Reclaiming Escapism

Every now and then, I drop off the surface of the Earth. I sleepwalk past the invisible edge which invisible hands have pulled back for me. Like a blind Coyote, I am adverted by neither gravity nor wind until it is too late. And then I return, only half-convinced that nothing actually happened.

You can’t do that, Edwin, you say. The Earth is round and has been since the times of Galileo, and maybe even before then.

I know, I know. But this is how every existential crisis begins for me, with the feeling that I’ve been somewhere else. In my defence, it hasn’t happened for a long time. It might never happen again, although that is unlikely. For a long time I’ve wondered if it’s just me who has experienced the discontinuity of life in these surreal dimensions. Surely, in such a stop-start world, it can’t be just me.

Was I really alive that whole time? Was my heart beating continuously, along a single axis of time?

Yes, yes it was. Hard to believe, I know. We cross so many invisible boundaries with such frequency that it is hard to know what is more fragmented- us or the world. We move through material and virtual structures in which a step this way or that brings about a range of consequences seemingly outside our control. Among this to-ing and fro-ing, the thin layer of liminality has become thinner and thinner almost to the point of no existence, like the ever-smaller digital screens that have seamlessly integrated private/professional/public lives in ways previously unimaginable.

The ability to take a step outside this maze gives us at least a semblance, a performance, of control. It allows us to define the boundaries by consciously crossing them. This feeling is rarely more felt than when travelling, which, as I have written before, gives us a window in which transformation can once again become an immanent part of our lives. In travel, we are somewhere else. We can smell it in the air, we know this is different. It is a form of escape. And though the control we get from such an impulsive escape may often be short-lived, it reminds us that in the right conditions we can take such control of our lives.

Yet escapism has a bad name, and in many ways, rightly so. On an individual level, escapism stands for an absence of courage with which to face one’s circumstances. On a collective level, it acts as an opium of the people, a detour which dulls our resistance. It is close to denialism and not far from the worst aspects of nostalgia and utopianism. No wonder science fiction and fantasy writers are always giving interviews or writing thinkpieces attempting to defend themselves from accusations of escapism.

This form of escapism emerges as gaps, or inconsistencies, even among those who try very hard to live their lives within moderate boundaries. Without needing to go into it, anyone who thinks they can detach themselves from the maze of ideology is of course guilty of this, not to mention foolish. This attitude pervades mainstream liberal discourse in the guise of taking a completely rational approach to policy, or in the guise of purifying one’s ethical impact through offsets, boycotts and charity. It also pervades the fantasy of the hermit or nomad living off the land or beyond the fringes of society and the economy, and perhaps explains the predominantly white obsession with societies less tarnished by capitalism. Nobody is detached from ideology, and to pretend such a thing is to run away from it and then find oneself even further compromised by it.

The rejection of escapism was a point that I took very seriously for most of my life. In recent years, my inquiries into dialectical materialism exposed me to the idea of the Event to which one must stubbornly commit in order to achieve something meaningful. This seemed opposed to any kind of escapism. Yet my tendency to stray- my erratic attention spans, my broad interests and my third-culture status- was always at odds with this. Soon I found myself to be as hypocritical as those I earlier described.

Since returning from travelling, the need to take a small step back from my own ideals has become much more urgent for my own sake. So I sought a third option; a healthy form of escapism that rejects the distinction between inside and outside.

The fantasy space that constitutes escapism does not have to be an entire different world; rather it is very thin, little more than a curtain on the wall of the maze, inviting us to imagine somewhere outside. This curtain doesn’t have to lead us anywhere else. It can rather invite us to consider that the reality that we are presented with every day may not be the only, nor the most important, reality. While too often this choice is made for us, the distance at which we hold the world at any point in time is a choice that only we as individuals can make.

Recently, I have made space in my life for that curtain in several ways. One of the ways I have gone down the rabbit hole and into the peaty undergrowth is through urban exploration, as I have previously written about.

Ruins invite us to dwell on the place itself, the reality of the appearance, and thus serve as a counterpoint both to fascism, which reaches at the content behind the curtain, and post-modern capitalism, which presents various, conflicting visions and interpretations of what could lie behind the curtain. This is an important moment in our own discontinuous processes of transformation…If every great building eventually comes to accept the transience and materiality that constitute its most fundamental reality, then so can we.

A few weeks ago I took the privilege of exploring Barangaroo Point Park before its official opening. It is a headland with incredible views of the harbour which had been shut off to Sydneysiders apparently for over 80 years. It is poorly serviced by public transport and ignored in most people’s conception of Sydney’s geography. It is my guess that if we got Sydneysiders to draw a map of Sydney’s CBD, we would find in many of those maps that the space between Darling Harbour and Walsh Bay would be small and poorly defined if not non-existent.

I can only hope that other visitors shared the same rush that I did, of being somewhere that is simultaneously a space and a non-space, somewhere we can define anew through the very act of passing through it. And so it is with ruins and drains, in an act which Hunter S. Thompson calls “edgework”– stepping slightly outside regular experience and toward more uncertain situations in order to redefine the limits of that experience.

We each choose the manner of timing of our particular escapes. But let us not neglect this exercise. The world we are told we live in is already one that escapes from the truth of its excesses. It escapes the fact that its very existence depends on the continued exploitation of people near and far whose humanity is obscured by distance and prejudice. It escapes the fact of its destructive and unsustainable industrial core as manifested through the emerging disaster of climate change. It escapes the realities of exclusion and precarity that produce alternative subcultures which it then gentrifies over.

So if going with the flow means going along with such mindless and destructive inertia, every act of traversing our own boundaries, and making our own sense of flow, becomes a small but meaningful act of resistance.

So even when I thought I was running away from it all, was I just returning?

That’s up to you to decide.

Élévation by Charles Baudelaire

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2 comments

  1. […] The piece then goes on to outline ways in which Pokemon Go’s thin layer of virtuality does little to cover up the material structures of commodification and exclusion that underlie the city, and therefore does not succeed in transforming our experience of urban space or in showing us that another world is possible. This lazy armchair critique emerges from the failure to treat psychogeography as anything more than an exercise in vulgar escapism. […]

  2. […] When Guy Debord and the Situationists conceived of psychogeography, they were looking for new, radical ways to inhabit the urban spectacle of mid-century Paris. According to Jacobin’s piece on Pokémon Go, ‘Marx sees a way out of alienation in the intentional exercise of consciousness on the world. And this free, spontaneous, transformational exercise of species-being really does take place all around us…nobody could see in children pretending to be explorers or bank robbers the chains and drudgery of alienated work.’ The Jacobin piece then goes on to outline ways in which Pokémon Go’s thin layer of virtuality does little to cover up the material structures of commodification and exclusion that underlie the city, and therefore does not succeed in transforming our experience of urban space at all. This lazy armchair critique emerges in response to this, from the failure to treat psychogeography as anything more than an exercise in vulgar escapism. […]

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