The Cyborg Flâneur: Reimagining Urban Nature through the Act of Walking




Nature writing, the flaneur, Postmodern city

How to Cite

Bayes, C. (2018). The Cyborg Flâneur: Reimagining Urban Nature through the Act of Walking. M/C Journal, 21(4).
Vol. 21 No. 4 (2018): walking
Published 2018-10-15

The concept of the “writer flâneur”, as developed by Walter Benjamin, sought to make sense of the seemingly chaotic nineteenth century city. While the flâneur provided a way for new urban structures to be ordered, it was also a transgressive act that involved engaging with urban spaces in new ways. In the contemporary city, where spaces are now heavily controlled and ordered, some members of the city’s socio-ecological community suffer as a result of idealistic notions of who and what belongs in the city, and how we must behave as urban citizens. Many of these ideals emerge from nineteenth century conceptions of the city in contrast to the country (Williams). However, a reimagining of the flâneur can allow for new transgressions of urban space and result in new literary imaginaries that capture the complexity of urban environments, question some of the more damaging processes and systems, offer new ways of connecting with the city, and propose alternative ways of living with the non-human in such places. 

With reference to the work of Debra Benita Shaw, Rob Shields and Donna Haraway, I will examine how the urban walking figure might be reimagined as cyborg, complicating boundaries between the real and imagined, the organic and inorganic, and between the human and non-human (Haraway Cyborgs). I will argue that the cyborg flâneur allows for new ways of writing and reading the urban and can work to reimagine the city as posthuman multispecies community. As one example of cyborg flânerie, I look to the app Story City to show how a writer can develop new environmental imaginaries in situ as an act of resistance against the anthropocentric ordering of the city. This article intends to begin a conversation about the ethical, political and epistemological potential of cyborg flânerie and leads to several questions which will require further research.

Shaping the City: Environmental Imaginaries

In a sense, the flâneur is the product of a utopian imaginary of the city. According to Shields, Walter Benjamin used the flâneur as a literary device to make sense of the changing modern city of Paris: 

The flâneur is a hero who excels under the stress of coming to terms with a changing ‘social spatialisation’ of everyday social and economic relations which in the nineteenth century increasingly extended the world of the average person further and further to include rival mass tourism destinations linked by railroad, news of other European powers and distant colonies. This expanding spatialization took the form of economic realities such as changing labour markets and commodity prices and social encounters with strangers and foreigners which impinged on the life world of Europeans. (Fancy Footwork 67)

Through his writing, these new spaces and inhabitants were made familiar again to those that lived there. In consequence, the flâneur was seen as a heroic figure who approached the city like a wilderness to be studied and tamed:

Even to early 20th-century sociologists the flâneur was a heroic everyman—masculine, controlled and as in tune with his environment as James Fenimore Cooper’s Mohican braves were in their native forests. Anticipating the hardboiled hero of the detective novel, the flâneur pursued clues to the truth of the metropolis, attempting to think through its historical specificity, to inhabit it, even as the truth of empire and commodity capitalism was hidden from him. (Shields Flanerie 210)

In this way, the flâneur was a stabilising force, categorising and therefore ordering the city. However, flânerie was also a transgressive act as the walker engaged in eccentric and idle wandering against the usual purposeful walking practices of the time (Coates). Drawing on this aspect, flânerie has increasingly been employed in the humanities and social sciences as a practice of resistance as Jamie Coates has shown. This makes the flâneur, albeit in a refigured form, a useful tool for transgressing strict socio-ecological conventions that affect the contemporary city.

Marginalised groups are usually the most impacted by the strict control and ordering of contemporary urban spaces in response to utopian imaginaries of who and what belong. Marginalised people are discouraged and excluded from living in particular areas of the city through urban policy and commercial practices (Shaw 7). Likewise, certain non-human others, like birds, are allowed to inhabit our cities while those that don’t fit ideal urban imaginaries, like bats or snakes, are controlled, excluded or killed (Low). Defensive architecture, CCTV, and audio deterrents are often employed in cities to control public spaces. In London, the spiked corridor of a shop entrance designed to keep homeless people from sleeping there (Andreou; Borromeo) mirrors the spiked ledges that keep pigeons from resting on buildings (observed 2012/2014). On the Gold Coast youths are deterred from loitering in public spaces with classical music (observed 2013–17), while in Brisbane predatory bird calls are played near outdoor restaurants to discourage ibis from pestering customers (Hinchliffe and Begley). In contrast, bright lights, calming music and inviting scents are used to welcome orderly consumers into shopping centres while certain kinds of plants are cultivated in urban parks and gardens to attract acceptable wildlife like butterflies and lorikeets (Wilson; Low). These ways of managing public spaces are built on utopian conceptions of the city as a “civilising” force—a place of order, consumption and safety.

As environmental concerns become more urgent, it is important to re-examine these conceptions of urban environments and the assemblage of environmental imaginaries that interact and continue to shape understandings of and attitudes towards human and non-human nature. The network of goods, people and natural entities that feed into and support the city mean that imaginaries shaped in urban areas influence both urban and surrounding peoples and ecologies (Braun). Local ecologies also become threatened as urban structures and processes continue to encompass more of the world’s populations and locales, often displacing and damaging entangled natural/cultural entities in the process. Furthermore, conceptions and attitudes shaped in the city often feed into global systems and as such can have far reaching implications for the way local ecologies are governed, built, and managed.   

There has already been much research, including work by Lawrence Buell and Ursula Heise, on the contribution that art and literature can make to the development of environmental imaginaries, whether intentional or unintentional, and resulting in both positive and negative associations with urban inhabitants (Yusoff and Gabrys; Buell; Heise). Imaginaries might be understood as social constructs through which we make sense of the world and through which we determine cultural and personal values, attitudes and beliefs. According to Neimanis et al., environmental imaginaries help us to make sense of the way physical environments shape “one’s sense of social belonging” as well as how we “formulate—and enact—our values and attitudes towards ‘nature’” (5). These environmental imaginaries underlie urban structures and work to determine which aspects of the city are valued, who is welcomed into the city, and who is excluded from participation in urban systems and processes. The development of new narrative imaginaries can question some of the underlying assumptions about who or what belongs in the city and how we might settle conflicts in ecologically diverse communities. The reimagined flâneur then might be employed to transgress traditional notions of belonging in the city and replace this with a sense of “becoming” in relation with the myriad of others inhabiting the city (Haraway The Trouble). 

Like the Benjaminian flâneur, the postmodern version enacts a similar transgressive walking practice. However, the postmodern flâneur serves to resist dominant narratives, with a “greater focus on the tactile and grounded qualities of walking” than the traditional flâneur—and, as opposed to the lone detached wanderer, postmodern flâneur engage in a network of social relationships and may even wander in groups (Coates 32). By employing the notion of the postmodern flâneur, writers might find ways to address problematic urban imaginaries and question dominant narratives about who should and should not inhabit the city. Building on this and in reference to Haraway (Cyborgs), the notion of a cyborg flâneur might take this resistance one step further, not only seeking to counter the dominant social narratives that control urban spaces but also resisting anthropocentric notions of the city. Where the traditional flâneur walked a pet tortoise on a leash, the cyborg flâneur walks with a companion species (Shields Fancy Footwork; Haraway Companion Species). The distinction is subtle. The traditional flâneur walks a pet, an object of display that showcases the eccentric status of the owner. The cyborg flâneur walks in mutual enjoyment with a companion (perhaps a domestic companion, perhaps not); their path negotiated together, tracked, and mapped via GPS. The two acts may at first appear the same, but the difference is in the relationship between the human, non-human, and the multi-modal spaces they occupy. As Coates argues, not everyone who walks is a flâneur and similarly, not everyone who engages in relational walking is a cyborg flâneur. Rather a cyborg flâneur enacts a deliberate practice of walking in relation with naturecultures to transgress boundaries between human and non-human, cultural and natural, and the virtual, material and imagined spaces that make up a place.

The Posthuman City: Cyborgs, Hybrids, and Entanglements

In developing new environmental imaginaries, posthuman conceptions of the city can be drawn upon to readdress urban space as complex, questioning utopian notions of the city particularly as they relate to the exclusion of certain others, and allowing for diverse socio-ecological communities. The posthuman city might be understood in opposition to anthropocentric notions where the non-human is seen as something separate to culture and in need of management and control within the human sphere of the city. Instead, the posthuman city is a complex entanglement of hybrid non-human, cultural and technological entities (Braun; Haraway Companion Species). The flâneur who experiences the city through a posthuman lens acknowledges the human as already embodied and embedded in the non-human world. Key to re-imagining the city is recognising the myriad ways in which non-human nature also acts upon us and influences decisions on how we live in cities (Schliephake 140). This constitutes a “becoming-with each other”, in Haraway’s terms, which recognises the interdependency of urban inhabitants (The Trouble 3). In re-considering the city as a negotiated process between nature and culture rather than a colonisation of nature by culture, the agency of non-humans to contribute to the construction of cities and indeed environmental imaginaries must be acknowledged. 

Living in the posthuman city requires us humans to engage with the city on multiple levels as we navigate the virtual, corporeal, and imagined spaces that make up the contemporary urban experience. The virtual city is made up of narratives projected through media productions such as tourism campaigns, informational plaques, site markers, and images on Google map locations, all of which privilege certain understandings of the city. Virtual narratives serve to define the city through a network of historical and spatially determined locales. Closely bound up with the virtual is the imagined city that draws on urban ideals, potential developments, mythical or alternative versions of particular cities as well as literary interpretations of cities. These narratives are overlaid on the places that we engage with in our everyday lived experiences. Embodied encounters with the city serve to reinforce or counteract certain virtual and imagined versions while imagined and virtual narratives enhance locales by placing current experience within a temporal narrative that extends into the past as well as the future. 

Walking the City: The Cyber/Cyborg Flâneur

The notion of the cyber flâneur emerged in the twenty-first century from the practices of idly surfing the Internet, which in many ways has become an extension of the cityscape. In the contemporary world where we exist in both physical and digital spaces, the cyber flâneur (and indeed its cousin the virtual flâneur) have been employed to make sense of new digital sites of connection, voyeurism, and consumption. Metaphors that evoke the city have often been used to describe the experience of the digital including “chat rooms”, “cyber space”, and “home pages” while new notions of digital tourism, the rise of online shopping, and meeting apps have become substitutes for engaging with the physical sites of cities such as shopping malls, pubs, and attractions. 

The flâneur and cyberflâneur have helped to make sense of the complexities and chaos of urban life so that it might become more palatable to the inhabitants, reducing anxieties about safety and disorder. However, as with the concept of the flâneur, implicit in the cyberflâneur is a reinforcement of traditional urban hierarchies and social structures. This categorising has also worked to solidify notions of who belongs and who does not. Therefore, as Debra Benita Shaw argues, the cyberflâneur is not able to represent the complexities of “how we inhabit and experience the hybrid spaces of contemporary cities” (3). Here, Shaw suggests that Haraway’s cyborg might be used to interrupt settled boundaries and to reimagine the urban walking figure. 

In both Shaw and Shields (Flanerie), the cyborg is invoked as a solution to the problematic figure of the flâneur. While Shaw presents these figures in opposition and proposes that the flâneur be laid to rest as the cyborg takes its place, I argue that the idea of the flâneur may still have some use, particularly when applied to new multi-modal narratives. As Shields demonstrates, the cyborg operates in the virtual space of simulation rather than at the material level (217). Instead of setting up an opposition between the cyborg and flâneur, these figures might be merged to bring the cyborg into being through the material practice of flânerie, while refiguring the flâneur as posthuman. The traditional flâneur sought to define space, but the cyborg flâneur might be seen to perform space in relation to an entangled natural/cultural community. By drawing on this notion of the cyborg, it becomes possible to circumvent some of the traditional associations with the urban walking figure and imagine a new kind of flâneur, one that walks the streets as an act to complicate rather than compartmentalise urban space. 

As we emerge into a post-truth world where facts and fictions blur, creative practitioners can find opportunities to forge new ways of knowing, and new ways of connecting with the city through the cyborg flâneur. The development of new literary imaginaries can reconstruct natural/cultural relationships and propose alternative ways of living in a posthuman and multispecies community. The rise of smart-phone apps like Story City provides cyborg flâneurs with the ability to create digital narratives overlaid on real places and has the potential to encourage real connections with urban environments. While these apps are by no means the only activity that a cyborg flâneur might participate in, they offer the writer a platform to engage audiences in a purposeful and transgressive practice of cyborg flânerie. Such narratives produced through cyborg flânerie would conflate virtual, corporeal, and imagined experiences of the city and allow for new environmental imaginaries to be created in situ. 

The “readers” of these narratives can also become cyborg flâneurs as the traditional urban wanderer is combined with the virtual and imagined space of the contemporary city. As opposed to wandering the virtual city online, readers are encouraged to physically walk the city and engage with the narrative in situ. For example, in one narrative, readers are directed to walk a trail along the Brisbane river or through the CBD to chase a sea monster (Wilkins and Diskett). The reader can choose different pre-set paths which influence the outcome of each story and embed the story in a physical location. In this way, the narrative is layered onto the real streets and spaces of the cityscape. As the reader is directed to walk particular routes through the city, the narratives which unfold are also partly constructed by the natural/cultural entities which make up those locales establishing a narrative practice which engages with the urban on a posthuman level. The murky water of the Brisbane River could easily conceal monsters. Occasional sightings of crocodiles (Hall), fish that leap from the water, and shadows cast by rippling waves as the City Cat moves across the surface impact the experience of the story (observed 2016–2017). Potential exists to capitalise on this narrative form and develop new environmental imaginaries that pay attention to the city as a posthuman place. For example, a narrative might direct the reader’s attention to the networks of water that hydrate people and animals, allow transportation, and remove wastes from the city. People may also be directed to explore their senses within place, be encouraged to participate in sensory gardens, or respond to features of the city in new ways. 

The cyborg flâneur might be employed in much the same way as the flâneur, to help the “reader” make sense of the posthuman city, where boundaries are shifted, and increasing rates of social and ecological change are transforming contemporary urban sites and structures. Shields asks whether the cyborg might also act as “a stabilising figure amidst the collapse of dualisms, polluted categories, transgressive hybrids, and unstable fluidity” (Flanerie 211). As opposed to the traditional flâneur however, this “stabilising” figure doesn’t sort urban inhabitants into discrete categories but maps the many relations between organisms and technologies, fictions and realities, and the human and non-human. The cyborg flâneur allows for other kinds of “reading” of the city to take place—including those by women, families, and non-Western inhabitants. As opposed to the nineteenth century reader-flâneur, those who read the city through the Story City app are also participants in the making of the story, co-constructing the narrative along with the author and locale. I would argue this participation is a key feature of the cyborg flâneur narrative along with the transience of the narratives which may alter and eventually expire as urban structures and environments change. Not all those who engage with these narratives will necessarily enact a posthuman understanding and not all writers of these narratives will do so as cyborg flâneurs. Nevertheless, platforms such as Story City provide writers with an opportunity to engage participants to question dominant narratives of the city and to reimagine themselves within a multispecies community. In addition, by bringing readers into contact with the human and non-human entities that make up the city, there is potential for real relationships to be established. 

Through new digital platforms such as apps, writers can develop new environmental imaginaries that question urban ideals including conceptions about who belongs in the city and who does not. The notion of the cyborg is a useful concept through which to reimagine the city as a negotiated process between nature and culture, and to reimagine the flâneur as performer who becomes part of the posthuman city as they walk the streets. This article provides one example of cyborg flânerie in smart-phone apps like Story City that allow writers to construct new urban imaginaries, bring the virtual and imagined city into the physical spaces of the urban environment, and can act to re-place the reader in diverse socio-ecological communities. The reader then becomes both product and constructer of urban space, a cyborg flâneur in the cyborg city. This conversation raises further questions about the cyborg flâneur, including: how might cyborg flânerie be enacted in other spaces (rural, virtual, more-than-human)? What other platforms and narrative forms might cyborg flâneurs use to share their posthuman narratives? How might cyborg flânerie operate in other cities, other cultures and when adopted by marginalised groups? In answering these questions, the potential and limitations of the cyborg flâneur might be refined. The hope is that one day the notion of a cyborg flâneur will no longer necessary as the posthuman city becomes a space of negotiation rather than exclusion. 


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Author Biography

Chantelle Bayes, Griffith University

Chantelle Bayes completed her PhD in writing and literature at Griffith University in 2016. Her work has been published in Axon, TEXT and Meniscus. Her areas of interest include nature writing, contemporary fiction, ecocriticism and the legacy of Romanticism.