The flâneur, the detective, and the power of observation


Carlo Salzani, who I have mentioned before, discusses the importance of observation with regards to the detective and the way in which this skill/disposition connects the figure of the detective with that of the flâneur… he writes:

“Turning the flâneur into the detective entails the social legitimation of flânerie. …Rob Shields argues that the emergence of the detective novel is tied to the social justfication of the labor time of journalists and writers of feuilletons, who, like the flâneur, “put their observations . . . ‘for sale’ on the market.” Ill at ease with the idleness of the flâneur, capitalist society triumphs over his formal resistance by imposing a “productive” label on the activity of observation. In utilitarian society, the flâneur’s power of observation is “put to use” and becomes the productive work of the detective, thereby receiving social approval. The common trait of flâneur and detective is thus their power of observation.” (174)

He continues: “The eye of the stroller may be casual, and that of the detective purposeful, but both need to be simultaneously wide-ranging and deeply penetrating. Both flâneur and detective derive a subtle pleasure from detecting the truth of the street, and both demonstrate a thorough pedestrian connoisseurship. The method of both is the acute attention to whatever occurs in the street and incessant obsession with images and the pursuit of traces in the city crowd; both wish to uncover the mysteries of the city.” (175)

“Through its connection with observation, the detective story is related to the optical devices of modernity, especially photography and film.” (175)

“[Tom Gunning] concludes, “the detective story activates the complex dialectical optics of modernity, an optics based not only on the visual mastery of surveillance but also on the uncanny experience of transformed vision, glimpsing a presence where it is not, a space where it does not belong, and triggering a frisson of possible recognition.” Observation, detection, chance: all add up to the question of “method,” which for Benjamin is the core of the detective story. The method of detection is similar to that of the flâneur: through flânerie and observation the detective constructs, as Shields argues, “a social physiognomy of the street.” “Flânerie,” writes Benjamin, “gives the individual the best prospects” for playing the detective (GS, 1.2:543; SW, 4:21). Nevertheless, the physiognomies of the first half of the nineteenth century failed in describing the modern city, because they were unable to grasp the complexity of the phenomenon of the crowd and its dark shades.” (176)

He finishes, “In the representation of the city, the detective’s method supersedes the flâneur’s method, being both more adequate to the new experience of the crowd and more complex and detailed than the physiognomies. Poe, with his descriptions of crime, incommunicability, anxiety, violence, and solitude, invented a new genre and new models for reading and consuming the modern city.” (177)

Benjamin’s “theory of the detective” comprises the dialectic between, on the one hand, the analysis of the detective story as another phantasmagoric representation of the city and, on the other, the work of the detective’s method as a sign of modernity and a progressive political tool.” (177)

I wonder how all this connects with spy fiction…???

Ref: Carlo Salzani (2007) ‘The City as Crime Scene: Walter Benjamin and the Traces of the Detective’ New German Critique 100, Vol.34, No.1, Winter: 165-187


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