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Los Toquis, or Urban Babel

Nataša Durovicová

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1. Efter muren: konst och kultur i det postkommunistiska Europa Moderna +Museet, Stockholm: 16 Oktober 1999-16 Januari 2000.






2. Reminiscent of Heidegger's infernal ‘Geräde’ or chatter, a term now ubiquitous on the web regardless of language environment (it is thus now even possible to ‘chat’ in French, may the devil take all French cats).

3. Franz Kafka, ‘The Great Wall and the Tower of Babel’ (1917), in which Kafka, in the guise of a polemic with an imaginary historical tract advancing the merits of the Chinese Wall over the Tower of Babel, speculates over language’s work of building versus that of separating. See Wolf Kittler, Der Turmbau zu Babel und das Schweigen der Sirenen: Über das Reden, das Schweigen, die Stimme und die Schrift in vier Texten von Franz Kafka (Erlangen: Palm & Enke, 1985).




I. 1. The Babbling Wall

About two years ago the new Stockholm modern art museum opened an exhibition called After the Wall – Art from the Post-communist Europe. (1) The entrance to the show was past a large installation entitled, appropriately, ‘The Wall’. The object which that title referred to was about ten feet high and maybe twenty wide, a structure consisting of sixty-four brick-shaped video screens. One each of these was a mouth in close-up, clearly belonging to some person somewhere – old, young, female, male, with or without a moustache or lipstick, a variety of dental work. And each was mouth was speaking. The sound of the wall was like a hum of a beehive, but a voice was occasionally more amplified so a that a few words or phrases could be heard more clearly, in a language one may or may not have been able to understand. In any case, figuring out which mouth was the source of the words is something no European dubbed-movie watcher could resist at least attempting. But to succeed would have been a Sisyphean task. In a revelatory duck/rabbit effect, the artist had converted a wall, the ultimate architectural form of totalitarian silence, traditionally executed in the inert matter of bricks, into its democratic ‘anti-form’, a mundane paraphrase of the pathos-laden Wailing Wall, a sound barrier made of the thick word aggregate of babble. (2) Where the Wall was now Babel reigns, to paraphrases Freud and, more directly, Kafka. (3) The idea of architecture parlante, of expressive architectural form, has here been taken from its metaphoric to a literal manifestation: a dwelling in language.

The question we are asked to ask by the installation is whether this infinite and freewheeling babble of words is nonetheless itself also a kind of a barrier? Or is it rather some more benign – if disorienting – acoustic mirror which, releasing the eye from the ear, displaces the viewer through its reflection into a global echo chamber of the chaotic world of post-totality, the post-totalitarian world?

I. 2. The ‘Babel Effect’ and the Babel Myth.

Danica Dakic's brilliant symbolic form/ulation of this whispering wall is so attractive because alongside its searing political up-to-datedness her artwork nonetheless also resonates with an ancient artistic tradition, that of representing the ‘Babel Effect’, a trope that at its most general evokes some formal rendition of extreme linguistic heterogeneity.


    An effect inherent in a polyphony of languages, it is a constitutive yet ephemeral aspect of the ‘urban global’. It is meant to draw attention to a contradictory scene, to the ephemeral moment made manifest in the metropolitan clash of languages. If normalised into and contained by translation in some form, such as scene may offer an elating sense of total communication; but the friction of alien words nonetheless also bears witness to the profound, even quasi-biological difference covered up by the seductive form of totality, of the global’.  


4. A literal example would be the work of Saskia Sassen, with its recurrent attention to the unique spatiality of the fiber-optic-wired skyscraper, whose disconnectedness from the urban center/downtown in which it is located is in direct proportion to its connectedness to the global economy. See for instance her The Global City (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1991).

  Now, any and all accounts of globalisation must by definition consider the essential component of media in that process. Yet they tend to do so from the front end, as it were, that is, from the perspective of media production, outlining the world’s interconnectedness by attending to the wiring end, as it were. (4) The Babel Effect, in the meanwhile, is meant to give a name to the reception end of globalisation. For the Slovenian artist's conceptual piece dramatises the inherent (I want to say constitutive) paradox of communication, a paradox which the term ‘global’ veils by its apparent self-evidence. In pushing to transcend spatial barriers through technological means, Dakic’s work has us instead encounter them as borders of identity inside its recipients. It might well be that we now are able to communicate with as many people as possible, but the story of Babel is another way of also asking ‘do we want to?’  



Like all myths, that of Babel is reversible, a coin with two sides, a story both of the aspiration for a universal language and of the fatal curse of such aspiration. One slant of the story draws attention to the strong, ‘official’ aspects of globalisation – the hubristic dream of the sky-scraping tower, the fantasy/promise/hope of universal and infinite translation, in other words of total communication (with God). To say that a global city can be characterised as a kind of Babel requires only that we mobilise a set of tropes common to both these built forms: a new world order, an urban project, pathways of extreme – even sublime – complexity, a nexus of communication technologies informing the built environment, the Promethean dimension of utopian projects.

But the other slant of the Babel myth is also its name of the original lapsus, of a fall which, in the Old Testament, stands for the loss of the pan-communicative Hebrew, a name for chaos. In the New Testament’s redemptive scheme of things this chaos is then ‘cured’ when the divine spirit leads his chosen people toward the general ecstasy of communication – the Pentecost. The history of the Christian Church as both a real and a symbolic in-dwelling with the Divine can also be formulated as the (social, architectural) history of a sacred and phenomenally charged space, an environment at once built and experienced. The radically heightened optical, visual, acoustic and olfactory environment of the cathedral is designed not only to complement but ultimately to supersede any communication that is rational. In the Bible the best-case outcome of such pan-communication was, of course, the Rapture, in which sheer time cancels any and all architectural enclosure altogether, and the Pentecost takes place ‘live,’ as it were – a state beyond semiosis, of (with Jean Baudrillard) an ecstasy of communication, in which the division caused by languages is divinely healed by the reign of non-arbitrary sign systems or, as we would say today, by a reality that is hyper-real. For the early Protestant hard-liners among the European immigrants into the New World, glossolalia (trance speech in unknown tongues) was the fastest, cheapest and safest procedure for erecting a temporary City on the Hill, well before enough lumber could be milled.

The Babel Effect thus similarly resonates of both the fear and the excitement of linguistic difference; it refers to a linguistic delirium, to a myth which mobilises the aesthetic, the sensory, the subjective – indeed the overwhelming – aspect of the global as it is experienced by a single human being, moving precisely through a ‘global city’. This dimension means to remind us of childish, even infantile fears of loss of language, of inability to make sense, of babble. The experience I am looking to highlight here is the acoustic equivalent of the surrealists' urban dérive, say the peculiar combination of pleasure and anxiety of being immersed in the maelstrom of languages at Heathrow, or of languages and signs at the Tokyo or at the Tel Aviv airport with their alien alphabets ... That is, an experience when one thinks actively both the possibility and the shortcomings of translation the gap, and when thus language as a tool of minimal data transmission is glimpsed in counterdistinction to its world-making function. In either mode, however, the myth of Babel asserts that language’s spatial dimension is both technical and experiential, and that dwelling in (a) language is tantamount to inhabiting a kind of space that is at once internal and external. In the myth of Babel words and buildings are given a responsibility for each other

II. Babel Across Representational Forms

II. 1. Page, Frame, Chord

Now, in this phenomenal sense, the condition of polylinguality is itself kind of tacit proof of any given language's failure, or at least of its fundamental representational limits. It may be able to describe the scene of polylinguality, but only at the expense of its own comprehensibility. For this reason the myth of Babel has persisted in, lived off of its affiliation with and support by, other forms of representation. Indeed it is, as I will want to show, inherently intermedial, inviting us always to ponder the clashing spatialities which it evokes.



5. For an exhaustive history of the historical development of the trope of linguistic diversity, see Arno Borst, Der Turmbau von Babel: die Geschichte der Meinung über Ursprung und Vielfalt der Sprachen und Völker (Stuttgart: A. Hiersemann, 1957-63).

  Most fundamentally, and through the Middle Ages exclusively, this perennial threat of dispersed, failed communication must be overcome by a religious adherence to a perfect language, to a non-vernacular lingua franca, i.e. to the artificial meta-language of Latin, which is the exclusive tool – indeed home – of the Global Church itself. (5) But with the Reformation after mid-16th century legitimising the spoken vernaculars in their full arbitrariness and variety, over and against the unifying force of Latin, it was the iconic medium of painting that became a necessary or at least a particularly suitable strategy and representational supplement for rendering the scene of polylinguality in the reformed North-European countries. Heteroglossia’s disunifying force was now contained formally, by a frame. Or inversely, painting seized the translator's privilege of ubiquity and mobility. Hence the sudden proliferation of the Babel motif in the North-European painting.  



Its best-known and most enduring instance is the now so familiar ‘decapitated’ conic shape, its corkscrewed ramp the upward torque of the Tower, was painted in 1563 in several variants by Breughel the Elder, and the same general schema both in design and prospect was then followed by his numerous Flemish apprentices and followers, among them Van Cleve, Grimmel, Valckenborch, Balten and Merian. This new mini-genre offers a stark contrast to the earlier Romanesque mosaics, but especially the medieval illuminations, in which the Tower is usually a modest, ladder-like affair, no more than twice the size of the people depicted around it, inscribed into the majuscule’s tight frame, which itself is held within the force-field of the Latin text. The Breughel school’s ominous, teeming, volcanic antique – Renaissance tower evokes in part a city-sized construction site of a medieval cathedral, in part some hyper-urban accommodation, its thousands of cells standing in, beehive like, for the anonymous mass of laborers. And at the site’s outskirts, at least in Breughel's canvases, ships are poised to depart toward the new worlds of circumnavigation, transatlantic trade and linguistic cacophony. Four hundred and fifty years later, at the cusp of the new millennium, this emblem of a threateningly compressed world has now returned in the guise of the clichéd cover of countless books on globalisation.

With the launching of the counter-revolutionary nineteenth century, under Hegel’s totalising aegis, archeology, philosophy and historiography were mobilised to secure the West’s common antiquity in its place, as a distinct temporal Other. An Other to now be clearly separated from the new nationalist project of re-mapping the world into discrete, non-overlapping and mutually exclusive spatial entities, the nation-states. Music supersedes painting as the privileged representational support for Babel’s linguistic différance. Its registers could provide support, on the one hand, for linguistic nationalism – supplying through the use of narrative or traditional musical motifs an ‘intuitive’ affiliation with a soil-bound mono-lingual ‘folk’ so central to the nationalist imagination – while, on the other, evoking the obverse: the catastrophe of Babel, now conceived and represented as the threat of the dissonant, even the atonal, a voice at a loss. From Herman Goetz's psalms through Heinrich's choral compositions to Rubinstein, to Stravinsky early in the next century and even more pervasively today, in the world music movement, musical forms next mobilised the ambivalence of the Babel effect, interpreting it as a confrontation of a finite, localised voice and a boundless acoustic space.

II. 2. Babel as Ethereal Communication: Twentieth Century Forms of Mobility and its Containment

The course of the second wave of economic globalisation, say 1860-1925, downgraded the Babel trope from a metaphysical notion of communication with the divine to a parable of the manifest, material condition of the increasingly compressed world spaces. After religion, painting, and music, the cure for this condition was assigned to the new medium of cinema.

At the turn of the twentieth century, the boom in the new photographic media – if indeed not their very raison d’être – signals still another attempt at superseding the print vernaculars' threatened Babel: a Babel that could now also be heard as a torrent of languages coming in via the tuner of Marconi’s radio. The rapid ascendancy and spread of moving pictures during the roughly twenty years straddling the year 1900 virtually coincides with the boom in other nascent artificial universal languages – such as Esperanto (of which Thomas Edison was an ardent adherent), or its many invariants such as Volapuk or Lingua Romana. And motion pictures arrive also more or less simultaneously with attempts in British and Viennese analytic philosophy to formalise and streamline natural language into a system of iconographic and mathematical symbols. For, as the catastrophe of World War I was to be interpreted in European avant-garde circles, if no universal language, then chaos; if not cinema, DADA.






6. On the role of port and ‘nodal’ cities in the expansion of the world economy see for instance Anthony D. King, Urbanism, Colonialism, and The World-Economy: Cultural and Spatial Foundations of the World Urban System (New York: Routledge, 1990), pp. 143-6.

  Advancing the case for and completing the project of the second industrial revolution, the mobile image of the commodity (both as moving pictures and as photographs of things put into general circulation via print advertising) followed the established core-periphery trade routes. At each final site of reception and transfer, the traveling movie theater (consisting initially of a fully reversible machine, a box able at once to record and to reproduce images, to take and to give them, a cargo-vessel-like transport device) completed the circulation of the commodity by converting it from an object to the consciousness of an object. Thus, arriving for a showing to a village inn in the hinterland of the Austro-Hungarian empire or to some the provincial town square in the Brazilian inland on a cart, a person returned home further inland yet with an image of a car in his head. (6) But stepping into that same village inn or into a neighborhood nickelodeon in Milwaukee, an immigrant might also leave with an image of either the American city where his uncle was working at that very moment, or of the Polish village he himself had physically left a few years ago. The traditional asymmetry of core and periphery, doubtlessly obtaining as far as the availability of capital and the industrial base for the photographic industry were concerned, was momentarily leveled on the level of image. Thanks to Gaumont’s or the Lumières’ system of world distribution, both sites could be equally visible to each other in a 1910 actualité ...  

7. It seems noteworthy that in the American paradigm of modernity its perhaps two most powerful outward icons from the turn of the century on — the movie and the skyscraper – really do not meet until RKO’s 1933 King Kong, well after that combination had been put to such emblematic use by European filmmakers like René Clair and Fritz Lang.



The extreme mobility of the moving image persisted for as long as the basic constitutive identity of the apparatus remained fluid: was a movie a print (that is, an industrially produced object)? An event (a site-bound service, subject to patent laws of the equipment on which it was screened)? A concept (a transferable intellectual property)? Out of the differentiation of the answers to these questions, further amplified by the reconfigured world trade in the wake of World War I, arise during the Twenties two different paradigms for the deployment of the mobile image in the metropolis. Two ideas therefore bear emphasis in what follows. In the first place, the American cinema's internal consolidation of its indigenous Babel, the mish-mash of languages heard on the benches and seats of the theatres rapidly growing on this continent, over and against that same American cinema's inverse role as a catalyst of globalisation causing, in the second place, both action and reaction in the various European cinemas.

III. Silent Cinema and/as Architecture Parlante: The Façade and the Tower

III. 1. The United States

With the patent struggles concluded in 1908, and First Amendment protection denied it in 1915, resulting in more stabilised formats of technology and intellectual ownership, the silent American cinema assumes the character of a service industry and essentially proceeds to evolve from its definition as a site. Beginning with the rise of the nickelodeon, the permanent storefront movie theater serviced by an ever-more codified sequence of fictional programs, through the Teens and Twenties' exponential growth of the gigantic movie palaces servicing the cult of the star, to their consolidation by the early 1930s into wired auditoria, the driving force and triumph of Hollywood (in counterdistinction to anywhere else in the world) was its extremely close affiliation with the exhibition branch – its theatres. As Miriam Hansen has at length argued in her book Babel and Babylon: Spectatorship in the American Silent Cinema (Harvard University Press, 1991), it is in the (silent) motion picture theater, being addressed in what the contemporary cinema discourse (that of the industry as well as that of the critics) insistently referred to as 'the universal language of the moving image’, that the polylingual, largely illiterate laborers, women and children were converted from immigrant mass to an immigrant nation. A nation which almost simultaneously was building its towering post-war economic power and its cultural capacity to globalise precisely on rationalising and standardising the work and the tastes of this heterogeneous mass. For Hansen, the strain of this process is readily visible in the gargantuan 1916 Intolerance, through which the premier film director and producer of the era D.W. Griffith advances the motion picture as a kind of unique American hieroglyphics, expressly and ideally suited to this modern national mission.

The gateway to and – as importantly for us here attending as we are to the urban form – the lure toward that conversion process was through the ever more extravagantly ornate entrance gate into the supposedly democratic palace of movies. It is as if though the architectural idioms, ranging as they did from French renaissance and Spanish baroque through generic Aztec, Chinese and Assyrian to Moorish and Egyptian, which were deployed in the fifteen year theatre-building boom between 1910 and 1925 were collective remnants of some ruinously heterogeneous Babel-like past accumulated, transparency-style, into a palimpsest of a prehistory somehow comprised in equal parts of a decadent Old World and its exotic historical peripheries. And with each facade so deliberately, so extravagantly ‘other’, the standardised pictorial narrative, projected in strong light on the smooth square white surface inside, then came to seem a cure for and overcoming of that dislocating postlapsarian condition reigning in the front of the house. The new American spectator was thus invited into the picture theater to have it both ways. Seduced into entering by an allusion to – and so acknowledgement of – his or her real, lived condition of extreme cultural heterogeneity, as expressed via the deliriously decorated real estate, once inside he or she then could organise, tame and sublate that cultural cacophony by triumphantly deciphering and making sense of the increasingly standardised and codified generic supra-plot, a plot that later came to be known as ‘classical Hollywood cinema’. One characterisation of the silent American cinema: Babel is acknowledged outside, in architecture, overcome inside, in narrative.

III. 2. ‘Europe’

In the nation-state centred post-WWI Europe – the USSR excepted – conditions of polylinguality were largely regulated through a grid of class and ethnic segregation: the committed and solid monolingualism of the national middle classes stood against the transnational aristocracy on one side, the cosmopolitan ghetto on the other. In peacetime labor migration and travel were to a significant degree internal rather than cross-border; Babel, the clash of languages, was then a symptom of if not the actual (pre)condition of war. Against such background, then, even though the films themselves were silent and nationally grounded via translated intertitles, the moving pictures’ globalising thrust and claim to universality was continuously seen as a latent challenge in these militantly monolingual local environments. Frequently that threat was summarised in the term ‘Americanisation’.

The Europeans’ search for the built equivalent of the American (imaginary of the) movie palace as a machine for processing difference always depended, however, on local configurations. Movies and their newly-built shells, that is, the tangible apparatus housing the mobile gaze/globalising pictures dispositif and defining the proper space for its emplacement and reception, sprang up as litmus tests for the differing local interpretations of modernity.

If the architectural calling card of the newest US media industry aimed to present it as world-encompassing historically boundless and socially upwardly mobile, the vectors of space, time and class were distributed differently in real estate situations framed by other geopolitics. Where an ornamental façade ideally filled the street-front of the widening peripheries in the burgeoning American sub-urbs, the urban compression of the European metro/polis – time and space compacted – forced once again communication into verticality, aligning speech and air. Much like the traditional cathedral, then, though now for the less metaphysical purposes of better aerial transmission of electronic signals. (7) In this way the tower returned as the spatial figuration best able to evoke, only to sublate and transcend, the feared Babel effect. (Its most recent epitome, indeed, is the 1990s EU-sponsored program called, appropriately, B.A.B.E.L., which uses satellites to provide simultaneous translation into an array of languages for important live pan-European events: the unitary project of tower building on a higher level, as it were.)

With the Eiffel Tower pointing the way (and whose exact if somewhat scale-reduced replica have been standing in Berlin and Prague since the mid-Twenties, serving as broadcast transmitters), the readiest instances of the new architecture of global communication appear in the just-federated Soviet Union. Several burgeoning high-modernist projects were here conceived to receive, mix and redistribute images and sounds from all over its vast new territories via a the futuristic form of broadcasting towers. There was Dziga Vertov's largely imagined project of the Kino-Eye, conceived to be housed in a towering site from which the new socialist empire – ‘one-sixth of the world’ to use his phrase – would continuously make itself visible and audible to itself through a continuous flow of text, image and sound. More notorious is yet is Vladimir Tatlin's utopian Tower for the 3rd International, designed of course in a direct, triumphal, modernist paraphrase of Breugel's leaning cone. And while Vertov’s and Tatlin’s projects remained in the realm of urban utopia, there can be little doubt about the traditional religious impulse behind the design of the main skyscraper of the Moscow University built in the late 1930s, and topped by a giant gilded statue of Lenin ...

Somewhat comparably, the 1926 mega-production Metropolis, the direct bid of the German state-subsidised company UFA for a place in the global film economy (and possibly also a direct reply of its director, the ex-architect Fritz Lang to D.W. Griffith's Babylonian masterpiece Intolerance [1916]), organises its story around a progression/comparison of three communication towers. Starting with a thesis (the New York-esque skyscraper cityscape of the credit sequence), moving via its antithesis (a near-duplicate of the Breughelian tower in Maria’s Babel vision sequence), then leading up to and sublated in the closing sequence centered on a cathedral (whose compressed and hyper-ornamented gothic facade might almost be echoing some overwrought movie-palace entrance in an American city), as if holding out, in a direct reply to Griffith's ‘American hieroglyphics’, for the universal communication ideal of moving pictures as the new Church Latin ...

On the outside, and again in direct counterdistinction to the American movie palaces' extravagant mock-historicist cacophony, the big post-war German theaters were built in the Weimar bid for an universal idiom of modernist functionalism: simplicity. The so-called Nachtarchitektur (night architecture), designed around and built with the deliberately ephemeral construction materials of glass and electricity – strikingly exemplified in UFA's flagship theatre, the Titania-Palast, built in Berlin in 1925 – was meant to assimilate the new cinemas with lighthouses or other machines of vision, projecting outward, rather than devouring and digesting. And it was this transparent, ‘idiom-free’ look that served as the design prototype for the wave of international-style theaters, sometimes referred to as the ODEON-moderne, which in the 1930s came to house the new hybrid medium of sound film in most of Europe.

Yet when the global economic crisis, hitting as it did in 1929, also coincided with the wholesale adaptation of synchronised-dialogue films, cinema’s claim of its pan-communicative capacity was confronted by a double set of boundaries. In the form of a plethora of new import restriction (i.e. largely using national origin or even national language as import restriction criterion), the myth of cinema as universal language was rent along national fault-lines, causing both small and large disruptions on the well-managed grid of polylinguality in a global city like Berlin, Paris or Milano or Prague or Madrid. Highlighting the rift that the emergent communication networks caused between that which was immobile, stable, built, and that which could circulate or be transported, the name and the idea of Babel now again became ubiquitous. Its epitome, and epicenters, were to be found in the many film production centers on both sides of the Atlantic, studio complexes in Hollywood, London, Paris and Berlin (and to some lesser extent in Prague, Moscow, Budapest, as well as Bombay and Calcutta) where foreign-language-version-making off of the domestic film production occasioned a havoc of previously unseen dimensions.

On a micro-level, this disruption of language could come condensed in the rebus-like ‘¡Los Toquis!’ Preceded by the Spanish inverted exclamation mark, this sign – appearing in 1930 or 1931 on theater marquees in Madrid but also Buenos Aires – deployed the Spanish orthography to spring the American neologism ‘talkie’ on the casual passer-by. Creatively mis-coordinating the eye and the inner voice, straddling the two languages, the sign accomplishes an artificial instant of communication ecstasy, of Babel overcome. And so how was this effect being delivered on inside, once you passed under that marquee? Likely a film like Politiquerias, a Spanish version of Laurel and Hardy's Chicken Come Home (MGM, 1930), one of that studio's early attempts to overcome the new language barriers thrown up by sound film and to reconnect with the many Hispanic fans of the two ex-silent comedians. Possibly the most painful of the many foreign-language versioning procedures aimed at overcoming what was throughout referred to as the Babel of sound cinema, MGM's unique strategy consisted of arranging for some of its internationally better-known performers to reenact their American films while mouthing the dialogue in languages of important overseas markets, regardless of whether they knew the language or not. Mostly the target language for this particular procedure was Spanish, but in a few cases also German and French. Like another case of a modern glossolalia, the bodies and mouths of the two American comedians seem here to have been seized by some higher force, and made literally to speak in tongues of which they have no conscious knowledge.

On the macro-level, that is, in public space proper, the talkies' linguistic intrusion during the initial years of 1929 to 1930 was stark enough to manifest itself in a series of street riots in Paris, Milano and Budapest against films shown with untranslated American dialogue, and in Prague and Breslau against ditto German. As a direct result, various national film policies came rapidly into place to contain, by regulating, the public deployment of non-national language. These ranged from the French model, which was set up to tolerate finite amounts of foreign speech, supplemented by subtitles (still advertised today as versions originales) coming out from the cinemas in the major cities – if Babel, then urban – but instituted mandatory dubbing in the presumably un-cosmopolitan provinces, through to Mussolini’s Italian model, in which the sound of any foreign dialogue was simply eliminated via mandatory dubbing. This is not the place to lay out all the particulars of the politics of language redistribution by cinematic technology; but the recurrence of truly public reactions seems to me indicative of how aggressive this momentary Babel of languages must have been felt. Perhaps the architectural application of the tower of Babel trope offers a spatial clue to the chaos of languages as produced by their reorganisation.



8. Perhaps this conceit of ‘stacked’ languages which overlap in the same space but as technologically differentiated strata– strata which in turn indicate differing communication discourses – instantiates a more generalised claim made by John Peters, who says that the awareness of a gap between face-to-face and mass communication, absent until the 1920s, first begins to emerge in the 1930s. He characterises this change as one in which ‘communication splits off from communications. Peters, Speaking into the Air: A History of the Idea of Communication (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999), p. 22.











For one way of describing this period of heightening medialisation of languages might be precisely spatial, if we describe it as proceeding from the horizontal level of eye-to-eye, unmediated speech to a transposition, doubling and layering of the cinematic mediascapes upon the urban landscape, producing a verticalised, compressed, laminated socio-acoustic space of language. (8) For the language riots may have marked one threshold moment, in which language as a sensory and tribal/collective experience in the immediate corporeal space (akin in this sense to singing) clashed with its increasingly instrumentalised forms. Indexed here is a drift to reduce language to a sheer tool of narrow semantic communication of the sort that the progressive miniaturisation of voice technology (telephone, radio, now digitalisation) has implicitly come to assume. To test my point here, try a heavy accent with the friendly-sounding voice-based automated airline checking systems over your telephone next time ...

III. 3. Babel as a Black Box

One proposal of how to solve the problem of coexistence between this horizontal sound of unmediated language with the technologised, laminated and miniaturised acoustic space is offered – and resolved with romantic brio – in the 1931 dual French/German film Allô? Berlin? Ici Paris! (with the symmetrical German version's title flipped to Hallo Paris? Hier spricht Berlin!). Directed by the extremely sound-sensitive Julian Duvivier and co-produced with RKO money in Paris, it is one particularly ingenious, but by no means isolated, instance of sound film at once responding to and trying to supersede the Babel problem of the new acoustic world space. The story opens as sheer vocal infatuation between a French and a German phone switchboard operator who only know each other as and through their primal vocal quality carried by the phone line as they daily link up their cables, connecting hundreds of other German and French callers. Per written correspondence, interpreted with friends' help, a face-to-face date in Paris is arranged, but – as the blind date it in fact is – ends in a series of what seem like terminal misunderstandings. Yet the romance is eventually revived when, some time later, the girl and the boy notice each other by coincidence in a Berlin nightclub – the sort that has telephones on tables allowing patrons to chat with whoever catches their eye across a crowded dance floor. They finally dial each other's table number, their eyes signaling a triumphal reunion – for the miracle of translation has somehow been achieved inside the black box of the telephone. Thanks to the electric signals inside it, geographic scale is jumped, annihilated – much like when tuning a radio to different frequencies – and will no doubt be followed by an ecstasy of truer communication yet between the heroine and the hero. From Babel to Pentecost in one touch of a dial, flip of a switch, lift of a receiver.











9. Hollywood cinema has historically put much more effort into keeping this gap under wraps—whether as an explicit theme (until the competition from the music industry challenged Hollywood’s claim on vocal authenticity, leading it to broach the subject in the 1954 classic Singin’ in the Rain), or as a technological rule of thumb (by disallowing playback/post-synch of voice at least until late 1930s, well after most Europeans have integrated the mismatch of lips, voice and comprehension into their aesthetic repertoire).




Boldly predicating his utopian Franco-German romance on overcoming, in that one magic phone call across the crowded dance hall, the gap between the narrative space of cinema and the virtual space of electronic communication devices, Duvivier at once responded and contributed to the new century’s replay of the Babel effect. To dramatise the distinctly new semiotic components of sound cinema (the ne plus ultra synthesis of telephony and photography), the film impossibly accomplishes – like all myth should, and like only diegesis can – within the black space of one cut the merger of two incomparable spatialities: that of the finite and emplaced human voice and that of the infinite but therefore (emotionally) indifferent technology of acoustics. With sound cinema Babel’s dream of infinite audibility and infinite comprehension is now at fingertips: it is the charm and the historical interest of this particular romance that the merger, that is, the translation of the two languages into one is left to the black box and to our imagination. In the sound film this necessary miracle, the hovering second voice of translation – the stratum that in fact nonetheless always constitutes a deformation of sorts of the single voice – came eventually to be supplied by the strictly technological means of dubbing and subtitling, demonstrating in the process the delicate monstrousness of narrative sound cinema. (9) With the increased digitalisation of the moving image – that is, as photography (and with it the plastic space defined by light) recedes in importance – the perspective opens up of a completely synthetically produced human face, one whose lower half morphs fully to match the language (recorded and stored as another set of digital data, independent of any filmed performance) of any place on the globe where the film can be circulated. The Babel effect will then have been fully contained – that is, fully eliminated – within the signal of a electronic medium, which will then only dress up – myth-compliant – its signals in the guise of human forms.

After several centuries of painting and music, in the first half of the twentieth it thus was up to sound cinema to engage with, and provide the representational supplement for, the Babel Effect – the experience borne out of the increasing spatial compression of modernity, for the conundrum of (linguistic) difference at once feared and savored.


10. As of Fall 2001, 329, 000 results on Google.









  But at the moment, sixty-five years after 1931, per Duvivier's proleptic example, the magic black box of unbounded and unlimited translation has also mutated into the all-virtual space of the Internet. There the term Babel now proliferates, with hundreds of thousands of domain names incorporating it in some form. (10) Aiming, optimally, for instant, infinite and endless translatability among any and all voices entering into its realm, it is now the www’s turn to promise – yet again – the arrival of the Rapture, of a complete merger of all languages and voices, and of the time/spaces out of which these voices may be speaking. It may indeed be coming one step closer toward this aim, bypassing, in the process, the physical space altogether.

The towering ambition of Babel is now paraphrased by AltaVista, the home domain of the translation program Babel Fish. Named for a mythical creature in the 1960s cult classic The Hitchhiker's Guide to Galaxy, the browser’s trademark coinage patently wishes to evoke that creature’s capability of resonating to, interpreting, and then whispering the secrets of the world spirit into its owner's ear in a human voice. At the he moment this global ambition is far from achieved (as anyone who has ever tried to make use of the translation program has noticed). For now, Babel Fish serves as the Babel myth’s placeholder – until, perhaps, the monstrously artificial corpus of the spreading World English will overlay, cover up and block out the babble of the world off the grid, in some final techno-driven apocalypse.

Today the representational emblem of the Babel Effect is to be found no longer in the urban dérive but by logging in via your PC's keypad. The all-too-gigantic Tower has now been replaced by the diminutive organism of a mutant fish – part fairy-tale wish-granter, part palm pilot.



  This text first appeared in Linda Krause and Patrice Petro (eds.), Global Cities: Cinema, Architecture, and Urbanism in a Digital Age (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2003), and is reprinted with permission.  

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© Nataša Durovicová 2005. Cannot be reprinted without permission of the author and editors of Rouge.
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