In Walled States, Waning Sovereignty Wendy Brown explores the contemporary phenomenon of wall-building by nations around the globe. Brown links the desire to erect border walls to what she perceives as the weakening of state sovereignty, and she examines the symbolic roles that walls fulfill as representations of authority. Brown claims that border walls function performatively by engaging theological and theatrical characteristics. These performative characteristics are used, in turn, by graffiti artists who oppose the walls. Artists such as Ron English, Banksy, and countless others find border walls particularly inviting canvases for their work. Art draws attention to the controversies surrounding the walls, while the contested nature of the walls draws attention to the art. The performative role that walls play politically makes them an ideal platform from which to critique the status quo.
If border walls existed solely as barriers blocking access into a nation, border-wall graffiti art would be no more effective than graffiti found elsewhere. It is precisely because border walls function symbolically that wall art becomes particularly controversial. In this paper I will use Brown’s analysis of the performative element of border walls to explore the connection between the symbolic functions of the walls and border-wall graffiti art. Analyzing examples of graffiti art on the United States-Mexico and Israel-Palestine border walls, I argue that the states’ efforts to shore up sovereignty by means of theologically and theatrically performative border walls is exploited by artists who wish to challenge that authority.
I. Wall Paradoxes
Brown finds the phenomenon of wall-building riddled with contradictions. Border walls are often highly ineffective in dealing with the problems they purportedly address, yet nations are willing to spend enormous amounts of money building them. Despite the lack of results, border walls are often popular projects with the public in the nations that construct them. Brown highlights three paradoxes underlying the act of wall-building. The first is the incongruity between the desire for a world without borders and the building of walls. Although an ever-greater number of people perceive the world as interconnected economically and politically, border walls are built by nations around the globe to block access and sever connectivity. The second paradox is a conflict between universalization and exclusion. The democratic ideal suggests that societies should be open and inclusive, yet border crossings are experienced very differently depending on one’s economic status and ethnic or racial heritage. The third deals with the inability of a physical barrier to address modern potential threats. Walls may have been effective defenses when combat was conducted on foot or horseback, but modern weapons, such as explosives or biochemical toxins, and networks of information cannot be stopped by walls.
Brown describes the present world order as “post-Westphalian.” While she does not consider nation-state sovereignty obsolete, she sees the nation-state as an idea belonging to the past that continues to shape and define the present. In the order established by the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, the political world is comprised of sovereign nation-states that have the ability to decide how they will interact (for example, engage in commerce or go to war). Wall-building in contemporary times is not addressed toward the actions of other nation-states. Border walls are not built to protect against advancing armies from other nations; they are built to stop non-state actors including migrants, smugglers, criminals, or terrorists. They respond to a world of informal and less organized powers that may represent movements or groups but also may be comprised of individuals acting alone.
Brown creates a composite list of the characteristic features of sovereignty: supremacy, perpetuity over time, decisionism, absoluteness and completeness, nontransferability, and specified jurisdiction. This list highlights a nation-state’s claim to full authority within its territorial boundary. Brown’s claim that the sovereignty of the nation-state is waning is based on her contention that key characteristics of sovereignty are migrating from the nation-state to financially and religiously legitimated violence.
This migration of sovereignty from the nation-state to other forces is, for Brown, at the root of the phenomenon of wall-building. Although walls are ostensibly built as a display of power, their actual function has the opposite effect. Brown describes border walls as “hyperbolic tokens” of sovereignty and explains that “like all hyperbole, they reveal a tremulousness, vulnerability, dubiousness, or instability at the core of what they aim to express – qualities that are themselves antithetical to sovereignty and thus elements of its undoing.” Far from displaying strength, border walls communicate a fear of the outside and an inability to challenge incoming forces directly.
Brown identifies another paradox of border walls: the barriers erected to mark a nation-state’s borders serve to blur the distinction between the inside and outside of the nation. Recently constructed border walls tend to divide richer and poorer countries. Immigration and criminal activity that crosses borders are often manifestations of powerful underlying economic systems. The failure of nation-states to govern these economic systems effectively through law and politics has led to a desire to control their manifestations by policing and blockading. The increased militarization of the borders clouds the distinction between the police and the military and between internal criminals and external enemies.
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