Frédéric Gros

by Jonny Gordon-Farleigh, translated by Rosie Marteau, STIR magazine no.06, Summer 2014
by Clifford Harper

I interviewed philosopher Frederic Gros about the political dimensions of walking, how it's both a collective and solitary activity, and we explore the subversive role of the flâneur who shows there are more to cities than consumption. 

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.

JGF: Self-control, self-sufficiency, not being dependent on others…

FG: Yes, I guess there is a certain sort of courage that is not about exploits or deeds, which is driven not by industriousness or zeal, but by patience. It’s the kind of quiet courage that is not rooted in not being afraid, but in standing firm, the idea that the definition of courage is not a lack of fear, but the capacity for holding your ground, for steadfastness.

JGF: One motivation for the philosopher-walker is walking as the rejection of speed. Specifically for Gandhi, walking is an “apologia for slowness” that also contains a fierce critique of the civilisation of speed and a mistrust of machinery. How does the idea of slowness — slow ideas, slow food, slow travel — intersect with the idea of political urgency, that we must act now or we risk disaster or crisis? 

FG: I think that the apology for slowness inherent in walking is simultaneously an apology for presence. The thing about speed is that it gets results, but it prevents us from being present in the moment. Slowness, on the other hand, allows us to dig down into time, to go deeper, rather than moving through it horizontally.

JGF: Throughout the book there is an interesting dynamic between the walker as a solitary figure and the walker as part of a collective activity: one often withdrawing from the public realm and the other occupying it (usually as a political or religious statement). Which figure interests you the most, philosophically?

FG: It seems to me that there’s a real structural ambiguity in walking. Walking is both an opportunity for reconquest, which is about wanting to find oneself again, for example, and about rediscovering others too, but it’s also a moment of rupture; it’s about the will to abandon, to leave the world behind. But I think that walking also represents the notion that in order to reinvent the world, we must at once undertake to leave it. It’s true that walking is a very solitary activity, but also one which then allows us to reconnect with others. An act of disconnection then, but in order for new connections to be rendered possible.

JGF : Much like the Jewish-American philosopher Hannah Arendt said, “solidaire et solitaire.” You can be part of the collective whilst being alone...

JGF: Walking gives us freedom but, as you note, for the weekend walker and the city stroller it is short-lived and “suspensive” or, as English folk singer Ewan MacColl sang (without irony) in The Manchester Rambler, “I may be a wage slave on Monday, but I am free man on Sunday.” These “micro-liberations” are radically different to Kerouac’s rucksack revolutionaries whose long treks completely rejected the civilisation of their day. How do particular historical experiences and uses of walking reflect different political traditions and aims? 

So, for instance, there’s a big tradition of American secessionism, where you completely reject and you move on. You also talk about Walden, about the idea of the West, the West as the wild, which is something that we don’t have the privilege of in Europe. It’s not part of our political consciousness, that there’s some supposedly empty land over there that we can project our politics and new communities on to.

FG: There’s something in the European experience of walking which is far more nostalgic, what we think of as ‘the wild’ in Europe is really something of a lost origin, whereas in America, the wild is far more a concept of a source or a wellspring of energies, and that these energies are also energies of the future.

JGF : So, potential for change and the unknown…

FG: Yes, that by walking West, one is walking precisely towards the possibility of self-transformation and reinvention.

JGF : But that American experience is no longer possible, because they reached the West and they were just as disappointed and disillusioned with politics.

FG: Indeed. So, in fact the problem posed by walking today is about establishing whether it is an expression of a conservative political sentiment, i.e., the desire to return to a state of pre-modernity, or if conversely, it is about the radical desire to forge a new world. At the same time, however, it’s about determining whether all revolutions are nostalgic, or if in fact nostalgia itself is revolutionary.

JGF: Interesting. One last question then. So, we were talking about architecture and Paris and Vienna after the revolutions of 1848, where architecture becomes deployed as counter insurgency, changing the structure of the city. Eric Hobsbawn, the Marxist historian, said that “a pedestrian city is a revolutionary city,” because revolutions take place on foot, when people are in concentrations close together and it can combust — action can take place. What do you think about new architecture and how it closes down the possibility of politics and walking and the idea of the city as an ideal place for social change to happen?

FG: I believe that our cities should be built to include spaces which aren’t simply about places to consume, but also to meet, to exchange ideas. I think there’s real potential for art to play a part in this; for art to be on offer in the city environment and for there to be art installations in the street itself. Today in fact, works of art and artistic events are created and understood more as paths, as routes towards something, than as static objects.

Frédéric Gros is a professor of philosophy at the University of Paris XII and the Institute of Political Studies, Paris. He was the editor of the last lectures of Michel Foucault at the Collège de France. He has written books on psychiatry, law and war. He lives in Paris.

Rosie Marteau is a literary and academic translator from Spanish and French. Her published work includes Washing Dishes in Hotel Paradise by Eduardo Belgrano Rawson (2010), Red Tales by Susana Medina (2012) and The Right to Strike: A Comparative View ed. by Bernd Waas (forthcoming 2014).

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.

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Published in STIR magazine no.06, Summer 2014