“The Death of People-Watching”
by Sam Buntz
If you live in a big city and take the train in the morning, commuting on Chicago’s el (as I do) or venturing through the congested innards of New York’s subway system, you have doubtless noticed something about your fellow passengers. They are hunched over in attitudes that initially seem reminiscent of prayer. The glowing screens cradled in their hands possess the aura of sacred texts. You pop your head up for a moment, look around you, and think, “My God – I am the one remaining conscious person in the world! I alone am free from the spell of this malign hypnosis.” Then, your head bobs back down, immersed in the same ritual devotions, the same Instagram-Twitter black mass as your fellow riders…
Complaining about this state of affairs is futile. If you rail against social media and smartphones, despite their universally acknowledged negatives, you rapidly morph into the archetypal curmudgeon. After shaking your fist at the clouds, you return to muttering about how you don’t understand this whole Cardi B phenomenon, let alone these kids with their damn fidget spinners and Pokemon Go. You become lost in the labyrinth of your own dark and dated murmurings. Nonetheless, and with these risks acknowledged, it is worth our while to consider one effect of our pervasive screen addiction. It has nearly destroyed people watching.
People watching was – and, to some extent, still is – the definitive pleasure of life in a major metropolis. In France, the dedicated people watcher, the connoisseur of the streets, even received a title, flaneur (also referred to as a boulevardier; the female equivalent is the flaneuse). The word flaneur ultimately derives from the Old Norse verb “flana,” which means to “wander without a purpose.” The classic 19th Century flaneur ambled about the boulevards of Paris, absorbing the pulse and flavor of the life around him. Apparently an aimless man of leisure, the flaneur secretly recorded the modulations in the river of humanity flowing by him. He noted the poetry etched on people’s faces. He saw the scars, the half-hidden joys, youth in flower and withering age.
The poet Charles Baudelaire described the flaneur in his definitive essay on the subject, “The Painter of Modern Life:” “the lover of universal life enters into the crowd as though it were an immense reservoir of electrical energy. Or we might liken him to a mirror as vast as the crowd itself; or to a kaleidoscope gifted with consciousness, responding to each one of its movements and reproducing the multiplicity of life and the flickering grace of all the elements of life.”
This refined, artistic, yet remarkably inexpensive pleasure was not restricted to 19th Century Paris, of course. In fact, if we go back to Elizabethan England, we find that Shakespeare and other notable playwrights of the time made it a habit to sit in public and people-watch. According to John Aubrey’s Brief Lives, “Ben Johnson and [Shakespeare] did gather Humours of men dayly where ever they came.” In other words, they would scan the faces of passersby, looking for hints of personality, trying to deduce the tendencies of their characters. In fact, the other undisputed titan of literature, Leo Tolstoy, was also an avid people watcher. He would sit in the town square and write. He said the faces of the townsfolk inspired him. (Unexpectedly, this is referenced on an episode of Seinfeld).
This manner of apprehending reality connects to the Christian notion of epiphany, a term used to mark the day when the three wise men beheld the infant Christ. The miraculous appears in the midst of the drab and ordinary, just as the Christ child manifests in an obscure barnyard on the fringes of the Roman Empire. The incarnational view of reality has always insisted that any object in Creation is subject to sudden transformation, testifying and pointing towards its Creator. The true flaneur recognizes this: the anonymous faces in a crowd suddenly bloom into reality. They shine with the Imago Dei.
In the Buddhist tradition, we find the related concept of kensho, which means “seeing nature,” as in seeing the true nature of oneself or of any being. Just as Christianity (at its best) seeks to apprehend the face of God in the faces of human beings, Zen Buddhism reveals the “Buddha nature” of all things. Great haikus by Japanese poets such as Basho and Issa testify to the truth of this project. Here’s Issa: “It is a world of dew / A world of dew, indeed / And yet, and yet…”
The flaneur kenshos the crowd. Haunted by epiphany, he seeks the moment where the ordinary is transfigured into the extraordinary merely by being what it is. The fullness of reality manifests in what once seemed to be emptiness. The apparent idling of the veteran people-watcher becomes, in fact, a state of uncommon alertness. It is a meditative state of mind, hyper-aware of the stream of human life coursing by.
But the faces on the train today are harder to read. Each one, locked to its screen, looks somewhat intent but also somewhat vacant. It is as though life is dribbling, droplet by droplet, out of the eyes and into the waiting electronic vessel. This state of affairs deals a double blow to people watching. It makes it harder for us to see – enslaved to the magnetism of the glowing, vibrating, voodoo talisman nestled in our sweaty palms – and it makes it harder for us to beseen. You are less interesting to look at when you are gazing blankly into your phone. As Saint Paul said, we are truly looking “through a glass darkly” – our modes of knowing and being known both lost in confusion. The image of God is there, alright… But it grows blurrier by the minute.
Don DeLillo wrote one of the most depressing sentences of all time: “The future belongs to crowds.” The technological developments of the last twenty years have helped make that prediction disturbingly accurate. Social media is a crucible that melts down personalities and reduces them to their angriest and least coherent notions. Then, like molten metal, they are poured into a common pool. Our devices tend to connect us to crowds but not to each other. They associate us with group identities but forbid us from looking one another plainly in the eye. Crowds always seem to be distinctly less than their members. Apparently the whole is not always greater than the sum of its parts.
By contrast, the flaneur helps tease the individual souls out of the crowd. In liberating them from the mob, he actually brings them out of isolation and into a state of pure relation with his own consciousness. He locates character in what would otherwise be a faceless, teeming mass. He sets the sparks blazing out in the darkness. Without the elevated perspective of an artist or a poet to redeem it, a crowd is comprised not of people, but of digits adding up to different sums.
For example, say that a crowd contains 1,000 heterosexuals, 100 gay people, about 50 bisexuals, and a few pansexuals. We read these statistics and yet we know nothing. The souls contained by these statistics have not been made real for us. We just see a lifeless mass of colorless identities, of spare labels. The flaneur helps rescue the personal and private life from the world of mass movements and mass ideologies. He turns the digits back into human beings… And the tool the flaneur uses for this purpose is people-watching.
Stanislavsky said, “Generality is the enemy of all art.” If crowds are generalities, then individual human beings are particularities. Only the particular, the telling detail, can render life lively. The flaneur performs this service too, saving the the particular from the general, restoring a sense of our eccentricity and thereby a sense of our humanity.
Yet, today, aimless clicking replaces the free and easy wandering of the flaneur. The texts engraved in faces are obscured by distraction. The cover is closed.
The revolt of art against this state of affairs will not be political. It will be personal and insist on taking the world personally. It will be passionately, even violently subjective. Only through such a revolt – a personal revolt against the facelessness of the crowd – can we awaken to the company of the people around us. To engage in people-watching is a revolutionary act, the first salvo not in a political battle but in a spiritual battle. An inner revolution. After all, that is the true meaning of “repentance,” metanoia – to change one’s mental orientation, to learn how to apprehend in a new manner.
We merely need to lift up our heads and look.