Wendy Brown, Walled States, Waning Sovereignty, Zone Books, New York, 2010, 167 pages, $25.95 paper, ISBN 9781935408086
Wendy Brown’s project in her recent book Walled States, Waning Sovereignty is to reveal paradoxical features of contemporary wall-building. As one of the few theoretical accounts of this phenomenon so far, the book delivers an original and open-ended speculative thesis of barrier building, both at borders and within sovereign nation-states. This book is not intended to establish a definitive ethical or political position on the matter, but rather to incite serious reflection on what has become a commonplace practice today.
Brown’s writing style is clear, and she offers a rigorous dialogue with both classical and contemporary political theorists. The book weaves political theorists like Hobbes, Rousseau, Agamben, and Schmitt, to name a few, with sources such as Senator John McCain and the US-Mexico border watchdog group, The Minutemen. Brown’s attentive engagement with all of her sources provides a compelling case for her analysis of the symptomatic receding of sovereignty in the face of increasing globalization.
In the first few pages of her book, Brown guides her readers on a “tour” of contemporary walls and promises to discuss the ways in which, despite copious differences, the world’s new walls share fundamental similarities. However, the majority of the book focuses solely on the wall along the US-Mexico border and the winding Israeli-Palestinian wall. Her overall project would have been bolstered had she examined in greater depth other cases of wall-building taking place today, something Brown herself appears to be cognisant of and will hopefully address in further work.
Brown locates a tension in the “post-Westphalian” world between opening, fusion, and erasure on the one hand with barricading, partition, and reinscription on the other. These tensions, she argues, can be found with stunning clarity in the new walls that have been erected since the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the supposed triumph of democracy signified by that event. Just as globalization demands liberalization of borders to allow transnational flow of people, goods, and capital, contemporary walls are built to blockade people, contraband, and terrorist violence. According to Brown, these walls are a symptom of, and a reaction to, the decline and erosion of sovereign states in a globalized world. Walls cannot block out without walling in; at a time when borders seem to decline in significance, contemporary walls operate to define an external “they” and an internal “we.”
However, these prophylactic borders do not actually block the imaginary, or real, “hordes” seeking to gain entrance. They are often breached and intensify, rather than erase, problems. The actual function of the new walls, Brown convincingly argues, is theatrical, as they project “power and efficaciousness that they do not and cannot actually exercise” (page 25). In fact, these new walls are contradictions. Walling proliferates in conjunction with the expansion of global capital and neoliberal political order, which in turn erodes nation-state sovereignty at an exponential pace. However, Brown rightly notes that walls ought not to be thought merely as “tools of capital” (page 98), but as an effect that can exploit without having created. The spectacle functions to awe and are, Brown argues via both Hobbes and Schmitt, “material embodiments” of the theological (page 104). Walls appear as the products of the attempts of the nation-states to demonstrate their virility in the face of their growing impotence (the gendered connotation here is not lost on Brown). Ultimately, what remains of declining sovereignty becomes “openly and aggressively rather than passively theological” (page 62). For Brown, this indicates an attempt by nation-states to retain the awe of subjects and to protect them from the “human experience of smallness and vulnerability” (page 71), as God, or the closest worldly thing to him- the sovereign- would. In other words, they are theatrical props built to link states with awe-inspiring sovereignty, rather than efficaciousness.
The walls, therefore, signal a desire for protection, and although they fail to create impenetrable borders, they project the imago of God-like sovereignty and perform the work of political legitimization of the state and consolation for the subjects of the state. To investigate this claim, Brown shifts from a focus on state sovereignty to the psychology of its subjects. She enumerates four psychological fantasies that allow the rhetoric and building of walls to be viable projects given their ultimate inefficiency to secure borders: fear of the dangerous alien, the fantasy of the state as the Arendtian “giant household” (page 118) that shelters subjects, the fantasy that such a state is impermeable, and finally, the fantasy that those within the wall are good and innocent.
Brown’s speculative thesis about the bases underlying the contemporary desire for walling, which is accompanied with a too brief discussion of Sigmund Freud’s and Anna Freud’s theories of defence, combined with her astute investigation of the decline of sovereignty, is what makes her book truly original. Discussions of “post-Westphalianism” are not new, and as such it is to Brown’s great credit that her book focuses on walling, a unique expression of “post-Westphalianism,” which she further supplements with psychoanalytic musings on desire and defence. It is a shame that this final section, which draws a novel and complementary connection to psychoanalytic theory, is so briefly addressed. I look forward to her future work on the subject.
Sarah Kizuk, Department of Philosophy, Memorial University of Newfoundland, St. John’s, NF, A1C 5S7 Canada