An attempt at flânerie in San Francisco: Part I, The Idea

I started the day restless and angsty: I made the mistake of going online first thing in the morning. My house in San Francisco now has wifi, so I did the standard online circuit of email, Facebook, newspaper sites and blogs before even getting out of bed.

For a variety of reasons, this left me feeling like shit. Facebook made me feel like a low-grade stalker, the news was about the death of Ted Kennedy and election fraud in Afghanistan, and email added to the list of things I have to do.

After eating breakfast I was even more frustrated. I have about 50 pages left in the book I’m reading, Hannah Arendt’s The Human Condition, but I couldn’t decide whether I felt like reading them or if I felt like trying to relax by doing something lighter. Meta-stress about being stressed out was setting in when I had an idea. I would embark on a bit of a project: I wanted to go on a stroll in San Francisco. Like really go on a stroll. Walk through San Francisco, the city of multiculturalism, natural beauty, and tourism; a past of earthquakes, jazz, the beats, and the hippies; and now home to a new generation of hipsters, yuppies, immigrants and going green. I would engage in 21st century flânerie.

I first became interested in flânerie on my plane flight to Paris for my time abroad. On the plane, I read a book my aunt had given me, Edmund White’s The Flaneur: A Stroll Through the Paradoxes of Paris. The book was mostly a historical and personal account, but White’s allusions to the philosophical concept of flânerie really stuck with me.

Flâner (the verb form of flânerie) can be loosely translated from French to “to stroll.” Edmund White’s book didn’t go into depth about the philosophy of flânerie, but he would occasionally provide teasers into this concept such as, “Why must we always imagine the flâneur as sad?”

Over the course of my time in Paris, I would learn more about flânerie. To begin with, I lived a few blocks from some of the most well-known passages in Paris. Built in the 1830’s, the passages (translated into “arcades”) are covered walkways lined with shops. They are at the heart of the idea of flânerie, a notion first developed by the poet Baudelaire and reexamined by many including the German-Jewish philosopher Walter Benjamin. The idea is more or less to lose oneself in walking in a city.

So my idea is to try to do some Baudelairian flânerie in San Francisco sometime in the next week. But I want to really do it right, so there’s a lot of theory on flânerie I want to read up on.

We’ll see how this project turns out. This idea sprung out of a desire to not feel stressed out and conflicted, so hopefully I won’t end up feeling out of place on my walk. But even if I do, I think this will still say something about me, flânerie and maybe even our time.

I think San Francisco will provide an excellent backdrop for my experiment. For Benjamin in his analysis of Baudelaire, the social and historical context of flânerie in 19th century Paris is key. I’m thinking of doing the walk in Chinatown or the Mission.

Anyway, stay tuned, and here is a picture I took of one of the passages near where I lived in Paris:

Paris VI: L’américanisation

I had a pleasant surprise today when I went to my first Introduction to Contemporary Cultural History class today at La Sorbonne: this semester, the class will be focused on l’américanisation. The nerd in me was a little disappointing to miss out on the theory the class did last semester (now that I’m going to do this American Studies gig, I want more theoretical background), but hell yes. Americanization.

The graduate student who was teaching my Travail Dirigé (the French socialized education’s take on a discussion group) came to class, but was on “active” strike. This means she would come to class to set things up for the semester, but refused to give her actual lesson. She explained why she was on strike–she and her colleagues dislike Xavier Darkos (Sarkozy’s education minister)’s reforms.

Then a German exchange student who I had been talking to before class wanted her to explain the “other side of the issue”–what could be good about the potential reforms. My German friend asked if their these reforms would “modernize” the education system.

This is when things really got interesting.

My Professor explain that “modernize” was a buzzword designed to make opponents of the reforms look like reactionaries. Then she equated the notion of “modernization” to that of “américanisation.” Both were loaded, vague terms. She was fighting against this modernizaiton, this americanisation, that would mean more quantititative evaluation of Professors and Researchers.

Now France definitely has huge problems with its educational system, and I am all for reform of this system (this Professor also said she was for some reform), but it is interesting to me that the part of what Sarkozy is doing with his educational reforms fits into a large trope of contemporary American pop-culture: anti-intellecutalism. Sarkozy, who prides himself on copying the best of what America does, wants more oversight of French Professors. My sense is that he’s playing into the perception that Academics sit around all day lazily musing about Marx without accomplishing anything productive.

More generally, it is interesting for me to see how many French people want to adopt parts of American culture I find least appealing. Pierre-Antoinee, a friend of mine from the foyer, talks about France doesn’t compensate their elites enough and needs to cut its social safety net.

What is most interesting about this perspective is the that Americanization is the thing to do because America is so universally defined as successful. People want to consume the American way of consumerism because the quantitative successes of the Consumer Republic.

Anyway, I’m excited to see what the trendy, intellectual “américanistes” who are pictured smoking on the back of the textbook I just bought have to say about all this.

Paris V: Une Exhibition

Today I went to a museum.

We saw Robert Frank and Sophie Ristelhueber exhibits. We started with Robert Frank. There were two Robert Frank expositions, one of his influential book, The Americans and the other of his time in Paris during the après guerre. I spent a good amount of time in The Americans room.

The exhibit consists of a series of photos Frank took during the 1950’s when he travelled around the US with his family.

Something struck me about the exhibition. It was as if Frank was showing us scenes and images you weren’t usually supposed to see. The photos look like they were taken hastily– they are often off-centered and blurry.

As I sat and pored of Kerouac’s introduction to the published version of these photographs, I was struck by how there is a certain artistic and aesthetic unity in both the writing of Kerouac and the Frank’s photographs. A disjointedness. A quickness. An oral element to both works.

Part of this artistic frame of mind really appeals to me. It’s raw, it’s real, it’s direct. And yet, there is something lacking in it. A polished perspective, perhaps? In my mind, these two and others like them were reacting against high art, against stuffiness. I like that, but you can’t totally disconnect from the wisdom of the cannon.

So I’m undecided and intrigued. When I’m done with my current book, I’m going to read On The Road.

Anyway, we went upstairs to look at the Ristelhueber exhibit and I was impressed with her formal abilities, but dissapointed by the overtly political nature of some her work. I’m generally moving towards not liking specific political messages in most artistic forms–written and oral media are the best in my mind for dealing with politics.

What I loved about Frank’s exposition was the way he transcended his form and medium. He moved beyond an explicit political message, beyond the quick, direct mode of him and the beat poets. He expressed something profound about character.

I’ll get back to you about whether or not I think Kerouac can do the same thing.

Paris IV: Les Manifestations

I knew yesterday was going to be an interesting day. Public transportation was largely going to be shut down, and massive protests were scheduled: France was doing la grève.

The eight largest union conglomerates had come together to organize a national strike in response to Sarkozy’s response to the financial crisis. For background, check out the New York Times writeup. The strikes were largely unsuccessful at shutting down Paris, but hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets.

People were protesting a couple blocks from my foyer so I decided to go investigate. I asked a few young people why they were protesting, and guy who was around my age explained that he was protesting everything. Sarkozy’s response to the crisis, French social structure generally, the educational reforms that are in progress, and a lack of care for the environment. He was really earnest, and I asked him about whether he thought these protests would turn into concrete policy changes. He said that was a big concern. He then went on to talk about how much he loved Obama, and went back to his Heineken. I wished him a bonne journée and continued on my way.

I walked all the way from my foyer to the Opéra.

Then I took the métro, which had limited to service, to the Bastille and met up with some friends. The protest continued into the night, and we found what was called a grave (read g-rave). A group of people, many of whom seemed to be on drugs, danced behind a truck that was blaring techno music. My friends and I followed the music at least three miles back to my foyer.

As always, leftists know how to have fun. What really struck with me, though, were the implications of the protest. A myriad of different constituencies were rallied around saying no to Sarkozy’s policies. I saw anti-Israel signs, pro-social security signs, anti-educational reform protesters, lots of different unions and obviously anarchists and communists.

American progressives talk a lot about unifying different causes and interests groups, and in many ways, these protests showed how this can come up short. People were clearly protesting against something, but what were they protesting for? (For background, France’s socialist party is in en crise).

It is legitimate to simply voice a discontent with the status quo, but social progress obviously needs to go beyond voicing discontent with the powers that be.

So I am left with mixed feelings. There is something I really like about a country in which people are willing to mobolize on this level. And yet, I’m not sure where all this leads. To take a step back, France is definitely doing some things right, with (some of) its social safety net, (partly) good education system and sense of accountability for the Government. Meanwhile, there are big problems with unemployment, partly because of overly leftist employment policies, and other problems I don’t want to get into now.

Clearly, we don’t want to emulate everything the French do. But one thing I think the French really do correctly is there sense of never being satisfied with their government. Their culture of never being satisfied.

Paris II: L’Apprentissage

Funny how good it feels to relearn the idealistic truths one was forced-fed as a second grader.

I finally broke down the barrier that was separating me, the temporary American student, from the French inhabitants of my foyer last night.

Virgile can often be found working on his graphic design in the common computer room of my foyer and we talk about his work on graphic design, politics and music. Although Virgile is currently unemployed, he works really hard on his drawings and animations, often late into the night. But tonight, I ran into Virgile outside the foyer. I was ordering a crepe from the friendly Egyptian man who runs a stand near my foyer and Virgille walked by. He suggested we go out to his favorite local bar. Allons prendre un verre!

My French teacher at the Middlebury program here in Paris told us that it was important to (almost) always take up opportunities with French people, so why the hell not. I went out to get a drink with Virgile.

We both got French beers. He told me about the woman he had dated who was in her forties. He told me about the French girl he met playing an online game through facebook. About how he had real feelings for this girl, about how she had told him she loved him. We agreed that there can be something really powerful about online media; that they can have the capacity to communicate a certain honesty. Son vrai état d’esprit.

Although he had been in the foyer for six years, he told me about how it was hard for him at first there. About how people in the foyer had the individualism of cowboys (pronounced “cah-boiz”). About how it was generally hard to meet people. For anyone anywhere.

In the bar people did their own thing. They mostly stuck with the groups they came with. Virgile and I talked about how our cities were beautiful and cosmopolitan and yet their inhabitants failed to really mix.

With my supportive, multicultural upbringing, I had always been taught about how people were universally similar. About how people want the same things. About how people are scared. About how people want to love.

My high school theater teacher, Martha liked to talk about how “everyone just wants to be heard.”

The two girls sitting next to Virgile and me in the bar seemed similar to me and Virigle. One was trendier than the other, both were pretty and they walked the line between being reserved and looking around the room. I knew nothing about them, and yet something about going to a bar on a Wednesday night and acting like Virgile, me, or these two young women is universal.

Paris really isn’t that foreign.

Sounds like something you can teach in second grade, but sometimes it takes a few beers with Virgile to really learn.

Paris I: L’Etranger

Paris feels to me right now like the color that is used on the metro maps to represent the line I use to get back to my foyer— it is a non-ostentatious pink.

And something about being in this city of non-ostentatious pink makes me want to use exclamation marks when I type.