Plotting Escape Routes: Individuation in 1984 and Brazil (1985)
One shouldn’t confuse the case of Oedipus with the machinery of the oedipal.
What is brought to light in the first is a destiny, and destinies always constitute individuals; what is at stake in the second is a judgement that only generates subjects. Hence, the oedipal is a machinery of subject formation with a particular economy, a particular structure and a general judgement whose sole purpose is the stabilization of a territory (the family) and a control of desire (Eros). The oedipal subject submits to the law of the father, gives up its choice of the mother, leaves the territory of the family to create its own territory and to become a father himself — to pass judgement in the double sense of the word. The core mechanism of the oedipal is hence controlled repetition in which each familial territory is itself controlled by an instance (the father) that has already submitted to an overarching law; each newly created micro-territory follows the prescribed mechanism and hence reproduces the given order.
The freedom of the oedipal subject is illusory — in its attempt to escape the law of the father, it reckons that by renouncing the mother it gains the freedom of choice and it is this freedom that it holds most dearly. But this choice is singular and it is only to fill a blank position, a position that is already fixed within a structure; the object that it chooses is only defined by its function (which is a first indication of how un-erotic the oedipal is).
The critical examination of the oedipal that took place in what is generally called postmodernism was nevertheless not its abandonment, but an attempt to find escape routes out of the subject forming machinery. The goal was to bring the power structures that generate the oedipal to light and the key strategy was to turn the machinery back into a plurality of singular cases.
A case covers a destiny, not a sequence. It retraces the choices that led to the actual and only choice of the oedipal subject: the subordination to the father; and it brings to light an individual, not a subject. The crucial cases for a critique of the oedipal are the ones in which something has gone wrong and in which the cogs of the machine become visible as they spin in empty space. Those are the cases of the perverted oedipal — Kafka’s Letter to His Father, Melville’s Bartleby or Moby Dick, Orwell’s 1984… The first and the second have been famously treated by Deleuze and it is this post-oedipal individual that needs to be understood as the protagonist of postmodernism. Like all ‘post-’s are to be understood in reference to the thing they try to overcome, the post-oedipal is, as a perverse version of the ‘original’, a strategy that is inherently bound to the actual subject matter of the case, namely the machinery that is now being judged; and this is the key to understand what Deleuze meant when he talked about devenir minoritaire.
But the machinery itself has changed and it follows a different economy; the machinery itself has become post-oedipal and new strategies need to be found to bring it to court. The case of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil will help us understand that, as its protagonist, Sam Lowry, is a perverted version of the already perverted oedipal of 1984. This already demarcates an impasse.
The perversion of 1984 is the infinite expansion of the oedipal at the expense of the familial micro-territory.
In the novel, the family is completely eradicated; Big Brother has completely absorbed the father figure, the placeholder of the law in the oedipal machinery. This alters the mechanism in a decisive manner — while the ‘normal’ machinery depends on the distinction between the familial territory and the ‘other’, to which the oedipal subject can flee from the father, a seemingly law-free land where it can reconstitute the law, Big Brother has totalized its territory and therefore forces the subject to stay within the familial territory that from now on encompasses the world — an incestuous love for the father whose only purpose is to be the perpetual re-affirmation of his transcendent law.
The oedipal control of Eros was due to its channelling through an infinite loop of repeated reconstitution; in 1984, Eros is negated and replaced by a continuous demonstration of the law’s power: allowing Winston Smith to go on with his affair was only a means to reaffirm Big Brother’s all-encompassing control. While in the oedipal machinery, the Eros towards the mother becomes a sin and its insistence an act of perverse defiance, in 1984, the Eros itself becomes an act of defiance: No escape.
But on a substantial level, and that’s the core insight of the novel, the two aren’t different at all — while the oedipal father allows the subject to flee, the oedipal subject, no matter where it flees to, will always return to the same territory, because it itself becomes the bearer of the law. In either way, the territory is inescapable and the fixed channelling of the Eros is indistinguishable from its obliteration. The decisive act is the subject’s submission, and everything else is pure ornamentation.
Which is why, if we want to take it seriously, Winston Smith’s erotic rebellion (which is more than mere defiance) cannot be one to find an ‘uncharted’ territory, which could in any way only be analogous to the one of Big Brother; it is a pure flight, a pure Eros that attempts to escape territoriality once and for all. It is an attempt to reach the inmost, which is, etymologically, nothing but intimacy. The Intimate is the most radical antipode to the Absolute and it is by no means to be confused with the Private, which is an oedipal concept. Big Brother doesn’t want to eradicate the Private. The little acts of freedom that the oedipal machinery allows don’t affect its sequence, Big Brother wants to eradicate the Intimate as to totalise itself as the Absolute. The Absolute is pure exteriority, what Adorno called the Verdinglichung (reification), and it is amidst this danger that the question of the individual arises with imminent urgency. The journal, the little notes, the secret glances were little premonitions of the intimate, of a shared inwardness, of an immanent untouchability that is political in so far as it denies all territory; in short, the intimate is the individual.
It is this, the individual, that Orwell tried to render thinkable in a world in which absolute exteriorization was coming to its own logical conclusion; and it is this escape route that the perverse oedipal of Big Brother brought to light. Benjamin said that the demise of the tragic hero is at the same time the condemnation of the old order of the Gods and the promise of a community that has not yet found its voice — and it is the same light that shines on Winston Smith.
We must understand that 1984, finished in 1948, and Brazil, that came out in 1985, respond to very different historical experiences. The essential point is not that one marks the go-ahead of the Cold War and the other of the Perestroika; the essential point is that they deal with different problems. What was happening is essentially linked to what Deleuze wrote about in the Postscript on Control Societies (1990).
What is in question is: What escape routes does Brazil offer us? What weapons does it give us? Saying that it deals with a different problem means that the oedipal machinery has changed; and this means that there are new means of controlling desire. As powerful as Big Brother’s machinery was, it will always depend on imminent power, it will always remain extrinsic. Hence, for total control, it will need to turn the subject completely extrinsic. But this renders the whole structure rigid and unstable, as it needs to suppress desire completely, and a single act of desire becomes a political act. Behind the unitary appearance of Nazi-Germany, there was a multiplicity of departments that were fighting each other for dominance. And it is almost as a response to this absolute de-erotization, that the machinery of Brazil turns into a complete erotization of the world. In fact, this might be the decisive difference between authoritarian and capitalist types of rule. This doesn’t mean an overcoming of the oedipal machinery, but rather its adaptation, a response to its instability. The switch from de-erotization to erotization is incredibly simple: instead of an inflation of the ruling father, an inflation of the desired mother.
What is striking in Brazil is the omnipresence of Sam Lowry’s mother, but also her power to pull strings at will, like when she arranged Sam’s promotion. “I simply know everybody,” a verdict of fate indeed. But even more importantly, what is striking is her continuous progression as an object of desire: From her being courted by the bureaucrats at her party to the group of admirers around her in the funeral close to the end of the film. Like the mother in oedipal triangulation, though, she is always occupied, but she’s not being occupied by a singular father, but by a multiplicity of figures — her surgeon, Mr. Helpmann, or anonymous bureaucrats, with no strings attached, a continuous contiguity. So, instead of the singular choice of the ‘classical’ oedipal machinery, in which one object of desire is chosen once and for all, we are now dealing with a seemingly free-flowing desire that does not eroticize one object by de-eroticizing all others, but which is kept busy by eroticising everything. Sam can never ‘possess’ the mother, as the oedipal subjects desires to, but this desire is permanently kept alive, because the mother is always ‘occupied’ only temporarily. He always almost possesses her, and is held in a state of permanent dissatisfaction. Each time he possesses an image of the mother, she escapes him once more, and he needs to continue striving.
This marks the changed careerism of capitalist societies in comparison to authoritarian ones: While the careerism of the latter revolves around an absolute centre, in whose gravitational field one needs to persevere, the first is a never-ending moving-to-the-top whose movement is a value in itself — because the spot of the father is empty, everybody can stand in his place, but only for a little while (the 15 minutes of fame). As Mr. Kurtzmann says: Nobody has ever turned down a promotion. Instead of the endless repetition of the ‘classical’ oedipal, instead of its suppression in the authoritarian post-oedipal, we now have an endless array of contiguous territories. And indeed, Lowry never arrives at the same place twice.
Instead of the singular territory of Big Brother, we have a multiplicity of departments that follow different functions, different aesthetics, different logics. The Department of Records, where Sam Lowry starts, is a centrally organised and centrally controlled open office in which everyone stops working once the authority figure looks away (communism), the lower parts of Information Retrieval are divided into small, closed-off offices in which the authority figure is in permanent motion and acts as a decision maker (market-capitalism), while the upper part of Information Retrieval, with its secretary and bourgeois interior is one door away from the torture chamber — not to mention the upper-class pseudo-aristocratic society of Sam’s mother. There is no unifying picture or territory, the only continuity is the Eros of advancement, whose multiple territories are a sign of novelty and short-term satisfaction.
However, with all its apparent variety, there is still one singular machinery, one singular economy that exercises control. While Big Brother in 1984 had the ambition to take the place of the Absolute, to become an emanation of truth (with its Ministry of Truth), the surplus value that fuels the economy of Brazil is an accumulation of information (note the change to the Ministry of Information). Information itself is given a financial value — if we want to call Brazil prophetic in any way, then it is the prescience of Big Data. But how can information be given a financial value? With what is called Information Retrieval Charges. Every arrestee needs to pay for the whole procedure himself — his arrest, his interrogation, or, rather, torture. That’s what drives one line of the plot: Because Buttle was arrested wrongly, his family is being sent back a refund, namely for the payment of his own murder. A truly perverted economy, as during Sam’s own trial, the government offers him to pay for his procedure — with interests, of course: “Now either you plead guilty to seven of eight of the charges which will help keep costs down within your means or you can borrow a sum to be negotiated from us at a very competitive rate.” The raison d’être of whole system of surveillance is therefore not control in itself, but to find a reason to arrest somebody so to extract money from them. So what we can observe is a conjunction of three machineries: the surveillance machinery that extracts information, the law machinery that justifies the subject’s arrest and produces its guilt, and the financial machinery that turns guilt into debt (in German you’d say: Schuld in Schulden). So we see why desire needs to keep moving within this machinery: for a perpetual accumulation of information as to perpetuate the debt of the subject.
Now, what are the escape routes that are sketched out in Brazil? Let us turn our attention to the actual subject of the case: Sam Lowry. Sam starts out with what Winston Smith desired: intimacy. Indeed, Sam thinks to have found his escape route by the beginning of the film in his act of non-participation, of disinterest, of his free imagination of fantasy. But he’s fallen into the oldest oedipal trap: The damsel in distress he keeps dreaming about is not a fantasy woman, but, as it becomes clear in the bedroom and the funeral scenes, his own mother. In the bedroom scene, where Sam and Jill sleep together in his mother’s bed, she is wearing one of her wigs, which turns out to be the hairdo of the dream woman in the beginning of the film. In the funeral scene, Sam’s mother is shortly played by Kim Greist, who actually portrayed Jill — the two figures overlap. You can’t have a more classical oedipal situation: Sam hunts after Jill who he believes was his dream woman, but in fact he was chasing after the image of his mother. While Sam’s initial act of rebellion consists of a denial of (careerist) desire in lieu of an intimate fantasy, he does not escape the oedipal by it and it becomes more apparent the more his dreams become mingled with his erotic desire.
And yet, in his final fantasy, Sam ends up in a picture book landscape together with Jill after their apparent escape from the machinery. And this marks the greatness of this movie, a truly consistent and yet monstrous conclusion: The movement that marked the escape route out of the post-oedipal machinery, is the exact same one as the movement of submission that the oedipal subject underwent: Sam dreams of his mother, attaches her image to another object of desire, escapes the territory of the father by creating his own territory somewhere else. The whole structure becomes circular: In the oedipal structure, the flight from the father to a pre-structured territory was a submission to the law, while the insistence of the erotization of the mother or absolute negation of desire (refusal to establish one’s own family) were acts of sin, of pathology. In the post-oedipal structure of absolute de-erotization (1984), the flight towards intimacy becomes an act of rebellion; in the perverted post-oedipal structure of complete erotization (Brazil), the constant creation of new territories is an inherent part of the machinery. What Brazil therefore reveals is the weakness of the purely intimate, the cowardice of retreat, but it also reveals that hanging on to the oedipal and its varieties will never truly give us the weapons to fight it. This is why the ending of Brazil is at the same time a happy end and tragic: The conservative village green nostalgia that wishes back the oedipal stability of the bourgeois subject becomes the fantasy-image of the capitalist subject — it dreams of its own territory, the object of desire that is truly his own (hence the contemporary resurgence of chauvinism and nationalism).
However, the always-arrived subject of disciplinary societies is in no way preferable to the always-arriving subject in societies of control. Lowry did truly escape, but his version of intimacy remains within the boundaries of pure egoism — he did not become political as he self-orchestrates it in his escape fantasy. Nostalgia as a weapon is unstable and just becomes another market to channel desire, another image to sell: His picture book landscape is indistinguishable from the advertisements that sell happiness, it is, in fact its very own image. The logic of the oedipal and the post-oedipal are brought ad absurdum, they collapse into each other: While the oedipal machinery needs the pathological, the ‘other’ to construct a regular and regulated normality, the post-oedipal machinery traps the subjects who attempt to escape by letting them run into the oedipal trap which ultimately remains within its reach. The village green is just another image to sell. The escape routes turn out to be impasses — and the question needs to be asked anew: not, how do you escape, but how do you pervert, collapse, short-circuit?