Andrew Robinson - Theory Blog

Monday, November 15, 2004

A Case for Escapism

Andrew Robinson

“Jailers don’t like escapism” – Terry Pratchett

The road goes ever on and on
Out from the place where it began.
Now far ahead the road has gone,
And I must follow, if I can,
Pursuing it with eager feet,
Until it meets some larger way
Where many paths and errands meet.
And whither then? I cannot say.
J.R.R. Tolkien

Escapism has rather a bad reputation. People say we should “live in the real world”. There is only one problem with this. The real world SUCKS! And it sucks because of the way it has been constructed. For instance: why are there so many bosses about? Everything seems to need a boss nowadays. And why do the joys of life have to be reduced to the chores of “work”, or a system arranged to reduce creative activity to the status of slavish drudgery? The trouble is that the real world, or at least the bits of it most of us live in, are so well controlled that it’s hard even to think outside its categories. Even the language and images of everyday life are awash with the signs of domination.

There’s plenty of “changes” around that haven’t changed anything. Even revolutions fail if they can’t escape the limits on the imagination imposed by the previous system. Look at Russia: a few problems and back come the bosses, the work system and all the rest. So how can we escape? Ultimately the change has to be social. The existing system is a system of social relations, so in a way, anyone who builds different social relations is challenging it. But reclaiming physical and social spaces is a long and difficult process. This leaves a crucial role for the imagination in sustaining the possibility of thinking differently. As Maria Montessori puts it, ‘the mind that should have built itself up through experiences of movement, flees into fantasy’. Fantasy and the imagination are therefore a kind of minimal space of resistance which acts as a storage vat for desires and beliefs unable to find expression in the world.

What is the point of “escapism”? It is the imaginative construction of possibilities of escape – what Deleuze calls “lines of flight”. It constructs routes out of the present blockage by allowing alternatives to become “ideally active” (Gramsci’s term) in the minds of those who can then become advocates of change. Of course it’s not enough, because it still remains imaginative – but it’s a start. The tragic double-bind of escapism is expressed in Vaneigem’s slogan, “whatever survives the system resists it, whatever doesn’t kill the system reinforces it”. There are gradations within what counts as “escapism”, regarding the degree to which fantasies in fact escape the limits of the present. A survey of science-fiction and fantasy literature makes this obvious: some authors construct alternative realities in their works, but others reproduce the categories of the present even in their imaginative creations.

Nevertheless, I insist on the importance of “escapism” – the imaginative inducement to escape – as the most potent, the most progressive, the most ultimately “creative” role that any kind of artistic or cultural product can have. The alternative to escapism is representation, and this usually has a regressive function. There are two crucial facts about representation. Firstly, it is always inadequate: no artwork can ever adequately represent its object, because a gulf of différance separates the two. It always therefore has a function of “misrepresentation” – a function which more often than not is blatantly obvious (e.g. the construction of media stereotypes by the repeated fictional representation of Arabs as terrorists).

Secondly, the object in a certain sense limits the creativity of its representation within the boundaries of the presently thinkable. The dominant system operates through what Marcuse calls the “repressive reduction of thought to the present” (Orwell’s Newspeak being a good example). By eliminating from language anything which does not fit into the present system, the present becomes reified into something timeless, and escape comes to seem impossible. Representation can serve this function, especially when (as so often) it congeals into essentialisms and myths. How, amidst this fixity, can repressed potentialities find expression? Perhaps in “misreading”, but this is always open to debunking.

There are also very valuable works which are in the last instance representational. But this only occurs to the extent that they use representation in the service of lines of flight. The greatest tales of revolution are valuable because what they represent is already the best of their object – but notice how they are invariably tragic.

Escapism has a potential which representation cannot have, because it expresses the potential for flight from the present. As Martin Buber explains, images can often arouse repressed potentialities which seem impossible if viewed as concepts. Such images are not simply castles in the sky: ‘if they seek to stimulate or intensify in the reader or listener a critical relationship to the present, they also seek to show… something towards which an active path leads from the present’. There is also a danger, because if they do not go far enough they can turn into “repressive desublimation”, the harmless and socially functional release of frustration within the confines of the system. But such potentialities are necessary in order for any new social form to come into being. Particular escapisms may fail to be escapist enough to stimulate escape, but the drive to escape, if followed through consistently, puts imagination on a collision course with the status quo.

As James C. Scott’s careful analyses of folk cultures around the world show, dissident and imaginary cultural products ‘create an imaginative breathing-space’ which de-naturalises the status quo and breaks down the chains of reification. By showing the contingency of the present social system, they can stimulate the consideration of possible alternatives.

Down with conformity of the imagination!
Long live escapism!


  • At September 14, 2012 at 3:32 AM, Blogger Alastair Hemmens said…

    Hi, I really liked this article. Not least because it mentions Tolkien and Vaneigem in the same place. I've got a blog on the Situationists if you are interested ( I'll be reading more of your stuff.



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