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Walled States, Waning Sovereignty by Wendy Brown

by Ben Pitcher
31 Jan 2011 • Comment (0) • Print
Posted: General Issue [7] | Review

Review of: Wendy Brown (2010) Walled States, Waning Sovereignty. New York: Zone Books, hb, 168 pages.

At the heart of the problem of race is the trick of substantiation: the art of teasing something out of nothing, of giving meaning to meaninglessness and getting it to stick. Once conjured into existence, fact accretes around an empty nucleus. Objective powers grow from the groundless fantasies of blood or soil, thickening a carapace so vast and complex that it structures the whole architecture of the social. The trick of substantiation is of course theological: the same peculiar mechanism that creates race creates god too. In the modern era, race and god met in the sovereign nation-state, a third fictive entity given substance by and in turn giving sustenance to the progenitorial myths of race and god.

In Walled States, Waning Sovereignty, Wendy Brown takes as her starting point the idea that the theological is both the origin of and ongoing supplement to political sovereignty, and sets out to think about walls – the material-symbolic borders of the nation-state – in the context of post-Westphalian geopolitics. Her suggestion is that contemporary acts of walling can be read as symptoms of a theological anxiety induced by the numerous forces that attack and erode nation-state boundaries. As state sovereignty is battered by global capital (increasingly assuming a godlike universal sovereignty of its own), walls are built as prophylaxes against mobile labour, disease, terror, and the innumerable other forces real and unreal that threaten to puncture and undermine the myth of the sovereign state. The story Brown tells is not a simplistic opposition of state sovereignty and neoliberal capitalism, for capitalism’s ‘oscillating and contradictory needs’ (99) build walls as well as knock them down: plans in early 2011 for a Greece-Turkey wall have come fast on the heels of the EU/IMF financial bailout.

The wall is not just a device to understand the sociopolitical conditions of its construction, but is itself an actor in the conditions that ensue: thus the Israeli wall, ‘hardens Israel’s defensive, besieged and defended condition into identity and character inside and out’ (130). Walls bolster fantasies of self-sufficiency ‘[r]ewriting dependency as autonomy’ (123), concealing from view the interdependency that is spelled out in small letters on every manufactured commodity. The weakness of physical walls to block the complex of transnational flows that bleed through and across them is not acknowledged by the desire that motivates their building and defence. Anxious nationalistic wish-fulfilment finds in the apparent solidity and permanence of walls a guarantee of territorial limit, security, and identity. In light of the constitutive failure of other tropes of nationalist cohesion, the physicality of walls subconsciously promises to the contemporary national subject a simpler time ‘of fortresses and kings, militias and moats’ (81). As manifestations of atavistic desire, Brown suggests that walls may not just be practically useless for the job they are imagined to do, but moreover may grow in inverse proportion to their effectiveness: as vigilante groups along the U.S.-Mexico border engage in pumped-up performances of nationalist policework, they ‘disseminate and hence undo precisely the state sovereignty they would resurrect’ (90). Seemingly robust expressions of state sovereignty are read against themselves as indications of the increasing weakness of the nation-state form.

There is arguably something a little U.S.-centric in Brown’s thesis that threatened nation-state sovereignty elicits an ‘openly and aggressively rather than passively theological’ response (62). The manifestation of nationalist desire in explicitly religious terms does not seem to fit so well the circumstances of contemporary European nationalism, even if we read that nationalism as the expression of some underlying Christianity in pseudo-secular guise. It might be more useful, then, to hold to a more general understanding of the theological basis of political sovereignty, one that does not specify that it must be religion per se through which the religious desire to defend and protect the ailing nation-state form necessarily finds expression. That the idea of the sovereign nation-state continues to frame and catalyze events (including the frantic paranoid compensatory border-work of walling) is testament ultimately to the fact that it continues to trigger so successfully the trick of substantiation. Resembling, indexing, and contributing in so many ways to the production and reproduction of race, the important critical task is one of accounting for the stolid endurance of the national idea. This is something Brown does with particular skill as she yokes political philosophy, psychology, sociology and popular culture into her theoretical ambit. The time of the sovereign nation-state may have passed, but its passing does not mean that there are viable alternative forms for the production of subjects and the organization of contemporary modes of identity and belonging. We are, as Brown notes, ‘in a global interregnum, a time after the era of state sovereignty, but before the articulation or instantiation of an alternative global order’ (39). Still caught up in the modernist fantasy of state sovereignty even as it crumbles and fades around us, we continue to make a heavy psychosocial investment in razor wire and cement.

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Ben Pitcher writes about race, politics and popular culture. He teaches sociology at the University of Westminster, UK.
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