Escape For Non-Experts

My dissertation charts the political imaginary of freedom by way of the problem of escape. The project begins with a question: how does escape remain a political concept in a world that has been hemmed in by modern distance-demolishing technologies (cars, planes, modern weapons, and now information technology like the internet and global positioning systems)? Specifically, I propose three major themes that show how changes in the way people escape foreshadow larger societal transformations. The first is how anonymity reshapes interaction in the overlap of digital media and urban living. The second is how sound metaphors explain new types of social action. And the third is the way recent subcultures entice their members to change identities, or even attempt to abandon labels altogether.

The methods I use in this study are drawn from philosophy, social science, and literature. In particular, I use the cultural philosophy of Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, recent anthropologies of state formation, and twentieth-century literary theories of social action.

I advance Deleuze and Guattari’s provocative idea of drift, which enables me to pose hypotheses about potential societal transformations that do not require a bloody political revolution that seizes the government. For raw material to test the idea, I look to anthropologies of government for historical examples of actually existing people who ‘ran to the hills’ in order to escape abuses of state power. Lastly, I identify key literary and artistic texts that cover the theme of escape: from ‘drop outs,’ to runaways, to the criminal underground.

Ultimately, I consider if running to the hills has been replaced by burrowing deeper into urban centers. And, to fully understand the effects of the shift in escape from running away to a kind of internal exodus, I look to recent changes in modern life.


Escape is the oldest story of freedom, and is also the most American. Early colonialists may have flown the banners of England, France, Spain, or the Netherlands, but what really drove them was the desire for freedom. Or so we are told. Interestingly, the same tale is told about frontier families striking out West in search of a life free from big city problems.

But behind each story hides the ambiguous legacy of freedom. European explorers’ quest for freedom quickly turned into bloody wars of colonization, and America’s expansion westward was only possible through the violent conquest of Native Americans and neighboring Mexico. Yet, outside the well-documented exploits of colonial domination, there are buried histories of runaway slaves and former convicts who established hidden multi-racial settlements, like in the Great Dismal Swamp of Virginia. Or, beyond the hubris of Manifest Destiny, remain the popular images of the Wild West that provide a distinctly American style of freedom.

But in the last half-century it all changed. By the end of the 1960s, the vast majority of globe has been under the direct surveillance and control of governmental institutions, leaving few places to which one could escape (even as there are just as many things we may want to escape from). Escape still exists, however, it has simply transformed. Inspired by those older stories of escape, in my dissertation, “Escape,” I search for the contemporary frontiers and the ambiguous escape routes found in frontier zones. In particular, I identify advancing frontiers of urbanism, digital culture, and new social movements in order to explore the political imaginary of escape found in each.

Project Summary

The dissertation has two halves. In the first half, I pair anthropology and literature to trace a historical path of escape. I start and finish this half of the dissertation by showing the slow transformation of escape from running to the hills to burrowing deeper into urban centers. I begin this half of the dissertation with a survey of the ambiguous nature of escape (expanding on the stories of ‘frontiers’ I begin this summary with), and end with an example of the urban space I call ‘the Metropolis,’ which I explore through contemporary political theories of management and the literary elements of noir detective novels. The first half of the dissertation pivots around the second chapter, in which I perform an ‘autopsy’ of old forms of government from which I identify five types of states, each looking like a different type of body. For instance, I generate an image of the first body, ‘the Archaic State,’ by examining the early organizational structure of social groups, comparing the myths that held them in place, and analyzing the accounts of those who dared escape. For example, I look to recent anthropology on slaves that escaped to highland areas to flee the forced labor of rice-fueled ‘paddy states’ of Southeast Asia around 1000 BCE.

In the second half of the dissertation, I emphasize the significance of the project by proposing three major themes that dramatize the role that escape plays in larger societal transformations: anonymity, sound, and self-expression.

I begin with a chapter on anonymity, where I consider how digital culture and urban life reshape politics. In particular, I discover the challenges that anonymity poses to a democratic system based on public displays of preference. For example, I look to obscene or offensive comments on internet news articles, and protest actions that are supposed to ‘speak for themselves.’ In addition to using sociological methods from the fields of new media and the digital humanities, I perform literary readings of Vietnam War-era novels and recent blogs. In Michael Herr’s 1977 classic Dispatches, for instance, which depicts American soldiers during the Vietnam War, Vietnamese insurgents taunt American soldiers in a way that displays certain similarities to the internet ‘trolling’ of today. By combining literary speculation with concrete examples of anonymity, I consider imaginative worlds where people are free to experiment with multiple, often contradictory, forms of expression, which calls into question t largely monolithic self-interest common in contemporary democracy theory.

In the next chapter, which is on the topic of sound, I propose alternative models for new types of social action that do not pose a specific demand. I find that metaphors of mechanical sound, like resonance, reverberation, echoing, and striking, are helpful in mapping the rhythm and movement of new social movements. Methodologically, this chapter combines the sociology of crowds and contemporary literary uses of the mythological figure of Pan with metaphors of sound developed by French philosophers of science. In example, Pan, the mythic god of both the harmony and discord of the natural world, is a good illustration of the personification of music as it brings people together in action. Thus he appears in contemporary works of literature as a lovable leader, like the boyish imp of JM Barie’s Peter Pan (1904/1911), or a chaotic piper, as in the character in novels and short stories of William Burroughs that manipulates time and space (The Soft Machine, 1961; Nova Express, 1964). Through these examples and others, I demonstrate how metaphors of sound explain the success of recent social movements, like the revolution of Egypt, that evade the usual mechanisms of political mobilization like marches and petition drives.

In the final chapter, I examine self-expression in punk and Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transsexual, and Queer (GLBTQ) subcultures. I follow a particular strand, the desire not be anyone or anything, to study how personal identities are used in refusing societal norms. To study self-presentation, I analyze the religious and philosophical explanations given by members of subcultures, and additionally draw on recent advances in feminist cultural studies. The group ‘Feel Tank Chicago,’ for instance, looks at how the public experiences their political feelings. As part of a public artwork in 2007, an individual in a lab coat stopped people in Millennium Park, Chicago, to “explore their emotional baggage in political times” by offering to design personalized luggage to “carry their emotional baggage,” like a backpack to carry around their baggage, or a package to send it away to someone. I bring together Feel Tank Chicago with other examples of groups that find creative ways to escape what they view as the unjust demands of society.


My project speaks to emerging topics in contemporary American political circles. Many contemporary political theorists are studying escape without calling it such. For instance, three of the hottest topics in politics today are illegal migration, casual or black-market work, and changing sexual and biomedical classifications, each of which involve some individuals who must escape detection in order to survive. While there are many notable scientific studies that address these topics, few look at the dreams and fears of those who have made escape a necessary element of daily life. This dissertation provides a humanities complement, which I anticipate sparking additional scientific work, as in ethnographic field interviews, as well as further literary mapping of border stories of political refugees, diaries and self-writing by unemployed youth, and GLBTQ art after the AIDS crisis.

One thought on “Escape For Non-Experts

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s