Jonathan Richman, Boston’s poet laureate of the everyday, once sang, “Now when I get off the train and start walking again, That’s when I feel like the world is my best friend. When I get out of the car and start walking oh oh, That’s when I feel like I was born to in my soul.” For myself, descendent of a long line of prodigious walkers, this feeling of naturalness has always been self-evident. But any casual assessment of urban design, settlement patterns, or popular leisure activities in the past century show that I’m decidedly not the type of person in the minds of city planners or those manning the culture industry. Frédéric Gros’ A Philosophy of Walking, a surprise best-seller in France recently released in English by Verso, gives eloquent expression to my sense of bemusement and raises the question of whether walking represents an under-appreciated reserve of freedom and creativity in modern society. The book mixes reflections on those in the philosophical and artistic tradition whose work is contingent upon a principled commitment to walking — Nietzsche, Rousseau, Rimbaud, Thoreau — and Gros’ own meditations on the practice.
Frédéric Gros is a professor of philosophy at the University of Paris XII and the Institute of Political Studies, both impressive achievements at his age. He may be best known to English readers as the editor of Michel Foucault’s later College de France lectures, which have appeared to great interest in the Anglophone philosophical community over the past decade. We spoke about the seriousness philosophers bring to the practice of walking, its relationship to Romanticism, and whether Gros draws inspiration from the great French tradition of les moralistes.
Michael Schapira: What gave you the confidence to write a book like this, on a subject that philosophers don’t often explicitly write about?
Frédéric Gros: Well, it’s actually quite simple. I am a walker and I am also a philosopher, so I wanted to write a book that considered both parts of myself equally. This relationship between philosophy and walking may seem surprising at first, not least because, when we think of a philosopher, we typically imagine him stooped over his desk, surrounded by books rather than wandering around outside. But there have certainly been many philosophers who were also excellent walkers, and who insisted that their long walks were essential to the development of their thought. If you take certain famous examples like Rousseau or Thoreau, they all say that they would not have had their greatest ideas, they would not have opened new perspectives, they would not have found new concepts and conceptions, without this regular, solitary exercise.
Was there a particular philosopher that you first saw as having this dual-identity as a walker?
Yes, it was Nietzsche who was the most important philosopher for me. Walking is really a central element of his œuvre, his philosophy. He didn’t walk because he wanted to rest, because he wanted to recover from the fatigue of writing. The only way for him to feel good was to go walking, so he set out into the mountains with notebooks. He walked the whole day long, six or seven hours per day, stopping only to jot down notes, which he then expanded in the evenings.
The book mentions urban figures like the flâneur, but the tone of your descriptions are decidedly pastoral. But when I think about walking as a practice of freedom or resistance I think about things like the dérive of the Situationists or Henri Lefebvre’s rythmanalysis. Why did you decide to focus on the countryside in the book?
What was important to me was that in the philosophers covered in the book we see a critique of productivism, or elements of industrialization. For that I had to privilege those philosophers whose experience of walking were in the countryside, because what I could find with them was a very explicit critique of productivism, especially at those early stages when key aspects of modern society were coming into prominence. But I do think that the experience of walking in cities is very important. There are really very few cities that you can walk for long distances and with pleasure. I think that maybe the two cities that have the most experience with walking is New York City and Paris. In Paris the walk also had with it periods of repose, for example in the figure or the flâneur. It also could be seen in a way to give birth to new forms of literature like the prose poem. I believe that in New York the walk is something much more overwhelming or awe-inspiring, an experience that in spirit is very different. There is something more gigantic about New York. There is certainly more speed here. The sidewalks are bigger, unlike in Paris, where they are smaller, sometimes with cobblestones that make it harder to walk with the speed of a New Yorker. In French we distinguish between the flânerie that is a stroll in a town, and the promenade, a simple short stroll in a garden, or in the countryside. Flânerie is a very specific art of walking, it has become a concept in philosophy, with the studies of Walter Benjamin about Baudelaire. When you walk slowly in a town, during the day, everybody is so busy around you, and you become a thief, a thief of images. Flâner dans la ville, walking in a town without object, without purpose, without necessity, allows you to gain, to win poetic correspondences, images that originate from the shock of modern urban life. But certainly there is now an “instrumentalisation,” a commercial exploitation of flânerie: The challenge is to create spaces for the consumer, the street does not yet belong to the thief of images.
Your new book is about security, and “biosécurité” in particular. You are also someone who has worked extensively on the thought of Michel Foucault. Is there a way that walking has become dangerous or a threat to modern society?
The most recent one is about security and I am preparing one now about disobedience. I think there is a link between walking and disobedience. As you know Thoreau wrote the first philosophical text about walking and also the first philosophical text about civil disobedience. There is a link between apologies for walking and a call for disobedience, for example in Gandhi and the Salt March. To the point about the threatening aspect of walking, I think that the walker resists speed, resists patterns of circulation. He represents a critique of contemporary society that no longer values presence. Like you said [while we were speaking just before the interview], we always have headphones in, are always looking at a screen, and in fact we lose this very sense of presence — the presence of the world, the presence of ourselves, the presence of our own bodies. I think that the act of walking is a kind of intensification of the present. I think that for this reason it is important in the tradition that Foucault takes up, of philosophy as “care for the self.” You also see in these later writings of Foucault a focus on the intensification of the present, and the choice to walk is a part of this as well.
You include many American figures in the book. Is there something in the American experience of walking that is radically different from Europeans?
I think that the European walker, when they walk in the mountains or in nature, are searching for origins. In Europe walking in nature often has something to do with these searches for an origin, which is a legacy of Romanticism that I think we still have. In the USA there is the notion of “the wild” that we don’t really have an equivalent for in French. The wild is something that has an energy, an innovative spirit. The wild holds the force of the future, it’s less beholden to the past. The other big difference is the enormity of space here. There is a simply a dimension and sense of limitlessness that Americans have written about.
Do you think you made a mistake in choosing your profession? French philosophers are notorious for spending lots of time in the archives and it can be a very sedentary, indoor profession.
I’m not sure. Philosophy has become more and more, since the fin de siecle, an exercise in commentary, reading in the archives, etc. The great philosophers of the 20th century like Derrida, Foucault, and Deleuze were above all great and prodigious readers. But one effect of all this reading is to exhaust certain philosophical conceits. Walking permits you escape the world of culture, the world of the library. This is to say it can lead you to ask questions of time, or the body, or space, but without reference to the text. The point is not that walking makes us more intelligent, but that it renders us more available to new ideas. We have left behind commentary, refutation, recopying, we are no longer prisoners of culture and books, but have simply become open to thought. Walking renders us more receptive to thought. When you work in a library, there are so many books, and culture, which normally is a condition of thinking, now becomes an obstacle, and this receptiveness to thought itself is the definition of philosophy. “How vain it is to sit down to write when you have not stood up to live” wrote Thoreau. The roots of writing have to be experiences more than readings.
One of the greatest walks I’ve ever taken was along the Santiago de Compostela pilgrimage route. For pilgrims walking is a communal act and an affirmation of their identity. For the modern city dweller walking is a negation of your identity. Do you think one consequence of secularization is that walking had to become an individual act? Can you think of how it may again become a communal, affirmative activity, or is our way of life incommensurate with those of the pilgrims who walked the Camino de Santiago?
I think there may be something to this. For example, the Chemin de Compostella has become something that has lost its character and now has all different kinds of associations. I think that today you’d have to rediscover that character by taking other routes, because, staying with France, there are many other routes that are relatively untouched where you could walk for days without encountering other people. Perhaps there will be practices that emerge where these long routes take on a heightened significance. But you are right that the Compostella trail has become an individual performance more than an act of spiritual purification. It’s become an instrument of personal aggrandization more than a testimony of faith.
Do you write as a moralist in this book?
Yes. I think this great French tradition is one that poses the question of the subject much more than big, structural questions. One can describe the workings of power, but a description of systems of power is not sufficient to developing a sense of the subject, of how the subject relates to itself. The moralists pose this problem of the subject, but not in the sense of morals, such as interdictions, values, etc. Let’s consider the problem of the relation with the body. Our time has a strange relationship with it, so ambiguous, really. On the one hand, our time despises, rejects the body. Modern technologies — the computer, television, phone screens — create an artificial medium. In this digital environment, physical presence does not count. All we call “progress” represents an additional mediation to eliminate the body’s efforts. Technology is what allows us to not have a body, to escape from fundamental characterizations of the body: gravity, opacity, thickness, slowness, finiteness, mortality, wear. Cyberspace, the virtual world is transparent, light. On the other hand, we can note all around us an immense apology for the body. To have a perfect body is more important than to have a soul without sin. The image of the perfect body, young, in good shape and good health, exercises a great power of normalization. But this is an idealized body. The body of the walker carries other values: values of a hardened body, acceptation of gravity, of human finitude. The act of walking presupposes a certain fatigue, a certain humility, an effort and endurance, all of which contain a dimension of purification. Walking (and I refer here to those endless marches which take several weeks or months) is an experience of dispossession, but this dispossession is not poverty. This dispossession is just the other side of a new form of richness, the richness of presence. Presence with regard to the world, to others, to ourselves. Pilgrimage turns walking into a spiritual experience. The art of walking is an art of transforming the self.
Michael Schapira is the Interviews Editor for Full Stop.