How boundaries are formed in a more transparent world

Last night at the Social Business Tweetup in San Francisco, I had a conversation with Stowe Boyd about new ways boundaries will be constructed in a world of increased transparency. In the personal world and the business world, more is transparent, boundaries are more porous; boundaries continue to exist, and are created in some different ways.

Signal to noise. When constant streams of talk and data are available, the biggest need is for tools and affordances to manage attention and improve signal to noise. This is a difficult design problem – Facebook, for example, has moved away from hard-to-use individual controls, in favor of not-very-useful algorithmic filters.

Social context I talked at the party to someone working on a startup that is providing tools, analogous to Twibes but with different use cases, to make visible ad hoc groups on Twitter. Even in a public stream, people need ways of paying focused attention to sets of other people.

Shared identity creation. Stowe talked about a changing understanding about disclosure – a privacy-focused model imagines the individual as a source of identity information that is shared. An alternative model imagines aspects of identity as being created within the contexts of subcultures. This view of identity formation isn’t new. But thinking about identity in this way in a digital context leads, for example, to different ways of thinking about decentralized profile information. Maybe you don’t make a central profile and share aspects of it, but create aspects of a profile in a subculture context and choose what to aggregate.

Social thickness Even when conversations are publicly visible, not all conversations are socially accessible. There are purely social norms and processes of group formation, with different levels of social ties operating in social context where everyone can nominally see what’s happening. These are enacted at the level of talk and patterns of reply. Social network analysis can see some of this, the sensitive question is to what end, since the social processes are subtle, and algorithmic approaches are unsubtle (think Facebooks’ reminders to get in touch with people who are famous or people you don’t talk to for good reasons.)

Power at the interface Organizations continue to have boundaries. Naive uses of social media put powerless “watchers” at the boundaries – the representative of Citibank who tells me soothing words when Citi blocks my card yet again, because I shop in batches, but has no power to affect their algorithm or their design for transaction verification. Better would be internal collaboration at the boundary, allowing the organization to react with power to signals it watches for.

Stowe has been talking about his take on these trends using the term publicy. The consequences of these trends for business will be discussed at the upcoming Social Business Edge conference on April 19 in New York.

Social design in the physical world – touch screen table exhibits

With new interface technologies, social interaction design can come into play when people are in the same room. When I was in the Boston area on vacation, I ran into Henry Kaufman, one of the principals of Tactable a design and development shop that makes interactive touchscreen exhibits and technologies for museum and commercial installations.

Kaufman gave me a tour of their studio, in a carriage house in a residential neighborhood near Harvard Square. The installations have iPhone like touchscreens the size of one or two dining room tables. Kaufman explained that visitors typically engage with an installation for 30 seconds to 5 minutes – the designs need to be immediately understandable and offer an engaging experience in these little bursts of time.

One new project Tactable has under development is an interactive table called Map of the Future that will be part of an NSF-funded exhibit about climate change. Visitors need to figure out that coaster-like disks, placed on the table and rotated, control a set of variables like fossil fuel use, solar energy, and conservation in sectors like buildings and transportation. These variables change the climate, energy balance, and political stability. Controls are split between the developed world and the developing world, which have very different starting points and drivers of change.

Visitors get visual feedback of the state of the simulation via a thermometer that shows the overall level of atmospheric carbon, an animated cloud on the table shows the atmosphere becoming more or less polluted with carbon, and signs of crisis or unrest appear as flashing red dots around the image of the globe. As people turn the dials, brief messages pop up that tell the implications of setting a dial to the given level, for example, turning the Wind Power dial up may pop up a message like “You may see some windmills from your favorite beach”. Finally, “New from the Future” vignettes pop up periodically to play brief stories about the state of the world in 2075 given the settings of the whole set of dials.

Disks allow visitors to explore the factors that affect climate change

The climate change model uses a climate change simulation from the Sustainability Institute that converts carbon emissions into predicted climate change. This is the same simulation used by the State Department in climate change negotiations with other governments.

To really play with the model it helps to have several hands on the controls. People quickly learn that several can cooperate at the same time to explore and manipulate the model, and talk to each other to explore the relative affects of various changes. The model doesn’t come with instructions – it’s designed so that people will discover the controls, and learn to cooperate with each other to see what happens.

The Tactable team has done several rounds of user testing in the climate change exhibit. They found that different people notice different aspects of the model – the cloudiness of the sky, the thermometer with the amount of carbon in the atmosphere, the symbols of change, the news stories. The different symbols enable different people to perceive different aspects of the model, and teach them to each other. Some participants figure out how to manipulate the model to cause the most havoc and destruction; even this is teaching the factors that cause damage.

Thermostat shows the level of and change CO2
Thermostat shows the level of and change CO2

Another example of social design is a table developed for a flagship store for Sprint, to promote the media and applications available on their mobile phones. Floating around the table are music player controls. A visitor can touch the player, choose which music to play, and play a song. How to make the experience of controlling a music player social? It is possible to pass a player across the table to pick another song.

But the most interesting social design decision was making it possible for more than one person to play different songs at the same time(!) One person can play a Lady Gaga tune, while someone else plays Taylor Swift. The people need to negotiate about the interruption (I’mma let you finish…) to determine whose music gets played. For the exhibit to be fun, people need to negotiate and have the opportunity to converse and share.

Visitors can play music, share the player, and negotiate whose music to listen to

One principle for successful design is to leave key interactions open-ended, while choosing which goals if any to explicitly support. TacTable’s designs are intended to provoke open-ended social interactions that support the goals of learning about climate change, and discovering music. Each tools and services needs to strike its own balance between open-endedness and goal affordances, for example Twitter itself is extremely open-ended, with no goals other than sharing information and conversation, while FourSquare builds in specific goals by awarding badges for visiting venues.

Many of the emerging techniques for social interaction design will deal with the dynamics of delay, and interchange when people are not in the same place at the same time. Even so-called “realtime” tools like Twitter are not quite realtime, and really realtime tools like IM have developed affordances to leave messages. The social designs that TacTable builds really are for people who are in the same physical space at the same time. The social affordances have to do with people learning to negotiate, collaborate, and share with the physical gestures of the interface, and conversation that is outside the device.

The social interaction design issues for applications in the physical world that the TacTable team handles are going to become more common in the near future. The hardware that TacTable uses cost six figures a few years ago, is down to the low 5 figures of hardware cost per installation, and falling. Mobile applications are also enabling new types of real-world realtime and neartime exchanges raising similar design issues and opportunities. TacTable’s work is cool in itself, and a harbinger of social design to come.

Kazys Vernelis on today’s network culture

Steven Shaviro’s analysis of network culture, published in 2003, seems already behind the times. Kazys Vernelis writes a comprehensive analysis of what’s obsolete about old views of network culture, and what’s salient about network culture today.

The Vernelis article describes a network culture that succeeds postmodernism. The dystopian worlds Shaviro analyzes are the projections of “late capitalist” postmodernism as described by Baudrillard and Fredric Jameson. Those worlds were characterized by corporate dominance, image and simulation, fragmentation, hallucination, social isolation. The network, in Shaviro’s world, is a solvent dissolving bonds to any real experience or connection.

Vernelis sees the network reconnecting: “today connection is more important than division. In contrast to digital culture, in network culture information is less the product of discrete processing units than of the networked relations between them, of links between people, between machines, and between machines and people.” He envisions new economic, esthetic, and social patterns, driven by peer production, remixing, and networked micropublics.

I think his analysis of the changed nature of the identity and the public sphere is spot on. Varnelis writes “the contemporary subject is constituted within the network. Instead of whole individuals, we are made up of multiple micro-publics, inhabiting simultaneously overlapping telecocoons, sharing telepresence with intimates with whom we are in near-constant contact… today we situate ourselves less as individuals and more as the product of multiple networks composed of both humans and things.” This is very different from the isolated, hallucinating, insane individuals in Shaviro’s world.

I think Vernelis’ model of the characteristics of network culture is strong, and addresses the way the postmodernist dystopias feel out of date. But I and don’t completely agree with his view of the consequences, or in some cases he would be inconclusive where I have an opinion.

Vernelis writes that in the new network culture “privacy is unimportant. Self is undone in the network, vs. self is conceptualized in the network.” I don’t think this is quite true. I think that defaults and assumptions are shifting, and that new notions of “publicy”, as articulated by Stowe Boyd and others, will rise to the fore, in which people consider, act, and develop more tools that facilitate faceted sharing according to social context; only a small amount of which will be hidden to the point of invisibility, and a larger amount will be localized by context, new norms of urban ignoring, and the need for everyone to maintain signal to noise sanity.

And on that subject, Vernelis shares the lament that “A Blackberry or telephone constantly receiving text messages encourages its owner to submit to a constantly distracted state”. He does not yet take up the insight advocated articulately by Howard Rheingold, and as I just discovered Tikva Morawati in her NYU thesis, that attention is a cultural practice amenable to wisdom; that we can learn a range of strategies of attention literacy that allow us to become smarter by participating in flows, and preserve focus by learning to turn them off. Also Vernelis sees the networked self as “an aggregator of information flows, a collection of links to others, a switching machine.” I see additional opportunities; personal, business and art forums of curation to actively organize flows and their elements within publics over time.

Vernelis I think rightly observes a change in the public sphere. He cites Habermas on the 20th century decline in the public sphere, in the face of mass media and privatization. Vernelis sees that the 21st century is experiencing a revival of networked publics, in the form of interest communities, forums, newsgroups, blogs. There are also characteristic risks, as observed by Clay Shirky and others, of power laws that act naturally to concentrate power, and what Robert Putnam calls cyber-balkanization that breaks apart opinion into a million isolated ineffective microcommunities. There are also new opportunities posed for organization across the network, integrating the network, physical communities and the physical world, and opportunities for enhanced practices of deliberation and action. But we as a society may or may not take these opportunities and make effective use of them.

In the realm of esthetics, I don’t think Vernelis is quite right. He identifies a “new realism in which art becomes a background to life,” I think this trend is right on, with the maps like those of Stamen Design as a exemplars of the overlay mashups of this sort of art. But he’s also ambivalent about the nature of remixing and peer production in culture. Vernelis quotes Bourriad observing that, like DJs or programmers, these artists “don’t really ‘create’ anymore, they reorganize”. Just because I have Winterjazzfest still on the brain, there’s a generation of musicians whose work is quite different in style but aligned in sensibility, where historical and contemporary materials are not just reorganized but synthesized into work that I think is really interesting, emotionally affecting, good art.

Vernelis expresses a concern that fan media may simply merely represent the colonization of everyday life by capital. I doubt it this is true. There is plenty of content that is derivative (though I would argue that derivative folk culture still has merit over a culture with a few superstars and a large number of passive consumers), and there will also be some subcultures and works that will have genius, depth and lasting value.

So, I think Vernelis has identified many salient characteristics of the new network culture, and poses an interesting framework for thinking about the attributes of our current world.

Cross-gender song covers, Romeo and Juliet

A little while ago, I had a Twitter conversation with Tracy Ruggles, Thomas Vanderwal, and Alan Lepofsky about gender and songwriting. One of the topics was how a song sounds different, depending on the gender of the singer.

Amy Ray of the Indigo Girls does an excellent cover version of Mark Knopfler’s Romeo and Juliet. As a lesbian, Amy Ray carries the passionate declaration of love for the female lover. In the live version in the link, she also makes a clever, subtle tweak in the chorus to change the power dynamics in the song’s story.

The “movie song” alluded to in Knopfler’s lyrics is “Somewhere” from West Side Story, in which Juliet expresses a plaintive hope that somewhere, there is a place and time for the star-crossed lovers.

Knopfler adapts the phrase for his Romeo, who’s been jilted by the Juliet in his song’s story: “When you gonna realize it was just that the time was wrong”. Knopfler’s phrasing comes across as arrogant and perhaps sexist – Romeo knows what the relationship means better than Juliet does.

Amy Ray sings the line differently in each of the three repetitions of the song’s chorus: “One day I’m gonna realize / One day you’re gonna realize / One day we’re gonna realize” … it was just that the time was wrong. In Ray’s version, the changed understanding would need to come from each and both of them.

She also does the same pronoun shift with the reference to West Side Story. Instead of giving Romeo sole ownership of insight that the lovers’ situation is “like the movie song”, Ray’s Romeo says “you know the movie song” and “we know the movie song” – Ray’s version is a plea for shared understanding of the situation.

p.s. Another strength of the cover is that Ray doesn’t just steal Knopfler’s phrasing which is definitive and hard to shake. Ray also takes advantage of her ability to sing more notes than Knopfler can. And she doesn’t try anything fancy on guitar which is just as well.

p.p.s. By contrast, the Killers’ cover clones Knopfler’s vocal phrasing, the National-like sound, and the guitar outro off the album. If you’re going to try and carbon copy why bother? And even Knopfler doesn’t copy himself – he does the ending solos different live instead of copying the album, here’s one or try some other live version from youtube.

p.p.p.s I was reminded to write this down after listening to a very very different take on Somewhere by Vijay Iyer’s jazz trio.

Connected, or What it means to live in the network society

Connected by Stephen Shaviro attempts to explicate the network society, through the perspective of postmodern theory and works of science fiction in literature, film, and music.

In his introduction, Shaviro cites Deleuze’s idea that philosophy can be seen as a type of science fiction. The thought-provoking and fun aspect of the book is the way that it fleshes out the connections between ideas in speculative fiction and other art, the ideas as expressed in theory and philosophy.

Using these techniques, the book explores a range of ideas and themes that shape experiences and perceptions of the networked world:

  • The network as a world of simulation, through images of Philip K Dick and William Gibson, and ideas of Berkeley, Nietzsche, Baudrillard
  • Distraction and information addiction, as in Transmetropolitan, di Fillipo’s Ciphers, and other works
  • Alienation in a world of images and microfame per Warhol
  • Cyborgism, the merging of human and android, in Gibson, the Matrix and other works
  • Corporate capitalist domination, where all relations are monetary and all beings are slaves, in Jeter’s Noir, Philip K Dick, JG Ballard, Gibson
  • Complete surveillance and self-surveillance, Foucault realized and dramatized
  • Hedonism in sex drugs and violence, Jeter, Transmet, Ballard

Shaviro’s picture of the networked future, as read through his sources, is a noirish, dystopian, kitsch-and-rubble-filled wasteland. The simulations of the virtual world has replaced anything that might have been construed as real, the solvent of capitalism has destroyed anything that might have been construed as relation. And Shaviro’s view of the past eliminates any illusion of nostalgia.

There is no human connection in this world of the network, only isolation. Leibnitzian monads are the model for individuals. The role models for identity and relationships are Andy Warhol and his coterie, who live lives self-defined by image and emptiness. The psychology in the book focuses on the solitary and noncommunicable experiences of hallucinogenic drug. Love and sex surely don’t provide any source of connection – choices include pornography, anonymous sex with sensorily augmented robots, femme-fatalism and horror-fiction nightmares where lovers turn into puddles of pulsing goo.

Corporations are supervillains. From Ballard’s Super-Cannes, “A giant multi-national like Fuji or General Motors sets its own morality. The company defines the rules that govern how you treat your spouse, where you educate your children, the sensible limits to stock market investment.” Describing the world of Jeter’s Noir, Shaviro writes that “Corporations are not subject to “the same rule of survival” as individuals; their struggle is a Neitzchean one to increase their dominance, rather than a Malthusian/Darwinian one just to survive.” Of course, the population of the Fortune 500 changes regularly – corporate empires rise and fall.

Now, these imaginary worlds are well-formed extrapolations of visible trends. There is artistic, intellectual, emotional, psychological merit in taking such trends and stretching them to fill an imagined world. That’s what science fiction does. KW Jeter’s Noir takes capitalism to its extreme; death is no escape from creditors, IP piracy is met with a fate worse than death; and advertising has moved from screens into neural synapses.

But, in reading the science fiction as theory, and the theory as explanatory of the fiction, Shaviro misses a few things. He describes how noir is an esthetic choice. “The allure of today’s retro noir stylization is that it makes even tho most intolerable situations bearable precisely by estheticizing them, by making them beautiful. But he also inhabits this choice, moves in, goes native, portraying this esthetic as the inevitable consequence of the properties of the networked world.

By inhabiting his sources, he is vulnerable to the fate that befalls science fiction commentary on its presence, which is to say swift, personal jetpack-style obsolescence. The swift obsolescence plays out esthetically – Shaviro uses 90s electronic music and music videos for stylistic atmosphere; this becomes a timebound soundtrack; think of images of Bjork androids singing and making love.

This also plays out in already-passe forecasts of technical trends In a work published in 2003, he highlights the dystopian nightmare of universal digital rights management, and misses the apparent victory several years later of unencrypted mp3s. In his attraction to the dystopic vision, he takes the conservative point of view that there is a binary choice: piracy or control, and misses the economic trends that Cory Doctorow saw at the time more clearly, that the enemy of most artists is obscurity not piracy, and the more a work is pirated, the more purchases there will be.

Shaviro is fond of pessimism, and this leads him to some distorted conclusions. He compares the network, which is dependent on external sources of energy, with a junkie addicted to heroin. But he misses the point that the network that requires energy input is all of life itself (11). Shaviro cites a scientific paper that you cannot get ride of information without dissipating energy in the form of friction or heat. Then he connects this physical observation directly to the problem of information overload (141). But he brings no evidence from neuroscience that cognitive problems caused by a profusion of digital messages are actually related to the physics of information storage. After all, our senses take on much more data than our mind observes already, and if the problem was the physical energy cost of discarding data, our minds would have melted already.

By inhabiting the fictional world, Shaviro also misses the ways that the dystopian worlds are an expression of fears. The book uses sources who are paranoid (Philip K Dick) or sociopathic (Burroughs) or otherwise mad (Nietszche); people whose entire worldview may have been consumed by pathology; but the creative works of the insane do not prove that sanity doesn’t exist. Several of the authors cited in the book (Gibson, Delaney) are apparently off the center of the bell curve but sane, at least to casual observers of the biographies and twitter feeds of living famous people.

Now, I like dystopian science fiction. My dad is a World War 2 refugee and my mother’s parents fled pogroms; my childhood nightmares featured the end of civilization. The end of the world is plausible and worthy of fear. But that’s not a proof that civilization is ending at any given time, with any specific apocalypse. Philosophers and theorists have articulated ideas about alienation and illusion and science fiction writers have illustrated them in dystopias, but that doesn’t make them inevitable.

Given the last decade’s focus on social networking, it’s particularly interesting to see utter absence of the social in Shaviro’s network. Shaviro concludes that the consequences of the network society is isolation, because everything is connected to everything else. But the lesson of social networking is that everything is not equally connected, there are tide pool-like social micro-environments even in technically open networks.

The gap, when you leave the social out of the network, is basic psychology. Shaviro quotes Burroughs: “if the biologic bank is open, anything you want, any being you imagined can be you. You only have to pay the biologic price.” Not in human society you can’t, murder and suicide have social consequences.

On the lighter side, Shaviro envisions the Experience Music Project as the epitome of network experience alienation, but already today, participants might be connected via their mobile phones across the exhibits.

Extrapolating a world of pervasive social networking, one might see different trends:
* echo chambers and re-created village social pressure
* surveillance images not as voyeurism but as social-network performance and stalking
* in place of alienated suburbia, neo-urbanism with social overlays in augmented reality
* in addition to the the distortions of physical space by cyberspace, new distortions of time with realtime streams

Perhaps these works of science fiction have been written already, recommendations welcome.

Social Technology Use and the Lifestage Fallacy

A number of years ago, research studies were published showing that teens were heavy users of instant messaging, and more likely to use IM and less likely to use email than adults. A very brief search shows that teens’ preferences for IM were observed in studies from 2005 and 2001 These results are often cited as showing that there are generational differences in social technology use – youth preferred synchronous communication, and email was going to inevitably decline.

This past weekend, the New York Times published an article quoting very recent work by Larry Rosen, a professor at California State University, showing continued differences between teens and twenty-somethings, in which teens use more IM, and the young adults use more email. Dr Rosen believes that these teens will have a persistent desire for instant response: “the newest generations, unlike their older peers, will expect an instant response from everyone they communicate with, and won’t have the patience for anything less.”

But wait. The people who are twenty-somethings now were teens not long ago. What has happened. Is there a longterm trend, with a progressive decline among age groups in the use of email, and a progressive rise in the use of IM? Or is it the case that twenty-somethings have entered the workplace, and now need to communicate with older people who are still stuck with email. Or is it the case that as adults, the twenty-somethings find that they have more need for asynchronous communication that does not disrupt the other person?

The data (or at least the reporting of it) isn’t clear. To assess technology preferences by generation, it’s not enough to survey teens and show that that they are different from adults. There need to be studies that cover a population over time showing whether technology preferences are stable by generation, or whether preferences shift by life stage , in the same way that other socialization practices change when people mature from their teens to adulthood.

It might be that there’s a longterm shift toward instant communication, among progressively younger people. But these studies don’t yet prove it.

If you’ve seen a time series that has evidence one way or another, please comment.

Reading the Rabbis: The Talmud as Literature

I read David Kraemer’s earlier book, the Mind of the Talmud soon after it came out in the 90s, and loved it. For those not familiar with it, the Talmud is a strange work. Nominally a large repository of Jewish law, it is a miscellanous compendium that also includes snippets of stories, commentary, philosophy, history, and other types of writing according to our categorization. Instead of a single threaded, logically developed argument, the Talmud is structured as an edited record of conversations that derived from an oral tradition.

Kraemer’s “The Mind of the Talmud” analyzes the distinctive literary forms of the Babylonian Talmud for what these forms reveal about the philosophical approach of the rabbis of the Talmud. Kraemer argues that Talmud’s methods reasoning with debates, stories, and interpretation posed a deliberate alternative to the hierarchical categories of Greek rationalism. His take on the Talmud is distinctively postmodern – he identifies ways that the Talmud’s multiply-voiced rhetoric destabilizes nominal authority structures.

A follow-up to the earlier work, Reading the Rabbis has Kraemer doing a close reading of a number of sections of the Babylonian Talmud from a literary perspective. Traditional approaches to the Talmud focus on nuances of the way that it constructs legal arguments. Modern scholarly approaches have look at the document from a historical perspective, and attempt to identify the historical strata within the edited text.

In Kraemer’s literary approach, he takes the compositional unit as a whole. He looks at the choices the editors made in assembling the materials into the published whole, the structure and rhetoric of the section. The book promises to generate new insights by using this method. But after reading the book, the insights seem less dramatic to me.

In the first sections of the book, Kraemer, who is a professor at the Jewish Theological Seminary, the Rabbinical training ground for the Conservative movement, looks at a few topics that are common in Conservative movement ideology.

In Chapters 3-5, the book examines three sections that discuss the relative authority of earlier and later sources. The authority structure of talmud is traditionalist, giving more authority to earlier sources – the 5 books of Moses have more authority than later biblical texts, the Mishna (an early compilation of Rabbinic writings) has more authority than the Gemara (a compilation of commentary by later Rabbis).

Kraemer does a close analyses of three sections, one about whether it is permissable to write scrolls with subsections of the bible (Gittin 60 a-b), one about whether the biblical passage about “an eye for an eye” is to be read literally or in reference to monetary damages (Baba Qamma 83b-84a), and third about laws that seem to have no source in scripture (Hagigah 10a-11b). Based on close analysis of the rhetoric of the text, that the later authors, in the way they analyze and draw conclusions from their source material, actually assume for themselves the responsibility to interpret and decide: “what appears to be a conservative submission to the word of God turns out to be a confident assertion of the authority of the living word of God’s earthly teachers.” (50).

This conclusion that later authorities have precedence in practice (though not in theory) supports the ideology of the conservative movement, which holds that innovation is not only possible, but traditional, within a context that is centered on tradition. This contrasts with the Orthodox ideology that “there is no innovation in Torah”, and ideology in Reform and Reconstructionist Judaism holding that tradition is not binding.

In Chapter 6, Kraemer looks at the Talmud’s assessment of the differing legal opinions between the Rabbinic schoosl of Hillel and Shammai (Yevamot 13b-14a). Following Kraemer’s analysis, the Talmud goes out of its way to leave clear openings for differences in community practice – there are a small number of core principles, and beyond that, plenty of leeway for local opinion; and even tenets that appear to be core principles may be subject to variation on close reading. Congregationalist pluralism is a hallmark of the Conservative movement governance, and this interpretation supports that principle.

In Chapters 7 and 8, Kraemer reveals additional ways that he is situated within a sociological and ideological context. Chapter 7 is entitled “Women Categorized.” It explores the nuances of the ways that the Talmud categorizes the obligations of women in Jewish observance. In traditional interpretations of Jewish law, womens’ exclusion from roles in communal decision-making and synagogue leadership derive from womens’ lower level of obligation. In Kraemer’s close reading, he observes that the Talmudic Rabbis are extremely suspicious of categorization itself, and progressively undermine the categories they set up. And he finds alternative sources and interpretations that could make a strong case for alternative conclusions.

However, in the title and the structure of the chapter, Kraemer raises no protest against the seemingly obvious sociological problem in the structure of the discussion. In my copy of Reading the Rabbis, I was unable to refrain from annotating the title, “Women Categorized By Men”. In a power structure that consisted of men analyzing source materials and creating categories (however ambivalent they are about categorization), it is clearly problematic that the structure of categorization places women as exceptions to rules, and in the company of other lower-status members of society. Kraemer doesn’t take this on at all. He is willing to read the sources with an eye toward using traditional resources to remedy the discrimination of women, but not to make a radical critique that the structure of the argument is flawed by its social power structure.

In Chapter 8, Kraemer does a similar analysis about circumcision, which differentiates Jewish men from non-Jews and from individuals with ambiguous biological sex characteristics. Once again, Kraemer draws subtle conclusions from the nuances of the rhetoric, but does not do any significant critique of the categories themselves. Kraemer’s traditionalist approach does not go so far as to openly question the category structure he has to work with. There is no shortage other contemporary Jewish thinkers –Rachel Adler among many Jewish feminists who criticize the traditional structures because the tradition was written by men, Daniel Boyarin among other scholars who analyzes concepts of Jewish masculinity. Kraemer does not do radical analysis. He does close analysis to find room at the edges, but leaves the frame of the structure he finds.

My favorite chapter of the book was Chapter 9, which analyzes a section in Berachot 5a-b on Rabbinic approaches to human suffering. This is a topic that Kraemer has studied in depth and written a book about. In the section, the Talmud brings a large number of arguments showing that suffering is a valuable gift from God, like a parent’s valuable correction of a child. These arguments are undermined, at the end of the section, by a series of stories that show Rabbis discussing their own experiences of suffering and declaring that they didn’t find the suffering to have value and contain its own reward (p. 135). Hearing this, the Rabbi who is listening heals the sick person.

The text includes a statement that is even more radical than the ones that Kraemer highlights. When R. Yohan visits R. Eleazar on his sick bed and asks the sick man why he is crying, R. Eleazar replies, “I am crying on account of this beauty that will rot in the earth.” Not only do the stories undermine the ascetic message of the previous section, but the emotional heart of the story supports a shockingly Greek-sounding message of nostalgia for the loss of physical beauty instead of any moralistic lesson.

Overall, I enjoyed the book. I appreciated the process of walking through Kraemer’s close readings of the texts, and seeing how Kraemer built his analysis by parsing out the rhetoric of the sections. But the selections of the sections, and the conclusions Kraemer draws from the analysis, read like fine and familiar JTS-style interpretive sermons. This is a valid practice by someone who is, afterall, a professor and community teacher based at JTS. But I didn’t find the book to be as thought-provoking and insightful as The Mind of the Talmud. – I need to go back and reread the book to see if it remains as impressively insightful to me.