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The Archives of Babel
September 25, 2009 - February 26, 2010
Reception on October 30, 2009; 4:00-6:00 p.m. in the Pitts Room
Introduction to the exhibition presented at 4:30 p.m.

“The Archives of Babel” at Furman University’s Special Collections and Archives cannot, obviously, house a complete collection of works in every language. However, Special Collections and Archives does contain a surprising array of materials written both in and about a variety of languages. With this exhibition, we hope to display a small and diverse sampling of materials featuring different languages and with varying dates of origin. Understanding language to be an effort at communication or articulation that is bound by context, we aim to broaden notions of language to include non-traditional forms, including music, film, and visual media. If humankind failed to attain infinitude in height or in a universal discourse, we have very nearly achieved it through the breadth, depth, and diversity of language.

Linguists define a language as “a speech variety that is not mutually intelligible with other speech varieties” (Bernard Comrie in Aronoff and Ress-Miller, 2001, p. 19). Many linguists consider the topic of the origin of language(s) to be too speculative to take seriously as a legitimate field of debate. Quasi-scientific attempts to answer this question from the past two hundred years have produced theories ranging from the Natural Sounds Source theory (i.e., lexicons derive from an onomatopoeic imitation of surroundings) to the Yo-Heave-Ho theory, which speculates that language evolved from the sounds workers made as they performed their tasks. Divine Origin theory, on the other hand, claims that a divine source provided humankind with the means to communicate in the form of language. Specifically, the Judeo-Christian tradition holds that human efforts to construct a tower reaching to heaven were thwarted by God. The punishment imposed: a fracturing of a universal mode of communication into a multitude of languages.

The story of humankind’s relationship to language is driven by the inevitable tension between celebrating difference (or at the very least, acknowledging it) and striving to overcome it. Numerous attempts have been made to recreate the scene of Babel and attain infinitude and universal comprehension. This “Dream of a Common Language” has surfaced in philosophy, poetry, art, music, film, and science. The visual and audio elements of “The Archives of Babel” represent forms of languages as much as writing and speech, and in this capacity they ostensibly fulfill such historical efforts to repair Babel more successfully than written or spoken language. Although the audiovisual arts often succeed in eliminating the logistical barriers of traditional language, such media cannot be said to be universal or free from the taint of context.

“The Archives of Babel” is marked by a relative dearth of strictly visual or audio media. Rather, it is a deeply text-based collection, thereby highlighting the profound and numerous differences of these many languages – a fact that will strike a majority of non-polyglots as uncomfortably obvious. Not only do the vast differences between these languages span culture and location, they also demonstrate the weight of history by morphing over time.

Danielle Fisher

Works Consulted
Aronoff, Mark and Janie Rees-Miller, eds. The Handbook of Linguistics. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers, 2001.
Barthes, Roland. Mythologies. New York: Hill and Wang, 1972.
Encyclopedia Brittanica Online
Hansen, Miriam. Babel and Babylon: Spectatorship in American Silent Film. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UPress, 1991.
Heller-Roazen, Daniel. Echolalias: On the Forgetting of Language New York: Zone Books, 2005
Link to the "Family of Man" exhibition:
Link to Roland Barthes' "The Great Family of Man" essay:
Images courtesy of Roxanne Chase, Graphic Designer