Jonny Gordon-Farleigh: Your opening argument in A Philosophy of Walking is that walking is not a sport: it does not (or at least should not) involve training, competition, performance (both athletic and financial) and results. Is walking important to you and other philosophers because it’s an activity that largely eludes the market and competition? As it promotes slow “benefit” over quick “profit”?
Frédéric Gros: So, firstly, there is an apology for slowness [in walking], and this insistence of slowness, this importance of slowness is critical to philosophy because the difference between philosophy and science is precisely that philosophy favours the slow.
JGF: So, quiet insistence over the short-lived spectacle?
FG: Yes, so first of all then we have this apology for slowness, and the second thing to consider is the fact that in philosophy, there is no inherent search for a result.
By that I mean that we aren’t looking for a result outside of thought through the pursuit of philosophy, but that we privilege the very thought process itself. Similarly, when we walk, we do it for walking’s sake, and not to achieve some sort of result, performance or score.
Thirdly, as you say, philosophy has always had a very adversarial relationship with money and the market. The act of walking also represents an apology for the rustic.
JGF: Path making is inherently a collective activity as it requires the repeated action of many walkers to maintain it or, as writer-walker Robert Macfarlane puts it, “it’s hard to create a footpath on your own.” Does it not seem that walking is nearly always a collective activity, even when we’re walking alone, as we are often retracing the steps of others?
FG: I think actually that walking is an activity that can be at once collective and simultaneously solitary. In that respect, it is somewhat like reading. Reading is a solitary activity, but which opens you up to a community and I think that when we take up a path, especially a pilgrim path, we are engaged in an act of borrowing; we place our feet in others’ footsteps, but we also step into a narrative, into a set of memories.
JGF: The connections between walking and thinking very literally traverse the philosophical canon through Kierkegaard’s assertion that “my mind only works with my legs,” Nietzche’s “we write well only with our feet” and Rousseau’s “I never do anything but when walking.” Do you think there is a significant difference between books conceived in the library and those in wide open spaces?
FG: I think that books written in libraries are books that are filled with cultural references. By that I mean that they are books saturated with culture. They contain plenty of quotations, lots of references, but the problem is whether it is ever really possible to think from the basis of thought alone, rather than using the works of other authors as your source material.
Walking, I believe, allows us to become available to thought itself. For me, the definition of philosophy is that it renders us available to thought, and it is this availability that is at the very heart of walking, because the act of walking gives us access to ourselves, and to the world around us.
JGF: The flâneur gives us an example of the city-walker with Baudelaire’s personal accounts and Benjamin’s reflections on the practice of “botanising on the asphalt.” Benjamin tells us that high capitalism marks the end of the flâneur as the city is consumed by consumerism — the observer becomes a gawker. With the semi-privatisation of urban space — if you are not shopping there you have no place being there — do you think the flâneur is a “creature of the past”, as Benjamin argues, or is flânerie still possible?
FG: The flâneur is absolutely a key figure in urban walking. The issue here is about drawing a distinction between two attitudes. As we take part in the act of walking through a city we are confronted by shop windows, merchandise and objects, and this can result in two contradictory experiences — either a poetic experience, or one of frustration. The flâneur represents the poetic, or the rather light-hearted idea that we can invent possible ways of living, while the experience of frustration simply makes us aware of the things that we lack. The flâneur is he who finds satisfaction in the imagination of objects.
JGF: And so, when the flâneur doesn’t buy, refuses to buy, they become subversive?
FG: Yes, he becomes subversive as soon as he gives precedence to the pleasure of imagining possessions, rather than actually owning them. He knows that possessing those objects will inevitably result in disillusionment, so he takes satisfaction from simply imagining them.
JGF: You relate the continuous and patient movement of walking to Gandhi’s political strategy: any campaign to undermine the British will require determination and endurance as does walking itself. This recalls The Frontier casino strike in Las Vegas (the longest in US history) when strikers walked three hundred miles to court in Los Angeles across the Mojave Desert as a way of showing their endurance and commitment. Is this the most explicit political dimension of walking?
FG: So, essentially I think that the primary political dimension of walking is this sense of determination, courage and endurance, but that its secondary political aspect is a particular kind of humility, a humility that is never humiliating. By that I mean that the essence of walking is to strike a balance between humility and dignity. So it is this twin dimension of humbleness and strength that I find really interesting about walking, the fact that the walker can be stopped by no man.