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A Name in the Sky
Babel Builder as BS Job
“Everyone on earth had the same language and the same words.” (Genesis 11:1)
“We have become a civilization based on work—not even “productive work” but work as an end and meaning in itself.” (David Graeber, Bullsh*t Jobs: A Theory)
It’s striking that no named characters are involved in the construction of the Tower of Babel. All action and deliberation are conducted by an anonymous “they.” The absence of names is highlighted by the fact that right after the story ends we are greeted by the words, “This is the line of Shem.” Shem is not only a name, but it’s a name whose meaning is name. The unity achieved by the Tower builders is a unity that erases or diminishes names. It is the unity of a society that desires the same things, a “society of spectacle,” a world in which the product is advertising, the audience is the message. The tower is one big pointer leading everyone’s eyeballs to the same place: Look, this is important because everyone is looking at it. The tower is trending. Only a fool or a punk would look away.
Numerous speculations exist as to why the builders decided on a tower: Was it a highpoint from which to avoid another flood? Was it a surveillance tower to ensure social conformity and groupthink? Was it a path to reach heaven, or perhaps even a battering ram with which to declare war on God? Perhaps the tower was simply a jobs program. Maybe it was a road to nowhere inspired by the idea that any activity is good to stimulate the economy; maybe it was a piece of legitimate infrastructure that would ensure greater social alignment. Was the tower an idol people could worship, akin to the golden calf? Was it a totem expressing society’s self-conception? Could it be that the tower performed all of these functions and more? Whatever the motivation—this architectural project was a symptom of a world without names. Those who don’t know their own name seek to make a name for themselves. Those who have no intrinsic motivation are happy to let society dictate their desires.
Although the builders say “Come, let us make a name for ourselves” (ironic!) perhaps what they mean is “let us make a reputation for ourselves.” God tells Abraham that he will make his name great, and one commentary suggests that God is telling Abraham that he will have a great reputation despite uprooting from his original home where he is well known. Reputation is a kind of social currency. The builders seek to enrich their status. Perhaps the people are more interested in the optics of their endeavor, though, than the substance of it. The whole thing is a kind of Fugazi. This is the risk when you focus too much on reputation, instead of asking what is right or what is honest or what is divine. Oppressive institutions are built and maintained when people prize reputation above conscience. What follows here is my Midrashic attempt to elaborate a new reading of the Tower of Babel. In short, working on the Tower is what the late anarchist thinker David Graeber calls, for lack of a better term, a bullsh*t job.
The standard reading of the Babel story is that the Tower is a real threat to God. God doesn’t want the people to advance in knowledge or unity and so confounds them. Fine. But what if the threat is that the people are wasting their time on a useless project and calling it a technological advance? Or what if the technological advance is not worth the effort, is more a show of busy-ness than genuine impact? If so, the groupthink characteristic of the project is the obstruction to seeing the idiocy of the tower in the first place. Perhaps that came out too harsh. The tower serves a role—it’s a watering hole where people come together to work on a common project. But is the fact of a common project enough to ensure a good society? Hardly.
Like universities, the tower is a place where people can network and assortatively mate. And it’s prestigious to say that you put in your four years working on the top section of the tower of Babel. Like with universities, people walk away after four years with a name for themselves—a diploma. One credential leads to another. You can spend your life ascending the Tower from one rung of prestige to another. Nobody can take away from you the time spent working on the tower. Your resume is a series of climbs. The tower is your name. Maybe you learned something there, met some inspiring peers and mentors, developed some skills and passions, but what matters is that you put in your time. You showed you could keep your head down and work. You are reliable. If you could build the tower, you could do anything—but by the time you are given the freedom you want what everyone else wants—to keep building the tower.
Still, no person asks “Is this really the project on which I should be working?” One builds the tower because that’s what’s done. Everyone had the same language and the same words. Total humanitarian unity is misdirected—it seeks to solve the same problem, but it is the unity itself that is the problem.
God fears that “nothing they do will be out of reach.” On my Midrashic interpretation, God doesn’t fear the people’s unlimited power, but their lack of creativity—they will do that which is within reach, that which is easy, that which guarantees good metrics on the dashboard while eschewing that which is more aspirational. “Nothing out of reach” means hyper-focus on what is doable. This is a common logic we find today. Something must be done. This here is something. This here must be done. The tower builders are inspired by a spirit of activism, but activity is not inherently good. The key to resisting pseudo projects, and the key to opposing groupthink, is to know your own name.
In the previous parasha we find that the primal Adam names the animals as part of the process of seeking a mate; eventually he finds a partner in the being that has been carved from out of his own flesh—his recognition of the fit goes hand in hand with naming.
Then the Human said,
“This one at last
Is bone of my bones
And flesh of my flesh.
This one shall be called Woman
To name is to love. But the builders have sought not to give a name but to make a name, not to receive a name, but to take one. The builders lack love. The society in which the tower is prized above all is one lacking not just in names, but in relationships—there are no children, no spouses. Thus, the jump to “This is the line of Shem” highlights a contrast between the attempt to generate meaning through civilizational building projects and the more humble but more enduring and obvious path of finding meaning through family. The Tower Builders are full of unity, but only for builders, not for families, not for selves that hold multiple roles and sets of responsibilities. The Tower Builders have no concern for God’s blessing to be fruitful and multiply because they will create a monument that can outlast humanity, a relic for the roaches. Although building generally tends to be a form of hope and belief in the future, I take the specific tower of Babel to be a kind of false longevity, an artificial immortality. If we could just get to heaven, we could stop being human. The name the Builders seek must be other than the one they’ve already been given. Adam gets his name from earth and dust, the builders seek a name for themselves in the sky.
There are numerous lessons to be gleaned from the Babel tale, but the one I’d like to emphasize is this: The seemingly glorious project is not always the one that leads to greater flourishing, either for individuals or society. It can be uncool to care about one’s own family and private relationships, and humbly stay home, in the face of social pressures to join some activist commotion and show that one supports the latest cause, but an over-focus on the pursuit of reputation outsources moral reasoning to average opinion. There isn’t one way and shouldn’t be one way to make the world better. Working without purpose, just for the sake of being busy, or doing what everyone else is doing, isn’t great or noble—it’s punting on finding one’s own name. The Emperor has no clothes. The building is a vanity project. The impressive “man hours” put into it are in vain long before God confounds human speech.
The best protection against social uniformity is love. Love makes uncomfortable alliances that change the social fabric, breaking up its stony layers by cutting across class lines and ideological lines. It is not good to be alone—but the unity of the builders is a form of loneliness, leaving no room for love, naming, alterity. Instead of “flesh of one flesh” we read of “Brick served them as stone, and bitumen served them as mortar.” Put love first and the right structures will follow.
Zohar Atkins @ Etz Hasadeh