Prof. Dr Peter Philipp Riedl is head of Project R2: “Urban Otium in the Late Eighteenth and Early Nineteenth Century: Flânerie in German Literature”.
“MußeOrte – weltweit” (Places of Otium – Worldwide): So Mr Riedl, in your project, you’re looking at the lifestyles and behavioural patterns connected to urban otium. What considerations and sources have you based your research on?
Peter Philipp Riedl: We’re looking at urban, otiose ways of life in literature from the period around 1800. The sources we’re using include reports from newspaper correspondents and travelogues from German writers about the European metropolises of London and Paris. I’m supervising a dissertation on this topic. I myself am looking into forms of urban otium in Goethe’s works. Our research focuses not only on those observed, but also on the observers themselves, and our aim is to find out how the manifestations of otium are recognizable in their forms and modes of perception.
“MußeOrte – weltweit”: Can you comment on the relationship between the observers and those they observe in the context of urban otium? What kinds of linguistic or narrative strategies are used to express this relationship in the texts?
Peter Philipp Riedl: First and foremost, there is one characteristic common to many accounts of travel: in the process of observing others, one also observes oneself. The relationship between self-perception and the perception of others is therefore highly complex in this context. In the texts we examined, we also noticed that the observers describe the urban forms of otium through a dual foreign lens. For one, these writers are in a foreign country, plus they’re also experiencing a metropolis that was unparalleled in Germany around the year 1800. No city in Germany at the time was comparable in size to London or Paris.
Regarding the ways they perceived their environments and how they translated this into narrative form, it is clear that our sources do describe forms of flânerie. This has been a central finding of our work during this project – setting it apart from previous research, which is based on the premise that flânerie only emerged as a phenomenon towards the middle of the 19th century, primarily linked to the Parisian boulevards and covered passages. Baudelaire is the artistic figure par excellence of such research, embodying and epitomizing the artiste-flâneur. The extant research on the period around 1800, in which we are interested, speaks at best of a flânerie avant la lettre. We, on the other hand, put forward the thesis that flânerie could already be found in the literature written around the turn of the 19th century.
“MußeOrte – weltweit”: Could you briefly illustrate the connection between flânerie and forms of urban otium?
Peter Philipp Riedl: Firstly, flânerie is the most typical, and maybe even the most paradigmatic form of urban otium. Urban otium and flânerie are in fact often used as synonyms. However, I wouldn’t bind them that closely together; flânerie is definitely a prominent form of urban otium, but it’s not the only form. Forms of otium based around contemplation also exist in a big city, for instance in havens like gardens, parks, museums, art galleries, and the like. We should not superficially equate this with flânerie only because it is also an urban phenomenon. Our goal here is in fact to establish a differentiated set of conceptual tools in order to capture the diversity of forms of urban otium.
“MußeOrte – weltweit”: Urban otium is often associated with crowds of people. Can you tell us whether, in such urban places of otium, something like collective otium exists, or if there is at least a collective dimension to otium?
Peter Philipp Riedl: In the texts that we’re analysing, we’ve found representations of social forms of otium such as group walks through cities, conversations, meeting up in public places, etc. Not to mention festival culture, which is also relevant to our topic. In this context, I favour the word ‘gesellig’, meaning ‘social’ or ‘convivial’. “Collective otium” suggests an experience shared by all participants. But even though otiose experiences can occur in social contexts, they are nevertheless always bound to the individual.
Relating to crowds, there’s also another phenomenon we frequently encountered in our texts: the narrative of an individual who immerses themselves in a crowd but is not overcome by feelings of loneliness or anonymity (which can also lead to melancholy), and who instead, amongst the masses, finds themselves. The 18th-century philosopher Christian Garve puts it nicely. He describes how, while strolling across the bustling Piazza San Marco in Venice, the distracting crowd is precisely what leads him to concentration. It is a phenomenon that we’re trying to conceptually conceive of via transgressive experiences of otium.
“MußeOrte – weltweit”: I want to conclude by situating your topic in the present day. What do you imagine today’s correspondents based in Paris, London and Rome would write regarding urban flânerie?
Peter Philipp Riedl: They would probably evaluate some of the same hotspots that already existed in 1800. From what I’ve observed, flânerie is trendy again – and I suspect this is due to the widespread conviction that we live in an increasingly fast-paced world. Flânerie provides a counterbalance to compensate for this, and is therefore especially valued. But it’s also clear that the term is somewhat worn out. Not every pedestrian in a city needs to be immediately classified as a flâneur. At the same time, we can critically analyse the images of flânerie, such as those evoked by Walter Benjamin apropos of Baudelaire’s Paris. In any case, one aim of our project is to systematically and historically isolate and define the concept of flânerie.
If we compare today’s big cities to those from around 1800, new spaces for flânerie have come into existence while earlier ones have disappeared. This is a result of urban planning and structural changes, but is certainly also due to different ways of life. The flâneur is an artistic figure, primarily a literary figure, albeit bound to a particular social class (the bourgeoisie or nobility). Today it’s more about mass tourism, which presents cities with a completely different set of challenges and also brings with it entirely changed perceptual patterns. The relationship between mass tourism and otium is being examined in the SFB’s human geography project, P1: “Experiencing Places and Moments of Otium in Contemporary European City Tourism”. The research results of that project may also help shed more light on which forms of flânerie can be encountered in large metropolises today.
“MußeOrte – weltweit”: Mr Riedl, thank you very much for your interesting insight!