Babel. Whenever I say the word it’s electric. My fingers tingle. Babel goes to the very heart of things. Babel is at the center of the human experience. As Aristotle once mentioned, perceptively, human beings are the social animal. Humans, therefore, go together with cities in a rather essential way. For cities are ‘socialness’ mapped out, put into play, thrown down on a grid. And they are things you have to build. Humankind: the social animal, the builder.
And in every act of building there is a glimmer of hubris built in too. To build is to take up a little cry against the given, against conditions handed down, meted out, fated. Every act of building is a small fist raised up in defiance of the Gods, or Nature, or the immutable Laws.
That’s precisely how the Hebrews saw it and it’s why we have that remarkable passage from the Old Testament.
They said to each other, “Come, let’s make bricks and bake them thoroughly.” They used brick instead of stone, and tar for mortar. Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves and not be scattered over the face of the whole earth.”
But the LORD came down to see the city and the tower that the men were building. The LORD said, “If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them. Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.”
So the LORD scattered them from there over all the earth, and they stopped building the city. That is why it was called Babel [c] —because there the LORD confused the language of the whole world. From there the LORD scattered them over the face of the whole earth.
What an amazing, utterly stupendous passage. What a terrifying and beautiful idea. And in turns out, in fact, that the story is based in historical fact. There really was a Tower of Babel. It was probably Etemenanki that the Hebrews were referring to, and Etemenanki was the product of the amazing Babylonian/Assyrian empire which, itself, birthed what are almost surely the first urban landscapes human hands and minds devised. We’re talking the Cradle of Civilization here. The Tigris and Euphrates. The great ur-cities like, well, Ur, Nippur, Sippar, and Babylon. The more the archeologists and historians work the more it is clear that the Near East is where it’s at. Greece, Rome, Istanbul, Paris, New York. It all starts at Babel.
In order to manage things with their complex empire and international trade, the Assyrians started playing around with symbols and a few centuries later they had definitively invented writing. It all came out of cities; managing them, trading stuff with other people, fighting within and between them.
Cosmopolitanism is nothing new. It’s a product of the dumb daily shit of cities. The scholar Gwendolyn Leick writes that: “The most remarkable innovation in Mesoppotamian civilization is urbanism. The idea of the city as heterogeneous, complex, messy, constantly changing but ultimately viable concept for human society was a Mesopotamian invention.” Complexity emerges from cities like viral infections. Weird things, idiotic religions, Byzantine political arrangements, the polymorphous perversity of social interaction. The messy stink of the city is like a festering laboratory of human possibility.
The ancient Hebrews were enslaved at Babylon and in no great mood to sing the praises of Babel. ‘Wickedness’, they said, and who can blame them? But that’s not the point. The point is that they got the essence of it right. To be able to make a thing like Babel was to announce a kind of arrival. It was to put the Gods on notice, even if unintentionally. It’s the same thing captured so wonderfully by the Greeks in the Prometheus myth. Oh shit, realizes Zeus, give them fire and we’re screwed. They won’t need us anymore. We’ll be written out of the cosmic loop. We’re only a step or two away from the oblivion of the intermundi, complete irrelevance.
Historically, of course, the Babylonians had no such intentions. They built the tower in honor of their own gods. They were thinking of Marduk and their religious pantheon. But the Hebrews, from the outside, saw the problem more clearly, even in their disdain. They saw that the Babylonians were reaching out for something a little more than they bargained for. They were trying to achieve a sort of cosmic autonomy. As punishment, the Hebrews imagined an enormous diaspora, and profusion and multiplying of languages. A Great Babeling. And in a way, they were right about that too. A vast network of cities and civilizational overlaps and urban places with their own languages and customs and cultures now covers the earth. But its founding moment, insofar as every activity is also an idea, has a name. Babel.
Coming soon . . . an explanation of how Babel is related to my obsession with Earth and Land art. This leads to what I see as Flux Factory’s (the art collective of which I’m a founding member) great future project, which will both destroy and redeem us. It will be called Babel: A Monument to Hubris.