Walled States, Waning Sovereignty is a recent very interesting book (2010) written by Professor Wendy Brown and published at the excellent Zone Books. As the book’s title implies, the author starts her thesis by the assessment that the various walls that materializes some of the borders of the world (Mexico-USA, Morocco-Spain, Bangladesh-India, Pakistan-India, Iraq-Saudi Arabia and to a certain extent, the Palestinian occupied territories and Israel) are the result of decreasing territorial sovereignty in the age of globalization. As we will see further in my review, she attributes to the notion of sovereignty, theological characteristics in the transcendental power that it applies on its subjects:
Sovereignty is a theological political formulation and formation that aims, inter alia, to subordinate and contain the economic and to detach political life from the demands or imperatives of the economic. That this aspiration is ultimately unrealizable does not prevent it from becoming a potent material fiction with significant effects during its reign. (P58)
In her interpretation, sovereignty is thus a form of deity and walls would therefore constitutes temples dedicated to the celebration of the memory of the former omnipotence of this theological power:
Ancient temples housed gods within an unhorizoned and overwhelming landscape. Nation-state walls are modern-day temples housing the ghost of political sovereignty. They organize deflection from crises of national cultural identity, from colonial domination in a postcolonial age, and from the discomfort of privilege obtained through superexploitation in an increasingly large corrosive, and humanly uncontrolled, against reckoning with the effects of a nation’s own exploits and aggressions, and against dilution of the nation by globalization. (P133)
Further in her analysis of walls, she unfolds the complexity of the walls structure and the latter’s motivation to control populations rather than simply prevent completely their movements:
Security today requires not just containment, but movement, flow, openness, and availability to inspection. Nothing is more dangerous than potential sedition or insurgency hidden in closed cells, on the one hand, or a stubbornly immoveable, untransformable, inassimilable, or otherwise fixed and insulated minority population, on the other. Security requires not only the ability to survey, inspect, process, count, and record, but the ability to channel, transfer, relocate, or simply drive out certain populations. The checkpoint rather than the barrier, the Plexiglas booth rather than the windowless cell, video surveillance rather than the guarded door, the tripped alarm rather than the iron gate – theses are the contemporary signatures of securitization. (P100)
Ideologically, the dangers that walls are figured as intercepting are not merely the would-be suicide bomber, but immigrant hordes; not merely violence to the nation, but imagined dilution of national identity through transformed ethinicized or racial demographics; not merely illegal entrance, but unsustainable pressure on national economies that have ceased to be national or on welfare states that have largely abandoned substantive welfare functions. (P82)
What comes further is the base of my questioning of Wendy Brown’s argument. First of all, she repeats several time in her text that those walls are simply electoralist spectacle and propaganda and that their functioning is far from being efficient. Such point is problematic as it registers her within the logical system of the institutions that order the construction of walls. Furthermore the claimed inefficiency of those walls seems to be based more on a statistical consideration than on a daily experience of the situation. Walls have a physicality and they do prevent or control the movement of whoever wants to cross the border they materialize.
A wall as such has no intrinsic or persistent meaning or signification. As social theorist Paul Hirst insists, buildings do not narrate and are not themselves narratives. Buildings are not “texts or pictures,” philosopher Nelson Goodman adds, and do not “describe, recount, depict or portray. They mean, if at all, in other ways.” Thus, while the Wailing Wall may be the most sacred site on earth for religious Jews, the Great Wall of China carries a thousand years of South Asian history, and the wall of the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington D.C. is unparalleled in its capacity to evoke memory and reckoning with that particularly dark hour in American foreign policy, wall as such do not tell a story. They emerge from and figure in discourses, they can become discursive statements themselves, and they are crucial to the organization of power in and through space. Walls may be said to be ugly, sad, imposing comforting, magnificent, beautiful, and even righteous or unjust, but these based on narratives resting in walls themselves. The meaning is not the referent. Walls do not narrate and do not speak. (P74)
This last excerpt illustrates further what is, in my opinion, problematic in W.Brown’s discourse. I am not denying the fact that a part of the walls’ power comes directly from the narrative that accompany their construction and existence. Nevertheless, a wall, in the architectonic typology it embodies, remains a wall in all its violence. With or without a narrative, bodies are not able to go through its matter and this mere powerful fact is often forgotten in favor of the symbolic -and in that case theologico-political- power of architecture.
All excerpts and photographs are from the book Walled States, Waning Sovereignty by Wendy Brown. New York: Zone Books, 2010. (distributed by the MIT Press)