“Speech and Action/Hegemony and Resistance/Babel and Babble: Genesis 11 as Subaltern Language Ideology against Empire”
Like many narratives in the Book of Genesis, the story of the Tower of Babel is an etiology, but of what? Does it rationalize human linguistic and cultural diversity? Is it an indictment of the hubris and pretension of humankind? Does it, as Jacques Derrida famously suggested, provide us with a sign of the impossibility of adequate passage between languages? What is the subject position from which the text speaks? Recognizing this instability, scholars have begun, recently, to advance a post-colonial reading of Gen 11, one which recognizes that Bavel is not merely a mythic place whose name resonates productively with the Hebrew word bālal (“to mix/confound”), but an actual imperial state whose historical dominion spanned from the Sinai peninsula to the Persian Gulf, and from southern Anatolia to the Arabian desert.
These political readings of the text very often present it as an allegory for world-empire and embed the narrative of the collapse of the “tower with its top in the heavens” in the ressentiment of the colonized. As the text receives a firmer grounding in the history and politics of the Levantine Iron Age, however, its thematic subtlety and internal structuration is very often eroded.
For the SORAAAD 2019 workshop on translation I propose to approach this text not simply as an indictment of empire or an assertion of divine sovereignty over temporal authority. Rather, I suggest we must read it as indigenous, critical theoretical discourse. Its critique of empire is not simply negative evaluation of cosmopolitan Imperial world-systems or a compensatory indulgence in visions of downfall. The narrative of Gen 11 makes a positive claim about the political value of illegibility and untranslatability. Even as it describes the collapse of a primordial Ursprache, it enacts, at the verbal level, a coherent theory of linguistic agency.
Tracking the deployment of etymologically related nouns and verbs, I demonstrate how the text is playing, actively and critically, with the relationship between language performance and agency. The text demonstrates and then subverts the idea of an inherent, self-sustaining illocutionary mode, and discloses the role of consensus at work in communication. From this perspective, “untranslatability” becomes a strategy of cultural resistance, and the Tower itself a potent critique of totalizing positions.
- Hiebert, Theodore. “The Tower of Babel and the Origin of the World’s Cultures,” Journal of Biblical Literature 126 (2007): 29-58.
- Derrida, Jacques, “Des Tours de Babel,” In Difference in Translation. Joseph F. Graham, trans. (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1985): 165-207.
- Scott, James C. “Cities, People, and Language” In Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998): 53-84.
- van Wolde, Ellen. “The Tower of Babel as Lookout of Genesis 1-11,” In Words Become Worlds: Semantic Studies of Genesis 1-11. (Leiden: Brill, 1994): 84-109.