“And the whole earth was of one language, and of one speech.”
This sketch by the two Ronnies brilliantly demonstrates several things: 1) that blogging and computers present us with previously impossible immediate intertextual possibilities, as we can’t (yet) watch youtube clips embedded in books or magazines. And 2) that the subtlety of comedy consists in holding open the gap which separates what one thinks from that of actuality. The only thing one can do when faced with this void is to cry or, as is the more frequently desired response from BBC comedy programming, is to laugh. 3) from the classically timed and practised miscommunication of the two Ronnies, we can infer that communication is, in fact, miscommunication.
This leads strangely, yet appropriately, into thinking about the Tower of Babel, as articulated in Genesis XI. If you remember from coerced cub-scout Church visits or even from school Religious Education lessons, the Tower of Babel was the project of a peoples with one language to build an almighty tower which was to have “its top in the heavens.” This could mean (I’m not going to say this is the only reading of the story, after all, free-play of signifiers and all that) the homogeneity and perfection of their language meant there were no boundaries to what they could manipulate and command, being totally and indefatigably empowered by their unmediated access to enjoyment, jouissance, and thus in no need of God.
What the Tower of Babel story and the Two Ronnies seem to be announcing is that we are stuck with imperfect language, which essentially translates to miscommunication not as the exception but as the rule. What also runs parallel in these two stories is the theme of language and desire: the desire to use, obtain and manipulate objects.
I will give two readings of the Tower of Babel story, one along Heideggerian technophobic lines and the other from a Lacanian position of the castrated subject (which actually run nicely together, as you will see a bit later).
The Heideggerian approach could read the Babel story as metaphor for the dangers of technology. Once we can freely manipulate our world to achieve all our wildest calculative desires, we will have fled from being into the nihilistic mechanical abyss of technologically determined Being. To paraphrase Heidegger, if technology solves all our problems, this will be our biggest problem. That is why God comes down and heroically ruins the party by given them different languages and we’re back to ‘four candles’ again. The Tower of Babel is a kind of Heideggerian prophesy, where human Dasein builds his technological tower of domination, his supreme all commanding phallic posture will be overcome by the returning gods (or God in this case) who will save us from our godless selves. As Holderlin once optimistically poetized, ‘where the danger grows so to does the saving power’.
This understanding of language and technology is important, but first a few contributions from psychoanalysis. In Lacanian terms, the story is equivalent to the myth of sexuation so humorously spoken by the comic poet Aristophanes in Plato’s Symposium. This myth recycles old Greek tales of the splitting of an original singular sex of super beings into two sexes. Before this separation they had almighty power and flaunted their relationship to the gods. This simplistic yet tongue-in-cheek example of a sexuation myth symbolizes the desire is to become complete, whole and thus fully constituted, against the punishment of our divided essence, which limits our power and makes us dependent upon the other sex. The Tower of Babel provides the same myth but this time for language (which as we will see, is not totally divorced from sexuation). According to the old Bible story, human beings were once capable of powerful world manipulating abilities. Incredible things can be achieved within a community with a unidirectional mindset, structured by complete comprehension and understanding of each other (no squabbling family arguments and thus no storming out the room screaming ‘you just don’t understand’ within this society). According to the story, language was once complete, whole and fully constituted for the people of Babylon, and thus our frustration at miss communication can be traced back to the behaviour of cretinous human beings who dared to push their capabilities to ever greater heights and were finally stopped when they were faced with the castrating powers of God.
Now, I have used two key words that may have picked up on: phallic and castration. Thus, the obvious point is that the Tower of Babel is a gigantic phallic gesture. Remember, in Lacan’s sense, phallic or phallus does not mean penis. The phallus is phantasmatic power. Since we are all castrated subjects, as Lacan goes to great length to discuss (you need a forklift truck to pick up Ecrits), no one has the phallus. That’s right, no one, not men or women, millionaire sky scrapper owners or Gandalf. No one has the phallus. There is only an imaginary relation to the possession of power which comes from the desire of the Other. As the Other is language, the symbolic mask to the unsymbolizable Real. It is through the acquisition of language that we are able to articulate our demand to try and reclaim the lost love object, object a, that unconsciously structures our desires, the phantasmatic memory of a lost unity. This object, the spectre of the mother we enjoyed with orgiastic polymorphous perversity, gave us unconstrained jouissance. Entry into language is needed to overcome the terror of the absence of the mother (Daddy has to have some fun too!), which causes the dependent baby no end to agony. Yet once the first structures of language begin to form there is no turning back, we are ripped from the world of the Real and thrown into a world of symbolic mediation.
As the sketch goes on, Ronnie Corbett (the little one) gets more and more frustrated. He wants to fulfil the Others desire but is foiled by the rich polsemy of each word Ronnie Barker utters. What does he want? What does the Other want of me? If I don’t have an accurate idea then how can I be successful? How will I please the Other? How will the Other love me if I can not give them what they want? The dilemma develops, each time a mistake is made the more Ronnie Corbett thinks its a prank. Is the Other mocking me? “You’re ‘avin me on!!?”. Each object that gets brought out plays upon the literal interpretation of the phallus. The ‘fork handle’, the two types of hoes, even the letter’s ‘o’ could be said to have sexual resonances, while finally ending on the unspeakable, the object which causes Ronnie to walk off, the written words alone are enough to jilt him and storm out: ‘bill hooks’ (a type of knife). This last tool acts as the final symbolic gesture, the final ‘cut’, which amplifies the repeated demonstrations of linguistic castration from each previously miserable failure.
This is a vulgar interpretation of the sketch and its symbols, but it all seems to fit so well! I’ve done it now anyway, and you’ll no longer be able to see the program again without thinking of these inferences!
The sketch works on more levels even than this. For instance, the size of the two Ronnies matters. Corbett’s short stature stands in contrast to Barker’s relative height advantage adding another dimension to the lack inherent in the satisfaction of desire. The demands Barker makes of Corbett emphasise his lack. The use of the ladder extends the effort required to please the Other which for Corbett has now passed from bother and into discomfort: the subject suffers for the Others jouissance! All this invokes a feeling of pathos in the audience, adding further to the subjects castration. Perhaps the joke works not just because of the desperation of their miscommunicate, but because Corbett never overcomes the lack inherent is miss interpretation with laughter (laughter being the rupture in the symbolic caused by the proximity to the Real). Something is holding him back. His work. One can imagine a similar situation, such as as home, where instead of frustration, it is seen for what is is, an absurd case of miscommunication which could be overcome by sharing laughter. However, the serious worker wants to do his job properly and capably, yet he is faced with the stark reality of being limited by something he cannot control: language, which is inseparable from the demands of the Other.
Going back to Heidegger, the technological capabilities of human Dasein comes from its orientation towards Being. For instance, it is not that there is something called technological progress, only the destiny of being drawn from an interpretation of the logos as logic. Heidegger saw the nihilism of technological fetishism and mastery coming from the logos defined as logic, which promotes scientific reductionism and thus falling victim to a metaphysics of presence which cuts off the questioning of being from being instead of ‘letting beings be’ (i.e. understanding the necessarily withdrawn nature of objects and not representing them as defined solely as something or other). Language is therefore very important for Heidegger, as changes in the understanding of language, what it is and what it is for, reorientates our being-in-the-world, calls us to abstract our world in new ways, which can mean we flee from being as being, into a purely calculative and instrumentalized notion of being as representation or face being with authentic resoluteness.
The Tower of Babel story ends with the people of Babylon now scattered across the land, with different tongues incompatible with each other. It is now very difficult to collaborate as they don’t understand each others desire and have no homogenized inter-subjective desire of their own. For Heidegger, language acts as a horizon. This means that the limits of our language limit the world of our engagement. We engage in the world of symbolic importance where things have place (topos), meaning (logos) and purpose (telos). This is why we have temporality, as our being is stretched over time, where the past and the future both have meaning in the actuality of the present moment. We are always projecting forward and back to maintain our own place within the symbolic life-world and to gain our measure of being from what is inter-subjectively gauged as important.
The story of the Tower of Babel is not, I believe, supposed to be taken literally. What I have demonstrate is that miscommunication as an essential part Dasein’s facticity (the fact of being bound and handed over into a world of engaged relation) and the desire to transcend this horizon is something demonstrable in ancient historical texts such as the Bible and in modern television programs. The Tower of Babel story works as a story which reveals the finite capacities of human kind in relation to the infinite powers of God, and thus uses the trauma of castration as a vehicle for religious belief. The two Ronnies however have no such agenda. Comedy here acts not as some kind of Schopenhauerian anesthetic to the anxiety of existence, but as the affirmation of the very lack that allows for the formation of the subject. Corbett’s escape into the back room only emphasizes his fixation to the unpassable rock of castration. Yet it is the sketch itself uses the ambiguity and confusion of language to achieve jouissance: only the viewers who perform the function of Corbett’s mocking super ego recognise the farcical situation with an affirmative laugh.