Babel, Capital, Oblivion

After much preparation, the actors begin the construction of a monolithic tower. The materials are physically present. Nothing is mimed or acted out.

By the time the audience enters, the work has already begun but has not progressed much beyond the foundation. The audience is enlisted to aid with the construction. Under the guidance of the director, who must possess appropriate architectural training, the work is divvied and the tower rises.

The play continues until the theatre troupe, together with the audience, rise the tower into Heaven. They meet no resistance, and refuse to speak of what they find.

Jonathan Ball, Clockfire

Genesis, Chapter 11. It is a vestigial organ of early biblical narrative. Its existence merely a faint hint of a long-forgotten time, when we knew the soon-to-be Abrahamic God by the enigmatic names of El Shaddai and Baal. His true nature yet unrevealed, until the Priestly Class of ancient Israel compiled the early Pentateuch in order to centralize worship under the reforms of King Josiah. The story contained in Genesis 11, or rather the suggestion of the story as it might have once been written, is not wholly unique to the Judeo-Yahwist cult that later became Judeaism and Christianity. As the stories of creation and deluge before it, the three small paragraphs of Genesis 11 is a mocking parody of the Mesopotamian sagas. A monotheist critique of what were then familiar campfire tales, drained of their characteristic pagan mysticism and laid bare in the basest of terms. A satiric joke whose comedy has ossified, whose setup we see as prehistoric whimsy, and whose punchline we mistake as the absolute will of an almighty God.

After the waters of the Flood receded, the peoples of the Earth traveled eastward from Mount Ararat to the land of Shi'nar. They decided to build a city, and next to it a towering ziggurat which could climb towards the heavens, “so that we may make a name for ourselves, and not be scattered over the whole Earth,” they said, tempting fate. (Gen 11:4) The tower—requiring the collective cooperation of all the people of Shi'nar—was an ancient innovation, sporting the use of baked brick instead of stone. God, upon seeing their jolly cooperation, and probably in a bad mood that morning, sent down his angels to “confound their language.” Henceforth, no one knew what the other spoke. One would ask for the mortar, yet be handed a brick. In a rage he would throw the brick back at his partner, killing him. Thus, the population expelled itself from the suddenly chaotic Shi'nar, their differing tongues to become all the differing nations of the world; an irony that Shi'nar was only founded against. The comedy of this story remains, only now obscured by the reverent cadence of Biblical translation.

This is, perhaps, a greater description of the Tower of Babel than is warranted, for even in the Bible it doesn't command the absolute presence which would befit a great calamity of divine retribution. Genesis 11 itself—mid-chapter—immediately veers off into a tangent to introduce the character of Abram, whose prophecy and progeny would demand attention for the vast majority—and entire remainder—of the Book of Genesis. The Tower of Babel, with its confounding effects, is never mentioned again, as if it never happened in the first place. If, overnight, the small story of Babel t'were mysteriously stricken from every holy book in the world, its ancient words erased, we would be hard-pressed to prove that something was indeed there.

This is not enough.

The story of Babel and its effect looms large in our cultural imagination, yet this mere fragment of forgotten mythology is undeserving of the heed we give it. It does not equate to the respect it is given. It generates imbalance. The Tower of Babel has a bad return on investment. As we stand now, our Gods have abandoned us and we need new Gods. Our myths have come to vainglorious ends. (Ball, 02010) This story needs to be retold, and by the logic of market forces, there can only be one way to tell it. Advertising is the official institution of storytelling in systems of modern consumer capitalism. In 01976, Marshall McLuhan referred to advertising as “the greatest artform of the 20th century.” Furthermore, Marxist scholars Fredric Jameson and Slavoj Žižek each independently observed that “it is easier to imagine an end to the world than an end to capitalism.” By these two forces combined, we may therefore conclude, that advertising still remains the greatest artform of our time—and indeed, all possible times forthwith. An artform whose greatness will outlast the heat-death of the universe! Only advertising can possibly make the story of Babel whole again.

Wieden+Kennedy Ad Agency. (02013) “Library Fight.” Super Bowl XLVII.
Referenced here under fair dealing. (Criticism.)

Jump-cut in to a large but inordinate public library. This is the setting for which the story of Babel will fall once again. The choice of the library is not without consequence, for each library is a symbol of Babel. Each leafy brick in a library's mortared shelves contains a lifetime of knowledge and accomplishment. These individual works are the envoys of their creators, and in the library they come together in order to build a collective city of knowledge, a tower of work, a confusing and overwhelming leviathan of language. The library is the representation of the pinnacle of civilization—not just western civilization, but any civilization at all. In this retelling of Babel, the library will be our ziggurat; a beautiful thing to destroy.

Two men sit at a table, both of them implied to be perfectly sensible adults. They quietly whisper to each other, as per the custom of any library, in hushed, wispy voices. “You know,” one begins, “I've always preferred the cream part of an Oreo®.” The man across the study table from him is taken aback, whispers, “No way man, the cookie is the best part.”

“Cream,” the other responds, whispering, forcefully.

“Cookie,” he whispers back, indignant. Angered, betrayed, he rises, flips the table.

A woman appears from behind him. She whispers “cream!” while smashing him over the head with a wooden chair. And thus begins the fall of the library. A whispering riot overtakes. Shelves are toppled. Furniture thrown. Books set aflame. Knowledge lost. All over not what may have been a single cookie, but rather, the platonic form thereof. At no point in this commercial meant to advertise a foodstuff is anything actually eaten, but the mere idea of the cookie itself did suffice in driving the world to seeming “madness.”

The inherent humour of the sketch stems from how even amidst the chaos and violence, the smashing and sirens, everyone remains whispering. They will not break the custom of the library, despite its ongoing destruction. However, this is not out of deference to the moribund institution of the library, but out of weakness in personal character. The librarian phones for help, firemen arrive, the police arrive, each yell for the fighting to end, yet even they remain whispering. The policeman whispers into his electric megaphone, his raspy voice amplified, but no less muted. The public servants cannot prevent the destruction of the library. Their silenced voices hold no authority over the market chaos.

The commercial holds a strange contempt for the library. A shot-by-shot look at the videography would reveal a dreadful ideology. A man stands in the rows of shelves. “Cookie!” he whispershouts, and he pushes the bookshelves over. One by one, they fall in a timbering domino-effect, yet no one is comically sacrificed by his action. Nowhere in this sequence is there any objector, indignantly responding with “Cream!” as they are hopelessly crushed by mounts of anonymous books. No, the lone man toppled the bookshelves simply for its own sake. In another two shots, a dignified middle-class woman briskly quietyells “Cream!” as she takes an unplugged table lamp and throws it, not at a cookie-nazi, but at a completely blank brick wall. This crippled lamp would later be the spark to light the book burning at the end of the ad spot: a very happenstance form of censorship. At some point within the chaos, the story is no longer about the cookie team versus the cream team, but how in their sectarian stupor they work together in the distracted conflict to realize the wishes of their economic, neoliberal masters, whose banners both teams fight under. This is the story of the ransacking and destruction of a noncommercial, public place. This ad wouldn't have made the Super Bowl if it took place in a bookstore.

In this way, a new representation of God is present within this retelling of Babel. God is capital. God is the invisible hand of the marketplace. God, under his Chicago school policy of privatization and disaster capitalism, sent forth his angels in the form of tiny cookie-cream sandwich wafers, to confound the public discourse which deprives merely one of his chosen children of corporate profit.

Within this construction of the world, the language of consumer capitalism comes to us already confounded. From the revolutionary fray, not one silenced voice speaks out of line. “Cookie” or “Cream” is all that the average consumer, faithfully loyal to the brand, can say. Anyone who speaks anything outside this binary realm of emasculated vocabulary, as the public servants do, are marginalized and ignored, unable to understand what could cause this chaos, unable to be understood by the chaos. Alternatives to capitalism can not exist within the mindset of capitalism. Yet even those loyal to capital remain silenced. The only quiet, whispering voice which can be clearly heard clearly against the din is the final voice over accompanying the logo of the product; the voice of the product, the voice of God. “Choose your side on Instagram at Oreo®.”

God gave man free will. Capitalism gave consumers choice. Regardless, man will choose God, because without God he cannot choose. Regardless, consumers will choose capitalism, because without capitalism they have no choice. This is a power system where all is contained, where blasphemy and heresy remain undefined. God, legend tells us, invented the multiplicity of language to prevent us from working together and overreaching our powers. God, advertising tells us, invented the reification of language to prevent us from rational thought. About cookies, probably. About cookies, hopefully.

According to Sanhedrin, a council of Jewish elders set up in Jerusalem in the first century, the place where the tower once rose never lost its peculiar quality. (Manguel, 02008) Even today, if someone were to walk by it, he would forget all he ever knew.

If the messages, images, and values conveyed to the greater public through advertising hold any truth, all of us within western capitalism now stand on the cursed soil of Babel; its collective and divine quality erasing syntax from our minds. Unfortunately for us, either within capitalism or despite it, the story of Babel only has but one conclusion. In our quest to recapture Eden through the allegorical battle-rituals of the Super Bowl, we grown adults confound our language, and return to the babbling antics of children, seeking precious candied sweets.

Return to Literature Index