‘Too Much Contact, No More Feeling: ‘Abridged 0 – 49: Babel Submission Call (Expanded).

The Abridged new submission call is now out. We gave it the theme Babel. For those unfamiliar with the legend it’s from biblical (and related) sources which recount the story of how humanity decided to build a tower that would stretch up to the heavens. God didn’t like the architecture or approve of skyscrapers it seems (though He doesn’t have much objection these days) or more accurately didn’t want humanity to get too big for its boots: “And the Lord said, “Indeed the people are one and they all have one language, and this is what they begin to do; now nothing that they propose to do will be withheld from them” and caused people who had all previously spoken the one language to suddenly speak many with the result that no-one understood anyone else. Some people would say that’s pretty much the norm for building projects anyway but it meant that the Tower project was doomed and it was either blown down or burned to the ground. The name Babel comes from Hebrew word balal, meaning to jumble or to confuse. It could be said that God deliberately introduced misunderstanding into the world, which produced fear which produced…nearly every bad thing ever. There really isn’t much need for a Devil in the Old Testament.

Interestingly there are legends that claim that the original Garden of Eden language is actually Gaelic or that Gaelic was constructed by taking the best bits of all the other languages created after the fall of Babel with the ‘Tower’ building materials being a metaphor for the grammatical elements of a language. Umberto Eco observes:

It is contained in an attempt, on the part of the Irish grammarians, to defend spoken Gaelic over written Latin. In a work entitled Auracepit na n-Éces (‘the precepts of the poets’), the Irish grammarians refer to the structural material of the tower of Babel as follows: ‘Others affirm that in the tower there were only nine materials, and that these were clay and water, wool and blood, wood and lime, pitch, linen and bitumen…These represent noun, pronoun, verb, adverb, participle, conjunction, preposition, interjection.’ Ignoring the anomaly of the nine parts of the tower and only eight parts of speech, we are meant to understand that the structure of language and the construction of the tower are analogous. This is part of an argument that the Gaelic language constituted the first and only instance of a language that overcame the confusion of tongues. It was the first, programmed language, constructed after the confusion of tongues, and created by the seventy-two wise men of the school of Fenius. (Umberto Eco (1995) The Search for a Perfect Language (trans. James Fentress), London: Fontana Press, pp. 1, 17, 18.)

According to legend a possible originator of the Irish, King Fenius (who had somehow managed to keep his native language), the ruler of Scythia (in central Asia) visited the Tower site shortly after it had been destroyed, but found everyone dispersed to all corners of the world. Fenius however stayed at the Tower site but sent out seventy-two scholars to study each of the seventy-two languages (apparently there were now that many new languages, one each for the tribes that had built the tower). After ten years the scholars he dispatched returned and Fenius took the best parts of each language in order to create a “selected language”, which he named Goidelic after his companion Goídel mac Ethéoir. Fenius is also reputed to have discovered four writing systems, Hebrew, Greek, Latin and Ogham, and as Ogham was the most perfect of the four it was chosen for writing the Goidelic (i.e. Irish) language. Presumably a quite vicious God wasn’t narked by this blatant attempt to circumvent His will. Or given the subsequent history of Ireland maybe He was.

At any rate legends such as Babel, brimful of myth, metaphors, half-truths and complete lies are ideal for an exploration of the myriad voices and languages of the Internet where judgement is likewise harsh, puzzling and often instant. The first time ‘troll’ appeared coincidentally was in relation to structures i.e. bridges and in particular the hiding underneath of and the terrorising of goats passing above. The word “troll” first popped up in the early days of the internet, in forums like Usenet and BBS. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the earliest known mention of the word in the context of the internet was Dec. 14, 1992 in the Usenet group alt.folklore.urban, which was (in the light of things to come quite ironic) dedicated to discussing and debunking urban legends. The term evolved (if that’s the right word) into the description of a person embracing a troll persona and attacking/abusing people they (usually) don’t know for no reason other than the act itself in some act of perverse online identity definition. In fact it may be that ‘trolling’ is too kind a word and misogynistic/racist abuse should be called exactly that and not given semi-legitimacy as  almost a philosophical or subversive position to hold.

One of the most recent and notorious instances of ‘trolling’ was Gamergate in which female journalists, game developers and game-players as well as feminist critics were subject to death and rape threats from (usually) anonymous and male gamers. Gamergate could be seen as an early blow in the battle against liberal values currently raging in the USA. It has been noted that:

the controversy has been described as a manifestation of a culture war over cultural diversification, artistic recognition, and social criticism in video games, and over the social identity of gamers. Many supporters of Gamergate oppose what they view as the increasing influence of feminism on video game culture. As a result, Gamergate is often viewed as a right-wing backlash against progressivism. Gamergate supporters claim to perceive collusion between the press and feminists, progressives, and social critics.   

Undoubtedly there are positive elements to our online society but the (theoretical) anonymity has bred a multitude of keyboard warriors that see abuse as a legitimate tactic in whatever war they see themselves as waging. Equally worrying is that now in our ‘post-truth’ society we have developed a suspicion of even legitimate and logical points of view. This is an echoing of the fear of the ‘expert’ that grips society every now and again where the ‘authoritative’ voice is replaced by emotion and instinct. In our loneliness we embrace the extremes of language and simplicity of existence – it’s the fault of A, B or C taking or jobs, or living on benefits – or somehow both at the same time. Equally we feel lost in a sea of words. Everyone of us has a story but apparently there’s no one to listen to them.

Susanna Galbraith points this out in the Abridged 0 – 49: Babel Submission Call:

‘”Tell me people LIKE me, that I am being FOLLOWED, that my profile is being HIT, that I am being WATCHED. Tell me so I can hear it from everyone and everywhere. Tell me so I can know there might be others who are like me somehow, for I have no other way of knowing.

It is hard to ignore how prolific this scene has become among us: Two companions sit at a table in a cafe among the other cafe-goers. They do not look at each other, do not talk to each other. They are reading each other’s facebook pages and twitter feeds. Perhaps they voice a comment passively across the table. But such speech dissipates like smoke, leaving no mark, unlike the words rolling on their screens, those that have been carved into the stuff of the internet.  Alone, these companions log into the online, into what is more so the world to them than the cafe and the city in which they sit. The potency of their immediate physical proximity, of the fact of them sitting there together, is drowned out by the vigour of such an omnipresent and omnipotent network of expression.

But feeding on such attention and interaction, we are malnourished. We construct ourselves as towers of online exchanges, but the walls of such towers are as insecure as vapour, substanceless, having been built out of nothing but words, and these words having lost their truth. Such towers lead not into the transcendent and the not-yet-known but swallow themselves back into the virulent currents of online, into the violent and cannibalistic world of unbridled and bodiless speech.”

We are now never alone but often feel lonely. Not the cliched loneliness of feeling alone in a crowed room but the angry frustration of the unheard, the unloved, those who realise that having a voice is no longer enough in a sea of stories:

‘The world we live in is so enormous now – because we have the means of reaching all over it, and because it is constantly present in its entirety – that the very notion of being alone is terrifying. Agoraphobia has come as a symptom of our scattering. Each participant in this world is exposed to torrents of assault that are thrown out without consequence or empathy. There is no safe locality, no intimate caves or towers in which to hear ourselves or our communities echoing. There is only open space where each of our mutterings are consumed like a drop of water into an ocean. We can hear nothing real for the cacophonous blend of murmuring filling our ears like a deafening and incapacitating sea. “Too much contact, no more feeling.

It’s notoriously hard to predict what comes next in communication and language but one thing that we can probably say with some certainty is that there will be trolls emerging from their darkness to confuse, intimidate and abuse. Some will be the lone keyboard warriors, some will be ‘fake news’ producers paid for by industry or government and all will attempt to muddy the waters of ‘progress’.

Babel – Abridged 0-49: Submission Call (by Susanna Galbraith)

Speaking one language was living one language when they came together to build something that reached toward the above and beyond. In an utopia of unification and pure communication they were elevating themselves together. They were the makers of an axis of worlds, bridging earthly and heavenly, heavy and weightless, rough and holy, body and mind, mess of matter and the idea of perfection beyond such mess. The bridging tower would mean completeness, the unification of all that it meant to be. And its foundations and substance were the cooperation of its unity of builders. And communication made them one in their building, a whole of the parts. And they were making a whole of the parts of the universe, earth and sky.  But, so the story goes, man has no right to such unity, or ultimately no such capacity. Some great force, whether from the earth or the heavens, shattered their plane of one language into shards of multifarious tongues. Each shard became alone, growing and modifying alone. There was to be no jigsawing. There was to be no single tower of completeness but millions of individuals, each in their own way reaching and crumbling, each standing alone. With such a fragmenting, so fragmented the links not only between divine and profane and between person and person, but between being and thinking, between person and self. They were left floundering in acquired and diverse language systems, seas of words that submerged the known world, that remain somewhat alien as an element, filling the gaps between bodies, filling mouths when they try to speak truth.

We are post-truth. So we are told, so we have been informed with such unrelenting frequency recently that even this term could be at risk of losing its meaning, of becoming only the sounds and shapes that make up its utterance, more verbal clutter littering the ether. Post-truth: it means words have overwhelmed us. It says they are treacherous, no longer nourish us with knowledge but instead suffocate with meaninglessness. As God before, truth is dead. Post-truth is the burdensome corpse of communication.

Abridged 0-49 is Babel, concerning the fall-out from the reactionary combination of two elements that have become fundamental in contemporary life: post-truth and social media. Our lives orientate around the aspiration for maximal connection. Online, it seems, is a parallel existence to our “real world” in which we are never alone, and where we have the capacity to speak out on a global platform, to anyone and everyone. But could it be that this new apparent root-system, this verbal deluge turbulent beneath each moment of our daily lives, leaves us ultimately detached? “Too much contact, no more feeling.”

Abridged is looking for poetry and art for its 0 – 49: Babel issue. Up to four poems can be submitted and art can be up to A4 landscape and should be 300dpi or above. Submissions should be sent to abridged@ymail.com and the end date for submissions is 24th March 2017. Please note that this is a landscape issue.

Image: Dara McGrath: Kimbolton Cambridgeshire 2012 fom Cleansweep series. Located approx 2 miles outside of Kimbolton Cambridgeshire. This railroad siding was used for the temporary storage and then the transfer of chemical weapons to the Forward Filling Depots The forward filling depots were remote bases scattered throughout the area that housed large stockpiles of chemical weapons for which the British army were to use against the invading German army. Today Kimbolton is under agricultural usage and its predominant use is as a feeding place for livestock

Abridged is supported by the Arts Council of Northern Ireland.