. Contemplation is not the way out of distraction. The second element is that distraction and its potential overcoming both result from the mediation by technology of bodies and objects. Changes in technology create other bodies. Technology has a productive relation to bodies that see and walk. Noting its presence allows that relation to be incorporated now into a concern with the biopolitical.


Two years prior to the publication of Hessel’s book, Berlin was the subject of a film. Walter Ruttman’s Berlin. Die Sinfonie der Großstadt (The Symphony of a Great City) was released in 1927. In a film that established a direct and important relation to the project of Soviet cinema at the time, the city Berlin was traced through a day. Berlin was the film’s subject. As the film unfolded, chronological time was tempered by the use of montage. What the film staged was the continual mediation of any form of subjectivity—which here amounted to being-in-the-city—by technology. And yet, despite its clear mastery of filmic techniques it elicited a hostile response from the very quarters that might have been sympathetic. Siegfried Kracauer, writingin the Frankfurter Zeitung on 17 November 1927, was frustrated by the film’s failure to use its own radical techniques to display structures of antagonism and disequilibria of power that were not just operative within the city but in fact an integral part of the city’s life. The symphony was too symphonic. The music was not modernist enough. Montage was simply a formal technique, displayed on the surface but betrayed by the effacing of discord in the name of a prevailing and, in the end, mythic accord. 

In other words, an aestheticisation of city life was allowed by montage, where the same techniques might have given these antagonisms actual presence. The same year that Hessel’s book was published, Adolf Behne edited a selection of Sasha Stone’s photographs of Berlin. (Stone was the photographer and designer of the now famous cover of Benjamin’s Einbahnstraße (One-Way Street), which  appeared in 1928.) The collection of Stone’s photographs was published as Berlin in Bildern (Berlin in Pictures). Its photograph of Erich Mendelsohn’s Mossehaus (1921–23) is, inevitably, one containing cars, and people walking. The city is a locus of different modalities of movement. Here the still image invites a lengthy seeing in order that the relations staged within it may be understood. In the process mere seeing would become knowing. The photograph demands an interpretation that, while linked to techniques, is not autonomically framed by them. This is not the case with Ruttman’s film. However, the affinity is that both frame moving subjects. 

It is at the point that the limit has to be brought into play. The clash between Ruttman and Stone—even if the comments made above stand in need of far greater elaboration—marks a threshold. The complexity of subjectivity and the growing complexity of the object have limits. What delimits the oscillation between what is possible and what is impossible for subjects—even allowing the quality of objects to be loci of contestation—is that the subject now, rather than viewing, comes to be viewed. From a specular oscillation between seeing and not seeing what is occurring now is the production of subjects as viewed. That viewing is also mapping; equally it is data collection. Images and data coalesce, creating new subjects and new subject positions. The purported anonymity of the flâneur, and the Situationist insistence on the dérive as creating forms of behaviour that worked within and against the enforced confines of the city—an urban strategy in which anonymity and forms of freedom would coincide—assumed the possibility of modes of subjectivity that did not have to engage counter-forms of subject production. Namely, these are subject positions created by the ubiquity of CCTV and facial-recognition software. We have travelled from the apparently benign use of technology to create conditions of ‘safety’ to the use of complex algorithms to create ‘kill boxes’ in which subjects defined by unique identities (proper names) or identities linked to affiliations or missions are, via the use of drone weaponry, able to be killed. 

Identity and subject creation have a radically new sense of the limitless. However, the stage is now outside the control of subjects. Within that theatre subjects are viewed. Viewing is policing; viewing occurs to create consumption—at the extreme, viewing allows for killing. It is no longer mere agency that is viewed. The new spectators are calculating machines. Bodies are positioned at the interface of both this spectatorial process and the simple interplay of the cognitive and the affective. This now is the site of the biopolitical. This is where ‘we’ walk.

About the author

Andrew Benjamin

Andrew Benjamin is currently Distinguished Professor of Architectural Theory at the University of Technology Sydney. He has taught philosophy at universities in Australia and the United Kingdom.

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