“Lost in Space: Flânerie as Urban Epistemology in Times of Terror.” . Wayne State University, Detroit. 3-5 October, 2013.
The flâneur, an embodiment of urban experience originating in 19th century Paris, continues to stroll through contemporary debates on metropolitan life. While this figure is often reduced to a mannerist, turtle-walking dandy, I argue for the productivity of flânerie in recent imaginative texts and understand it not as a historical type, but as a specific and creative mode of perceiving the city. Its potential crystallizes in a significant context: Flânerie re-surfaces in contemporary literature on terrorism in the urban space, and I accordingly propose to explore the various wanderers who, traumatized and disoriented, pervade J.S. Foer’s, Don DeLillo’s, or William Gibson’s prominent novels on the 2001 attacks. From these individualized figures, I work towards an epistemology of the urban in times of terror. In his seminal Passagen-Werk, Walter Benjamin gives the reason why flânerie provides an especially promising theoretical framework for such a project: it emerges from the experience of crisis and develops an alternative vision on urban spaces in upheaval. Flâneurs tie the materiality of the cityscape, which the 2001 terrorist attacks brought back with force after its suspension in postmodern hyperrealities, to spaces of memory, the imagination and artistic representation; they advocate the openness of the free glance in search for subtle patterns of deeper meaning to respond to alienation, angst and transience, in ways that make tangible the creative potential of the literary trauma victim adrift in city spaces; and they keep an ironic distance from urban consumerism, whether of goods, or, in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, of the media terrorist spectacle. Flânerie and literary trauma therefore enter into a relation that is both challenging and illuminating, and combine to make the city a space of threat, but also of imaginative possibility and renewed sensitivity. They embed individual practices of being in and walking through the city within contemporary, post-traumatic urban ecologies of memory and meaning.