In Griot Time by Banning Eyre

Not long ago, I went to hear Malian guitarist Habib Koite at Yoshi’s Oakland, at the recommendation of a friend who’s been a fan of Koite since the 90s when he first toured and had recordings available in the US. In addition to enjoying the skilled and charismatic performance, I wondered about the instrumentation – guitar bass and kora, drumset, talking drums and calabash, the way the group played – what traditions did this come from, and how closely was it tuned for US audience. So I picked up In Griot Time by Banning Eyre, a journalist and guitarist who works for Afro-pop worldwide, NPR, and elsewhere. The book addressed those questions and much more.

In the 90s, Banning Eyre travelled to Mali to study for six months with guitarist Djelimadi Tounkara, one of the masters in a living griot musical and cultural tradition. As an advanced student, Eyre lived in the Tounkara household, getting to know the network of musicians and experiencing the culture. Eyre describes how he negotiated his role as a visiting outsider, learning and figuring out how to participate in the complex give and take of Mande culture, where exchanges of money and goods are part of social interactions along with favors and confidences. His ability to interact musically helps provide entre to the society of musicians. Early on, he learns to play accompaniment to Sunjata, the central epic of the griot tradition; this and other elements of the repertoire earn him a quick welcome. As a musician, he was good enough to be asked to play a part in Tounkara’s famous Rail Band, and to play weddings and other events.

Eyre writes richly descriptive travel journalism, portraying weddings, baby-namings, funerals; upscale performance halls and a bar scene that is extra-sketchy because alcohol is quasi-underground in a Muslim society, and especially the comings and goings, errands and hanging out, economic stresses and family conflicts that make up the texture of life. Eyre mitigates the dubious confidence of the traveling reporter by showing multiple voices in disputes and disagreements.

One of the complex issues he explores is the role of the griot, which is seen ambivalently by musicians in Mali. As some reader will know already; a griot is a hereditary role as musician and transmitter of oral history in West African cultures. Griot or jeli as they are called in Mali, are part of a class that is lower in rank than the noble class. The nobles provide patronage to the griots, who in return compose elaborate praise for their patrons. Griots also play social roles of confidant and mediator to the powerful. On the one hand, griot culture preserves legendary history and provides a structure for economic patronage of music. But the customs of praising leaders to gain financial support entrenches musicians in support of the power structure.

Also, the hereditary transmission of griot status makes musical meritocracy and tradition mixing harder. Some of the most notable musicians in Mali have crossed hereditary and ethnic lines. Salif Keita came from a noble family, but because he was an albino facing social marginality, he had little to lose by pursuing music. Habib Koite came from a griot family in Western Mali but went to music school, and his music combines elements of multiple ethnic groups in Mali.

The book also explores questions about the origins of the blues in West African music. Based on Eyre’s research and experience, he believes that the scale and tonality of blues derives from Bambara music. But the 12-bar blues structure is foreign to Malian musicians, and difficult for his mentors to pick up. Blues is American music, not African.

As usual, intercultural influence is more complex than one might guess on the surface. Modibo Keita, the first President of Mali in the post-colonial era in the 60s, encouraged a revival of traditional styles, bringing musicians to the capital from various traditions, and cultivating a national identity that embraced the different strands of Mali’s cultural heritage. Meanwhile, state-sponsored dance bands, including Djelimadi Tounkara’s Rail Band, incorporated traditional Malian elements, Cuban rhythms, horns, and Cuban-influenced guitar (although acoustic guitars had been integrated into griot music since the 20s and 30s. The Cuban influence was bolstered by Castro-sponsored cultural exchange. The instrumentation and folk roots of musicians including Tounkara and Koite incorporate these influences of urban modernization, ethnic revival, and Cuban styles.

The strangest Cuban connection in the book was a missed connection. During the writing of the book Djelimady Tounkara and young ngoni player Basekou Kouyate were planning to travel to Cuba to record with Ry Cooder, but because of the presence of a wealthy griot patron in Mali, they missed the date, and Cooder’s recording focused instead on elderly son musicians he brought back from retirement, creating the Buena Vista Social Club.

During the 90s at the time of Banning Eyre’s visit, Malian musicians often replaced live drumming with drum tracks, and added synth keyboards. Eyre doesn’t like this at all, but admits that his esthetic taste bears no relevance to the decisions made by Malian musicians appealing to their local audiences. Not only that, Eyre reflects that his orientation to music as primarily an artistic/esthetic experience is different from his hosts, who create music to make a living economically; within sets of cultural rituals and social/economic obligations.

Other than the role of the griot, the book covers political topics fairly lightly. Eyre writes about the conflicts between Djelimady Tounkara and his wife Adama Kouyate, as Djelimady attempts to assert traditional male command of his wife’s coming and going. The author also writes about prominent female singers (jelimusow), who play a musically leading role, whose husbands typically play backing musician and business manager roles. Eyre seems less interested in vocal music generally, and more interested in instrumental music, and one can’t fault a guitarist this preference. The book also profiles vocalist Oumou Sangare, a champion of women’s rights who speaks out against polygamy and arranged marriage. The most shocking moment of the book is when Djelimady strikes his wife once, causing turmoil as the household defends Adama. With the mix of stories showing women with different levels of power and society changing, Eyre is trying to convey that “it’s complicated”, but his continued friendship and respect for his mentor after that moment makes me less sympathetic.

I still appreciate the book for its portrayal of the place and culture as Eyre observed it, and especially for the musical background. The book includes portraits of musicians who had already established a global presence by the time the book was written (Habib Koite, Salif Keita), as well musicians who were less well-known globally at the time but have since established more of an international presence, including Eyre’s mentor Djelimadi Tounkara, kora master Toumani Diabate, singer Oumou Sangare and many others. The musicians covered in the book are well-represented in YouTube and other digital services, so it is not hard to get started exploring. It was YouTube searching that reminded me of the connection that prompted a friend to recommend the book to me in the first place – this favorite recording of Djelimady Tounkara playing with a Bill Frisell ensemble, along with Malian master percussionist Sidiki Camara, Greg Leisz, and Jenny Schienman. The book comes with a CD, which is not yet available online, so I haven’t listened to it yet.

A North American musician has challenges and risks in writing about African musicians and culture. Of course as a reader and listener more removed from the people and places, my role in writing about it is even more potentially problematic. That said, I really liked the book and thought he did a very good job of portraying a complex culture in a rich and un-romanticized way. The book has enough color and drama to make it fun to read; information that is fascinating to a Westerner interested in African music, with strong references for plenty of further listening and learning.

Facebook and mobile publics

“Facebook is the new landline”, according to the provocative argument in Valdis Krebs’ recent post. Before the rise of the mobile phone, phone-users needed to be at a given location in order to take a phone call. Answering machines and answering services helped blunt the pain, but phone calls were fundamentally tied to a landline at a given location. The rise of the mobile phone, broke the dependency on a location. Phone calls now come to a person, wherever she is.

Facebook, argues Krebs, is analogous to a landline. It requires people to go to a single website in order to see their messages and updates. “Facebook does not allow for natural flexibility of human interaction, you and your relationships are ossified in their computer code. In a truly networked world we do not have to go anywhere to connect to others — we just ping from where we are at and wait for the response from where they are at.” A new generation of standards-based distributed social networks will emerge that allows users to bring their identity and stream wherever they are on the web.

But Krebs’ argument raises an important question without an obvious answer. Conference calls aside, telephones are mostly for 1:1 communication. Facebook and other social networks are mostly for many to many communication. And to make things more complicated, the “many” that one intends to address on Facebook or Twitter or other network is often actually a set of semi-overlapping publics, following Kevin Marks’ post. The set of people who follow a Twitter link to the blog post you are reading on social software design will be significantly different from the people who follow a Twitter link to this post on Jewish ideas in post-modern thought. Valdis is right that in the offline world, “This is how we naturally network — we decide on the fly, who to talk to, in what voice, and how much to share.” But how does this concept of “mobile publics” – the idea that we choose what to say to whom, in what context – apply to the web? What will come to represent these social contexts by which we choose what voice to use? In the realtime web, the concept of “place” is being substituted by the concept of a stream. Will the concept of “place” reemerge, and recreate the notion of a public – but with the added benefit that recipients have the ability to remix the messages they receive in their own contexts? Will interfaces emerge that make it easier to choose who to address on the fly? Today, it is pretty confusing to think about who you’re talking to, when you address the mass of people on Facebook who constitute your highschool buddies, local political contacts, professional acquaintances, family members, and close personal friends. But what sort of set of services and interfaces might enable the notion of “mobile publics”.

Fragments of Redemption by Susan Handelman

In Fragments of Redemption, Susan Handelman analyzes the work of three 20th century thinkers – Walter Benjamin, Gershom Scholem, and Emmanuel Levinas, who each synthesized ideas from European and Jewish thought in different ways. Benjamin was a literary/cultural critic and philosopher, Scholem was an academic historian of Jewish mysticism who studied Jewish material in a secular context; Levinas was a philosopher in the continental tradition who also addressed secularized Jewish audiences on Jewish subjects.

In Fragments of Redemption, Susan Handelman analyzes the work of three 20th century thinkers – Walter Benjamin, Gershom Scholem, and Emmanuel Levinas, who each synthesized ideas from European and Jewish thought in different ways. Benjamin was a literary/cultural critic and philosopher, Scholem was an academic historian of Jewish mysticism who studied Jewish material in a secular context; Levinas was a philosopher in the continental tradition who also addressed secularized Jewish audiences on Jewish subjects.

This is the latest in a series of posts on connections between rabbinic and contemporary thought. I first read this book not long after it came out in the early 90s, and I continue to like it and recommend it for the way that it traces the ways that ideas from Jewish thought are woven into contemporary thinking. With the recent rereading, I learned more about the author and what she has done since writing this book; the knowledge has affected how I read the book this time around.

Benjamin and Scholem

The book’s first section covers Benjamin and Scholem, who were close friends and mutual influences. Handelman traces how both Scholem and Benjamin utilize in their secular work Jewish-derived ideas about language, redemption, and history, and how these ideas have permeated the discourse of modern thought.

Both Benjamin and Scholem came from secular Jewish families. Both experienced a “generation gap” in which they rebelled against the materialism of their bourgeois families, and were drawn to ideas from the Jewish tradition. But neither of them felt that traditional Jewish belief and practice addressed the challenges posed by modern thinking and the troubled political and economic times. They each sought solutions that represented very different attempts at synthesis between Jewish and German/European thought.

Benjamin and Scholem shared a similar orientation toward language; both maintained a reverent attitude toward a “pure language” without reference to a specific holy tongue or sacred texts. Both were concerned with the relative value of symbol and allegory; which was a live polarity in European thought. German romantic idealism privileged the direct meaning of symbol over the interpretive requirements of allegory, drawing on enlightenment neoplatonism. Benjamin flipped the polarity in an influential way, preferring allegory to symbol. This move, Handelman argues, was influential among postmodern literary thinkers, including Jacques Derrida and Paul de Man.

Benjamin’s style of thought and writing, building ideas out of contrasts and contradictions, with juxtaposed flashes of images, is classic modernist opposition to grand Hegelian systems of German philosophy. Benjamin’s style deliberately reflects his thinking, “another relation between thesis and antithesis is possible beside synthesis,” and that would be the “non-synthesis of two concepts in another” (Program 47 SH 23). His style was influential for later postmodern thinkers, such as Derrida and de Man who explicitly reject the possibility of coherent systematic expression.

Both Benjamin and Scholem dealt with and transmuted Jewish-derived messianic ideas. Benjamin, like a number of other European Jewish thinkers, brought a Jewish messianic orientation to Marxism. Benjamin (and, as Handelman explains later in the book, also Levinas) “retain the idea of a judgment possible through time that interrupts the immanence of universal history.” Benjamin gravitated toward a circle of Marxist thinkers including Brecht and Adorno.

Benjamin’s take on Marxism was quite idiosyncratic, a cultural criticism focusing on fragmentary material objects, the necessity and inevitability of catastrophic change and messianic anticipation His ideas were not accepted by Marxists at the time, and he didn’t join the communist party. But the use of Marxism as critique of capitalist culture, and economic/teleological orientation was influential in later academic cultural criticism.

Scholem brought early 20th century secular political apocalyptic consciousness to study of mysticism; and pioneered bringing the study of Jewish mysticism into academic scholarship. There were main two aspects of his thesis; that kabbalistic thought has antinomian roots; and that flowerings of kabbalistic thought were related to major catastrophes in Jewish history, such as the expulsion from Spain, and the socially destructive false messianic movement of Shabbetai Tzvi.

Handelman shows how these aspects of Scholem’s thinking have been criticized. Moshe Idel and other scholars point out that the Kabbalists were religiously observant, and their thinking and mystical practices were tightly connected to ritual practice. Moreover, the correlation between historical events and intellectual trends doesn’t prove cause; and Scholem’s schematic view draws more from Hegelian schematic history than any actual historical trends that may have happened.

Scholem’s influence has brought the mythology of Kabbala to the play of symbol, meanings, and the absense of meaning in Borges, Eco, and Derrida. And, of course, Benjamin, who came from a secular background; his exposure to the ideas of Jewish mysticism and messianism were all via his friend Scholem. Benjamin’s work sought meaning and redemption through the detritus of European commercial culture; the way that revelation is seen to break through amid the juxtaposition of images, the vision of an impending catastrophic end-time, and the reverence for primal meaning encoded in language are all related to ideas he got from or with Scholem.

Scholem argued strenuously against his friend’s Marxism. Scholem turned to Zionism as the only viable option for European Jews in the increasingly toxic climate. He moved to Palestine in 1923, and went on to pioneer the academic study of Jewish mysticism in the emerging Hebrew University. In his own politics, Scholem decoupled the apocalyptic strains of mystical messianism from the practical Zionism entailed in the founding of a Jewish state, and lamented the violent and messy outcome of the founding of the State of Israel in practice.

In the section on Benjamin and Scholem, I thought the chapters on the themes of language and redemption are really well done, but the chapter on history was weaker. In the sections on language and messianism Handelman traces the nuances of ideas across both scholars’ work citing sources across European and German intellectual history. The chapter on history draws more generalizations, cites fewer sources, and makes a less nuanced argument.


Like Benjamin and Scholem, Levinas sees the roots of communication as being prior to what is said. Unlike Benjamin and Scholem, who see the roots of communication in an etherial spirit of language, Levinas sees the roots of communication as the recognition of the other party in the communication. In Levinas’ thought, a pre-requisite for conversation is having the other in mind. “Language is not merely instrumental or cognitive, but coordinates me with another to whome I speak and signifes from the face of the other as a call to responsibility (SH 279). And “truth arises where a being separated from the other is not engulfed in him, but speaks to him.” (TI 62 SH 220).

This focus on the Other is core to Levinas’ thought. He uses the idea of the Other as a critique of the totalization of Western philosophy, making ethics prior to metaphysics. The image and concept of the face of the other is that which calls us to recognize the other person. “The notion of the face [of the other] describes a self-already-in-relation, and other-in-the-same.” “The way in which the other presents himself, exceeding the idea of the other in me, we here name face.” In Handelman’s words, “Levinas is trying to expose the blindness in the panoramic impassive gaze of the philosopher who surveys and constructs the whole of knowledge and reality.”

Handelman shows how Levinas focus on the Other as ethical ground provides a distinctive take on the themes of postmodern thought. Levinas’ critique of totalizing philosophical systems consist “not of endless language play, games of power or schizophrenic subjectivity but empathy and responsibilty for the other.” Handelman contrasts Levinas with other thinkers, Paul de Man (fairly) and Derrida (I think a bit unfairly) who use the free play of ideas to undo system. Handelman also contrasts Levinas with postmodern thinkers who undo system by reading the workings of power within discourse – Foucault’s discursive practice, Lyotard’s agonistics (194), and JL Austin’s speech acts. “Calling into question leads neither to self-reflexive undecideability nor to ideology… it comes, rather, from the demanding appeal, order, call or the other.” (260) Levinas identifies the ethical foundation of these theories in “the war of egoisms struggling with one another.” Levinas views discourse as inherently plural, containing many un-systematizable perspectives, but these perspectives should not be viewed as incommensurate subjectivities, or endless power struggles, but with value for the worth and perspective of the other.

But viewing communication as recognition of the other leaves out much of the dynamics of communication. Handelman brings the work of Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca in critique. Perelman was a resistance leader in the war and a jurist by profession. His work contains much more substance and nuance about the ways that rhetoric is used for communication and problem-solving. (Also see this post about an article by David Frank on Classical and Jewish forms of argument. Perelman’s masterwork sounds like a very interesting book – but it is also over 800 pages long and dense. A blog post may not be shortly forthcoming.

Handelman also observes Levinas’ distrust of play in communication. Levinas sees play as coming from the trickster impulse, as fundamentally deceptive and self-oriented. “Any game or play implies a comic mask, and a self contemplating or expressing itself” (256). Handelman doesn’t bring this as critique, but I would – Levinas doesn’t perceive elements of play in ethical relationships (though it seems rather mean-spirited to ask a prison camp survivor to have more fun). I think it’s possible to read play into a model of healthy and ethically valid communication, without without conceding primacy of the war of all against all.

Like Scholem and Benjamin, Levinas drew ideas from the Jewish tradition, secularized and integrated into work for a secular audience. Handelman traces the roots of Levinasian ethics in Jewish thought. The other comes from Adam and Abraham saying Hineni – “here I am” to God. The view of ethics as human responsibility, in the absense of the involvement of a deity, he gets from the tradition of Jewish religious rationalism (Ouaknin does a parallel derivation through the tradition of Jewish mysticsism). Truth as composed from the juxtaposition of multiple voices has roots in the rhetoric and rhetorically encoded philosophy of the Talmud. Handleman observes about how Levinas ‘key assertions are formulated as questions, which opens a space for an exterior to thought (195). She cites the fundamental nature of Rabbinic discourse as dialogic, the juxtaposition of ideas in not-fully-synthesized contrast. She describes how Levinas sees the relationship between midrash and literary interpretation; the the proliferation of interpretation in midrash connected to the plenitude of the divine and our experience of the divine through multiple voices – and then makes a key move to see that aspect it as a property of all literature – secularized midrash.

Levinas is strongly non-particularistic in his application of this ethic – from his teacher, the mysterious Shushani, Levinas views the ethical obligations as incumbent on all humans, not just Jews (SH 268). Following Shushani, Levinas’ point view applies not only to Jews, but to anyone who rejects totalizing system. (SH 310/adv152). With his focus on the Other, Levinas values translation, from individual to individual and across cultures. In his project to adapt Jewish ideas to Western Philosophy, Levinas takes a position in an ancient controversy about translating Jewish texts and ideas into Greek, following the classical project of the Septuagint. In the second/third century in BCE in Alexandria, a group of 70 Jewish sages took the task to translate scripture into Greek. Levinas views his work as a continuation of this ancient goal. In Levinas’ words, “We have a great task to articulate in Greek the principles Greece ignored. Jewish singularity awaits its philosophy. The work of the 70 is not finished.” (265) In Jewish tradition, some remember these sages as heretics, other as heroes. I was raised with the tradition that saw them as heretics.

Handelman draws strong connections between Levinas’ life experiences and philosophy. Levinas joined the French army, and spent years in a Nazi prison camp. Levinas’ friend Maurice Blanchot helped Levinas’ wife and daughter to survive the war by finding them shelter in a convent. The rest of Levinas’ family died in the holocaust. Levinas’ critique of his mentors, Heidegger and Husserl was spurred in part by Heidegger’s support of Nazism; the systems of German philosophy were connected to an ethic that valorized one single, total perspective and made it hard to see others being harmed. Where Handelman doesn’t go is that Levinas’ conclusions aren’t necessary from experience. The conclusions that one can draw from personal experiences of ethnic persecution might be individualistic survivalism; or nationalism, or just psychological damage. Jews who lived through the Nazi era became kapos and black marketeers, fundamentalists and Kahanites, not just philosophers and teachers of ethics. It’s to Levinas’ credit that that’s what he did.

Another place where Handelman doesn’t go – but I might – is in questioning how the Levinasian ethic of self-sacrifice applies. The concept of putting the other’s good ahead of one’s own can be seen starkly in the circumstances of Levinas life. Maurice Blanchot did the right thing at great personal risk. But how does an ethic of self-sacrifice apply to garden-variety property disputes; or in child-raising, where it is questionable about the level of parental self-sacrifice that would actually benefit the child. And what to do when one’s own martyrdom conflicts with somebody else’s – that way lies the swamp of competing identity politics.

One aspect that Handelman really likes about Levinas is the way that in his work for a Jewish audience he values halacha, Jewish law. Handleman compares Levinas’ pro-halachic stance favorably to the antinomian perspectives of Benjamin and Scholem. But she doesn’t grapple with hard cases, and it’s not clear if Levinas does. Handelman reads Levinas’ view of Judaism as drawing heavily on Franz Rosensweig, who saw the distinctive contribution of Judaism as its existence outside of history, outside the structures of power. But the conditions of emancipation and the state of Israel put Jews back into history. Any outlook on middle eastern politics I respect includes the fact that the government of Israel has the power to do harm. Also, any outlook I respect on traditional Judaism acknowledges that ethical issues are posed by the gender roles encoded in Jewish law. Handelman dismisses a critique brought by Simone de Beauvoir against Levinas from a feminist perspective. I need to do more homework on this issue, but I suspect I’d wind up closer to de Beauvoir.

Levinas’ reverence for the connection between Jewish tradition and ethical behavior seems somewhat naive to me. Levinas writes: “Torah and the liturgical signficants it confers on material acts of life outside their natural finality is the surest safeguard of the ethics of israel”. Did Levinas live long enough to see ultra-orthodox stoning the cars of secular drivers on the Sabbath? Did he notice the institutionalized Israeli Rabbinate, and the ethical problems that arise from institutionalized theocracy in family law? Halacha, says Levinas, takes Jews away from the feeling of being rooted to territory, but then what about Temple-rebuilding cult in Israel, those who seek to bomb the mosque on the Temple Mount in order to rebuild the Temple? The simplistic perspective comes from Handelman’s reading Levinas – I need to do more homework to find out if this perspective fully represents Levinas’ point of view.

Handelman sees Levinas approvingly as viewing ethics in general, and Judaism in particular, as beyond politics. I am not sure this is a fair reading of Levinas himself, and need to read more of his work to assess. At any rate I disagree with this point of view. There is a particular flavor of oppression that is possible for those who believe they are beyond politics and therefore cannot see the ways that they may oppress others.


When I read the book the first time, what struck me powerfully was seeing the Jewish roots in key strands of postmodern thought, and the distinctive perspectives brought by the integration of these elements. I had wondered about some of the resemblances when I was in college, but didn’t see the connections drawn explicitly. Works that drew the connections explicitly, by writers including Handelman, Kraemer, and Ouaknin, were published after I graduated.

These ideas have been woven into secular canon already, belonging to a general audience. Perhaps reasons the connections were somewhat hard to see and underdeveloped for a while were similar to the reasons that Walter Benjamin was unemployable for most of his career and then dead – the deliberate and nearly successful attempt to remove Jews from European life and culture. Of the people who had enough serious knowledge of the Rabbinic tradition to analyze the strands of influence and integration — some died, and many drew ethnocentric conclusions from the Holocaust, and rejected efforts to synthesize Jewish and Western ideas.

This trend was visible in the US in my lifetime. Rabbi JB Soloveitchick, leader of the postwar modern orthodox movement in the US, created an earlier-generation synthesis of Kant, existentialism, and Jewish philosophy. There was a political split among his followers, those who believed in incorporating secular philosophy lost a power struggle in the 70s and 80s, and that mindset was marginalized (this debate over Soloveichik’s legacy can be found in Wikipedia, the interpretation is mine). An analogous debate took place among the students of Levinas. Followers including Benny Levy became Orthodox, and criticized Levinas for not going all the way to traditionalism. Ouaknin was raised in a Sephardi Rabbinic family, and integrates Levinas’ thought into a perspective that is both theologically radical and more traditionalist than Levinas was.

When I re-read Fragments, I wondered what the author had been up to since 1991, and made some discoveries that helped me see other aspects of her argument that had been there all along. Handelman moved to Israel in 1993 and has been teaching literature at Bar Ilan University. While in college in the late 70s, she encountered Habad Hasidism, a strand of orthodox Judaism that has been very active in outreach to non-orthodox Jews, that like other branches of Hasidism has deeply integrated mystical ideas and practices, and has had a distinctive focus on Messianism, with many considering the late 20th century Lubavitcher Rebbi, Menachem Mendel Schneerson as the Moshiach.

While she was writing the earlier scholarly work Slayers of Moses (which by the way, I liked a lot less than Fragments) and working on this book, she was in contact with the Lubavitcher rebbe who suggested edits to the manuscript. But since she moved to Israel she has published much less scholarship. Since then, she has written for Hassidic publications on the Rebbe’s thought, on Messianism, on positive aspects of religious life, on the role of teacher as being a spiritual councellor to students, and on the role of women and feminism in Orthodox Judaism, where the messianic era will bring about equality (my take on feminism is more worldly).

Since Fragments, she has produced no more major, innovative works of scholarship. Each person needs to make choices about where to spend her limited minutes in life; Handelman has chosen to spend more of those minutes on things other than academic scholarship, more on discourse for a religious audience, and presumably more private life. Levinas counsels to accept the other in their distinct individuality; hopefully Handelman is living a life that she finds meaningful and happy; and she has no obligation to write any more excellent entertaining scholarly books like this one!

This background on Handelman helped me see another important aspect of her argument in Fragments. She is interested in evaluating whether it is possible to translate between Jewish and Western secular thought. “To what extent can this translation be completely successful, and what would consitute the critera of that success?” In the sections on Scholem and Benjamin, she writes about how the synthesis they constructed between Jewish and German culture was on very shaky ground – it became literally impossible to live as a Jew in Germany. Scholem moved to Israel and Benjamin didn’t live. In her analysis of the uneasy synthesis, Handelman observes that the weakness in Scholem’s scholarship is the way he separates Jewish mysticism from the halachic (Jewish law) and practical theurgic aspects (In Jewish mystical thought, emphasized in Habad Hassidism, the carrying out ritual in daily life has an actual impact on the godhead.)

Also, Handelman observes that the weakness of Benjamin’s thought was the way in which he sought the messiah in material conditions and the political sphere, where they are not to be found. Rereading the book, there were many points where it sounded like she was strongly implying, but never stating, a better way out of the dilemma. In Benjamin’s reverence for language, why abandon the roots in a specific language and specific texts? If the synthesis between Jewish and German culture is impossible, why persist? Handelman concludes that Benjamin’s project failed, but by what criteria? It didn’t bring the revolution. It didn’t save Benjamin’s life. But it did create stunning literature and powerful cultural critique. In Levinas’ ethic, each individual has a unique and valuable point of view. Benjamin’s perspective, in its contradictions and its impossibilities represented the impossibilities of his time and contradictions inherent in modern culture. I think she is asking too much for Benjamin to choose differently.

Handelman prefers Levinas’ attempts at synthesis, in part because he is more positive with respect to Jewish law and practice. Unlike Harold Bloom, who sees Oedipal conflict as integral to intellectual life, Levinas sees paternity, descendence, and continuity of tradition positively, as a way for those in latter time to conserve and redeem earlier time. But Handelman does not consider the secular background and generational conflicts in Benjamin and Scholem’s lives with regard to their perspectives.

Handelman also prefers Levinas’ ahistorical take on Judaism. Handelman contends that Scholem was unable to connect directly to the mystical tradition through personal experience, so his historical study was a proxy. In Levinas works on Talmud, addressed to a secularized Jewish audience, Levinas does not work in the mode of historicist scholarship, but in the mode of an interpreter of tradition for contemporary interests. But neither Handelman nor Levinas himself (at least as quoted) make distinctions between different types of historical orientation. Interpretive methods can be ahistorical in that they seek relevance – that assume that prior texts have something to apply to current interests; they can be ahistorical in sheer literalism – uncritically equating the content of ancient texts to contemporary circumstance, as in readings of the midrashic trope that patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob studied at “Yeshivat Shem V’Ever”, as if it were a middle eastern branch of New Jersey’s ultra-orthodox Lakewood yeshiva – and historical readings that themselves carry interpretive weight. Handelman approvingly cites Levinas, supporting the ahistorical Talmudic interpretation of King David as a Rabbi-like figure. Bu what does it mean that David the Warrior is transformed in the Talmud to David the Rabbi? It means that the Talmudic rabbis, in their interpretation of the David story, are reading alternate values onto the Biblical figure. In this case, I would argue, along with left-of-orthodox Judaism, that historical reading adds to interpretive power, instead of taking away.

Handelman’s interests may be reflected in the attention to the messianic impulse in all of the writers; the way that Scholem’s practical Zionism offered a place for Jews to live in the world, the way that Benjamin and Scholem’s attraction to apocalypse was related to Jewish eschatology; the way that Levinas’ interpretations of Talmudic messianism envisions several different possible political and moral futures.

What do I think?

Rereading the book, I think I see the undercurrents of some of Handelman’s spiritual and philosophical choices in the argument of the book. But as a reader, I’m less interested than Handelman in which, if any attempts at synthesis are more “successful”. I’m more interested in the way I read the book the first time through, as a rich portrait of the ways that ideas from the Rabbinic tradition are already woven into contemporary philosophy. I have bits of critique, but I thought and still think the book is really well done, and recommend it. Also, I’m interested in the ways that ideas from contemporary philosophy provide interpretations of Judaism, including the value of ethics in a world without visible divinity; the power and relevance of re-interpreting traditional material. In re-reading the book, I still stand with Levinas, in his perspective that translation, between individuals and among cultures, is both strictly impossible and necessary.

The other thing that struck me on re-reading the book was tragedy of the story. The pictures of some of the great thinkers of the 20th century writing classic works on scraps of paper while fleeing on foot (Benjamin) or in prison camp (Levinas). Benjamin was basically unemployable for his entire career – squeezed out of the German university system, squeezed out of editing jobs, and finally a refugee. Handelman spends several pages at the end of the section on Benjamin and Scholem interpreting a classic passage from Benjamin, which stands on its own better than her explication of it. Benjamin gets the last word.

In 1921, when timelines say they were both in Berlin, Scholem had written Benjamin a poem as a birthday present, about a Paul Klee painting of an angel that Benjamin had recently purchased. When Benjamin left Paris as refugee in 1940 he extracted the painting from its frame and carried it among the few possessions he could carry on foot.

A Klee painting named “Angelus Novus” shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from someting he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in its wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. This storm irresisibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress. (Illum 257-8)

The unselfish social network

Google announce that it is seeking to hire a “Head of Social” to drive the company’s social strategy. The way for Google to come from behind and take the lead in social platforms is to do a better job at supporting users and partners than Facebook. There is a growing backlash against Facebook amongusers and partner sites for constantly, progressively putting its own interests ahead of others.

A successful platform provider needs to balance three interests: its own interest, the interests of users whose loyalty and flocking create the market lead, and the interest of partners that leverage the platform. A mostly selfish strategy works for a platform provider only if users are locked in. If there are other good choices, users and partners flee and the lead evaporates. Facebook’s selfishness gives Google an opportunity.

How can Google take the lead with a less selfish network?

  • Focus on social experience.
  • This may be the toughest thing for Google to grok. Google’s technology strategy focuses on developing clever algorithms to solve tough problems, but social experience is a lot more about letting people do subtle human things and less about automating social behavior and social choices.

    Google’s development culture thrives on “scratching its own itches” – on making cool tools that serve young engineers in a culturally homogenous environment. This focus led to the early privacy failures of Google Buzz. Six months of internal beta testing didn’t shake out the flaws in the Buzz design, which made one’s email correspondents public, because Google’s engineers had less diverse social needs than their customers – consultants whose client lists were confidential, or victims of domestic abuse whose exes could now harrass their correspondents.

  • Serve users desires to manage sharing
  • People aren’t just mad at Facebook for making it easier to share. People are mad at Facebook because their privacy policy changes and feature changes seem deceptive. Facebook has so much to gain from mining users’ information that changes that make it hard or impossible to control information sharing are best interpreted as bad faith. Google also has a tremendous amount to gain by making public information searchable. But in the long run, people will share information by choosing to share, rather than by being tricked into it.

  • Serve the desires of sites and apps to serve communities
  • Facebook’s tools for sites and apps, from Facebook Connect to the recent Like and “Instant Personalization”, serve Facebook’s interests at the expense of their partners. For example, the new “Like” feature consolidates data about user preferences through a proprietary API, rather than providing it in a way that can be crawled and recombined using the ActivityStreams format. Sites want to connect to Facebook, because that’s what enables their users to share with others. But sites and apps need to cede to Facebook control over communicating with users, how users communicate with each other, and policy over sharing customer data. Tools that gave sites more control and better revenue share would win loyalty.

    Frustration with facebook is catalyzing a lot of articles by people writing about their ideal social network. For example, Neil Gorenflo has an interesting blog post about the requirements for powerful community networks. A social network platform player doesn’t need to make every feature for every need. They need to provide a core service that provides basic needs, and the infrastructure that lets third parties go deep.

There is a famous classical Rabbinic quote – “If I don’t act in my own interest, who will act for me, but if I act only in my own interest, what am I, and if not now, when.” Now is the time for Google to serve its own interest by serving customers, applications and sites.

Live or work in Santa Clara County? You can help save Caltrain today

As readers in the Bay Area may know, Caltrain is facing short-term financial crisis. Service cuts have been proposed that would severely gut the usefulness of Caltrain as a transit service. Last week I attended a meeting with a couple of elected officials and local transit advocates to identify opportunities to prevent these drastic cuts.

What I found at the meeting was shocking. Sue Lempert, former mayor of San Mateo, member of the MTC board, said that Caltrain riders very rarely come to meetings, even though the current situation is a serious crisis. I believe that this isn’t because riders don’t care about the situation, because people feel helpless and do not know what they can do.

I found out yesterday that there is a key VTA board meeting Thursday May 6 at 5:30pm with an agenda item about financial support for Caltrain. In the immediate term, VTA’s support is critical to mitigate the Caltrain cuts, according to Sue Lempert, who is one of our most experienced local leaders on the issue and has the all the budget details at her fingertips. (Support is needed in all 3 counties that Caltrain serves: San Francisco, San Mateo, and Santa Clara, and VTA’s support needs the most bolstering).

If you live in Santa Clara County and can attend the VTA meeting and speak in support of Caltrain – this is a key moment to do so. If you happen to know someone on the VTA board, now is a good time to give them a call.

* Board of Supervisors’ Chambers, County Government Center 70 West Hedding Street, San Jose
* The issue is item 7 on the agenda:

Messages to communicate include:
** A functioning Caltrain is key to viable public transit on the Peninsula.
** VTA’s support is important to keep Caltrain running until more stable funding is found.
** Encourage that the VTA board to engage in working meetings with MTC, SamTrans and San Francisco to develop strategies to save Caltrain

If you are able to attend, please leave a comment that you could go. If you can’t go but know someone who can, forward this post to them. This is important to keep viable public transit on the Peninsula.