Walls, Fears and Limits by Pablo Guerrero Alberola

18591 km is an arbitrary number. Even if we are able to relate this cypher with the length of the physical walls around the world, 18591 km would still reflect the arbitrariness of the metric system. What transcends this cypher is not the thousands of fences, walls, mines, barbed wire and watchtowers that surround us, but its darker purpose, to build 18591 km of fear.

Nothing is completely new in human History; fear was often used throughout history to appeal our desire for security. Nothing broadcasts more of a sense of protection than to build a wall, to set a limit. If anything characterizes walls, it is thus their capacity to define. Separating one from the other, the known and the unknown, walls link us and, at the same time, they pull us apart. But above all walls are physical representations of our fear of the unknown.

In the kingdoms of the Iberian Peninsula during the fourteenth century the concept or term “city” was a confusing word. The cities were neither characterized by their population, nor their economic power; nor could they be defined as urban centers. What gave them their status as cities was their walls. The walls defined and dignified the city, separating their inhabitants from the outside world, and the wild hostilities. At that time there were still imaginary borders, everything outside the human being had a mystical or magical character; dragons, ogres and witches. The walls not only protected the city from invasions, they separated the civilized from the beasts, monsters, and ultimately, the unknown.

Battlements and towers not only had a defensive character, they also bestowed status on those whom were protected by their blocks; they separated the nobility against the peasants.

In the kingdom of Castile, the book of “Fuero de las Leyes”, known since the fourteenth century as the Code of the “Siete Partidas” sanctified the walls, raising them to the status of the sacred and establishing the king with the responsibility to preserve them and all their inhabitants. We can say that the medieval walls were delimiting a legal space and also a natural area, but ultimately the walls established limits but not borders.

It’s necessary to take a moment and think about these two terms. The word for “border” in Spanish is frontera and comes from the Latin words frons or frontis, which means the front of something. It is a very concrete concept that is used to refer to an area or region that is characterized by common features. But it is different from the concept of “limit,” which comes from the Latin word limes, which initially served as the name for the road around the perimeter of to a property, that later became known as fortified road.

Borders mark off the end of a territory; they represent the line that is oriented towards the outside of something, The “limit” plays a strategic role in defending the citizens and maintaining the resources of a region. In this regard, “border” has a conciliatory meaning because it marks an area of transition between countries, while the “limit” represents unique spaces where relationships cannot be develop freely. For Ancient Greeks, the Mediterranean Sea was a border that helped to establish their traditions. The great cultural exchange that happened along the Mediterranean Sea facilitated the Greeks’ worship of foreign gods. The social, economic and cultural relationships at the Mediterranean Sea understood as a border, didn´t know limits.

Over time the concept of border has gained more of a political meaning, making it more similar to the concept of limit.

History demonstrates that borders were initially established by natural boundaries: the borders were set up without human intervention. Nowadays borders have evolved into social spaces, which are created and modified by humans for their own interests. After the Thirty Years’ War and the subsequent Treaty of Westphalia, signed in 1648, the geographical borders of the current European states were largely established. This treaty brought about one of the first political spaces that merged the formerly separate meanings of border and limit. By the nineteenth century, borders were no longer determined by geographical features, the Roman Empire universality , the system of feudal vassalage, or legal allegiances to a king. Rather, borders were determined based on the idea of the nation-state and the concept of territorial sovereignty.

To create a nation-state it’s necessary to have national sovereignty, that is, the nation must have inviolable and impenetrable borders that are recognized internationally.

Thus territorial sovereignty means that a nation controls a geographic space, limiting the relationships established in it. The territorial delimitation is in any case initiated arbitrarily; rather, it is marked by a clear intention, it is a example of a modification of geographic space and politico-social space produced by humans according to their needs and interests.

The concept of territoriality arises exerting the power, control or the sovereignty over a territory . Then it is necessary to establish precise limits to establish beyond doubt what land rightfully belongs to the State-Nation. In that way the borders, which represent places of interrelationship between different countries, cultures or societies turn into limits, and become uninhabited lines that have to be controlled and protected. That is how the term border, which at one time referred to zones of contact oriented to the outside have come to have the connotation of limit, which forces us to look to the interior, tying citizens to the concept of territory.

Nowadays we find an antithesis between these two concepts: border and limit. Natural space has been almost exterminated, with the imposition of an absolute social space. The technical barriers that once limited the movement of people and the communication between them have been largely surpassed. Although globalization is growing, nationalisms, regionalisms and localisms still existing. In this way, the concepts of borders and limits have been dissociated again. In our world the borders have been swept away by the mass media, the globalized economy and the free market, but the movement of the peoples is more limited than ever. The system keeps creating new barriers, border controls, and bureaucracy, appealing to the order. Seeking to ensure its own survival, the system has reused an ancient border, that of fear.

This time the fear of the unknown doesn’t manifest in the form of dragons or witches, it instead takes the form of radicalisms and religions, work stations and health expenditure, of foreign languages and different faces.

The fear strengthens the «we» and it differentiates us from the «barbarians» and «the savages» that live beyond our walls, constantly threaten our lifestyle.

When I imagine 18591 kilometres of barriers, I´m also visualising the tons of wire that help to feed the uncertainty, unvoice the questions and ensure the future imposing limits, to the History, the blood, the tradition and the culture. To fantasize the recovery of a stray purity that never existed is merely a pretext to build more limits, more walls.

The borders and limits, as we can see through history, have changed and will continue doing it. They have been built and demolished by the people. They have been modified by wars, the economy, culture, language, religion or ideology.

Hate is to blame for the barriers of this world — it feeds the xenophobia, the racism, and the exclusive use of languages. In the end the only thing that is limiting ourselves is our sociability.

We have to actively decide with whom and how we want to relate — deciding as individuals and a society, revealing ourselves through an act of determination to defend real social ties and remember that borders are not always meant to limit.


by Pablo Guerrero Alberola