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Eye-swiping London: Iain Sinclair, photography and the flâneur

Kirsten Seale

Taking shape like the spectral imprint of a developing photographic image, an apparition emerges from the streets of London to haunt Iain Sinclair’s walks. It is the spectre of the flâneur. This spectral figure in Lights Out for the Territory and London Orbital, Sinclair’s non-fictional accounts of London, signifies a spatio-temporal disruption.[1] In Sinclair’s texts the flâneur, tracing Jacques Derrida’s thought, is a paradox, a presence that is comprehensible only by acknowledging an absence.[2] This spatio-temporal illogic admits the possibility of a line of flight for the flâneur from his historical and cultural origins in 19th century Paris.[3] He metamorphoses, palimpsest-like, into contemporary incarnations — ragpicker, stalker, photographer — by adding and/or erasing layers, while retaining the ghostly residue of the original archetype.[4] Adaptation implies a teleology but the contemporary embodiment of the flâneur rejects a telos of evolution or enlightenment, in particular one produced through developments in technology. He reminds us of Walter Benjamin’s angel who finds himself driven by the storm of progress ‘irresistibly into the future, to which his back is turned.'[5] The flâneur’s movement creates anachrony: he travels urban space, the space of modernity, but is forever looking to the past. He reverts to his memory of the city and rejects the self-enunciative authority of any technically reproduced image. The photographer’s engagement with visual technology is similarly ambivalent. The photographer reiterates the trajectory of technological advance through his or her acculturation to new technologies, yet the authority of this trajectory is challenged by photography’s product: the photograph, a material memory which is only understood by looking away from the future, by reading retrospectively.

To examine the confluence of flânerie and photography in the production of Sinclair’s texts we must first consider the writing of Charles Baudelaire, and the reflection and refraction of Baudelaire’s thought in the work of Walter Benjamin. The Arcades Project is Benjamin’s threnody, a textual mourning for the flâneur. For Benjamin, his disappearance functions as elegiac emblem, a spectral metonym signifying the ravages of capitalism upon metropolitan life. Certainly, as avatar, the flâneur could not survive the transformations wrought upon the urban environment, changes which were increasingly antagonistic to his spatial practice. The threats to his existence were catalogued in a 1936 newspaper article, pessimistically entitled ‘Le dernier flâneur’ [‘The last flâneur’]:

A man who goes for a walk ought not to have to concern himself with any hazards he may run into, or with the regulations of a city. … But he cannot do this today without taking a hundred precautions, without asking the advice of the police department, without mixing with a dazed and breathless herd, for whom the way is marked out in advance by bits of shining metal. If he tries to collect the whimsical thoughts that may have come to mind, very possibly occasioned by sights on the street, he is deafened by car horns, [and] stupefied by loud talkers ….[6]

In the city that Benjamin inhabits the flâneur is an endangered species, marginalised by the social and technological conditions of modernity: the hegemony of non-ambulatory transport; the domination of social space by an overweening consumer culture; the bureaucratisation of the everyday; the standardisation of time. Susan Buck-Morss remarks that flâneurs, ‘like tigers, or pre-industrial tribes, are cordoned off on reservations, preserved within the artificially created environments of pedestrian streets, parks, and underground passages.'[7] To stray from these enclosures is to invite suspicion as Sinclair frequently discovers during his peregrinations about London. The surveillance and controls to which he is subject as he attempts to walk urban space recall the concerns foreshadowed by Benjamin. The following anecdote from London Orbital is unexceptional: ‘Pausing to admire the potential photo-op, we are interrogated by a security patrol. … You are allowed to walk a half mile between security shakedowns. … CCTV cameras, panning restlessly, alert the monitor jockeys. Calls come in from nervous watchers. ‘Walkers.’ Walkers without dogs.'[8]

Benjamin’s Arcades Project is a compendium of texts which simultaneously constitutes and contains the clue to how the flâneur may have adapted to the conditions of modernity and thereby avoided complete extinction. Ostensibly, The Arcades Project is an unconventional blueprint, a chart of the flâneur’s demise, but the task of negotiating the map is hardly a simple exercise in orienteering because, as Buck-Morss is careful to note, The Arcades Project ‘does not exist — not even a first page, let alone a draft of the whole.'[9] Its unreliable structure is a kaleidoscope of pieces gleaned from literature and mass media which textually evokes the urban phantasmagoria of Paris. Wandering the fragmented, nebulous textual passages of The Arcades Project becomes a task analogous to the flâneur’s aleatory negotiation of the city’s ceaselessly shifting shape. Benjamin’s activity appears to contradict the obsolescence of the flâneur in that it is itself indicative of the practice of flânerie, which is, as Baudelaire articulates, the collection and contemplation of ephemera from the everyday to be rearticulated as art or literature. Benjamin himself embodies what he describes as the ‘dialectic of flânerie: On one side, the man who feels himself viewed by all and sundry as a true suspect and, on the other side, the man who is utterly undiscoverable, the hidden man.'[10] Benjamin does not declare his allegiance, but the flâneur’s ghost hovers over him as he metaphorises his textual practice as ragpicking, unearthing in his own now famous words ‘the rags, the refuse’ from the Bibliothèque Nationale.[11] Given that the origins of The Arcades Project are in textual detritus there is a clear self-reflexive impulse at play when Benjamin writes that the ‘poets find the refuse of society on their street and derive their heroic subject from this very refuse. This means that a common type is, as it were, superimposed upon their illustrious type. … Ragpicker or poet — the refuse concerns both.'[12] Benjamin’s double identity establishes a syllogistic relation between Baudelaire’s flâneur and the ragpicker.

The labour of the ragpicker is recurring motif in Sinclair’s writing and offers a useful metaphor for his textual methodology. Sinclair dwells on the margins of a post-industrial landscape, scavenging amongst the texts and oral histories that have been neglected or omitted or neglected. Literary ragpicking resurrects discarded texts, moulding them into new texts. Like the mudlarks he observes sifting sewage in London Orbital, Sinclair is driven by an alchemical urge to transform textual dross into his own peculiar alloy of narrative gold. His gold is the unauthorised biography of London, the unflattering flipside of officially sanctioned histories, like those of Peter Ackroyd. Sinclair’s approach is that ‘the past is fluid, a black swamp; dip for whatever you need.'[13] Sinclair has devoted his career to documenting and describing the socio-cultural practices that have been relegated to the status of refuse by hegemonic accounts of London’s history: the activities of the proletariat and gangster low-life, small press poets, graffiti scribes, and performance artists. The legion of references that he cannot stop himself from piling onto the page are retrieved from diverse and often obscure locations at the fringes of culture. Lights Out and London Orbital are unlicensed guidebooks; digressive, diversionary accounts of London which undermine the logic of conventional cartography. Sinclair is irreverent. At Westminster, ‘the dead bone-coral of the Houses of Parliament’ is ‘like the label on a brown sauce bottle.'[14] St Paul’s Cathedral is a ‘hunchbacked dowager, too grandiose and self-satisfied, dominating the heights of Ludgate Hill like a baroque power point.'[15] He takes delight in illuminating the disturbing back-story of iconic and ostensibly benign landmarks. The Tate Gallery, built on the site of the Millbank Penitentiary, maintains a metonymical link to its past use through the presence of museum guards who are ’employed to watch the untrustworthy public, not the art.'[16]

Sinclair writes of contemporary flânerie, ‘the concept of ‘strolling’, aimless urban wandering, the flâneur, had been superseded. We had moved into the age of the stalker; journeys made with intent — sharp-eyed and unsponsored. The stalker was our role model: purposed hiking, not dawdling, nor browsing.'[17] In fact, Sinclair’s stalker is closer to Baudelaire’s characterisation of the flâneur than the idler of popular imagination depicted in Louis Huart’s Physiologie du flâneur.[18] In the guise of artist Constantin Guys, Baudelaire describes a character fuelled, compelled by artistic inspiration to wander the streets seeking, stalking material for artistic or literary re-articulation. As well as sketching or jotting down reflections in his notebook-or taking photographs-Sinclair’s stalker is getting dirt under his fingernails, excavating alternative narratives of London’s history, burrowing deep beneath the layers of textual information built up by hegemonic culture. We can detect the ‘dialectic of flânerie’ in Sinclair’s work because, with Benjamin, he mourns the loss of the flâneur from the urban spectacle, thereby denying a contemporary presence, yet his textual stalking (and Benjamin’s ragpicking) confirm Buck-Morss’ comment that the flâneur ‘becomes extinct only by exploding into a myriad of forms, the phenomenological characteristics of which, no matter how new they may appear, continue to bear his traces, as ur-form. This is the truth of the flâneur, more visible in his afterlife than in his flourishing.'[19]

Susan Sontag detects an overlap between the spatial practice of the flâneur and the spatial practice of the photographer in her insightful critique On Photography. She writes, ‘photography first comes into its own as an extension of the eye of the middle-class flâneur, whose sensibility was so accurately charted by Baudelaire. The photographer is an armed version of the solitary walker reconnoitring, stalking, cruising the urban inferno, the voyeuristic stroller who discovers the city as a landscape of voluptuous extremes.'[20] Sontag has in mind a tradition of photographers like Eugène Atget, Brassaï, Bill Brandt, who gravitated towards the city’s ‘dark seamy corners, its neglected populations — an unofficial reality behind the façade of bourgeois life’.[21] Sinclair’s chthonian imagination shares these photographers’ vision of the city. His natural habitat is the half-lit haunts of the criminal underworld, of political extremists, of artistic counter-cultures; a contemporary la bohème populated by a league of literary and artistic conspirators whose minoritarian passions are too arcane for the majority.

In London Orbital, Sinclair introduces the notion of ‘eye-swiping’ — scanning the urban landscape for creative material.[22] The term eye-swiping evokes the avidity of the flâneur’s eye (or perhaps the compulsive appetite of the stalker), sweeping up material for literary or artistic reinscription. At the same time, swiping suggests the act of appropriation, which is an integral part of contemporary textual production. The drive to saturate the text with the ceaseless proliferation of information, the plenitude of signifiers that London proffers, is apparent in this relentlessly detailed inventory of the landscape from London Orbital:

The distance to the roundabout was calculable by reading debris left at the side of the road. Single cans of Foster’s (‘Official Beer of Sydney Olympics’), Stella Artois, Carlsberg Special Brew and Tango. Two packets of Walkers Crisps (Cheese & Onion), one of Salt & Vinegar. Five McDonald’s / Coca-Cola cans. One Lambert and Butler (King Size) cigarette packet. Two Marlboro. One Silk Cut. A Cocoanut Bar. Smilers. Four cans of Red Bull (‘a carbonated taurine drink with caffeine’). Three burger cartons; one milk carton (2pc fat). Diet Cola. Dr Pepper. Orange peel. Knotted condoms. One stainless steel watch (LB417, Japan). One burnt-out car: POLICE AWARE. One motorcycle engine. These are the contour rings of civilisation as they spread out of from the Old Orleans (‘A Taste of the Deep South’) Roadhouse.[23]

The precise recall of place is enabled by Sinclair’s methodology which he states is ‘walks, photographs — then at some later date, a book.'[24] He often refers to the instamatic camera he carries to eye-swipe the detail, to log the sights which will later be translated into words.

Photography presents itself as the ideal technology for eye-swiping. The insatiability of the camera’s eye is commensurate with the insatiability of the flâneur’s eye. Indeed, Baudelaire speaks of the flâneur as if he were a type of camera in ‘The Painter of Modern Life’: ‘He is the I with an insatiable appetite for the non-I, at every instant rendering and explaining it in pictures more living than life itself, which is always unstable and fugitive.'[25] Sinclair openly admires photography’s capacity to instantaneously capture the rapid flow of visual and linguistic signifiers that characterise the urban experience within a miniscule slice of time and a relatively finite space. In Lights Out, he jealously remarks of photographer and long-time collaborator Marc Atkins, ‘he pulled it off: the glistening wet road, haloes of diminishing electric light on their poles, desolation. Printed on thick Japanese paper …, the shot is timeless. It has everything I would like to invoke, and it grasps it in an instant.'[26] Camera in hand, Sinclair need not slow from the pace of the walker to take notes.

The avidity of the photographic eye can also be detected in the infinite range of subjects at which the camera can be aimed. Sontag again: ‘From its start, photography implied the capture of the largest possible number of subjects. … The subsequent industrialization of camera technology only carried out a promise inherent in photography from its very beginning: to democratize all experiences by translating them into images.'[27] Photography, its promiscuous eye roaming incontinently across the terrain of modernity, has successfully challenged and reconfigured cultural expectations regarding the legitimacy of the everyday as material for artistic representation.[28] This vast span of interest parallels that of the flâneur who does not cultivate a fetishistic interest in certain aspects of urban culture. Observes Sinclair, ‘the born again flâneur is a stubborn creature, less interested in texture and fabric, eavesdropping on philosophical conversation pieces than noticing everything.'[29] No scene from city life is included, or excluded, due to being more or less valuable. All is worthy, or unworthy, of his attention. His tastes are egalitarian in that he does not privilege certain practices or cultural products. There is no discrimination between the aesthetics of high art, or advertising. If we return to Baudelaire’s oft-quoted proclamation on modernity, that it is ‘the ephemeral, the fugitive, the contingent,'[30] then photography further presents itself as the logical medium in which to express the defining characteristics of the city, the exemplary space of modernity. Easily reproduced and hence materially disposable, photographs are at once visual and physical dramatisations of the transience of everyday life, of modernity.

Ultimately, there is a neatness to this photographer/flâneur equation which is somewhat misleading because Sinclair does not identify himself as a photographer: he is a writer. Yet Sinclair’s process of transcription, from photograph to written word, retains a fidelity to Baudelaire’s legacy. As Johanna Drucker explains, the flâneur

was a kind of camera eye, but Baudelaire’s model of representation stressed mediation and subjectivity not mechanistic objectivity. … Thus, for Baudelaire the image which was accurate was not the mechanistic and replete document of usual information. Instead, he emphasized the reduced schematic indexical sign whose repleteness lay in the domain of shared knowledge; itself transient, ephemeral, changing.[31]

The depiction of what the flâneur sees on the streets should not be a facsimile. It should be mediated by memory. Sinclair states in London Orbital that he chooses to write up his notes ‘after the event,’ aided by the performative memory of the photograph.[32] However, he attempts to undo the logic of the photograph’s mechanistic objectivity via a process of transcription which translates the ostensible, immediate readability of the photographic into the paradoxically, and perversely, less readable: written language. Writing as a tool of communication labours to reproduce meaning. The evasive nature of written language, its inherent ellipses in signification, its struggle to bridge the lacunae in meaning have been remarked upon elsewhere by Fredric Jameson:

Objects are, however, … still very much a function of language, whose local failure to describe or even to designate them takes us in a different direction and foregrounds the unexpected breakdown of a function of language we normally take for granted — some privileged relationship between words and things which gives way to a yawning chasm between the generality of the words and the sensory particularity of the objects ….
[L]language is being forced to do something we assumed to be virtually its primary function, but which it now — pressed to some absolute limit — proves to be incapable of doing.[33]

Our efforts to simulate the sensory and temporal particularity of an object via the written word necessitate an accumulation of language which, in its recourse to Derrida’s otherworldly supplement, has the consequence of increasing our distance from the original object. The more written information we provide in order to approximate the precise quality of that which we wish to recreate through language, the further away we travel in linguistic space. The image becomes less material. Derrida’s supplement is the ghostly residue of the image which ‘intervenes or insinuates itself in-the-place-of; if it fills, it is as if one fills a void. If it represents and makes an image, it is by the anterior default of a presence.'[34] Julian Wolfreys, in his essay ‘The Hauntological Example: The City as the Haunt of Writing in the Texts of Iain Sinclair,’ uses Derrida to locate the anachrony present in Sinclair’s writing. Sinclair’s texts are imagined as the textual space of the palimpsest, his words material traces of the spectral images from which they originated.[35] Wolfreys may believe that photography ultimately supersedes writing in capturing the spectral because the ‘camera cursed with memory … makes the spectral possible in a way that writing can perhaps only imagine,'[36] but Lights Out and London Orbital, like the photograph, are spectral texts, documentaries of the ephemeral. The London within the pages of these books exists solely as the scriptural trace of memory.

Sinclair’s walks are a signal that the flâneur may have survived Benjamin’s obituary notice, evolving to conditions in the contemporary city, and adapting to developments in visual technology. Sinclair, the spectre of the flâneur shadowing him, has assimilated into his practice new methods of collecting and collating information from the everyday. The modern subject is acculturated to the presence and the use of photographic equipment. The camera is no longer exotic; it belongs to the sphere of the familiar. In Baudelaire’s time the practice of photography was the antithesis of the flâneur’s practice because as Sinclair has noted, in ‘the nineteenth century … it was a very different game. The camera was part of the spectacle: visibly wedged on its prongs, hydrocephalic, fixing time.'[37] Our understanding of photography has shifted too. The facticity of the photograph no longer goes unchallenged. Photography is now understood to be something that emulates or rivals the real as distinct from an authentic reproduction.[38] It is the unreliability of the photographic image that fascinates Sinclair. This is the basis of his ongoing collaboration with Marc Atkins, whose photography he describes thus, ‘scraps of language are tautologous: there is already a powerful narrative element in the image. Each frame provokes the next, implies movement. Nothing is replete. The form is hungry. It encourages, depends upon, a restless urgency.'[39] Atkins’ ‘hungry’ eye matches Sinclair’s eye-swiping. Sinclair does not read the photograph as a machine-like reproducer of real images. Instead, it is the type of filter that Baudelaire stressed was essential to the flâneur’s depiction of urban life. Sinclair incorporates photography into his craft but counters its logic by undoing it, turning it into the ‘unreadable’ written word. Sinclair’s praxis finally reveals itself to be an injunction against a telos of technologically enabled enlightenment which recalls the ghost of the flâneur, resurrects the image of Benjamin’s angel and conjures the spectre of Benjamin.


[1] Iain Sinclair, Lights out for the Territory (London: Granta, 1997); Iain Sinclair, London Orbital (London: Granta, 2002). In this paper, I understand the figure of the flâneur to be gendered male, as the French noun denotes. Restrictions upon women’s movements in the public sphere made flânerie virtually impossible for them, which means that the spatial practice of the flâneur as described by Baudelaire and Benjamin is exclusively male. The gender of Sinclair’s figure is not explicitly male, but as he is borrowing from the Baudelairean/Benjaminian tradition, the flâneur remains male by default. For more on the (im)possibility of the flâneuse see Janet Wolff, ‘The Invisible Flâneuse: Women and the Literature of Modernity,’ Theory, Culture and Society 2.3 (1985).

[2] Jacques Derrida, Specters of Marx: The State of the Debt, the Work of the Mourning and the New International, trans. Peggy Kamuf (New York and London: Routledge, 1994) 6.

[3] I have borrowed the term ‘line of flight’ from Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, ‘Introduction: Rhizome’, in A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, trans. Brian Massumi (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987).

[4] Chris Jenks characterizes the contemporary flâneur as a ‘multilayered palimpsest’ in ‘Watching Your Step: The History and Practice of the Flaneur,’ Visual Culture, ed. Chris Jenks (London: Routledge, 1995) 148.

[5] Walter Benjamin, ‘On the Concept of History’ in Selected Writings: Volume 4, 1938-1940, trans. Edmund Jephcott (Cambridge, Mass. & London: Belknap Harvard, 2003) 392.

[6] Edmond Jaloux quoted in Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project, trans. Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin (Cambridge, Mass. & London: Belknap Harvard, 2002) 435.

[7] Susan Buck-Morss, The Dialectics of Seeing: Walter Benjamin and the Arcades Project (Cambridge, Mass. & London: MIT Press, 1991) 344.

[8] Sinclair, London Orbital 284.

[9] Buck-Morss, 6.

[10] Benjamin, The Arcades Project 420.

[11] Ibid. 460.

[12] Walter Benjamin, Charles Baudelaire: A Lyric Poet in the Era of High Capitalism, trans. Harry Zohn (London & New York: Verso, 1997) 79.

[12] Sinclair, Lights out for the Territory 24.

[14] Ibid. 205.

[15] Ibid. 126.

[16] Ibid. 201.

[17] Ibid. 75.

[18] Louis Huart, Physiologie du flâneur (Paris: Aubert, 1841)

[19] Buck-Morss, 346. Buck-Morss’ references to ‘ur-form’ and ‘after-life’ connect her understanding of the flâneur to the palimpsest and ideas of the spectral.

[20] Susan Sontag, On Photography (London: Penguin, 2002) 55.

[21] Ibid. 55-6.

[22] Sinclair, London Orbital 91.

[23] Ibid. 417.

[24] Sinclair, London Orbital 208.

[25] Charles Baudelaire, ‘The Painter of Modern Life,’ in The Painter of Modern Life and Other Essays, ed. Jonathon Mayne (London: Phaidon, 1995), 9-10.

[26] Sinclair, Lights out for the Territory 277.

[27] Sontag, 7.

[28] It is important to distinguish the flâneur from any official apparatus of visual surveillance, or what Foucault identifies as ‘Panopticism’. The flâneur’s knowledge does not serve any regulatory function and is, according to the logic of the panoptic schema, gratuitous.

[29] Sinclair, Lights Out for the Territory 4.

[30] Baudelaire, 12.

[31] Johanna Drucker, Theorizing Modernism: Visual Art and the Critical Tradition (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994) 13.

[32] Ibid. 206.

[33] Fredric Jameson, Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (London and New York: Verso, 1991) 137.

[34] Jacques Derrida, Of Grammatology, trans. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976) 145.

[35] Julian Wolfreys, Deconstruction: Derrida, (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1998) 141.

[36] Ibid. 150.

[37] Iain Sinclair, Dining on Stones (or, the Middle Ground) (London: Hamish Hamilton, 2004) 208.

[38] See Jean-Luc Nancy, Au fond des images, (Paris: Galilee, 2003).

[39] Sinclair, Lights out for the Territory 274.

To Cite This Article:

Kirsten Seale, ‘Eye-swiping London: Iain Sinclair, photography and the flâneur’. Literary London: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Representation of London, Volume 3 Number 2 (September 2005). Online at Accessed on [date of access]