IN HER 2010 BOOK Walled States, Waning Sovereignty, political theorist Wendy Brown examines the recent trend of building physical walls to mark and police borders, a seemingly paradoxical initiative in a time characterized by a global, hence borderless, economy. As forces of global capital erode nation-state sovereignty, she suggests, walls are built as defense mechanisms that symbolize a desire for security and simultaneously reveal the nation state’s fragility through their excess. “The detachment of sovereign powers from nation-states also threatens an imaginary of individual and national identity dependent upon perceivable horizons and the containment they offer,” she continues. “Thus walls generate what Heidegger termed a ‘reassuring world picture’ in a time increasingly lacking the horizons, containment, and security that humans have historically required for social and psychic integration and for political membership.” As Brown’s work notes, the hyperbole surrounding the US/Mexico border in particular is a site of considerable affective investment for a US citizenry made vulnerable by the predations of neoliberalism and a disavowal of the US economy’s dependence on disenfranchised immigrant labor.
The purpose of walls, Brown reminds us, is performative rather than preventive. They magnify rather than mitigate problems of borders, as for example in the increase of Mexican migrants who relocate permanently rather than temporarily to the US given the difficulty of passage. They express a political wish for potency, protection and impermeability, Brown concludes, but walls’ performative architecture is a clue to their religious work in providing symbolic solace rather than practical salvation. Religion, she reminds us, was theorized by Freud not as an illusion but as a wish: in their religious function, walls confer “magical protection” against the vicissitudes of life in neoliberalism and “produce not the future of an illusion, but the illusion of a future aligned with an idealized past.”
Such affective and political investment in border security is the topic of Sabrina Vourvoulias’s provocative new novel, Ink. The novel is the first by Vourvoulias, who blogs at Following the lede, a site devoted to “the little stories behind, beneath and between the lines.” This tag line is also an apt description of the critical work done by her novel.
Set in a near future (one that perhaps seemed nearer still before the recent presidential election), the novel imagines a world in which immigration law has become overtly totalitarian, drawing an absolute line between the citizen and any “aliens” residing within the US. The title refers to a practice of border control in which one’s status is tattooed permanently onto one’s skin: naturally-born citizens are unmarked, but all others have tattoos whose distinctive colors make immediately visible their visa status, with black tattoos denoting the most despised immigrant class, temporary workers who are also fitted with GPS trackers. As the novel opens, we learn of the new legislation regarding tattoos, and it is soon revealed that an English-only ordinance has passed as well; as the plot unfolds, the legal repression of non-white subjects is further exacerbated by curfews (for those with tattoos only) and legislation regarding an infectious disease — which ...read more