WALLWORK: Incongruities and Inequities

Ed Casey
Thursday, December 1, 2016

I’m going to speak first of all of incongruities and inequities – ways in which deep and devastating disparities occur at national borders (especially those between the U.S. and Mexico, and also between Israel and Palestine. Each incongruity or inequity involves a border wall and what is found in its immediate environs – and what is not found there, what is lacking. The latter is easily said: economic equality, political justice, social recognition. But what is found is complex and calls for further comment. In my remarks today, I shall discuss the fateful interweaving of various contrary strands that together make up the tapestry of contemporary border wall situations. Then I shall pursue a quite basic question: Why walls at all in this day and age?


            We like to think of walls as dense and stolid objects – built to block movement across them, built to last. Thick, constructed of the most obdurate materials currently available (concrete and steel in recent times), they act to reinforce borderlines and other division lines that were established for historical and political (and increasingly economic) ends. In their massive presence, border walls build over and build out from pre-established border lines whose privileged representation is cartographic – lines that, on the ground on which they are projected by maps, are altogether invisible: have you ever seen a border line? Walls at once crush and cover these lines, yet could not exist without the sanction of the latter. These linéas divisorias were first devised in words – in and by the language of treaties that are the highly mediated, often deeply compromised outcomes of agreements reached in negotiations among conflictual and competitive parties. Typically, there is a progression from oral to written discourse, then to mapped images, thence to border markers of various kinds (especially stone markers and fences), and nowadays to fully constructed walls. The primary trait of such walls, taken as the last member of this fateful chain of events, is their strict enclosure – their impenetrability (or as little penetrability as possible: only at heavily guarded gates and checkpoints). As closed-off and impervious, the all too evident purpose of these walls to keep out – to keep out unwelcome populations, races, workers, refugees, indeed whole alternative economies, very different cultures.

            In plain English, the walls I have here singled out are said to be “border walls,” that is, walls built to mark and fortify a given inter-national border: to state in effect that another nation, with another set of interests and laws, starts here.  (In the Israel-Palestine case, this does not hold, since neither side recognizes the other as a legitimate state.) The word “border” itself signifies an impermeable separative structure – whether that of a blocked membrane, a wall without apertures in a house or building, a cell in a prison, or a border wall. Borders are to be distinguished from “boundaries,” which are porous structures whose very existence is predicated on openings of various sorts that allow for flows and transmissions of various sorts across them. Examples of boundaries include garden walls with walkways cut out through them, interior walls that are punctuated by doorways, exterior walls with windows and doors, as well as openings to hives, dens, and pits in the non-human world of diverse species.    

            In principle, borders and boundaries are incompatible with each other; one excludes the other. In the real world, however, there are many instances in which what purports to be a border de jure operates as a de facto boundary (though very rarely the other way around). Such border-boundary hybrids are mainly of two sorts. First of all, those designed to be impenetrable physical borders but that function on the ground as permeable boundaries. The wall at La Frontera, at the U.S.-Mexico border, is a concrete and contemporary case in point. Purporting to be selective but in fact exclusionary – impassable for those coming from the south who lack proper documentation – this border wall was leaky from the very start and has continued to be so at every subsequent stage until the present moment. Many migrants from Mexico and Latin American have found ways to go over, around, and even under this wall, most recently tens of thousands of young children from Latin America (esp. Honduras). For any such border, no matter how walled-up it may be and even if under constant surveillance by the U.S. Border Patrol, is bound to fail: demonstrating that such a putatively impervious border has become a boundary –- that it will always spring leaks, no matter how often it is patched up.          

            Another way in which there is movement across a border – converting it into a boundary of another sort – is through the flow of money across it. Monetary funds, especially those generated in a global capitalist economy, are intangible and invisible, and as such glide over and through a dense and massive wall structure, undetected: as invisible as the border line that the border wall purports to mark. Indeed, if a wall is a paradigm of a material thing, money in a transnational corporate economy is by contrast a matter of “spirit” (Geist, Hegel’s word taken over by Marx, who archly associated it with money in a capitalist economy rather than with “world spirit” [Weltgeist]).[1] Such a movement is unstoppable by any sheerly material barrier – given that its mode of transmission is primarily electronic in the form of the transfer of funds.[2]   

            It’s a contrast at once cruel and telling to compare human bodies, animated materialities, struggling to make their way across a massive material wall by whatever ways they can find – ways that often fail and end in capture and deportation back across the same wall, or else in perishing in the desert and nearby mountains. All such desperate movements of bodies, proceeding painfully step-by-step, stands starkly profiled against the all too easy glissement of money across this same wall.

            BODIES AND DOLLARS: both find their way over the wall, the first more rarely and at much higher risk, the second like greased lightning, cost-free and indifferent to the stolid presence of the wall itself. Yet costing everything in the end: human life, genuine liberty, and true happiness.


            Beyond the contrast between a border wall’s sheer inanimate materiality (conjoined with the animated physicality of the bodies of those held back by this wall) and currency considered as a frictionless immaterial medium, a second stark incongruity emerges when we consider the ways in which border walls harbor, indeed generate, marked inequalities of wages. Walls stand, where the sta- root of “stand” is the same as that for “stability.” Border walls in particular are meant to stand steady in the face of change of many sorts – political, military, economic, cultural, even linguistic. They are erected as the literal embodiments of stasis: monuments to stability. Yet they are encircled by immaterial forces of many sorts: not just the over-flight of monetary transactions but also by another set of immaterialities, those having to do with wages and profits. In the case of La Frontera, these latter manifest a pervasive pattern of depressed wages combined with excess corporate profits. The immutable wall stands guardian over the highly mutable (which is to say, manipulable) salaries of those who labor in its vicinity –all those, on both sides, forced into labor with clearly inadequate compensation. A visit Mary Watkins and I made to maquiladoras in Nogales, Sonora, ended with our Borderlinks guide demonstrating how little one could buy in a single visit to a local supermarket with the weekly salaries of those who worked in these local factories, the “maquis,” in a condition of virtual indenture.

            Walls are integral parts of an international economic situation in which, despite the rhetoric of “free trade,” the free movement of labor is impeded at borders so that the hegemonic international market can work to the bloated benefit of transnational corporations. Border walls in particular act to assure that equality of wages is not respected, not to mention fair payment for actual labor. The very impassivity of these walls – faceless, stolid, mute presences – acts to conceal the putting at risk of those who are presented with the exclusive choice of risking everything to get to the other side or staying on the southern side in a situation of sheer exploitation.

            I am here talking about the dark economy of walls: their role in the oppression of the laboring people, a deep dynamic that is hidden under the ostensible purpose of providing “security” for the nation-state that builds them. Maria Jimémenz observes that "The militarized borders, the walls, the [border] agents, are really [there] to impede the mobility of the international working poor who attempt to cross borders. In that sense border politics … is a strategic aspect of economic development policy apparent in our global system. It's a policy that seeks to create a world of low wages and high profits."[3]


A situation of double jeopardy, in short, with workers on both sides losing out. Either people are trapped near the border, just short of it, in maquiladoras or their equivalent, or else – if they can manage to circumvent the wall – they end up working on farms or in meat processing factories at the very lowest going wages. Either way, the wall is a critical link in a system of economic exploitation. Its taciturnity is matched by the forced silence of the workers, who cannot afford to object to their unfair fate: speaking out is tantamount to losing their job.

            The wall is the literal middle term in this system of binomial economic inequality. At La Frontera, it’s as if the wall, far from being a passive presence, were actively holding down with one hand – holding back – those caught on the south side of the border, while with the other oppressing those who have escaped to the north side and punishing them if deported. Its speechless materiality allows it to be all the more effective as a form of literally duplicitous economic arrangements.


            We come now to a fundamental question that is, however, not often raised: Why walls? Why in particular are there so many walls being built across the world in the last two decades, not just at La Frontera or in the West Bank but in Morroco, at the India-Pakistan border, and between Saudi Arabia and Yemen. Why all this wallwork if it is so manifest that all such walls are both very expensive and highly inefficient at the work they are supposed to do? In view of the blatant contradiction between utility and price, and given the conspicuous incongruities and inequities to which I have pointed – rendering them difficult to justify on any rational ground -- why are they proliferating as we meet here today in San Miguel? “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall”: Frost’s famous line returns with redoubled force at this historical moment.

            In her major book Walled States, Waning Sovereignty, Wendy Brown argues persuasively that recent walls amount to a performative contradiction of their stated purpose: instead of fencing out enemies and other perceived threats (as in their official raison d’être) they fence in, creating whole contained populations of self-subjugated subjects who are confined and defined by the very walls they have themselves constructed. Moreover, their very construction and surveillance serve to “intensify the criminality and violence they purport to repel.”[4] Besides their incongruous presence in a world as utterly artificial structures that serve no useful purpose other than excluding and exteriorizing, the interiority they contribute to creating is characterized by an anxiety and insecurity which they were designed to prevent or at least limit. Why walls, then, if they are not only ineffective in realizing their stated purpose but self-defeating in their operation?

            Why indeed? Brown proposes an ingenious hypothesis. Are walls being put up precisely because the national sovereignty that sanctions and pays for them is itself not merely endangered by discrete external threats – as was the rhetoric after the massive extension of the U.S.-Mexico wall after 9/11, or in reaction to the Second Intifada – but they are increasingly overrun by forces that cannot be easily designated as discrete “enemies” or “aliens.” We are talking about the forces of globalization – not only those released by transnational capital (though this is arguably the most insidious and all-pervasive such force) but by religious fundamentalisms (notably Zionist and Islamicist) and by neo-liberal ideologies.[5] Each of these is trans-, or sub-, national, and all of them run across and often over established national sovereignties, including the national borders that border walls are meant to mark and defend. These sovereignties have been hard won in the modern era, and they are something that citizen-subjects cling to tenaciously even as they also cling to definite personal identities (and often one in tandem with the other). The jingoism, racism, and xenophobia that are generated at the level of collective subjectivity finds an all too natural expression in the erection of border walls: one forclosure calls for the other. We enter here into the perilous but highly pertinent terrain of political psychology.

            Just as “ego defenses” in the psychoanalytic sense are fortifications of a vulnerable psyche, so state-instituted walls can be considered defensive structures that act to defend against – to deny, repress, or displace – the globalizing factors that call national sovereignty into question: that sit athwart it as it were. The result is a landscape criss-crossed by scarifying walls: I shall never forget my first perception of the wall at La Frontera at Nogales as I spied something that looked like nothing so much as a slinky dark serpent coiling over the land from I knew not where… Brown puts it this way: “To literalize walls as pure interdiction occludes their production of an imago of sovereign state power in the [very] face of its undoing.”[6]

            In other words, the walls we are discussing, very much including those erected by the U.S. and Israel (often in close communication with each other) are in effect forms of resistance to globalization, a last stand to save the sanctity of the nation-state, otherwise disoriented and floundering in its failing efforts to cope with transnational (and sometime international) forces it cannot control from within. In their very stolidity, walls embody and exude the stability that the states sponsoring them cannot achieve inside their own borders – a stability continually eroding in a losing game of desperate attempts to be their own masters. If one cannot be master in one’s own house, then at least one can build impressive structures around the house in the form of gated communities and walled-in nation-states. The enormity of the size and expense of such walls is a symptom of the desperation of the sovereign state; they can be viewed not just as compensatory gestures but as dramatized expressions of the predicament that led to their construction. They enact a “theatricalized and spectacularized performance of sovereign power” by presenting “an aura of sovereign power and awe.”[7]

            On Brown’s analysis, then, contemporary border and barrier walls – the Israel-Palestine wall is more barrier-creating than border-marking -- are imposing facades that act to cover over and cover up a problem for which the nations that build them have no other solution: the dilution of state power by the winds of unbridled globalization that have been sweeping over nation-states for the last several decades. To this deep and not altogether conscious causation are added other more explicit motivations such as immigration control and depriving a neighboring people from attaining their own self-direction: these being more legible and seemingly plausible reasons for wall construction than the underlying dynamic discerned by Brown.


            I find Brown’s brilliantly formulated assessment convincing at the level of political psychology – a field which she resurrects and re-creates through her work on walls. What is missing is a more complete account of what I consider to be the last incongruity of border walls: their antinomical combination of massive physical presence with a symbolization of something altogether abstract: the putative power of the nation-state. Beyond their ontogenesis as symptoms of the defensive denial of a “waning sovereignty,” they possess a special force of their own overlooked in Brown’s analysis. The most direct and immediate basis for this force is their sheer material presence, which combines considerable height (at least twice the height of a six foot person, and sometimes three times this height) with immense physical strength. No one confronting the Separation Wall in the West bank, or recent additions to the U.S-Mexico wall, can deny being impressed if not overwhelmed by their apparently unscalable verticality and their impenetrability (whether constructed from steel bars or from reinforced concrete slabs). This is not just a matter of deterring those who wish to cross them without the requisite documentation – we know that the deterrence is short-lived for those determined to cross to the other side – but of in effect stating to any observer, interested party or not, that this wall is here to stay. No matter either that in time these walls will collapse and crumble in the manner of the Great Wall of China. What stands before us is a fiercely daunting present phenomenon that quite literally embodies the concepts of inadmissibility and uncrossability. This is their immediate visual message (it is also a tangible message if one reaches out to touch them: unlikely as this is in view of the heavy surveillance nearby), and at its own level it is altogether effective – as effective as the walls of Jericho must have been many centuries ago to its would-be invaders.

            But physicality alone would not be sufficient to accomplish the full wall-effect that is sought by those who plan and build walls: their wall-work as I am calling it. Something else is called for that justifies their enormous expense and the effort to build them. This is their symbolic force. I am using “symbolic” in a way that distinguishes this term from other congeneric terms such as “iconic” or ‘imagistic” (these being the terms preferred by Brown).[8]  I am talking about what we can call the monumental symbolic effect of recently constructed walls such as those at La Frontera and in the West Bank. Much the same effect is experienced in the presence of public monuments of many kinds, ranging from the Pyramids to the Colossus of Rhodes, the Statue of Liberty to the EiffelTower and the Gateway Arch in St. Louis. Each of these symbolizes in a concrete monumental form consolidated power of some established sort, whether that of a dynasty or a city-state, or (in modern times) that of a nation-state or of technological finesse and outreach.

            The key to the symbolic status of monuments is not to be found in an explicitly signifying relation – whereby a discretely identifiable signifer refers to an equally discrete signified: if anything, just such a signifying relation is excluded, or at least obscured, by monumental symbolism. Rather, the semiosis consists in a self-contained embodiment of a force or power that exceeds the measurable limits of the monument itself: so much that such force or power is experienced as immeasurable. It is the very combination of a massive yet delimited physical thing with an undelimitable significance that produces the potent effect that one is meant to feel in the presence of the monument itself. It is tempting to call this effect one of “awe” (a term Brown does not hesitate to use in explaining the “theological” dimension of recent walls)[9] – it would doubtless be called “sublime” at an earlier point in Western history – but I would like to resist this recourse to psychological response or theological aura and emphasize the brute immediacy of the circumstance. What matters most is confronting an impassive and impassable wall that materializes what is otherwise altogether abstract: state power. It does not matter that at this moment in history such power can be regarded as a secular “fiction” that is self-deconstructing in the face of global forces.[10]

            What does matter is the moment of encounter with a wall that per impossible concretizes the immeasurable power of the nation-state by containing it and symbolizing it in this experience. Whatever one does about this encounter and however fragile its foundations, one cannot deny its efficacy.

            There are two other ingredients in this extraordinary – yet increasingly ordinary – experience. The first is bears on what Peirce would call the sheer Secondness of such structures: their unmitigated over-againstness, their special force as “hyperobjects” in Morton’s term for whatever exceeds our current powers of comprehension and action: that with which we cannot cope directly yet cannot avoid (as with climate change, evolution, and capitalism itself!). The second is that the person who receives the full brunt of the wall-effect I here describe is someone dispossessed of the right to cross the wall or to deal with the circumstance in any effective way: in the case of the two walls we are discussing in this panel, migrants from Mexico and further south and Palestinians residing in the occupied territories. Any human being will feel daunted face to face with such high-and-mighty wall-structures, but if one is disempowered in the situation itself one will be much more likely to be overwhelmed: discouraged and set back. In their abrupt foreclosure of direct crossing, walls do more than slow down those who face them in a disenfranchised state; they stop them in their tracks – they take them off whatever track they were on before they came into their presence. Such is the power-effect of the monumental symbolic.


            Why walls? I have suggested that beyond harboring of inequities despite their claims to offering economic opportunity (tantamount to their bad faith) and their manifest incongruities (amounting to their absurdity), and in addition to their purporting to provide one thing (sources of protection and security) while concealing a deeper level of genesis having to do with preserving state sovereignty in face of globalizing forces (amounting to their perversity: this is Brown’s thesis), there is the facticity of their monumentalizing of state power. Despite its fateful effect, we take in this facticity all in one glance, all at once. The experience thus generated is strong enough for nations to spend billions of dollars on their construction. It’s as if billions have been spent for something that is perceived instantaneously, in a bare glimpse. We cannot help but ask: all that for this? But the fates of nations do sometimes hang on a thread – in this case, the delicate thread of a stunned apprehension and stopped step.

            Recently constructed walls of the sort we witness in the West Bank and between the U.S. and Mexico make too much sense – there are too many reasons for their existence -- yet they are also nonsense in terms of their costs and effects.           

             Does all this effort, all this expenditure, all the grief they cause make such walls worth it? Clearly not; but they have been built, and will continue to be built until the bad faith, the absurdity and the perversity of it all are brought fully home to the world’s peoples.

            This is a long time off, you will say. Perhaps. But the time is coming when the conjunction of so much injustice and inequity, in tandem with so much incongruity, will be realized more broadly – and the walls will come tumblin’ down.



[1] On the complex and revealing etymology and employment of the word “spirit,” see Jacques Derrida, Of Spirit.

[2] Efforts at jamming electronic flow inevitably fail, meeting with ever more clever counter-efforts to re-open the channels.

[3] Maria Jiménez, interview in In Motion, Feb. 2, 1998.

[4] Wendy Brown, Walled States, Waning Sovereignty (New York: Zone Books, 2010), p. 38.  The theme of creating reactive and ultimately reactionary subjects is taken up at ibid., p. 42 and pp. 132-3.

[5] Brown describes these globalizing factors in terms of the growing power of transnational legal, economic, and political institutions… These [factors] include the political rationalities of neoliberalism, transnational moral and legal discourses, along with activations of power related to, but not reducible to capital – those that traffic under the sign of culture, ideology, and religion.” (ibid, pp. 22-23)

[6] Ibid., p. 25

[7] Ibid., p. 26.

[8] See ibid., chapter one, esp. pp.24 ff.,  where “image,” “icon,” and “token” figure prominently. Only once does she use “symbol,” but it is in a wholly conventional or formal way: walls are “symbols of national identification” (ibid., p. 24).

[9] Walls “stage both sovereign jurisdiction and an aura of sovereign power and awe” (ibid., p. 26).

[10] Brown: “… the fiction of state sovereignty is the secularization of the fiction of divine power” (ibid., p. 26)