Translating Charles Baudelaire and Walter Benjamin’s notion of the flaneur into the language of the digital world, Kenneth Goldsmith argues that the flaneur “is hardwired into the ethos of the Internet” (65, Wasting Time on the Internet). We are, like the flaneur, constantly “browsing.” But as we do we become smaller and less noticeable. Goldsmith, drawing on Marcel Duchamp, calls this a state of becoming “infrathin.”
Goldsmith juxtaposes the flaneur to the zombie:
Much of the web itself has been colonized by zombies that automatically churn pages, entice us to click them, sometimes phishing for passwords, other times accumulating passwords, other times accumulating page views to generate ad revenue. At the same time, spiders – another kind of zombie –crawl the web and consume all they can, indiscriminately sucking up files. Casting the widest net possible, they trawl data, passwords, media that are warehoused in distant servers with the hopes of salvaging something of value, ultimately to be resold by yet more zombies….Truly, our online lives – intersections of flesh and machine –are daily feasts of extreme digital consumption. (61)
The difference between them is – as I would argue – that between the dynamic of expansion and the dynamic of contraction. While the zombie gorges itself on media, the flaneur loses weight and drifts:
Like a deriviste (the situationists also claimed the flanuer as a predecessor), he roamed the city alone, allowing himself to be pulled by the flows of crowds on the grand boulevards. With no goal in mind, he was a spectator of the urban landscape, viewing the goings on from the shadowy sidelines. Whereas the zombie was obsessed with consuming, the flanuer assiduously avoided it, feeling that to buy something would be too participatory….His was a stance of studied ambivalence. (64)
This stance, argues Goldmith, “exemplifies” a position that Roland Barthes called “the neutral” wherein “one places oneself in a state of uncertainty or indecision – living in a state between states – like sleepwalkers, ghosts, vampires, androids, and androgynous persons”(64). The flaneur has no interest in power, consumption, or expansion as does the zombie. “Neutrality was at the heart of the flaneur’s resistance; fiercely individualistic”(64).
How does the flanuer relate to the internet?
Goldsmith – in an ironic twist – argues that the “digital flanuer” is “hardwired into the ethos of the internet.” It allows us to “browse” as we “voyeuristically lurk from the sidelines”(64). Like the flanuer, we have all become small, invisible:
He (the digital flanuer) is a peripatetic digital wanderer, pulled by tugs and flows of his feeds, carelessly clicking from one spectacle to the next. Instagram is his Louvre, Youtube his Ziegeld. (66).
Goldsmith seems to efface the radical individualism of the digital flaneur, however, when he argues that he is “infrathin.” His reading reduces the digital flaneur to a series of small affects and a “state between states”:
He is the embodiment of Marcel Duchamp’s concept of the infrathin – a state between states. When asked to define infrathin, Duchamp claimed it couldn’t be defined, only described: “the warmth of a seat (which has just been left)” or “Velvet trousers/ their whistling sound (in walking) by/ brushing of the 2 legs is an/ infrathin separation signaled/ by sound.” The infrathin is the lingering warmth of a piece of paper just after it emerges from the laser printer or the chiming start-up sound the computer makes, signifying its transition from death to life. (66)
These small experiences – which are barely noticeable – that move from one state to another are, argues Goldsmith, built into our daily digital wanderings:
The whooshing sound my e-mail program makes when I hit Send or the click of the shutter my smartphone makes when I take picture are similarly displaced infrathin moments. These noises are signifiers of an event that in some ways happened and in some other ways didn’t happen. My mail was sent, silently and invisibly, and my photo was taken, but not in the way that I heard it. These series of contradictory events happening simultaneously – compatible and disjunctive, logical and absurd, present and absent, real and artificial – are evidence of ways in which the infrathin permeates our lives. (66)
When he becomes a “zombie” and clicks endlessly out of boredom to accumulate more information, this experience of the infrathin, suggests Goldsmith, leaves one feeling a “nostalgic sadness” for the loss of the “digital flaneur.” If these are the only two states left to us today, what does this suggest? Is the feeling of smallness, of the infrathin, the last sense of existing today…in the digital world? Aren’t these feelings of alteration the kinds of states that – as Walter Benjamin said so often – belong to the memory or experience of childhood?
As a reader of Goldsmith’s reflection, I can’t help but look at his reflections on online life (and his justifications) as both tragic and comic. To be sure, the digital flanuer is a comical kind of character. He is absent-minded, distracted. But he is also tragic because he can’t live in the world. He can only pass from state-to-state. The infrathin is a state of worldlessness. It belongs to a dynamic of contraction. There are – however – millions more zombies in the world. The tragic realization is that Goldmith may have lost his digital flanuer to the zombie. He may have lost his free flowing desire to drift and browse to the desire to gorge or else the indifference of doing nothing.
I find I do less wandering than I used to. The web is now riddled with zombies and their foul culture – clickbait, spam, ads – that I need to return to the few sites I know and trust. And even when I do, say, click to site from a Facebook link, I find myself closing the window and returning to Facebook to seek another for fear that I, too, might become contaminated. Years ago, I might’ve hung around, exploring that site…but today, the lure of social media draws me in over and over again, filling me with nostalgic sadness to witness my digital flanuer hovering on the edge of extinction. (66)
The implication is that although it is built in to the internet, the digital browser may have been replaced with a zombie. He isn’t so much a schlemiel because this comedy seems to be underwritten by a sad fate. Digital death and afterlife as a norm. After all, what are you doing online all the time? Are you experiencing the infrathin or are you just gorging yourself, clicking away, expanding? In the digital age, what will you write in your chronicle of smallness? Are you a zombie, a digital flaneur, or somewhere in between? Do you treasure the infrathin? Does smallness matter to you? Why? And what kind of existence or affirmation of existence happens in smallness? Is such attention to smallness our last hope, as Goldsmith suggests, or is this a tragic reflection?
Paul Celan – as I have noted in other places – argues that, for Kafka, “attention is the silent prayer of the soul.” It seems that for poets and writers the attention to smallness is the only hope left to humankind. Without it, as Goldsmith seems to suggest,the zombies will take over and expand. The dynamic of expansion will displace the dynamic of contraction. And today, in a digital world where everyone fears that they won’t be seen, the digital flaneur does seem to have left the room. People embrace visibility not smallness. Such are the tragic kinds of reflection I emerged with after I read Goldsmith’s book. And this is my chronicle of smallness.
Crossposted with Schlemiel Theory.