Babel

Genesis 11:4-9
4 And they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower whose top is in the heavens; let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be scattered abroad over the face of the whole earth.” 5 But the Lord came down to see the city and the tower which the sons of men had built. 6 And the Lord said, “Indeed the people are one and they all have one language, and this is what they begin to do; now nothing that they propose to do will be withheld from them. 7 Come, let Us go down and there confuse their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech.” 8 So the Lord scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth, and they ceased building the city. 9 Therefore its name is called Babel, because there the Lord confused the language of all the earth; and from there the Lord scattered them abroad over the face of all the earth. 

Over the course of his career McLuhan took a variety of views on the Biblical story of the tower of Babel. It might be taken to symbolize the fundamental human condition of finite fragmentation; or it might be taken to signify the reign of “witless assumption”; or it might be taken to reflect the perennial denial of the human condition “by which man sought to scale the highest heavens”. With these, however, McLuhan also listened for “the babble of Anna Livia”. He was well aware that the condition of Babel/babble can never be put aside and that meaning, if to be found at all, must be found in it/them. As he observed in ‘Joyce, Mallarmé and the Press’, “the daily paper is not lacking in moral edification, for the hubbub of appetites and protests to be found among the advertisements and announcements proclaims each day the ‘original servitude’ of man and the confusion of tongues of the tower of Babel.”

Here are samples (in chronological order) of McLuhan’s takes on the Tower of Babel:

we have no choice. We have either to surpass any previous age or to collapse into a new Babel. For our problems, like our means and opportunities, are of a scope beyond those of any previous age. (Symbolist Communication 1953)

like Shakespeare and Chesterton, Joyce uses the pun as a way of seeing the paradoxical exuberance of being through language. And it was years after he had begun the Wake before he saw that the babble of Anna Livia through the nightworld of the collective consciousness united the towers of Babel and of sleep. In sleep “the people is one and they have all one language” but day overcomes and scatters them. (James Joyce: Trivial and Quadrivial 1953)

Nineteenth century development of spatial communication widened the gap between knowledge and power, [between] poetry [and] all the arts [on the one hand] and politics [and] business [on the other]. The withdrawal of the arts to an ivory tower and of politics and business to a tower of Babel is the figurative way of citing the current divorce between knowledge and know-how. Irresponsibility and loss of bearings occurred in both domains. Yet major developments in each sphere were strikingly parallel, and recognition of common problems and solutions [however belated] may help mend the broken network. (Network 2, 1953)1

Now for the Platonist as for the Gnostic a symbol or poem is simply a sign linking Heaven and Hell. Art and beauty point from this world to another world from which we have all fallen. In the ancient pagan view, so predominant today, man is a fallen angel. (…) So that granted the pagan premise that man is simply a fallen angel the ideal of modern industrial humanism is quite consistent. Let us doll up the fallen angel and let us put it in ever more powerful machines until the whole world looks like Marilyn Monroe in a Cadillac convertible. (…) In this angelic view the business of art has nothing to do with the analogy of cognition nor with our miraculous power to incarnate the external world. It is a means [like the tower of Babel]2 rather to lift us out of our human condition3 and to restore us to the divine world from which we fell at birth. In this view the artist becomes one with the Nietzschean superman, the transvaluer of values. Reality is not to be trusted or revered but to be remade by social engineers. (Christian Humanism and Modern Letters 1954)

This work of “popular enchantment” which is the daily paper is not lacking in moral edification, for the hubbub of appetites and protests to be found among the advertisements and announcements proclaims each day the “original servitude” of man and the confusion of tongues of the tower of Babel. (Joyce, Mallarmé and the Press 1954)

It is now obvious that as all languages are mass media, so the new media are new languages. To unscramble our Babel we must teach these languages and their grammars on their own terms. This is something quite different from the educational use of audio-visual aids or of closed-circuit TV. (Media Fit the Battle of Jericho, Explorations 6, 1956)

in the Babel created in North American schools by the new mother tongues or the new media, the case is now that the young know several languages from the cradle which their teachers have acquired, if at all, as ‘second languages’. For the most part, the teachers are oblivious of the fact that most of the experience of their charges is handled in forms for which the teachers express hostility and contempt.  (The Electronic Revolution in North America 1958)

To-day, our new media compel us to notice that English is a mass medium, as is any important language, and that the new media are new languages with unique powers and deficiencies. Not to recognize this situation is to encourage the rise of a new tower of Babel. (Knowledge, Ideas, Information and Communication 1958)

The newspaper will serve as an example of the Babel of myths or languages. (Myth and Mass Media 1959)

Professor [Edward T.] Hall simply states and sustains the proposition that these externalizations, however separate and distinct, speak yet a common language which can be learned even by the occupants of the Tower of Babel. The practical program implicit in The Silent Language is that there can be a consensus for all the separate senses and faculties which we are endlessly externalizing. We can learn how to translate all the diverse, external manifestations of our inner lives into a coherent statement of human motive and existence. (Common Language Nonetheless 1961)

[Alexander Pope, ‘Essay on Criticism’:] “One science only will one genius fit / So vast is art, so narrow human wit”. He [Pope] well knew that this was the formula for the Tower of Babel. (GG 1962)

Throughout Finnegans Wake Joyce specifies the Tower of Babel as the tower of Sleep, that is, the tower of the witless assumption, or what Bacon calls the reign of the Idols. (GG 1962)

Languages as the technology of human extension may have been the Tower of Babel by which man sought to scale the highest heavens; and today, computers hold out the promise of instant change of any code or language into any other code or language. The computer promises, in short, by technology, a Pentecostal condition4 of universal understanding and unity. The next logical step would seem to be, not to translate, but to by-pass languages in favor of a general cosmic consciousness which might be very like the collective unconscious dreamt of by Bergson. The condition of “weightlessness,” that biologists say promises a physical immortality, may be paralleled by the condition of speechlessness that could confer a perpetuity of collective harmony and peace. (UM 1964)5

  1. To “the withdrawal of the arts to an ivory tower and of politics and business to a tower of Babel” aka “the current divorce between knowledge and know-how”, compare TT 22 twenty years later: “the idealists share with the experienced and practical men of their time the infirmity of substituting concepts for percepts. Both concentrate on a clash between past experience and future goals that blacks out the usual but hidden processes of the present.”
  2. In reading McLuhan on the tower of Babel it is important to bear in mind its two phases of construction and destruction as well as the paradoxical relation of these phases with each other. It is the first construction stage that reflects “a Pentecostal condition of universal understanding and unity” (UM) in which “the people are one and they all have one language” (Genesis 6). But this construction phase proves destructive, since it amounts to an attack on heaven — and this results in God scattering mankind over the earth in a confusion of tongues. Contrariwise, the destruction phase proves constructive in restoring the proper relation of finite (scattered) humans before God. The same thought is to be found also in the New Testament in Paul’s letters: “Professing themselves to be wise, they become fools.” (Rom. 1:22.) And again: “For seeing that in the wisdom of God the world by wisdom knew not God, it pleased God, by the foolishness of our preaching, to save them that believe. . . .the foolishness of God is wiser than (the wisdom of) men.” (I Cor, 1:21,25)
  3. “It is a means (…) to lift us out of our human condition”. Compare from ‘Technology and the Human Dimension’ two decades later (1974): Now, when you put on an environment or mask of power — a vortex of energy such as radio or telephone or TV — you are both extending your own ego and invading other egos to a fantastic degree. The ability to speak to Peking by telephone is the act of a superman, and we now take for granted that all people on this planet are supermen. What has thus happened to the ‘human scale’ is very important to recognize. Can there be a ‘human scale’ anymore? Or, under electric conditions, does everybody become superman? As far as I know, the answer is absolutely yes. Any child is superhuman today — on the telephone or radio or on any electric medium. The traditional human dimension hardly exists anymore (…) but the electric surround of information that has tended to make man a superman at the same time reduces him into a pretty pitiable nobody by merging him with everybody. It has extended man in a colossal, superhuman way, but it has not made individuals feel very important. (…) Electrically, the corporate human scale has become vast even as private identity shrinks to the pitiable. The ordinary man can feel so pitiably weak that, like a skyjacker (= hijacker), he’ll reach for a superhuman dimension of world coverage in a wild desperate effort for fulfillment”.)
  4. Especially in the 1940s and 1950s, the work of Etienne Gilson was discussed extensively by McLuhan: “Gilson has used the method of reconstruction in the history of philosophy as a new creative technique which permits a new kind of communication between the present and the past” (‘Christian Humanism and Modern Letters’). In particular he was very familiar with Gilson’s The Unity of Philosophical Experience (1938) and would hardly have been able to bring Bergson and Pentecost together without thinking of Gilson on Descartes: “During the same night (November 10, 1619), Descartes had dreams when he ventured to find a confirmation of his extraordinary and almost supernatural mission. Was that, as has been suggested by a modern historian, the Pentecost of reason? It merely was the Pentecost of mathematical reasoning, and less a Pentecost than a deluge. In the joy of a splendid discovery, mathematics began to degenerate into mathematicism and to spread as a colourless flood over the manifold of reality. Descartes was a great genius, but I sometimes wonder if his dream were not a nightmare” (The Unity of Philosophical Experience, 136).
  5. Texts like this have frequently been used to support the contention that McLuhan’s thought was “utopian” and that he predicted a return to “the garden of Eden”. Once this reading was in place, others could be cited where he was highly critical of any such ideal. Ergo, he not only made ridiculous predictions, he also contradicted himself. But McLuhan was clearly “putting on” his readers here. He was assuming their attraction to the ideal of “a Pentecostal condition of universal understanding and unity”. But in the Bible (as discussed above) such unity “of collective harmony and peace” is exactly what the Tower of Babel narrative represents as negative in the sight of God: “the people is one and they have all one language (…) Come, let Us go down and confuse their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech.” Hence, as McLuhan notes, this supposed ideal is realized only in “the tower of Sleep, that is, the tower of the witless assumption, or what Bacon calls the reign of the Idols” (GG). “But day overcomes and scatters them” (James Joyce: Trivial and Quadrivial). Compare the UM Pentecostal passage with the one cited above from CHML: “granted the pagan premise that man is simply a fallen angel, the ideal of modern industrial humanism is quite consistent. Let us doll up the fallen angel and let us put it in ever more powerful machines until the whole world looks like Marilyn Monroe in a Cadillac convertible.”

One thought on “Babel

  1. Richard L. Dalon

    Excellent material and thoughtful insights. There is a long exegetical tradition that imagines the building the tower as an attempt to scale the heights of heaven, the text does not really suggest that. “Its top in the heavens” is a hyperbole found in Mesopotamian inscriptions for celebrating high towers, and to make or leave a “name” for oneself by erecting a lasting monument is a recurring notion in Hebrew culture. The polemic thrust of the story is against urbanism and the overconfidence of humanity in the feats of technology. The story lines up with the tree of life and the Nephilim in which humankind is seen aspiring to transcend the limits of its creaturely limits.
    An interesting point made by Robert Alter is “The Hebrew ‘balal’, to “mix” or “confuse,” (translated by Alter as “baffle” and “babble”) is a polemic pun on the Akkadian “Babel,” which might actually mean “gate of the god.”‘

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