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.

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