Walled States, Waning Sovereignty

Walled States, Waning Sovereignty Imagery

Image of Walls

Although Brown is primarily interested in theorizing walls, she does spend some time talking about the physical fact of the walls. After all, it is the physical fact of walls that makes people desire them, because they like visible symbols of the sovereignty they crave. Toward the beginning of Walled States, Waning Sovereignty, Brown provides this image of walls in her description of many walling projects around the world:

There are walls within walls: Gated communities in the United States have sprung up everywhere, but are especially plentiful in Southwestern cities near the wall with Mexico. Walls around Israeli settlements in the West Bank abut the “security barrier,” and walls around the disputed Museum of Tolerance site in Jerusalem nestle next to walls partitioning the city. Bethlehem has been completely sealed off from Jerusalem with towering concrete walls. The European Union sponsors triple-layer walls around Spanish enclaves in Morocco even as Morocco itself maintains a lengthy “berm” aimed at securing the resources of the long-disputed Western Sahara. And in the name of preventing what he termed “French situations,” the socialist mayor of Padua recently built the Via Anelli Wall to separate white middle-class neighborhoods from the so-called “African ghetto” where most new immigrants live. (19)

Providing this rich survey of walls and the different shapes they take convincingly demonstrates that Brown is indeed talking about a widespread trend. At the same time, her descriptions show us the diversity of walls and how they rarely have anything in common on the basis of appearance. Rather, as she will explain, what they have in common is a cause and an effect. In terms of cause, they each respond to the waning of sovereignty today. In terms of effect, the enable fantasies that this sovereignty is being resurrected.

Image of Containment

One of the psychological functions of walls, according to Brown, is the creation of containment. Walls aren’t actually effective at containing. People, money, and goods still cross through, over, and under walls. But what matters is that they provide an image of containment so that people can feel protected in a closed space. Brown explains:

Visible walls respond to the need for containment and boundaries in too global a world, too unhorizoned a universe. They produce a spatially demarcated “us,” national identity, and national political scale when these can no longer be fashioned from conceits of national political or economic autonomy, demographic homogeneity, or shared history, culture, and values. (119)

The important thing is the visibility of the image. Walls provide a visible defense mechanism against the invisible threats people are anxious about, from money to the loss of state power. Visible walls also make visible positive qualities, like a sense of belonging together in a national community.

Image of Extrajuridicism

It’s not just states that build walls, and it’s not just governments that are trying to project an image of power. Laymen, too, contribute to creating a sense of boundary between an “us” and a ”them.” Sometimes, these people operate extrajudicially, which means “outside the law.” Brown provides this image of some such outlaw actors:

A striking instance of this blurring appears in the recent construction of a portion of border fencing in Narco, Arizona, undertaken by the Minutemen, a well-known and well-organized vigilante group. On private property in this small town seventy-five miles east of the secured port of entry at Nogales, the Minutemen funded, designed, and built a mile-long barrier made of thirteen-foot-high heavy-gauge welding mesh that can neither be climbed nor cut with conventional tools. This endeavor appeared aimed in part at showing an inept and inefficient Department of Homeland Security how to do its work, and in this regard expresses a certain antistatism, or at least disdain toward the bureaucratic and legal weightedness of liberal democratic states. (87)

The militia along the border desire, like those who desire a wall, a boundary between an “us” understood as white and American and a “them” understood as brown and Mexican. They provide a foreboding image of xenophobia.