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BY 4.0 license Open Access Published by De Gruyter 2022

Urbanity and Humanity: Babel as an Open Myth 

  • Jacques Lévy

InhaltsverzeichnisTable of Contents



The myth of Babel (Genesis 11, Old Testament) is an early and pure example of using urbanity and globality as an evidence of hubris. The accurate analysis of this short yet powerful text shows that rejection of urbanity is not the effect of a vague metaphor; rather, it is based on the observation that city-making represents the perfect expression of humanity’s capability for carrying out modest yet ambitious autonomous plans. The statement that urbanisation and the cooperation of all humans would be a sin is less easy to maintain today, but fresher libertarian or neonaturalist ideologies, replacing transcendence by immanence, have emerged and achieved a historical continuity with mainstream religious demands. Reluctance towards a possible emancipation through self-organised spatial arrangements continues to connect urban agency to a more general anti-societal and anti-human stance.

Focus, applied concept and method

There is a certain continuity in the presence of anti-urban attitudes in a long-duration historical sequence. The three-religion monotheist myth of Babel shows that, as early as antiquity, when the urban population rate was very low, the social process of city-making was addressed as a good example of hubris, the human challenging of God’s prerogatives. This period started with the writing of the Old Testament (circa 5th century BCE) and continued as far as a literal reading of the scriptures prevailed – that is, for some believers, till today –, and from then on, there has been a divine, vertical ‘geography’ of discontent based on the discontent with a certain geography. Its target has been the city as a spatial choice, a spatial configuration, and a spatial way of society-making.

In this article, a daring time leap is performed and the paths of a complex transformation of the myth into contemporary ideologies and practices are identified. This long-range perspective makes visible the combination of continuity and discontinuity in the history of anti-urban ideologies.

In spite of major changes in social worlds and in their self-representations, particularly the progressive, pervasive vanishing of the effective presence of a God in Western societies, the resilience capability of anti-urban attitudes is actually striking. This apparent permanence is enabled by a transformation in the underpinning framework in which the hatred for cities can survive and even thrive in yet so different contexts, as if this negative relation to urbanity had jumped from one vehicle into others, which were conveniently available on the road. This fresh framework is dual: a nature-worshipping, anti-humanist religiosity and a libertarian, anti-societal inhabiting choice. In both cases, immanence takes over from transcendence, conserving the same rejection of any self-organisation of the social world. The main change among these attitudes is that transcendence has been replaced by immanence, while the rejection of urban self-development, human autonomy, and of the Enlightenment remains at a comparable level.

However, is it possible that this resemblance between ancient and contemporary speeches and acts results only from the fallacious interpretation of a non-significant, superficial coincidence? The question obviously deserves to be asked. The interpretation proposed here is that the social environments and the actors’ motives have certainly changed; nevertheless, in both situations, hatred for the city has to do with the emergence of ethics as a multistage historical process. In ancient times, the necessity for moral commandments supposedly external to human agency was seen as incompatible with a non-hierarchical plan of urbanisation and globalisation that Babel epitomised. Today, the freedom-responsibility-equality triad that turns out to be pivotal in urbanity and urbanism is the keystone of an in-progress ethical turn (Lévy 2021), which, in certain sections of society, generates bitterness and anger. Contexts and reasons are different, but the nearness between the urban experience and certain societal patterns lasts. As a myth, Babel is surprisingly alive and novel interpretations can unexpectedly still arise today. It can be ascribed to the category of ‘open myths’ in the wake of Umberto Eco’s ‘open works’ (Eco 1989 [1962]).

State of the art

Condemning Cities as a Self-Organised Human Spatiality

What can be said in the scope of social science about the myth of Babel (Genesis 11, Old Testament) cannot come from a transhistorical approach to a text; rather, it must derive from a multi-context analysis.

A Social Science Reading

Reading a text that was written in the Eastern Mediterranean area between the 8th and the 2nd century BCE and whose diffusion has been extraordinarily vast in space and time raises a non-trivial question about a relevant set of interpretations. When we look at the text itself as a production located in a specific historical and geographical situation, relating the speech to then-existing realities must be performed with caution. The cities of that period, for example, were not as complex and populous as they are today, and this may significantly change the substance of any urban allegory. However, conversely, some of the universal characteristics of urbanity and urbanisation were already present at that time and we can accept the choice of using the word ‘city’ to designate both Nebuchadnezzar II’s Babylon and the contemporary Pearl River Delta urban area. There is nothing obvious here and this choice supposes, in the background, a strong and accurate theory of urbanity (see Lévy 1994; Lévy and Lussault 2013), able to spot similarities and dissimilarities between cities that are so different from one another.

As for the long genealogy of this text’s reception, we have to prevent the risk of decontextualisation. Pulling out a human production from the conditions of this production and of the diffusion of the product is a classic claim of religious organisations and activists about their ‘scriptures’, but the very opposite of scientific methodology.

Moreover, pretending that each period could legitimately find part of the truth in the same text is slippery. Of course, scientists find new paths of interpretation today, but this does not mean that an old text would be less submitted to historical mutations than any social reality. In religious studies, we often face resistance from theologists who try to contain the obsolescence of their positions by proposing new meaning of ancient statements. Their implicit reasoning is that the ‘literal’ reading of the scriptures would wrongly ignore that God had to speak to the poor, ignorant people of those times and had to adjust the truth (He, of course, knew it perfectly), creating a pedagogic material in order to be understood. Nowadays, sophisticatedly educated as we are, we can, at last, reach the very substance of His thought. For instance, Creation would not have taken place in six days but in six geological periods. As we will see in the case of Babel, some recent maverick interpretations have not hesitated to erase any conflict between God and mankind.

Those theologists continue, in adverse conditions, a long tradition (particularly massive in the Catholic Christianity, the Shiite Islam, and the Rabbinic Judaism) of interposing their views as an official interpretation between a text and its readers. They carry their creationist burden and they perform their political job. We take our scientific commitment seriously.

In this perspective, what can we say about Genesis 11’s text? The question is twofold: what is said about humans, societies and cities? What is God’s response to this description?

The Sin of Urbanity

Genesis 11:1 (Old Testament, 1978 [≈5th century BCE])

Now the whole world had one language and a common speech.

‘Now’ shows this is a new era, in comparison to previous episodes of Genesis. The possibility of unlimited language interactions is a condition for a society to exist.

Mutual understanding is a pivotal element in the emergence of a world-society, as it is a tool for transactions, for affective interactions, for cooperative creations and productions, and for ethical or political debates.

Genesis 11:2

As people moved eastward, they found a plain in Shinar and settled there.

Genesis 11:3

They said to each other, “Come, let’s make bricks and bake them thoroughly.” They used brick instead of stone, and tar for mortar.

Thrift is typical of urban agency, and more generally of human development. In the text, there is no trace of luxury, vice or any material corruption – nothing comparable with the Golden Calf worship (Exodus 32) or with Sodom’s and Gomorrah’s behavioural sins (Genesis 18–19).

Furthermore, doing more with less is a possible abstract for the paradigm of sustainable development. Back at that time (pre-Roman Middle-East oasis societies), the city quickly turned out to be a good compromise between the relative lightness of immobilised infrastructures and the potential permanence of the human settlement it enables. The major immaterial and mental dimensions of a city appear in this narrative of an easy, low-cost construction.

‘They said to each other’: neither autocrats nor an internal hierarchy or power are mentioned. What is important for the authors is to focus on a collective endeavour. Never in the text is this cohesion of the group said to be due to a constraint or an exogenous principle imposed on its members: the very existence of the society is to be found in its own plan and in the performance that allows it to achieve it. There is us but no them; therefore, there is nothing communal in the way human sociality is described.

Genesis 11:4

Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves; otherwise we will be scattered over the face of the whole earth.”

‘Let us build ourselves a city’: the principle of self-organisation of the human world and of the autonomy of humans before God is the first element of the hubris that motivates God’s reaction. The protagonist is clearly us. God’s rival is not a set of individual behaviours as can be found frequently in narratives of the Old Testament. In the case of Babel, the us’ agency does not generate a collective punishment for sins committed by an individual or a small group; rather, it brings about the punishment of a collective: humans as a society.

‘Make a name for ourselves’ is generally interpreted as the idea of a transgenerational, stable collective identity. This is the second element: the long-lasting human presence enabled by a city, which can be seen as an alternative to nomadism, along with farming. This opposition is thematised in a previous section (4:1–15) of Genesis: the criminal farmer Cain may represent, like Babel, a threat to the human submission to God that is posed by the potentially unlimited self-development of a given place (a cultivated field or a city). ‘Make a name for ourselves’ would mean conquering a self-sufficient productive autonomy.

What exactly does Babel’s plan consist of? The high-rise tower described by Genesis 11 evokes some omina (oracles) in the Shumma Alu, the Paleo-Babylonian sacred text series (11th century BCE): ‘If a city lifts its head to the midst of heaven, that city will be abandoned’ (1.15), and ‘If a city rises like a mountain peak to the midst of heaven, that city will be turned to a ruin’ (1.16). Mesopotamian cities were often built on hills, with the temple at the highest point. The wording of these omina, understood in the context of the omen series, is essentially that of a rivalry between cities that could lead to war and destruction. Accordingly, Peter J. Harland (1998) has shown that what annoyed God was not exactly the height of the tower. In that context, many ziggurats were described as reaching the heavens. ‘God’s action therefore concerns the unity of the place,’ he sums up (Harland 1998: 529). What is at stake would then be the (horizontally) spatial productivity of the urban space rather than its physical verticality.

Genesis 11:5

But the Lord came down to see the city and the tower the people were building.

‘The city and the tower’ form a whole: a spatial system and a temporal process. The urban expression of hubris is made indubitable here because the humans are able to make something consistent and stable as if they were God.

Genesis 11:6

The Lord said, “If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them.

Thanks to their interaction tools, societies are able to perform collaborative works, which extends the limits of their efficiency. The absence of predefined limits, that is, the possibility of a long-term cumulative development, is comparable to the idea of Creation, a prerogative of God.

Genesis 11:7

Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.”

Genesis 11:8

So the Lord scattered them from there over all the earth, and they stopped building the city.

Genesis 11:9

That is why it was called Babel – because there the Lord confused the language of the whole world. From there the Lord scattered them over the face of the whole earth.

The nature of the punishment provides the reason of this act. The substance of the response is the destruction of the prerequisites that had allowed the construction of the tower-city: a joint project through a common language. The outcome, the scattering of mankind, is the opposite of what characterises urbanity: the concentration of a maximal number of social realities in a minimal extent.

Historical and spatial exposition, agents

A Weakened Transcendence

The legacies of Babel deserve an in-depth diachronic inquiry (Lévy 2019). This text present some results of this enquiry.

                            Fig. 1. Babel Belts: Four categories of legacies.

Fig. 1. Babel Belts: Four categories of legacies.

Four different connections with the original text can be explored (Fig. 1).

Four Connections

The first approach is logically the religious legacy of the text. Genesis is one of the five books that constitute the Torah (in its restricted meaning) and are supposed to transcribe what God dictated to Moses. It is therefore the core of Jewish scriptures. As Christianity endorsed the Pentateuch, Genesis is automatically included in the biblical canon in all variants of this religious constellation.

In the case of Islam, we have a second category significantly different from the former. The content of the Old Testament has been largely taken into account in the Quran, but with a selective reading, classifiable in four cases: an explicit endorsement, an explicit rejection, the correction of some statements, or an absence of any reference. The story of Babel pertains to the last category. In the Qur’an (2009 [≈650]), 28:38, Pharaoh orders Haman, his grand vizier, to build a tower that could vie with the Wonders performed by Moses’ God. This episode has no equivalent in Exodus, the book of the Old Testament which tells of Moses’ life, but seems interwoven in a complex intertextuality with the Book of Esther, the Book of Tobit, the Book of Esdras or even the Story of Ahikar, a 5th-century-BCE Mesopotamian text. As a whole, Islamic exegeses are neither numerous nor novel in regard to the Jewish-Christian corpus. The respected Al-Tabari’s History of the Prophets and the King (early 10th century) evokes the episode without proposing fresh interpretations.

A third family of corpuses is composed of non-religious works, first European, then Western in literature and painting. As early as the Middle Ages, as Arno Borst (1957–1963) has shown, the distinction between confusio and divisio of languages opened a way to a less-moral, more descriptive approach of the myth. Renaissance paintings use the opportunity of legitimately depicting a city with its buildings and its inhabitants, a topic which is far from common in the scriptures. Paul Zumthor (1997) confirms the idea that, progressively, the initial statement of Genesis becomes ‘a sign of nothing’ in growing profane corpuses, where ‘aesthetic hijacking’ is a cruise regime. This is a long-duration trend, in almost every artistic discipline (Parizet 2010) to use Babel as a plastic material or a launch pad to propose new ideas, new plots or news issues. Even if the association the myth evokes between the urban project and the world of sin, it remains a resource for anti-urban ideologies, as for Jean-Jacques Rousseau. The reference to Babel is much richer in post-Renaissance European literature, particularly in the 20th century, where, among many others, Franz Kafka, James Joyce, or Jorge Luis Borges use the Genesis text as a pre-text to think about the aporias of totality, the limits of communication, the impossible completion of a human work, and the fragility of creation.

The fourth and last corpus corresponds to similar legends or myths in other cultural areas. The story of Babel should certainly be connected with a consistent Middle Eastern pool of myths. However, there are completely distinct religious corpuses, such as that of the Lozi people in Southern Africa, mentioned by the anthropologist James Frazer, or that of Cholula-area pre-Hispanic societies, whose pyramid was evoked by the Spanish governor Pedro de los Rios in the 16th century. In both cases, gods are angry against a high-rise human construction that could challenge their power.

If we take the liberty to synthetise these categories and if we accept the association of texts coming from different periods because of their similarities of arguments and arguing, we can focus on the first axis, that of Jewish-Christian religious interpretations and uses of the myth to analyse the dynamics of Babel across centuries up to the contemporary public stage. A systematic bibliographic scan of these legacies shows two different corpuses of statements, the first one being in line with the text of Genesis and presenting a continuity from antiquity to the contemporary period. Contrarily, the second proposes both novel and significantly diverging interpretations.

A Deserved Punishment

The first, mainstream religious exegesis of Babel is already present in early Jewish interpretation works as in the pseudepigraphs (Book of Jubilees, Greek Apocalypse of Baruch), in Philo of Alexandria’s De confusione linguarum (early 1st century CE), in Flavius Josephus’ Antiquities of the Jews (late 1st century CE) and in various midrashim. On the Christian side, Augustine of Hippo (354–430) appears as a major initiator of the Christian exegesis of Babel. In The City of God (XVIII), he focuses on Genesis 11 to compare and oppose the heavenly and the earthly ‘cities’. As the initial text remains enigmatic, the imagination of the hermeneutes has added various statements or details. The character of Nimrod is part of these complements. He is present in Genesis 10:8–10 as a ‘mighty warrior on the earth’ and his kingdom encompassed ‘Babylon, Uruk, Akkad and Kalneh’. The ambiguity of Babylon/Babel has been solved in favour of a synonymy, but this option is not logical: Nimrod does not appear in the story of Babel and with good reasons: the city is presented as a collective, leader-free, horizontal project. Thanks to this dubious incarnation, the moral mystery of the myth (which sin have the humans exactly committed?) can be converted into a more classic conflict between a power-thirsty despot and God. In the same vein, some early exegeses do not hesitate to contradict the text of the Bible and describe the society of Babel as divided into hostile groups incoherently interacting with each other. The content of the human fault is somehow a remake of the original sin with its strong cognitive component: instead of the generic apple, we have here a set of spatial and linguistic techniques totally mastered by mankind in this case. Neither the Serpent, nor Prometheus/Lucifer in Babel: the humans are intellectually self-sufficient, and this can be seen as even more dangerous for God’s authority.

In this ‘punishment connection’, the Protestant reformation does not fundamentally reshuffle the cards. In his Commentaire sur l’évangile de Saint Jean (1553), Jean Calvin insists on the inacceptable human project of creating an indestructible ‘memorial’ as an expression of the creation of an overproud self-produced cumulative historicity. However, Martin Luther and Calvin make a difference at one point: they show the translation of the scriptures into every vulgar language as the actual overcoming of the curse resulting from the ‘confusion of tongues’, while the Pentecost, restricted to a hierarchical Church, was a limited cancelation of this curse.

More recently, Gerhard von Rad (1972 [1949]) focused on the specificity of the sin punished by the destruction of the Tower: it is collective and only collective. No individual sinner can be identified, and it is as a society that the people of Babel are declared guilty. In this tradition, Leon R. Kass (1989) can be seen as the culminating point of this long tradition. He analyses God’s discontent with Babel and enumerates five ‘failures’ of which the humans are guilty, and which justify the destruction of the Tower:

  1. They erase the distinction between the human and the natural or divine.

  2. They deny their mortality.

  3. They focus on self-creation and neglect the moral standards required to govern technique.

  4. Their words are totally devoted to technical communication and do not reveal the world and the truth anymore.

  5. The previous four failures are made invisible, and the disease becomes incurable.

It is clearly a justification of transcendent morals from an anti-progressive base, but with a Heideggerian anti-technique point of view rather than a viewpoint from a classic religious dogma. God should punish again but it is too late. In this approach, the city is a context, a set, a setting, a frame; urbanity and globality are ignored as such. To Kass, speaking of a city is a simple way to evoke the Platonic cave where mankind could potentially be trapped.

The author of this article writes about religion but is also a biologist and a bioethicist hired by George W. Bush in 2001 to create the President’s Council on Bioethics, later disbanded by Barack Obama. Embryo research, stem cells and therapeutic cloning were the main topics of this Council and Kass systematically took restrictive positions. Kass (, 2021) places ‘special value on the natural human cycle of birth, procreation and death’ and views death as a ‘necessary and desirable end’ for humans and human aspirations. He views human mortality as a blessing in disguise, and he has shown his bold opposition to increasing human life expectancy in pursuit of ‘biological immortality’.

Kass is part of the anti-Enlightenment mainstream religious ‘party’ and his rejection of human self-transcendence and emancipation is loud and clear. It is all the more significant that he shows little interest in the urban referent used in Genesis 11’s hubris allegory. To Kass, the city is simply an imaged word to mean an autonomous society and does not convey any extra meaning.

‘God’s Big Plan’

Alongside this mainstream axis, a novel set of significantly diverging interpretations has emerged in the 20th century. François Marty (1990) was a Jesuit philosopher. In his book on Babel, he generously relayed his thought on Kant, other philosophers, and 20th century social sciences, with a particular focus on linguistics. Thanks to the destruction of Babel, we enjoy the ‘blessing’ of a diversity of languages and the necessary, infinite process of communication that this diversity generates. This fresh framework opens a series of works presenting God’s action as being totally independent from an alleged sin, which is not even mentioned. The destruction of Babel can then be celebrated as good news for humanity.

Theodore Hiebert (2007) can be ranged in the same, emerging category, where ‘support’ of God’s action is ‘supported’, but not seen as a punishment. Two main differences in relation to Kass’ approach can be observed in his interpretation of the myth. Firstly, he sees the destruction of the Tower as a happy event and secondly, he concludes that there is nothing normative about God’s stance; it is just a description of the cultural diversity that flourishes in mankind.

However, Theodore Hiebert should not be considered as a maverick Christian thinker. Besides his erudite work, he is also the co-author of God’s Big Plan (2019), ‘the perfect introduction for children ages 1–3 to the wonderful and inspiring diversity of the world God created.’ Therefore, he could be classified as a culturalist and naturalist Creationist. For him and other converging authors, it has become difficult to sell to the general audience a punishing God. Hubris and its consequences have been removed from Genesis 11’s hermeneutics. In return, a world of a benevolent nature and of immer-jetzt cultural identities is presented: the human self-construction of space and time is still debated and fought over, while facing new opposites and new opponents.

Immanence Picks Up the Slack

The diagram (Fig. 2) was designed to represent, in a very simplified way, the different legacies of Genesis 11, that is to say ‘God’s view’ on Babel. Some ideological movements, be they linked or not to the Jewish-Christian tradition, can be identified. All of them are part of the ethical-political dimension of intellectual history. The history of the social sciences, from Max Weber to Henri Lefebvre and Jane Jacobs, was left aside on this simplified graph.

                            Fig. 2. The Anti-Babel Constellation 

Fig. 2. The Anti-Babel Constellation 

In short, the central zone of the graph displays mainstream religious attitudes that have progressively neglected the urban component of the myth; for the apparently more flexible ones, the normative character of the initial text has been progressively erased. However, we will find this dimension in two more external kinds of statements. Aside from the religious debate, the left part of the diagram is probably the most influential. Immanence emerges as an alternative to a weakened transcendence (see the ‘Switch’ line on the diagram, Fig. 2). It is twofold.

First, the anti-societal libertarian stance sees the city as the perfect example of a superimposed societality. As for the neonaturalist ideologies, they have changed the ‘car body’ but have retrieved and reused the mechanical engineering of the Babel myth. They have carried out a ‘standard exchange’ of the ‘parts’ from the transcendent engine to the immanent one.

Second, some ideologies can be rooted in Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s thought (1761) when he very clearly ascribes all sorts of bad things to urban ‘artificiality’ in comparison with rural ‘authenticity’. Later, most totalitarianisms of Fascist (in particular German Nazism or the Vichy French state) or Communist (especially Maoism, Enver Hoxha or Khmer Rouge regimes, and, more implicitly, Stalinism) families developed hate towards the city as a rejection of a self-organised political society, with its autonomous individuals, its indomitable creativity, its strong civil society and its political pluralism. More specifically in the United States, renowned intellectuals have more or less viewed the city as a mistake or as a sin (Orsi 1999). In the same country but from a quite different point of view, the Libertarian movement basically rejects the taxes, governments, disciplines, and social relationships that any city requires.

Beyond formalised ideologies and state policies, the cocktail of anti-urban ‘puritan’ ideologies and anti-societal libertarianism has generated the well-documented ‘urban flight’ and produced a significant part of the 20th century’s human settlement forms called Suburbia in North America (Vaetisi 2013) and peri-urbanisation in Europe. These personal and political choices in favour of ‘counter-urbanisation’ spatial configurations aim at taking advantage of urban concentrations while entrenching themselves in gated, semi-communal, corporatist communities. However, in the last decades these massive practices have apparently ceased to have a substantial theoretical counterpart.

The purpose of this article is not only to identify genealogies of speech and meanings, but also to investigate how far the arrival points match contemporary attitudes and practices. The last two sections explore the two sides of this ‘immanent turn’ and their possible junctions.

Neo-Naturalist Immanence: Babel in the Time of Pandemic

The Covid-19 pandemic has created an opportunity to specify an emerging current of thought and to radicalise something previously mentioned: everything negative coming from nature should be seen as a punishment for the gross misbehaviour of humans. Older and recent texts published by French philosophers Dominique Bourg and Bruno Latour lead to the conclusion (Lévy 2020) that the different components of the converging part of their approach (they also show differences) sketch a consistent cognitive, moral, political and religious picture where the virus is a benevolent oracle of the coming apocalypse and humans are pathogenic agents, and where the reference of the desirable political system is not democracy anymore. It is Carl Schmitt’s thought. To Bourg, the pandemic is ‘nature’s last warning’ and, to Latour, the ‘Terrestrials’ (Latour 2017; 2018; 2021, on whose side he himself stands) are involved in a titanic life-and-death struggle against the ‘Humans’. To both, the ideas of progress, emancipation, development and Enlightenment should be forever condemned and discarded. To both, a religious surge based on immanence is the right response to the present-day situation.

This viewpoint is not new. Any religion based on transcendence has always included (or has had to include) a large array of realities (objects, characters, environments, situations and events) rooted in concrete life to make their speech understandable and appropriable by the ordinary worshipper. Nevertheless, the particular configuration of the intellectual stage in the West for centuries has put emphasis on metaphysical ontologies, on an anthropomorphic God, and on a sovereign Subject, neglecting alternative frameworks. In the philosophical profusion of the 18th century, substantial aspects of Rousseau’s and Johann Gottlieb Fichte’s thought – and in his wake, all the ‘German romanticism’ –, overarched by an immanent approach to nature and the sacred, were marginalised. For two centuries, naturalism was a resource deeply anchored in social worlds, but which remained theoretically a sleeping, ‘outsider’ concept. We can therefore call neonaturalism the corpus of ideas whose emergence has accompanied (as inspiration or development) the ecological awareness movement of the late 20th century.

In the foreground, we can identify some philosophers such as Martin Heidegger, Hans Jonas and their disciples, or difficult-to-classify characters like Bruno Latour. In the background, we find a vast nebula of ‘collapsologists’, radical misanthropic anarchists or rural fundamentalists who, together with ‘front office’ thinkers, are sketching the new landscape of contemporary reactionary thought. The Covid-19 pandemic has made convergences between persons and groups more visible, as well as the religious component of some orientations.

In the first phase of the pandemic in the West (March–April 2020), the key move was to tag the virus as a side effect of the ‘climatic crisis’. The pandemic would be a forerunner of future, even worse climatic events. In the case of climate as well as epidemics, humans would be guilty of having perpetrated similar abuses on natural environments. This rationally disputable coupling can be seen as an attempt to divert political resources from fear of the virus and from the capability, shown by the world’s societies, for carrying out massive and courageous public policies. Why so much for the coronavirus and so little for the climate? some have complained. The urban dimension was not emphasised by these authors in that period, but examples of a junction between neonaturalist and anti-societal immanence show that the construction of a common framework giving a pivotal role to space-centred approaches and to Babel’s ideological heritage is in progress.

Explanatory hypotheses, potential generalisations, possible relations to other factors

A Junction

This novel framework makes possible a rapprochement between the left and the right section of the diagram (Fig. 1), as signalled by the ‘bridge’ arrows.

At different stages of his life, Alberto Magnaghi has followed, in a way, Friedrich Engels’ itinerary from Die Lage der arbeitenden Klasse in England [Condition of the Working Class in England] (1845) to Zur Wohnungsfrage [The Housing Question] (1872). He began with the denunciation of the capitalist city to challenge, at the end of the day, the idea of city itself.

Magnaghi proposes an organisation of bioregioni urbane, that is to say, a redistricting of local and regional societies based on orographic and hydrographic configurations. In this perspective, the rule would be to accept a maximum of 300,000 people in each human settlement, an agenda that requires to partially empty many existing urban areas. Magnaghi sides with a group of authors in search of an optimal mass for ‘human-size’ cities, which is generally the signature of a reluctance towards any city. ‘My current major concern is how to prevent the urbanisation of the world,’ Magnaghi (2016) confesses. In a recent text signed by Bourg and other authors (Bourg et al. 2020), the same idea with the same 300,000-threshold appears. The relation to Genesis 11 is detectable: a city that could grow without mass constraint is presented as a typical expression of hubris. With Magnaghi, we have a first insight into the possible relationships between neonaturalism and anti-urban ideologies.

This is also a first gateway for Puritan or Libertarian views. The connection becomes clearer with the second example. Like Magnaghi, Kirkpatrick Sale (1985) is a partisan of ‘bioregionalism’, a political scheme based on the autarky of small ‘natural’ spatial units.

Sale undoubtedly belongs to the North American ‘deep ecology’ current, inspired by Henry David Thoreau, John Muir, Frederick Jackson Turner, Rachel Carson, and various protagonists of the American lyric naturalism. However, he has also been labelled ‘Neo-Luddite’ because he encourages the destruction of machines or other means of production as symbols of capitalist exploitation. Finally, Sale is a prominent figure of secessionism – the claim that any person or group is legitimately entitled to opt out of a larger political entity –, which is a figurehead of US Libertarian parties’ programmes.

The link between the left and the right part of the chart operates thanks to the bypassing of the former mainstream, transcendent block. Conversely, the ‘immanent’ party moves up to the frontline against the city, the society, and humans as a whole.

We are observing both a religious turn in some political movements and an immanent turn in the religious constellation of the West. This dual change has also had an impact on the biggest institutions. A slow evolution can thus be perceived in Pope Francis’ speech towards attacking more directly not only the immoral collateral effects of development, like social injustice, but the idea of progress. This is discernible in his 2015 Encyclical Laudato si, following the first moves made by John Paul II (see, for example, the 1991 Encyclical Centesimus Annus). A significant French Jesuit author, François Euvé (2019), recently proposed a strategic shift that could be a trial balloon for a general move of the Catholic Church: he blames the ‘libido dominandi’ that humans apply to biophysical worlds and their ‘ecological sins’ and sums up his view in this motto: ‘Any misconduct against nature is a misconduct against God.’ He also rejects the traditional ‘overhanging stance’ of the Church and suggests this switch is the only way for Catholics to regain its lost legitimacy. The major change is that the ‘anthropocentrism’ he denounces is not about rivalry with God anymore; it is rivalry with other creatures, an attitude that is generally not – this is an understatement – the dominant speech of the Jewish-Christian religious corpus in the West. The classic argument that couples human responsibility and religion (Man was created by God in His image and that is why Man is accountable in the face of God) has seemingly become obsolete. The referent and criterion of human responsibility have become, from this moment onwards, Nature, linked by mere indirect ties to an almighty but absent God. Since the Renaissance’s science and philosophy, God has left the rational world of causes; He is now leaving the moral world of commandments. The problem with Babel is no longer the too effective self-organisation of societies, but the very fact that humans are intrinsically dangerous.

The baton of Genesis 11 has been passed in an unexpected way. The new runners do not fit the model of a hierarchised and disciplined army that state-like institutional churches have long epitomised. Although they generate intricate, rippling, and unstable networks, they are potentially capable of mobilising militants and multitudes. These unruly, sometimes sloppy soldiers fiercely continue the Divinity versus Humanity combat.

This continuity gives an unparalleled role to urbanity. As self-organised, massive human artefacts, the cities deserve the blame of hubris. As a combination of density and diversity, they present the same level of exposure to otherness as the world itself and they provide the opportunity – exactly the same opportunity found in Genesis 11 – to gather the hate for urbanisation and globalisation in the same bundle. Finally, as places of emancipation from communal allegiances, they are the evident target of ‘illiberal’, anti-Enlightenment currents.

The Fable of Babel

Stefan Zweig (1916a, see below; and 1916b, fig. 3, 1962) has published almost simultaneously in a French-speaking and in a German-speaking journal in the vortex of World War I. In his conclusion, he opens a new chapter in the Babel ‘novel’. It is a rare, clear stance that reverses the viewpoint of the myth, overtly taking the anti-Bible, pro-Babel side. This approach is in line with the continuous iconic production from the Renaissance to today (Aujoulat 2015), with the exception that most of these paintings, sculptures, and installations generally convey a somewhat ambiguous message. These various images seldom bluntly condemn the society of Babel, but do not often warmly support it either. Many fiction writers, from François Rabelais (Pantagruel, 1532) to James Joyce (Finnegans Wake, 1939) have referred to it in a similar, tangent way. Convergingly, Jorge Luis Borges’ Library of Babel (1941) connects the myth to the exciting but doomed plan to fully gather and master the totality of actual or potential speech and knowledge. At odds with this linguistic bias, Zweig simply writes an alternative to the biblical text. He discards right away the hubriswise judgement or a negative dimension of the event, and, conversely, reinterprets the tower as a fragile and moving expression of a possible progress that an emancipated and ethics-driven humanity can pursue and achieve.

[…] Dans les livres de la Bible, dès les premières pages, peu après le chaos de la création est raconté un des mythes merveilleux de l’humanité. À cette époque-là, à peine sortis de l’inconnu, encore environnés par les ombres crépusculaires de l’inconscient, les hommes s’étaient associés dans une œuvre commune. Ils se trouvaient dans un monde étranger, sans issue, qui leur paraissait obscur et dangereux, mais loin au-dessus d’eux, ils voyaient le ciel clair et pur, tel le miroir éternel de l’infini, et ils portaient en eux le désir de l’atteindre. […]

Du ciel, Dieu vit leurs petits efforts et sourit peut–être en apercevant ces hommes qui, de petite taille, à travers l’espace, comme de minuscules insectes ; assemblaient des choses encore plus petites, de la terre modelée et des pierres taillées. Ce qu’en bas les hommes entreprenaient, poussés par leur trouble désir d’éternité, lui parut un jeu innocent et dépourvu de danger.

Mais bientôt il vit grandir les fondements de la tour parce que les hommes étaient unis et d’accord, parce qu’ils ne s’arrêtaient pas dans leur œuvre et s’aidaient les uns les autres en bonne harmonie. Et alors, il se dit : « Ils ne se détacheront pas de leur tour avant de l’avoir terminée. »

Pour la première fois, il reconnut la grandeur de l’esprit dont il avait lui-même doté les hommes. Il se rendit alors compte que ce n’était pas son esprit à lui, qui se reposait toujours après sept jours de labeur, mais un autre esprit qui était à l’œuvre, dangereux et merveilleux, celui de l’ardeur infatigable qui ne s’arrête pas avant d’avoir accompli son œuvre.

Et pour la première fois, Dieu eut peur que les hommes soient comme lui-même, une unité. Il commença à réfléchir à la manière dont il pourrait ralentir leur travail. Il comprit qu’il ne serait plus fort qu’eux que s’ils n’étaient plus unis et il sema la discorde entre eux. Il se dit à lui-même : ‘Troublons-les en faisant en sorte que personne ne comprenne la langue de l’autre.’

Pour la première fois, Dieu se montra alors cruel avec l’humanité. Et la sinistre décision de Dieu se réalisa. Il tendit la main contre les hommes qui, en bas, travaillaient avec unité et application et frappa leurs esprits. L’heure la plus amère de l’humanité était arrivée. Tout à coup, pendant la nuit, en plein travail, ils ne se comprirent plus les uns les autres. Ils jetèrent leurs briques, leurs pioches et leurs truelles, ils se disputèrent et se querellèrent et finalement ils abandonnèrent l’œuvre commune ; chacun rentra chez soi, chacun s’en fut dans sa patrie. […]

Des centaines et des milliers d’années passèrent, les hommes vivaient depuis dans la solitude de leurs langues. Ils élevèrent des frontières entre leurs champs et leurs territoires. Des frontières entre leurs croyances et leurs coutumes, ils vécurent étrangers les uns à côté des autres et lorsqu’ils traversaient leurs marches, c’était seulement pour piller. Pendant des siècles et des millénaires, il n’y eut pas d’unité entre eux, rien que des orgueils séparés et des œuvres égoïstes.

Les hommes aimaient davantage la vie depuis qu’ils savaient que, malgré l’obstacle de la langue, l’unité était possible, ils remerciaient même Dieu de la punition qu’il leur avait envoyée, ils le remerciaient de les avoir séparés de manière aussi radicale, parce qu’il leur avait ainsi donné la possibilité de jouir de multiples façons du monde et d’aimer plus consciemment leur propre unité avec ses différences.

Ainsi commença-t-elle peu à peu à s’édifier de nouveau sur le sol de l’Europe, la Tour de Babel, le monument de la communauté fraternelle, celui de la solidarité humaine. Ce n’étaient plus des matériaux grossiers, des briques et de l’argile, du mortier et de la terre qu’ils choisissaient pour atteindre le ciel et fraterniser avec Dieu et le monde.

Ainsi grandit la tour, la nouvelle Tour de Babel et jamais son sommet ne s’éleva aussi haut qu’à notre époque. Jamais les nations n’ont eu aussi facilement accès à l’esprit des autres nations, jamais les connaissances n’ont été aussi proches de constituer un formidable réseau et jamais les Européens n’ont autant aimé leur patrie et le reste du monde.

[…] Des hommes qui croient fermement que ce monument doit être achevé dans notre Europe, là où il a été entrepris et non sur des territoires étrangers, en Amérique, en Asie. L’heure d’une action commune n’est pas encore venue, le trouble que Dieu a jeté dans les âmes est encore trop grand et des années passeront peut-être avant que les frères d’autrefois ne se remettent à concevoir, dans un esprit de paisible rivalité, une œuvre contre l’infini. Nous devons cependant revenir sur le chantier, chacun à l’endroit où il l’a abandonné, au moment où s’abattait la confusion. Peut-être ne nous verrons-nous pas à l’œuvre pendant des années, peut-être entendrons nous à peine parler les uns des autres. Mais si nous nous y mettons maintenant, chacun à sa place, en déployant la même ardeur qu’autrefois, la tour grandira à nouveau et les nations se retrouveront sur les sommets.

                            Fig. 3. The German version of Zweig’s Babel (1916b).

Fig. 3. The German version of Zweig’s Babel (1916b).

This reference could also be seen as a plea for a citizen science (see Chôros 2018; 2020). Juxtaposed to ‘science’, ‘citizen’ would by no means introduce any restriction to the free, independent, incorruptible search for truth that defines scientific research. It is the exact opposite of the enslaved information of big, holistic ideological systems that oppose ‘proletarian’ to ‘bourgeois’ sciences or pretend to hierarchise research outcomes through the point of view of the author’s ‘positionality’. A citizen scientist simply does not forget that there is knowledge production outside academia. He or she admits that other citizens do not need ‘professors’ of ethics or political ‘pedagogy’. He or she is aware that what is at stake in public debate is a matter for all citizens, not only for ‘experts’.

At any rate, Zweig’s prophecy shows that the myth of Babel is still a promising raw material for civic agency and public debate.


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