Walling In and Walling Out

This weekend, I read Laura MacAtackney and Randall Maguire’s new edited volume Walling In and Walling Out: Why Are We Building New Barriers to Divide Us? (2020). The contributions offer a diverse range of studies on walls and borders that draw upon the perspectives informed by archaeology, sociology, and anthropology as well as public policy. For readers broadly familiar with recent conversations around walls and borders will find both the usual suspects (Reese Jones, Anna McWilliams as well as the volume’s editors), and some new perspectives on the borders of Europe (Dimitrios Papadopoulos), the role of walls in racial segregation in Puerto Rico (Zaire Disney-Flores) and Palestine (Amahl Bishara) and the Mexican-American border (Michael Dear and Margaret E. Dorsey and Miguel Diaz-Barriga). 

I came away from reading this book with a few new ideas that I will eagerly apply to some of my work-in-progress.

1. “Borderwork” and “Boundary Work.” Dimitris Papadopoulos introduces the idea of “boundary work” which echoes with Dan Hicks and Sarah Mallet’s idea of “borderwork” from their book, Lande: The Calais Jungle and Beyond (2019). These ideas emphasize that borders and boundaries are not limited to activities at the border itself, but permeate the surrounding landscapes and societies as part of a larger apparatus of control. The ability, for example, of the Customs and Border Patrol agents to work outside almost all Constitutional limits on their authority within 100 miles of the US border is perhaps the most obvious example of how borderwork extends itself geographically. More subtle, but no less significant, is the massive and largely unsupervised technological infrastructure that supports this work that collects information on millions of individuals with few limits on who can use this data and how it can be used. Moreover, the promotion of a kind of ethical and legal ambiguity surrounding the rights of individuals at the borders themselves has worked to reinforce the risks associated with the movement between jurisdiction. Much of this risk is not real, but by exaggerating the ambiguity of individual rights at these points, the CBP both asserts its power and reinforces the idea that borders are fraught and dangerous. It goes without saying that this ambiguity and attendant sense of danger and risk has also served those invested in politicizing borders, immigration, national security, and even trade. All this is part of a larger process of borderwork.  

2. Temporality and the Border. A number of authors emphasized the unique temporal dimension of borders not only historically, but also experientially. From a historical perspectives, borders present themselves as solid and persistent, but our experiences over the last 50 years has demonstrated that this is not always the case. The collapse of the “Iron Curtain,” the reconfiguration of national boundaries in the Balkans and Central Europe, the emergence of the European Union, and new immigration agreements between countries ensure that the permanence of borders is largely illusory.

Temporality also shapes our interaction with borders. The experience of waiting in line whether at passport control at an airport or while sitting in the car at a busy point of entry, communicates the significance of the border at the individual level. At the same time, a series of technologies accelerate the collecting and sharing of information between agents at the border and the vast national and global security apparatus. The tension between the time experienced by an individual and the speed of information collection reinforces the status of borders as landscape of control just as the seeming permanence of border installations obscures their historical fluidity.    

3. Borders as Bricolage. A few contributors noted that borders are places where technologies and policies from various times and situations come together to create distinctive spaces. The use of concrete barriers and barbed wire which became prominent in anti-tank and anti-personnel developed over the first half of the 20th century rub shoulders with state-of-the-art digital technologies ranging from high-speed cameras to thermal imaging, motion detection devices, and massive data infrastructures designed to identify and track individuals. Helicopter mats, first deployed in the Vietnam War, appear alongside installations to support small scale and weapons-capable drones.

This juxtaposition of technologies from various eras offers a view of borders that are both timeless and always evolving. More than that, from the perspective of material culture, they show how aspects of the past persist in the present and communicate the kind of ambiguity and multiple temporalities central to borderwork.    

4. Wall and the Carceral State. The book is not just about national borders, but also the kind of walls that shape our every day lives. From the “peace walls” that divide denominational communities in Belfast and to gated communities in contemporary Puerto Rico, walls also produce and reinforce divisions on the basis of race, class, and ethnicity. Moreover, as Laura MacAtachney has pointed out, these walls tend to formalize past divisions and create “very localized forms of place identity” that risk the creation of new forms hostility and division. 

There was less discussion of the emergence of the carceral state in the late-20th century and the role of prison walls as a kind of borderwork which extends throughout the emerging security state. It seems easy enough to see law enforcement with their interest in protecting property represent an extension of the private prison industry which requires a constant flow of inmates to reward investors. 

5. Floodwalls, Sea Walls, and Nature. Missing in the book, but part of my everyday life, was a discussion of floodwalls and seawalls that mark efforts for humans to exert control over the other that they typically define as “nature.”  These walls, of course, take on many of the historical forms of fortification walls whether earthworks or textured to look like Classical ashlar masonry. 

Moreover, the flood walls in town are part of a larger strategy of borderwork which extends on either side of the wall. On the town side, pump houses appear throughout neighborhoods and provide back pressure to prevent the rising river water from entering town via storm drains and sewers. On the river side, various structures have been removed and a large green belt is maintained to allow the river to flow smoothly through town without becoming dammed and over flowing the walls locally. Of course, like most walls, these are permeable with storm drains and waste flowing through the wall to the river and during most of the year, roads also cross the walls providing access to parks and walking trails. Bridges cross the river as well.

The borderwork extends north, of course, to the national border with Canada. Strategies to control the flow of the Red River in Grand Forks, Fargo, and elsewhere impacts the flow of water across the border. Devil’s Lake, for example, continues to rise and swallow up farmland and towns because releasing the water into the Red River drainage would carry run-off and other pollutants north to Canada, Lake Winnipeg, and the Hudson Bay. 

It seems to me that the flood walls provide a concrete example of the way that we establish the division between culture and nature and this involves using the same walls that work to define human groups to define the blurry edges of our cultural reach. 

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