Walls and de/territorialization

Lima is a city of walls. Walls which impose incredible lines of demarcation, drawn with the cement and stone that is erected throughout the city’s topography. They carve apart districts, properties, schools, roads, and recreational areas and shout to the passerby, “here is a separated land, here is a place where you cannot go”. When I walked along a road, la Avenida la Republica de Panama, there was only road. I glanced to my sides to catch sights of what is surrounding me, and I was enveloped by bright lights and dark spaces. The bright lights tempted me; they beckoned for me to peer inside and enter their warmth, but to do so, I would have had to cross through a gate and open a wrought iron door. The dark spaces are less inviting, yet their mysteriousness allures me. Perhaps the spaces are not truly dark, perhaps people have faint lights glimmering inside their rooms, or a shopkeeper is cleaning the floors under the florescent shimmer of a work lamp. Regardless, it is impossible to tell, as the iron door in front of these dark spaces are firmly shut, completing the circuit of concrete wall that surrounds the home/shop/restaurant.

IMG_3951Living in Miraflores/Surquillo, the walls in front of dark and bright spaces display how segmented this part of the city is. Fences carve through the district’s neighborhoods, as the beautiful colors and independent designs of houses are further separated by tall borders. Bright, or dark, the presumed residents behind these walls go through great lengths to protect their lands and possessions by employing increasingly terrifying methods of deterrence by constructing intimidating borders. Some residents purchase iron fences with sharp spear points on the top to deter robbers and passersbys from climbing above the wall. Other walls have malevolent hooks that provide an even greater threat to the miserable thief, crooked, fear-inducing shapes of violent iron that curve into a sharp blade. Still other walls are more inventive, with high velocity electrical cords wrapped around coils of barbed wire. However, deterrence can be accomplished through much less extravagant means. Several structures are surrounded by a basic concrete wall, rather thick, but seemingly innocuous. Above these walls, though, are shards of glass implanted into concrete adhesive, which viciously glimmer in the sunlight. With this extensive variety of walls displayed throughout Lima, it is easy to assume that the entire functionality of walls (what walls do) are for the “protection” and “security” of those who reside behind them. Why else would such malicious designs be incorporated into a relatively simple structure (the wall after all is one of the simplest of structures to design)? However, the question of “what walls do” is far more complex than to promote security.

In front of one dark property, I noticed that the door is slightly open. I peered inside, able to look past the thick walls that kept me at a distance. I saw that the yard appeaed overgrown with weeds breaking through the interstices of the stone path that winded its way further inwards. Overcome with curiosity, I pushed the door open and stepped into the yard to find that the entire property had been abandoned. The windows were shattered, the shards of glass scattered in front of the house’s façade. To my surprise, the front door was also slightly opened and I debated whether or not I should proceed into this part of the home as well. Before I could make my decision, a police car slowed down behind me and I quickly backed out of the yard and closed the door. Had the gate door been shut like the others I passed by while walking through the neighborhood I would have assumed the home behind the concrete walls was occupied, that people enjoyed the privacy of their well-guarded property. Instead, the structure housed the insects and animals that crossed through the ajar front door. In this description, it becomes more evident that walls are not simply designed to keep one-person docile outside, and another person safe inside, but that they have lasting impressions on the urban geography long after their designed “protective”, or “security” purpose has dissipated.

IMG_4320This can be observed in many parts of Lima, where concrete or brick walls remain while the structures behind these borders are demolished, fallen into disrepair, and abandoned. Directly in front of the Pontificia Universidad Catolica del Peru and across a narrow bridge that extends over a busy highway below, there is an abandoned lot with scattered pieces of wooden planks, furniture, concrete blocks, and a cement platform. However, when passing along the sidewalk below the bridge, the everyday pedestrian would be shadowed by the towering, graffitied wall surrounding the lot, without any means to see the haphazardly discarded contents within. Similarly, as I was walking down a decline in Pueblo Libre, I was able to see above the neighborhood walls that aligned the streets. Between two homes I noticed an empty space with the ruins of what was once a brick structure. Whereas along the walls, the neighborhood appeared homogenous and structured, the barriers obscured what was, in reality, a heterogenous display of construction and disrepair. In light of these observations, what, then, do walls do? To begin to answer this, we may need to look at how walls are typically treated, as demarcations of property.

On the outskirts of Lima, there are many small farming communities that spot the desert environment. Between dunes of sand, one can find sprawling walls that circle around hundreds of tiny concrete homes. However, when I explored these communities in the winter months of April-May 2019, these communities were entirely abandoned. The walls surrounding rising from the desert were painted with political slogans from 2016 or earlier, the paint cracking under the intense Peruvian coastal heat, indicating that political candidates had recently noticed the potential in converting these unoccupied spaces into campaign flyers. The concrete homes, little larger than 80 square feet, had straw roofs, and several appeared to be caving in. Unable to find a spot a living person in the area, I was struck by the complete silence that permeated the community. As opposed to the United States, where it is quite common to find “abandoned”, or “empty” spaces with an accompanying sign that displays property ownership along the lines of “Private Property, do not enter”, this community’s only public announcement was the 2016 Peruvian general election painted onto the walls. Doubtless, as it was explained to me later, this space was indeed private property rented out to seasonal migrants who occupy this town when they are required to harvest the cyclical yield. Although it is obviously true that walls in this case delineate private property, I believe that this observation must be taken further.

Property, popularized in the liberal tradition by John Locke in the 17th century is more than contracts, laws, signatures, and courts, although these factors in property are nevertheless important. In liberalism, property is the product of labor and investment. As Locke argues, property results from the appropriation of labor into a medium to create ownership. An object, a piece of land, or a technique becomes one’s property because that person has devoted labor into appropriating. In fact, property ownership directly relates to what Locke defines as “self-ownership” as a natural right given to humankind, and from this ownership of one’s self, one is able to possess objects outside of themselves by devoting their actions to those objects. From this description it becomes evident that, in liberalism, property is an extension of the self into the objects that the person interacts with. These items carry the subject’s essence. In terms of land ownership, modern theories on property derive from a similar understanding of the utilization of land, although the naturalistic object of Locke’s property (picking acorns, harvesting food from one’s own garden, etc.) is far from the highly alienated and corporate forms of land utilization today. Although property is often spoken about in legalistic terms, at its core, the liberal tradition of property is a theory of self and the extension of the self. Land, understood in these terms, is made social through labor.

Properties such as the abandoned seasonal work community on the outskirts of Lima are territorialized by land developers and large corporate farms because they are organized into sites for production. However, the walls surrounding these farms are not simply the passive markers of this territorialization, they are essential in the prerequisite act of deterritoralization as well. Walls are commonly employed to claim property because they are crucial symbols for deconstructing former relations and extensions that existed in a space. The seemingly arbitrary erection of a border wall to separate two identical pieces of land isn’t only to establish a legalistic entity, but to tear up the previously existing entity. The present-day farming communities outside of Lima are likely very different from the agricultural properties that existed prior to their purchase by large ag-corporations. It is also likely that the previous farmers that possessed property claims constructed their own walls in different geographical forms in order to deterritorialize the ownership of previous farmers, and they as well erected walls to deterritorialize what they viewed as the “natural setting” before their labor was introduced. Of course, walls also territorialize by otherwise declaring that a place is associated with a certain jurisdiction that is recognized by the state and utilized by corporate entities (often the two are inseparable in modern neoliberalism). This process is far more widely understood by political scientists and diplomats, and has been utilized to generate modern political theory centered on the nation-state. It is this interplay, between deterritorialization and the subsequent (possibly simultaneous) territorialization that interests me the most, and it appears that walls are a perfect starting point to understanding this juncture.

Walls epitomize statist logic. They are attempts at establishing permanence and regulated order, yet they are entirely constructed and are often arbitrary despite theirIMG_3949 intended durability. In my paper, “Cavalry and castles: mobile and stationary frontiers in 7th-8th century Libya and Tunisia” (2020), I sought to describe how mobile cavalry military organization —modeled off of nomadic desert warfare— interacted with the stationary fortresses and coastal states in North Africa. Wherever the Byzantine patricians would lead their troops, their walls would soon follow, serving to deterritorialize their desert environment and the pre-existing local relationships among Berber communities, and to re-territorialize these spaces as imperial holdings. As the mobile Arab armies advanced through North Africa, these imperial settlements relied on their walls as the bastion of their statehood. Just as the state occupies and repurposes land/space into its national territory, and likewise manages its population in a similar manner, walls serve as a tool, a mechanism for this territorialization.

With this new understanding of walls, we can see how on the outskirts of Lima, as well as within the urban space itself, walls are indeed utilized for a variety of purposes. Security, and the maintenance of property are indeed clear intents for the concrete barriers that split apart the city, but these are only surface answers to a much more nuanced discussion about permanence, deterritorialization, territorialization, and the state. Although many walls in Lima protect only abandoned and “empty” lots, they do not lose their function in this regard because they nevertheless still reproduce the essence of stability that they are designed to uphold, and they fragment previous relations and extensions-of-the-self that existed before.



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