Friday, June 19, 2009

Utopian Time & Space: De/(Con)structions of Babel (Part I of III)

Cultural notions of perfection in social organization find their origins in Thomas More’s Utopia, a text that inscribes on our collective cultural consciousness the very concept of utopia itself. More’s text offers the reader a view into the possibility of a utopian or perfect society. Unfortunately, though, as has often been said, perfection exists as something out of reach, something that exists only as possibility. At the risk of oversimplifying very abstract and complex notions, there seems to be at least two distinct tendencies of utopia, each having the ability to interact, problematize, interpose, and contaminate the other: utopia as mode of being and utopia as mode of becoming. Moreover, there is a necessarily disruptive interplay between the historicism of utopia and its concomitant desire for atemporality. Utopia seeks to be nowhere—literally beyond geography—in its drive to subsume all (of) space; its Greek linguistic origins simultaneously punning on the idea of “no place” and “good place.” It is this urge to be nowhere—as well as this urge to be in a good place—that forces us to seek a mode of being: an eternal present, essentially “now” and “here” (now/here vis-à-vis nowhere). Within the Western tradition, Eden is the paragon of utopia as mode of being, the measure by which all subsequent utopias are judged, and it is the quest to reclaim Eden as “now-here” that informs all social, cultural, political, and economic systems.

If Eden is the measure of utopian life, then we can read Babel—perhaps the first fabricated attempt to reclaim utopia insofar as our tradition tells us—as the measure of attempts at re-creating and re-fabricating the orginary utopia itself. From the very start, however, we find a qualitative difference between the utopia of Eden and that of Babel: in the Garden, man does not toil or labor, but one of the first references to Babel is the task of laying brick atop brick. And as we know, the denial of Eden—the impossibility of utopia—reasserts itself in the collapse of those very bricks. Humanity’s cyclical attempts at rebuilding the Tower remain forever foiled.

Historically, Babel is the locus where the duality of good and evil within Zoroastrianism infuses Judaism (during the Babylonian captivity) with apocalypse and teleology, the crucible in which the notion of Judgment Day (that is, the end of time) is transmitted from the Mesopotamian plain to the Western world. Henceforward, history and progress—both antitheses of being—becomes the principal characteristics of all things Western and all things modern. Moreover, Babel is monoculture par excellence. Its one common language with one sociolinguistic environment and heritage if not eradicated miscommunication then at least significantly reduced it. With a single language coupled with extremely isolationist policies, Babel is the first attempt toward a global village: “Come, let us build ourselves a city … so that we may make a name for ourselves and not be scattered over the face of the whole earth” (Genesis 11:4). This plea not only shows the arrogance of seeking earthbound fame and glory but also contains a justification that is within direct conflict with God’s earlier pronouncement to “fill the earth” (Genesis 1:28).

The Tower of Babel was man’s attempt to re-create the cosmos by his own hands. Symbolically, the tower was to be the path or means by which the human can touch the divine, a second attempt at the crime of eating the forbidden fruit of the knowledge of good and evil. But something had gone seriously wrong in their pursuit: man had confused the symbol for the thing it was to symbolize, much like alchemists becoming bogged down in chemistry and metallurgy instead of working toward spiritual transformation. The Tower of Babel, in this way, became mere idol when mankind began placing brick atop brick instead of working on the inner, spiritual tower that was the true path to heaven. As in the original banishment from the Garden, the divine must reassert its power by denying humankind the perfection it seeks. This literal confusion of symbols and the things symbolized leads to the confusion of tongues, and the tower is left in ruins. Man once again is exiled and is forced to wander from his utopia.

This exile is much more than an a-topic denial of place: it functions as the denial of productivity as power, for we can also view the Tower as phallocracy, the masculine thrust heavenward toward or into the divine. But its name reveals more than just hegemonic sex drive and will to power: Babel (or Bāb-ilu in the ancient Akkadian) is “gate of God.” The feminine portal or entrance is present within the masculine tower. The literal phallus becomes symbol of the womb, a literally trans-gendered entrance into heaven itself. It is this merging of the two sexes that gives Babel its procreative efficacy. But these interpretations become much more interesting when we analyze Babel as an analogue of utopia itself.

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