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 suspiciously seems only to target anyone with a tattoo — that is used as a pretext to strip such immigrants of their rights as legal residents, confine them to Inkatoriums for “treatment,” and eventually sterilize many without consent.
The novel is organized around the separate voices of four main characters, and spans almost a decade in time. Finn is a journalist, a US citizen whose work has brought the plight of disenfranchised immigrants to his attention. He is drawn into their world by Mari, a legal Guatemalan immigrant who works for Population Control and who has noticed some anomalous statistics that lead her to guess at the existence of the Inkatoriums before they have been publicly acknowledged. Working as Finn’s source, Mari risks her own safety and is soon targeted by a group of vigilantes who attack immigrants and dump them at the border without supplies. It is here that Vourvoulias’s novel demonstrates the doubled vision evident in Brown’s analysis of the psychological and political semiotics of walls. Those who take Mari and other immigrants have only marginal security themselves and it is clear from the narrative that they cling so desperately to their status as “legitimate” citizens precisely because so little else separates them from the economic vulnerability of those they prey upon. As in contemporary anti-immigration discourse, the most hatred is reserved for people who cross illegally, giving themselves fake tattoos and lacking GPS trackers.
The third narrative is organized around Del, husband to Finn’s sister, whose experience with immigrants comes from two sources: he works with Latino laborers at a construction job for a company owned by a friend of his father, and he becomes involved with the alluring Meche, a woman who organizes an informal, underground network of clubs and social services in immigrant neighborhoods, whom he meets when helping some immigrants with Finn. The final protagonist, Abbie, enters the novel quite late. She is the daughter of a woman who runs an Inkatorium, and she ends up helping both Meche and Mari when they are incarcerated there, enabling all the narrative threads to come together. Abbie originally becomes involved with an escape plan out of an adolescent desire to challenge her mother at any opportunity, but the more she is immersed in the world of the inks, the more she comes to question the social order she had previously taken for granted.
Although this dispersed cast of characters and stories can at times make the novel disjointed, this structure seems important to serving its themes, which have to do with community building toward a better and shared future. Were it not for the romantic relationships and rather forced staging of encounters to bring our four protagonists together, the lives of inks and those of citizens would rarely cross. Indeed, Del struggles to know his construction coworkers, but he is thwarted by their tendency to be cautious with outsiders and by a culture in which they are structurally and psychologically kept apart from the communities in which they work. “We face an entirely different crew every three months,” Del tells us. “We don’t even bother to learn their real names, we mostly call them by the name of their country of origin. Since Chato likes to hire as many Mexicans as possible — and they all can’t be called Mexico — we call them by Mexican regional names.” Similarly, Abbie’s mother realizes that most of the inmates at her facility are not ill, but nonetheless she feels trapped by her own financial vulnerability, commenting to Meche, as she treats the woman whom she acknowledges is not infected, “What’s sentiment when your kid’s freezing in a cold house?”
Summarizing more of the plot risks robbing the novel of its effect and so I’ll just say that once the stage is set, the lives of these four characters become entwined in a variety of resistance efforts, and by the end of the novel we see society again transformed, this time with some reasons for hope. Like Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, to which this novel has been compared, Vourvoulias’s text makes chillingly clear how close beneath the surface of a liberal civil order lies a more oppressive regime willing to quickly narrow the category of the fully human to a smaller subset of those who have traditionally held power in Western societies (masculine, white). As in Atwood’s novel, Ink is careful to show the legislative steps by which democracy is transformed into totalitarianism, steps that initially target only the most marginalized so that society slowly reaches the boiling point without most of the frogs recognizing that the pot is no longer safe.
The use of tattoos to mark immigrant status is multiply evocative, from the connection to the visual difference of skin color, through the Nazis’ use of tattoos to track Jewish inmates, to the increasing prevalence of biometric data (such as iris scans) used in passports, driver’s licenses and other kinds of identification protocols: the continuum between monitoring our bodily specificity to encoding documents on our bodies no longer seems so vast. Indeed, we live in an era that many political philosophers characterize as the biopolitical, one in which the state directly intervenes into the biological life of its subjects, a mode of governance that tends toward viewing citizens as resources rather than rights-bearing subjects.
The separation between the born, unmarked citizens and the tattooed immigrants (including permanent residents who have gained US citizenship as adults) mirrors the difference between two kinds of life as theorized by Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben in works such as Homo Sacer. Such divisions between life recognized as having citizenship status and mere “bare life,” Agamben contends, is paradigmatic of the biopolitical relationship between the state and its subjects. The state’s ability to treat such non-citizens as less than human is violence beneath the surface of Western democracies that was made visible in regimes such as Nazi Germany. The question we should ask about the atrocities in concentration camps, he argues, is not how such crimes could be committed against human beings, but rather by which “juridical procedures and deployments of power” were people “so completely deprived of their rights and prerogatives that no act committed against them could appear any longer as a crime.”
Ink explores this biopolitical moment and the possibility for totalitarianism that lurks within democracies, a sinister aspect that emerges in the kind of defensive subjectivity produced by walled states, as Brown argues. Yet it also gives us reasons for hope that people might rise above their defensive reaction to difference, refuse such separations, and seek common human community, a motif embodied in the novel most directly through the romantic relationships formed across racial and class differences, and ultimately in the offspring of these unions, a new and hybrid generation who promise to make a better world. In this way, the novel is an excellent example of dystopian science fiction and ably demonstrates the power of such fiction to alert us to the consequences of “if this goes on.” Its unsettling plausibility suggests that perhaps a better comparison than Atwood is to Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl, another recent novel that has turned to the techniques of science fiction to capture the dystopian experience of the present. Ink’s science-fictional gap between its world and our own is slim indeed, and I suspect that many aspects of the travails of the inked are consistent with those of immigrants today.
The critiques I have are mainly about the novel’s scope: in desiring to tell its story both on a wide social canvas and over a considerable period of time, the novel ends up feeling like a sketch of future history rather than an embedded experience with these protagonists. The characters are well rounded and believable, but we are often abruptly yanked from one narrative to the next, returning to a point-of-view character only after considerable time has passed and catching up on their experiences “off screen,” as it were. This technique can be frustrating, and — although the degrees to which some characters change is realistic given the duration of the novel’s timeframe — the reader has considerably less time to adjust. Thus, the social change envisioned by the novel itself feels a bit forced: we can imagine the better world, but not necessarily what it feels like to live through revolutionary change.
One final word about genre: as well as science fiction, the novel has aspects of genre fantasy in Mari’s spirit animal, an ethereal twin that is part of her Nahual heritage. Spirit animals of her people battle dwarves in an otherworldy realm while the human characters battle the INS and racist vigilantes. Although dwarves have a material existence to Mari and those like her, they are also described as “an etheric projection of the pure evil we human beings are willing to visit on each other.” This invocation of spiritualism offers, I think, a way to connect the religious dimensions of nationalism and their embodiment as performances of security in border walls. Like magical realism, Ink points to a dimension of reality and experience that is not seen by those in hegemonic positions, reminding us of other modes of reality, other kinds of religious experience, and other ways to understand our subjectivity. The novel, Vourvoulias’s first, is a call reminiscent of the gavilán gang sign used within the novel: “don’t let the future be written for you.” The novel urges us to project something other than the evil of defensive nationalism. The extent of neoliberalism’s penetration into daily life can often make us feel that the future is already written and we need fight only to survive it. Vourvoulias reminds us that we might yet fight for another kind of future.