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Notes on Walls
A wall is always going to be beautiful. In the future, it will be ‘impenetrable, physical, tall, powerful, beautiful’, in the words of the President, however tawdry and inadequate to its own stated purpose it actually is when built, if ever built at all.
One of Trump’s many crimes is encouraging the Democrat establishment to feel good about itself. As if he’s a break from a racist, sadistic social logic they’ve been key to propagating, rather than its voluble, superego-defying (and -reconfiguring) symptom. As if his wall isn’t the extension of Operation Gatekeeper, the performative erecting of miles of razor wire, a militarised border bringing death to migrants in hugely increased numbers – dating from 1994, under Bill Clinton. But leave it to Trump to articulate these ruling class utopias with such ecstatic poetry.
He isn’t a heretic but a ranting prophet of an establishment church. Walls are planned, go up or are fortified in Calais, Palestine, Hungary, the Spanish colonies in Morocco. Each wall is going to be beautiful, however it turns out, existing as it does most purely in visions and futures and pasts. Capitalism, state power and their cultures don’t throw up walls because of their mural imaginary: what they dream, they dream because of the walls they throw up.
Later, I travelled over to the North-Eastern wall of the Redoubt.
William Hope Hodgson, The Night-Land
Crazy to live without a wall to protect you.
Octavia Butler, Parable of the Sower
We’re prehaunted by walls against apocalypse.
The canon of what John Clute calls fantastika is crammed with walled cities. What do such dream-walls keep out?
In 1930, Geoffrey Dennis published a taxonomy of cataclysms, The End of the World – comet, fire, water, drought, cold, crash, god. He forgot another favoured end: monsters. It’s monsters that walls keep from the city, and the city above all that walls contain, that’s at their heart, no matter how far out into the hinterland they push.
As the city spreads in the planet of slums, it expands to fill the space right up to those wall, which cosset it, in a testerical neo-medievalism, until the social horizon is walled cities forever, separated by chaos. By those monsters.
There’s no doubt what the ideological problematic is upon which these walls facilitate rumination – particularly in their latest iterations – nor to what solution they advert. In 2007, I Am Legend finds safety in a pleasant town behind a huge wall the filmed image of which is instantly referential, but it took 2013’s World War Z to make the point explicit. Here, the wall to keep Jerusalem safe from ravening zombie hordes is the ‘separation barrier’, Israel’s apartheid wall itself. Here’s symbolic defence and rehabilitation of Palestine-management strategy, and the mural logic of which it’s the most developed example. What walls do is keep monsters out.
But keeping monsters out isn’t all that walls do. In World War Z, the zombies make towers of themselves, of their own bodies, and scale the Jerusalem walls. The vast kaijus destroy the walls in 2013’s Pacific Rim, kicking their devastating way into Sydney. The key early moment in Hajime Isayama’s manga Attack on Titan is when one of the titular human-eating grotesques smashes through the thick outermost wall surrounding the kingdom, and the giants crawl through, to set about devouring.
Here then is another function: walls fail. They collapse.
Ever since the trumpets at Jericho, at least, the telos of a wall is to be breached. It is at once its failure and its disavowed purpose to speed its way to ruin. To keep apocalypse out and to let it in.
We experience the breach and inrush of monstrous apocalypse with a vivid affect. The horror of an end; a relief; a prurience; car-crash fascination on eschatological scale. Chekhov’s gun indulges the satisfaction at ineluctibility when it fires, when it does what it was built for: the imagined wall does so when it breaks.
This is no surprise. The hankering for the monster’s triumph is hardly a secret of Monster Theory. The devil famously has the best tunes, Milton’s Satan his splendour, Grendel and King Kong and the Creature from the Black Lagoon their pathos. Monsters are the opposites of sanctioned humanity, and its repressed. The enemies of projected social normativity, they have a feral moral authority. Racists associate Jews with vampires, landlords rural unrest with beastliness and werewolves. As exiles from the hearth, it’s no surprise that there’s sympathy for monsters wherever there’s some sense that there are victims at the sharp end of culture.
Sometimes it’s mediated, abstracted, as with the conflicted jouissance at the entry of those zombies and kaiju. Even in the notoriously racist reveries of H. P. Lovecraft is a longing to surrender. The narrator of ‘The Shadow over Innsmouth’, infected with monsterness – a barely camouflaged blackness – plans at last to ‘swim out to that brooding reef in the sea and dive down through black abysses … and in that lair of the Deep Ones … dwell amidst wonder and glory for ever.’
Whether through such languid political death drive and/or more direct solidarity with the monster, there’s a yearning for the walls to fall.
Which isn’t to say that Lovecraft’s story isn’t racist any more than that Attack on Titan doesn’t lend itself to a nationalist militarist reading, nor that, in the words of Jeffrey Goldberg, World War Z is not ‘the most pro-Israel movie ever made’, expressing a spiteful Likudnikism. The Jerusalem wall is breached by the vicious dead, attracted by a loud multifaith celebration, led by a hijabi woman.
But all texts perform such meanings along with a cacophony of others, if at various volumes. Walls are metaphors and monsters are metaphors and so are the holes that monsters make in walls.
Metaphors mean and countermean all the way down, whatever their authors intend.
Revelation 17:7 – ‘And the angel said unto me, Wherefore didst thou marvel? I will tell thee the mystery of the woman, and of the beast that carrieth her, which hath the seven heads and ten horns.’ It takes divine intervention, the wisdom of godhead, to finally decode a monstrous metaphor, or any metaphor at all. Absent an angel glossing our social text, interpretation is vector not endpoint. Any metaphor can be written and/or read to do various, and contradictory, things.
It’s a commonplace by now that we must undermine various established antipodes – inside and out; hero and villain; human and monster – that will in any case not stay stable. But that repeated injunction backhandedly honours the binaries it disavows. There are untidier interpenetrations to be investigated than those with an Other – including what keeps the Other out.
Cities are bad at keeping out monsters, certainly, and defined by that. But just as city and monster are co-constituted, so are city and its monster-repelling border itself; and so, at least as importantly, are that border and the monster it tries and fails to keep out.
There are, to quote the title of one award-winning children’s book, wolves in the walls. Infiltration not through but into walls is a recurring nightmare. There’s a beast behind the skin of the house in Netflix’s Stranger Things, and hands emerging from walls to grope for Catherine Deneuve in the film Repulsion. And in the darkness in the walls that blurred line between human and monster is ultimately invisible: there are feral half-humans here, in The People under the Stairs; there are outcast people in The Resident and Through the Eyes of a Killer.
There are histories to be written in the tenacity of unlikely images. Those that are arresting in their overdetermination, the piling-up of particularities, but that despite resulting and jarring oddness recur. An isolated specimen is a sport; a half-occluded genealogy bespeaks something more systematic.
To see one wall full of monsters would be an event; to see many is a tendency.
Assault on Titan is an unusually rich stumble through the mural-urban-monsterological problematic. It’s a hypersymptomatic text, with its church that worships the protective walls, and its on-the-nose reveal that the titans – monsters – are indeed literally transformed people.
But the series’ perhaps key moment of literally self-deconstructive wall theory is a later breach yet another giant – female – titan causes the city’s protective wall to crumble, and as its outer layers fall away, we see within, to the secret that the church of walls keeps.
There are motionless titans within the structure itself.
Nor are the walls just an inhabited ecological niche. According to some hand-waving about self-crystalising properties of these slumbering ‘wall titans’, the monsters have spun those walls out of their own substance.
The titans eat people and are also people. They are kept out of the city by, and also are, the walls. Monster-walls to hold back monster-apocalypse, and through which that apocalypse will breach. Walls made of monster, and monsters thus made of wall.
It’s often claimed by their fans that monsters are intrinsic to the human psyche, that they infest our art from the birth of cognition. This the radical archaeologist David Wengrow calmly queries, in his brilliant, agenda-shifting The Origin of Monsters. ‘The existence of such images among the surviving corpus of Neolithic art has been quite widely discussed,’ he says, ‘but in fact remains intriguingly difficult to substantiate.’
That there may have been individual examples isn’t in question – outstanding, non- or pre-tendential dreams. But the tradition, the infectious image, the composite creature that is the ur-monster, Wengrow dates rather to the Bronze Age, the spread of interregional trade, of modular construction of artefacts, of ‘the bureaucratic imperative to confront the world … as an imaginary realm made up of divisible subjects, each comprising a multitude of fissionable, commensurable, and combinable parts’ – all institutionalised in the new city form. Monsters as cultural phenomena are born not of humanness but of cityness.
And here’s a germseed of the monstrous quiddity in the wall, in the border. Not only in the bas-reliefs on the bricks, the mushussu, composite dragons of Babylon’s Ishtar gate, but in the boundaries of the very commodities themselves, out of the circulation of which these trading cities grow.
The jars and pottery cylinders in which trade items were stored and transported were sealed with clay around the rims. Into this clay impressions were rolled with cylindrical sealstones. And disproportionate numbers of the repeating figures so embedded, in what Wengrow calls the first age of mechanical reproduction, were chimeras, composites – monsters. Monsters keeping contents secure until their use, just as monstered walls secure the cities themselves.
The monster is a seal that protects and/or must break, to ruin and/or fulfil what it protects.
We can apply simultaneous equations to clusters of symbols. If walls are monsters, and monsters are people, walls are people, too.
There are old, calmer, undreadful ruminations on humanity as city and building. The rabbinical commentary on the Mishnah tells of Nehemya, so engrossed in his learning that he didn’t realise he was illicitly wandering beyond the bounds of the city on Shabbat. Rav Nahman suggested gathering people into two rows to reach him, people becoming city walls in their very bodies, to enfold him in a community at once architecture and sociology.
But real histories of imperialism, sacrifice and mass murder underlie this sense – these memories – of people made architecture. Repeated gruesome evidence and stories and fantasies of the living bricked up in foundations. In the 1380s, the inhabitants of Sabzawar revolted, and Tamur – Tamburlane – is said to have piled 2000 one upon the other, fastening each layer to the rest by mortar, like bricks. A tower of living, dying enemies. In 1991 US soldiers bulldozed over trenches of Iraqi conscripts, burying them alive, foundations for some ghastly edifice.
The image of bones in walls feels like articulation of a familiar logic. With monsters as (among other things) avatars of the despised, how could a vision of piled-up human architecture now be other than apocalyptic and spiteful, racialised, class- and colonial-sadistic?
In 1959, during the uprising against the British colonial regime in Kenya, 11 Kikuyu detainees were clubbed to death in a prison camp at Hola. In justification, the prison governor M.G. Sullivan invoked a recurrent racist terror, of supposed quasi-supernatural resistance through self-creating living architecture: the so-called ‘Mau Mau pyramid’. The men, he said, ‘gave the Mau Mau howl’, and ‘entwining themselves completely’, ‘fastened themselves into a writhing heap of hysterical humanity’, ‘arms, legs and heads flailing around on the pyramid’, in a form of ‘violent resistance’.
Particularities of recent images make more sense. The zombies in World War Z breach the wall by becoming a tower, architecture. Wall versus wall, city against city, viciousness and yearning in conflictual imbrication.
By nine the main bodies of Popolac and Podujevo were substantially assembled. In their allotted districts the limbs of both cities were ready and waiting to join their expectant torsos.
Here, in Clive Barker’s short story ‘In the Hills, the Cities’, the people of two polities climb into vast composite figures, collective giants, to stride over the landscape and clash in a terrible sublime fight.
Each man, woman and child in that seething tower was sightless. They saw only through the eyes of the city. They were thoughtless, but to think the city’s thoughts. And they believed themselves deathless, in their lumbering, relentless strength. Vast and mad and deathless.
So what to do about the political subjectivity of monstrous wallness?
Why should we believe we have anything to do? There’s something pathetic about the Left’s fervent insistence on deriving political lessons from any cultural scob to which it’s partial.
Perhaps this can only be a start of a diagnosis. Perhaps there’s no way to parlay this particular intuition into action.
But. We can surely allow that the way we describe what we diagnose is not ever neutral. And if we can find, if not anything so grandiose as inspiration, then maybe a glimmering, a stab of pleasure, political cathexis, is there any harm?
There might be harm, yes. This could only be to express what some call elective affinities, what Pynchon calls Kute Korrespondences. Mistake that for derivation and we’re on a hiding to, at best, obscurantist nothing.
But harm’s not inevitable. A game might be a heuristic. Any such provocation might help startle political thought into place.
So long as we don’t mistake it for action, as long as we don’t believe that it’s necessary, or that there’s some inherent radicalism in it, or that our enemies can’t also access any image’s charge, there’s no necessary cost to adopting a posture of solidarity with siege engines and walking pyramids, those thrown up by imaginaries no less than any real, maybe there’s a help to be found in shoring them up, being part of them, being their streets, their walls, to reconfigure the walls and city that we might be.
I’ve previously noted in the pages of Salvage the diagnosis of that perspicacious enemy Cioran that ‘reconciled with the terrible, we are seeing a contamination of utopia by apocalypse’. That interpenetration has us in apocalypses of others’ making, and in the outlands of their utopias, and made to be the barrier between the two. This is an apocatopia of walls.
But walls that move. Read by walls, that apocatopia’s opportunity as well as horror. The opposite of despair isn’t hope, but it might be joy, and when we live in an apocalypse it’s in the ash that we must find it.
‘Yes we are celebrants of joy then but only by being celebrants of darkness, and if our deepest desire is for joy, that desire can only be realised through the deepest darkness.’ Whatever Thomas Altizer means by this, what we must mean by it is building where and whereof we are.
The new city’s the horizon of that rebuilding. And monsters as we are, and being walls, to rebuild means to move in new collectivities, to become our own new dwellings. Still kicking, looking with a hundred thousand eyes, mourning our Iraqi foundations and slandered Kikuyu bricks, clotted together like Sabzawar, but not trying to free ourselves, now rising, instead, houses in motion.
The bourgeoisie produces its own gravediggers, and they build their own towers, too, buildings that rise, that can dream of exiling them from the inside.
China Miéville is a founding editor of Salvage. He is the author of various works of fiction and non-fiction, including The City & the City and London’s Overthrow. His latest book is Three Moments of an Explosion: Stories. He is currently collaborating with Robert Knox on the forthcoming Against International Law.