Book of the Week: Escape Routes: Control and Subversion in the 21st Century

The central question of Escape Routes sounds quite simple: ‘How does social transformation begin?’ But the answer that the book provides is provocative and contests many dominant explanations of social change: according to the authors it is not the brimming revolutionary events occupying the imagination of the left that capture the mechanics of social transformation but the seemingly ‘insignificant occurrences of people’s daily actions’. It is in the everyday practices and imperceptible moments which make up people’s ‘escape’ from a given social order that we can find the beginnings of social transformation.

When I went to Greece in March, during a talk with my friend George Papanikolaou, I discussed the importance of exodus out of failing systems, as an important part of my vision of phase transitions. In summary, when a system meets its limits, people start fleeing it, which intensifies the crisis, creates a surplus population freed to do other things, and eventually leads to a process of the renewal of the social and productive system, through a mutual reconfiguration of the classes towards a new paradigm of society and production.

George first’s reaction was: “oh, you have to read this book, co-written by my compatriot and friend Dimitris Papadopoulos, which makes very similar points.”

The book is:

* Escape Routes: Control and Subversion in the 21st Century, Dimitris Papadopoulos, Niamh Stephenson & Vassilis Tsianos. London: Pluto Press, (2008)

There is a detailed review by Stephan Scheel in the journal Dark Matter, here.

Below we are reproducing the prologue, which features a chapter summary but also their motivation and salient points. In the book itself migration and precarity are choosing to illustrate these theoretical innovations.

Excerpt from Dimitris Papadopoulos, Niamh Stephenson & Vassilis Tsianos:

“This book is about social transformation; it proposes a processual vision of change. We want to move away from thinking about change as primarily effected through events. To focus on the role of events is to foreground particular moments when a set of material, social and imaginary ruptures come together and produce a break in the fl ow of history – a new truth. Much of the twentieth century’s political thinking casts revolt and revolution as the most central events in creating social change. But the (left’s) fixation on events cannot nurture the productive energy required to challenge the formation of contemporary modes of control in Global North Atlantic societies.

An event is never in the present; it can only be designated as an event in retrospect or anticipated as a future possibility. To pin our hopes on events is a nominalist move which draws on the masculinist luxury of having the power both to name things and to wait about for salvation. Because events are never in the present, if we highlight their role in social change we do so at the expense of considering the potence of the present that is made of people’s everyday practices: the practices employed to navigate daily life and to sustain relations, the practices which are at the heart of social transformation long before we are able to name it as such. This book is about such fugitive occurrences rather than the epiphany of events. Social transformation, we argue, is not about cultivating faith in the change to come, it is about honing our senses so that we can perceive the processes which create change in ordinary life. Social transformation is not about reason and belief, it is about perception and hope. It is not about the production of subjects, but about the making of life. It is not about subjectivity, it is about experience.

In the following pages, we look for social change in seemingly insignificant occurrences of life: refusing to subscribe to a clichéd account of one’s life story; sustaining the capacity to work in insecure and highly precarious conditions by developing informal social networks on which one can rely; or living as an illegal migrant below the radar of surveillance. These everyday experiences are commonly neglected in accounts of social and political transformation. This might be partly because they neither refer to a grand narrative of social change nor are they identifiable elements of broader, unified social movements. However, this book presents the argument that such imperceptible moments of social life are the starting point of contemporary forces of change.

But what makes some everyday occurrences transformative and many others not? Transformative processes change the conditions of social existence by paving the way for new transformations (rather than by creating fixed identifiable things or identities). We can trace social change in experiences that point towards an exit from a given organisation of social life without ever intending to create an event.

This is why we talk about ways of escaping. The thesis of the book is that people escape: only after control tries to recapture escape routes can we speak of ‘escape from’. Prior to its regulation, escape is primarily imperceptible. We argue that these moments where people subvert their existing situations without naming their practice (or having it named) as subversion are the most crucial for understanding social transformation. These imperceptible moments trigger social transformation, trigger shifts which would have appeared impossible if described from the perspective of the existing situation. You can never really know exactly when people will engage in acts of escape.

The art of escape appears magical, but it is the mundane, hard and sometimes painful everyday practices that enable people to craft situations that seem unimaginable when viewed through the lens of the constraints of the present. The account we give of social transformation does not entail cultivating faith in the event to come, rather it involves cultivating faith in the elasticity and magic of the present. Another world is here.

Escape routes are transformative because they confront control with something which cannot be ignored. A system of power must try to control and reappropriate acts of escape. Thus, the measure of escape is not whether it avoids capture; virtually all trajectories of escape will, at some point, be redirected towards control. We are trained to think that the end product of political struggle is all about a transformative end point, a revolt, a strike, a successfully built up organisation, a revolution. However, this perspective neglects the most important question of all: How does social transformation begin? Addressing this question demands that we cultivate the sensibility to perceive moments when things do not yet have a name.

There is nothing heroic about escape. It usually begins with an initial refusal to subscribe to some aspects of the social order that seem to be inescapable and indispensable for governing the practicalities of life. In other words, the very first moment of subversion is the detachment from what may seem essential for holding a situation together and for making sense of that situation. Escape is a mode of social change that is simultaneously elusive and forceful enough to challenge the present configuration of control.

In this book we introduce escape not because we are looking for either a principle behind people’s actions or the hidden principle of historical change. Rather, focusing on escape allows us to imagine, see and interrogate those ordinary moments when people’s actions put processes in motion, processes which are effective in confronting the social order with a force of change that cannot be avoided, silenced, neglected, erased. In retrospect, such moments can be explained in many different theoretical ways: as resistance, revolt, refusal, revolution, as an event. Rather than draw on these concepts inherited from twentieth-century political theory and practice, attuning ourselves to escape allows us to work with transformation that is more pertinent to process than to event, to skilfullness than to anticipation, to togetherness than to sublimation, to imagination than to logic, to joy than to seriousness.

Joy is crucial to this book. The joy of escape defies seriousness and this, as we try to show, is the most crucial condition for revealing truth. Paraphrasing Bakhtin’s (1984, p. 285) reading of Rabelais’ concept of truth, we could say that behind the sanctimonious seriousness of many exalted and official concepts of social transformation of the traditional left (and beyond) we find barking instead of acting and laughing. Rather than succumbing to barking out the fidelity to the coming event or to the new truth we prefer to enjoy the ways in which truth erupts out of the present. The emergence of ‘a truth inwardly free, gay and materialistic’ is made possible by the kind of laughter and hilarity that pervades the atmosphere of the carnival banquet (Bakhtin 1984, p. 285; see also pp. 94ff.). And it is the collective joy of eating and drinking in a ‘banquet for all the world’ (Bakhtin 1984, p. 278) which opens the possibility to partake in the world instead of being devoured by it. The laughter and joy of those who partake in the world defies seriousness, disperses fear, liberates the word and the body and reveals a truth escaping the injustices of the present. This laughter is the prime mover of escape. Escape is joyful. This is not an intellectual argument we are advancing in order to resist the ubiquitous melancholy and mourning of the left. Rather we are pointing to an embodied political practice which contests a dominant understanding of social change as the result of a response to suffering. Casting action as the force of pain is a terribly Eurocentric view. It demands that we become, or worse wheel in, a victim whose capacity to act is reduced to a mere response to pain. With Oswald de Andrade we prefer to talk about the pleasure of anthropophagy (Andrade, 1990, p. 51). Joyfully devouring the sacred enemy in order to create a new body and new conditions for seeing and acting in the world, anthropophagy triggers processes of transformation which simultaneously act at the heart of and escape the practices underpinning modernity and postmodernity in Global North Atlantic societies. Joy marks the routes of social transformation.

Joy is the ultimate proof.”

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