Professor Yeshayahu Leibovitz explains that the Tower of Babel narrative shows God’s mercy in dispersing man to create difference: “In a world that is of one language and a common speech, man is a complete slave because there is no greater tyranny than to have unity forced on people.”
Professor Jacques Derrida explains that “The ‘tower of Babel’ does not merely figure the irreducible multiplicity of tongues; it exhibits an incompletion, the impossibility of finishing, of totalizing, or saturating, of completing something on the order of edification, architectural construction, system and architectonics.”
In the biblical text, the people say, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves.”
A tower leading to the heavens, to the gate of the gods, made of brick instead of stone, was the first project in earthly hegemon; a progressive one, technologically advanced, meta-physical, rational, categorical, and pursued in the name of recognition, for having a name, to finally reach the divide between the cosmos and the heavens.
But the people fail, they do not reach their liminal threshold, their border, their door, their wall. The gods scatter them because, “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. Let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.”
A reminder from Derrida, which is self-evident in Hebrew, is that here ‘confusion’ is used metonymically for ‘babel’; Babel is at once The Gate of God and The Great Confusion.
What happens next is perhaps unexpected: once dispersed the people stop building, and the Tower is left deconstructed. But nevertheless, the seekers find the identity they sought. But it was not unified, nay, it never could be. There could only be identities; infinite, like the cosmos.
The builders of the Tower, the nameseekers, wanted a collective recognition, one that erased distinction and watered the desert between the divine and the profane. They wanted, as a group, an identity that signaled accomplishment, completion, power, conquest, totality.
Deserted, the Tower crumbled. But for a time, it remained, half-built and forgotten, not destroyed by the godhead but abandoned by the people.
The heavens remained out of reach, as always, and the people gained language as a confused and fluid tool of division and independence. With languages and names people could no longer understand one another. Bewildered they continued, divinely confused and unfinished, living with the rubble. And the story goes on.
The project of the Tower of Babel, to bind the heavens and the earth, to pursue utopia, to wish for the eschaton, is an exercise of hegemonic fantasy.
The scatter is necessary. The confusion is babel—a doorway to god, the name of the gods as well as the gods’ name for us; and our names for each other.
Cacophony is the order of the political. A pluralist and diverse mess where tyranny cannot live, where the polis is relegated and delegated by chaos, a fermenting chaos that births life and moves it.
I’ll close with Benjamin’s divine violence, a violence not based in law but that exists in spite of it; a violence that liberates from the harmful violence of order and universalism; one that undermines the implicit horrors of a social contract; a violence that obliterates the terranean impulse to reach for the stars.
Note: A version of this text appeared in the excellent blog for theory heads, Infrapolitical Deconstruction; https://infrapolitica.wordpress.com