Endless Babel: Theme and Variations

Jacob Eli Goldman

In February of last year, Amazon revealed its plans for a second headquarters—HQ2—in Arlington, VA. These plans included rendered images of what the site would look like. Of the four buildings to be, three are unnoteworthy. The fourth, on the other hand, looks like this:


Its name is uninventive, but accurate: The Helix. And a helix is what it appears to be. But, according to the copy that accompanies the renderings, the Helix is actually, architecturally, a double helix. So perhaps its name is not accurate, which makes one wonder whether its name is, by the same turn, inventive. And whether its name is more inventive than its architecture, which is, by a certain light, anything but—its structure dictated by the original, originating structure: the structuring structure, the double helix. 

But uninventive should not mean uninteresting. As visually conspicuous as the Helix is, it is also otherwise. For one, its doubleness—the fact that the Helix is not one but two helixes—is hidden, as evidenced by the initial confusion between its name and its architecture. Indeed, its architecture is what accounts for the misnaming, the dissimulation: the helix is double, and yet the second helix is obscured by a design that is, apparent or not, the design of a double helix. The building’s surface, its skin, its hide, hides half of itself, and therefore presents itself as one helix—presents itself, in other words, as its name—despite being otherwise. The Helix, therefore, both in name and design, disguises its materiality through a certain self-veiling. This might be seen as a sort of reflexive dissimulation, especially in contrast to the other way in which the Helix dissimulates itself: besides its internal doubling, which works counterintuitively to make two helixes appear as one, the Helix makes itself a double externally as well, through imitation. That is, it takes, or appears to take, its structure from elsewhere. And does so twice over. Once by being a double helix—a biological structure that precedes this architectural one. And again through its resemblance to another building, this one:

Here is Bruegel the Elder’s Babel. Another upwardly spiraling building. Another rendering of an upwardly spiraling building. The differences between it and the Helix are endless and can be put forward on an equally endless number of grounds—historical, material, intentional, medial, etc. But these differences do nothing to break what binds the two buildings together. If anything, the opposite. The two buildings are not only similar; they are the same. And they are both Babel.  

With the claim comes a hurdle: the resemblance between the two buildings, and the implications that follow, is indirect and, therefore, fraught. It’s true that, if they’re the same, and if Bruegel’s painting is Babel, then the Helix is Babel too. But this chain depends on a certain appearance of Babel—the one that Bruegel’s painting invents. And it is an invention: Genesis gives no real visual description, let alone any architectural blueprint, for how the tower looks. One is right to wonder, then, how far down the connection between the Helix and Babel could go if what brings them together in the first place is an appearance without foundation in the original myth.  

But myth itself overcomes this impasse. Crucial to Levi-Strauss’ structural study of myth is the notion that myths are endlessly adaptable—able to be told in any number of ways without their stories being compromised. This, according to Levi-Strauss, makes myth a manner of expression opposite that of poetry. Where the latter is the language in which it’s expressed, and nothing without it, myth persists somehow independently of the specificities of its expression. This leads the anthropologist to conclude: “not only Sophocles, but Freud himself, should be included among the recorded versions of the Oedipus myth on par with earlier or seemingly more ‘authentic’ versions.”[i] Which leads to the question: can Bruegel’s “telling” of Babel—and despite being an image, it is a telling: in the painting, the tower does what the bible says it does (it remains unfinished, for instance)—not be considered just another version of the myth? And the Helix, and what might be said about it, yet another? A tentative yes is good enough for now. 

It is a visual resemblance, made possible by Bruegel, that puts the Helix and Babel face to face. But it is a question of language that unifies them as one. In the biblical Babel, form and function are confused. In fact, there is no real architectural form to speak of (this is the gap filled by Bruegel), leaving only function. Gen 11:4: “And they said, Go to, let us build us a city and a tower, whose top may reach unto heaven; and let us make us a name, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.” If this—making a name, avoiding being scattered—is the function of the tower, one might presume its form follows straightforwardly, needing only to “reach unto heaven” by whatever means. But things are more complicated. Brick and mortar or otherwise, the tower is architectural only insofar as it is linguistic. Language, that is to say, builds the tower: reaching the heavens is a possibility provided for by a unified tongue—this is what God realizes; this is what provokes his alarm. Just as language—albeit a different language, a confounded language—is what leaves the tower unfinished.

Bruegel’s tower—his telling of the myth—depicts this incompletion. The Helix, on the other hand, does not. It is finished in its rendering, and will one day be finished in a more concrete sense as well. And since, in this myth, finishing or not seems to be a question of language and its unification or confounding, the Helix being finished should indicate something about the role of language in this accomplishment. But what?

The question can be gotten at by first answering another: what, in confounding the tongue of the builders of Babel, does God bring about? According to Derrida: “the law of translation both necessary and impossible.”[ii] The confounding, which is a confounding of both tongue and tower—the tower being left unfinished on account of its builders being left unable to communicate—the confounding is, in other words, both an injunction and an order. It acknowledges the role of communication in production while putting a limit on the possibility of communication, and, thereforeof production­­—a limit that needs, nevertheless, to be approached if anything, however less grand than Babel, is to be finished. 

This condition of translation is the result of the confounding of tongues. But translation is also, says Walter Benjamin, what indicates the existence of a “pure language” toward which all the confounded ones intend—this shared intention being what makes translation possible, to the extent that it is.[iii] Like the mythic tongue that begins the building of Babel, Benjamin’s pure language is itself abstract and inaccessible, evidenced only by way of a semblance given by the possibility of translation. But that may be changing. 

Behind the Helix is Amazon, and behind Amazon (and all the rest of them) is the numeration of speech. Another name for this is Natural Language Processing (NLP), which is, in short, the complex of technologies that make it possible for humans and machines to communicate in natural languages rather than computational ones; a possibility that itself depends on turning speech into statistics. One of the results of this quantification being instantaneous translation between (ostensibly) any two natural languages, NLP can, I think, be understood as a reification of the unified, pre-Babelian tongue that has only ever existed in the abstracted form of “pure language.” But it is a reification with a catch. With the biblical confounding of Babel, one language becomes many. Here, in the case of NLP, many languages become not one, but reducible to one—one which is numerical, and therefore silent, unspoken and unspeakable, inaccessible even but for those who dictate its function and use. Accordingly, it might be said that NLP recognizes the post-Babelian necessity of translation, but ignores its impossibility on account of the technological capacity of a chosen few.

The Helix’s completion—its being, unlike past Babels, finished—concretizes both the reversal of this last impossibility and the exclusivity and success of those capable of reversing it. And not only figuratively: the Helix, and its role in HQ2, marks the actual growth of a corporation that functions with and by NLP. And NLP’s role in this growth brings back the relation of communication to production, both of which now seem to be, on its account, increasingly endless. The question of naming returns here as well. “The Helix,” from the start, appeared both accurate and not: accurate because it reveals what its architecture reveals—a helix; and inaccurate because within that helix, nominal and architectural, is something else—itself, its double, a double helix. Bringing together language and architecture, and a certain joint effort between the two toward dissimulation—perhaps the Helix, in the end, hides nothing, or shows itself through its hiding: that it is Babel is suggested already insofar as it exists as an architectural concretization of a growth given by a unified, or unifying, language; that it denies this, denies what it is, is suggested by the inaccuracy of its name, an inaccuracy perpetrated by language and architecture; and that it boldly remakes the great myth of language and architecture is suggested by its equally bold remaking of that which, at bottom, accounts for the making of myths at all—the double helix, the remaking of which the Helix hides. 

This is all nothing more than prologue. And what it prepares is a certain register of questioning. If the biblical Babel enacts the law of translation, the ripples of which can be easily traced beyond the bounds of translation, strictly speaking, and into something more like the broader conditions of a humanity caught between fracture and community; and if this Babel never was; then what should be the thinking that follows this Babel that is, and in being so, seems to push back on the law of translation, and the conditions that follow from it? Should this present Babel be seen as restitutive? Or should it, like the Babels before it, be viewed with suspicion, and confounded on account of what the power of such restitution—which would be a linguistic restitution, the restitution of all languages into one—makes possible? Venturing an answer would require first passing through more, and more difficult, questions: what is communicated by communication of this nature, the kind of communication, instant and endless, made possible by NLP? What is denied in its denial of the limit that beckons and forbids translation? None of these questions are about corporate motives. They are, rather, to do with the life that the law of translation precipitates—a life that, like translation, strives without succeeding, and strives again for having not succeeded, and strives again.

[i] Claude Lévi-Strauss, Structural Anthropology, trans. Claire Jacobson and Brooke Grundfest Schoepf (New York: Basic Books, 1963), 217.

[ii] Jacques Derrida, “Des Tours de Babel,” in Difference in Translation, ed. Joseph F. Graham (Ithaca: Cornell University Press) 174.

[iii] Walter Benjamin, “The Task of the Translator,” in Illuminations, trans. Harry Zohn (New York: Schocken), 74.