Title: The (W)hole of Babel - Hito Steyerl
Author: Hito Steyerl, 2000

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The (W)hole of Babel - Hito Steyerl

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.

Partial Constructions

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.

Digital Orientalism

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 and non-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 language schemes.

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.

Universal Strangers

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.

Magic geographies

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 articulateness.

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 migrants.

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 of exclusion.

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 greater silence?"

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