Walled States, Waning Sovereignty

Walled States, Waning Sovereignty Summary and Analysis of Chapter 1 (pp. 27-42)

Summary of Chapter 1 (pp. 27-42)

In the second half of Chapter 1 of Walled States, Waning Sovereignty, Wendy Brown grounds and systematizes some of the analysis provided so far on the relation between the loss of nation-state power and the rise of building walls. To ground her argument, she provides two case studies: the Israeli Security Fence along the Israel/Palestine border, and the series of fences and walls along the United States/Mexico border. To systematize, she finds patterns across both contexts and connects them to other wall projects across the world. In doing so, she makes a general claim for the causes and effects of walls in our global world.

At first, Brown acknowledges the difficulty of her task. This is because there are so many different types of walls in so many different places. Some walls are big and built of concrete; others are small and are essentially fences. Some walls are built with the official purpose of controlling immigration. Others are built to prevent the trafficking of drugs or people. Still others are built for national security or to prevent terrorism. How could there be a common foundation to all this variety?

Brown suggests we think of these many different walls as “kin.” That means they aren’t all the same, but they are all related. In a family, people are different, but they share a common ancestor. Similarly, Brown says these different walls, despite their different purposes, should be conceived as a “single historical phenomenon.” All of them relate to a common global condition of the waning of national sovereignty. In this case, “historical” doesn’t mean in the past. Rather, Brown is talking about the present. What makes this “historical” is that our present belongs to a unique period of time, just like the Westphalian world was a historical period prior to ours.

Brown teases out more details about this historical period of the present by looking at the Israeli Security Fence. She notes that Israel was founded in 1948 by partitioning, or dividing, the land of Palestine. From the very beginning, then, Israel had to assert its own borders in order to assert its own nationhood. In other words, Israel did not have a history of sovereignty to rely upon. Instead, it had to create its sovereignty. Building a wall is part of this effort, because it provides the borders of a nation. In this case, building a wall is “performative.” That means it creates something by doing something. In this case, building a wall creates sovereignty. It brings the sovereignty of Israel into being.

At the same time, Brown notices that this wall is “impermanent and ad hoc.” By impermanent, Brown means it is not built to last forever. It is not, for instance, the Great Wall of China. It doesn’t have the right size or materials to have that longevity. By ad hoc, Brown means that the wall was not completely planned before it was built. A section is built here and a section is built there, but there is no unified master plan that anyone is following. Brown thinks this is typical of many of the walls being built today. Although they are meant to symbolize a nation’s power, the fact that the walls are not part of a master plan suggests instead that nations are desperately scrambling to build something along their borders because of the loss of their power.

Next, Brown considers the similarly impermanent and ad hoc walls along the United States and Mexico border. The walls started to be built near San Diego in 1990, and new patches kept being built up through the publication of Walled States in 2010. In this case, the United States does not have to performatively create its own sovereignty like Israel did, because it has a longer history of being recognized as a nation. Instead, the border walls have been built with the official purpose of keeping out drugs and immigrants. Brown cites this as an example of what, in the first half of the Chapter, she calls the “transnational” character of the walls. By targeting flows of people and goods, rather than, say, the armies of a nation, this wall is aimed not at another state, but at non-state actors.

Another lesson Brown draws from the U.S/Mexico walls is the relationship between building walls and xenophobia. Xenophobia is a fear or dislike of people from foreign countries. In this case, the wall expresses an American fear and dislike for people from Mexico. By keeping out goods and people from Mexico, the wall seems intended to “protect” the United States from foreign contamination. One consequence is that the walls also create a sense of an “American” national identity in opposition to the Mexican. This is one of the performative effects of the walls. In Israel, the walls create a sense of sovereignty that did not exist before. In the United States, the walls create a sense of national identity. It is this sense of nationalism that Brown will explore at more length in Chapter 3.

Analysis of Chapter 1 (pp. 27-42)

At first, it can be confusing reading someone write about the present as a historical period. However, this is an important part of Brown’s Marxist leanings, even though she never talks about Marx at great length. History is important in Marxism because it shows us that things change. This means that history can teach us that the things we take for granted today are not necessarily natural, but rather subject to change. For some Marxists, a historical perspective thus makes possible revolution, because we learn to trust that we can change the world. For Brown, the main thing is that we have a better sense of how our everyday lives today are shaped by historical forces, especially the economy.

Brown calls the world today “post-Westphalian,” and it is important to understand the meaning of this “post.” For Brown, this doesn’t mean we have completely moved beyond a Westphalian world. Rather, it means we have seen the signs of a transition, and we don’t yet know what we are transitioning into. That’s why she doesn’t come up with a new name for the world we live in, but instead names it in reference to the world we are leaving behind. For Brown, this transition causes people to have a lot of anxiety, because they don’t know what kind of world they are living in. Walls respond to this anxiety by trying to put us back into an older world we understand.

Brown’s choice of case studies in this chapter is not random. By focusing on the United States and Israel, Brown centers her analysis in a “Western world.” As an American theorist, she addresses fellow Americans. In this way, she asks people to be accountable to and reflective about their own national commitments. But she is also making a powerful argument by looking at America as a case study in the waning of sovereignty. Many people assume the United States is the most powerful country in the world. By considering how this country, too, exhibits anxieties over a decline in its sovereignty, Brown provides proof this is indeed a phenomenon affecting every country.

A major component of Brown’s theory is the “performative” nature of the walls. This concept was theorized in the 1990s most influentially by the gender theorist Judith Butler, who happens to be Wendy Brown’s partner. Butler argued that gender is “performative,” which should be contrasted with “performance.” In a performance, someone acts out a role. The role exists before the performance, for instance in a script, and the actor comes along to say the lines. In contrast, performative refers to a situation in which the actions produce the role. In Gender Trouble, Butler argued that there aren't essential and eternal genders that people in turn embody in their actions. Rather, the way people act itself produces gender. Our categories of male and female are always being produced by the ways in which people dress, act, comport themselves, and so on.

By calling walls performative, Brown is saying something similar about sovereignty. It’s not that there is a sovereignty that pre-exists the building of the walls. Rather, the walls are trying to bring that sovereignty into existence, in the same way that actions bring gender into existence. This is what makes walls aspirational. We think they are signs of a sovereign decision. Instead, they are trying to create the illusion of sovereignty. They are not the products of power, but are trying to bring a sense of power into existence.