The False Imperative of the Border Wall

23.  The border wall was designed a structure both inhabiting space and not a part of space, haunted by an absence of space and an emptiness in the landscape, both not part of it and part of it at the same time, in disturbingly displacing ways, displacing migrants or asylum seekers from legal rights and protections accorded by law, and creating an uneven legal landscape in the United States.  While the wall is defined as an anti-monument or un-landscape–part of a landscape and apart from it–it defines a literal no-man’s land along and around the border, outside and apart from the landscape in which it seems embedded.



The wall as it exists is unable to be grasped from a specific point of view, but rather traces a space of emptiness–as if an anti-monument to the state, separate from the surrounding landscape and suggesting a sense of emptiness and abandonment of ethics and ethical judgment in disturbing ways.  The emptiness of the un-lnadscape of the border was keenly evoked in photographs of the scar it creates in the landscape in Misrach’s  large-perspective pans, which investigate the relation of the wall that goes unseen by most Americans, even as they debate its existence, suggesting the  non-place it creates and imposes as a non-landscape emptied of place, exercising violent impact, if hidden, impact on individual subjects.

Misrach’s haunting photos of a border wall that  and to try to capture the traces of individuals at its site, in a recent set of collaborations with musician and composer Guillermo Galindo, as if to create the anti-landscape that the border fencing creates–and that leads us to imagine the even more eerily isolated relation to the landscape of Trump’s proposed border wall–which would be even more of an imposition extraneous to the landscape but imposed on it as a negative space.

misrach-wallRichard Misrach/from Border Cantos

The border wall acts as an anti-monument, in other words, on a majestic scale, not focussing attention on commemoration than the silencing of memory but reminding us of the absence of rights.  It is among the most vulgar shows of strength–borrowing from a lexicon of emptiness in the service of the state.



Wall, east of Nogales, Arizona, 2015. (© Richard Misrach. Courtesy Fraenkel Gallery, Pace / MacGill Gallery, and Marc Selwyn Fine Art)

The border wall transforms the commemorative purpose of architecture of monumentality.  Rather than focusing our attention in space, and foregrounding an ontological absence, the space of the wall is a non-monument, far less liberatory in its visual effect than undermining of presence than trying to recreate the spatial ontology of those on both sides, and suggest the sense less of a disruption–although it is a clear disruption, rooted in an aesthetics of division and appropriates a similar negative condition to frame a new mythological construction of nationhood, rooted in deeply archaic ways in exclusion.  For it poses an archaic sense of primitive classification, in an era of global politics, denying interconnectedness or relatedness to preserve the sacred notion of national safety.  Much as Nazi Germany adopted icons for asserting the purity of the nation outside of a legal language in the “purely Aryan symbol” unearthed on a bronze shield in Sweden and old pot in Hannover bearing a hooked cross to offer a new image of racial purity–despite Hitler’s claims that “After innumerable attempts, I lay down a final form:  a flag with a red background, a white disk, and a black swastika in the middle” of fixed shape and thickness, suggesting his labors of invention–

Hamburg Hakenkreuz 400 BC Weimar Museum.png.Weimar Museum, Hamburg

–using a sign of order to reify the victory of an anti-Semitic Idea deeper than all legal constitutions, the border wall proposed by Trump reified a triumphal ideal to the nation.

In suggesting the sign of national strength to replace the heterogenous assemblage of scrap metals at Tijuana where the remainder of the feared recent Caravan of Central American migrants arrived, Trump sold the wall to the electorate as a guarding of the national frontier against outsiders.  The old fence ncreasingly resembles the ruins of Ozymandias,  to be sure,stretching into the Pacific Ocean as if in an attempt to overcome the ties of a global circulation of water.

Wall washed by Waveswall in waves

The recent plans to construct a “revitalized” border wall that are currently promoted as protecting public safety and “vital to our national interests” seems a negative monument that will stand as a reminder of the worst aspects of our national ethos–denying human rights or civil society, civil rights and the common law principles of our nation.  Is the disproportionate concentration that the arrival of the recent Caravan of migrants has helped direct to our border not an illustration of all the toxic elements that the border control, inhumane treatment of migrants, and bolstering of the authority of Customs and Border Patrol agents has come to express in vivid terms?

The desperate narratives of the migrants who were dislocated along the sandy beaches in Tijuana, or climbed atop its antiqued and rusty corrugated metal, proudly raising the Honduran flag in an appeal for their own uncertain legal limbo, seem erased and suspended, as the violent separations of families of migrants at the border is increasingly reveals the shocking nature of their uncertain legal fate.  If the border line seems to be a clear division and protection, it is increasingly apparent how many difficulties its creation seems to generate.

n wall:commemorated at wall

Flag on Border at Tijuana

24.  The thuggish border wall has sold itself as a response to an immigration crisis, but the urgency with which it is advocated reveals a crisis in democracy.  For the assertion of need for a border wall responds to false truth claims that “the situation at the border has reached a crisis,” claims that elevate xenophobia and fear, as much as respond through a policy change.  The creation of a “state of exception” at the border allows the creation of a border wall to evade actual laws, and border guards to ignore immigrants’ civil rights, The border wall that candidate Trump promised the nation has fit into so many of our spatial imaginaries as a threshold of migration and of democratic values, stock images of outsiders, and illegal behavior.   It stands as a monument to the lack of liberty or individual rights of migrants–and seems to capture the current policy of removing children from the parents guilty of the misdemeanor of crossing the border illegally, as a dehumanization and a failure of political imagination or health.

The intransigence with which Trump has promoted the border wall as “so badly needed” has helped to make it a point of reference–even if it is unbuilt–to understand the global political landscape, as well as solidifying the worst elements of our relation to Mexico and to migrants who cross the southwestern border.  If the wall is cast as a sense of being fed up with earlier immigration policies–based on human rights conventions, our laws for granting asylum to the endangered, and inalienable civil rights of inhabitants of the United States–the wall only concretizes the continuously increasing presence of border patrol agents along the southwestern border, and the defenses that have been long amassed on the border, despite what Donald Trump encourages one to believe–a powerful graphic that demands pondering to imagine that most all border states would darken if one filled the slider bar into the present.


Trump and U.S. Border Patrol have both presented the border wall as crucial to the safety of the nation.  But the insistence on the border wall has emptied the nation of much of its meaning.   For the border wall stands to remap the nation and national priorities.  The problem of “border protection” and enforcement comes at very clear costs to our concepts of civil society and individual liberties, sacralizing the notion of the nation at its border.  The internet allowed for the creation of a sense of undue immediacy, and for a sense that the border suggested a site of governmentally where more funds, equipment, and inspectors needed to be invested in what had become an open front and line of crossing.

But the result is the diminution if not erasure of civil protections and human rights along the southwestern border.  Indeed, the border wall serves as a statement about civil protection whose spectacle increasingly serves to  distract attention from its questionable legal status, and whose promise of protecting the nation sets a standard of national protection that is both increasingly isolating, and defines our relation not through our ties to the hemisphere, but to our attempts to distance ourselves from “failed countries,” rather than just principles or civil rights.


The border wall has become pillar of his protection of public safety Trump has promised.   While borders are themselves challenging to map as they lie on the edges of the national map, the borderlands pose difficult challenges to map–and to map as a site of motion, permeability, or transit.  The fear of motion that is not easily recorded in maps–transnational cross-border flows of crime, guns, drugs, or employment–were long foregrounded in states near the southwestern border, who have depicted border crossings as the sources of multiple ills that afflict our nation and the United States.  Indeed, the conceit of the wall promises to define a sharp, impermeable edge along the border that in a fell swoop, as if by an executive order, remap the priorities and needs of the nation, even if it obscures the voices of those who live there.  Much meaning lies in an organic understanding that the best walls are membranes, permitting passage across permeable borders.

25.  The desire to prevent motion across space at its edges, precisely where some of the movement most vital to the nation occurs would be economically, environmentally, and politically unsound, but the notion of such a bounding has provided a compelling notion of the nation.  The distorted presence of the conceit of the border wall in the national imaginary has created a distortion of space, time, and nationhood on the immediacy of the internet.  Can static, better maps help to refocus our attention on the delicate nature of the border lands, and help us wrest a sense of new ownership over the border wall–as well as to banish the cartographical demons that haunt it?

The claims of the reality of the wall as they exist on the screens–and especially in online maps–have perpetuated the wall as a collective project of exclusion, to protect the security, jobs, health, and safety of the nation in ways that drastically diminish the nation as a set of laws.  For even if there is not a proximate cause to any of the issues that the border wall seeks to resolve, erasing any sense of distance and sense of communion to the wall as if it were an alternate reality, more ‘real’ than a virtual web of surveillance.  And the manner in which the conceit of the border appeals to the worst individual instincts of protection, personal safety, community threats, and outbreaks of gang violence creates the loosest sense of collective, linked by fears of personal safety rather than a collective terms.

The bizarre degradation of the local environment and specific endangered habitats along the path of the border wall–to be segmented by border wall and vehicle barriers at present, but in greater danger of endangering habitat within the expanded fifty-mile border “impact zone”–


–impacts critical habitat of some twenty-five endangered species, according to the Center for Biological Diversity, suggesting the extent to which the dream of the wall’s continuity runs roughshod over the environmental impacts that its future construction would incur on habitat of jaguar, owls, or ocelots whose migration have been compromised.  But the predominant feeling that “environmental” challenges to the wall are its most significant obstacles are naive and may avoid the point.

Indeed, the visions of the wall as an impenetrable and impermeable membrane on the country’s southwestern border stand only to freeze movement from either side of the border, irrespective of local costs, or indeed of the unique habitat and grounds on which the border happens to be situated, in another bizarre manifestation of the imposition of the promise of the wall over the meaning of place, as if the natural habitats could conform to Trump’s vision of a wall for the nation–irrespective of the poor fit with topography or location, as if by a sheer will to power over the region on which it seeks to impose its power and protest its urgency.

The construction of a permanent barrier to stop border traffic were in fact advocated in sites along the border since 2011, and attempts since 2007 to wrestle with the different types of obstructions that might unify the  diverse topography of its terrain.  Maps, created and designed by anti-immigrant groups that developed along the border, and first tried to register the anger of cross-border traffic in fearful tones, described “flows of transnational crime & violence” from deadly assault, human smuggling, sex trade, drug smuggling, cartels, gangs, “special interest aliens” murder and even assassination as flowing north from the alien lands below the southwestern frontier.

transnational crime & violence.pngTexas Border Security: A Strategic Military Assessment (2011), Texas Dept. Agriculture

The visualization of the perils of cross-border traffic invasively and surreptitiously entering America without detection has justified a militarized border as a front of war against a huge range of invasive elements, in almost bacterial fashion, as if vectors or streams floated drugs, gangs, cartels, and criminality into the nation, and constituted an assault on its integrity.  Barraged by years of data visualizations depicting the threats of an advance of migrants characterized as “aliens” who condensed multiple threats to the very coherence of domestic space in almost phantasmic ways.  The manner of consolidating threats that so pressingly haunt the nation may even constitute dream-like status of the way that a fixed wall has provided an icon of purity and redemption, but also gained particular staying power, as they lodged in the minds of audiences, even as the United States possess the highest rates of gun ownership in the world, and have developed increased addictions to opioids marketed by drug companies, or indeed American appetites for drugs.  Such images inform metaphors pedaled from the Trump campaign of “bad hombres” and drugs streaming into the country, as if carried across the border through gaps that he argued he would be able to seal.

1 Comment

Filed under border wall, globalization, human rights, immigration, US-Mexico Border

One response to “The False Imperative of the Border Wall

  1. Pingback: Order on the Border: Prologue or Retrospective View? | Musings on Maps

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