Babel and Babylon

Context N°11

by Lindsay Waters

“But when the tower fell, and the tongues of men were diversified by various sounds, the whole earth of humans was filled with fragmenting kingdoms.”
Sibylline Oracles 3:105-107

I have a confession to make. I had a major hand in the profusion of seemingly incomprehensible theory books, and I regret my part in erecting the Tower of Babel. I argue that to accept the babel of multiple and incommensurable publics is to surrender to the Babylon of an alienating governance such as the Jews fell under during their Babylonian captivity. The political activism that we rightly associate with the time period that runs from the 1930s to the 1960s was connected to the idea of the “integration” of peoples, but “integration” is a word that has all but disappeared from the vocabulary of political activism in our day.

In this time, an age of incommensurability,1 when the bond of my ethnic belonging is supposed to be the limit of my world, there really is no public to fracture into multiplicity. The ship’s been splint to splinters; it’s sinking fast. There is no public, no society, no res publica. Almost all the public hospitals that were in every town in the U.S. have been shut down and replaced by corporate health operations, and British Rail does not belong to the public but to businessmen who put the public at risk to earn their lucre.

Society as we knew it is gone, so I believe we have to be on guard against the idea of the proliferation of pseudo-publics. These are diminished publics, hardly public at all, that some thinkers have argued must be spoken about in a language of nearly inarticulate hybridity characterized by ambivalence and equivocation, the language (precisely) of Babel. In the discourse of Babel, binary oppositions proliferate to the point where no one can tell up from down, because even the most basic means of orienting one’s self in the world—like the distinction between my right hand and my left—has been deconstructed as a distinction that makes no difference. When the wicked messenger from Babel comes he shows us how a mind works that multiplies the smallest matters. The game he plays is always 52-pickup. This is why the promoters of Babylon usually love this strain of postmodernism to be as its house philosophy, because incommensurability suits neoliberalism’s notion that privatization should rule over the attempt to define any thing as a public good.2

I believe the questions some of us who have made our home in the academy and related institutions of learning and cultivation of the arts ought to find imperative now are: How do we write differently? How do we think differently? How do we feel differently? We have been over the last twenty years of growing prosperity within the United States too satisfied with refining and polishing up a superior attitude in ourselves rather than reaching a public and rather than hearing what the public had to say to us or would have said to us if we gave them half a chance, such as: What do you make of this attack on the humanities profs by Allan Bloom? What do you make of this sidestepping of literary theory by Camille Paglia? What do you have to say about Waco? Oklahoma City? Abortion? Pornography? The phasing out of full-time faculty in the humanities and the use of adjuncts in their place? The hole in the ozone layer? Eating meat? None of these are simple questions. I can see why the learned evaded trying to think about them out loud in public or at all and instead wondered how to get on board the gravy train that was carrying a few academic superstars to higher and higher elevations of salary. This was the moment when Lingua Franca flourished, the moment of envy and resentment, the moment when a few kept hopping jobs in pursuit of greater and greater emolument all carefully recorded in the charts at the back of each issue of Lingua Franca.

Over the last twenty years under the guise of developing highly professionalized standards of performance, many of us in the humanities and related social sciences have accepted and endorsed a circumscribed humanities. Perhaps we did it because we thought it was the only way to survive in a university where TT (technology transfer) was what intellectual exchange had been reduced to? Never heard of TT? Well, get used to it.3 It is now “the knowledge most worth having.” Look at the new Norton Anthology of Literary and Cultural Theory. It has been lovingly assembled and edited by a superb team of people, and in it a subject people—I mean you and me—could learn many of the key ideas of literary theory so that they could write responsible, professional essays for the PMLA and Critical Inquiry, but why did my heart sink when I saw the book—a vast, pitiless, mausoleum of a book, a veritable Forest Lawn for all literary theory? It seems to say to me no one gets out of this place alive, neither contributor nor reader. As someone who published many of the authors whose material went into the book, once upon a time, long ago, in day-glo wrappers in the Minnesota THL series, I ask myself: Is this all there is? Is this what the work of a whole polyphony of publishers was all about, to make this monument? Many of the essays that make up this book were supposed to set the world on fire, and some of them did.

So I say let us bury the lifeless bodies and start anew! Better yet, let the dead bury the dead! We have at our disposal all the tools of rhetoric and persuasion. How do we begin anew to build the public? I hope it’s clear, but I fear it’s not, that encouraging critical writing was meant to reignite criticism as a public activity, not credentialize a few priests and nuns who get by on ungodly salaries that mimic those of the corporate elite. We should not forget to think about the status of the humanities in the university. The liberal arts have been part of the university since Day One, as it were, back in Bologna and Paris; but more recently, since the nineteenth century, they have been allowed to play an enhanced role on the condition that professionalism prevail in their pursuit, a professionalism that would warrant that teaching the humanities would set off no fires in the minds of their students. The job of the humanists in the nineteenth century was to find the Noah’s Ark and stake out the borders of the Holy Land for each and every Western nation in line with the most advanced methods of scientific philology. The humanists had a civic duty to perform; otherwise they tried to conform to the very model of a modern major scientist.

The arts themselves? Well, beyond making the case for the existence of a defined people, it was best to control them. The arts are like the smallpox virus, nearly uncontrollable. And in those days, our forefathers promised we’d put the subversive element in the arts into a Pandora’s box where they’d be available to inflame future generations. We’d make sure they never touched this generation of students.

But take a look around you, people, we are being refined out of existence. Phased out. In the era of neoliberalism, in Babylon, when money is king, nobody wants the arts or people who say they are devoted to the arts. So the idea is this now: Even the teaching of the arts needs to be privatized. Buy it on the open market at Hollywood Express and do it at home, but do not expect the state to support arts education. Isn’t it ironic? Back when everybody in the arts community was wailing that the state had stopped supporting arts production, the state surreptiously took advantage of the publicly waged Culture Wars to cut back on arts education at the tertiary level in a massive way. Arts education was central to education in citizenship in the United States since before the U.S. was formed. Learning to read your letters on a slate was learning to evoke yourself as an individual from the tabula rasa of inherited biology from the seventeenth until the early twentieth century.

The arts have now been utterly privatized, and no longer can be understood or practiced as a way of restructuring social relations, which is for me what the arts do. Unless the artifact leads to the restructuring of social relations, it isn’t art no matter what your betters tell you. We who are in the humanities, we who talk about how lovely it might be to think we now have “multiple publics” rather than any public thing or res, we ought to think about the ways that with a lot of our talk we have played into the hands of those who really want to deconstruct the arts. That’s deconstruct as in demolish.

Consider all the happy talk about the “death of the subject.” With every passing day it becomes clearer to those of us who hang out in these dusty hallways that our job as humanists is the production of subjectivity.4 Can this dust be made to take form and dance? Subjectivity is what James Brown calls “soul power.” With the elimination of the subject the experience the subject might undergo goes under erasure. That is to say, it becomes extinct. There is something profoundly ecological about these developments, because as subject and experience melt away, so does “culture.”

At this dark moment, in fact precisely at this hour of darkness, it makes sense to talk about seizing back the polity from the accountants and their corrupt clients. It is a time to reorient the humanities around a very specific—if exceedingly idealistic—task, reclaiming the U.S. for the ideals of Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King, Jr. Why the polity? Because, as Masao Miyoshi writes, what Miyoshi calls the state and I call the polity “is the only political structure now that could protect people from ungovernable and unmediated violence.”5 This is the moment of the “stochastic shock” like the Oil Crisis of 1973-74, when globalism has reached a crisis because some want to keep it going with no pause for reflection and others want to bring it to a halt. Because of the event that brought this phase of history to a dramatic pause, we may never be able to sort out whether the reason the train stopped was because it jumped the tracks, because it was going too fast, or because it was derailed by saboteurs. In any case the pause will allow many people to consider, when they try to get normal life up and running again, the question of what the limits of growth really are.

To many of us it has long seemed that there are limits to growth. To speak of the realm that we in the academy might be able to speak about most knowledgeably, the academy itself, we will have to come to realize that the idea of the university as set forth by John Henry Cardinal Newman has sustained huge damage over the last fifty years as it has been too rapidly absorbed into the economy and restructured along the lines of the U.S. corporation.6 What was a soul train has been turned, indeed, into the gravy train for a few and the salt mines for many.

How many great movies do moderately talented actors and actresses make after they have a big box-office success and they start acting like stars? Usually, none. The same question must be asked about the “stars” of the academic world. Is the university conducive to the life of the mind? The university has never been a good place for the maverick thinker like Charles Sanders Peirce, Walter Benjamin, or Kenneth Burke. Hannah Arendt worked well with universities by keeping her distance from them. Some great figures from the university of the mid- and late-twentieth century were given their positions by deans and administrators with a knack for seeding the academy with brilliant minds. R. P. Blackmur, who had no college degree nor even a high school degree, was given his post at Princeton by a foresightful administrator on the Board of Trustees who foisted him on the school, and the results were fabulous. I have heard from Dan Bell himself that the great sociologists Daniel Bell and Nathan Glazer were granted Ph.D.’s at Columbia by Jacques Barzun on the basis of their previously published work, and not dissertations, because he knew the academic world would need such free-thinkers, but they’d never get Ph.D.’s if the usual ability to connect the dots criteria were employed.

Let us stop kidding ourselves: Corporatism has triumphed, and it has triumphed precisely under the cover of fog caused by the overuse of words like “subversion” and “oppositionality.” The administrators have to be happy now, because they know all the brave talk is nothing but verbiage that makes the co-opted forget about their compromises. The corporatist university “knows that the university harbors hardly any subversives now,” to quote Miyoshi’s straight talk once again.7 Corporations want peace and prefer it to real intellectual development. Can you blame them? You cannot, but we can blame ourselves for accepting this situation. Becoming too comfortable in the university is part of the problem. The star system encourages complacency. Biblical scholarship points out that the Babylonian Captivity of the Jews was decisive for them because they came to define themselves as exiles and not the lords of the manse. They came to distrust any club that wanted to make them members and embraced perpetual exile. They refused to identify with the system. The perks, such as they are, are getting in the way of our work.

There is deep uncertainty now inside universities about goals for the university as pertains to the humanities. Whatever goals we might have as humanists need to be articulated as clearly and as forcefully as we can make them now. We can stop crowing about the supposed virtue of ambivalence as a style of radical will. We need to reach a public and help constitute that public that stands apart from the state yet is profoundly interested in its every move. We have been too decadent as all the changes that have transpired over the last twenty-five years have taken place. Maybe we didn’t want to get our hands burned. Maybe we didn’t want to get our hands dirty. But getting caught up in the blame game now would be just another way of continuing with our bad old ways. A vast army of right-wing thinkers is eager to encourage those who are not conservatives to engage in bloodletting. They’ll enjoy our making fools and worse of ourselves. “See, just what we predicted.” Avoid that like the plague.

However, we do need to reexamine some of the ideas we have been developing over the last several decades. I will give several examples:

1. The death of the subject. This has been a key idea of the postmodernists who pick it up from Michel Foucault. Some leftwing postmodernists do not seem to realize that Foucault renounced this idea long before he died. He did an about-face and began to develop a whole set of ideas that go under the name of the “care of the self.” Anyone who still promotes the death of the subject now is allying him or herself with the conservative ideology of Reaganism and Thatcherism. Thomas Hobbes laid out the philosophy of Reaganism centuries ago, and it boils down to this: You do not need to have an ego as long as the sovereign ruler convinces you he does and will let you share in his in a spell-binding spectacle of power. Reaganism is the postmodernism of the Right, celebrating the death of the subject and entertaining the citizenry with a series of small-scale wars that you can sleep out because they are all under control. All you need to worry about is finding the remote.

2. The incommensurability of peoples. This, too, has been one of the key ideas of some postmodernists, who have argued that only those inside a community can dare say a word of criticism about the practices within another community. The Ilingot of the Philippines are headhunters, and that is OK because if you could get inside their culture you would be able to see how killing others and making trophies of their skulls allowed them to let off steam in ways that are productive inside their culture. We should be similarly sympathetic when we hear about the tribal code of honor that calls for Pashtun men to kill any relative who sullies the family name. Cultures are incommensurable absolutely.8

3. The society of the spectacle. Following up on the work of Guy Debord and Raoul Vaneigem, many postmodernists have sought to understand how symbols work to enforce unity within a population, but cultural studies is an incomplete project and the most the general run of cultural studies analysis has done is to provide further tools to enable practices the professors of cultural studies pretend to subvert. The businessmen are usually way ahead of the profs, as Thomas Frank argues in The Conquest of Cool and Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello lay out in detail in their Le nouvel esprit du capitalisme (Gallimard, 1999).

Some of us have thought we were tearing down the Bastille; maybe we have been helping forge manacles.

I suggest one general principle for future work: Each and every field is too important to be left as the exclusive preserve of the people in it. Gain your professional skills the hard way, but seek ways to fly your teachers never taught you. Find your place of maturity and, if I can coin a word, amateurity. Against the triumph of professionalism that now terrifies young job seekers in literature to go to interviews dressed as if for a position at a Wall Street firm, we need now a rampant amateurism. We have all had the experience of seeing the word “interdisciplinary” bandied about in college catalogs and university statements of purpose: I ask you wherever you see that word to push and see if you are not touching the mush of soft rot. Of course, the best researchers are flagrant scofflaws about disciplinary boundaries, but most of the rest of us scoff them at our peril.

My realm of amateurity is Asia. Ever since the incidents at Tian An Men in 1989, I have been drawn to Asia and China, as if to counter my own Europhilia. This is a great moment for freer developments of ties between China and the U.S., for example, because, while neither government is interested in fostering ties among the humanists from both countries, they also are not dictating how contact happens. Yet. I have found the opportunities for working together with colleagues in China to be boundless so far, and the eagerness of the Chinese colleagues is sincere and deep.

Where do the problems lie? I suggest they lie in us. The middle-aged profs are the Old Guard we heard about when we were young. What caught us off guard was that we thought the old, obstructive group would be aged from 55 to 65, but it turns out they are aged from 45 to 55. A hundred years ago the academy went through the same changes happening now in which a generation that thought of itself as revolutionary became upholders of the status quo. The Gilded Age had its Genteel academics, and so does our Gilded Age. Anthony Grafton gets the sad situation just right, alas, as he addresses you and me: “Well, my masters, we have now progressed so far in our enlightenment that we have gone back to the future. It’s 1898 again. We—the proud public intellectuals, the brave subverters of ‘late capitalism’—maintain the genteel culture of our fin de siecle.” But, warns Grafton, the kids of the 1890s did not buy the Genteel at their own self-estimate, and neither are the kids of the 1990s and the Zeroes. They don’t “want to take part in our endless debates about who may say what about whom, our rehearsals of meta-theory.”9

The idea of multiple publics blurs—or, worse, dodges—the issue of what we ought to be doing in the academy, the issue being to my mind how we ought to try to think about the public as a unifiable but not now unified field. Ambivalence and equivocation rule the clouded minds of the “transnational corporation” intellectuals of the present.10 But I have a preliminary problem. We have been talking in the academic world for the last fifteen years about “public intellectuals” and “intellectuals,” but I frankly doubt whether there are very many public intellectuals. About ten years ago several mainstream journals were squawking out the news that they had just discovered that the U.S. now had some black public intellectuals. The truth of the matter is that they’d really have been something to write home about if they could prove the existence of some white public intellectuals. What it means to be a public intellectual was established in the U.S. in modern times by W. E. B. DuBois. There have been few white public intellectuals since his time and a goodly number of black ones, so the qualifier “black” is not necessary when you use the phrase “public intellectual.”

Are you an intellectual? You may be an academic, but are you an intellectual? I think a lot of academics assume that being an academic and an egg-head automatically entitles one to the name intellectual. To try to think through this problem with you, I have devised a few simple questions for you to ask yourself in the privacy of your own study to help you think about whether you are an intellectual. I did not craft the list in any systematic way, as you will see, but I think these are worthy questions:

1. Have you ever been outside the U.S. to a non-European country to the extent of really getting your feet on the ground? The elite in the U.S., the academics and the rich, tend to spread their wings only in Europe, and the paths over there for the American elite are all pretty well marked.

2. Do you read outside the box? Do you read outside your field in some areas where you spend enough time to really understand how the natives think so that when you appropriate a cool quote you understand why the people in that field might understand that it signifies something very different to people outside the field? Another way of putting it, when you seek to add some local color from another field to your writing is your way of doing so smash and grab or do you develop a certain expertise in the other field?

3. Have you ever helped build an alternative form of communication by setting up a website, starting a journal?

4. Have you written essays or books that could lead you to be accused of being a dilettante? Unless you have taken the risk of saying things that might be perceived as impertinent you probably really are not an intellectual. (As I said, these questions were not devised in a systematic way; they contradict one another.)

5. Do you consider science and technology to be the opposite of whatever it is you pursue most fervently? Because, if you do, you might be an intellectual elsewhere, but you cannot be one in the United States. In the U.S. the pursuit of science and technology go hand in hand with all the arts and all intellectual pursuits.

6. Do you think you are, for better or for worse, implicated in the same set of structures of feeling that your fellow citizens—of whatever unity of governance you vote in—are caught up in? And do you wrestle with those structures like Jacob wrestling with his angel? If you do not, you are probably not a public intellectual.

Those who seek to be active intellectuals in the academic worlds have their work cut out for them now: We have to raise the stakes and “change the language,” as Carrie Brownstein of the rock group Sleater-Kinney says. We must use our tools, the words and the media, and respect our machinery. When the members of the group Sleater-Kinney first saw some of the riot grrl bands play in Olympia, Washington, in 1991, they were immediately energized. Why? Because in the effort of the group Bikini Kill they saw for the first time “feminism translated into an emotional language.” We have now over the last twenty-five years a vast body of professional feminist discourse, but very little of it—alas, like almost all professional literary theory—ever gets translated into emotional language. A humanism that is worth its salt would speak in a way that is persuasive to humankind. Bikini Kill and Sleater-Kinney dare reach the public because they dare form a public. In his commentary on a performance by Sleater-Kinney in Dolores Park in the Mission District in San Francisco in June 2000, Greil Marcus wrote in the New York Times—a paper from which he had been fired as a columnist—that their performance showed that “you too can stand up and speak in the town square, even if you have to create the town square yourself.”

The riot grrl movement has been “a kind of public secret society,” but with the emphasis on “public.” It was a kind of music that did not get airplay because it would have made everything else around it on a radio show seem “cowardly.”11 Despite all the talk about “subversive intent” among the academics, the university has for the most part not fostered any such thing because it would make everything else around it look pedestrian and cowardly intellectually. What I observe is that the university powerfully self-censors to allow for the triumph of the Genteel. I have found that if I, as an editor at a university press, publish authors with strange and new ideas, I have to help their books reach an audience beyond the university first, because only if a book is so successful beyond the university that it can no longer be ignored by the academics—because people keep asking them what their views are about it—will they read it. I have seen this pattern over and over again with the writings of Catherine A. MacKinnon, Richard Rorty, Patricia Williams, Greil Marcus, Walter Benjamin, Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Adam Phillips, and more.

It was ever thus. Nietzsche says that educating the educators is the toughest task. Their minds are closed like steel traps, because they think they are already in the know. Jonathan Lear has written well about the twin sources of the mysterious yet powerful resistance to new ideas—knowingness and then the resentment against anyone who would rise above the norm. I close with a line I have taken from rock historian Stanley Booth and turned to my own purpose: In the Sixties we believed in a myth—that ideas and arts had the power to change people’s lives. Today we also believe in a myth—that arts and ideas are just entertainment.12 We need to wake up from our long, self-induced torpor.


1 See my “Age of Incommensurability,” boundary 2, vol. 28 (2001), pp. 133-72.

2 In China the favorite philosophy of those promoting unchecked economic development is postmodernism. See the writings of Wang Hui.

3 Corynne McSherry, “A Prehistory of Technology Transfer,” in her Who Owns Academic Property? (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press, 2001), pp. 146-54.

4 See Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Empire (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press, 2000), pp. 195-97; Felix Guattari, Chaosmosis (Bloomington, IN: Indiana Univ. Press.)

5 Masao Miyoshi, “Sites of Resistance in the Global Economy,” in Keith Ansell-Pearson, Benita Parry, and Judith Squires, eds., Cultural Readings of Imperialism: Edward Said and the Gravity of History (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1997), pp. 55.

6 See Readings, Miyoshi, McSherry.

7 Miyoshi, pp. 59.

8 On the Pashtun code of honor, see Anne Barnard and Yvonne Abraham, “Pashtuns key to Afghan future,” Boston Globe, 25 November 2001, pp. A1 and A27. I have tried to analyze the insidious effect of the idea of incommensurability in my “Age of Incommensurability.”

9 Anthony Grafton, “Error Messages,” boundary 2, vol. 28, no. 3 (2001), pp. 203-4.

10 “Binarism is out, blurriness is in. Today’s ‘anti-Orientalists’ are deeply imbued with Orientalist arrogance and exclusivism. Worse, the ex-colonials want to remain both inside and outside; thus they insist on the privilege of ‘hybridity’ as their birthright. And they join the postmodernists for whom the ‘multiple subjectships’ are the official agent of the new socialist strategy. Ambivalence and equivocation—contradiction and evasion, really—rule the TNC intellectuals.” Miyoshi, pp. 62.

11 Greil Marcus, “Raising the Stakes in Punk Rock,” New York Times, 18 June 2000, Arts & Leisure section, pages 1 and 29.

12 We now have “intello-tainment” the way we had “info-tainment” a few years ago. I cite as prime examples an issue of New York Times Sunday Magazine devoted to “The Year in Ideas” and promising its readers “An Encyclopedia of Innovations, Conceptual Leaps, Harebrained Schemes, Cultural Tremors & Hindsight Reckonings that made a difference in 2001.” New York Times, 9 December 2001, section 6. This is a pronounced trend, a fad, like hula hoops. See Time Magazine for 17 December 2001, and its section entitled “[Thinkers] Innovators: Time 100: The Next Wave, What’s the Big Idea?” on pp. 62-69.

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