Is there life beyond Babel?

I’ve always been fascinated by the Babel story: the grandiose construction project left empty and unfinished as its makers lose the ability to understand each other. Writing this just days after Donald Trump was elected president of the United States, and less than five months since Britain voted to leave the EU, it feels as if we’re experiencing Babel on a global scale.

There are many others who will comment and analyse, comment and analyse. This is not what I intend to do here, or at least, not directly.

I want to think about what kind of place Babel might be, and who we might be in it.

On Wednesday evening I was in the historic Upper Chapel in Sheffield, listening to eminent academics at the launch of Sheffield University’s Urban Institute discussing what a sustainable or human or good city might be – what Maarten Hajer of Utrecht University’s Urban Futures Studio termed a new urban imaginary. One question particularly interested me, from a woman who works in mental health: what about the city as a place of wellbeing, a therapeutic city?

Babel, it seems to me, is the city of mental distress. It is the incoherent and senseless city. It is a picture of construction as self-aggrandisement, contemptuous of function and utility. It is the place of endless labour for goals promised but never achieved. It is the offer of futility dressed up as glory. It is diversity poisoned by incomprehension. It is, above all, the lonely city, the city of jostling strangers, where people stare over their shoulders at others who look or sound different and project their nightmares into the faces of passers-by.

A couple of years ago I read an article by academic researchers who were applying biological science to the growth of cities. Cities, they concluded, had to adapt to survive, and that adaptation would involve an increasingly frenetic pace of life:

Open-ended wealth and knowledge creation require the pace of life to increase with organization size and for individuals and institutions to adapt at a continually accelerating rate to avoid stagnation or potential crises. [Bettencourt et al, 2007]

That shiny, ever-expanding, non-stop knowledge-creating city looks very Babel-like to me. As does the more recent formulation by the Brookings Institution, whose idea of ‘innovation districts’ is being lapped up by city leaders worldwide. These are described, without any sense of self-parody, as

the ultimate mash up of entrepreneurs and educational institutions, start-ups and schools, mixed-use development and medical innovations, bike-sharing and bankable investments—all connected by transit, powered by clean energy, wired for digital technology, and fueled by caffeine.

That is the city on speed for the sake of being on speed. And while that might be great, sometimes, for innovation and enterprise and invention, it is less so for people who need other people’s conversation and time and ability to listen. It isn’t so great at encouraging a sense that people are valuable because they are human, not because of their ability to run at ever-increasing speeds in ever-decreasing circles. And it is a really poor recipe for the kind of critical reflection we need if we are to navigate the next few years of turbulent politics in an increasingly vulnerable natural environment.

How do we begin to move beyond Babel? I go back more than 50 years to the work of Hannah Arendt, produced at another time of fear and uncertainty coupled with unprecedented innovation. She writes:

…thoughtlessness – the heedless recklessness or hopeless confusion or complacent repetition of ‘truths’ which have become trivial and empty – seems to me among the outstanding characteristics of our time. What I propose, therefore, is very simple: it is nothing more than to think what we are doing.

To think what we are doing seems to me to be the call for today, too. To rediscover the ability to reflect in a world where the instant comment must be liked and retweeted, the ten-second analysis given as much priority as years of research. To resist a world on speed, we have to slow ourselves down. To rest and to think as an act of defiance.

Moving ‘beyond Babel’ is not a question of returning to some mythical Arcadia or turning our back on cities or the genuine benefits of modernity. But it is to insist on the right to make value-judgements about what is on offer and the terms on which we will accept that bargain, and the duty to be clear about the consequences of the bargains we make.

Venturing beyond Babel is also about rediscovering the purpose and the joy of making, whether it is the crafting of a building or a city, a poem or a performance. That joy lies in cooperation with fellow workers, sharing the pleasure of the finished product, and continuing to value what has been achieved for itself and not for the monetary tag anyone might put on it. To go beyond Babel is to exchange the hubristic city for the human city, to understand appropriate scales and liveability.

Exploring beyond Babel is also learning to use dissonance creatively. In everyday life we can be good at finding ways to navigate the noise to allow us to do the task in hand. It is less common to divert that dissonance and use it as a creative tool to question and reframe the task in hand. Moving beyond Babel is to use dissonance to pose critical questions. This is the work of art or poetry or prophecy, applied not outside the world of everyday life and city-making but at its heart.

Above all, navigating beyond Babel is to rediscover communication: to welcome and give time for the supposedly other, to make the effort to understand and to be ready to listen, to explore new perspectives – what we might call post-Utopian urban imaginaries. That is one reason why I’ve brought my old blog, which has served its purpose for the last ten years, to an end and am starting anew here. This won’t be a place for instant reaction to the news of the day or comments on the work of the week, but, I hope, a more reflective place where, as Hannah Arendt puts it, we can think what we are doing. I hope you’ll join me.

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