Recently I have been thinking about boundaries in public administration and how we might theorise these in a different and more dynamic way. In doing so I have been reading a number of books from disciplines such as geography and international relations.
One of the latest books I’ve read in this project is Walled states, waning sovereignty by Wendy Brown. This book critically analyses the practice of wall building in a context where nation-state sovereignty is seemingly on the decline in an ever more mobile and interconnected world.
This is a wonderfully written book that draws on a range of different political theories to consider why it is that states still engage in wall building when all of the evidence suggests that they rarely fulfill their aims.
Brown argues that the main functions of these walls are not material but symbolic. Walls generate what Heidegger calls a reassuring world picture in terms of the need for security and social and psychic integration for political membership (pg. 26). Brown argues that walls have theatrical, theological and material effects.
From the analysis of a number of walls, such as those dividing Texas from Mexico, Israel from Palestine, South Africa from Zimbabwe, Brown concludes that ‘ walls are consummately functional and walls are potent organizers of human psychic landscapes generative of cultural and political identities. The emerge from and figure in discourses, they can become discursive statements themselves and they are crucial to the organization of power in and through space. The meaning is not in the referent, walls do not narrative and do not even speak’ (pg. 74).
The study of boundaries in public administration is yet to include consideration of these types of symbolic and psychic entities and yet we know from attempts to engage in organisational restructuring, for example, that boundaries have more than just physical implications. Marianna Fotaki has started to explore some of these issues in the context of organisational theory drawing on psychoanalytical literatures, although these kinds of insights are yet to make their way into mainstream public administration literatures. Brown similarly speaks about the psychic fantasies and anxieties that walls are able to deal with by creating a visual effect (even if they do not actually manage what is promised of them).
For anyone trying to think about boundaries from a different perspective this book offers plenty of inspiration.