The history of humanity is a history of failed escapes. As the German social theorist Niklas Luhmann once quipped: the only honest response to the question where do I run? is the patronising answer it won’t do you any good to run anywhere. Still, the question insists: is there a place where a person might be free from the life to which they are chained? This is the question explicitly posed by The Escape.
The Escape is a meditation on the impossible necessity of escape. It meditates on its own impossibility. On the one hand, The Escape must take the desire to escape as itself constitutional for humanity; on the other, it must also show that any such escape can only be partial, fictional. Moreover, it can only show this fictionally. Such fictions simulate the externalities of escape — the tendencies, the tactics, the techniques — rather than show the escape in itself. Why? Because the ancient and irrevocable problems of consciousness — and naturally too false consciousness — obtrude at once. Escape and the simulation of escape coincide — and neither are a success.
The definite article indicates some of the trouble. This is The Escape, the paradigm of all escapes; but since every escape is particular, it can only represent one such attempt. The indefinite article, the marker of indistinct singularities, is therefore in question in its non-appearance. And this relation or set of relations — between assertion and appearance, negation and non-appearance — is thematized in the film’s mise-en-scène. The Escape assembles a chain of fictional representations about the role of fictional representations in enchaining desire, knowledge and action. Ultimately, then, The Escape replays Plato’s Cave through its inversion: the escape it presents is not spurred by a happy accident; the world it depicts is very real; and the protagonist it follows is not a philosopher. The Escape replays a return to The Cave to propose that false escape is the paradigm of human desire.
Part of the difficulty of escaping as such — of any kind, whether to or from — is that it is entangled with the relations between the universal and the particular, this and that consciousness, the variability of experience and perception, and so on. Here, this philosophical imbroglio is integrated as fiction-making, not least because The Escape suggests that consciousness cannot make any perception, any element of perception, into a sign of the whole without falsifying the whole. The whole is not given in or by any of its parts — but it must also be in every one of its parts. Perceptions hold consciousness only by being unable to hold consciousness entirely. To follow perception to its end or to its roots is to unleash only anarchy, an anarchy of chains.
Yet consciousness cannot not be obsessed with the perception that tricks and binds it. Not only because consciousness ceaselessly tries to outwit its own perceptions, but also because perception makes a sign, a sign of something else. A sign of the world. Whatever the world is, consciousness can only ever project it onto the other side of perception and the perceptible. For if consciousness identified itself only with perceptions, then it would dissolve itself into the synaesthetic turbulence of ungrounded presentations. If sometimes consciousness escapes into perception as into a trap it sets itself, such escape is not. Or, alternatively: consciousness’s dissolution is not an escape. Consciousness is defined by its difference from the perceptions that enchain it. Consciousness is not entirely chained to perceptions, but, still, it is chained.
What is perception? In general, it is whatever is given to consciousness. But what gives? It must be the world. Or whatever, pick your name. The world seems a good enough name. But the world is not given, neither in part, nor in itself. The world may be all that is the case, sure. But it can still really only emerge as a postulate for consciousness out of the division that consciousness discerns between consciousness and perception in order that consciousness find itself insofar as it is not where it perceives itself to be. And, correlatively, the world shows itself as not showing itself, except in such fragments of perception, simultaneously localization and distraction.
Alternatively, or accompanyingly, consciousness recognises itself as integrally part of the world that its perceptions so shakily indicate. Consciousness perceives itself as the other of perception, perception’s sine qua non, and, insofar as it does so, acknowledges itself as perhaps foundation or origin or even author of the world (by) which it presents (to) itself by not entirely presenting anything. But what sort of a world is that? A partial world, a mute world, a world without others, without attestable others. Descartes himself acknowledges it: the stability he has discovered at the end of the trials of radical doubt is a radically diminished stability, of consciousness, of perceptions, of the world itself. The escape was not an escape after all, but a revelation of the inescapable.
Yet the world — insofar as we might even agree on the existence, subsistence or persistence of that constituted hallucination at all — then also presents as a diminished version of itself, of its former glory, of its own potential. The Escape is quite clear on this: the world is worse than it is. Or, rather, it’s always already worsening: ‘Well I have meetings,’ says Mr Lambert, the protagonist of The Escape, to his wife and daughter who’s departing for university, after his wife has suggested they see the daughter off at the station, ‘They’re announcing the redundancies today.’ Things are bad. Otherwise there would be no need for escape. But also: there could be no escape from a world that is just what it is. Where would the world be but as its others — so often designated by its past, its pasts, its other possible pasts? Is it an irony that the worsening world is precisely the one you’re trying to escape to?
Loss is a constitutive structure of consciousness as such: consciousness can only come to self-consciousness by affirming that it is now not as it was, or, perhaps, that if it still is indeed itself, then world has correlatively come to be lacking. The world is the dark glass of that lost self; it too must not be what it was; it must also therefore be other than it is. Hence both the promise of escape — from the world, the diminished world, the world itself — and the impossibility of attaining the other world, the lost world, the true world. Time has taken the world from itself in an inexorable process of diminishing ontological returns: ‘life is rolling past… over us,’ says Sarah Lambert to her husband in bed.
We have to get out of it, get out, escape. ‘But where?’ Mr Lambert, clutching his little parcel of paper and string, desperately asks, ‘Here?’ His interlocutor, the seller of desire’s fulfilment, the existential Tech Lord or Drug Baron who retains a monopoly on the fulfilment of the desire for the world, responds: philosophers and scientists will tell you that there are infinite worlds. They are real, really real, as real as this one — which, as we have been saying, is at once all too real and only too diminished — indeed, the other worlds are not only real, they are necessary. But they are real and necessary, in Mr Lambert’s case at least, because they have already existed, being the worlds of his recent past.
So these worlds are also the worlds of the necessity of real desire. That desire is not necessarily volitional or conscious. ‘Even if you don’t know what you actually want. God knows, in the life that we live these days, there is little room for dreaming,’ says the purveyor of access to the real worlds of desire, ‘But your heart knows.’ Your heart? What could that possibly be? What is the heart except a name for the affective singularity of the Gordian Knot of the constitutive rifts between consciousness, perception and world — that is, of absolute yet utterly insubstantial loss? Auto-affection as loss: a tangle that can’t be cut without losing the loss that constitutes it.
Philosophers and scientists have only described the possibility and necessity of the infinite worlds of real desire — but the point is to get there. It’s a question of techne, as they say: of technical transportation systems, physical, mental, spiritual. Whoever controls techne controls the means of escape to the world of desire. But nobody controls techne perfectly; techne is necessarily imperfect. Its results are always ambivalent, impermanent, at once dissatisfying and inducing further desire. ‘I’m sorry I have to take so much,’ says the Lord of Desire, the Master of Techne, ‘but now you understand how important the world…’ ‘Do you think you’ll be able to make it permanent, so that we’ll never have to come back?’ begs Lambert. ‘I am trying, Mr Lambert, I am trying,’ comes the unavailing reply. Try as you might, though, there is only transience and loss as the manifestation of world as such. Techne is a work of time in time, but in the end there are no Lords of Time. Tech is not future-oriented at all, but directed towards the replay of what’s lost. All technology is in search of lost time: a phugology.
In the end — and this phrase ‘in the end’ also should be taken literally — the impossibility is not only, paradoxically, that another world is possible, but that another world is necessary. We are always at the end of the world, of a world. And we can and we cannot escape to the other world, because the world we want to escape from is already the world we want to escape to only insofar as it has gone. There is no world, there is no other world, that is not in the end its own other and double and same. And so you awake from your escape to find your life was already an escape to the world of your heart’s desire, and that your rude awakening is an awakening to the simultaneous actuality and unattainability of what only emerges in its notness. We cannot live at the end of the world without desiring to escape to what was not the world’s end — and yet we only ever live at world’s end.
In the film’s final shot or ending pause, Mr Lambert trudges across the apocalyptic sands of London where the gothic ruins of Big Ben — the clock of clocks, the mark of imperial government and world’s ordering — jut hopelessly from the swollen flood waters as an index of the futility of governing time. Even the greatest Masters of Techne can only take us back for a moment, replay lost time for 15 or so minutes, before the film ends and we’re back in the disaster of the present again. And lest we forget — though forgetting is what this is all about too — those Masters are cruel and violent and take from the lives of others to give us a little hit of desire, a desire that lives on blood and extortion and blind bitter grief. The devastated world from which we wish to escape is the outcome of the world we wish to escape to. One of many ironies: we wish to escape by reliving again the existence that led to the existence which we wish to escape. We too — victims of the disaster — are also causes of and participants in that disaster.
In the end, we cannot escape the present because the present escapes us. And we make everything worse as the escape is unable not to repeat the very conditions that got us into the mess in the first place. Humans are creatures that seeks to escape into incarceration. The Escape asks: is an aphugology then possible for humans? That is, to try to live in the irreparability of the real as it is, to move through its devastation and despair without yearning to or for escape?
Justin Clemens gained his PhD from the University of Melbourne. He has published extensively on psychoanalysis, contemporary European philosophy, and contemporary Australian art and literature. His recent books include Lacan Deleuze Badiou (Edinburgh UP 2014), with A.J. Bartlett and Jon Roffe; Psychoanalysis is an Antiphilosophy (Edinburgh UP 2013); and Minimal Domination (Surpllus 2011). He was founding Secretary of the Lacan Circle of Melbourne (2004-2009), and was the art critic for the Australian magazine The Monthly (2004-2009).
Images used are sourced from unsplash.com