Limits of Civility

Glen Newey

  • Walled States, Waning Sovereignty by Wendy Brown
    Zone, 167 pp, £19.95, October 2010, ISBN 978 1 935408 08 6

Politics begins with walls, and death. Uruk sprang from the alluvial plains of Mesopotamia in the fifth millennium BC, its walls founded, according to legend, by Gilgamesh. In the epic he leaves the city with his enantiomorph Enkidu, a wild man snared in a honey-trap by the holy harlot Shamhat and thereby civilised. The gods – who, unusually for an epic, seem to vote Democrat – created Enkidu for a political purpose, to distract Gilgamesh from tyrannising Uruk’s citizens. At the poem’s end, with Enkidu dead, Gilgamesh, having lost the immortality-conferring boxthorn he snatched from the ocean bed, returns to Uruk. The final tablet closes with him praising the Urukian walls as he docks at the city’s staith on the Euphrates, in a paean to living in the here and now. Denied the means of cheating death, his end is the clay, the baked brick, of his beginning.

Later, the Greek polis marked the boundary between the natural licence of pre-political men and the bounded liberty of citizens. The polis walls serve an obvious defensive and protective purpose, but they also mark the frontier between citizens and enemies, the threshold between politics and the wild. Criminals had made themselves enemies of the state, so the Athenians cast their remains out of the city after execution, just as Londoners took the corpses of provincials and foreigners to the extra-mural ‘liberties’, for burial in unmarked communal graves. St John’s Gospel and Hebrews put Golgotha, site of the crucifixion, beyond Jerusalem’s first-century city walls (it’s now the location of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre). The tale of exclusion that started in a cowshed ends with the King of the Jews shut out from the would-be capital of his people, an apt incongruity for one whose kingdom was not of this world.

In Walled States, Waning Sovereignty, Wendy Brown notes that walls symbolise the will to closure. As inherited tracts of masonry, they recall bygone enmities, but also mark the limits of civility. Yet the revealed will to close down politics, being itself political, is self-defeating. Antigone in Sophocles’ play vainly entreats Creon to bury her brother Polyneices, rather than leave him to rot outside the Theban walls. Given that Polyneices has declared himself an enemy of Thebes, the decision to grant him honorific burial or not is intensely political. But the stand-off between Creon and Antigone is so framed as to question whether the disposal of Polyneices’ remains is only political, or falls under a higher law. Polyneices dies trying to assert his right to ascend the throne against blank de facto power in Thebes. His fate is to be denied political status, even in death. He is treated like a common criminal, whose actions declare him an enemy of the state. Antigone’s stance is irredeemably anti-political, precisely because it lacks any awareness of purely factitious closure. The unmade hinterland beyond the city threatens to annex or inundate the made world of the polis; that’s why Antigone poses such a threat.

If Antigone seems passé in its linking of walls and civic status, consider the Soviet practice of interring cremated heroes like Andrey Vyshinsky in the Kremlin wall, as well as foreign Comintern luminaries such as the US union activist William ‘Big Bill’ Haywood. Physical incorporation in the walls of the citadel was the ultimate honour for the illustrious dead. As Brown says, the walls haven’t gone away. Circumvallation thrives, and not just as heritage townscape: today’s barriers are raised against such modern lepers as asylum seekers and economic migrants. Like other ancient institutions, security walls have survived to the present, despite our frontier-frazzling global capital flows and cybersphere. Some are urban partitions, as in Belfast, Mostar, Nicosia, Jerusalem, Beirut and pre-1989 Berlin: four European cities, and two Middle Eastern ones with strong European influence. And now, in Palestine, the Israeli Defence Force’s barrier separates Israeli sovereign territory from the West Bank. The IDF edifice – official Israeli propaganda takes pains to stress that it can’t be called a wall, as apparently only 3 per cent of it is concrete – was put up in response to the outbreak of the second intifada in 2000.

Brown’s thesis, summarily put, is that modern-day walls are discredited markers of failing sovereignty. What is sovereignty? It is the revealed will of a political association to dispose of its own affairs. As that definition implies, it contains an irreducible element of the de facto. For Brown, sovereignty is now a ragged oriflamme, a wilful but doomed exercise in self-persuasion. Think of Russian divers planting a titanium flag on the seabed beneath the North Pole in 2007 to bag oil and mineral rights from under the noses of other Arctic nations, or the berm in Western Sahara excavated by Morocco in its continuing stand-off with the Polisario Front. The wall and its symbolic proxies are built when a political authority cannot flatter itself as a settled fact, whether granted by god or imprescriptible title. It comes too late or too soon.

Such claims are, in Harry Frankfurt’s sense, bullshit: a speaker brazenly vouchsafes as true what he knows lacks warrant. But premium bullshit can transcend itself through its own performativity. For example, an utterance may create – or destroy – the credence that forms its own truth condition, as when politicians dispense reassurance to the markets in the hope that what they say will be self-verifying. Creating confidence while ostensibly reporting it is a kind of power, which itself depends on trust. As with the run on Northern Rock, the stratagem fails when people lose grounds for confidence in others’ confidence. But, like other security hardware, walls work not by creating confidence out of nothing, but by their bald facticity. Most walls are not Potemkin villages: they really do withstand insurgents. The power of the polis is not merely that of a scarecrow.

Brown devotes a lot of space to the IDF barrier. Since the West Bank settlers assert the integrity of the whole territory as ‘Eretz Yisrael’, the barrier could be seen as its own rebuttal. The walls surrounding the West Bank settlements have attracted legal action from members of the communities whose Palestinian maids can no longer get to work: as Brown notes, similar dilemmas beset many other walls whose performative contradictions rest on a history of expropriation. The US now proposes to fence off its entire 2000-mile southern border, on land annexed by James Knox Polk in the 1840s. Today, despite the policing of the border, illegal Mexican workers account for about 5 per cent of the US workforce. Reducing the supply of cheap labour would raise wages and force some firms out of business. As with the missile defence shields promoted by administrations since Kennedy’s, the wall’s political value is emblematic, projecting a front of impermeability in the face of vulnerability.

Brown doesn’t much like political walls. In stressing their makeshift quality, she is perhaps closer than she would wish to the Platonic idea that nothing in politics that is prey to change can work. Walls sometimes solve political problems in the short term: whatever else may be said of it, the IDF unwall has cut cross-border insurgency. Few people seem to think that pulling down the sectarian walls in, say, the Short Strand district of Belfast would promote civic concord, at least straight away. Of course, the Israeli super-fence has worsened the hardships of Palestinians living in the bantustans nominally under Palestinian Authority control, whose territories are now riddled by settler colonies. The West Bank Voortrekker programme rests on the premise that a house divided within itself cannot stand. As in 15th-century Italian city-states, encircling walls contain hostilities. So the IDF barrier secures Tel Aviv against bomb attacks, while helping to ensure that settler enclaves make a ‘West Bank State’ unattainable and, were it ever attained, ungovernable. It is also integral to the theatre of state power. The barrier has helped to make a two-state solution impossible. That is part of its purpose.

Was there ever a pre-post-Westphalian phase? Not really, as the wall’s own dodgy standing attests. The fortress always lies open to siege, insurgency and dilapidation. The fates of Troy and Jericho are mythic archetypes, the razing of supposedly impregnable strongholds by the soft force of guile and rams’ horns. Sovereign bodies, as Brown points out, are now porous and interpenetrative. The Moroccan anti-Polisario berm intrudes several miles into Mauritanian territory. Reliant on a more or less arbitrary principle to divide the worlds of citizen and alien, the metropolis is always hard put to impose its will across the whole imperium. This is as true of Angevin or Bourbon sovereigns as of the pieds noirs, or overstretched flics policing immigrants from Tunisia or Senegal in Clichy-sous-Bois.

There never was a golden age of walled security and hermetic exclusion. The state’s writ couldn’t run as far as it would have its own and other citizens believe. The ramparts were meant to furnish a cordon sanitaire to keep out not just marauders, but real or fantasised contagion. Beyond the walls, it was fair play to fly-tip human and other refuse. The municipal authorities in ancient Jerusalem reputedly ran a pioneering waste-incineration scheme at Tophet, the ‘place of burning’ in the valley of Hinnon, whence Gehenna or hell, which was said to have earlier hosted child-immolating rites to Moloch. Early modern London’s lazar-houses ringed the city walls like a prophylactic M25. But the walls were always holey, as in the Belgian enclaves within the Netherlands, and Dutch enclaves within them (artefacts of Westphalia’s heyday), or the fluid junction, after Westphalia, of Ottoman and Habsburg power. The latter-day contrabanditry of global capital has its forerunners in Dutch privateers plying the Strait of Malacca, franc-tireurs set on spoils beyond legal redress, or the outlawry that pits Dodge City justice against moonshine and speakeasy, fugitive slaves, Weathermen, the NRA, lynch mobs – one unruly nation under God.

Despite her occasional foreshortening of the historical horizon, Brown has some sound things to say about the empty bravado of modern Staatspolitik. The walls have a purpose only if they enclose something that people outside them want. Like the sound-and-light shows guarding stockbrokers’ villas in St George’s Hill, or turnpike communities such as the Alphaville condos outside São Paulo, they construct the envious other as a would-be gatecrasher on the good life. Then there are ad hoc dividing walls made to block out the underclass: Brown mentions the notorious Via Anelli Wall in Padua, erected in 2006, but later dismantled, to keep out neighbouring Arabs. The state-skirting palisade implies that while those outside need us, or need what we’ve got, we don’t need them.

These psychic tableaux are tellingly enacted in the Eton Wall Game, where the ‘Collegers’ are invaded by ‘Oppidans’ (not real townsfolk, obviously) who chuck their kit over the ten-foot College Wall before the contest begins. Play largely consists of gilded and testosterone-fuddled youths crushing one another against the wall in a ‘bully’ or scrum. ‘Few sports,’ Eton’s website candidly remarks, ‘offer less to the spectator.’ What the game does offer, though, is a cameo of exclusion, transgression and force – a school for power. One former Keeper of the Wall now does a similar job for London as its mayor. Ludic but bonecrushing, the game instructs future leaders that play is never simply play, and that violence is fun. Should we then recoil from the wall and rejoice in the décloisonnement dreamt of by left-Hegelian romantics such as Charles Taylor – the Canadian liberal philosopher, not the Liberian warlord – in 1968? Walls maintain a front in the face of ‘waning sovereignty’, a child’s sand-dam thrown up vainly against the tide of history. The late modern state’s lot is to rail in vain as globalisation erodes its power and dignity. As Brown remarks, ‘the new walls consecrate the very boundary corruption they would contest.’ More than this, they enact denial, by making a show of the force whose loss or diminution made building them desirable in the first place.

This is one reason walls and their imagined topographies retain their allure. Brown misses one or two tricks here. A notable sub-genre of wall-talk, for instance, occurs on the web, where e-personae and their transactions, fleeting and unlocatable, provoke a revanchisme of the concrete, as in talk of firewalls, paywalls and the ubiquitous wall-talk on Facebook. These brickless ramparts rear up around commercial websites, vulnerable hardware and, at the empty centre, the self, a hollowed-out homo emptor defined by its habits of consumption. Many politically valent walls are not, in any literal sense, perpendicular bulwarks of solid matter. They may enclose a symbolic space, as in the North-West London eruv, a space bounded by wires slung between lamp-posts, in which Shabbat-observant Jews can carry or push otherwise proscribed objects – keys, babies – without transgressing halakha. But even the purely symbolic reservation of space raises hackles. The wire proved too much for some nimby residents of Hampstead Garden Suburb.

The machicolated fortress or town wall conveys an image of repletion. It casts well-fed burghers against the imputed envy of strangers outside eyeing the privileges of citizenship, sanctuary or the staples of self-respect. In the good old days they merely wanted to kill us, ravish our womenfolk and convert us at the point of a sword. Now they come to join us. Of course, they always did: in Clifford Geertz’s words, the wogs start long before Calais. Xenophobia begins at home – indeed, it begins in the head, in the psychic war of all against all. Anyway, Brown says, the walls don’t work. The city is not autarkic after all: it relies on the world beyond, the demes, the traders, the river, which bring in the outside, and the outsider. As a 20th-century Amerindian chief said when asked where he thought things had gone wrong, ‘I guess we were too soft on immigration.’ It’s not just that the ramparts fail as contrivances for holding back the stranger, prompting further moves towards securitisation. They hold back neither the Adriatic flood, nor the incomers by whom natives feel (in Margaret Thatcher’s word) ‘swamped’. Thatcher’s way of putting it makes it sound as though the walls fail through being insufficiently impervious. But, Brown makes clear, the reason the walls don’t work is that they are compromised from within by the neediness they were built to deny.

Take the Farmers-General Wall, built through the middle of Paris in the 1780s to mulct the octroi from incoming traders – as a verse of the time put it, ‘La ferme a jugé nécessaire/De mettre Paris en prison.’ Aliens, hated and needed (hated because needed), come with their exotica to haggle and sometimes to settle, commissioners of the mobile boundary dividing self from other. If, as Brown convincingly argues, the appeal of walls lies in persistent psychic structures, they are unlikely to go away soon. The best hope is for a bit more self-awareness, sped perhaps by the realisation that stockading the frontier costs fat wads of tax dollars. Admittedly, there isn’t much sign of that yet. Brown points out that US politicians’ bidding war on security has, along some stretches of the Mexican border, put up fences in triplicate – but, as with the Maginot Line, determined immigrants simply go round them to reach their goal.

All this suggests that the barriers are placebos, offering security against the bogey in, at best, homeopathic doses. But not everywhere is a Benelux of the calm passions, a platitudinous terrain studded only by polders. Even in Benelux the Flemish and Walloons, for instance, are hard put to see the point of each other, let alone their strange union. People want enclosed space rather than life on the prairie or blasted heath, but are not of one mind – are sometimes of no mind – about what to do with it once it’s there. In the ‘neutral’ capitalist state, consumerism fills the gap, indeed creates gaps expressly to fill them, as in out-of-town shopping malls, marmoreal tabernacles rid of beggars, buskers, chuggers, hoodies.

What’s lost when the agora is reduced to a huckster’s den? Herodotus’ Histories opens with a famous hyperbolical description of ancient Babylon’s walls: the sanctum-like quality of walled space made it claustral and hallowed, as in the mud-brick ziggurat sacred to Mardak. An illustrated 15th-century French translation of Augustine’s City of God depicted the terrestrial city encircled by a ring of prancing demons, its citizens’ virtue shielded only by its outer bastions. A similar pictorial trope crops up in the cartography of early modern utopias. Johann Valentin Andreae’s Christianopolis of 1619 depicts a square model city comprising concentric and congruent walls with a cylindrical church at its centre. Brown acknowledges the early merger of safe and sacred space, but she pays less attention to the affective gap left in modern public space by disjoining citadel from sanctum.

Urban walls open a space for civic liberty; the space may become a void in the absence of collective action. City walls’ ambiguities – and therewith the strengths and shortfalls of Brown’s argument – lie plain to view in the liberties, areas of licensed exemption from early modern cities’ by-laws, as in the City of London or the Parisian banlieues. The liberties marked a liminal zone free from baronial jurisdiction, but also from the City authorities. As bins for disease or moral turpitude both within the metropolis and without, they made it possible to flip-flop from docile freedom to no-holds-barred licence. Freedom is exclusionary; but that cuts both ways. Besides leading those who are shut out to seek the privileges of belonging, it makes world-weary bourgeois hanker to swap the canned freedom of suburban Tupperware parties for fantasies of frottage beyond.

Plato sums up the affective ping-pong in the Republic in the tale of Leontion, who is morbidly drawn to gaze on the rotting corpses of executed felons outside the Athenian walls, but is also indignant at himself for indulging this urge. The ejection of alien or criminal dead as seen in Antigone enacts the ousting of the bad. Brown is sharp on this, and on its futility. Bubonic plague forces the rich and ruling out of the city; high-rollers in the Bourse, citizens of thin air, flee the garbage and homeless for their weekend dachas. Walls make it plain that some of the bad lies stubbornly within, while also helping to keep it there. The idea of the bad was once embodied in the sub-martial curtilage of revetments, gabions and fascicles, which made an armed camp of civic settlement. Martial engineers were among the few granted the chance to put utopian town-planning into practice. The 16th-century Veneto foundation of Palmanova was a fortified Milton Keynes. Baron Haussmann transposed the panopticist design of the Place de l’Etoile to Tahrir Square, in the days when the authorities’ crowd-control method of choice relied on heavy ordnance rather than CS gas or kettling. In its utopianisation of the garrison, if not in rule by philosophers, the Republic came true. Brown plausibly argues that territorial walls arise as a defence against self-perceived vulnerability. As such they refute the weakness that called them into existence, and so serve to epitomise inward repression. Walls are built to deny insecurities with a façade of strength: they mask their own masking activity. How better to do this than by making out that mutinous desires, far from going begging, have already been met?

At the start of Kafka’s ‘The Great Wall of China’ the wall’s existence is taken as a fact, but it is systematically undermined as the story goes on. The wall’s completion is announced before many sections are filled in; it seems not to have been completed at all; its very rationale becomes unclear, and techniques for building it become ends in themselves; the imperial metropolis in Beijing is so remote that villagers in outlying provinces continue to worship long-dead emperors; visiting panjandrums are fobbed off. Kafka’s fable goes both for walls and for the eternally half-made city, enduring in all its incompleteness.