In this website supplement to the TCS special section on the Urban Problematic II (TCS 31.7-8, Dec 2014), David Theo Goldberg writes about the logics and politics of walls.
Wallcraft: The Politics of Walling*
by David Theo Goldberg
University of California Humanities Research Institute
Most people live within and between walls of one construction or another. Walls shape lives and relations, daily routines and intercourse, where we can go and how, who and what we can see and interact with, the spaces we inhabit, those from which we are barred, as well as the passages between. They articulate and mediate a good deal of social life, habit, and relation.
All walls, it could be said, shape spheres of what throughout “modernity” has come to be called privacy. While they have been key apparatuses in the history of enclosure acts, more recently walls have been central to the political economy of privatization. External walls, those facing outward, however differ in this respect from internal ones. The latter mark off spaces within, defining and refining more from less private or intimate spaces. The former divide off private worlds from public ones, or privatize what ought to be public, hiding from view destructive or violent interventions. They seek to keep intruders or unwanted observers at bay, making visible prevailing social aesthetics while rendering invisible socially or ethically or legally unacceptable practices. They thus shape and order relation and communication, engagement and exchange.
Political walls have proliferated once again in the past half-century, the product of late(r) modernity’s conflict and manufactured crisis zones. Political walls—and perhaps this could be said of all walls, potentially investing walls inherently with a politics–are both material and symbolic constructions. They embody and reflect complex meanings.
Materially, political walls are a response to but also produce and reinforce the intensification of conflictual states and their everyday experience. Metaphorically, political walling is taken to represent conditions of confinement and restriction (“walled in”), limit, and repressing secrecy (the “Iron Curtain,” the “Bamboo Curtain”). They constitute, at the intersection of materiality and metaphor, projection of threat and dire prediction (“against the wall”), but also ultimate protection from such threats too (“firewall”).
Historically, political walls were constructed around cities or their privileged inner core of political power to protect inhabitants or rulers from physical or political threat, from outsiders and (potential) troublemakers, disease and thieves. Political walls as fortifications, then, have tended to be constitutively linked to the life and risks of the city as/and state.
Walls have served also as solidifications against the inside turned out, against pollution of the body politic from within, against the paranoia of “self”-debasement, and the intrusion of the everyday, its bothers, conflicts and hazards. They stand as hedges against the uncertainties, indecipherabilities, and ultimately unknowability of the constitutive outside. They enclose off the “non-belonging,” the demarcating reminder that the other side of the wall conveys opacity, illegibility, and menace, physical or ideological, to those properly within the wall’s boundaries. The relative opacity of the outside reinforces insecurity and anxiety on the inside, licensing more or less limitless technologies of securitization. But they secure too, in the extreme, against departure of the disaffected within, against a brain or broader workforce drain (cf. Mattar 2012, pg. 77).
Fortification of the polity through apparatuses of walling–what Eyal Weizman calls “wallfare” (Weizman 2012)–against threat and uncertainty tended to last from antiquity until the nineteenth century. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, as Mintzker elaborates, cities were in fact explicitly conceived and defined in terms of their walled circumscription. Cities were “razed” not by their complete destruction but by pulling down their fortified walls. Settlements without walls were no longer considered urban, reduced to rural villages by nothing more than removal of their fortifications. The lack of boundary walls erased the demarcation between town and countryside, lived space and commerce shading into field. Razing the wall emasculated the city, sapping its power and making it as vulnerable to scorching as the rural.
In France, by contrast, de-walling was driven by Cardinal Richelieu’s military strategy to disempower recalcitrant cities throughout the state in the religious wars of the 17th century (Mintzker 2012: 25-8). This “modernizing” political defortification of the urban, Mintzker further shows, was pursued by the absolutist state in solidifying its power both across the landscape under its internal control and against the threats of potential external enemies. As absolutizing states sought to de-wall the cities within, they fortified national boundaries, walling and moating guard-post cities at the state borders, clearing the land beyond to defend against invasion from without. City walls came down within the state in the name of nationalizing coherence, unity, and administrative reach, and were erected around cities marking the boundary limits of state reach and power. These nation-marking walls signaled the divide between state belonging and preclusion, declaring also the outer reach of state power and its capacity to protect against external conflict.
Walling and de-walling accordingly solidify the modernizing logics of state internalities and externalities, the proto-politics of nationalism’s unifications and preclusions within and beyond the boundaries. Across the not-yet stated German landscape, for instance, defortification only ensued a century later than in France, as Germany unified later in the 19th century. Inscribed in the modernizing politics of wall placement, then, is the insistent shift from the centripetal concentration of the (city-)state to the centrifugal surround of the nation-state.
By the nineteenth century, city-circumferencing walls had tended to fall into disrepair at worst, remnant monuments to the past at best. Seen as disruptions of the expanding culture of technologically enhanced commerce and barriers to national unification within state borders, those cities that remained walled in nineteenth century Europe tended to be “defortified,” the walls either dismantled or willfully ignored in the city’s expansive commercial openness and spatio-demographic spread. National boundaries came to be cartographically marked less by the occasional walled city than by naturalizing landscapes of rivers, mountains, and seas that in principle appeared more obvious markers of division and in any case—at least until the proliferation of more mobile military technologies–easier to defend against (potential) invasion.
The challenge of constructing endless borderline walls of solid materials became moot after 1873 when readily usable, more mobile and malleable barbed wire became marketable, first for enclosing cattle and then for borders and warfare. Wiring’s prior porosity precluded its use in “national walling.” This was resolved by supplemental spiking. The drawbacks of stone walls were replaced by the malleability and relative invisibility of “thorned” string. Barbed wire combines the barriers of walling, the convenience of mobile structures for the pragmatics of defensive warring, the seduction of easily commercialized product, and the visual metaphorics of modernizing openness.
After World War II, solid political walls return to vogue, linked first to the perceived threat of communism, then to plugging the holes of unwanted migrations and threatening movement from wars, postcolonial struggles, and the proliferating political economy of privatization. Less surrounding than partitioning, political walls after World War II are forcefully wedged between polities, designed to cut off intercourse between peoples bent on challenging each other. As the social informalities long sustaining presumptive homogenization are eroded in the wake of unsettling migrations and globalizing commerce, political walls are resurrected to reinscribe a sovereign politics of division and segregating state control.
Political walls as apparatuses of securitization thus shift from rampart technologies of defense in warfare to political divider, from circum-fortifications, as barricades against invasion, to politicized partitions and privatizing insurance against criminalized intrusion. The shift, in short, is from keeping at bay the exterior enemy to estranging and externalizing the familiar and one-time neighbor. The urban ghetto (Venice in the sixteenth century, for instance) was perhaps a stepping-stone, at least in conception and design, from the sort of totalizing circum-enclosure of fortified cities and later concentration camps to dividing partition, from refusing neighborliness to absolutizing distinction, from segregation to at least imagined erasure.
Political walls thus materialize ideas about nationhood and sovereignty as much as they are pragmatic interventions in a political field. But they may also be metaphorical realizations of the material. When the stone, wood, brick, cement, barbed wire, glass, and steel from which walls are usually built actualize self-determination over territory, they materialize the political. Here, political walls are material manifestations of existing conflicts. They are cementing embodiments of existing conflicts even as they are concrete interventions in them.
Equally, though, political walls may be imaginary projections of political or legal conditions, enacting directed restrictions on targeted population groups, as in “Fortress Europe” or the “Iron Curtain.” Here, the fortification is not manifest in stone but as a mix of enforced legality and symbolic power.
In any case, political walls embed and embody symbolic representations of the ideological investments underpinning established conflicts prompting the walls’ production. Political walls thus fit into a political geography of checkpoints, access roads and highways, legalities of land clearance, an ecology of ideology, developing technologies and construction materials, and the legacies of historical walling. Walls route the passage of people, goods, and traffic, giving shape to legislation and regulation as well as definition to the reach of control and subjection.
It follows that political walls are always much more than the conventional materials out of which they are constructed. For one, they are invariably conceived, constructed, and sustained with force. They emerge out of forced conditions, prescribed resolutions to crisis conditions deemed intractable, political relations reduced to impossible ruptures. The impossibilities are rendered all the more intractable, seemingly inevitable and irretrievable, by insisting on, imposing, inserting a wall into their midst. Even where intended as temporary political intervention, in its solidification at the center of the conflict the built wall implies permanence to the divides it further entrenches if not initiates.
The politics in political walling may be products of micro-urban conflicts, as in the ghettoizing of a population deemed problematic and so unwanted (Jews in Warsaw, African migrants or Roma in Padua circa 2006-7), of more macro-(trans)national problematics (the US wall along the Mexican border, Israel’s apartheid wall and its newly constructed wall at the border between northern Israel and southern Lebanon) or between Israel and Syria in the Golan, or indeed a mix (Berlin, Belfast, and arguably Baghdad’s Green Zone).
Political walls are force fields, routing commerce and conflict, on one hand, and containing them, on the other. Their construction and maintenance are always militarized, Walls alone never suffice to satisfy the work for which they were conceived. Their effectiveness necessitates that they be imposing, formidable, dominating over both space and people. Their building inevitably involves militarizing conditions: precision planning, an army of engineers, if not army engineers, forced clearing of space, commissioned materials and machines, guarded conditions of spatial intrusion and politicized insistence. But once built, not only their maintenance but also the effective deployment of their purpose demand the wall’s extension: more wall in its extended dimensions–in length, height, width; but more walls—new ones–also to address any emerging conflict. Baghdad’s (not so) Green Zone attests to this logic of walled multiplication in the extreme.
The infrastructural ecology in which political walls are embedded, including the labor power necessary to maintain the wall’s force field structurally and politically is embedded and embodied in the wall too. The watchtower as physical structure, surveillance technology, work site, and expression of subjugating power serves not simply as an addendum but as a constitutive feature of political wall making.
These appendices are as much a defining part—in a sense, the very condition–of political walls as the cement. In the limit case, they could be said themselves to be the wall.
Political walls, then, incorporate political theology. Command is inscribed within and on their surfaces. Sovereign rule is vested as much in the homogenizing logic of the walls’ partition as in the order of placement and construction. A theological politics of absolutizing authority is issued in the very declaration of the wall. The wall itself issues conviction: who belongs and who does not, the character of the polity, its extension and delimitation. In short, who across the political landscape are to be sacrificed for the sake of stating and sustaining power. Political walls shape and cement community, fortifying not just territoriality and social extension but commanding the very idea of the polity and its culture of inhabitation. The political theology of the wall embodies conviction, converging the sentence of unbelonging with the ideological legitimation of its forced preclusions.
Political walls seek to purge from the polity those projected as threatening among the heterogenous and the mixed, those lacking a place and those deemed unplaceable. Those among the heterogenous considered not to contribute either their labor or their purchasing power or more radically to stand against the prevailing political theology and its pillars of support are those at whom security walls and their technologies of supplementation are directed.
Walls thus effect, if they aren’t anyway intended to (re)produce, the enforcement of homogenization, which is always purchased with the convicting coin of commanded repression. Walls are the last line of defense, a prophylaxis in the deepest sense, against the proliferating and so uncontainable heterogeneity of the social “self.”
This imposed authority of theological sovereignty, as political theory has recently made abundantly clear, is sustainable only by its internalization in the constituting of social subjection, as central to social self-making. The logics of social subjection and social subjectification come together in social subjects taking on these convictions as their own. Internalized walls become structures of being, of thinking and lived condition themselves. This point applies to all political walls, all walls the raison d’etre for which are insertions into the landscapes of political relation and refusal. The materiality of political walls are reflections of the ideological walls borne by social subjects, at once projections and reinforcements, if not reifications, of them.
It follows that walls necessarily propagate walls. They cannot help but do so to satisfy the insatiable logic of command giving rise to them at the outset. In their political reach, however, they likewise presuppose–indeed require–more than (mere) wall. Walls as such can be scaled, burrowed beneath, sometimes circumnavigated. Those on the more restrictive, subjugated side of the political wall often seek to circumvent the restrictions, in order to flex their economic possibilities or refuse their political oppression in ways small and large. As politically designed intrusions, walls divide families and friends, sunder longstanding communities, destroy political groups.
Political walls accordingly slice through for the most part inhabited space. They are intended as interventions in, curtailments of, daily lives, marking and remaking place. Political walls restrict movement, if differentially, on both sides of the construct. In many cases—the apartheid wall, the “Peace Line” walls in Belfast, Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia –lived space is cleared to make space for “the wall”. These walls become an integral part of the everyday, so much a feature of the landscape they become givens of the daily landscape, pedestrian or commuter. They shape daily life, inputs into the calculations of getting from A to B, of possibility and circumvention, of legality and resistance.
To satisfy their instrumental purpose, political walls invariably demand supplementation: barbed wire, spikes, electrocution, moats, glacis (cleared spaces), policing and patrols, surveillance and searchlights, manpower and firepower. This suggests that as political orders come to be managed through the technologies of and supplementing walls, the wall requires constant maintenance. Political walls are intended as regimes of “humanitarian management” (Weizman 2012, pp. 81ff) of populations. They massage the flows of capital, financial and human, of goods and services, of information and political messaging. Yet, at the same time, walls themselves require round-the-clock management both materially and politically.
Containing walls thus are always in excess of themselves. They demand that they reach beyond themselves, exceeding their material limitations. They are more or less elastic, not always continuous. Once built, they are easier conceptually and politically to expand than contract or demolish. It is as if a barrier to barricading has been crossed (cf. Sassen 2012, p. 119). Walls seem to insist as a condition of their very being inevitably on their multiplicity—in volume, mass, and quantity (number). And, as they colonize space, they narrow the field of vision. They order what is and can be seen and not seen, literally and implicatively. Walls, as such, are interventions in the politics of perception and conception, the visible and invisible, to the mind’s eye as to the eye as such.
The definitive articulation that almost always comes to express the political event constituting wall construction—the wall—indicates that its making is a significant and deliberate intrusion into existing political conditions. These are political situations deemed all the more conflictual by virtue of the wall building intervention intended as a (more or less final) solution yet never completely capable of delivering on its stated intention. In the name of “neutrality,” or “obvious facts on the ground” or “the right to self-defense” or “the necessity of security” or necessary attempts at “stabilization,” or in older moments even of “purity” and “danger,” the building of the wall is projected as inevitable, unavoidable, the only alternative. This is even so when the wall is insisted upon as a temporary fix, a cooling off condition. The fact is, political walls invariably change conditions on the ground, further entrenching the forces of subjection and the rejection of co- or really inter-existence.
The projected inevitability cuts through the fraught heterogeneity of the everyday, forcing homogenization and its consequent separations and segregations into the messy lived tensions of daily life. So wallmaking not only clears space for the wall’s material building. It clears out, emptying space in the contemporary clearing of the wall-supplementing glacis, pushing back to restrict, restrain, and reduce intercourse.
These constraining logics of walling, then, define and refine a sociality of delimitation. Political walls are technologies central to organizing and promoting a political economy of ongoing conflict. As partitioning interventions in conflict zones, they perpetuate division, focusing the grounds of antagonism in and on their monumentalization. Within the political landscapes they occupy, political walls dominate their physical surroundings, politically as much as geographically. Governments indeed persevere to camouflage the walls, behind thick lines of trees, hedges, murals, and the like, blending them into their surroundings.
Even commercial possibilities come to be factored around the conflict, heightening demand and prices for supplemental commodities of conflict and survival (from weapons to clothing, bureaucratic services to popular culture) as well as for memorabilia consumption. The conflict shapes the social vernacular. Political walls both supplement and are supplemented by these commodities of conflict.
In their expansive surface-making, however, the possibility of a counter-logic exists, both potentially and actualized. Walls’ extensive exteriority not only conveys foreboding and forbidding, commanding imperatives and imposing segregation. It also issues an enticing call to engage, a surface to address those on the outer side of the wall, whether a medium for market expansion or political expression.
Wallcraft, thus, politically promotes contemporary power and capital in two seemingly converse but more deeply related ways. It regulates the social conditions in which movement and access are exercised while offering screens to promote commodity consumption in global circulation as well as the inadvertent potentiality for expanding political speech. In the ancient and modern logics of walls to divide off and secure against the alien and alms seekers, the threatening and the diseased, to enclose and privatize, contemporary capitalism has discovered the productive possibility of screens for circulating preferred messaging, to promote political ideology and especially commodity capitalism, its market proliferation. But the very surfaces that enable the messages of capital can be assumed also for resistant expression and counter-political messaging. The writing on the wall may as well be prophetic as apocalyptic, as liberating as commodifying.
On the one side, as the surfacing of walls would have it, is to be found the shaping of conduct, commercial and social, the social regulation of circuits of mobility both of people and their products. On the other side, though, walls offer surfaces on which messages can be composed, conveyed, and circulated. The public facing surfaces are potentially screens for projecting commercial and political messages both propagandistic and critical or resistant. Billboards and state pronunciations, news and propaganda, commercial messaging, celebratory but also critical murals, art and graffiti.
Militarizing discipline, marketing and message-making meet in the wall. Apparatuses of enclosure thus likewise make for screens of disclosure. Building designers and renovators are now factoring these commercial possibilities into the design features of buildings’ exteriors. Projection screens for news relays and commodity marketing are being built into and onto public-facing walls (as they are too into well-used building elevators). They create at once additional revenue streams as they expand sites for commercial or political messaging while minimizing the surfaces available for “vandalism.”
Here building owners and designers have learned from longer-standing practices of artistic, egoistic, resistance, and political graffiti. The primary axiom of wallcraft is this:
Where there’s a wall there’s a way (to inscribe, more or less publicly).
So walls are also, at least potentially, surfaces of resistance, surfaces for resistance, surfaces on which resistant expression can be announced, made public, sometimes subtly and sometimes loudly. As constructions of repression, confinement, and delimitation, political walls ironically also provide the means for a call to arms, to resist, to imagine alternative ways of being than that represented by the repressing wall.
The political messaging found on political walls, then, may simply seek to suggest the counter, quietly, insinuating it into the creases of political consciousness. Think here of the public art of banksy or JR, and prolific (semi-)anonymous graffiti. At other times, walls enable the voluble proclaiming of the counter, thrusting criticality into the public face, forcing confrontation.
Resistance is occasionally declared on walls to the walls themselves, mostly when the walls wear their confining politics on their surface; but they may serve also as sites of intervention in specific politics of the city or society more generally. Where public spaces are increasingly closed down and the visible, wide-reaching public outlets—print, visual and electronic media—are closely corporately or state controlled, the surfaces of walls themselves are held out to offer sites of critical projection and intervention.
The irony here, then, is that a principal technology of privatization necessarily advances its desired end by exposing its “better half” to public visibility and access. In doing so it both reinforces and undermines the distinction between private and public. The inward turning or circumscribing also always has an outer “skin”. Walls’ exteriority offers an expansive canvas for commercial and critical message-making, for making walls both prolifically profitable and potentially self-conscious and self-critical. Writing on the wall projects a key technology of privatizing immediately into and onto public screen.
So the dominant power of walls turns out to mark out their exploitable weakness too. The more supplemental modes of protection are invoked—security patrols, anti-graffiti laws, surveillance cameras, and the like—the less walls as such actually deliver on their promise, if not their very premise. The further they extend themselves, the more they open themselves to inscription and countervention. Surfacing technologies designed to resist uninvited wall markings likely challenge transgressors to find workarounds, to create counter-technologies of inscription.
There is a more generalizable logic about wallcrafting at play here. Walls, I have argued, are structures of division and containment, key controlling components of contemporary class and racial articulation. People, practices, politics, pleasures and pains are walled in and walled out. But politics and the lived negotiation of social space always exceed wallcrafting and its delimiting confines. Behind the walls, under cover and in the shadow life of their looming existence, those most feared in the name of which the wall is built find cover for resistance and subversive plotting.
The battle for Algiers, and ultimately Algerian independence, was conceived and plotted behind the walled off Kasbah, in the passage ways of which the colonizing oppressors—the wallmakers—feared to tread. As South African townships made abundantly evident under apartheid, fencing off the spaces of black inhabitance effectively meant that white police and military incursion into these areas was always on “foreign” turf opaque to the oppressors. The same could be said of West Bank and Gaza cities.
The heightened value invested in and materialized by walls, it follows, like the walls themselves, are subject to fluctuations and fall, crumbling beneath the social weight invested in them and they are made accordingly to bear. If walls inevitably have inscribed in their materials of making the social relations of their production, walls’ surfaces in hardened or softened form also embed their porosity, their vulnerability, the conditions of their potential demise.
Walls become politically possible as barriers against uncertainty, threat of lost control and attempts to (re-)assert control. Their proliferation and expansion ultimately serve to make obvious the futility of their prompting politics. The futility can be found in the insistent ways in which political walls may be and are resisted and refused: from breaking them completely apart, blowing them up, to removing one brick at a time; from literally under-mining their point by burrowing beneath to launching projectiles over them; from keeping alive on the wall itself imaginative reminders of the possibility of cutting through the wall to freedom to imaginatively projecting on the confining surface what a world beyond the wall could and would and perhaps does look like.
The recourse of walls to inscribe expressions of resistance is a commitment to undermining enclosure and confinement, to opening up (to) heterogenous dispositions and spaces of engagement, interaction, transformation and transmutation in the face of political walls’ inevitably homogenizing conviction and convocation. These assertive resistances may be difficult, messy, uncomfortable, dangerous. Nevertheless, they propose and repurpose a future committed to justice and conviviality. They express, in the final analysis, an abiding commitment to freedom in the face of and over and against the confinements that wallcrafting politically enacts.
*I thank Anna Finn, in the English Department at the University of California, for her enormously helpful work in researching the images and securing the rights to republish them.
Brown, Wendy, 2010, Walled States, Waning Sovereignty. Zone Books.
Caldeira, Teresa, 2000, City of Walls: Crime, Segregation, and Citizenship in Sao Paulo. University of California Press.
Dumas, Marlene, 2010, Against the Wall. David Zwirner, Radius Books.
Half-formed wish, 2010, “A Luta Continua,” August 6.
Hatch, Corey, 2007, “Images and Aspects of the Historic Berlin Wall,” http://www.cs.utah.edu/~hatch/berlin_wall.html
Mattar, Daniela Vicherat, 2012, “Did Walls Really Come Down? Contemporary B/ordering Walls in Europe,” in Walls, Borders, Boundaries: Spatial and Cultural Practices in Europe, pp. 77-93, eds. Marc Silberman, Karen E. Till, and Janet Ward. Berghahn Books.
Mintzker, Yair, 2012, “The Dialectics of Urban Form in Absolutist France,” in Walls, Borders, Boundaries: Spatial and Cultural Practices in Europe, pp. 25-42, eds. Marc Silberman, Karen E. Till, and Janet Ward. Berghahn Books.
Sassen, Saskia, 2012, “Borders, Walls, and Crumbling Sovereignty,” Political Theory 40 (1): 116-120.
Weizman, Eyal, 2012, The Least of All Possible Evils: Humanitarian Violence from Arendt to Gaza. Verso Books.
Readers may also be interested in:
The TCS special section on the Urban Problematic II (TCS 31.7-8), edited by Ryan Bishop and John WP Phillips, was published in December 2014.
An earlier section on the Urban Problemtaic (TCS 30.7-8), also edited by Ryan Bishop and John WP Phillips, was published in December 2013.