Wendy Brown


On her book Walled States, Waning Sovereignty

Cover Interview of September 14, 2011

The wide angle

Walled States, Waning Sovereignty emerges from several decades of politically engaged scholarship.

I am a political theorist by vocation, which means that my thinking about the world is refracted through my training in the history of political thought.  And I focus on specific contemporary phenomena—from the involutions of finance capital to the operation of identity-based social movements to the revitalized importance of religion in politics.

So my work always involves thinking through contemporary political problems at a theoretical level, often informed (as this book is) by the some of the most powerful political thought from the past—e.g., Hobbes, Schmitt, Locke, Marx—and also by contemporary political theory.

I came to this particular project through three concerns:

First, I was engaged with the scholarship on the contemporary predicament of nation-states losing their sovereign status, that is, losing the autonomous powers of jurisdiction, order, law and protection associated with the idea of sovereignty.  Many philosophers, geographers, political scientists and legal scholars are working on this problem, and it was something I was trying to think through in my teaching and research.

Second, I was trying to understand why hundreds of millions of dollars were being poured into buttressing and extending the U.S.-Mexico border wall when each new fortification “failed”—produced an intensification in the drug and migrant smuggling industry, generated new border crossing routes through dangerous desert journeys, tunnels under the wall or boats around it, and added more generally to the organized crime and violence at the border.

Third, as I became aware of more and more border walls going up in the 1990s and 2000s, I was struck by the peculiarity of this development.  We live in a time in which the most potent threats and weapons are biochemical and drone warfare, internet and phone hacking, suicide bombing, global climate change, the vicissitudes of finance capital, transnational organized crime.  None of these can be significantly intercepted or deterred by large, long physical land barricades.  So what is the point of these walls?  What are they aimed at or achieving?  Why do so many nations want walls now?

Eventually, these three concerns came together to produce the argument of this book.  I begin thinking about the walls as failed performances of nation-state sovereignty, performances that projected an imago of sovereignty when sovereign power can no longer be realized on the ground.  I developed appreciation of the work of political legitimation and consolation the walls are doing—work that is quite different from actually repelling the immigration, drug and weapon smuggling, or terrorism that incites their building.