Wall-building, Limits, and Intentionality

Welcome to the first blogpost of the Laboratories of Democracy multidisciplinary research team. Taking our name from US Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis’s well-known experimental metaphor describing the US states as “laboratories of democracy,” our research investigates how democracy is practiced, experimented with, and experienced today. In our first blogpost, Zachary Reyna (political theory) explores the often-paradoxical tension between democratic practices and wall-building.


I spent a week earlier this month on the Greek island of Zakynthos—just a hop and a skip from Odysseus’ beloved Ithaca nestled in the Ionian Sea. Approaching Zakynthos by ferry, the island looks like a slumbering lithic dragon curled up on a sea-blue blanket. Clouds like smoke gather in a lethargic skirt around its peaks and the rocky seashore juts into the uncannily turquoise water like the ridge of the serpent’s arched back (or a massive serrated knife). From a distance, the gnarled olive and scruffy cypress peppering the landscape look like lichen clinging to the scales of the long-sleeping beast.

I spent the week grading, writing, and preparing for the Communal Studies Association annual conference (Winterthur, Delaware), but I also had the chance to rent a motorbike and cross the island. I was captivated by the numerous stone-walls that crisscross the island, and was repeatedly returned—almost as if by the walls themselves—to two tensions that animate my interest in the Laboratories of Democracy team research: 1) the tension between walls/boundaries/limits as simultaneously restrictive and generative, and, relatedly, 2) the tension between isolation and activism. But first, back to the walls.

The walls are almost entirely grayish-white, composed of the rough—even at times sharp—carbonate stones (limestone and others) that are ubiquitous on the island. Most of the walls are no more than four feet high and vary in width from one to three feet. Many of the walls look to be in an extreme state of disrepair. Olive trees seem to have a penchant for winding their roots right into the walls and unless you have a watchful eye it is very easy to mistake the lion’s share of walls for a natural, or non-intentional, feature. There are two main types of walls. The first serve as retainer walls and are built right into the side of the hill allowing for a terraced effect, presumably for farming reasons. The second appear to form corrals or mark the boundary between pastures. This latter type of wall is free-standing. When puttering by on a motorbike, it is not hard to imagine that the walls are the old, worn chains used to bound the dragon and tame it.

Walls and boundaries—and in particular, Greek walls—have long held the imagination of political thinkers.[1] Walls both limit and restrict on the one hand, impeding or even halting the movement of bodies, defining an inside and an outside, or what Carl Schmitt has called the friend-enemy distinction; and, protect, facilitate, and generate on the other hand, creating a space in which certain activities can come into being. A good example is the walls of a house. These walls do not only restrict the flow of inclement weather and unwelcomed bodies both human and nonhuman, but they also foster and even create modes of domestic living that would be impossible on the open plain. The Western social imaginary is replete with images of walls, boundaries, and limits. In the Abrahamic traditions, the first divine act of creation is one of boundary-drawing: setting a limit to the darkness of night and giving a boundary to the sea. And on Hannah Arendt’s rereading of Western political thought, the wall is the sine qua non of politics, the nomos or walls of the ancient Greek city-state. For Arendt, without the walls and laws protecting, defining, and structuring the city-state, the space of appearance in which politics can emerge and take place would not only be ephemeral but impossible, bereft of the very stage on which it could appear.

Yet today, and in part because of these theoretical-theological origins, few things sound as reactionary—even nationalistic—as wall-building, limits, restrictions, and “law and order.” One might think here of US President Trump’s building of a border wall between the US and Mexico along with his rhetoric of “law and order,” or the EU’s recent austerity measures, but one can also think of the response to environmental activist calls to limit CO2 emissions or population growth. In all these cases, the limit or boundary—even if intended for progressive purposes—is cast as reactionary and authoritarian: the desire to return to an often-mythologized past of stability and harmony.

And yet, what do we lose when we abandon the rhetoric of the limit, of the boundary, of law and order to the reactionary forces of society? The Greek walls of Zakynthos—and its leisurely Mediterranean climate—were a good injunction to follow this thought. One could literally amble along the walls, over brush and thicket, following the line of thought… Around me on Zakynthos surged a mass of northern European vacationers all pumping money into the local economy while capitalizing on the warm weather, plentiful beach scene, and relatively cheap accommodations. Unlike in Athens, most of the locals I observed on the island seemed to live in relative, even if spartan, comfort. Furthermore, the island’s infrastructure, including its roads, was all quite well-kept (even if I would have preferred a few more guardrails around the narrow mountain turns). And yet the stone-walls were almost all in seeming disrepair—sometimes appearing merely like the victim of time’s slow march under the ceaseless circuit of the Ionian sun, and other times appearing deliberately mined for their material.

Standing there in silent majesty, the deteriorating walls seemed to harken to a time past, to a time before the tourism industry and globalized capital, to a time when walls and limits did not merely restrict, but facilitated, to a time when “nature, red in tooth and claw,” needed to be tamed and bounded to be put to human use. And yet, while the stone-walls seemed to attest to human control of the natural environment, they also dissolve into that environment. Made of the same stuff as the island itself, the walls were at times almost imperceptible and I am sure I zipped past many without the slightest awareness. The stone-walls of Zakynthos make me ask: in our contemporary era of globalized capitalism with its rhetoric of limitlessness, what role do walls/boundaries/limits continue to play? And if wall-building has been nearly wholly coopted by reactionary forces in our contemporary world can (and should) it be reclaimed for leftist, egalitarian politics?

Over sixty years ago, in the aftermath of her own encounter with the forces of nationalism and authoritarianism, the political theorist Hannah Arendt began The Human Condition with a meditation on limits and boundaries. Writing just a year after the successful launch of Sputnik, Arendt offers a brief but insightful reflection on the cultural and political meaning of humankind’s first forays beyond the limits of the Earth. Arendt claims that the success of Sputnik in escaping the boundaries of Planet Earth marked an unrivaled event in human history that exceeded even the splitting of the atom and its nuclear geopolitical implications. Yet, as Arendt astutely notes, it was not triumph or joy that attended this event, but “relief.” Arendt writes, “The immediate reaction, expressed on the spur of the moment, was relief about the first ‘step toward escape from men’s imprisonment to the earth.’ And this strange statement, far from being the accidental slip of some American reporter, unwittingly echoed the extraordinary line which, more than twenty years ago, had been carved on the funeral obelisk for one of Russia’s greatest scientists: ‘Mankind will not remain bound to the earth forever.’” 

Fast-forward some six decades and our preoccupation with escaping limits and boundaries has only seemed to accelerate: we look for limitless energy in the wind, sun, and water, dream of limitless posthuman futures in technological advances, pine for unlimited democratic inclusion, accumulate cordless charging stations and limitless data plans for our wireless mobile devices, and of course, motor our economies on a rhetoric of limitless growth. Especially on the left, the limit, boundary, and, I want to add here, intentionality, do not fare well (more below). Indeed, as a political concept, the limit or boundary, just like the planned or intentional economy, is routinely opposed to the hallmarks of contemporary left theorizing: potentiality (Hardt & Negri 2005; Agamben 1999), pluralism (Connolly 2005), and multiplicity (Deleuze & Guattari 1987). Nothing sounds as backwards and simple-minded today as the invocation of the limit, the boundary, the intentional prohibition. Indeed, it seems only Bible-thumping fundamentalists, crazed doomsday environmentalists, and jingoistic rhetoric invoke limits. From the center right to radical left comes a nearly unanimous denunciation of limits. “Drill, baby, drill!”—the 2008 US Republican National Convention slogan invoking a limitless lust for and equally limitless demand of oil—merges uncomfortably well with Judith Butler’s more recent injunction to the radical left to “demand the impossible.” Nothing seems more anti-egalitarian and less utopian than the limit and the disciplining of desire.

The deteriorating stone-walls of Zakynthos seem to reflect our contemporary disdain for walls and limits. And yet almost paradoxically—as Wendy Brown has perceptively observed in her book Walled States, Waning Sovereignty—we witness alongside this disdain for walls and globalized capital push, a contemporary resurgence of nation-state wall-building that has only taken on more brash forms since Brown published her book in 2010. I want to conclude this first blogpost with a series of questions that I hope to flesh out within the larger research framework of the Laboratories of Democracy project.

First, the stone-walls that crisscross Zakynthos while melding into the landscape raise for me the question of intentionality. The stone-walls are undoubtedly intentional constructs and yet at the same time, in part because of their deteriorating state, in part because of my own ignorance of historical agricultural practices on the island, and in part because of the very material from which are they are made, the walls seem almost natural. As I mentioned above, often for the untrained eye, the walls are almost impossible to discern, appearing like a natural feature of the landscape rather than an intentional human-made construct. The walls thus simultaneously stand as a token of intentionality even as they materially and historically problematize the intentional—unintentional (artificial—natural) dichotomy. In an article I published last year on Aquinas and his understanding of law as ligament and nature as a boundary-drawing activity rather than a universal normative foundation, I used Aquinas to probe the boundary between the so-called “artificial” and “natural” (see, https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/07393148.2017.1416728) In their own way, the walls of Zakynthos perform a similar probing.

As Louis Althusser has argued in his work on Montesquieu and Rousseau, modern Western political theory begins with the radical intentional creation of an artificial community through the mechanism of the social contract in contradistinction to the natural filiations of feudalism. However, since at least Marx’s time, the left in particular has been critical of intentionality and planned utopian communities, or what David Leopold has called Marx and Engels’ “utopophobia” (2016). Intentionality is criticized here for a number of reasons: that it is elitist, authoritarian, and non-democratic; that it excludes rather than includes; that it fragments political power rather than builds coalitions; that it is escapist, creating gated utopias rather than pursuing a more radical democratic politics; that it is a historically-situated bourgeois value that is both closed-off to others and mired in a particular worldview. Rather than shying away from these criticisms, I want to approach them head-on.  To do so, I have begun empirical research on intentional utopian communities. The Foundation for Intentional Community defines an intentional community (IC) as: “a group of people who have chosen to live together with a common purpose, working cooperatively to create a lifestyle that reflects their shared core values. The people may live together on a piece of rural land, a suburban home, or in an urban neighborhood, and they may share a single residence or live in a cluster of dwellings” (Kozeny). I recently began this empirical research through a series of in-depth, semi-structured, informal interviews at the annual Communal Studies Association conference of IC practitioners and scholars. I hope to continue this fieldwork in the spring and summer of 2020 with Anna Varfolomeeva with an onsite study. My working hypothesis is that what is political about ICs is their intentionality and that it is precisely the practice of intentionality—of having and giving intentions, of working within boundaries, of setting and holding to limits; namely, law’s boundary-setting function—that must be renewed in critical politics and reclaimed from nationalistic politics (Nersessian 2015).

Second, the stone-walls of Zakynthos highlight for me the question of walls’ dual function—as both restricting and generating. The legal theorist Peter Fitzpatrick has described law as the dynamic between restriction or determination and facilitation or responsiveness. Both boundary-setting and boundary-breaching, law for Fitzpatrick is animated by the tension between bounding and bonding, between limiting and connecting (2001). In political discourse today—and we don’t just have Trump to thank for this—walls have an overwhelmingly reactionary and excluding force. Walls are built to exclude migrant hordes, to protect that which is on the inside, to limit and bring stability. Yet what is the radical potential of wall- building? And more to the point, is there any? Do limits only become generative in their erasure or is there a positive radicality of limits? If politics is about making distinctions and boundary-drawing is a radically democratic and egalitarian politics automatically foreclosed? These are question I have begun to raise with Anne Mulhall drawing on Gorgio Agamben’s discussion of potentiality and impotentiality.

This last set of questions is related to a third and final question that the walls of Zakynthos raise for me even as it returns to the first. Namely, just as walls create a separation, I am interested in exploring the political benefits and pitfalls of separatist autonomy practiced in isolation. If leftist “utopophia” is right in suspecting the fragmenting and escapist tendencies of intentional communities, I am interested in asking what the benefits might be. To this end and working alongside Peter Jones’s work on the political influence of monastic medieval communities, I am beginning to inquire into the political potential of concepts and practices such as refuge and sanctuary. How does one practice and perform separateness? What are the wider political benefits of practicing separateness?

With the stone-walls of Zakynthos receding into the background (and alas the Mediterranean clime too), I turn now to a new quarter of teaching and research in wintry Siberia. Still though, the walls stubbornly endure, a testament of the generativity of rubble and a goad to further think through a politics of intentionality at the close of the second decade of the twenty-first century. Stay tuned for more posts, updates, and podcasts from the Laboratories of Democracy research team!

Zachary Reyna, z.reyna@utmn.ru

[1] See Hannah Arendt’s reflections on nomos and lex in The Promise of Politics, as well as Carl Schmitt’s The Nomos of the Earth; Peter Fitzpatrick’s account of law as a “shoring up” and “breaching” process (Modernism 2001); Deleuze and Guattari’s meditation on nomos, nomads, and straited space (A Thousand Plateaus); and Derrida’s concept of limitrophy (The Animal that Therefore I Am).

Laboratories of Democracy

This is the blog of the Laboratories of Democracy multidisciplinary research team at the School of Advanced Studies, University of Tyumen (Russia). Composed of five international scholars from Ireland, Russia, the UK, and the US, the blog will be our forum for regular topic posts, research updates, and podcast. Thanks for visiting!