Babel. The Global Community Imagined Through a Multi-Voiced Story

Term Paper 2007 12 Pages

German Studies - Miscellaneous


I. Introduction

While the structure of narration used in the 19th and early 20th century to imagine a national community and to create an identity was one characterized by linearity, chronology, and homogeneity, current mass culture is engaged in the search for other ways to shape the idea of a now global community. This paper analyzes the movie Babel that exemplifies the way cinema art can deconstruct the traditional linearity in time and place of its narration and replace it with a fragmented and network-like set of stories.

This shift is most visible and developed in the American cinema (Pulp Fiction, Go, 21 Gram, City of God, Amores Perros, Crash, Sin City, Magnolia, Memento, Donnie Darko), but also increasingly appears in European productions (One Day in Europe).

Considering the worldwide effects of globalization and mass culture that attempts to deal with global impacts on society, politics, and cultures, it is more important to acknowledge that this shift is occurring in Western culture than stressing whether a particular movie was produced in Europe or the Americas. I argue that this emergence of fragmented network stories can be seen as evidence of mainstream culture concerned with and carrying on the effects of globalization on human relations.

After exposing how the traditional linear cinematic narration is replaced by a network of fragments of stories and time pieces, I will argue that the connection of mainstream culture with this new type of narrativity is a representation of the economic and political struggles at a global scale. Furthermore, I will display how culture, previously attempted to create an image of the nation by narrating linear stories, now creates the master-narration of a global community and how this can be used as a tool to critique world politics.

II. Cinema Narration and the Image of the Global Community

Babel is really about people who are not trying to do any damage, but they [end up] doing a lot of damage. And how around the world, the damage grows huge proportions.”[1] This is how writer Guillermo Arriaga describes the essence of the contents of Babel. The storyline of Babel is fragmented into four interconnected stories. Those are further divided into smaller segments of sub-stories and supporting elements. The equivalence in time and narration of the episodes is rearranged and splintered into a non-chronological mosaic. Arriaga connects this structure of the movie with the stories it tells: “For me it’s not only a matter of narrative connection. It’s ironic. Japanese kids who have nothing to do with the Moroccan story are the origin of the tragedy.”[2]

Immediately, the question of the very connection between structure of the narration and perception of the world represented though the narration arises. I will show how Babel, though a part of cinema mass culture, violates many of the basic principles and characteristics that were up to now used to describe mainstream film, and how the movie re-narrates the story that once was told to imagine a national community – now to tell a different story.

Mainstream movies are usually described as commercial films with wide releases in theatres. They are associated with popularity, mass culture and success at the office box. With the use of Eder’s description of mainstream movies, I will exemplify how cinema theory tries to analyze the structure of successful films. According to Eder, the first and most important characteristic is the telling of one single story.[3] The popular movie treats one problem and its solution. This question-and-answer-narration is exemplified by a single story, acted and represented by one protagonist. Further characteristics specify the form of exposition, development of action, plots, solution and end of the movie, all being subordinated under the linearity, chronology and singularity of storyline.

The connection between a linear, single-voiced, homogeneous narration and popularity also appears in the examination of the origins and creation of another cultural phenomenon: nationalism. The vision of the nation was articulated and spread all over the world through narration, languages-of-the-state, press technology and imperialism.[4] Anderson argues that the model of the nation state and the image of unity as a people were successful in the past because they provided an answer to the demand of identification. They fostered a certain perception of the world that enabled people to imagine themselves as a community.[5] The linearity of narration goes along with the construction of a cultural opposition of the self and the other and can therefore be seen as an example of the efforts of culture to construct an imagined community. What does the non-linearity and multi-voicedness of Babel connect to, when the single story connects to the homogeneity and linearity inherent in the cultural constructions of the nation as a basic idea of a political community?

Just as press technology enabled mass distribution of texts and ideas in the early 20th century which served the image of the nation, cinema technology might be viewed as a further step of imagining the audience as a worldwide community of viewers.[6] For a long time, successful movies usually followed the pattern of a single story to be told chronologically and in causal relations. While thereby creating a core of similarly structured narrations, there were always irregularities at the edges which were called independent or art cinema. In the past, violations of the univocal mainstream culture were seen as possibilities of encountering and subverting the imagined homogeneity which was often criticized as mass deception.[7]


[1] Arriaga quoted in: Motskin: Out Of Many Voices, 57.

[2] Arriaga quoted in: Motskin: Out Of Many Voices, 58.

[3] Eder: Dramaturgie des populären Films, 35.

[4] See Belgum: Popularizing the Nation, xi-xx.

[5] See Anderson: Imagined Communities.

[6] Benjamin views the film as the most powerful parts of modern mass culture in this regard. See Benjamin: Illuminations, 221-222 and 229-233.

[7] Adorno/Horkheimer: The Culture Industry.


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Georgetown University – German Department
Babel Global Community Imagined Through Multi-Voiced Story



Title: Babel. The Global Community Imagined Through a Multi-Voiced Story