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Title: The (W)hole of Babel - Hito Steyerl
Author: Hito Steyerl, 2000
The (W)hole of Babel - Hito Steyerl
In the early 1920es Franz Kafka wrote an enigmatic note: "What are you building?
I want to dig a passage. A progress has to happen. My position is too elevated.
We are digging the pit of Babel." The startling twist in Kafkas short fragment,
is the transformation of the metaphor of the tower at Babel into the image
of a hole in the ground. Instead of constructing a monumental presence, he
suggests the active creation of an absence, which has to be excavated in order
to advance things and to enable progress. The disaster at Babel , as most
people will know, caused the loss of an universal language common to all mankind.
Kafkas intriguing excavation project hints at the possibility that the dream
of universal communication, would rather be achieved by digging a hole rather
than erecting a monumental tower. Both projects yield very different results.
Whereas a tower provides an elevated point of view and an overall picture
of a certain territory, a subterranean passage provides no general outlook
at all, but merely the faint possibility to make a connection.
The metaphor of the tower of Babel gets even more complex in another novel
by Kafka, called "During the construction of the Chinese Wall". A new tower
of Babel is supposed to be erected with the Great Chinese Wall as its foundation.
Kafka's narrator is quite puzzled by these plans and asks himself how a wall
could possibly be used as a foundation. This wall, moreover, is incomplete,
as it consists of a complex of system of walls that includes large gaps. The
construction is in fact completely useless in regard to it's supposed purpose
to keep off the nomadic peoples of the North. What the construction process
really purports is a growing sense of unity among the Chinese builders as
a people. The tower, which aims at achieving universal communication rests
in fact on a foundation of partial walls and boundaries which underneath the
surface still continue to be effective.
In Kafka's concepts of the tower of Babel, a number of binary oppositions
are inherent: the tower vs the pit or an elevated perspective vs a subterranean
point of view, a vertical sense of direction vs a horizontal one, a superior
position vs a subordinate one. Walls are opposed to gaps, or presences to
absences. Additionally, geographic distinctions like North vs South and West
vs East, as well as distinctions between nomadic people and settled populations
are evoked in the text. Finally, the possibility of a different and possibly
subterrenean universal communication is hinted at.
This peculiar concept of partial walls became real in the early nineties,
not exactly in China, but for example in Berlin where over a period of more
than one year, the gaps in the wall increased until it finally disappeared.
But if clear binary divisions between East and West were being dismantled
on the surface and gave way to new concepts of a global world order, new unclear
and overlapping distinctions arose almost instanteneously on the local level.
The opposition between Germans and Non-Germans took over most of the connotations
traditionally associated with the East-West divide for example modernity vs.
backwardness or democracy vs. Oriental despotism or flexibility and tolerance
vs static fundamentalism. These oppositions served as a system of mirrors
to violently redefine German identity.
Returning to Kafkas plans, one could say that while the Babylonian dream of
universal communication was transformed into new general visions of global
unification and communication, it's foundations were firmly grounded on a
system of shattered local oppositions and boundaries, which continued to create
a sense of spatial and temporal orientation and more or less racist divisions
between settled and migrating people. Whereas the general outlook from an
elevated perspective was now provided by theories about globalisation and
discussions about new technological means of universal communication, a ground
level perspective as considered by Kafka had to deal with the continuing existence
of partial walls and boundaries burried inside their foundations, and with
complex binary structures of absence and presence. So, in fact, universal
communication and binary oppositions do not mutually exclude each other, but
stand in a dialecticla relationship to one another.
It is quite interesting that a similar distribution of geographical oppositions
is performed at the foundations of the only language which could be described
as an universal language nowadays: the digital code. If one takes a close
look at the development of the code by Georg Wilhelm Leibniz in the end of
the 17th century, some kind of peculiar digital orientalism emerges: to prove
that his invention was truly universal in the sense that it could represent
the universal principles of science and a complete system of metaphysics he
compared it to signs of the Chinese I Ging in the book of changes. By equating
the interrupted lines of the Chinese hexagrams with zeroes and the whole lines
with ones, Leibniz mistakenly reached the conclusion that both codes meant
the same and represented the most abstract way to express universal principles.
Through these equations Leibniz simply mirrorred his own code against the
Chinese symbols, and declared them to be identical. He therefore established
the universal validity of his own code.
Ueno Toshiya has described a similar mirroring process as an image machine:
through the reflections in symbolic half-mirrors, Westerners and others misunderstand
or fail to recognize an always illusory Eastern culture while at the same
time looking at themselves . A host of stereotypes appears, he also states,
when binary oppositions are projected onto the geographic positions of Western
A remarkable instance of such a stereotype is the recurrent image of the "Universal
stranger", an individual which expresses universal values, although he or
she belongs to a different cultural background. In this picture, incompatible
oppositions are contained: the notion of a generally valid set of values is
mediated through the opposite concept of the completely unknown. A rule is
expressed by it's exception. This stereotype functions as an interface to
mediate the relations between universal and particular sets of values, new
and traditional codes of signification, or the global and the local
In Leibniz times, Chinese held the role of "Universal Strangers" in the European
imagination. Because of their supposedly abstract and artificial nature, Chinese
characters additionally served as prototypes for the development of universal
Hebrew was also considered as a prototype of an Universal language. Most experts
of the time were convinced, that Hebrew was the lost primal language of mankind,
which had lost it's universal meaning in the catastrophe at Babel. These evaluations
led to a strong philosemitism in England in the 17th century, which nevertheless
was completely irrelevant when it came to the question of the actual readmission
of Jews to England. Jews had been banished from the Kingdom since the end
of the 13th century because of religious prejudice. Although they were identified
with the possession of an universal system of communication, they were denied
actual participation in society. Philosemitism on a symbolic level and the
singling out of Jews as impersonated "Universal Strangers" had no effect whatsoever
when it came to transform their actual absence into a presence.
In contrast to East Asians, who only rarely happened to be present, European
Jews were considered as "Orientals within". The antisemitic stereotype developped
into a powerful allegory of a global capitalist network. Stereotypes of Jews
served as metaphors for economic transformation, and the
transition of a feudal economy to bourgeois capitalism. Metaphors of the invisible
hand, the vampire and the parasite lended a face to the dynamic and destructive
aspects of capitalism and served to contain it's contradictions behind the
mask of people who did belong to modern societies, and were at the same time
kept apart from social participation. They were associated with qualities
like abstractness, artificiality, rootlessness and cosmopolitism. The wandering
Jew became the symbol of an unrestrained circulation of capital, a free exchange
of ideas and the alienation and rootlessness of modern intellectuals.
In Fritz Hipplers infamous propaganda film "The Eternal Jew" the worldwide
conspiracy of Jewry is represented by animation effects: "Mobile and threatening
arrows are sent across the globe. White on a dark background, they split until
they have covered the whole world with a dangerous net: at the same time a
spider weaving it's net, and a cancer growth, which eats from within, grows,
and destroys." The corresponding image to the allegory of an evil global capitalist
network are streams of migrating rats which seem to overcome every obstacle
in their way.
In his investigation of German war propaganda films Siegfried Kracauer explicitly
refers to the mise en scene of global movements by using animated maps . The
perspective of these depictions refers to an extremely elevated point of view,
not only an aerial perspective, but even an extraterrestrian angle, which
suggests a position of dominance and control. From this location, a graphic
pattern of networks and streams produced a magic geography of the global.
The conceptions of global networks or universal systems of communication were
interpreted differently in different periods: either as evil conspiracies
or on the opposite, as expression of the prestabilized harmony of world culture.
All these symbolic clusters operated with a similar formal vocabulary: by
imagining "Universal strangers", the conflict between the contradictory determinations
of global communication networks and continued antagonisms and differences
on a local level were mediated. All these divergent concepts were contained
by the masks of "Universal Strangers" which according to Slavoj Zizek, represent
living contradictions, a part of the system which does at the same time belong
and not belong to it and thus acts as a stand-in for universality.
Therefore it is not very surprising, that after the end of the Cold War, these
parts were recast with different actors, but the overall mise en scene remained
more or less the same. Although the static opposition between East and West
was displaced, binary oppositions were simply projected onto new complicated
and shattered geographic boundaries. And again, a new host of stereotypes
emerged. Only this time the identifications were reversed: whereas before
the "Universal stranger" used to form an exception, he now becomes on the
contrary a central symbol of so-called fragmented or multiple postmodern identities.
From an elevated perspective, a new evaluation of the disaster at babel followed
suit. As everyone seemed to be equally alienated and uprooted, everybody seemed
to share a common base. At least this was the general picture obtained from
the upper floors of the new babylonian construction. From an elevated angle,
a perspective of dominance, individual dispersedness seemed to form new patterns
of global movement. Migration flows, capital flows, dataflows and so forth
looked identical from this point of view and produced a new magic geography.
Seen from up there, migrants and displaced people seemed like an ideal allegory
of global mobility and alienation, and as incarnations of abstract difference.
But from a lower and local perspective another formation of binary oppositions
arose, which didnt seem new either: seen from ground level, Migrants and other
Non-Germans were caught up in a labyrinth of partial wall constructions and
represented the negative effects of a new stage of global capitalism: it's
alienating uprooting and restrictive consequences. On a local level, migrants
were definitely facing new boundaries and borders and their situation was,
at least in the Germany of the nineties very far from being mobile. So whereas
phantasies of ideal migrants served as interfaces to represent a new global
upper class as universal to itself, real migrants, above all refugees acted
as local scapegoats for the negative effects of globalisation.
Interfaces of the West
In Germany, both possible perspectives on a new phase of globalisation were
translated into two contradicting and divergent movements: a racist wave of
attacks and pogromes broke out against Non-Germans on the local level. At
the same time, a newly created interest in global paradigms of culture arose,
for example theories of hybridity, multiculturalism or postcolonialism. The
Universal Stranger of that period was that of the hybrid and hyphenated in
it's cultural, biological but also purely formal meaning.
The translocation of theories of hybridity to Germany produced the following
formula: all cultures are hybrid, therefore all are the same. Obviously this
levelling out of existant inequalities and discrimination worked out only
from a very elevated angle, a dominant perspective, and only if specific local
aspects and boundaries were ignored. The translation of these cultural paradigms
was actually no translation into a German social and political context atall,
but a regress into a jargon, which was considered to be the universal language
of the global era. The result was a calculus, which produced evermore flexible
and mobile combinations of different cultural signs, a delirious Ars Combinatoria
of the age of information capitalism. It' s function somehow mimicked the
effect of a mode of production, which has effectuated a global chain of commodity
production while creating at the same time a worldwide division of labour.
In the cultural centers, a class of cultural and symbolic technicians combined
and recombined the symbolic raw materials from the peripheries to form refined
chains of signification, processed codes which provided powerful tools of
interpretation and imagination and translated into hierarchies of access and
The ideal cast for Universal Strangers in German speaking countries were mostly
members of Angloamerican diasporic communities, or people who were mistaken
for them. Their cultural artefacts served as halfmirrors for the rifts and
antagonisms of Western Europe in the process of restructuring and acted as
interfaces for a dominant local cultural elite vying for global competitiveness.
The updated version of "Universal strangers" led to interesting confusions
and the creation of new cultural hierarchies of taste and distinction which
closely ressembled old ones. A new distinction was created between Global
and Local minorities. Whereas the former represented a prototype of a new
paradigm of global culture and were deemed capable to express it's mobile
and flexible features, the latter were considered to be hopelessly retarded,
archaic, primitive, essentialist, fundamentalist and folkloristic. Below the
unifying concepts of a global culture, another foundation of binary opposites
developped, this time between global and local minorities or ideal and real
While phantasies of ideal migrants served as half-mirrors to represent a new
global class of decision makers as universal, mobile and alienated to themselves,
real migrants took on the part of representing static, authentic and particular
values. On the other hand members of minorities increasingly started to make
use of the same mirror machine, and tried to reverse it's projections in their
favour, by trying in turn to claim the position of "Universal Stranger".
In the early nineties the internal organisation of organizations of ethnic
minorities in Germany changed. Whereas before, people had rallied on the base
of a common cultural background or political goals relating to their countries
of origin, the strong pressure of German racism created new forms of organisation,
which relied on the base of common exclusion and tried to contest the notions
of "savages within" by forming internationalist networks.
But whereas the magic geography of the global was represented by arrow diagrams
of streams and flows and the corresponding interface of hyphenated cosmopolitans,
a dominant perspective on local internationalist communities yielded a magic
geography of local urban space, which established geographical oppositions
and boundaries such as the city center as opposed to depraved ghettos at the
margins. Seen from above, the attempts of migrants to form internationalist
communites were quickly retranslated into subcultural fashions which strongly
emphasized male oriented phantasies of multinational petty criminals and hoodlums
and reterritorialized the dreams of internationalism into restricted cultural
ghettos. Therefore the cultural representaion of these communities will remain
a contested territory on which different perspectives will generate specific
sets of geographic orientation, binary oppositions and hierarchies, new forms
of translocal networks as well as the continued existence of partial boundaries
of assimilation and dissimilation at their foundations.
Seen from a ground level perspective though, the actual emergence of transnational
comunities such might open up a space for discussions, maybe even a hole and
it's greatest value consists in overcoming the subterranean boundaries which
kept apart people with different backgrounds in order to dig into the violent
discontinuities of German history and to unearth the specific and local foundations
Kafkas paradoxical concept of the tower of Babel continues to be under construction.
New codes of global signification translate into local geographical and social
boundaries. An universal language scheme which suggest the overcoming of borders
at the surface, reproduces binary divisons at ground level and creates a partial
wall construction of absences and presences, which emphasizes certain visibilities
while simultaneously concealing and excluding others and opposes a jumble
of global voices to an ever growing silence.
At the end of his book "After Babel", George Steiner writes: "The Kabbalah,
in which the problem of Babel and of the nature of language is so insistently
examined, knows of a day of redemption on which translation will no longer
be necessary. All human tongues will have reentered the translucent immediacy
of that primal lost speech shared by god and Adam. But the Kabballah also
knows of a more esoteric possibility. It records the conjecture, no doubt
heretical, that there shall come a day when translation is not only unnecessary
but inconceivable. Words will rebel against man. They will shake off the servitude
of meaning. They will "become only themselves, and as dead stones in our mouths".
In either case, men and women will have been freed forever from the burden
and the splendor of the ruin of Babel. But which, one wonders, will be the