Walled States, Waning Sovereignty

Walled States, Waning Sovereignty Summary and Analysis of Chapter 3

Summary of Chapter 3

In Chapter 3, Brown explores the “psychic” relations between “States and Subjects,” the title of the chapter. Here, “psychic” refers to psychological experiences. “States” are the nations whose sovereignty has been discussed in previous chapters, and “subjects” are people, usually the people who live within a state. Thus, in this chapter, Brown is analyzing how people feel about their countries, including the fantasies they form about the power of their country. Walls, Brown says, are an intimate part of the feelings and desires people have about and for their country. That’s because walls don’t just serve functions, but also have symbolic value.

One point of departure for Brown is the work of Gaston Bachelard, who wrote a famous book in 1958 called Poetics of Space. Bachelard was interested in architecture and how the ways in which buildings were made could produce different feelings and moods in the people who entered them. For instance, a home is built in such a way to facilitate intimacy among the people who live within it. That means space is constructed: how walls are built and styled, for instance, creates a space that is domestic or political, more intimate or more public, more comfortable or more frightening. Similarly, for Brown, walls construct the space of a nation, and in turn they facilitate certain kinds of feelings people have about their nation.

In turn, an analysis of walls has to attend simultaneously to their “material and psychological registers.” A register is a specific dimension or level of thinking about something. Walls have a material aspect and a psychological aspect, which means they are both physical structures that exist in the world and metaphorical structures that affect people’s moods and unconscious desires. The reason why walls are popular today has to be explained not just by what they physically do, in for instance separating one piece of land from another, but also in what they psychologically do, in terms of supporting people’s fantasies and patriotism for their country.

Brown is particularly interested in the forms of identification between subjects and states. In addition to states having sovereignty, individuals also imagine they have a kind of personal sovereignty. That means they have the power to make their own decisions. Like states, this sovereignty is also imagined physically. Just like a state has land with borders that shouldn’t be violated, people have bodies that should not be violated by external forces, whether by other people or by non-human things like viruses. According to Brown, when people call for strong borders for a nation, they are projecting a desire to have strong borders to their bodies. They want their bodies to be protected just like they want their nations to protected, and the protected nation comes to stand in for the protected body. In both cases, a sense of security is what is at stake.

Behind this desire for both personal and national sovereignty is the fact that, in today’s world, the threats to bodies and nations alike are increasingly complicated. In previous chapters, Brown talked about how nations are often confronted with threats and forces they can’t see, like the flow of money. Similarly, people are confronted by threats they can’t see like viruses. A desire for a clearly visible physical boundary is also a desire to live in a world in which these invisible threats don’t exist. Or, in protecting the nation from foreigners, physical boundaries allow nations to imagine their diffuse and systemic actual problems as a concrete, visible threat, embodied in a foreign population—and thus potentially excludable from the sovereign home.

Thus, people view their nations as a kind of proxy body. They identify the land of the nation as their own body. This breeds a particular kind of nationalism based on ideas of purity. People don’t want their nations invaded by outside forces, just as they don’t want their bodies contaminated by viruses or toxins. Thus, this kind of identification leads to xenophobia, wanting no one else to come into the country. Letting others in feels like a personal violation. For Brown, walls are in large part a form of racism made visible, especially in the United States context where “white” American needs to be walled off from “brown” Mexico. To summarize: people feel threatened by invisible forces like the economic and political problems of living in an increasingly complicated world, and they turn to visible means like building walls and policing race in order to feel more protected and secure amidst so much insecurity.

Toward the end of Chapter 3, Brown also revisits a seeming paradox that she discussed in Chapter 1. On the one hand, the economy seems to require open borders. On the other hand, national security seems to require closed borders. Thus, the economy and security seem to be at odds. Brown shows, instead, that walls often serve economic and security needs simultaneously. They do so by managing the resources available to populations of people. Mexico, thus, has fewer resources than the United States. In walls, both the economy and security come together.

Analysis of Chapter 3

One of the assumptions of this chapter is that symbols can often be more powerful than facts. This is because people are led as much by their feelings and beliefs as they are by reality. We often make decisions on reflex, without necessarily considering or reasoning through every part of that decision. In order to understand walls, we thus have to look at this level of reflex. What are the beliefs and fantasies people have that lead them to make decisions even before they have time to think them through?

This question of fantasy has been intensified in the years since Brown wrote Walled States. In the age of “alternative facts,” “fake news,” and the like, the role of fantasy has become more visible. Sometimes, changing the world is too hard, and it becomes desirable to simply fantasize that the world has changed. Building walls, Brown argues, is easier than fixing the waning of sovereignty that people really fear. That’s why people invest in this symbol, more than in something harder to accomplish.

It is noticeable that Brown published this book in 2010, and she cites a history of border construction along the U.S./Mexico border beginning in the 1990s. She is writing before the 2016 presidential election brought the border wall into the national spotlight when it became one of Donald Trumps’ major policy platforms. However, Brown would say Trump’s border wall promise belongs to a longer history of anxieties about United States sovereignty. He intensifies a trend that has already begun, rather than starting it for the first time.

One of the trends Brown predicted that others have also witnessed in the Trump phenomenon is a shuffling of economic anxieties into racial anxieties. For Brown, this happens at the level of national sovereignty. People feel the nation has lost its power relative to the economy. They compensate for this by re-asserting a view of the nation that relies upon a racial and cultural identity and therefore relies upon racial and cultural exclusion. The walls provide a visible means of accomplishing this transference of economic into racial anxieties.

Another way of looking at this has to do with the question of ease and difficulty. Once again, fixing the economy is hard, but, to put it bluntly, being racist is easy. Racism absorbs economic anxieties and people think that re-affirming racial boundaries can be a way of solving economic problems. But there is a vicious cycle here, because the economic problems will continue to be exist since the racial policies do not actually address them. Thus, it becomes important to re-affirm over and over again a racial fantasy because thee economic problem they compensate for continues to re-assert itself over and over again as well.