On Walls and the Spectacle of Sovereignty

My oral exams are scheduled for late January, which means the past month has been a frenzy of reading and the next three promise to be equally busy. The bright side is that my program gives us a lot of freedom in formulating reading lists, so one of mine is a rather idiosyncratic theory list focusing on race, global studies, law, and spatial theory—my small effort to chip away at the walls, so to speak, between the disciplines that have informed my studies.

Yesterday, I had the pleasure of reading Wendy Brown’s Walled States, Waning Sovereignty (MIT Press, 2010). The book begins with a meditation on the recent spate of global wall-building that paradoxically coincides with supposed weakening of nation-state boundaries. The most well-known examples are the winding Israeli West Bank barrier and the exorbitantly expensive (and ineffective) high-tech “fence” that now separates the U.S. from Mexico. Brown notes astutely that these walls are meant not really to strengthen borders between nations, but rather to keep out certain non-governmental, transnational forces perceived as a threat to sovereignty—yearning would-be immigrant masses, illegal drug trade, terrorism. Moreover, these walls serve a significant symbolic function: they are “iconographic of” and spectacularize the idea of sovereignty for a privileged population anxious about its porous cultural and political borders. Of course, to say that walls are spectacles of sovereignty is not at all to diminish their material, often destructive consequences, which have been many.

Reading Brown’s book reminded me of my visit to Germany this summer. Having only one day to spend in Berlin, I headed for the East Side Gallery, a kilometer-long section of the Berlin Wall that has been transformed by artists into an “International Memorial for Freedom.” I also walked through the bizarre historic site of Checkpoint Charlie, a former crossing point between the Soviet and American sectors, where a man dressed as a Cold War-era U.S. soldier still stands guard for photographic purposes. At both sites, I participated in the usual rituals celebrating the spread of democracy and economic freedom: that is, I took pictures (exercising my right to an individual point of view) and purchased postcards (participating in both transnational communication and the commodification of nostalgia). As Brown points out, something about walls offends the liberal worldview and westerners like to vaunt their demise, even as we deploy new walls for the “protection” of democracy.

Irony aside, the visits were actually quite moving for me, as I thought of the East Berliners who had risked (or lost) their lives trying to escape political oppression and economic stagnation, as well as my own family, which left Vietnam as boat people when I was a baby. I, like the average American, eschew romantic notions of how life would be better under communism (though my reasons might not be ordinary). Nevertheless, I know there are limits to the liberal tearing down of walls: in uncritically celebrating the spread of “freedom,” we risk forgetting the burdens we force on those living outside the walls we continue to build. It is true that freedom isn’t free—but Americans are usually not the ones who pay.

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7 Comments on “On Walls and the Spectacle of Sovereignty”

  1. getgln says:

    Beautiful article that cuts straight to the heart of wall debate. I think China had spent the most money ever on the Great Wall – and now they don’t use it – for it’s original intended purpose. When schools are asking parents to donate time and money to support them, I always question why my tax dollars are going to build a wall that people dig under, fly over and boat around.

  2. vmanczuk says:

    Lovely image indeed : Mai chipping away at walls between academic disciplines, yes :)

    Edgar Allan Poe well understood the paradox of walls in such works as “The Masque of the Red Death,” wherein Prince Prospero constructed a sovereign paradise of his walled palace, keeping the ravages of the red plague outside and his privileged courtiers hermetically sealed inside, only to discover that their growing fear and paranoia ironically manifested the deadly contagion within their walls, and that death, the great equalizer, reigned sovereign after all….

    And most people who read Robert Frost’s poem, “Mending Wall” unthinkingly assume he is celebrating the age-old ritual of Yankee neighbors mending the stone walls that annually deteriorate between their farmland borders, whereas Frost is actually commenting ironically on the sheer purposelessness of their task. Something there is that does not love a wall, that wants it down….

    Keep chipping away, Mai-Linh.

  3. Sasha says:

    You might be interested in the upcoming book “In the Shadow of the Wall” from Calgary journalist Marcello Di Cinto (marcellodicintio.com). As part of it, I talked to him about the wall separating my (poor) neighbourhood from the (wealthy) one across the street. I’ll probably get a copy, and can send it along with Debby sometime.

    He also has a good talk about people making it over and through walls: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DiL6U4voB8s

  4. nora says:

    Mai, Thank you for sharing your perspicacious reflections on the nature of walls–both literal and figurative. I couldn’t help but think of Nam Le’s short story, “The Boat.” If you haven’t already read it, I would highly recommend it.


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