The migration, smuggling, crime, terror, and even political purposes that walls interdict are rarely state sponsored, nor, for the most part, are they incited by national interests. Rather, they take shape apart from conventions of Westphalian international order in which sovereign nation-states are the dominant political actors. As such, they appear as signs of a post-Westphalian world.
In this quote, Brown explains the makeup of the post-Westphalian world. In the Westphalian world, the globe is divided into nation states and nations are the basic unit of global order. In turn, conflict is a result of states disagreeing with each other. Today, however, the important relations are not between states and other states, but between states and non-state actors, including terrorists or multinational companies. Thus, the nation is no longer the basic unit of order.
This distinctiveness appears in the fact the new walls are built to blockade flows of people, contraband, and violence that do not emanate from sovereign entities and in the fact that they perform an increasingly troubled and unviable sovereign state power. The new walls iterate, in this regard, a vanishing political imaginary in a global interregnum, a time after the era of state sovereignty, but before the articulation or instantiation of an alternate global order.
Given the post-Westphalian world Brown says we live in, walls are not erected to protect states from other states. In other words, the walls aren’t meant to keep out another nation invading, as walls did in the past. Instead, the walls are targeted at non-state actors such as drug cartels. It is in this way that the walls also symbolize our contemporary political moment and how different it is from the past.
As it is weakened and rivaled by other forces, what remains of nation-state sovereignty becomes openly and aggressively rather than passively theological. So also do popular desires for restored sovereign might and protection carry a strongly religious aura.
The central argument of Walled Stated, Waning Sovereignty is that nations have lost their power to control themselves, or lost their sovereignty. When Brown says sovereignty has therefore become theological, she means it has become more a matter of belief and spectacle than of fact and reality. States try to give off the sense of power in the same way that religions have historically inspired faith, belief, and worship. Walls are a part of this theological drive, because they create a belief in sovereignty despite the fact of waning sovereignty.
Capital alone appears perpetual and absolute, increasingly unaccountable and primordial, the source of all commands, yet beyond the reach of the nomos.
Nomos refers to international order, such as a prior system of international law in which states agree to peace through treaties with other states. Capital, or the flow of wealth and money in the world, does not respect any national treaty or law. That is why capital is also the main reason that states have lost sovereignty. Companies transcend nations, and no single nation can control the economy. Thus, capital is the true sovereign, with the market replacing the power of the state.
In view of the several levels of intimacy and identification between state and individual sovereignty and the ways in which walls themselves are sites of mobilizations between state and subject, discussions of the two cannot be cleanly separated.
In Brown’s account, people conflate state sovereignty with personal sovereignty. That means that they see violations of their country as violations of their own body, and vice versa. This is the core of their desire for walls, because they want their country protected in the same way they want their bodies to not be violated. These psychological reasons, Brown says, are more powerful explanations for why we have so many walls today than the official explanations governments often provide.
The new walls thus dissimulate need and dependency as they resurrect myths of national autonomy and purity in a globalized world. Danger, disorder, and violence are projected outside, and sovereign power is figured as securing a homogenous, orderly, and safe national interior.
Walls can’t just be explained in terms of what they physically do, Brown argues. Rather, they have to be understood according to the kinds of symbolism and fantasies they make available. Most importantly, because walls divide the world into an “us” and a “them,” an inside and outside, they make it possible to think everything on this side of the wall is good and everything on the other side is bad. People can pretend problems internal to their country can be solved as long as there is a wall on the other side of which the problems can be placed.
This chapter agues that nation-state walling responds in part to psychic fantasies, anxieties, and wishes and does so by generating visual effects and a national imaginary apart from what walls purport to ‘do.’
Walls rarely “do” what they are supposed to do, according to Brown. They don’t stop immigration, for instance. But they do make people feel a certain way—such as secure—and it is this feeling that is the most important. People want walls because of the fantasy of sovereignty they provide.
In short, where demand pulls the supply of labor or contraband and where state expansion and/or occupation is at stake, walls produce borders as permanent zones of conflict and lawlessness, incite sophisticated and dangerous underground industries, expand the size and expense of the problems they would solve, and aggravate hostilities on both sides.
In this quote, Brown provides a biting critique of the justifications sometimes offered for border walls. Her critique is that walls not only don’t do what they are officially supposed to do, but that they usually create the very problem they were supposed to prevent. In this case, drug trafficking and other illegal markets are intensified rather than eliminated by walls. This is further proof, for Brown, that walls are desired not for anything they do in reality but because of what they do for people in their imaginations.
[T]he discourse of walling and the fantasy it holds out of being able to seal the nation off from the outside themselves facilitate these disavowals and occlusions. Walls are a scrim on which can be projected an anthropomorphized other as the cause of national woes ranging from dilutions of ethnicized national identity to drug use, crime, and declining real wages. The nation is under assault and needs to bunker itself against a “Third World invasion.” In short, the bid for walls both emerges from and abets a discourse in which foreign labor, multiculturalism, and terrorism are merged and relocated from consequence to cause of the loosened enclosing folds of the nation and the growing limits on state protective capacities.
Walls create an “us” and a “them.” That is their main symbolic function. Armed with this distinction, people can then imagine that everything good belongs to the “us” and everything bad belongs to the “them.” Thus, people can pretend all the problems within a country, such as injustices and economic problems, are actually outside the country, on the other side of the wall. In turn, they desire walls in order to keep the problems out. But this is just a fantasy, because often times the problems they fear are actually right at home.
Defenses, the Freuds argue, spare the ego from an encounter that disturbs the ego’s concept of itself. This includes blocking encounters with the id’s own aggression or hostility, a blocking that allows the ego to split off from the id to construct an identity of virtue and goodness. Translated into the desire for walling, national identity is restored not only to potency, but to virtue through walls. It is cleaned of both its identification and its imbrication with what it is walling out, whether extreme global inequalities, capital’s demand for cheap illegal labor, or anticolonial rage. Thus do walls help to defend the identity, virtue, and strength of the nation against a variety of challenges.
In this quote, Brown breaks down the technical understanding of defense mechanisms provided by Sigmund and Anna Freud. For the Freuds, a defense mechanism is meant to defend against all the bad energy that is attached to negative ideas. There are two types of defense mechanisms: ones that target the energy and ones that target the idea. The conversion of a negative idea into a positive idea is seen in the desire to build a wall. Here, the negative idea is that the nation is losing sovereignty, and this is converted into the positive idea of building a wall. But a defense mechanism can also convert the energy attached to a bad idea by projecting it onto another bad idea. This is when people move the bad feelings they have about their country onto bad feelings they have about foreigners. People still experience fear, but now they blame it on others instead of on what it is really causing it, which is the waning of sovereignty.
Walled States, Waning Sovereignty Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Walled States, Waning Sovereignty is a great
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