Urban Meanderthals
and the City of "Desire Lines"

The Meanderthal, a new species of urban flâneur. No longer merely out for a stroll through the streets, the Meanderthal has become a threat to the efficiencies of urban life and to the flows of pedestrians, vehicles, and capital taken for granted in the urban everyday. Whether he/she is chatting on a cell phone, standing on the wrong side of an escalator, cycling on the sidewalk, or dangerously jaywalking, the Meanderthal obliviously causes that most frustrating of urban traffic jams: the pedlock.

Like a stick in the spokes, the Meanderthal brings urban mobility to a halt and exposes (infra)structural impediments. When confronted by this new urban creature others are compelled to pursue new lines of flight through and around the urban jungle. The new urbanite who would avoid the pedlock produced by the Meanderthal becomes another sort of 21st century flâneur: Flâneur 2.0. The goal of this new flâneur is not to aestheticize urban life as his nineteenth-century precursor was wont to do, but to instrumentalize it in the name of efficiency and speed.

Nineteenth-century French poet Charles Baudelaire described the flâneur as a "gentleman stroller of city streets" and as "a botanist of the sidewalk." Baudelaire's flâneur, responding to the bourgeois, capitalist, and technological developments of his time, was a figure in the crowd but not of it. Engrossed as he was by the emergent urban psycho-geography of 19th century Paris, the flâneur was an observer: always a little detached -- intentionally most often. He was known, as Walter Benjamin reminds us in his essay, "On Some Motifs in Baudelaire," to engage critically with the emergent urban milieu, which he regarded with leisure, and mostly from an aesthetic point of view. Benjamin describes the scene:

A pedestrian knew how to display his nonchalance provocatively on certain occasions. Around 1840 it was briefly fashionable to take turtles for a walk in the arcades. The flâneurs liked to have the turtles set the pace for them. If they had had their way, progress would have been obliged to accommodate itself to this pace. But this attitude did not prevail; Taylor, who popularized the watchword "Down with Dawdling!" carried the day.[1]

So how has the flâneur evolved as we begin the 21st century? I will suggest that the flâneur remains with us but has evolved new forms; the variety we will be focussing on here is the Meanderthal, a new species of urban flâneur. No longer merely out for a detached and self-consciously critical stroll through the streets, the Meanderthal is -- unwittingly -- a threat to the efficiencies of urban life and to the flows of pedestrians, vehicles, and capital taken for granted in the urban everyday.

While humans as we know them came to prominence following the demise of the Neanderthals over 20000 years ago, Meanderthals are a species that has emerged in the post-human era. A sort of human-variant, the Meanderthal could also be described as a Cyborg Spin-Off, exhibiting not only the machinic prosthetic appendages (e.g. cell-phone, Blackberry) required of cyborg flesh, but also the sort of behaviour -- i.e. confusion, aimlessness, disorientation, self-absorption -- that inevitably results when an all-too-human human attempts to navigate an overly mechanized and technologically-mediated environment. The technologically-induced distraction experienced by Meanderthals is compounded by their natural habitat -- large, dense, heavily trafficked, urban environments. Indeed, the very systems they impede objectify their existence, for their own presence in the urban ecosystem is evident only to the degree to which they prevent the system in which they exist from functioning. Meanderthals, that is, are present only insofar as they impede the natural flows of everyday life -- of the urban humdrum -- flows that are, themselves, dictated by the dominant paradigms and practices of contemporary urban existence which are overdetermined by neo-conservative and globalized economics, by fluid and networked flows of capital. They impede flows that are overdetermined, also, by the unrequited fantasy that the "meatscape" -- the fleshly world -- that inhabits the concrete caverns of the contemporary metropolis might become as fluid and efficient as the increasingly virtualized and immaterial economies of fiat currency thought to be the engines of urban and economic flows in the first place. The Meanderthal, then, is both product of and impediment to the technophilic and urbanized world we inhabit.

It's worth noting that Meanderthal is not yet a real word. It appears, as I write this, only in online dictionaries, not so much in books or scholarly articles. Google web search, however, shows 50000 hits. The word itself, like its referent, relies on new technological media -- the internet, in this case -- for its existence. The Meanderthal, then, is an utterly contemporary construction, though it has existed previously in various linguistic or conceptual forms. In fact, an adjunct term appears in James Joyce's Finnegan's Wake, though in those cases it describes a meandering narrative rather than a meandering human. Joyce's words are: "meandertale"[2] and "Meanderthalltale."[3]

Like most things, Meanderthals predated their naming. Already in 2002 the New York Times was alerting us to the problem of this troublesome presence on busy streets and in crowded urban spaces. In an article entitled, "Think You Own the Sidewalk?; Etiquette by New York Pedestrians Is Showing a Strain," Marc Santora observes:

On the sidewalks of New York there are jaywalkers, baby walkers, dog walkers, night walkers, cellphone talker-walkers, slow walkers, fast walkers, group walkers, drunken walkers, walkers with walkers and, of course, tourist walkers.

Unfortunately, all of these walkers are walking into one another.

"People no longer know how to walk on the sidewalk," said John Kalish, a television producer in Manhattan. "There was a time that any real New Yorker had a built-in sonar in terms of walking down the sidewalk, even a crowded one, and never bumping into someone. Now -- forget it."[4]

The problem -- pedestrians bumping into one another -- can be alleviated, suggests Santora, if the following seven Rules of the Sidewalk are adhered to: keep to the right, no sudden stops, don't walk four or more abreast when in large groups, don't step on heels, get off the phone, keep your dog on a short leash, don't talk with friends at street-corners, and do realize how huge your backpack, baby stroller, or package is.

The ideal sidewalk, if this article is to be taken seriously, would be bereft of friends, chatting, babies, the elderly, persons with disabilities, flâneurs of the Baudellairian variety, dogs, turtles, and other rabble. Streetscapes would become spaces for getting things done, spaces for speed and efficiency. Streets, then, must become more productive and less seductive.

My own encounter with the word Meanderthal came when it was featured on the website wordspy.com as an adjunct word to the term for which I was searching: "desire line." Desire lines, as you may know, are defined by architects and urban planners as those trampled-down footpaths that deviate from official (i.e. pre-planned and paved) directional imperatives. These pathways of desire cut across university campuses, they carve up the urban grid, they exceed the boundaries of the sidewalk; in so doing desire paths express the excess that premeditated constructions cannot foresee or contain. Desire lines objectify the constraints of the concrete. In so doing, they reveal new potential trajectories, in turn opening the urban traveler to new experiences of space, place, and time: a getaway-from-the-everyday.

Meanderthals, too, as my internet search revealed, follow, or are guided by, desire lines, which, as my definition suggests, are trajectories that deviate from the predetermined grid. Desire lines overlay smooth space, as Deleuze would say, on top of striated space. We can, of course, point to material desire lines that we come across in our everyday lives (they tend to be path-wide ribbons of dirt, or singletrack in mountainbiker parlance). But in the concrete jungle desire paths take on a more virtual consistency since their traces are not as readily observable on cement. Such unidentifiable and unseen desire paths become known to us through observation, or through our physical encounter of their effects. That is, we can either watch them emerge in real time, or we can find ourselves -- literally -- bumping into their creators.

The desire lines created by the Meanderthal and her ilk are deviations -- derives, as Debord would say. However, we must not infer from their name that they are always manifestations of the will, of the agent, or of merely human desire. Or at least, it seems important to remember -- with philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty -- that the paths creatures like Meanderthals trace are just as much a result of the geographies and spaces that offer these paths of desire up to us as they are the products of the will of some sort of Cartesian self. That is, the urban Meanderthal and the urban environment exist together within a chiasmatic relationship in which each draws on the other to produce a product -- a desire path -- that exposes and explores the potential existence of paths not yet taken.

The Meanderthal, when busy tracing a desire path, becomes increasingly oblivious to the world of mobility and flows swirling around him or her. Absorbed in the pleasures of pushing babies in strollers, of chatting with friends, of gazing at architecture, or of emailing on a Blackberry (an activity that paradoxically both participates in, and potentially obstructs urban flows), the Meanderthal brings trajectories of capital, speed, and efficiency to a temporary halt. That is, others' paths of least resistance are jolted to a stop. The Meanderthal functions like the proverbial stick in the spokes bringing the urban dweller's expectations of mobility to an abrupt end. Pathways become tangled and pedlock ensues. The affects that follow -- frustration, anger, impatience -- expose the unspoken imperatives -- the givens -- of urban life.

What follows the pedestrian traffic jam or pedlock, however, inevitably re-opens the urban fabric to new trajectories, new "lines of flight," as Deleuze would say...

Having honked at, cussed at, and tried to intimidate the Meanderthal, the SUV driver takes an alternate route, a new path down an alley new to her; the business person, having just bumped into an oblivious sightseer, is forced into some fancy footwork, a delightful sort of unexpected dance, that reroutes her path and re-orients -- on a micro-level -- her relationship with the street.

The avoidance of pedlock and gridlock, then, induces another breed of flâneur, with an alternative form of desire path, one resulting not from the pedestrian's unselfconscious obliviousness to the environment, but from a precipitously induced hyper-awareness. The resulting secondary desire paths adopted by those who are suddenly diverted from their trajectories are, indeed, not aimless but forced re-adjustments; the intentions of the pedestrian are redirected as a result of their objectives being obstructed. What results, I'd like to suggest, is yet another breed of flâneur. This one we might call: Flâneur 2.0.

For this new breed of Flâneur the hustle and bustle of the crowd is not to be observed at leisure, but to be avoided. The goal is not to aestheticize urban life while absorbing it, but to instrumentalize it while attempting to direct it in the name of efficiency and speed. The crowd is not to be followed but to be deliberately avoided, the urban grid of everyday life is not to be re-inscribed but to be exceeded.

Flâneur 2.0, no longer self-consciously critical of the techno-urban imperatives that morph around him, no longer taking a derive or deviation for its own sake, finds herself unwillingly and unwittingly having to smooth out the striated grid. Driven by invisible economic imperatives (imperatives that constitute the fish-bowl he swims in), Flâneur 2.0 is thrust kicking and screaming -- sometimes literally -- out of his habitual orbit by the Meanderthal. Nonetheless, though briefly discombobulated, Flâneur 2.0 quickly gets re-oriented, re-doubling his/her efforts for the sake of efficiency, mobility, speed, and capital. The phrase quoted at the beginning of this paper -- "Down with Dawdling!" -- undoubtedly had a certain currency in Walter Benjamin's day. But the man who first uttered it could not have imagined that it would persist, nor what it would come to mean in the age of the Meanderthal.


[1] Walter Benjamin. "On Some Motifs in Baudelaire," in Neil Leach, ed. Rethinking Architecture: A Reader in Cultural Theory. London and New York: Routledge, 1997, p. 33.

[2] L. Platt. Joyce, Race and 'Finnegans Wake', Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007, p. 81.

[3] James Joyce. Finnegans Wake, New York: Penguin, 1999, p. 19.

[4] M. Santora. "Think You Own the Sidewalk?; Etiquette by New York Pedestrians Is Showing a Strain," New York Times, July 16, 2002.

Matthew Tiessen is a 2005-2007 SSHRC/Killam doctoral fellow (ABD) in the University of Alberta's Sociology and Art and Design Interdisciplinary Program; he is also an exhibiting oil painter, web designer and illustrator. His research operates within a nexus that includes theories of aesthetics, technology, urbanism, virtuality, and ethics. He is an editorial assistant and blogger for the journal, Space and Culture: international journal of social spaces.