by Gilles d'Aymery
(Swans - January 28, 2008) Chain link and barbed wire fences are intrinsically instruments of control and exclusion. Barbed wires, in particular, are meant to hurt, to deeply damage and wound the flesh of animals and humans alike. What began as a cheap instrument to manage the dichotomy between wild and domesticated animal life, farming and ranching, quickly included humans. Fences keep animals and humans in or out, or both, so that one can feel secure within the famed "property rights." We fence out the "undesirables" (cf. Israeli Apartheid Wall and electrified, barbed wire fencing, the US southern border, Guantánamo, Iraqi towns, the prison system, battle trenches, etc.) and fence in our prize possessions -- whether they are sheep, goats, cattle, power plants, consumer goods depots, or gated communities. Fences exemplify the self and the "us versus them" mentality that have become so prevalent in Western societies over the past two centuries. It's all about domination and oppression of the other, the one who is not us. Fences symbolize the notion of inclusion and exclusion, a spatial segregation; and barbed wire, as Olivier Razac shows in his 2000 Histoire politique du barbelé, (1) is intricately tied to extermination and death.
It all began rather innocently in the 1870s as a cheap and convenient tool to manage cattle and sheep free-range ranching in the American Great Plains and in defense of farming interests. Within decades and a few range wars, the farmers won and the mythical Old West was history. So were the Indian Nations, perhaps the biggest casualty of the wholesale fencing from the Midwest to the Pacific Ocean. The Indians called this "artificial bramble" the Devil's rope, which put an end to their nomadic way of life for with no open space left untouched they could no longer freely roam the plains or hunt bison, which were otherwise being decimated by the greedy settlers. This, among other factors, "created the conditions for the physical and cultural disappearance of the Indian," writes Razac. While Indians have not totally disappeared and their cultures remain alive, they have been mostly relegated to some 300 largely-fenced reservations scattered all over the U.S. where their standards of living match those of the Third World.
What started as a simple technology to safeguard crops from wild animals quickly became an instrument of subjugation against human beings, and then took a turn toward more barbaric practices -- "a sublime, even monstrous modern technology run amok." (Razac). The artificial bramble was liberally used during the US Civil War. Then Europeans made an orgy of death with the help of the Devil's rope during World War One, and twenty years later surpassed their killing instincts and skills in the death camps of World War Two. By then barbed wire had become a tool of choice of the incarcerating, penal system in the U.S. -- like the internment camps of Japanese Americans (often within Indian reservations) during WWII. Barbed wire, often electrified, had developed into a symbol of the totalitarian organization of space -- an architecture of death.
One would think that nowadays fencing and barbed wire would have become an "accident of history." Razac refers to Foucault's notion of "biopolitics," the techniques used by power to manage the life of its subjects. He thinks that barbed wire's usage is receding as the state has developed more powerful tools to control the polity -- video cameras, electronic ID cards, phone conversation and e-mail snooping, ever more intrusive databases, etc. Sadly, this is not so. The latest additions to the palette of coercive tools have not diminished the old bloody instruments of terror.
One has to journey through a few harsh spots in the world to verify that barbed wire is still striving with the obvious objective to control and terrorize. Check the policies of the Israeli government in the West Bank and the Gaza strip, two places laced with barbed wire of the worst sorts (electrified, razor wire fencing) to literally concentrate Palestinians in small reservations -- much like Americans did with their Indians, (2) but with much smarter PR. (That survivors of the Holocaust and their descendents remain silent about, or, worse, approve such horrific, inhuman actions dazzles the mind.) Look at the US military in Iraq that, marching in the footsteps of the Israelis, has been enclosing entire Iraqi villages and city neighborhoods with barbed wire since late 2003. Visualize the high fences surrounding oil-producing installations all over Africa. Journey through the American penitentiary-industrial complex where over 2,000,000 human beings are rotting alive behind chain link and razor wire fencing. Or simply drive the roads of California and find out whether you can stop anywhere besides small controlled spaces (rest stops) and take a walk. You can't. California is overwhelmingly fenced in the name of property rights and increased yields in agriculture.
Our civilizing model has created a planetary confining system in which all life -- natural, animal, human -- is segregated to better dominate, subjugate, and, of course, gain from the resulting control of what used to be the commons. More insidiously, it has led to the imprisonment of the human mind, which appears incapable of realizing the extraordinary damages that this inexpensive invention has caused on our societies, as each and every one of us surrounds ourselves with invisible fences that keep us separate from the whole. Who would have thought that the artificial bramble could attain such remarkable achievements?
[Part II will explore fences from the author's more personal experience.]
1. Olivier Razac, Histoire politique du barbelé : La Prairie, la tranchée, le camp, Editions La Fabrique, 2000, ISBN-10: 2913372066. Translated in English by Jonathan Kneight, Barbed Wire: A Political History, New Press, 2002, ISBN-10: 1565847350 (my thanks to Louis Proyect for directing my attention to this book). (back)
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