The Antilibrary of Babel

The Argentine writer (and librarian) Jorge Luis Borges regularly returned to two epic images from antiquity in his work: the Tower of Babel, signifying chaos and fragmentation, and the Library of Alexandria, signifying order and unity. Many references to his short story “The Library of Babel” miss the interplay between these two images in the text, focusing on the concept of the library while missing the more powerful dynamic of the specter of Babel. In Borges’s story, the image of Babel negates the vision of a Library. “The Library of Babel” is not a vision of a universal library but rather of an antilibrary.

More appropriately, “The Library of Babel” has been described as a prophetic vision of the internet. In the story the universe is equated to an artificial entity, “the Library,” which is infinite, without a center, and contains everything. As the inhabitants attempt to understand their universe, they discover that the Library contains all possible books—books full of meaning, purpose, and justification. Their first impression is joy. But when the import of “everything” is grasped, deep depression follows. Everything means that the faithful catalogue and any true texts are overwhelmed by their negations: “thousands and thousands of false catalogues, a demonstration of the fallacy of these catalogues, a demonstration of the fallacy of the true catalogue,” and every possible permutation and distortion of every text.

So “The Library of Babel” could be reimagined as the “Internet of Babel”: “The world, which others call the Internet, is composed of physical stuff connected to an indefinite and seemingly infinite information and communication network …”

Continue reading the “Internet of Babel.”