Metaphors for the flaneur: ‘Botanizing’

Text: Bill Psarras © 2015

Understanding metaphors

Metaphors have been used from an array of intellectual voices to describe the dynamic constellation of flaneur, city, walking and senses. Yet, before entering into such a constellation, I would like to describe what a metaphor really is. Metaphors are not just mere theoretical words. They describe practices and situations from everyday life, yet what is important is that they are actively derived from lived, embodied experience. Following Lakoff (1993: 203) and his analysis, metaphors are expressed through speech, however they are not located in language at all – but ‘in the ways we conceptualize one mental domain in terms of another‘. In their seminal book, Lakoff and Johnson (1980) categorize metaphors as (i) structural ones (something is structured in terms of another), (ii) orientational ones (related to spatiality: up-down, in-out, on-off e.t.c.) among others. Yet, our everyday metaphorical system is central to the understanding of poetic metaphor.

But let’s return to my constellation of interest. Victor Fournel (19th), a French journalist and writer described Baudelaire’s artist-flaneur as a “walking daguerrotype” – using a state of the art technology on the photographic process of the 19th century – introduced by L. Daguerre in 1839 – as a metaphor for flaneur. It was a quite successful metaphor as it still describes the identity and the positionality of flaneur in that type of city. In other words, someone who was observing on the move – ‘a roving soul in search of a body‘ (Baudelaire 1869, in Benjamin, 1973: 55). One more metaphor of great interest was Walter Benjamin’s description on the flaneur as a ‘botanologist of the asphalt‘  (1973) – a metaphor that I further altered and reflected during my PhD thesis by bringing it into the 21st century city context (see also Psarras, 2014). What is more, walking has been metaphorically described as a ‘cultural constellation‘ (Solnit, 2001) and a ‘spatial acting out of place‘ (de Certeau, 1984) among other numerous descriptions.

Brief reflections on the metaphor of ‘botanizing

What does it mean for the flaneur to be a botanologist of the asphalt? First, I will alter Benjamin’s metaphor by referring to it as “botanizing” – a metaphor that I will examine through contemporaneous lenses. Walking through and sensing the urban landscape seems to have a connection with such metaphor as senses are activated while moving through the city. As Clark (2000: 13-17) also argues, both the flaneur and the naturalist enter the city or nature by sensing while moving. They experience and encounter an unfolding condition through senses. Both flaneur and the botanologist enact an observation, a listening, a haptic and smelling experience and even taste. They initiate a bodily experience by exploring what the city and the nature offers to them. Such a metaphor involves a connections to duration and repetition. The early or contemporary flaneur/flaneuse could conduct a “botanizing” for hours, days or even months. It is probably a metaphor with epistemological potential that also shows possible poetics on the move.

Towards new aspects of ‘botanizing

Bringing the metaphor in late 20th or 21st century walking art practices, “botanizing” shifts into further layers of the urban experience. I could argue that Francis Alys in his walks The Collector (1992) and Magnetic Shoes (1994) performs a “botanizing” on the urban materiality – on the mundane relics and the very core of streets: the asphalt. Thus, “botanizing” illustrates a gradual negotiation of the artist’s path into the city. The artist’s metallic toy or magnetic shoes constitute a tool which shapes his ambulatory method – they become a kind of curatorial wearable extensions that attract, record and save the encountered. In the same way, in my walking-based work Walking Portraits: Performing Asphalts (2012), I made a series of walking performances across 5 London Tube station areas – documented through video, sound and GPS. The mundane and unnoticed details of everyday life became the poetic layer where I walked and performed “botanizing” metaphor. While passing from the interior to the exterior of tube/train stations, I followed repetitively different asphalt patterns, signs and coloured lines. It was a tactic that initiated a sensory dialogue with such transient – and other times – constrained areas. The metaphor of “botanizing” shifts into more experimental ways while applying this to other walking-based and technologically mediated artworks – as on the ones of Christian Nold Bio Mapping – Emotion Mapping (2003-) and Gordan Savicic Constraint City (2008). Nold’s participatory walking reveals an artist who goes ‘botanizing on the collective emotion‘ (Psarras, 2015: 93) through wearable technologies of Galvanic Skin Response and GPS attached on co-walkers’ bodies in various cities. On the other hand, Gordan Savicic walks with an interactive metallic corset on his body which becomes sensitive with various Wi-Fi signals of the city – leaving thus scars on the artist’s body. Savicic conducts a botanizing on the invisible technological “smog” of contemporary metropolis (also Psarras, 2015). I could argue that the metaphor of “botanizing” shifts from the material level to the embodied, the tacit and the immaterial. The change of metaphor into more fruitful variations possibly illustrates the change of flaneur from an early distant aesthete to contemporary hybrid one characterized by sociality, sensory attentiveness and sophisticated technological integrations.

Walking Portraits: Performing Asphalts (2012) - Bill Psarras ©

Walking Portraits: Performing Asphalts (2012) – Bill Psarras ©

Magnetic Shoes (1994) - Francis Alys ©

Magnetic Shoes (1994) – Francis Alys ©

Emotion Mapping [Greenwich, London] - Christian Nold (c)

Emotion Mapping [Greenwich, London] – Christian Nold (c)

Constraint City (still from performance, 2008) - Gordan Savicic (c)

Constraint City (still from performance, 2008) – Gordan Savicic (c)


  • Benjamin, W. (1973). Walter Benjamin: Charles Baudelaire: A Lyric Poet in the Era of High Capitalism, trans. Zohn H., London; New York: Verso.

  • Clark, N. (2000). ‘ ‘Botanizing on the Asphalt?’ The Complex Life of Cosmopolitan Bodies’ Body and Society, 6(3-4), pp. 12-33.

  • De Certeau, M. (1984). The Practice of Everyday Life. Berkeley: University of California.

  • Lakoff, G. (1993). The contemporary theory of metaphor. In Ortony, A. (ed.) Metaphor and Thought, Cambridge; New York; Melbourne: Cambridge University Press, pp. 202-251.

  • Lakoff, G. and Johnson, M. (1980). Metaphors We Live By. Chicago; London: The University of Chicago Press.

  • Psarras, B. (2015) Emotive Terrains: Exploring the emotional geographies of city through walking as art, senses and embodied technologies. PhD Thesis, 264 pages, Goldsmiths University of London.
  • Psarras, B. (2014). Altering the metaphor of ‘botanizing’ in the 21st century city. Conference talk at The British Sociological Association Annual Conference, Panel: Cities, Place, Mobilities, Space., April 2014, University of Leeds, UK.
  • Solnit, R. (2001). Wanderlust: A History of Walking. New York: Penguin Books.

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