14 12 05

The Pit of Babel

or: The Society that Mistook Culture for Politics

Translation: Aileen Derieg

Boris Buden

What are you building?
--I want to dig a subterannean passage.
Some progress must be made. My station up there is much too high.
We are digging the pit of Babel.
Franz Kafka

Can culture be translated? It is not often that we are confronted with a question that becomes all the more difficult, the easier it is to answer: no. Culture cannot be translated, we can state that much with certainty. All our experiences – of both the here and the beyond – have been translated into the language of culture, but the experience of culture itself no longer finds any language that it could be translated into. Culture is untranslatable, because it is itself the ultimate translation.

This insight is derived from a different question: How has translation – this relatively insignificant term from linguistic and literary practice – had such an important societal and emancipatory role ascribed to it today? Something strange has happened in the course of answering this question. The concept of society has been lost, or rather it dissolved into a different concept, that of culture. What used to be society has now become culture. The fate of the concept of translation mirrors this process of transformation like a kind of symptom.

In the beginning, in its purely literary form, translation was given a clear social significance: this was found in its task, as defined by Humboldt, of forming the national cultural community. Thereafter we find translation as a kind of terminus technicus in a comprehensive project of social emancipation, conceived within the framework of a social criticism respectively inspired by Marxism or psychoanalysis. In the form of "cultural translation" it ultimately became the concept of a new transnational culture and as such also a model of universal emancipation.

From this perspective of the history of the term, there is no point in talking about the social significance of translation, as though this were one of its – more or less important – characteristics. Translation is no more social today than it was in Humboldt's day. Then it was national. Now it is cultural, which means both transnational and transsocial. "Nation", "society", "culture" are not epochal attributions in a diachronic sense in this context, but rather paradigms, which only tell us today how much more translations should be than translations. What is the basis of the national, social or cultural added value of the translation concept, which can no longer be traced back to the facticity of multilinguality? The paradigms form a kind of perspective, a view from the Tower of Babel, which changes again and again in historical time. In one of these perspectives – from the view of culture – we have perceived the blueprint of today's "post-emancipatory" emancipation, yet not as an added value of translation, but rather as this – cultural – translation itself. As though emancipation were not the landscape that could be seen from the Tower of Babel, but instead the tower itself.

"Every translation is an indeterminate, endless task," wrote Friedrich Schlegel1. As such, it conforms perfectly to the notion of a postmodern and postcolonial emancipation. It relates to the old ideal of revolutionary politics in the same way as Benjamin's translation relates to the original, namely as its cultural afterlife. It remains quietly in the background, authorizes no ideological content and no social agents and takes no responsibility for reality. Since there is no longer any stable original today that it could betray and no authoritative instance that could hold it accountable for its infidelity, it may constantly invoke its immaculate innocence. As an expression of a virtually ideal imperfection, the concept of translation thus best conforms to the needs of postmodern emancipation politics, which have long since canceled the occupation of old centers of power – especially the nation-state – from their strategic program. Since these politics no longer need to fear any fateful defeat and can be a little victorious everywhere, they can always feel superior to even the worst reality and one of their greatest enemies, nationalism. They can always find a blasphemous poem, a heretical play, an iconoclastic exhibition or a transgressive performance that has successfully subverted the respective nationalism. The real victims of these nationalisms, the millions of people dead and exiled, are left to the rigid and essentialist identities believed to have been overcome, and their political and militaristic institutions, in the final consequence this nation-state or another.

The anti-nationalism of postcolonial theory is notorious. In an emphatic sense it is also expressed in the concept of cultural translation, which not only represents a normative counterpoint to nationalistic identification, but also challenges its political practice – by constructing a radically hybrid space, in which every claim to a pure, essential identity principally becomes impossible. The main problem of an emancipation project of this kind has already been named several times: it no longer happens in any real place, in which the hybrid identities conceived by postcolonial theory as absolutely singular could be politically articulated. It lacks a political form that could turn its cultural mission into concrete historical reality. In short, it lacks a state, and this can still only be a nation-state. Yet exactly this is what postcolonial theory wants nothing to do with. For this reason, no matter how loudly anti-nationalism is expressed culturally, politically it necessarily remains silent. It is specifically in this depoliticization that the sharpest critics see the ultimate downfall of postcolonial theory and its emancipation project2. Instead of fostering it, they hinder what is regarded as the most important political task of our time – the articulation of completely inclusive and egalitarian political principles, which are specific to the special situation in which they are declared, yet nevertheless transcend their immediate cultural environment.

In the world of late capitalism, culture is thought to have finally lost the autonomous status that it once enjoyed alongside other areas of societal life. Fredric Jameson, one of the most famous theoreticians and critics of postmodernism and who propounded this diagnosis, wants us to imagine this dissolution of the autonomous sphere of culture not as a mere disappearance or extinction, but rather as a kind of explosion: culture expands throughout the entire area of society to a point where we could say that our entire societal life – from economic value to state power all the way to the structure of our psyche itself – has become "cultural" in a sense that has not yet been reflected3. Dispensing with a separate, clearly delimitable and easily localizable sphere has not resulted in any disadvantage for culture, according to Jameson. On the contrary, in its omnipresence it has achieved a dominant position in society. In its own way, it permeates postmodern society just like "religion in the Middle Ages, philosophy in Germany of the early nineteenth century, or natural sciences in Great Britain of the Victorian age"4.

The general culturalization of the whole of societal life is not only an objective fact of the postmodern world. It has also become a symptom of reflection. Critics of British Cultural Studies, such as Francis Mulhern, for example, refer to a similar phenomenon in cultural theory5. Here too, culture has become the authority of a discourse on social conditions, specifically thanks to a peculiarity of Cultural Studies that distinguishes it from other theories or sociologies of culture: the peculiarity of postulating its analytical object, culture, as its subject. This self-referentiality of culture, its manner of speaking of itself, is what Mulhern calls "metaculture": the discourse in which culture, regardless of how it is defined, makes itself the object of its own reflection in its generality and in reference to the conditions of its existence. In the ability to generate a metacultural discourse, Cultural Studies resemble, according to Mulhern, the old cultural criticism, the tradition of which they sought to overcome: both regarded culture as the neglected truth of a society that has, for its part, succumbed to politics. What the old cultural critique and Cultural Studies most essentially have in common, however, is found in their utopian impulse to resolve the tension in the relationship between politics and culture. Mulhern warns that this attempt ends in a culturalist dissolution of politics itself: culturalization is understood as a form of depoliticization.

Gayatri Spivak formulates a similar criticism of Cultural Studies, in which she refers directly to Jameson's theory of the explosive expansion of culture into every sphere of postmodern society. "Recoding a change in capital relations as a cultural change," writes Spivak, "is a terrible symptom of Cultural Studies and especially of Feminist Studies. Everything has been made into culture. I hope the reader will notice the difference between this statement and Jameson's."6 The difference, of course, is in the word "made". For Jameson, on the one hand, everything has "become" culture. For Spivak culturalization is not a social fact, but rather a symptom of Jameson's methodology, which declares everything as culture. What Jameson regards as culture – in the form of its heterogeneity and its relativism – is for Spivak only one culture, specifically the dominant western culture7. Similarly to Aijaz Ahmad, she accuses Jameson of universalizing his own – particular – cultural experience. This criticism implicitly applies to Butler's and Bhabha's concept of cultural translation or hybridity as well. The position from which culture is no longer regarded as an essentialist totality, unified and homogeneous in itself, but rather as an endless process of cross-cultural translation (Butler), is for Spivak only one particular – but privileged – position, namely that of the dominant culture.

In her theoretical approach, Spivak remains true to the dualism of politics and culture. This is especially evident in her concept of "strategic essentialism". This is based on her recognition of the political inadequacy of critical thinking: although we can easily completely deconstruct an essentialist identity in theory, it still continues to function smoothly at the level of political practice, as though it had never heard of its "merely imaginary" character. Conscious political engagement cannot simply disregard this simple, yet often forgotten truth, as Spivak knows, because aside from the language of theory there is also another language or another texuality: that of politics, whose terms – such as that of the nation-state – cannot simply be replaced with cultural terms. Yet she considers communication between these two languages principally possible; it is to be taken for granted that this can only be imagined as precise translation work. However, this kind of translation could certainly have emancipatory effects. Nevertheless, we must not confuse Spivak's concept of translation with Bhabha's concept of cultural translation. For him the language of culture has become the universal language of all human experience, for which reason it can also no longer be (re-) translated into another language, such as that of politics. Specifically as the language of culture, it is already the language of politics and emancipation.

Ernesto Laclau's political theory is also called "post-foundationalism"8. What this means is that society no longer has a foundation and that it circulates in its political being around the empty place of the universal. In Laclau's view this empty place is occupied by hegemony. For Bhabha and Butler it is (re-) articulated through the process of cultural translation, through which emancipation also takes place. This sheds a new light on the metaphor of the Tower of Babel, the crash of which, as we all know, caused the need for translation. Is it not the consequence that after the "death of the grounding", there is no longer any foundation in the place of the collapsed tower? How can one translate, if there is nothing left to build on? One obviously translates "groundlessly". In fact, one digs the pit of Babel. "Some progress must be made," writes Kafka. And emancipation too, we add.

To conclude by illustrating the dangers of an emancipation that has become the untranslatable language of culture, we call to mind a famous psychiatric case of "cultural translation":

Dr. P., one of Oliver Sacks' patients, had developed a strange symptom – he mistook his wife for his hat9. Whenever he wanted to put on his hat, he reached for his wife. Due to an illness of his brain, Dr. P. had lost the capacity of visual perception, or more precisely the ability to see certain things. Yet while he overlooked faces and scenes, for example, his visualization of various abstract schemata remained intact or became even more clearly focused. Despite his illness, Sacks' patient, who was a teacher in a music school, was able to continue working almost normally in his profession. In everyday life, on the other hand, or at home, he could no longer do anything without translating his actions into some song. So he sang all the time – songs of eating, songs of getting dressed and undressed, songs of washing, songs of everything possible. For him, all the places where images had been were taken over by music. Yet Dr. P. was not at all unhappy. He even maintained that he had never felt better.

What music was for Dr. P. – the universal language of life – is what culture has become for the highly developed, postmodern societies of the west. Here too, people are no longer able to do anything without translating it into culture. Thus they not only have their culture of eating, culture of sleeping, culture of clothing, culture of shopping or body culture, they also have, first and foremost, what they believe to be a continuously progressing – democratic! – political culture, which even now promises to rid the world of all social conflicts in the near future.

Poor Dr. P. also had a hobby. He was not only a talented singer, but also a talented painter. His paintings, which were initially naturalistic and realistic, in time became increasingly more abstract, even wholly geometrical or cubist.

Sacks discussed this phenomenon with Dr. P.'s wife and pointed out to her the growing absurdity of her husband's most recent works. For Sacks these paintings were nothing more than a bunch of chaotic lines and spots of color thrown together without any kind of logic.

"Oh, you doctors are such philistines," she cried. "Don't you see his artistic development?"

Of course, what was actually progressing was not the art, but rather the illness, noted Sacks.

Perhaps we should remember the fate of poor Dr. P., when we celebrate the next cultural victory – a heretical novel or a subversive play – over rigid nationalism. It could, in fact, be the case that we have just experienced the progress of our political pathology.

What was actually the illness that caused the relentless progression, misinterpreted as art, of the unfortunate Dr. P.'s suffering? Oliver Sacks tells us that too: it was the complete breakdown of the left side of his field of vision. The man had become blind on the left.

/ By courtesy of the publisher. An earlier version of the present text was published in German in:
Boris Buden, Der Schacht von Babel. Ist Kultur übersetzbar?, Berlin: Kadmos 2005 /

1Schlegel, in: Patrick Primavesi, Kommentar, Übersetzung, Theater in Walter Benjamins frühen Schriften, Basel; Frankfurt am Main: Stroemfeld, 1998, p. 123.

2 Peter Hallward, Absolutely Postcolonial: Writing between Singular and Specific, Manchester; New York: Manchester University Press, 2001, p. 128.

3 Fredric Jameson, Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, London; New York: Verso, 1991, p. 48.

4 Terry  Eagleton, The Idea of Culture, Oxford: Blackwell, 2000, p. 126.

5 Francis Mulhern, Culture/Metaculture, London; New York: Routledge, 2000, p. 156 and XIV.

6 Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, A Critique of Postcolonial Reason: Toward a History of the Vanishing Present, Cambridge, Massachusets; London, England: Harvard University Press, 1999, p. 412.

7 Ibid., p. 315 f.

8 Oliver Marchart, „Gesellschaft ohne Grund: Laclaus politische Theorie des Post-Fundationalismus“, in. Ernesto Laclau, Emanzipation und Differenz, Wien: Turia und Kant, 2002, p. 7-19.

9 Oliver Sacks, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, London: Picador, 1985, p. 23-41, especially 14.

Boris Buden


Aileen Derieg (translation)


other languages

The Pit of Babel Der Schacht von Babel