Where do we draw the border between us and them? Who gets to live a real life? 'The Great Wall', a new film by Irish director Tadhg O'Sullivan, asks that we take a long, hard look at what our answers to those questions really are.
For these men, the possibility of a private life has been erased. By attempting to cross this particular border, they have given up that right. It has been superseded by the asserted right of the European to know who is coming and going from their castle. To know in detail the character of everyone who knocks on the door, who each must produce their own book of evidence. Here it feels like every decision these two men have made in their lives to date will be weighed and judged. What will count against them? The tattoo, an argument with an employer, a prison term? The size of their family, their age, an illness or disability? On this side of the screen, it is impossible to tell. I do not know the rules that govern these things in my name. I don’t even know where the scene took place. It is an enclave, cut off from the traditional signifiers of place, and time again seems to have slipped its usual yoke. In the shadows cast by the glass towers of London, time seemed meaningless, as if this would all go on forever without challenge or obstacle. Here, in the small office at the edge of the continent, time has been compressed, held up; the future hangs in the balance.
Simmel said that life is both life and more-than-life. Life is both this moment and the inherence of the next. It is not just the possibility of a future which is more-than-life, but the certainty that there is a future in which the individual will have transcended the present. That life goes on is the fact of life; if life didn’t go on, it would be death. I think about this as I watch the two men in the office, and as the film gets further into the place where people like them are to be housed while decisions are made about their futures. The baking sunlight of late afternoon falling on the bare yard where a child kicks a ball by himself. A smaller child runs to greet her returning mother with a hug. Such mundane things. This is life, but at the same time it is drained of life. Rather than this moment and the inherence of the next, it is simply this moment repeated. The people here, deprived of all privacy and considered more object than subject, are kept in an indefinite present. The future lies outside the gates, and it is what they’ve come for. It may yet be denied them.
One needn’t go to the edge of the continent to find places such as this. Way up on the Western Heights, overlooking the ancient town of Dover, you’ll find a detention centre where people who have come to Britain are held while their claim for residency is considered. Many of the inmates at Dover will have been living in Britain for some time - living, working, putting down roots - before an out-of-date passport or minor misdemeanour has landed them in what is little more than a prison. Many will have had no warning, simply snatched out of their lives, off the street even, by a military force. They remain in their prison indefinitely, often for several years, while an unknown authority decides whether or not to send them “back where they came from”. As one detainee has said, “It's worse than prison, because at least in prison you know your sentence.” Some inmates work in the centres, doing menial jobs for as little as a pound an hour - a form of slavery every bit as disgusting as government plans to seize the wages of undocumented workers elsewhere in the UK. Many with health issues are denied medication, a situation which recently forced a Lithuanian man to climb onto a roof at Dover and threaten to jump or cut his own throat. He was to be deported without medication, a situation he said would see him dead within a year.
The prison is perhaps the only remaining structure in contemporary architecture that could be considered a fortresses in the traditional sense. While the shape of the prison has changed considerably since the dungeons of Deal Castle were built, those changes are closer to natural developments than radical changes in direction. While the purpose of prison is still incarceration, the nature of that incarceration has also changed. Criminal prisons have very little to do with rehabilitation or even punishment for particular crimes, but rather seem like the most profitable way to deal with populations considered surplus to economic requirements. The immigrant detention centres at Dover and Yarl’s Wood are almost closer in spirit to the dungeon of old, where a prisoner is kept waiting in the dark for a pronouncement on their faith. We’ve seen the image so many times, it’s almost difficult to take it seriously; a single prisoner in a cell, waiting for the rattle of the dungeon-keeper’s keys in the corridor. An eye-slot in the door slides open, and someone looks in. Then the door creaks open; the moment of truth has arrived.
Though this is not at all the experience of these modern inmates, I find it a difficult image to shake. Particularly in the case of Dover, where the detention centre is literally built into the shell of the 17th century Citadel, a troublingly concrete example of how the defence of Britain has changed in that time. Where once the authorities at Dover feared the appearance of a Spanish fleet on the horizon, now they’re troubled by barely sea-worthy vessels transporting a hundred powerless people from Libya to Italy. Do they lie awake at night thinking, like their ancestors did, that Europe will soon be overrun with Moors and Berbers? Rather than coming to plunder our cities, they’re coming for our menial jobs and overpriced housing? Perhaps, like Mustafa Sa’eed in Tayeb Salih’s Season of Migration to the North, they’ve come to reverse the imperial flow, to throw the colonial image of savage Africa back in the faces of those that created it? Like the first Emperor of Rome, they find the native forces arrayed against them, high up on the white cliffs.
The violence of the Mediterranean is no news to us now. Each day the Irish papers proudly report how many migrants have been saved by Irish ships in that same sea. The Romans called it Mare Nostrum, and the Italian navy took the name up when planning their operation to save the lives of those who were stranded in it. Our sea. This most recent Mare Nostrum, though it saved thousands of lives, lasted just a year. It was replaced by Frontex’s “Operation Triton”, a border patrol operation rather than a search-and-rescue operation, a truly unsocial solution. The numbers of the dead increase, and it feels impossible to count them, to make them matter as lives rather than as a monolithic political fact. The repetition of a story, even one as tragic as this, deadens the nerves that might once have felt its impact. Perhaps this is too simplistic though - did I ever grieve for those lost at sea? Did I ever truly, as Judith Butler puts it in Frames of War, “regard” them? Did the material reality of their lost lives create my lack of regard, or did my lack of regard create their material reality? It is, Butler says, “difficult, if not impossible, to decide” - both occur at the same time, each inextricable from the other.
"We read about lives lost and are often given the numbers, but these stories are repeated every day, and the repetition appears endless, irremediable. And so, we have to ask, what would it take not only to apprehend the precarious character of lives lost in war, but to have that apprehension coincide with an ethical and political opposition to the losses war entails?"
- Judith Butler, Frames of War.
Throughout Frames of War, Butler discusses the ideas of “grievability” and “precariousness”, two terms which she uses to think about which lives are considered real, “living” lives, and which lives are considered expendable, or which are never truly recognised as lives in the first place. The context is recent American aggression in the Middle East, where the lives of so many were so easily erased by a power that refused to recognise them. The two terms are linked, one developing out of the other. Precariousness is a recognition of the social nature of life; that we are all dependent on others, not just family or friends, but a vast network of unknown actors and agents, individual and institutional. Precariousness is built into human life from birth; “precisely because a living being may die, it is necessary to care for that being so that it may live.” When a life matters, when someone is cared for, then grievability is inherent in that life. “Without grievability,” she says, “there is no life, or, rather, there is something living that is other than life. Instead, ‘there is a life that will never have been lived,’ sustained by no regard, no testimony, and ungrieved when lost.”
“Something living that is other than life” - is there a better way of describing the lives that are found on the inside of prisons? Lives where the future is held up, where the present must endlessly repeat? Both in death and short of it, life is lost in these places. The very possibility of a “lived life”, a real life, is denied. It drains away, and is wasted - it cannot be regained. The same is true of those who risk their lives crossing the Mediterranean. Whether they live or drown on those waves, there is a lack in the way they’re seen and understood which refutes the possibility of both recognisable precariousness and grievability. The image of the migrant - an image that makes it across the Mediterranean or over the fence at Melilla regardless of whether the body it’s centred on does or not - is one of nothing but precariousness, of a complete contingency which denies the rootedness we take to be an integral part of a life which has been cared for. As with the two men being processed, our cherished notion of an inviolable, individual subjectivity, a truly private life, is unimaginable for them; it has been given up in the act of crossing the border, and the road behind has been erased. As Butler says, we produce iconic versions of populations “whose loss is no loss.” In the image of the migrant, we find only “a life that will never have been lived”, and so it never becomes grievable on this side of the wall.
The Great Wall is an attempt to map the social and political territory around the image of the migrant, to create a more useful frame through which such an image might be regarded. It can’t in truth reconstruct the roads which have been erased, but it can document the spaces which press in on the individual, the spaces which flatten the experience of life to an endlessly repeated moment. When it gets close enough to its subject, it captures the vibrations of people up against the limits which have been imposed on them. It can show life that is other than life; the ways in which life is denied and the ways in which it goes on. In a camp outside Melilla, a young girl dances and sings along to a song she’s playing on her headphones. Cooking fires are lit as the sun sets. A boy stares back at the camera. These are the moments where subjectivity overcomes the flattened image, the security camera image, of shadows climbing fences, of unknowable bodies, mere numbers, drowning in a vast sea.
This overcoming is achieved through a reiteration of the social construction of these lives, the ways in which each person is both reliant on the others around them and cared for by those others. It is this caring which makes precariousness perceivable and grievability possible. The images of London and of Athens are a stark contrast to those in Morocco, not just because of the change in economic circumstances, but in the way the modern urban architecture seems to deny the possibility of precariousness. It is designed to exude an almost monadic strength in the self. Reliance on others is not allowed here, at least not openly. The social is ultimately just as present, but its presence is not admitted or acknowledged by the structures of daily life. In their own way, the besuited men who swarm around the bottoms of glass towers are too denied the possibility of precariousness in their lives. Perhaps they have given it up, crossed a border of their own. The idea of a life which is, as Simmel puts it, “irreplaceable” and “non-repeatable”, seems very far away indeed. Few here dare to look back at the camera.
The underlying aim in Frames of War is to think about ways in which a more democratic understanding of precarity might inscribed into structures of governance, how we might learn to better recognise and live with the precariousness which exists for all of us. This is a project directly against the interests of the contemporary state, which relies on a compartmentalised approach to its citizens, separating the useful from the useless and exploiting those which it is politically affordable to exploit. Migrants too come in these two forms, useful and useless. Those who are deemed useful are allowed to work and are really an integral part of the Western economy. As Georg Menz writes in The Political Economy of Managed Migration, “Migrants are welcome, as long as they promise to contribute to the prerogatives of a business-friendly national economic growth strategy.” Describing the Irish economy’s reliance on low-paid migrant labour, Menz writes that Irish employers, and multinational employers based here, “are pleased with a fairly liberal regulatory approach regarding labor migration that is informed by their input, their concerns over sectoral labor shortages, their interest in simple, flexible, quick, and unbureaucratic access to low-skill migration.”
So while the last ten years in particular has seen a “hardening” of Ireland and the UK’s approach to inward migration, a face-saving “crackdown” on foreigners, this has only served to mask the economic necessity of those they rile against. The entire economic structure is built on the exploitation of those they are supposedly bolstering borders against. Kafka’s narrator, speaking in (and of) The Great Wall, understood this arrangement exactly: “The authorities wanted something unfit for purpose”. This is the unacknowledged precariousness of the City of London, of the streets of Athens, the social reliance which cannot be admitted to in public. Butler’s aim in Frames of War is to force that admittance, to make such relationships an integrally understood and acknowledged part of daily life in the global North, so that the work of undoing the exploitation inherent in the relationship can begin. As O’Sullivan has grasped, such work must start with the recognition of subjectivity, of migrant lives as real, full, lived lives.
What of those who are deemed economically unnecessary, those who are surplus to requirements in the place they’ve landed? In Ireland, we call the system that deals with these people Direct Provision, a term so bland as to be anti-evocative, a pair of words that hides a vast expanse of criminal injustice. Within Direct Provision, the individual is no different from someone sitting on top of the fence around Melilla, or huddled in the dark hold of a trafficker’s boat. Theirs is a position of “maximised precariousness”, of complete reliance on the discretion of state power. Given the state has no use for them, but cannot legally abandon them entirely, they are given the bare minimum on which a body might survive but never enough for a person to live. They cannot work, they cannot play; they must live in conditions which make the formulation of identity and subjectivity impossible. The inner space of a private life is eroded, and there is no way forward or back.
The people living within the system of Direct Provision are also denied a voice. They are denied a language with which to relate their experiences to the outside world. They are constituted entirely by the language of reports and government strategies. Further, without their own voice and language, it isn’t just that their experiences are unknown to us outside, but that such experiences cannot be understood as ever having happened. As Robert MacFarlane has written, “Language does not just register experience, it produces it.” In the language of the state, the migrant is already defined as something outside of the norm, something which must be understood strategically and from a certain distance. The recognition of shared precariousness is not possible at such a distance. This is a language which equates legality with legitimacy and is deaf to the individual experience; it must always defer to the state, from which the legality derives. The state’s actions, regardless of their inhumanity, can be explained away behind that thin veil of legality. “It is not the withdrawal or absence of law that produces precariousness,” says Butler, “but the very effects of illegitimate legal coercion itself, or the exercise of state power freed from the constraints of all law.”
The collapsing of legitimacy and legality is the central power of the state, and it echoes through almost every area of state policy. The violence inherent in the building of walls, fences and migrant detention centres is only possible because of this collapse. We are a species constituted through language, which has been the greatest colonising force the world has known. The eradication of native languages and dialects continues today, as the demands of a frictionless, globalised system white-wash the relationships people have with each other and the world. The ability to speak with the language of power is the most vital part of holding power; it does the work of walls and fences even as it creates the inevitability of walls and fences. Stuart Hall wrote that living with difference was to be the key challenge of the 21st century, but the radically different visions of the world inherent in any variety of languages, the unbounded set of relationships which a variety of voices must naturally produce, is exactly what the state cannot abide. The state’s acquisitive role, its compartmentalised approach to its citizens, would become too tenuous. The multitudinous experience which would inevitably emerge from the free expression of diverse languages would make the state’s “prerogatives of a business-friendly national economic growth strategy” impossible to maintain.
"Nationalism works in part by producing and sustaining a certain version of the subject. We can call it imaginary, if we wish, but we have to remember that it is produced and sustained through powerful forms of media, and that what gives power to their version of the subject is precisely the way in which they are able to render the subject’s own destructiveness righteous and its own destructibility unthinkable."
- Judith Butler, Frames of War.
Butler’s purpose in Frames of War is to show the disastrous moral, political and personal consequences of such an approach, and to highlight the reliance on those other than ourselves (particularly those unknown to us) without which the conditions for life disappear. Life is only truly life when recognised as precarious, when the loss of it becomes something which is grievable, which will be recorded, felt, remembered. Grievability and the recognition of shared precariousness are only possible when the subject shares their world - body and mind - with others. The subject cannot constitute itself; if it did, its existence would be completely arbitrary, like a character in a novel. Its comings and goings would be unremarkable, and its loss negligible. The individual subject must be connected, and so must be vulnerable, to those around them. Giving up the idea of complete, inviolable isolation is the first step in the construction of individual and communal identity. “Identity,” says Butler, “is not thinkable without the permeable border, or else without the possibility of relinquishing a boundary.”
On Immunity, a short book by Eula Biss, discusses this idea of relinquishing boundaries at some length. When her son is born, Biss begins to think about vaccination, about keeping the newborn child safe from the world. The instinct is immediately understandable; the world is an unsafe place, full of diseases, risk, dangers, and a mother is supposed to protect their child from these things. On Immunity is a result of the process of negotiating this protection, of finding the border between her son and the world and coming to terms with which stretches of that border cannot, and must not, be impermeable. “From birth onward,” Biss writes, “our bodies are a shared space,” and this space is contested like all public space, with opinions on who and what that space ought to be shared with differing wildly across society. Biss lives in a middle-class enclave; she is the kind of person who can be told by a doctor that certain vaccinations aren’t necessary for people like her, or her son. Throughout the book, Biss’ questions are aimed at overcoming the fears she has internalised, largely due to her class identity, about contributing to the collective risk of public health.
Like all good essayists, Biss often lets others express her ideas for her. Her father is a doctor, and her sister an academic philosopher. Between the two, the implications of the tussle between public and private health, between the rights of the individual and the need of the community, are teased out. She quotes her sister; “You don’t own your body—that’s not what we are, our bodies aren’t independent. The health of our bodies always depends on choices other people are making.” This is the recognition that impermeability of our individual borders is an impossibility, that our health - both physical and moral - relies on the righteous actions of others. The recognition of shared precariousness is vital to the ongoing health of the populace, and though an individual can choose to forego their contribution to that task, they cannot deny the benefits they continue to receive from it. Any such denial is a lie, a wilful and dangerous blindness.
As Biss readily acknowledges, the metaphor of immunisation is all-too-easily applicable on the national scale. The militaristic language so often used to describe what the body is doing to protect itself from illness - blood cells fighting off invading bacterial forces and battling invisible air-borne viruses - implies a static and accepted internal population. Certain parts of the body are native; others are foreign. Bodies within bodies. Such constructions are easily scaled-up, easily abstracted to the “imagined community” of the nation, or the race. (I think of The Case For Reparations: “Black people were viewed as a contagion.”) Indeed, the two fears - fear of disease and fear of those “not like us” - have long been linked. “Avoidance of outsiders, of immigrants, of people missing limbs, or people with marks on their faces is an ancient tactic for disease prevention,” writes Biss. She notes Susan Sontag’s point that Syphilis “was the ‘French Pox’ to the English, morbus Germanicus to the Parisians, the Naples sickness to the Florentines, the Chinese disease to the Japanese.” The link between the two can of course be manipulated. Biss tells of how research has been done to show how people who feel protected from disease also feel less prejudice towards others, with the implication being that people can be literally immunised against prejudice. Biss is rightfully sceptical of the idea, but acknowledges a key point; “The more vulnerable we feel, sadly, the more small-minded we become.”
Following Butler, we have to ask; perhaps it’s not just the presence of vulnerability which creates prejudice, but the quality of that vulnerability - what is is we’re vulnerable to and the options we have available to us in resisting that negative vulnerability. If a positive vulnerability is inherent in the shared precariousness which Butler says is a vital aspect of the conditions for life, then negative vulnerability must be something beyond that, an unnatural exercise of power, an exploitation. Biss notes a recent change in the way the body is talked about, the language used to think through it, which marks a reconception of the body in relation to both ourselves and other people. The sense of vulnerability has changed with it. Where once the body was a machine, a metaphor suitable for a society built on the industrial revolution, today the body is more often a complex system - “a sensitive, nonlinear field with elaborate regulatory mechanisms”. This is a much more apt way of thinking for today’s world, where the networked system plays so large a part in daily life. Biss quotes the anthropologist Emily Martin, who asks, “What are some of the possible or likely consequences of thinking of the body as a complex system?” Her answer is insightful: “The first consequence might be described as the paradox of feeling responsible for everything and powerless at the same time, a kind of empowered powerlessness.” One is both subject of and subject to the opaque bodily network, and like the political subject, is increasingly bewildered in the face of an overwhelmingly complex system.
The question of what is being recognised, and by whom, rises again through the film’s final scenes, when the camera swoops through the streets of London, when it finds itself at a trade show for recognition technologies. Eye recognition, facial recognition, these kinds of technologies perform an odd sort of doubling, at once defining the individual and then draining them of all that is not relevant data, seeing only what is necessary, or what is unique. Access to whatever kind of space is permitted only through this doubling, of seeing and not seeing. Such technology might be more reliable than the human eye, less easily fooled perhaps, but it is also something far less than the sight most people possess. It is concerned with the individual, not the communal. It deals in certainties. Its abilities are defined and limited by the people and the institutions who program them, who buy and install them.
The double-movement of isolation and anonymity is echoed throughout the environments of capital. First separate the individual out from the community, define them solely by the little that is unique about them. Make them self-reliant, as close to self-constituted as possible. Then make them anonymous, uniform, mere data. Stripped of their ties to others, they break down more easily into types and categories; people to whom access is given or denied, for whom life is lived or not-quite-lived. Those with power and those without. The distinctly human work of recognition is done at one remove, it is systemic rather than contingent, perceptual or subjective. Empathy is out of the question; there can be no recognition of what is shared with others, there can be no recognition that we all will die, that we must tend to the garden together. Kafka’s narrator, doubled into narrating O’Sullivan’s film, turns and realises that “the authority” knows us better than we know ourselves. This is a strange quality of knowledge, divorced from experience, from ambiguity, but it is the defining knowledge of today, one that leaves the subject - what Biss calls the citizen - feeling “both responsible for everything and powerless at the same time”.
The images of ourselves which are created and recorded beyond us, they act on our behalf. The situation becomes obvious when two men are being processed on the border of a continent, access to be given or denied based on the image of them that comes across, but it does not stop at the border. It feeds back in to our everyday lives, thousands of miles from the continental defences. The crisis of the paradox increases in intensity every time the work of recognition is given up, handed off to a system. The systemic - computerised or otherwise - cannot live with difference, cannot recognise the vagaries of those who are in-between, who are both or neither, who are undefined in some way, who are not crisply in focus. There are many who are not part of the plan, who do not fit within the diagrammatic structures of conclusive solutions. There are many who are always without.
Nationalisms, racisms, sexisms; they rely on the imaginary of a static centre, a core which is clearly defined and understood. As Biss’ sister writes, “There is an illusion of independence”. The impermeability of such borders - physical or otherwise - denies the lived experience of both self and other, denies the possibility of a shared precariousness and takes some lives to be more than others. Takes some lives to not be lives at all. The Great Wall rises to the challenge of living with difference, of recognising “empathy and vulnerability as positive forms of strength”, as Kathleen Hanna once wrote. It attempts to recognise the frames through which the work of recognition is done. It tries to map the spaces we create to regulate, to systematise and outsource, our relationships with others; garden, glass tower or holding cell. It tries to let the other - that wonderfully incoherent and undefinable nonself - look back, to force that recognition of mutual interdependence on us and to show the brutality that arises when that looking back is denied. To see when it is painful to see, to see when not seeing makes life so much easier, this is the bedrock of living with difference. To live with difference is not to erode that difference, or to ignore it, but to accept it as an inherent and shared condition of life. This is the task facing us in the century ahead.