Unbuilding the Wall

This is a guest post by Toby Shorin.

Although symbols are intangible, that doesn’t mean they are inaccessible. On the contrary, we routinely understand and interact with the world by interpreting and intuiting their meanings. Symbols can be created, altered, proliferated, and overthrown.

This essay will discuss one symbol and its meanings: Donald Trump’s Wall. During the ‘15-‘16 election cycle, the Wall became as much of an aspirational motif for the right as it was a corrupt one for the left. In some ways, the Wall usurped Trump himself as the central image of the election. Compared to Trump, whose innumerable controversies make him an ethically difficult figure even for many of his supporters, the Wall makes a simple proposition: in or out. This legerdemain condenses a whole lineup of wicked problems and convoluted realities into a highly condensed ideological meme, representing the entire package of Trump’s policies. Ease of compliance is visible in the rally chants of Trump followers (“build the Wall, build the Wall!”), which acknowledge and perpetuate its myth.

Of course, the Wall is not just a symbol; it is a very real political project with significant implications. But symbols are not just ideas; they are very real concentrations of meaning with political agendas and the potential for momentous adoption. For example, the key symbol of the now-dead Occupy movement, “the 99%,” has been instrumental in spreading awareness of income inequality, and nearly 10 years later remains a crucial tool of global leftist discourse. In the apparently straightforward gesture of the Wall is hidden a similarly nuanced conceptual model. The Wall defines America by drawing its boundaries, producing an exclusionary, misleading, and compelling model nation. As a symbol, it functions on three levels: the geopolitical, the psychological, and the semiotic—it fucks with meaning itself.

Nostalgia for Sovereignty

Let’s start by taking Trump’s plan for the Wall at face value, and look at it as a territorial action. Trump claims that to “Secure Our Borders” from entry by immigrants, refugees, and terrorists, a Wall must be built, and policies like his immigration ban on Muslims enacted. This project is recognizable as a variant of the Brexit agenda in the UK, which went by a different but similarly themed slogan: “Take Back Our Nation.” Each program promises a sovereignty guaranteed by the territorial boundary of the state.

Ideologically, the Wall inherits the Westphalian model of sovereignty we all learned in high school. The preeminent authority on this model is 20th century legal theorist Carl Schmitt. Schmitt observed that before the legal, economic, and social structures of a state could emerge, there must always be an act of land appropriation. Because Westphalian sovereignty is also based on territorial ownership, Schmitt saw it as the ultimate spatial ordering method among various historical alternatives. The theoretical developments Schmitt made offer us two insights: first, that the Wall is a literal reinforcement of the Westphalian territorial model; and secondly, that its core ambition is to reinitiate the American legal, economic, and social orders.

Unfortunately, the legacy of the 20th century is the erosion of the territorial Westphalian model. The growth of transnational sovereign entities, multinational corporations and digital technology platforms, have rendered the idea of geographical sovereignties obsolete.

MNCs operate within countries but also stretch over national boundaries. They create alternative legal jurisdictions, active in both specific in-country sites where the corporation enforces its own disciplinary policies; and across a network of Special Economic Zones set up to accommodate free trade. The latter indicates an economic and legal order, the borders of which are not definite. This extra-national order is shapeless, but nevertheless present (for instance, in international arbitration courts in which MNCs and other private entities prosecute and sanction national governments). Other corporations cherish their national identities, but employ the majority of their workforce in other nations.

National sovereignty is further overwhelmed with the rise of digital citizenship. Increasingly, services conventionally guaranteed by the state are provided by private technology platforms. Traditional areas of state competency, like cartography and transportation, together with new services vital to daily life—digital storage, instantaneous communication, public knowledge, and so on—compose a suite of public services that these platforms compete to offer. Cloud-based platforms make multiple sovereign claims over the same people, events, and spaces, wrestling with and overlapping state’s own objectives (Bratton, 2016).

These are just a few among many transnational institutions that act like, and consider themselves, sovereign powers. The land-centric Westphalian model has has exhausted its relevance. The Wall, then, is an inherently nostalgic project, connected in spirit with Trump’s anti-globalist pledges. It suggests that America can retreat from this world of global finance capital flows and conglomerates. It alludes to the revitalization of “Greatness” and the return of jobs “back to America”—the Wall easily takes on the patriotic values and historical norms of the Westphalian model. Trump followers may not point directly to the decline of statehood, the rise of opaque megacorporations, and the inhumanity of a systems-based society as the culprits behind their dissatisfaction. But even when the issues are not explicitly identified, the Wall’s suggestion of a return to a more familiar form of society is alluring.

For followers of Trump, the Wall is a clear symbolic emblem for America’s restoration. The vision of an “impenetrable physical wall on the southern border” outlined in Trump’s campaign documents is a promise to reinstate the American sovereign order, and deny America’s embeddedness in international economic systems. The achievability of these objectives are beside the point. In the fantasy induced by the Wall, distribution and production are reverted back to their industrial-era modes, ending free trade and relocating labor back to America. A new American social order will be hewn, based on patriotism, and a statehood based on an imaginary homogenous identity of its residents. As an effective symbol, the Wall reflects—and creates—the desire to return to a simpler, normative understanding of geopolitics. One where sovereignty and “control” can be imposed on the world by defining and dividing it.

Masking Violence

Now we have a hint as to the Wall’s symbolic function. At the geopolitical level, the Wall obscures the actual workings of international political economy, refocusing attention on America, which it reinscribes by laying down borders. The imposition of boundaries to create some sort of “order” is something we’ll see again and again.

Above, we saw how a legal and social order is created through an act of territorial appropriation—a founding act of violence. The usefulness of violence does not end when a state is created, however. A state must maintain a monopoly on the use of violence to continually redefine its authority. Political theorist Willy Apollon (1996) says:

In our industrial and postindustrial societies, political power appeals to the sovereign use of violence, through the concern of the Law that establishes that sovereignty… In effect, political power is acknowledged as the authority that guarantees the society against a violent contradiction where its existence may be challenged. The power of that authority is legitimated through the political discourse that sustains the theory of Law defining the monopoly and the right of violence.

The United States of America is practically a case study on state-sponsored violence. Like other imperialist cultures before it, America displays an innate compulsion to dominate and exploit peoples and other nations. Its deployment of violence against non-white people is what is most relevant to our ongoing look at the Wall.

One success of the Black Lives Matter movement has been to expose how language and imagery used by the media legitimizes state violence against black American citizens. Following the death of a black person at the hands of the police, it is now common to see comparisons of the imagery selected to represent the deceased—often grainy pictures of the subject, unsmiling, looking somewhat menacing—with alternatives showing them smiling, laughing, with family, and so on. It has also become popular to identify and highlight language such as “thug” and “bad kid,” used by the media and the police to demonize victims and justify the actions of the police.

The state’s “right to violence” is always justified, both intentionally and unintentionally, by this dance between state institutions and public media. The dynamic is not new, nor does it exclusively utilize black, predominantly male Americans. State and media coordination during the Iraq War era focused on the supposed cultural captivity of the Muslim woman. And as with police violence against blacks in America, the last few years has seen a mainstream awakening to how the threat of terror has been invoked to legitimize persistent drone bombings in the Middle East. More recently, there has been criticism of the “job creation” rationale for what is ultimately violence against Native Americans in the struggle over the Dakota Access Pipeline.

If the Western political project is to establish a “mythical legitimacy for the monopoly of violence” (Apollon), that legitimacy is threatened by the growing general knowledge of how state and media collude to protect it. The most clear responses to the newfound obviousness of state violence come in the form of denial. The existence of “Blue Lives Matter” can only be read as evidence of mainstream, bi-partisan consciousness. The “Blue Lives Matter” narrative reverses the direction of violence to put police in the position of the victim, retroactively justifying police violence. Like “Blue Lives Matter,” the symbolic function of the Wall is to perpetuate denial. It represses collective social awareness of America’s violent reality.

Apollon reads political discourse as a “repression and substitute to the analysis and investigation” of the state monopoly on violence. In the psychoanalytic tradition, repression has two stages: innate violent and sexual drives are repressed, becoming fixations which then are projected outward. It is indeed striking how well this maps to Trump’s polemic, which has consistently denied racial bias while recentering the national narrative on a victimhood that justifies the Wall’s existence. The Wall portrays America an innocent entity, threatened by the entry of impure, darker-skinned others. Its claim to inviolability also seeds the notional possibility of violation. Fear of rape and murder are used to justify its existence. The Wall here acts as a border, dividing the American collective conscious from its collective unconscious. Just as the Wall hides international realities by venerating America, it obscures the target of violence, non-white-ness, while shifting the narrative so as to allow violence to continue unimpeded.

Importantly, it is not only penetration by foreigners that is fixated, but the threat of otherness—blackness, Hispanicness, Muslimness—within the national body itself. An important conclusion can be reached by following this logic. First, if coloredness is an impurity, then the collective identity of America produced by the Wall can only be understood as white. It is a sort of psycho-social order which defines the collective social mind, both figuratively and literally. As an infrastructural project, the Wall enacts what it symbolizes: the rejection of coloredness from the American social identity. The creation of the Wall is itself an act of psychological violence against Hispanic citizens, both documented and not. Trump’s immigration ban, increase in law enforcement and ICE staffing, and aggressive deportation policies are also best understood as measures to reduce the number of non-white people in America. But for the the Wall’s white proponents, this is all lost. It clears the white American conscious, while at once inflicting and obscuring its violence, and encouraging fear of non-white others.

The Final Symbol

Future semantic historians, delving into media from the 2010s, are sure to feel they have stepped into a war-ravaged landscape. In the 2010s, the logic first called “postmodernism” but properly termed poststructuralism has finally been acknowledged by the mainstream. The great legible institutions the state and the identity, have been overwhelmed, shown to be merely society’s constructions. The appearance of “post-truth” and “alternative facts” in mainstream political discourse indicates that the general public can now see that multiple meanings, far from impossible, are in play at all times. Post 2008 financial crisis, this is the war-zone of America. It has been spoonfed heaps of red pills and dogfed its own liberal vitamins. Is Trump’s election a triumph of white angst or of American pride? A foreign manipulation or the local failure of identity politics? Mastery of persuasion or meme magic? The air is thick with irreconcilable narratives, symbols, and herrings.

Unfortunately, traumatic events (such as the dissolution of absolute meanings) always incur responses. By my estimates, we’re somewhere between the “denial” and “anger” stages. Faced with confusing signals and the looming possibility of nihilism, drastic and violent attempts to re-impose truth on the world are becoming more and more frequent. Here, the ultimate mechanism of the Wall is revealed: it abolishes the inherent nebulousness of meaning altogether. Trump, claiming Nixon’s mantle as the “law and order candidate,” will lead us back to the rigidly ordered epistemology of structuralism.

In structuralist thought, it was thought that the symbols corresponded directly to their meanings, This representational pair, the “signifier” and the “signified,” were believed by structuralists to be how the brain’s language structure worked.

The crucial advancement of poststructuralism was to prove this false. Poststructural thinkers deconstructed language to show that there is no essential meaning affixed to each word, symbol, or idea; an idea only refers to (or “signifies”) many others. “Actual” meaning, then, is continuously deferred on and on, down an endless “signifying chain” of meanings. This is the essence of post-structuralism: meanings are not constant, not fixed, but flexible and co-created by their contextual use. America’s quickly-changing lexicon of youth slang proves the point rather well; 5 years ago, words like “lit,” “squad,” and “fire” did not have the accepted meanings they have today.

However, psychoanalyst and semiotician Jacques Lacan proposed the existence of a “master-signifier”. Among the endless chain of signs, the master-signifier asserts itself as an unquestionable constant, forming a stable, structured symbolic order. When a master-signifier emerges, all other meanings are defined in relation to it.

This special characteristic of the master-signifier is illustrated well in the anti-semitic thought of WWII-era Germany. There, “‘Jew’ serve[d] as the final word that effectively explains and accounts for everything…unifies a given field, constitutes its identity” (Gunkel, 2014, emphasis mine). This example shows how the signifier “Jew,” although empty of any fundamental meaning, came to possess a quality of absoluteness. Like other vague and indefinable yet ultimate words such as “good” and “evil,” invoking the “final word” forces everything else to relate to or against it. But because the master-signifier is as arbitrary and as empty as all other signifiers, it can only obtain primacy through an “abyssal, nonfounded, founding act of violence” (Zizek in Gunkel).

Do the circumstances sound familiar? A challenging reality, devoid of the comfortable assuredness of past absolutes; an act of order-creating violence, which justifies its own existence and obscures the truth. Today, the master-signifier is America; the Wall, the “violent imposition,” a territorial appropriation of meaning itself. Circumscribed by the Wall, America the concept achieves absolute significance. As satirized in the classic America, Fuck Yeah, “America” stands in to tautologically justify everything American and vilify everything un-American. Between the two there is no middle ground (“there is no alternative!”). The plan to build an impermeable Wall is a plan to build an essentialist hegemony of meaning.

Within this symbolic order, meanings are rendered in dualistic terms, forced to relate back to the master-signifier in a perverted form of structuralism. Good and evil, white and non-white, inside and outside the Wall. Each relate back to the “final” notions of American and un-American. One opposite is therefore always subordinated to the other in a “violent hierarchy” of terms. It is obvious that in this America, the privileged terms include citizen, documented, white, and male; the subordinated being foreigner, undocumented immigrant, nonwhite, and female. As exhibited by numerous instances of physical, psychological, and infrastructural violence against the latter groups in the weeks and months following Trump’s elections, the new politics of meaning is treacherously easy to internalize and enact.

This makes America and the definition of its semiotic boundaries the ground of deadly ideological conflict. We have arrived at the battlefront of the culture war over the meaning of America. On one side, an exclusionary meaning, defined from within the white mental model. For this side, the Wall is a powerful symbolic weapon that shrinks and ossifies America’s meaning, reversing the historical trend of an expanding definition of America and Americanness through emancipation, enfranchisement, and anti-discriminatory legislation. Regardless of political inclination, the informed reader will agree that the forceful imposition of national and psycho-social boundaries is totalitarian. On the other side, a definition of America that is more like meaning itself: permeable, inclusive, and most importantly, flexible. The natural workings of meaning are more like a distributed direct democracy, or perhaps even libertarianism. Meanings change and expand reflexively, and are responsive to the needs of their constituents and users. Eventually, the meaning of “America” may not even be limited to the country’s current geopolitical bounds.

A few words of advice for readers looking to join the resistance: opposition starts with better and more subversive meaning-making. Division has created the opportunity for unification through the creation of completely new symbols. Powerful words in the national vocabulary such as “freedom” and “liberty” are ripe for reinterpretation. For those with a platform, publicly acting in ways that challenge final vocabularies and hegemonic meanings is highly effective. Readers who wish to sharpen their weapons should practice deconstruction, analysis, and redefinition. If this essay has communicated one thing, it should be that wars are fought not only over meaning, but with it.

Bruno Snell, writing during and after WWII says: “when it is agreed that certain institutions have come to represent [the] absolute, the catastrophe becomes inevitable.” America may yet become that institution, and the Wall its real border. But the provocation to adopt absolute systems of meaning will always face resistance, for meaning is inevitably neither absolute nor nonexistent. It extends beyond our attempts to make it, arrives in unexpected places, and grows around Walls.

“First, [revolutionary actors] must de-legitimate the mechanisms that stabilize hegemonic meanings”
– Bart Cammaerts, Banal revolution: the emptying of a political signifier


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  1. Brilliant

  2. deluded shit

  3. I usually find the guest bloggers on this site interesting even if I don’t understand or agree with them, but this piece just felt like a hackneyed attempt to apply critical theory to Trump’s idiotic rhetoric.

    He’s not a master rhetorician (whatever Scott Adams may think). If he’s been able to get away with more than typical Republicans have been able to it’s because of his outsider status, the 2010s cultural zeitgeist, etc. It’s not because he has any unique ability to manipulate American ideals for his own purposes.

  4. Wow, that’s pretty pure semiotics, without any Hofstadter in sight!

    Here’s something that occurs to me; if walls and the re-assertion of territory together really are the central narrative feature of “Trumpism”, does that mean it can do without anti-islamic sentiment?

    I’ve never been massively happy with the “master signifier” concept, because as far as I can tell, it was developed building from ideas similar to the idea that a king is not king without subjects that recognise them, in other words that the centrality of a particular concept is based on defining other concepts so as to make it central, but then in usage immediately conceals it again, talking about how the “master signifier” structures discourse, how a single idea or concept, tied to a particular word, stands as a single origin point for their thought.

    It seems reasonable to me that you may be able to find a single central idea within someone’s thinking to which everything else is related, but it might not exist as a single named object, like a wall, but in a relationship between a few objects.

    Following the fascist comparison, even being obviously reductive, it’s still reasonable to say germany’s imperialism was based on a complex of four distinct ideas; two categories for the world; the unity of the german people as a biological/cultural group, and an international conspiracy to destroy them, and two methods to react to those categories; a “room to live” policy involving invading other nations as a spatial boundary, and an emphasis on reinforcing cultural and biological purity.

    In other words, it was an interpretive framework to explain the discomfort of the reparations, economic crash and forced demilitarisation that Germany faced in the early 20th century. The central appearance of Jewish people within that framework was in a false identification of them with internationalism and the obvious contradiction shown by the existence of their well-integrated but distinct subculture to the idea of German uniformity. Antisemitism already existed, but the trick was transforming that into an active part of the central program, or rather a constant transition point between parts of the program.

    To put it another way, instead of a master signifier, I think about something like a semantic spanning tree or high level highway system; if you have a collection of concepts that you want to move between by associations, then a scale free network of analogies and contrasts, where some links are local, and others become progressively more dispersed, is a very efficient way to do it.

    At each level of accuracy, the “master signifier” would stand for the most central network of concepts, which if collapsed together, would form a kind of star radiating out into the rest of the plane. They are the collective transport hub for leaps of metaphor.

    The question comes then why you would want to random-walk free associate your way through a network of concepts. I’m not sure. It certainly relates to the practices of psychoanalysis, (in that that’s what they ask people to do all the time), and indeed the way that Donald Trump’s campaign has worked (he talks for hours by free-associating his way through a relatively repetitive structure of ideas), but what value does it hold in terms of cognitive efficiency, or unity of action?

    Did the fact that the fascists have a single set of ideas they could apply to everything help them in everyday life, in political campaigning? Or was it just a side effect of the limitations of their thought, a representation of obsession where a “proper” model should be? The latter is to some extent more comforting, that the rambling looping of ideas represented more the Nazi’s collapse than their rise, and that like germany pushing into russia against logic, trump will slowly crumple as his wall turns out to be more and more obviously an expression of hubris or even worse, a pitiful meagre thing that cannot act as a puff for his ego, or his poll numbers fail to improve etc. I can imagine absurd situations where people send anonymous drones to graffiti “the wall”, and trump becomes desperate to keep it clean, as the core representation of his own ego.

    But I don’t know, I can imagine that such a cluster of shared central ideas by a group of people attempting to rule could help with communication and coordination, a kind of conceptual strategic hierarchy, like a design language, that allows them to stay “on topic” while still moving widely around a variety of different things. It also amuses me to think that you might be able to run some kind of program to produce a state transition network of Trump’s speeches, and work out what concepts are most central to his decision making, and also if there tend to be one way loops in how he relates concepts. If that is so, “the wall” specifically is probably not achieving internal communicative coherence for the white house. If I had to guess, I would suspect that there is a fight between those trying to centre discussions around the concept of “making deals” in a simple transactional fashion, and others emphasising security and xenophobia. The most obvious tension there being russia.

    Another idea, it strikes me, is that the wall could be less a chosen metaphor and more an output of his crowd-sourced thinking process during the election campaign. Not a structuring motif for his policies but his speeches, a trace of how he responded to certain kinds of discourse that he used to maintain and grow his support. Though he might have been happier to talk about his own pretensions, tv ratings and wealth, he was drawn back into talking about walls by more fundamental elements of his candidacy, which was attempting to find local crowd pleasers that various republicans had been using in their campaigns, and claim ownership of them by saying them louder and in more extreme ways (“Walls”, “coal”, “radical islamic terrorism”) while also not associating himself to any standard republican positions that might have caused his supporters suffering, so that he can claim only the parts of their campaign that make him look good. Out of that collection of ideas, “build the wall” became the new “drill baby drill”, an act that sounded productive, and without negatives for anyone in the audience, an easy chorus to return to.

    It also occurs to me that if both of these are the case, then I don’t want to put too much effort into determining what trump really means, because he’s sort of lost track of that himself with coming into power, and I don’t want to give him any help!

    • Josh, what a great comment.
      You’re quite right about the master signifier. It’s not that any one term actually holds singular dominance over the others, but that there is one concept that, like your star, appears to exert the “gravitational pull” over a network that contain a few ideas which structure a whole mental model. This is how I intended the Wall to come across but I don’t think I’ve made that as clear as I could have.

      I concur that the Wall is not a chosen metaphor. Other commenters also seem to have interpreted me as saying that the Wall is an intentional symbolic device, but I think it’s totally accidental. The reason the Wall is so evocative is because it happens to elegantly pull together all of the themes Trump likes to free-associate on, as you say.

    • Isn’t the wall an objet petit a, rather than a master-signifier?

  5. “The growth of transnational sovereign entities, multinational corporations and digital technology platforms, have rendered the idea of geographical sovereignties obsolete.”

    This is not true. Long before Trump entered the scene, whose success or failure is at best hypothetical, China proved the opposite. It didn’t crushed the MNCs though but offered them a deal: if you want access 1 billion potential customers you have to create hybrid instances of your corporation in our country. You can make profit here but we own the platform. China played “economic nationalism” successfully for decades and never according to the rules and theories designed by US economists for their clientel. The western states long believed they made the rules and played the game, but as large parts of their population lost their jobs and prospectives for wealth, they begin to reconsider their assumptions. They believed so much in the arbitrary, non-democratic powers of the MNCs that they missed the return of old new political powers in other parts of the world. Leftists, progressivists, neoliberals etc. failed to understand what’s going on while believing the world spirit is still with them, so someone like Trump could easily gain momentum. Now you have to bear him residing in the Oval Office.

    The nostalgia seems to be on your site.

  6. I find myself largely agreeing with your analysis, but largely disagreeing with your emotional tone. Some observations:

    1) Every government imposes order on chaos. That is what the word “govern” means.

    2) This is a conflict between different subcultures with different master signifiers. One subculture orients by the signifiers “America” (good), “freedom” (good), and “criminal”/”terrorist” (bad). The other orients by “diversity” (good), “future” (good), and “racism” (bad). Obviously this is a very simple sketch, but I’m pretty sure you favor the second worldview over the first. I think they’re both bollocks, but then I’m an aspie and the appeal of tribalism is lost on me.

    3) I would be rather disappointed if the president did not assign a high emotional valence to “America” (whatever it is). I’d also be disappointed to learn that my spouse wasn’t keen on the idea of marriage, for much the same reason.

  7. One other comment: the late Victorian world was in some ways more globalized than the world of today. It was hoped that the web of mutual dependence would discourage states from declaring war on each other. It didn’t work out that way, and globalization was rolled back for a century. Something similar happened at the end of the Roman empire, but it lasted about a millennium. Globalization comes and goes, depending on the levels of conflict between states.

    • Peartolomew says

      Late victorian era was imperialistic and unsustainable. Late antiquity/early middle ages collapsed bc of deteriorating infrastructure not bc of rival states (eg rome was initially annexed not by powerful empires but by nomadic barbarian tribes). Increased global exchange also took place in the high middle ages which was stunted not only from wars but also economic stagnation and mass epidemics (black death). My point is that “interstate conflict level” is obviously a reduction of complex variables and on a higher level statehood itself is less a factor than it is a result–not to say that states dont clash, but rather that the historical concept of states is not always inevitable.

      I might have some facts wrong feel free to correct me but i think the point im trying to make is evident

  8. I see the move towards anti-globalism not as a “nostaligic attempt to revisit the past” (paraphrased), but rather a transition of priorities. Too long has the west exhibited pathological altruism. This to me has mostly been based on narcissism in thinking that we are so far above everyone else intellectually that it is the west’s responsibility to take care of the “noble savages”.

    If you want equability, lets agree to work on our own selves before trying to imprint the rest of the world.

    My 2c