Introduction to The Architectures of Babel

Da: (con Tiziana Migliore), AA.VV., The Architectures of Babel. Creation, Extinctions and Intercessions in the Languages of the Global World, a cura di Tiziana Migliore e Paolo Fabbri, Casa Editrice Leo S. Olschki, Firenze, 2011.


This book of “Proceedings” has come off the press five years on from the seminar entitled Dialoghi di Babele (“The Babel Dialogues”). We might say that they had been diverted onto a ring road connoted by kairós, an immeasurable non-linear form of time in between allowing special things to occur at the right moment. In fact this collection of writings appears in synergy with the Dialoghi di San Giorgio on the “culture of the copy” (2010), which, a posteriori, has endorsed our work on languages as a successful operation in terms of translatability.1
A copy is an act of re-writing whereby a single version has two independent stories. In this sense a copy is the exact opposite of translation, i.e. a single story with two related versions;2 the second version conserves at most what the original exemplifies, over and above what it actually says, and transforms it. In the theory of linguistic relativity (Whorf 1956), every language represents a specific world vision. But these “relative” systems are constantly transformed by the act of translation, which does not transpose something identical but resemantizes. Unlike a copy, which conveys the initial text in an identical version, a translation modifies what it relates to. It introduces into the source language features of the target language; it has to select elements in the former which are pertinent for the latter. When the Fondazione Cini added the counter-translation – i.e. “the copy” – to research into the translatable and untranslatable, the time was ripe to write about Babel. As structuralists, we hold that each concept should be defined through its opposite.
Round the table of the Dialoghi di Babele the question of languages was addressed by examining practical example of the “in-betweens”, i.e. the processes articulating linguistic differences. Sociologists (Lash), semiologists (Fabbri), linguists (Haarmann; Ostler; Ramat; Romaine), philosophers (Serres), scientists (Lévi-Leblond) and poets (Meddeb) reflected on speech and languages as expressions of cultural boundaries. The speakers all opted to shift from the cultural as a philosophical and epistemological object to culture as a place of action and enunciation. Today the construction of a sense of belonging to a people depends on local development. It no longer has a centric causal logic. The problem is no longer that of a nation’s self, as opposed to the alterity of other nations. A nation’s self has become a space characterized internally by the discourses of minorities and the programs of political movements in relation to settlements, migrations, destabilizations, demands and threats of extinction. Cultural difference is thus an “enunciatory category” (Bhabha 1994) able to go beyond both the relativistic notions of cultural diversity and the exoticism of the “diversity” of cultures: it is the filter that develops through masking and subverting the “gaze of the evil eye”. As Barthes remarked of metonymy, cultural difference emerges whenever – at the level of discourse – there is a violation of, or challenge to that significant boundary of space allowing an opposing division of usages, meanings, values and properties.3 The advent of new technologies has led to a redefinition of the concept of “linguistic community”. More than a notion related to geographical boundaries and regional varieties, it is a “unit of analysis” endowed with unquestionable malleability and utility, since it refers to a definition of language based on diversity. What is shared within the community is an awareness of the ideology of the language and also an attitude towards the use of language. Take for example the rules in the codes of chatrooms or Internet forums. They are expressed in symbols, turn taking, choice of topic and jargon. “The concept of speech community binds the importance of local knowledge and communicative competence in discursive activities so that members can identify insiders from outsiders, those passing as members and those living in contact zones or borderlands.”4
The condition of asymmetry turns out to be essential for the dynamic development of the system. From this point of view, the myth of Babel, i.e. divine intervention to halt the plans of men bent on building “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” (Genesis 11: 1-9, our italics), is the logical continuation and realization of the act of differentiation begun with the Creation.5 Had only a single language survived, it would have hypostatized and standardized the world.6 For dialogue to exist, there had to be confusion and the language diaspora. Linguistic differences had to develop for living forms and their correlated ecosystems to develop. The aspiration to “make a name for oneself”, or acquire fame, recurs at the end of the narrative of the Tower, in verse 10, with the dispersion of peoples: Noah’s lineage gives rise to the genealogy of Shem (שם), which literally means “name” or “fame”, but this time acquired by divine will.
The speakers at the Dialoghi di Babele thought it might be interesting to set alongside this myth the episode of Pentecost as retold in the New Testament (John 20:19-23; Acts 2:1-11; Corinthians 12:3-7,12-13). The fact that the apostles, by virtue of the Holy Spirit, can speak several languages and make themselves understood by peoples speaking different languages, justifies the rift that originated at Babel:

[1] When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. [2] Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. [3] They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. [4] All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them. [5] Now there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven. [6] When they heard this sound, a crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard their own language being spoken. [7] Utterly amazed, they asked: “Aren’t all these who are speaking Galileans? [8] Then how is it that each of us hears them in our native language? [9] Parthians, Medes and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, [10] Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome [11] Both Jews and converts to Judaism; Cretans and Arabs – we hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!” (Acts 2:1-11)

Despite Paul Zumthor’s thesis (1997), the miracle of Pentecost fails to restore the original linguistic unity. Rather, it offers a plausible explanation for multilingualism – for alterity as a growth factor of knowledge. We cannot explain otherwise the presence in the set of “charismas” – granted by the Spirit – of the gift of the varieties of languages and the gift of the interpretation of languages (Corinthians 12:3-7, 12-13), which appear to be salvific. In fact they widely disseminated the word and writings to leave them for posterity. Translators are Pentecostals. They continue to speak their own language while listening to that of others. They mediate and intercede.7 According to Edouard Glissant (1996), they invent a necessary language, which is neither their own nor that of others but one shared by the languages involved in the translatorial process.
The first part of our discussion focused on the origins (Fabbri) and the destinies of languages (Haarmann; Ostler). It raised many issues about strategies for the conservation of the forms of knowledge that language convey. In the second part – the topic was “Languages, communication and identities” – linguistic comparativism was applied to a number of ethnic minorities (Ramat), while another enquiry dealt with the languages requiring protection in order to understand how and with what tools governments have set about safeguarding them (Romaine). The last session entitled “Physics and metaphysics of languages” extended the issue of languages to other codes, fields of knowledge and expressive forms. There was a focus on scientific discourse, whose vocabulary and syntax still lack an appropriate critical interpretation (Lévi-Leblond); the rhythmic and graphic aspect of languages in relation to the poetic dimension was explored (Meddeb); and, lastly, the implications of the sensorial in words was considered (Serres).


Three thematic cores may be extracted from the narrative of Babel: immanence, techné and communication (Zumthor 1997). As far as communication is concerned, Clifford Geertz notes that the experience of understanding a culture is more like grasping the meaning of proverbs, unmasking illusions, understanding witty remarks or reading a poem rather than achieving some kind of communion.8 There is an eristical component in communicative practices which cannot be underestimated. Every interpretation is undermined by the fact that within or beyond persuading, informing is an illocutionary act (Austin 1962): it plays on the other’s emotions through strategies of seduction, provocation, intimidation, temptation …9 The “in-between” is based on the problem of the not-unique. And the repetition of cultural signs gives rise to a doubling up that will never be sublimated in a simile. Pliny (Naturalis Historia, XXXV) describes how Apelles was satisfied to have painted a thin line. But then his rival Protogenes made an even thinner line just underneath it. Apelles rose to the challenge and made such an infinitely thin line in between that nothing more could be added. Similarly, we have the problem of understanding how far we can whittle down the “in-between” without it vanishing altogether.
Thinking about self by starting from the other, Michel Foucault (1967) calls this mechanism /heterotopia/. Utopia is a world outside here, unrealized. Heterotopia, on the other hand, is a practice that offers a dialogue with the hetero, with another special quality of place as an element of comparison with our own. There is no epic form in Chinese culture. Unlike the Western tradition, which boasts poems such as The Iliad, The Odyssey and The Kalevala, Chinese literature begin with the lyric. Moreover, Chinese poets show little interest in metaphors. They find nothing scandalous about Achilles being a lion, whereas our philosophers, focused on the problem of Being, spend most of their time trying to explain how Paolo and Francesca are “quali colombe, dal disio chiamate” (“like doves summoned by desire”, Dante, Inferno, V, 82). In Chinese culture the supreme rhetorical figure is allusion. Also found in painting, the allusive “key” hints at being without positing it. This means that, except for historical periods such as the Maoist age, Chinese culture has never been highly realist. Heterotopia redefines, therefore, its own unthought by looking at how others think.
For the purposes of effectiveness, translation is perspectivized. There is a target-oriented path in which the interlocutor’s point of view is adopted so as to share the source values. If we visit the Mimar Sinan in Turkey, we realize how much Le Corbusier was inspired by his travels in the East. The source-oriented path, on the other hand, stresses resistances. It insists on the difficulties of integration with the other. Again in Turkey, the Topkapi is a encampment of tents. Some have been transformed into stone and brick constructions. This highlights the presence of nomads within the city of Istanbul, a world of tents within another world. Today similar very complicated situations are easily glossed over by resorting to the idea of the hybrid. Jurij M. Lotman (1985) would seem, on the contrary, to highlight their boundary as the “sum of the linguistic filters of translation”. Moreover, the boundary is “permeable” and continually traversed by catalyzations, repulsions and assimilations. The power of tradition can also be re-inscribed in the contingent and transitory conditions accompanying the lives of minorities. With the worldwide division of labor, colonial relations have been reproduced, together with narratives of exploitation and the evolution of resistance strategies. While the notion of hegemony implies a policy of identifying the imaginary, we can see how the other, the immigrant, for example, appropriates the image of the hegemon who is recreated in the act of representation.
Compared to the “fashion” for the hybrid, which attenuates differences, the category of boundary implies that cultures and languages are grasped in translation, at times with dramatic repercussions. According to Max Weber (1916), the Taiping Rebellion against the Manchu with its toll of 20 million dead was due to a bad translation of the Bible. Admired by Mao and the Red Guards, the Taiping took the Apocalypse as revealed to St John very seriously and saw the Manchu Dynasty as being like the Old Testament Babylon. The result was disastrous. It happened because cultures are beliefs, not opinions. One faith can hardly be translated by another.10 The French are irked at the idea that Muslims in France can also sacrifice lambs and leave their bloody remains around banlieue tenements. But their action is unchallengeable. It is a conviction. The same can be said of the Trinity. There is no way to agreeing if the persons in the godhead are two or three – it is a dogma.
The issue becomes even more critical when we consider that today, besides the development of new cultures marked by mixed idioms, pidgin languages and creolizations, we also produce new natures: crossbred animals, microbes and tissues as well as GMOs. We are surrounded by multiplicity. Gaia fanatics – worshippers of the cult of a single nature that breathes and lives as a single planet – protest against tests implanting animal organs in humans or replacing natural cells with artificial ones to prolong life. The planes of immanence, however, suggest relations between multiple natures and multiple cultures and not between a single nature and a single culture.11
The foregoing reveals that the “in-between” is dynamic and that what is at stake concerns cultures capable of self-renewal. Identity is not fixed, nor occasional but a “narrative” (Paul Ricœur). It changes over time.


But in spatial terms, is it possible to dwell in the “in-between”? Visitors to Istanbul take the boat from Anadolu to Avrupa and from Avrupa to Anadolu. The Bosporus is a miraculous journey between Anatolia and Europe, between West and East. At the heart of ancient Constantinople is an “in-between”. The Great Wall of China has a similar function. Its purpose is not to divide – it is a walkway. The bridge and the gate are splendid models of the same kind:12 configurations holding relations of meaning. The “in-between” can only be inhabited through operations translating the other. Here are some examples.
In the English translation of Sun Tzu’s The Art of War (6th century BC), the following problem arose. In Chinese, the opposite of the adjective /invincible/ is /vincible/. This term does not exist in English, Italian, Spanish or French. The English translators thus grudgingly coined the term /vincibility/. This kind of difference leads us to investigate further and understand more about cultures. French has two terms for hope: espoir, for more short-term objectives, and espérance, which means hope in the wider sense of the word. The concept is differentiated in French, while in Italian it remains univocal. Italian, on the other hand, has the word intempestivo, for something “untimely” and its opposite tempestivo, “timely”. The French also have the term intempestif, but tempestif is inconceivable. They thus forgo coining a specific word and resort, when necessary, to borrowing kairós from Greek. The most significant feature of dwelling in the “in-between” is the capacity to enhance both the source language and the target language by highlighting that something is lacking. Full equivalence is impossible and partial equivalence is imperfect. Precisely this imperfection becomes – thanks to ratio difficilis – a reserve of meaning.
The “in-between” is thus a place of experimentation. We must
check that a translation is good so that we can begin all over again with
each new emergence. This is also true of intersemiotic – and not only interlinguistic – translation. Rossini was once in Naples. In his day operas were performed by torchlight. This gave the objects a dynamism and vitality which was lost with the advent of electric light. On seeing Canova’s sculpture, Rossini is said to have exclaimed: “I would put it in music”. This kind of co-text clearly allowed the work to exemplify previously not pertinent properties.13
Meaning can never be assigned definitively precisely because we retranslate again and again. The evolution in translatability is concomitant with the general evolution of symbolic systems. Borrowing co-texts help us formulate new exemplifications of levels. The value judgment about modes of dialogues between cultures also changes. In the name of a renewed conception of pluralism, Bhabha (1994) accused highly acclaimed art exhibitions like Magiciens de la Terre (Centre Pompidou, Paris 1989) and The Primitivism Show (MoMA, New York 1984) of “spurious egalitarianism – different cultures in the same time”, in the first case, and “relativism– different cultural temporalities in the same universal space”, in the second.


Historically the ratio of translation also controverts the principle of a progressive linear evolution of styles. Japanese artists found it very hard to render Italian-style perspective. The final effect, in Utamaro for example, is an unsuccessful transition from foreground to background. But then the Impressionists proceeded to borrow from these mistakes in the Japanese translation when they came to modify spatial structure.
Recently a major exhibition at the Louvre, Babylone, Antiquités orientales et Peintures (2008), highlighted the cultural legacy of the “illstarred city” in ancient and modern civilizations. For centuries the incomplete construction site of Babel was at the heart of a world imagined by travelers, literati, architects, artists, playwrights and film directors. They either insisted with the negative connotation or, on the contrary, celebrated the creation of multilingualism. Athanasius Kircher’s erudite research (1679) fuelled the collective imaginary vision of the tower. An advocate of dialectics, Kircher provided his own key of interpretation: God was not punishing men, but by introducing the confusion of languages prevented them from perpetrating irreversible damage. The “immensurable” weight of the monument would have caused a cosmic catastrophe. This explanation based on the laws of engineering marks the lack of a dialogue with God in the enterprise of the tower. Man strives to free himself of heteronomy in vain.
Art projects in the 20th and 21st centuries have reinterpreted the myth of Babel and highlight the value of the “theoretical object”.14 Maurits Cornelis Escher (Babel, 1928) depicts the tower, viewed from the top, as a geometrical structure. The bird’s-eye perspective, but also the tight rhythm of the waves in the harbor and the straight lines of the tower underscore the impression of being at the climax of the narrative, at the edge of the precipice. Diana Al-Hadid’s installation The Tower of Infinite Problems (2008), made of steel, plaster, glass, wood, polystyrene, wax and paint, is an aspectualization of the subsequent stage – the collapse. Conceived as a gigantic honeycomb, the tower is already an archaeological item, the object of endless interpretations. For the first time we are afforded an interior view of the spiral figure, which brings to mind the vertigo of the demolition. In a collage of 1973 (The Library of Babel), Arrigo Lora-Totino “flattens” the positivity of many languages and alternatively arranges types that function according to different levels of interpretation, from left to right or top to bottom. He shows that a valued verse form like the calligram was created from crossing over ideographic writing with alphabetic writing. Cildo Meireles (Babel, 2001), on the other hand, focuses on the euphorics of the sound element by “re-constructing” the tower as an imposing structure of 800 radios tuned into multiple stations and adjusted to produce a buzzing effect. There is a temporal crescendo from the early 20th-century antique radios occupying the base of the tower through increasingly sophisticated technologies and devices up to an electronics bazaar at the top. But while the medium alludes to the diaspora of languages, the transmitter-object conveys the sense of belonging to a “current” of mythology and its renewal in the concomitance of past and present. Built with a multiplicity of voices, this Babel holds good. It is stable thanks to the translation by the artist who optimizes the rhythms of the signifier rather than the signified: “a whole carnal stereophony”, the articulation of the body which makes you feel the “grain of the throat” to use Barthes’s words (1973). Ahead of the 2012 London Olympics, a competition was held for a giant public sculpture to be placed in Olympic Park. The winning entry was Anish Kapoor’s Tower of Babel, a meshed tower 120 meters high that people will be able to climb up. The building will push up the city skyline to new heights. In this case, however, the responsibility for the height will lie entirely with the Indian architect. Visitors will simply be able to blithely enjoy the opportunity to try and reach for the sky. Lastly, we have an artist who more than anyone else has pursued art as the translation of information: Antoni Muntadas. He began work on projects in this direction in 1995, when he staged On Translation: The Pavilion (Helsinki, 1995), a simultaneous-translation play featuring an international summit meeting. Other significant variations were: On Translation: The Games (Atlanta, 1996), a study of the bargaining involving crests and national symbols at the Olympic Games;15On Translation: The Internet Project (Documenta X – Kassel, 1997), based on the developments of translating a statement into 23 different languages; and On Translation: The Bank (New York, 1998), which explores the problem of foreign currency in international finance. One work – On Translation: La mesa de Negotiaciòn II (1998-2005) – was of particular interest for the issues that arose during the Dialoghi di Babele. Exhibited with other installations in the Spanish Pavilion during the 51st Venice International Art Biennale (2005), this work consists of a round table containing statistics on developed and developing countries. Muntadas put together unusual facts and figures: the percentage of journalists killed, the level of press freedom, the number of publishers and the number of tycoons in the telecommunications business. The table rests on legs of varying lengths but is balanced by piles of books of different heights. In the Spanish artist’s universe, comparing cultures is his way of resemantizing political and social phenomena and of exploring the meaning of discourse.
Conserving linguistic difference – as we also learned in some of the more intense moments of the Dialoghi di Babele – goes hand-in-hand with the conservation of biodiversity. But conserving does not mean locking away. In theorizing an “ecology of relations”, Philippe Descola (2005) distinguishes between the positive asymmetry of the gift, characterized by its transmission in temporal terms, the symmetry of exchange, aimed at generic production, and the negative asymmetry of predation, associated with protecting in spatial terms. Languages have similar features to those that anthropologists attribute to the gift. They establish links in time, which can be binding. They are transitive and hostile to their own protection when this means being tamed. Nomadic by divine decree, they cannot be kept in captivity.


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  1. Cf. GAGLIARDI, LATOUR and MEMELSDORFF (eds) 2010. torna al rimando a questa nota
  2. See the analysis of Borges’ story Pierre Ménard autore del Quixote in GENETTE 1994. On research into translation, see JAKOBSON 1959, 1973; LOTMAN 1993; DUSI and NEERGARD 2000; Parola/ Immagine 2007. torna al rimando a questa nota
  3. BARTHES 1964, Italian trans., p. 341. torna al rimando a questa nota
  4. See Marcyliena M. Morgan’s entry “Community”, in DURANTI (ed.) 2001. torna al rimando a questa nota
  5. Cf. FABBRI 2000b. torna al rimando a questa nota
  6. In one of the initial exchanges in the debate Harald Haarmann and Nicholas Ostler mentioned Jenkins (2003) as a reminder that there are very many varieties of English far removed from British standards in the world. A lingua franca is an ideal. torna al rimando a questa nota
  7. Intercessors do not intercede with another or others but with themselves and with what they have invented. Intercession benefits whoever assumes the non-sense of reality as the initial driving force of his or her own theoretical and practical maneuverings: and in a certain sense the intercessor represents the last “saint” that one can worship. Cf. DELEUZE 1962. torna al rimando a questa nota
  8. GEERTZ 1983, Italian trans., p. 90. torna al rimando a questa nota
  9. Cf. MIGLIORE (ed.) 2008. See also Marco Jacquemet’s entry, “Conflict”, in DURANTI (ed.) 2001. torna al rimando a questa nota
  10. Cf. FABBRI 1995. torna al rimando a questa nota
  11. Cf. LATOUR 1999. torna al rimando a questa nota
  12. Cf. SIMMEL 1909. torna al rimando a questa nota
  13. Cf. GOODMAN 1968; 2010. torna al rimando a questa nota
  14. The phrase “theoretical object” comes from Hubert Damisch’s attempt (1981) to provide a more accurate definition of the meaning of iconographic motifs in the history of art. Damisch suggests that a motif endures in time because it is rich in theoretical implications rather than because of a superficial historical succession. In the case that he considered, each culture develops a specific manner of representing the cloud with elaborate internal epistemological relations. About the Tower of Babel as a theoretical object – representation of a monumentum as punishment – see Calabrese 1985. torna al rimando a questa nota
  15. Sporting events involving contests between the top athletes or the best teams in the world also provide a remarkable opportunity to assess and fine tune cultural translations. torna al rimando a questa nota
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