The Possibility of Stillness
Flânerie: Disrupting Debt as a Lifestyle

Flânerie © Illustration: Liz Mevill

Going for a stroll. Becoming intoxicated. Walking to the pace of life. Flânerie is an anarchic realm within capitalism.

Sandra Sánchez

I think about my body, my name, my language. Whose body is this? Whose words are these? The illusion that someone belongs to themself simply because they are alive vanishes when we look at the ways the self establishes its singularity in the first place. The self requires a family, a university, the state, a career, a lover, financial support, and the formation of a self-image in order to exist and be recognized.

A person defines themself based on their relationships and their communities. For this reason, even when a person thinks about what characterizes them, they discover an assemblage inhabited by subjects, discourses, phantasmagorias, and desires all at once. In other words, the first-person singular is connected to everything. Perhaps the mistake is putting it in the first place. It sits at the top of the list as if it were the most important thing, dominating everything below it.

The self, the subject, and its name are part of a web of groupings and principles that define its experience, life history, and expressions. We can only see, feel, and say what our environment allows. When I think about my body, my emotions, and my language, I assign them to the capitalist realm, governed by debt. Debt is not only a sum of money that is owed but also — and above all else — a moral obligation that someone incurs.

Monetary debt is impersonal: “A debt, unlike any other form of obligation, can be precisely quantified. This allows debts to become cold and impersonal — which in turn, allows them to be transferable.” Debt as a moral obligation is bound to someone or something through a personal experience.

To whom is the self indebted? Perhaps first and foremost to itself. Apparently, breathing and existing are not enough to assert existence in the world. The principle of identity possesses us and plunges us into never-ending debt. It sustains itself through a metaphysical order of value established by the capitalist realm: productivity, accumulation of capital, beauty, well-being, work, harmony, happiness, culture, youth.

To whom is the self indebted? Perhaps first and foremost to itself. Apparently, breathing and existing are not enough to assert existence in the world.

In the midst of the whirlwind of obligations that we depend on to maintain our personal status quo, the self tries to maintain its composure, but weariness is ever-present and written all over its face. Despite this, we do not stop because we are in debt. We are Achilles trying to catch up with the tortoise, both financially and in terms of desire. We borrowed an image, a lifestyle, a longing for stability, attractiveness, fulfillment — and now, we must pay for it.

Interest rates are high. Debt never expires. The self’s needs — what it must have, do, and own — are multiplying faster than it can settle its debts. We are condemned to life in debt. Perhaps this is the cornerstone of the principle of identity. No matter how productive we are, it will never be enough because debt does not want to be paid. Instead, it wants to perpetuate itself, to maintain its gloomy natural state.

You were born in debt, and you will die in debt. It’s as if it defines us. It plays with us, using fear as its ally. If you cancel or dissolve it, you suddenly lose the possibility of being yourself, of maintaining the neurosis that defines you. Debt is the law. The danger is banishment, exile from the community, abject shame, death. So, we ask ourselves: What can be done in this environment? Are we condemned to this never-ending cycle?

Apparently, there is no way out. However, when we accept the impossibility of change, we catch a glimpse of a possible escape — not a complete reversal but something closer to it: interrupting the debt. Once the self sets aside the concepts of identity and individuality and directs its attention solely to its surroundings, it becomes aware of the entangled web of relationships surrounding it. The connected self is the portal that leads to disruption.

Disrupting debt means stagnation, paralyzing the ongoing process of affirmation. The self’s self-identification must be paused so that the anarchic forces and spaces in capitalism can come to light. Disruption is not an emancipatory impulse — we don’t need more heroes! Rather, it seeks to partially detach the self from its established goals through concrete, vague, and inconspicuous actions — experiences that are imperceptible through the gaze of capitalism but are of great importance to the individual. The self is intertwined with unproductivity, renouncing prestige and self-affirmation in favor of other things: surprise, movement, contact.

In the midst of the whirlwind of obligations that we depend on to maintain our personal status quo, the self tries to maintain its composure, but weariness is ever-present and written all over its face.

Attempting to craft a guideline for how to disrupt debt under capitalism would lead to the same trap that makes us map out, classify, and organize life. The self disrupts debt through its specific environment but also by means of certain dynamics that circulate within the body. There is no rule or precise moment for disruption, although there are popular strategies, which, of course, are always at risk of being reappropriated by capitalism.

One strategy for disrupting debt is taking a walk. Although stillness is often associated with immobility, it can also be found in flow, vibration, oscillation, and displacement. While walking, calmness subdues the self. The movement requires nothing in return, no compensation or thought. In doing so, the self does not have to perform any specific action. It walks for the sake of walking and nothing more, putting itself at the mercy of random encounters. It loses itself until it reaches a point where it forgets that it is lost. Walter Benjamin, Louis Aragon, Charles Baudelaire, and many others gave this disruption strategy a name: flâneurie.

The flâneur wanders the same city as the indebted self. The difference is that the flâneur does not see the world as merchandise as it wanders. The flâneur does not want to buy anything, much less for themself. Existence without transaction. Affirmation and denial are invalid. Value diminishes as the metaphysical parameters that sustain it dissolve. The flâneur momentarily dismisses the self without asking it to renounce anything. There is movement without demand.

In The Arcades Project, Benjamin distinguishes between two types of men in his “Dialectic of Street Life.” That is: “On the one hand, there is the man who feels respected by everything and everyone, the ultimate suspect; on the other hand is the completely untraceable, secure man.” The untraceable man is the flâneur who disrupts the suspect, the indebted, enabling a change of pace, a break from the stares and demands that ceaselessly lurk about. Needless to say, they both live in the same body.

For the flâneur, the street is not an image or a surface but a threshold that diverts the eye from the layers of the landscape and transforms into a second skin. The flâneur and the street wander in a childhood-like state of wonder, where strangeness does not give way. According to Benjamin: “Whoever wanders at length along the streets without any particular destination in mind is seized by a heady sense of inebriation. At every step his gait acquires increasing strength; the seductiveness of the shops, the bistros, or the smiling ladies wanes and fades as the magnetism of the next street corner becomes ever more irresistible.”

If the self is a state of mind, inebriation is its poison. For this reason, rather than talking about the flâneur as a noun, let us reflect on flânerie as an action. A practice that disrupts debt by introducing stagnation to the body, the possibility of stillness a confrontation between the self and capitalism’s demand for productivity.

Going for a stroll. Becoming intoxicated. Walking to the pace of life. Flânerie is an anarchic realm within capitalism. It is the removal of one from the many. It is where faces and identities give way to the gentle pounding of steps. Where space becomes a means of emotional expression. Where ocularcentrism dissolves against the nonsensical backdrop of classification. Where there is no need for recognition — by the self or others. Where there are no others, no connections, no correspondence, no sympoetic systems, no unions, no flows. Where no one wants to own things or be owned. Where we cannot even talk about love because possession does not exist. Where the flâneur’s silence disrupts life as a commodity.

The body moves, yet it is still. Stillness disrupts debt. The body, the subject, the self, the ego, and the name are no longer conjugated in the present or past. They are assemblages, constellations, amidst the flow of life itself. Here, there is neither history nor archive. If the past appears, it is only to enjoy itself a little.

Nothing is resolved: the peculiar indecision of the flâneur. “Just as waiting is the state of the immobile contemplative, it seems that doubt is that of the flâneur. In an elegy by Schiller, it is called ‘the hesitant wings of the butterfly.’ The same impulsiveness and doubt that characterize hashish intoxication is present here.” Where is the street during this experience? It is no longer simply the cement below our feet.

If flânerie is a way to disrupt the indebted self, then the street is no longer necessary. It can even be done while sitting down. For example, when reading a book for the sake of it rather than to fulfill an academic or cultural obligation. When laughing out loud with a friend — if friendship is anything, it is a debtless relationship. Flânerie can even be found in the movie theater. Sometimes watching a movie feels like being in that movie, and the distance between the object and the subject melts away. There are times when watching a movie is living a movie, when reason stops shaping life according to the order of capitalist debt.

If we see flânerie not as a character trait but as an activity that is essential to life, then we can consciously use it whenever we urgently need it. We shouldn’t be full-time flâneurs or passersby anymore. We should practice bringing the intoxication of calmness into the realm of productive life. Let’s wander to disrupt the debt. And let’s only return when we feel like it.
  • David Graeber, En deuda: una historia alternativa de la economía (In Debt: An Alternative History of Economics), Ariel, Madrid, 2012, e-book, cap. 1, pos. 81.
  • Walter Benjamin, “El flâneur” (The Flâneur) in El libro de los pasajes (The Arcades Project), Akal, Madrid, 2007, [M 1, 4], pp. 422, 425, 430.
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This article originally appeared in the book, Blickwinkel: marasmo, edited by the Goethe-Institut México published by Pitzilein Books.

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