On Not Being Able to Escape

Escape From Studio Voltaire

On Not Being Able to Escape

The claustrophobic person is [..] an amateur escape artist. He needs, in order to psychically survive, to be ingenious and inventive about his exits and entrances.1

It is the contention of what follows, that it might be productive to entertain the idea of the artist as a claustrophobic person: for the artist to adopt or identify with the traits of the claustrophobic person. This is not, perhaps, an intuitive connection to make. However, the contention is that the artist faces a similar dilemma as the claustrophobic person and that the alternative to the discomfort of claustrophobia is the soporific acquiescence to prevailing conditions: what Adorno called adjustment. The claustrophobic person is someone caught by a lack of trust or belief, for whom re-assurance is no good: claustrophobia is a symptom of unease. The opposite of claustrophobia is, perhaps, incontinence: an ease of production.

It should be noted at the beginning that claustrophobia can be applied to writing, too. It is not so much that the blank page, or screen, blocks the writer in the way that blank architecture blocks the escape of the claustrophobic person; rather, the writer is someone who, amongst other things, thinks up routes of escape: who constructs passages. The writer wants to get to somewhere else. Writing about claustrophobia can be nothing else than another failed attempt at escape: another failed attempt to get to somewhere else. The lesson of claustrophobia, if there is one, is not that there is no way out but there is nowhere to get to. Writing about claustrophobia is at once both an exegesis, an explanation, of what I am doing as an artist but also an attempt to escape from the implications of what I have done. This writing is both essential and a distraction.

It is not as obvious as it might appear, what it is that the claustrophobic person is frightened of. What we might call a typical phobia has an object in which the fear is embodied: spiders, buttons, baked beans and so forth. And it is the presence of the object of fear, its immediacy, which provokes the phobic reaction. Here we are dealing with a spatial relationship: the proximity of the unbearable other. The fear is focused on the object which is always too close and seems to be eating up space between it and the subject: it is coming to get you. The defence against the encroachment of the unbearable object is not just flight but sight: patrolling the distance between one and it by keeping one’s eyes on it. And when the object gets too close, the subject must turn away, averting his or her eyes: under such extreme stress the subject must cancel or deny the spatial altogether. Often accompanied by screaming or shouting, this is the attempt to push the world away: to drown out all difference. 

There is no such object in which the claustrophobic person invests his or her fear. He or she is fearful not so much of what is there but what is not there. Adam Phillips suggests that the claustrophobic person is frightened of space itself. Of course, space is a kind of absence or, rather, something which is both there and not there. If this is so, the fix, in which the claustrophobic person finds him or herself, is that there is nowhere to go to escape from space. More than this, however, what is lacking for the claustrophobic person is sufficient ways of getting out of somewhere. The spatial defences of sight do not work for the claustrophobic person because insufficiency of space is itself the problem. There will always be too few means of escape for the claustrophobic person: an absence of the possibility of sufficiency.

It is never enough for the claustrophobic person to know that they can get out the way he or she came in; it is never sufficient to leave through the door. In a sense the claustrophobic person is not frightened of small spaces but of not being able to get out of somewhere: of being trapped. That is, he or she is not so much frightened of what is but of what might become: of spatial relationships becoming fixed. This is another way in which the claustrophobic person is afraid of what is not there. From this perspective claustrophobia is a temporal fear: a fear of immobilization in the future. Or, perhaps, the fear not only that the future is immobile but also that the future is already here. 

It should also be noted that claustrophobia is a symptom: the form taken by displaced anxiety. In this precise sense it is easier for the claustrophobic person to distrust space than to overcome whatever trauma is covered over by the claustrophobia. It is a way of keeping distrust alive, whilst suspending dealing with the causes that provoked the distrust. It is often the case that other persons are implicated in the fears of the claustrophobic person: it is not just space that is feared but others who, so to speak, are liable to occupy too much space. It is as if the claustrophobic person fears that there is not enough space to go round. The crowd becomes something to be differentiated from – an obstacle, a denial of spatial opportunities – rather than a collective with which to identify. I am not interested in the content of individual traumatic causes but rather the form of the symptom: claustrophobia does not posit a substitute object but rather generalizes distrust by identifying unreliability with space as such. What this preserves, is the proximity of catastrophe: it keeps trauma close at hand.

What the claustrophobic person lacks, then, is trust: the belief that things are as they seem and will continue in a more or less reliable fashion. And here it should be noted that the claustrophobic person is right. The claustrophobic person perceives the exception rather than the rule: the contingency rather than the continuity. In this respect the claustrophobic person is a revolutionary and a visionary: able to see through the fragility of the dull normalcy of expectations. For the claustrophobic person there is no guarantee that things will continue as they are: that the lift will continue to work; that the door wont get jammed shut; that the train will keep going to the end of the tunnel; and so on. Claustrophobia keeps open the possibility of radical change.

So, the claustrophobic person not only does not trust in appearances but is also unhappy about the present situation: the solidity of architecture is perceived as a trap, waiting to be sprung. It is the very features of architecture that make it seem trustworthy to most, its permanence and stability, that make it fearful for the claustrophobic person: space is seen to be liable to turn into a prison at any moment. Here the phrase “safe as houses” is ideology. Indeed, we know that houses are the most dangerous of places: that most accidents happen in the home. So there is an excessive, obscene supplement to “safe as houses,” which is something like “except when they kill you.” Safe as houses is, in fact, not very safe at all. But the invocation of the saying “safe as houses” – the claim to universality – covers over the fragility of the reality. It is necessary that we believe that houses are safe despite what we know (that they aren’t). 

Here, I am tempted to risk an extension of the comparison between the claustrophobic person and the revolutionary. The claustrophobic person is never quite at home: the home is a space which cannot be trusted because no space can be trusted. The limitation of space is the problem. The stability architecture promises is a lie: the succession of particular spaces which do not trap the claustrophobic person, which do not fail, do not distract the claustrophobic person from the unreliability of space per se. Similarly, the revolutionary is not at home in history: the present cannot be trusted because the freedoms it promises are a lie; the particular freedoms it promotes rely upon exploitation and division. The revolutionary, too, perceives the current situation as an illusion of stability, whose very continuance relies not only upon the efficacy of the illusion but also on the continual management and transformation of the excesses necessary to the maintenance of power. It is a basic Marxist point that capitalism necessarily produces the conditions for its negation out of its own internal logic. Recently, Slavoj Zizek has argued that this can be read precisely not as an argument for a teleology of revolution.

The dimension of universality thus emerges (only) where the “normal” succession of particulars is disrupted. For this reason there is no “normal” revolution; each revolutionary explosion is grounded in an exception, in a short circuit of “too late” and “too early”. 2

And does not the claustrophobic person experience a similar short circuit between the too late and too early? That is, is not the claustrophobic fear not only that one will become trapped but also, in a sense, that one already is trapped – that it is already too late? 

For the revolutionary there is no rest. History cannot be left to its own devises. For the claustrophobic person there is no safety. It is not enough to leave by the door. The claustrophobic person lives with the possibility of being trapped at any moment and thus needs to maintain vigilance at all times. There is no reassurance from history: the fact that things have always worked out in such-and-such a way is no guarantee that they will continue to do so: the claustrophobic person is vigilant for the exception. In relation to this constant threat of the exception, the claustrophobic person has to be imaginative as to how he or she might get out of somewhere. He or she is not necessarily practical – what needs to be maintained is the potential for escape: the possibility of being elsewhere. Indeed, to look for practical exits (for instance, going out the door by which one came in) is precisely to miss the point: the practical is not grounded in the exception. Oscar Wilde rallied against those who criticized socialism for being impractical – for Wilde, this was precisely the point: to conceive of a society outside of the logic (practicalities) of capitalism. The limits of practicality co-incide with the limits of capital itself: to remain within the practical is to fail to conceive of the possibility of radical transformation: a failure of imagination.

The claustrophobic person is an embodiment of a tension between holding back and letting go: of imagining escape and of actually escaping. Claustrophobia offers its sufferer a stark choice between two extreme modes of being: paralysis and flight. Paralysis is to be rendered immobile by fear but it is also a means of waiting: escape can only be imagined until the opportunity for a real escape comes along. Whilst flight is the process of escape itself. The tragedy for the claustrophobic person is that there is no middle ground. The comfort of the adequately sized, permeable space is not to be trusted: the thing about claustrophobia is that it can always get worse and it has no limits.

This possibility of being elsewhere in the future is maintained in relation to not being in control in the present. Here, a way of thinking of claustrophobia is as the desire for control and the acknowledgement of its impossibility – but without an acceptance of this condition. The psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott saw the treatment of neuroses lying in helping the patient get to the point where he or she could see that what he or she feared most – the disintegration of a coherent, whole self – was to be overcome by acknowledging that this disintegration had already happened: that it is already too late. The claustrophobic space is a place in which to play out this desire of escape and control and the impossibility of its alleviation.

For Zizek the revolutionary moment is an exception, a gap, opened up by the failure of history to progress “normally”. For the revolutionary the gap is not only the moment of opportunity but the proof of possibility: the promise of the non-ubiquity and fallibility of capitalism. The claustrophobic person also experiences a gap, a suspension of normality, as a moment of fallibility in the surrounding structures. The worse moment for a claustrophobic person in a lift, is the gap between the lift stopping and the doors opening. This brief moment is extrapolated as a potentially permanent condition: the particular moment of suspension is seen as a potential universal condition. The claustrophobic person is a fantasist of revolution.

What if the artist is in a similar predicament to the claustrophobic person? That is, what if the supposed coherence, permanence and continuity of Art were illusory? What would be the implications for artistic practice if not only the autonomy and control of the artist were a deception but also the structures of art that underwrite that belief? How is the artist to go on without a belief in the stability and righteousness of art?

The claustrophobic person has to manage without the guarantee of space: there is nowhere to go to find a safe space. He or she can never be free from the fear, from the potential, of a betrayal by space itself. Here it is not that something has gone wrong; it is more that a truth has become evident. The fear, for the claustrophobic person, arises because the contingency embedded in this truth is unbearable: the lack of a guarantee (the realization of the absence of a Big Other, in Lacanian terms) is unbearable. For the artist, there is nowhere to work and no thing with which to work, that is not always already damaged, compromised, fractured, corrupted and so on.

There were artists in the seventies who, in the wake of the violent self-awakening of artists that was conceptualism, found themselves unable to carry on being an artist. Stripped, by critical self examination, of a belief in Art, as a bearer of universal, transcendental values and the like, the truth of art’s precarious, contingent and contradictory position was unbearable. To stop making art seemed to be the only reasonable artistic thing to do. The trouble with this is not the analysis but the conclusion: the idea that there might be somewhere else to go to escape contingency keeps alive the promise of some activity (perhaps politics, real life, or something) where there will be a guarantor of meaning: something reassuringly worthy of belief.

It goes without saying that the artist is not free. And in this the artist is no more nor less free than anyone else. This unfreedom resides in the social conditions of art and not the practice of the artist. Those who would assert that art is free perpetuate a tired and tiresome mystification. As Zizek points out,

…is there anything more dull, opportunistic and sterile than to succumb to the superego injunction of incessantly inventing new artistic transgressions and provocations (the performance artist masturbating on stage, or masochistically cutting himself; the sculpture displaying decaying animal corpses or human excrement), or to the parallel injunction to engage in more and more “daring” forms of sexuality?3 

Zizek’s point is that, contrary to residual conservative voices, this indulgence in individualist transgression is precisely to conform to the demands of contemporary capitalism. To focus on the individual and his or her indulgences and transgressions is not only to reduce the subject to consumer, where any tastes and preferences, however supposedly deviant or unusual, can be accounted for and supplied. Identity politics is the political form of contemporary, global capital: it defines and isolates specialist interests as specialist markets. This is to perpetuate difference in unity in the pursuit of expanded markets over against unity in difference: this is a denial of collectivity and thus a denial of universal human flourishing. The form of consumption is tolerant of any particular content. To take political refuge in the idea of the individual is also to enact a reversal of the political:

…when we try to preserve the authentic intimate sphere of privacy against the onslaught of instrumental/objectivized “alienated” public exchange, it is privacy itself that changes into a totally objectivized “commodified” sphere. Withdrawal into privacy today means adopting formulas of private authenticity propagated by the modern culture industry – from taking lessons in spiritual enlightenment, and following the latest cultural and other fashions, to taking up jogging and bodybuilding. The ultimate truth of withdrawal into privacy is the public confession of intimate secrets on TV – against this kind of privacy, one should emphasize that, today, the only way of breaking out of the constraints of “alienated” commodification is to invent a new collectivity. Today […] the only way […] to have an intense and fulfilling personal (sexual) relationship is not for the couple to look into each other’s eyes, forgetting about the world around them, but, while holding hands, to look together outside, at a third point (the Cause for which both are fighting, to which both are committed).4 

It is the collective which is the condition for the individual and not the other way round.

The political problem for the artist, so to speak, is how to escape taking refuge in the idea of the individual, when the value of art is interpolated as a function of the artist’s individuality by the dominant discourses of art: predicated upon the authentic intimate sphere of privacy. Of course, we have come a long way since the modernist doctrine of unmediated authentic expression; the point is not that art is still in thrall of a naive and reductive theory of expression. Nevertheless, the structure that values the individual remains the same. This structure can absorb the death of the author; the Rortian ironist; the postmodern decentred subject; and so on. The idea of dedicated singularity may have been replaced by ideas of multiplicity and fragmentation but this is the shift from the compulsion of the producer to the choice of the consumer – a shift completely in keeping with the demands of contemporary global capitalism. The ultimate irony of identity politics is that the identification or recognition of different groups is the process of the denial of the universal: the denial of the unity of human suffering and therefore a denial of the possibility of a critique of capitalism. Similarly in art, the promotion of multiplicity is the process of the denial of the collective: it is the promotion and tolerance of the idea of the individual over against the possibility of a critique of art.

Every strategy the artist might wish to deploy to assert his or her independence goes to affirm the nature of art as an independent activity. The modern culture industry perpetuates the idea of art as the indulgence of a rampant individualism and the artist as an individual whose proclivities can include any manner of bizarre interests and practices. Taking up art can seem very similar to taking lessons in spiritual enlightenment; following fashion; and bodybuilding all rolled into one. What needs to be renounced is the idea of the artist as a particular kind of competent and independent individual: and this regardless of the distancing techniques, irony and cynicism the artist can insert into his or her practice. Indeed, such mediations go to confirm the virtuosity of the individual. Art & Language have remarked that the one thing professional art practice cannot recuperate or assimilate is the practice of the amateur.

Any artist vigilant to this entrapment – to the commodification of the very idea of art – must fear not only the fact of entrapment but the illusion that there is no entrapment: the illusion of individual freedom and privacy as the resistance to external commodification. The adjustment, in Adorno’s sense, to the mystification of art’s social condition is an accommodation to comfort, reassurance and flattery. The old fashioned myth of the suffering artist, in which no-one believes, nevertheless still functions as an ideological disguise for the comfort of professionalism: it is, precisely, by not believing in this myth that artist can carry on in a way that reproduces the conditions for the myth: as an (if necessary, ironized and distanced) individual, professional, etc. Ultimately, the term that embodies this myth is that of ‘artist’ itself.

The artist who wishes to avoid the seduction and comfort of the professional is caught in something of a paradox. The point is not to resurrect, or believe in, the idea of the artist as an excluded outsider. It does not really matter where one positions oneself within the schema of privileged centre and excluded margins: the schema of insiders and outsides reassures both, equally, that there is something to believe in: that there is something there called Art. This idea of art can act as a guarantee of the activities of artists: an omnipotent Other of transcendental and universal value, in relation to which the activities of a particular artist gains validation. What if it is this idea of art as a coherent, consistent and persistent thing which is the problem? What follows if we take seriously not only the idea that there are divisions and contradictions which run through art in every conceivable way (and are not between art and something else nor its centre and margins) but also the idea that there cannot be a consistent and cohesive whole to which these damaged parts could be restored? What if, in fact, art is the name of a kind of absence?

It is worth reiterating that this is not an argument (of postmodernist nor poststructuralist bent) in favour of difference, diversity and multiplicity: of individual monads instead of an overarching monolithic structure. Such positivity can only be a misrepresentation of art’s contradictions and absences. Art is riven with conflict and competition over meaning and value as well as with its own inherent contradictions, divisions and exclusions. There is no archimedean point of neutrality here: no possibility of negotiation nor compromise. Against the indulgences of relativism, one must argue for partiality: for an identification with the irredeemable as the only true carriers of universality. It is in this light that Dave Beech and John Roberts identify the philistine as the carrier of the universal truth of the violent exclusions of art: as the spectre of the aesthetic.5 

The ideological walls of autonomy must be seen as constricting and limiting without holding out hope that they can be an escaped. There is no alternative: nowhere else to go. It is here that the artist starts to sound like the claustrophobe: someone who sees not too little but who sees too much.

The claustrophobe, like the revolutionary, has to play a waiting game: waiting for the opportunity to act. And this waiting is not waiting for the right moment but being vigilant for the fortuitous opening. The waiting of the claustrophobe is not wasted time but preparation: imagining the possibilities for escape so that when the fortuitous opening comes, he or she is ready to go. The claustrophobe, like the revolutionary, has to manage with nothing.

If art is in a similar position, then it is not clear what waiting might entail for an artist, when the ability to act is not, historically, an option. It is not clear what managing with nothing might be for an artist.

The idea of ‘the act’ is that of an action that will change things, in the sense of transforming not only some external object or situation but the conditions of possibility for action itself. Radical transformation has to include self-transformation and therefore, in an important way, must be opaque to its own outcome. Put the other way round, if one knows what the outcome of an action will be, then the basic structure of expectations from which that action was made, will remain unchanged. It is not clear how, in doing things, one is to avoid what Zizek calls interpassivity: doing things in order to prevent things from really changing. Humanitarian aid to the third world, for example, whilst alleviating immediate suffering goes to prevent any change to the cause of that suffering: the demands of global capital (which is not to say that such aid is not vital in alleviating the suffering of millions; it is to insist that such action is in a way complicit with, and therefore does nothing to alleviate, the causes of that suffering). The structure of this kind of ameliorative action is one of liberal paranoia. What is wrong is perceived to be the upshot of human failings: the misdirections of error and evil. The basic thought here is: “if only everybody would behave more responsibly”. The attempt to correct the misdirections of fallible human action involves a redoubling of social reality: as though there was something lurking behind what is apparent – the capitalist system – making it go astray. Against such obfuscation, we should insist upon the fact that it is the capitalist system itself which is the problem. It has no behind. The corruptions and misdirections of humanity are the direct and inevitable product of capitalism: a necessary condition of capital not a contingent and corrupt deviation. Any attempt to act which does not acknowledge this stark presence of capital is doomed to ideology: to obscure not only its own conditions but the essence of the task in hand.
For Adorno, the process of adjustment to the realities of contemporary capitalism is achieved precisely through participation, through action. Such actions, however, are grounded in a logic of exchange. Doing this will make you more successful, which is to say happier/richer/sexier etc.; the price to be paid is that this success is achieved by conformity to the logic of capital itself. Today, experience itself is commodified, which is to say brought under the spell of relations of exchange. From so-called self-help books to identity politics to fashion brands, our interior lives are colonized by the rationale of capitalist relations: identity becomes something one chooses and in which one invests. The activities sold by the culture industry repeats the strictures of the market: that is, an investment is made not in the power of the act itself but in an economy of compensation: this logic implies that doing so-and-so will bring its rewards. The process of adjustment is the process of identification, not so much with the powers that be, than as with power itself, in the abstract. This is the internalization of a logic of exchange.

It remains to be seen whether an act, conceived as including radical self-transformation, can be encompassed by art or exist as art. It has long since been possible to produce any number of ideas, actions, events and quasi-objects as art. Such strategies are, in some ways, exemplary in expanding the possibilities for art practice: as a transgression of arbitrary limits and closures in the discourses and practices of art. However, such cultural acts are never performed unattached but within hegemonic ideological co-ordinates. That is to say, artwork which challenges the boundaries (etc.) of art is tolerated and supported by the institutions and their discourses, which such practices purport to transgress. The attack on the fetishized commodity of the art object perfectly fits the logic of contemporary capitalism and the global market. It is not just that this is what has come to be expected, that practices of critique have become normalized, but also that within contemporary capitalism it is the commodity which supports the image and no longer the other way round. Conceptual artists are not the only ones who are adapt at de-materialization: the largest corporations in the world today have no workforce and own no factories nor warehouses. What is it that Nike, for example, sells if it is not ideas? So, the question remains of what are the limits of hegemonic ideological tolerance of art practice? What kind of acts are intolerable?

In a sense, the very idea of art acts as a guarantee of a type that the genuine act must do without. The particular piece of art is always made in relation to the (false) universal, Art. This is why anti-art is such a powerful and pervasive idea: not as a negation of the protocols and procedures of proper art but precisely as the attempt to manage without them at all and without art: to manage without any guarantee at all. This is the truly revolutionary act: to transform oneself and one’s situation without a belief in a reimbursement by some other guarantor of meaning (whether History, Art or whatever). For the authentic act there can be no responsibility, accountability or so on: the only reason to act is the necessity of the act itself.

It is in as much as the claustrophobe stands as an exception, as someone excluded from space, so to speak, that the claustrophobe can stand for universal experience. Or rather, it is in as much as the claustrophobe represents a disavowed truth, which is that the stability of our spatial relationships relies upon the fragility of the premise that things will carry on just as they are, that it undermines the claims of universality of the supposed universal experience of the stability of space. The task for the artist is to manage without the universality of the supposed universal experience of the stability of Art.


1. Adam Phillips, Houdini’s Box: on the Arts of Escape, Faber and Faber, London, 2002, p.48
2. Slavoj Zizek, Revolution and the Gates, Verso, London, 2004, p.298
3. Slavoj Zizek, The Puppet and the Dwarf, the MIT press, London, 2003, p.35
4. Ibid. p38
5. See Dave Beech and John Roberts, The Philistine Controversy, Verso, London, 2002