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An analytical interpretation of some works I’ve been reading for a medical humanities class.

March 5, 2010

I am thinking of how the trope and figure of the flâneur takes on different metamorphic supervening forces when detection is performed in the sciences, particularly in the medical science. I will demonstrate a chain of entanglements embodied in the figure of the flâneur as he/she transforms into an intrepid detective appropriating the Peircean abductive method to supplement more conventional inductive and deductive processes, before moving on to the figure of the archaeologist of epistemic categories epitomized by Foucault. In the process, I hope to demonstrate the entanglements of epistemology and the social and how this entangled forms of knowledge are then drawn on in visual studies, such as the photographic form, which Benjamin says is able to reveal “the fraction of the second when a person takes a step” through its “devices of slow motion and enlargement” which he refers to as the “optical unconscious,” and which he parallels with the “instinctual unconscious through psychoanalysis” (Benjamin “Little History of Photography,” (511-2))

The “Flâneur” essay in Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project consists of pieces of archival fragments weaved into specimens of critical analysis that nudges the reader into the act of detection (especially with the introduction of Poe’s “The Man in the Crowd” short story early on. The fragments stemmed from Benjamin’s own investigative work into French literature’s (the ephemeral and literary) preoccupation with the space by which the Parisian wanderer, the flâneur, the man (usually male) of means and leisure, wanders through the marketplace of commerce where crowds are most likely to gather, either to commune or to explore and observe the behavior of other humans. As Benjamin’s historical excavation brings the reader to the 1820s and 1830s, when glass roofs supported by iron railings that provide the illusion of transparency, openness, space and order still exists even as the flâneur makes his disorganized, aimless zigzag through the paths shaped by the technology of space existing at that time. The flâneur is both visible and invisible, blending in sufficiently with the crowd so as not to stand out as an anomaly, but all the while visible to the other members of the crowd who are likewise conducting acts of flâneuring or who spend their time gazing and considering the individual figures (‘physionogmies’) of the crowd. The flâneur is considered as purposeless in his wanderings while equipped with an eye for observation, taking in even the minutest trivial detail that may have escaped someone more purposeful in his observations.

The flâneur is someone possessed of knowledge; dead facts activated into ‘living objects’ as he tries to sort through the sensory data obtained. This Benjamin refers to as the ‘colportage phenomena of space’ which is an illustrated narration/description and depiction of events imagined or taking place within a single space, or the illusion of a continuum of space that seems to melt into one.

It is important to emphasize, as Benjamin himself tries to emphasize in his description and analysis of the modernization process that builds into the city of today, that flâneuring is an act that can only take place within a populous space, a bustling space of activity and potentialities. In other words, the act of flâneuring may not have been possible before the industrial revolution that brings about massive immigration and convergence of the masses within a desired space. It is thus a modern phenomenon.

Relationality and the rise of the commune is also an important part of the spatial configuration that enables the flâneur to operate. The street and space through which the flâneur passes are rife with ‘exhibitory’ spectacles. In the mid-nineteenth century, the Crystal Palace was erected and became the site that exhibits the extraordinary, the novel and the anomalous that exist in the purview of human knowledge. The flâneur’s role seems also to involve the capturing and imbibing of the informal/unintentional performances that are taking place around him. The people, reluctantly or otherwise, are forced to turn each other into spectacles as they are squeezed into enclosed space for periods of time with no where else to look. However, inspite of the increasing pace of life of a capitalistic society, the flâneur remains detached from it all, going with the flow but remaining distant enough to extricate himself out of the flow when necessary. Hence, in the body of the flâneur, one has the makings of the amateur detective beloved of most fiction arising in the 19th century. This flâneur is a spy, an observer, a participant by choice in the web of activities taking place around him but choosing to stand outside that space and away from the activities.

It is interesting how Benjamin cobbles together disparate observations from different publications of that period to build a narrative that embodies the figure of the flâneur as one who flows through the history of science, technology and medicine. Anatomical and physiological analogies are derived from architectural structures and visions, the rise of empirical science is insinuated by the examples of statistical data, and the organization of the ontology of knowledge is represented by the flâneur’s cognitive relationship with the space in which he inhabits. The history of literature is defined by the relationship of renowned 19th century authors with the space he (mainly male again) inhabits (Dickens, Baudelaire, Balzac). These authors take the natural imaginary provided in the stories of Cooper (the exotic aspect of the tale being the exoticism of the location and of some of the characters) and transpose that back into the different narratives using analogous elements found in the cities of London and Paris. Benjamin, perhaps instigated and inspired by his readings of Poe, situates the being of the flâneur in that of the detective. He argues that “preformed in the figure of the flâneur is that of the detective. The flâneur required a social legitimation of its habitus. It suited him well to see his indolence presented as a plausible front, behind which, in reality, hides the riveted attention of the observer who will not let the unsuspecting malefactor out of his side (442).” Hence, the flâneur is not merely an idler or time-waster, but uses his non-goal centered actions to actively collect data that he could abductively access in the process of solving a puzzle or untangling a problem.

In the same way that Benjamin’s performance of the colportage is a front to his larger objective of narrating the history of modernism and the growths of particular knowledges that go with it, the flâneur is a front for a person partaking in a systematic ordering of information that could later be used to solve seemingly intractable problems, whether in crime or science. I see the performance of the flâneur as not unlike a form of medical history-taking, where every trivial and mundane event may have unimagined significance.

The flâneur sets the precedence, the setting for a world that is surrounded by and constitutive of details and faint traces that are incoherent and seemingly uncontiguous. However, Peirce has demonstrated to us, by way of the abductive process, that it is the things we most neglect to pay attention to, absorbed by our unconscious but ignored by our superegoistic conscious. As Peirce mentions in the article “Abduction and Induction,” that “pure abduction” never deal with hypothesis except at the level of interrogation; in other words, there is no assumption that there is an arbitrary baseline by which all inductive and deductive processes take place. In the same article, Peirce claims that the logical model in modern science is constituted by the lack of assumed support for any hypothesis, to limit oneself to formulating observations in a disinterested manner and that every advance made in science will disclose further complications that cannot be brushed over (156). It is this abductive mode of thinking from which I would like to venture into Foucault’s categorical archiving of knowledge in the chapter called “Signs and Cases” in his book Birth of the Clinic, but not before stating that Peirce’s pragmatism seems to pre-empt Foucauldian project in that scientific archaeology had done the work of attempting an objective testing of hypotheses on the premise of Ockham Razor, which states that less may be better rather than unlimited possibilities. Foucault himself was interested in the project of organizing knowledge by use of the gaze, into discernible signs and symptoms while understanding that such organization does not preclude simplification of an entangled medical phenomenon.

In segueing into and historicizing the scientific-epistemic archaeology of Foucault, we should enter first into the core of its premise, which is that of symptoms and signs, distinguishable as much by their “semantic value as by their morphology” (Foucault Birth of the Clinic, 90). Foucault contents that the medical tradition of the eighteenth century is based on the practice of detecting these symptoms and signs, symptom being the most essential form through which the etiology of a disease is described and the three levels of signs, which are prognostic sign (that which will happen), anamnestic sign (that which has happened) and prognostic sign (that which is now ongoing). The recognition of the invisible through the mediation of these signs did not add to existing knowledge (as there is no explanation). However, the eighteenth century is able to transcribe the “double-reality” as well as the “natural and dramatization of disease” from the invisible to the visible. These signs are recognized and made cognizant; they are the mediator through which we can ‘gaze’ at the more ‘immediate’ symptoms. According to Foucault,
…symptom plays more or less the role of the language of action: like it, it is caught up in the general movement of nature; and its force of manifestation is as primitive, as naturally given as the ‘instinct’ that bears this initial form of language… it is the disease in its manifest state, just as the language of action is the impression itself in the animation that prolongs it, maintains it, and turns it back into an external form, which is of the same nature as its internal truth. (92)

This clinical gaze extracts and isolates features and performs mode of comparisons in an attempt to create approximations of truth to the corpus of scientific knowledge. This gaze is therefore not unlike the disinterested gaze of the flâneur that are later fetishized when the necessity for historicizing and locating evidence arises. As Foucault argues,

Moreover, it was a gaze that was not bound by the narrow grid of structure
(form arrangement, number, size), but that could and should grasp colours,
variations, tiny anomalies, always receptive to the deviant. (89)

Can we then now supervened this unstructured gaze from Foucault to the photographic gaze that seeks to record and become the authority on ‘evidence.’? Tagg in “A Means of Surveillance: the Photograph as Evidence in Law” brings in the nexus of Marxist-Foucauldian notions of the politic and economic to talk about photography as the site in which the contestation of power takes place. Tagg links the clinical gaze in Foucault’s Birth of the Clinic with that of the camera’s gaze as it bears directly upon the body. For Tagg, this form of mastery over the body enacted by the camera is co-constituted by the political and the technological (70). Setting the theoretical framework early on from which he will be positioning his arguments, Tagg then goes on to illustrate his points by site-ing photography as part of the body of criminological work, by using the photographs procured to access sites of knowledge formerly barred because one can now easily make visual copies for further analysis without the need for presence or permission (however way obtained) of the subjects under scrutiny. Tag argues that what happens with the use of photography for the purpose of surveillance is this repetitive pattern of a “body isolated; the narrow space; the subjection to an unreturnable gaze; the scrutiny of gestures, faces and features; the clarity of illumination and sharpness of focus; the names and the number boards. These are the traces of power, repeated countless times, whenever the photographer prepared an exposure, in police cell, prison, consultation room, asylum, Home or school (85).” The photographs can now concretize a vague memory of the having-seen or of the momentary glance; the flâneur do not need to return to the site of the incident to re-ascertain after a fact in the way that Dupin had to in Poe’s “The Murders of Rue Morgue.” However, Tagg does not quite address how the photograph changes the abductive strategies of the detective, criminologist, police, or scientist as the former reconfigures the relationships of power and knowledge through the unavoidable insertion of particular values into that abductive framework.

    Works Cited

Benjamin, Walter. “The Flaneur.” The Arcades Project. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 1999.

____________. “Little History of Photography.” Trans by Jephcott, E. & K. Shorter. Selected Writings, Volume 2, 1927-1934. Cambridge, MA:Belknap Press, 1999. 507-530.

Foucault, Michel. Birth of the Clinic: Archaeology of Medical Perception. New York: Vintage Books, 1994.

Peirce, Charles Sanders. “Abduction and Induction.” Philosophical Writings of Peirce. New York: Dover Publications Inc, 1955.

Tagg, John. “A Means of Surveillance: the Photograph as Evidence in Law.” The Burden of Representation: Essays on Photographies and Histories. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1988.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. icilalune permalink
    March 6, 2010 5:42 am

    how does the flaneur work in the age of twitter?

  2. March 6, 2010 8:16 am

    Perhaps twitter opens a whole new world for the flaneur to explore, icilalune. And perhaps the twitter post amplifies the the poem, the essay or the photograph. Or so I tell myself… 😉

  3. AiLL permalink*
    March 8, 2010 3:51 pm

    When you tweet unprotected, you release a stream of bits into tweetdom, to be picked up by a wanderer of the social-network universe.

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