Walls tend to be taken at face value, read as barriers, markers of possessiveness, actors of exclusion and inclusion, associates of borders and frontiers, privation and privatization, of sheltering and shutting out or shutting in. This surface reading of walls as surfaces sees the wall as pure, unpunctured, but always threatened by the violence of the other side (the wall is the law, says Fanon). Walls confuse material and metaphor. Political projects of wall-building around the world in recent decades have been matched by renewed attention to domestic and communal walls that the global pandemic forced upon those locked down, immured.
Walls indicate how culture deals with nature, including human nature (or human life in a so-called ‘state of nature'). Walls embody the alienation from multiform nature as an unintended consequence of a desire for security. And yet…
Walls are inviting. Impure walls are raised; pure walls are desired. The desired purity of the wall is the other side of the desire for the wall to be that which divides up pure space into spaces of purity. The façade offers itself up for defacement, wounding positively and negatively, as a space of resistance to the colonization of public space by private capital and its image-repertoire. The wall is the blank page, at once seeming to offer nothing to read and in that blankness inciting inscription (following Hélène Cixous), projection, invention, or appropriation. It acts as the prompt for imagination, for an exposure of the structures by which the otherness of the other side, that which, on the other side, is not other, is imagined. A wall is a skin, the embodiment of a dream of penetrating it (as in Aymé, Perec, Saramago or Bruce Naumann's ‘Body Pressure').
It is possible to see the wall as an impossible model of hospitality or sociality as much as exclusion. Anne Michaels writes: ‘Language keeps us inextricably entangled and inextricably separate. Just as a wall does not separate but binds two things together'. Walls tell stories, they make narrative possible – from the Lascaux caves to murals to graffiti to screens and supports – but sometimes the wall is the story. Thinking through walls asks us to rethink notions of community, intersubjectivity and our relation to others, human or otherwise. As Judith Butler suggests: ‘defensive aggression is quite far from the insight that this life is not finally separable from another, no matter what walls are built between them. Even walls tend to bind together those they separate, usually in a wretched form of the social bond'.