Georgia, Virtuality and the Tower of Babel

This is a combination of thoughts, frights and beliefs that I have. I hope that it will be interesting to read for others, but, as always, writing is more than anything a way to help myself schematise what appears in my head to be complex, making it into a productive metaphor and dichotomising myself into both the writer and the reader. I have also had a cup of coffee, which does have quite an altering effect on my train of thoughts, so I apologize for what may appear as a pile of stuff.

I have been in Georgia for two weeks now. Tbilisi is a very beautiful city, quite interesting too. As my housemate put it the other day on his return from Abkhazia, interesting is a very diplomatic, but also not very revealing, way of describing. However, I do find the place very interesting and multi-layered. Often, I find myself drunk, not only because of the amount of vodka and chacha Georgian hospitality has to offer at more or less every street corner, and more or less every time of the day, but also because of the amount of political, historical and cultural information and facts that I find myself imbibed in. However, faced with this storm of – easily accessible- information[1] and friendliness, I am still very lost.

I had a very clear picture of how this place would be before coming here, thanks to Wikipedia, a guide book, and my conversations with people who had been here or knew of the place somehow. I had also watched the map of the area many times. I knew it by heart. On the scale of the world, I am halfway between Belgium and India. I even knew who I was going to live with and had quite a clear idea of what they would be like. I spent many hours imagining what the place would be like, forging myself a picture, a picture that had a lot of depth, in the sense that I could even imagine what the interests of my housemates and the people I would meet would be like, and even imagine the conversations and interesting arguments that we may have during the year. The result is that I feel like I have been parachuted into a picture, and therefore I find it hard to accept this picture as real, whatever real may mean.

To a certain extent, I feel like whether this picture is real or not isn’t the issue, as I am myself making it real by living it. Maybe a good way of describing this feeling would be by using the metaphor of an architect. The architect draws the plan of a house – the picture – and then makes the house, and the picture becomes real – physical. Another way of putting this would be that it is as though I made myself glasses before coming here, glasses that see the world in a certain way, and that therefore whatever I may see will be tinted by these glasses.

Many times before coming here I thought of adding my housemates on Facebook. The temptation was great since I wanted to know what they were like, as I was going to spend a year here, and furthermore, all that it would have required of me was a few clicks on my computer. I am now very glad that I didn’t add them on Facebook before coming here, since that would have just added some pixels to the picture I had, and strengthened the feeling of virtuality that I am still in. This feeling gives me the impression that I have somehow not arrived here yet. This is also accentuated by the fact that I took a plane to get here, in which I was sleeping the whole way. I even started sleeping before the plane left Gatwick airport, which therefore further shortens the gap between the picture I had before leaving and the place I arrived in.

Someone told me the other day about a cultural difference that he feels with some Georgians (he isn’t Georgian), and how it makes it more difficult to ‘link’ with these people. As an anthropologist, I have been told many times of the benefits of a ‘cultural shock’, as anthropological knowledge originates in this ‘explosion of difference’. Why is it that in some cases we feel more of a cultural shock than in others? Why is a cultural shock good or why would it be bad? I will attempt to give an answer to these questions, because I believe that they are useful in understanding what globalization is, and because ‘cultural difference’ tends to be easily –sometimes too easily- used in our everyday world as a way of explaining larger dynamics. I have recently been spending much time with an American who constantly – whether it is as a way of provoking me or not – talks about cultural difference between the west and either Russia or Latin America or the Arab world (this is a very summarized summary of our conversations, which suppresses unfairly all the subtleties of his argument, but hopefully he will read this essay and if he wishes comment on it). And in these conversations, I get scared that ‘cultural difference’ becomes an easy reason for the need to spread the Western culture, which is apparently less violent, as we can apparently see from examples such as Syria.

Globalization is a great thing in the sense that it really facilitates the meeting of people. I am far away from my family and friends, but yet I am in constant contact with them all the time. At the same time, I already have much in common with the people here: I watch similar movies, I have similar desires (as I am constantly targeted by similar adverts), I have a similar education, I use the same way to make transactions and economical exchanges, I wear similar clothes and I have similar (if not exactly the same), mediums of communication. I also have very similar tools to describe myself, the same list of criteria to explain who I am, through such things as Facebook or CVs or cameras. Therefore, when I get to Georgia, I have already a very large common ground of things that we can relate to, therefore a very large ground on which to start relationships and friendships. And, to be honest, this suits me very well and I am not sure I would have been brave enough to come here if this wasn’t the case. However, these things are also what we are – to a negotiable extent – made of. What we choose to eat, wear, think, watch, be… is what creates our personality.

I would like to share one last anecdote before bringing the Tower of Babel. I work here in an environmental NGO and felt that I should get in contact with other associations and groups of students here that are engaged in environmental awareness in Tbilisi. The language was quite a strong barrier, so I started using Google translate to translate Facebook groups and websites, and I was really impressed with its efficacy. However, the translation is only part of the reason why I could understand them, as what was more important was the fact that, as a student myself who has been involved in ‘green’ actions, I could very easily guess what they were talking about. Because of this, the Google translations were clear to me, even if some of the words Google used were wrong. Georgian is a language that apparently has no link to any other language, it even has an alphabet of its own, and yet I find myself understanding it without having any prior knowledge of it. Would it be that despite what Wikipedia[2] says, we speak a similar language?

I went for a beer the other day in the park just by my house to meet this friend that I was talking about earlier. The park is full of little bars where the beer is cheap, with plastic chairs and tables and has a nice fountain. The person next to me, also a foreigner, started talking about the Bible and I joined in the conversation. He said that the story of the Tower of Babel was all about how God was scared of humans taking power and that’s why God destroyed their tower, because it was allowing them to become higher than him. Earlier today, whilst reading a novel of the travels of a French man in India, I thought of another way of interpreting this story.

Globalization facilitates the meeting of others, as it allows us to already know and assume who the Other is before meeting them, and it allows us, when the meeting happens, to know on what levels we will be able to meet and share with the Other. There is not much room for surprise and discovery. I would go further and say that we do not truly meet the Other, we meet the image – the expectations – that we already have of the Other, which is a lot faster and enables us to become friends easily. However, in this sense, it is the images that become friends, rather than who we are?

In the story, God is scared that the humans will grow too strong, too high, with their Tower. Maybe God is scared that the humans might kill God, or kill what is godly in him/her. Lets assume, for the purpose of my interpretation, that what makes each of us different, what makes each of us creative, what makes each of us unique, intelligent, conscious of ourselves and the world around us is what IS God – in each of us. Indeed, those (our conscience, creativity, …) are often the ways in which we explain our difference with animals. So, maybe, the story tells us that when our images meet, when similarity is glorified as a path to partnerships and communication in the world, we are building a tower of Babel, we are refusing to meet the God within the Other, we are refusing to show the God within us to the Other, we are killing the God within humanity… as, though God is brought into existence, – given a purpose ?- in the interstice of these two ‘uniquenesses’ meeting, and when the building of the relationship grounds itself in this meeting (rather than the meeting of the images)…

In the Tower of Babel, people speak the same language…but what they build crumbles, it doesn’t hold together. Indeed, to build people need to take the time to know and understand each other, and each other’s differences as well as their similarities. This requires to go further than using the available templates that explain – codify – who the other person is … and this requires to go through a  ‘cultural’ shock. And more than anything, this requires time, something that we often run out of…

I have a beautiful view from my window… I can see the mountains far away and at the same time I can hear the cars of hundreds of Georgians. Tonight, I went to a restaurant with a few people, some Georgian and some foreign and I had some very nice and warm conversations. The people on the table next to us insisted on sharing drinks with us, and in the end we all started dancing together to some Azeri and Georgian music… and in those moments, the long rant that I have just shared seem pretty unimportant… but I think it was important for me to write it, to get rid of a few frustrations, and to land on the Georgian floor 🙂

[1] Vandana Shiva in the documentary “Schooling the World” says something along the lines of ‘we used to teach wisdom, and then we started teaching knowledge, and now we teach information’

[2] : see the article about demographics, second paragraph.