Philosophy in software

Andrew Hoppin tweeted from a session at foo camp: “software products instantiate philosophies; developers need to consider philosophy so software can have a conscience.” This is a good start but an incomplete conclusion. It is true that software embeds a lot of assumptions about the world and about people. People who practice software development often take the assumptions for granted. It is a big step forward to think about those assumptions deliberately and question those assumptions.

Considering these assumptions is particularly relevant with social software whose affordances affect the way people act with each other – consider the impact of Facebook’s poke feature or privacy policies. Exposing assumptions is good. danah boyd does this when she explains that online transparency is easier for the privileged. O’Reilly’s Designing Social Interfaces section on section on Reputation does this when it talks about the way that the use of reputation features relates to and affects the cooperative and competitive dynamics of an online community.

Hoppin’s quote says that philosophy will help software developers incorporate conscience in their work. Plato thought that philosophical reflection, if done right, would lead people to be good. But since Plato there have been a great many thinkers who come to differing conclusions about human nature and society, and there are many societies and subcultures that make differing choices. People who think through their assumptions will have different moral philosophies. Considering assumptions is a good thing to do, but it won’t lead to a single “conscience.”

And then, if tools reflect better thought-through assumptions, the “conscience” is still not in the software, but in the people who use the tools. A car can be designed to use less fossil fuels, but a driver can still use it to run over a pedestrian. Comments sections can be designed for better moderation, but people can still choose to be mean to each other – the use of “tummelling” to facilitate good conversation is a practice done by people, not software.

Thinking about the assumptions in software is a good start. It would be great to have more of it. It won’t make software “good.”

Information vs. conversation?

This Edge blog post suggests that Facebook’s problem isn’t that it violated people’s expectation about privacy, but that it’s trying to change the social dynamic on the site from conversation between friends and family to sharing information. I think this distinction is misleading regarding people’s communication, Facebook’s strategy, and Twitter’s strategy too.

The article argues that Facebook was initially set up as a way to talk with friends and family. But the new default-public settings make it more of a tool for sharing information. A lot of what people do on Facebook is to share stuff – photos, links, videos, etc. Thing is, that sharing is social activity – people sharing stuff with family and friends. This sharing on Facebook is increasing rapidly – the stats in the Inside Facebook article don’t say why, but I very strongly suspect it’s because Facebook has made sharing very easy, not because people are suddenly thinking themselves as publishers.

By contrast, Twitter’s leadership has seen Twitter as more of a broadcast platform. Features like follower counts and the retweet feature supported that strategy, and did less to support conversational use. (The retweet feature removed the ability to add a comment, and emphasized the number of times the tweet had been shared). But recent speculation is that they might come out with conversation threading, which would make conversation easier.

I think that the perceived polarity between “sharing information” and “conversation” does everyone making and using social tools a disservice. When there’s two-way communication, people share information and talk to each other. That was the initial insight about social objects from Jyri Engestrom. One of the cultural fundamentals in the modern world is that people socialize around common interests, symbolized by things we share with each other. Sharing bits of content doesn’t mean we’re being less social, it means we can share a clip when we talk about a sports game or a link when we talk about a news story – familiar types of social conversation.

The experience around social objects has several elements – who you think you’re talking to (as danah boyd and Kevin Marks described), the affordances for sharing the object (where Engestrom focused), and the ways the dynamics of listening and interchange work and are visible to participants. (where Adrian Chan focused).

Picture 107

The problem with Facebook’s changes and clumsy user experience to set levels of sharing are about Facebook trying to influence people’s decisions who they share with, and proliferating confusion about who people share with. They messed up the “who I’m talking with” attribute. Twitter’s focus on the competitive aspects of talk hampers the social dynamic of sharing. Information and conversation go together. There are design and business opportunities in getting the blending right.

Social is a layer – making the vision a reality in the enterprise

Earlier this week, I wrote about the opportunity to realize a vision of social experiences connecting people in the physical world, across application boundaries. Similar problems, and similar opportunities, are present in the business world.

As Eugene Lee described in his Enterprise 2.0 keynote the business benefits of enterprise 2.0 are realized when more people have access to information and are able to work together to solve problems across organizational silos. But if “social” is just a feature of each business application separately, the organization cannot make use of the social network for people to find information and solve problems.

Many of the standards and protocols to make this vision a reality also apply in the business world, connecting people across application silos. I describe the opportunity in the business world with more detail, on the Socialtext blog.

Realizing Robert Scoble’s vision of the end of social information silos

Last week, Robert Scoble wrote Location 2012, an excellent blog post where he illustrated a vision of a world where location-based services could work together instead of being information silos.

Services including FourSquare, PlanCast, Tungle, Glympse, and Siri work together to notify Scoble’s friends where he is and where he is going, so they can meet each other instead of missing each other. Services such as Blippy and Expensify share Scoble’s financial data on his behalf.

To make this happen, you need to be able to follow the same person’s activities across a variety of different services. You may want to be able to share updates with sets of friends with common interests across platforms. Updates need to encode location, so the application can present what’s geographically relevant. Apps need to share data, without a user’s needing to keep and enter many different passwords.

The cool thing is, the technical standards and protocols to make this vision a reality are starting to fall into place. ActivityStreams are an important part of the mix. ActivityStreams are a standard way of representing common social actions, like posts, follows, likes, and checkins. PubSubHubBub/Webhooks allow applications to subscribe to updates from other applications in realtime. WebFingeris intended to let you find the same person across social sites. Portable Contacts is intended to represent a set of people – a contact list or subset of contacts. Oauth is used so that applications can gain authenticated access to other applications on the user’s behalf.

I’ve illustrated Scoble’s scenario below – the amazing thing is that it could all be real today! The only piece that hasn’t been worked out in the standards stack is the ability to create that upcoming Facebook event. Everything else could be implemented now.

The central concept in making this vision is real that “social” is not a set of silo’d services with social features – it’s a layer that crosses multiple services. The best way to bring this world about isn’t to wait for Facebook to implement every possible social feature, but to build in the standards support and interoperability to make many services more useful for all.


This Prezi by Kevin Marks has more on the emerging standards stack – thanks to Kevin for review.

Asterios Polyp

Asterios Polyp is a graphic novel for grownups. It is about a 50-year-old narcissistic professor of architecture who’s never built a building, and the lessons he eventually learns about life. The art is very well done, tracing the themes and characters through shape and color and layout and style and lettering. I recommend it for the way it tells the story in pictures.

But, like some musically-elaborate opera or visually-rich film, the story itself perhaps doesn’t carry the art as a whole. Without spoiling the story too much, one of the book’s main themes is the main character’s relationship with the love of his life, who is a brilliant artist, but as humble and shy as her partner is vain and bombastic. His character develops. Hers doesn’t.


My tolerance for sweet humble female characters has always been low and hasn’t increased over the years. I like that she’s plausibly clever, but also want to conjure FEMINISTHULK. I wonder how much of my opinion is my limitations vs. the book’s. I lose patience with narcissism, anomie, and the bildungsroman of a 50-year-old.

You may now update your Facebook status

I went to a wedding last night. It was the first ceremony where I’d seen “you may now update your FaceBook status” as part of the ceremony. Someone mentioned that it has been done before, they’d seen videos on YouTube. Now, one might think this is a bit ironic, a nudge and wink about the omnipresence of social media in our daily social lives. But upon reflection, there’s something fitting about it. A wedding, in a world of diverse relationship choices, is (among other things) making a public statement to one’s friends and community to acknowledge that relationship. Updating Facebook status is a gesture that does exactly that, including people who are not present at the ceremony, and enabling well-wishers to chime in for public view, like the older traditions of toasts and video commentary at the wedding.

It’s when things get less public that things get more complicated in Facebook-land. Standing by the bar, a new acquaintance griped that his new girlfriend was insisting that he update his Facebook status to say he was dating her. In the world before social media, but after the cultures of arranged marriages and chaperones, there was a continuum of disclosure, where the first people to hear about a new beau/belle were one’s closest friends, and one selectively disclosed relationships in small social circles until the desire for acknowledgement and/or the power of gossip disclosed to a broader social circle. Decisions could be made ad hoc – should we go to xyz party together, and when to bring the belle/beau for the family renunion. Of course, slips in people’s desire to shape the informal information flow have long been material for comedy.

But Facebook doesn’t do a good job of that more informal disclosure. Instead of ad hoc, situational decisions, people are forced to make explicit decisions, with clumsy affordances to handle the distinctions. It’s mostly brute force – tell everyone you know about the relationship status. Which is awkward, as my reluctant conversationalist complained. Tools like LiveJournal/Dreamwidth, for example, have done a better job at facilitating selective disclosure, and their users take advantage of this capability.

The relationship between tools, and the customs and social norms people weave using the tools, is always complicated.


I’ve been writing a series of posts exploring connections between Rabbinic and contemporary thought. This page lists the posts in the series for convenience.

Socrates and the Fat Rabbis by Daniel Boyarin
Arguing with God by David Frank
The Burnt Book by Marc-Alain Ouaknin
The Mind of the Talmud by David Kraemer
Fragments of Redemption by Susan Handelman

Connections between online and face to face

Early conceptions of online social experience envisioned “cyberspace” as a separate world. John Perry Barlow imagined the residents of cyberspace as declaring independence from the physical world. As the use of the internet spread, it became clear that most people use the net in a way that is much more integrated to physical location. A recent study out of Hebrew University shows that most people’s Facebook friends physically closeby, among 100,000 Facebook users. Now, you might think that this is related to Facebook’s bidirectional model and reputation as a site for friends and family. But the study also found that most people also correspond by email with people in the same city (out of 4455 email messages). People’s actual social networks include many people close by.

How far away are Facebook friends

This research is interesting, but it doesn’t capture other relevant relationships between online and face to face interactions. The email data captured location only within a city, and modern metro areas have sprawl. Among people in the same city further than walking distance or a quick drive, how often do they meet f2f, and what is the correlation between correspondence and meeting? Among a person’s overall social network, how many of the people, far AND near, are visited f2f some of the time? Is there a positive correlation between staying in touch online and getting together offline?

One of the hottest trends in social software is location services such as FourSquare and Gowalla, which tell users where their friends are. Less flashy but similar tools like PlanCast and TripIt tell people where their friends and business associates are going to be. Do these sorts of tools affect how often people connect in person? Do people meet more often? Might these tools provide vicarious experiences that displace meeting, and do people who use them actually meet less?

My anecdotal experience is that online and offline connections go together. With people who live more than, say, 10 minutes away in the same metro area, and people who live in different cities, I’m more likely to meet up face to face with the people who I see and correspond with online, and more likely to be out of touch with people I don’t see online, and meet up with them more rarely. Mark “Cheeky Geeky” Drapeau expands on this observation in Social media is useless in isolation. Drapeau observes that the set of people he corresponds with in social media extends the number of people he stays in touch with at a distance, and some of these become contacts he will periodically see in person.

I would argue that while there is such a thing as a “social media relationship,” those relationships have three main classes: (1) thin relationships, (2) thin relationships with potential, (3) relationships reinforced by real-life interactions (however infrequent). This third class is where most of the value is generated – One can generate “leads” through social media, take some relationships to the next level, create meaningful real life interaction in some form, and then strengthen the real-life relationship through interim social media use. This positive feedback loop is critical; IRL reinforces social media, and vice versa.


The Israeli researchers study showing that people have the most frequent interaction between friends and family who live nearby is not so surprising. It would be very interesting to see if the correlations that Mark Drapeau and I observe anecdotally are quantitative trends, or is the opposite true. Are there segments and psychographic patterns for the ways that people connect online and offline use – people who are clan-centric, spending most of the time with kin, network builders like Drapeau who have many online/offline relationships, and digital hermits, whose social life consists mostly of online correspondence? The evidence shows that online and offline sociality is connected – it will be interesting to learn even more about the connections. Links to other research would be most welcome.

Conversation curation

In a couple of good posts, JP Rangaswami reflects on the need and opportunity for democratized curation. He cites Google CEO Eric Schmidt quantifying the incredible amount of information being generated on the internet – these days, 5 exabytes of information is created every two days, as much as all the information created between the dawn of civilisation and 2003. JP writes about the need for curation of text, music, image, and video. I’d like to focus on a new opportunity – curating conversation.

The last few years has seen the rise of the realtime web, so-called status updates in Facebook, Twitter and other services, much of which is really conversation. The stream flies by quickly. If you missed it, it’s gone. Search of stream content is getting better, but even so, if you find a single message, you don’t really get the gist of a conversation. This is where curation comes in. This is different but closely related to “tummeling”, which is the art of facilitating a live conversation in process. Conversation curation is the art of representing and summarizing a conversation, so others can see it later, and the conversation can pick up again from a new starting point.

Conversational curation isn’t needed or wanted for many conversations – sometimes the conversation is truly transient – for example, nobody needs an edited record of people cheering their team through a hockey championship. But sometimes conversation does have longer-lasting value. For example, there was a fascinating Twitter conversation between Howard Rheingold and his Twitter followers about attention and distraction. This discussion contained information and arguments that seemed worth preserving, so I wrote it up as a post, which has continued to get references well after the original discussion. People have been using the practice of summarizing conversations in mailing lists and forums for years. The realtime web makes this practice more important because conversations can be even more transient and hard to piece together without a curated record.

There are some very old, pre-modern examples of the form of curated conversation – found in the Talmud and, I’m told, ancient Chinese traditions also. In the Jewish tradition, the form of curated conversation comes from attempting to preserve some of the texture of an oral tradition of dialog and debate, as that tradition was being represented in written form.

This is one of the reasons why I’ve been interested recently in modern takes on the representation of multi-voiced discourse in ancient works – because I think that this old form has lessons for a new need in quite a different cultural context. An edited conversation, with multiple voices assembled by an editor, is not identical as a live conversation in which participants speak for themselves. Scholars looking at the old forms debate how much the edited conversation is actually conversational. Daniel Boyarin argues, building on Bakhtin, that the editor’s hand smooths out differences in the represented voices and turns the dialog into a monolog. But David Frank contrasts the dialog in Plato, where the conversational partner is represented merely as a foil to reach a foregone conclusion, with dialog in the Talmud, where the different voices carry different ideas, and the whole picture includes multiple voices.

Another distinction – and something that may be important for the future genre – is how readers are brought into the picture. With the Talmud, says Marc-Alain Ouaknin, the dialog is represented – and culturally presented – in a way such that readers are drawn in to converse together in realtime to carry on the conversation, in debate with each other, adding their own contributions. By contrast, in Socratic dialog, the reader is expected to understand, assimilate, and agree with the presented conclusions.

In a new book that looks at these ancient forms of represented dialog (that comes to different conclusions than David Frank, and than I do agreeing with Frank), Daniel Boyarin makes an important point. Representing a conversation doesn’t freeze it, it just pauses it. The transition between speech and writing is a repeated cycle – “written culture becomes transmuted into oral culture and then back… over and over and over again.” Part of the form of curating conversation will be representing it in a way that people will find it welcoming and interesting to continue the conversation in realtime, and continue the cycle again.

Another important difference from the pre-modern forms is the boundary of the conversation. Daniel Boyarin notes astutely that the conversation represented in the Talmud is open with respect to ideas seen as within the community of the Talmud’s rabbis, but closed with respect to ideas seen as outside that framework. In modern settings, people create boundaries for conversations in very different ways – but those boundaries still exist, often as informal social norms. In communities of fan fiction, participants decide what works fit into the canon they will remix. In political communities, participants decide which opinions are legitimate for debate in a given community, and which positions are out of bounds. The editors / curators will play key and controversial roles in maintaining these norms.

There are some emerging technical components that will make the practice of curating conversation easier – to conduct conversation across services, and Salmon to pull together the comments. Plus, perhaps, there is a need for visual editing tools to pull the pieces of a conversation together.

In the world JP Rangaswami envisions, where curation is an important part of improving the ratio of signal to noise, conversational curation will be an important art, and the cycle between live conversation and the edited representation of dialog will become important once again.

Socrates and the Fat Rabbis by Daniel Boyarin

The unresolved, multiple-voiced argument in the Talmud reflects a philosophical approach that sees knowledge as inherently composed of multiple perspectives, according to contemporary scholars including David Kraemer and David Frank. In a new book, Socrates and the Fat Rabbis, Berkeley professor Daniel Boyarin also juxtaposes the language of the Talmud with modern theory, but comes to different conclusions. This is the latest post in a series on connections between rabbinic and contemporary thought.

In Socrates and the Fat Rabbis, Boyarin reads the Babylonian Talmud alongside works of Plato. Both ancient works use dialogic forms. Drawing on mid-20th century Russian literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin, Boyarin argues that the dialog in both sets of writings is more about the unifying hand of the writer/editor than about any of the different voices represented in the text. Like a good contemporary thinker, Boyarin finds heterogeneity. Rather than in dialog, Boyarin finds heterogeneity in comedy.

In many sections of the Babylonian Talmud, and in Plato’s Symposium in particular, there are parts where the serious heroes are portrayed comically as fat and lustful. It’s this embedded comic voice, says Boyarin, that creates built-in tension. Boyarin draws his argument from Bakhtin’s analysis of Roman Menippean comedy, a genre that satirized serious philosophy and literature with crude, carnivalesque mockery.

The argument that Plato’s dialogs represent a single editorial voice is stronger than the same argument about the Talmud. In Plato’s dialogs, the interlocutors of Socrates are mere victims, on the scene to be demolished by the hero. With many precedents and citations in modern studies of Plato, Boyarin shows how Socrates’ arguments are fallacious, in bad faith, or both. The interlocutors are present as foils to build the argument in favor of the superiority of Plato’s philosophy to his opponents. The dialogs of Plato are building to a single inevitable, coherent set of conclusions.

It is harder and more problematic, I think, to make the same case about the Talmud. The Talmudic dialog form presents its discussions among many generations of arguing pairs of sages and their disciples – Hillel and Shammai, Rav and Samuel, Rava and Abbaye. The polarities between teachers and schools can often be identified and characterized. And what’s most important, even when a decision is made, the losing voices in the argument are preserved respectfully, and different perspectives are seen to have merit. The dialog is different from Platonic debate, where the loser’s argument is made to appear weak and the loser is humiliated.

Where the Rabbis considered it possible, they sought to preserve multiple options. The Passover seder, as it is observed even today, incorporates the result of a debate between Rabbis who argued that it should focus on telling the story of the Exodus from Egypt, and those who argued that it should focus on symbols (matzah, bitter herbs, etc). Both were included in the seder. (The insight about the structure of the seder comes from a podcast of a class by Reuven Cohen, recorded by Dan Bricklin).

Boyarin is right that the open-endedness of Talmudic argument is bounded. The Talmud is itself a long argument in favor of the superiority of a Judaism focused on Rabbinic law and practice, and against other alternatives at the time. In debates among Rabbinic scholars, alternatives are preserved in theory and where possible in practice, but the opinions and the persons of heretics are treated with contempt, as Boyarin cites. The pluralism of the Talmudic Rabbis holds only within the bounds of that community.

But Boyarin is wrong, in my opinion, to dismiss the intra-communal pluralism, because of the extra-communal intolerance. In fact, in his reading of Plato’s dialogs, he acts more like the editor of the Talmud, by recovering the arguments and interests of Socrates’ opponents, and giving their case a fair hearing.

In Plato’s dialogs, the Sophists are portrayed as charlatans who will say anything in public forums that wins them acclaim and fortune. With many footnotes from modern classical scholars, Boyarin recovers the historical context of the debate. Plato was firmly opposed to the ideology and process of Athenian democracy, where decisions were made by the people, responding to the case put forward by articulate leaders. Plato’s opponents included Pericles the democratic leader and Thucydides the historian who sympathized with Pericles.

With this background, Boyarin gives a more sympathetic portrayal of the points of view of Gorgias and Protagoras. For Protagoras, “man is the measure of all things”, because there may be multiple justifiable opinions reflecting multiple perspectives, and because public persuasion is important and valid test of ideas in public decision-making. Plato opposes this vehemently – for Plato, truth must be approached without reference to speakers, hearers, or situations. Society should be ruled by a philosopher-king who finds truth and comes to just conclusions by contemplation of universal principles external to the fray of public debate.

Boyarin’s reading recovers a Talmud-style debate where more than one voice has merit (this is my description of what Boyarin is doing, not Boyarin’s) Even as he dismisses the editorial mechanism which assembles multiple voices with different points of view, he uses the mechanism himself! I would argue that the distinction between Plato’s dialogs, where Socrates’ opponents are mere caricatures, and Talmudic dialog, where different voices carry multiple parts of the truth even when one side wins, is an important distinction, even though Rabbinic pluralism is bounded.

So, I don’t really buy Boyarin’s point that Plato and the Talmud’s dialogs are fundamentally the same because of the hand of the editor. I also don’t quite buy Boyarin’s argument that the “wild aggada” in the Babylonian Talmud carries built-in subversion to the normative language of both halacha and ordinary aggada. In a previous post in this series, Susan Handelman strongly critiqued the academic scholar of Kabbalah, Gershom Scholem, drawing on Moshe Idel and others, arguing that Scholem’s characterization of the Kabbala as antinomian subversion to the stodgy normativity of Jewish law is mostly wishful thinking. The kabbalists themselves were halachically observant, and kabbalistic practice had important elements of theurgy that Scholem ignores. Similarly, I think that Boyarin’s perception of the anarchic nature of aggada is exaggerated, somewhat misinterpreted, and reflects some wishful thinking.

The Babylonian Talmud is a strange and distinctive melange of legal argument, scriptural interpretation, historical narrative, and fantastical material. In Rabbinic terminology, legal discourse is “halacha”, and interpretive/narrative discourse is “aggada.” Boyarin highlights some of the weirder aggadic material. The Talmudic passage that Boyarin refers to in the book’s title describes the extreme fatness of some of the Talmud’s most prominent Rabbis, including describing the dimensions of their genitalia in units of wineskins.

Boyarin attributes the comic portrayal of the fat rabbis, and mixed-up stew of styles found in the Babylonian Talmud, to the Roman genre of Menippean satire, which originated eight hundred years earlier than the Talmud was edited. I think the parallels are interesting and may have merit, but are too narrow a reading of the spectrum of Rabbinic moods.

Boyarin recounts one wild aggadic adventure story in which the sage Rabbi Meir, fleeing Roman authorities, runs into a brothel. He is rescued when Elijah the prophet shows up in the guise of a whore and embraces him, just in time for the gendarmes to appear. The police, sure that the character in the arms of a prostitute isn’t the holy man they’re looking for, turn around and go home.

Boyarin finds Roman comic stories with nice parallels to this misadventure. And he finds the situation in which R. Meir is seen in the arms of a prostitute (albeit a phantom) an echo of Menipean tropes showing heroes and sages in ridiculous, compromised poses. But the Jewish tradition going back to the Bible has plenty of instances of flawed heroes caught in flagrante – Yehuda and Tamar, David and Batsheva – and situations where a prostitute or sexual transaction is the agent of rescue – Rahab in Jericho, Esther’s submission to Ahasuerus’ contest. One doesn’t need to use Menippean satire to explain deeply flawed heroes in sexually compromising positions.

The Talmud is not unique in Jewish canon in its use of sexual humor. Long before the redaction of the Talmud (500CE), the Jewish canon included the book of Esther (3rd/4th century BCE), a story full of sexually coarse and darkly comic humor, a parody of biblical tropes of danger and rescue. The Biblical story of Joseph in Potiphar’s house (which some scholars date to fairly late in the editing of the bible, but earlier than Esther) also has sex and comedy. Surely there are a great many of parallels between genres in the Jewish canon and many other literatures in the ancient world. But it seems to me that attributing sexual humor in the Talmud specifically to Menippean satire is overkill.

Boyarin wants to call out the ribald, sexual aspects of Rabbinic humor as a distinctive element in the Talmudic stew which particularly reveals gaps in the Rabbis’ worldview. But Aggadic material in the Talmud is diverse, with fantastic tales of angels and demons, psychologically complex stories of political tensions in the Talmudic academies, shaggy dog narratives, and much more. I suspect that seeing the sexual elements as discontinuous has more to do with standards of propriety outside the Talmud than inside the Talmud itself. Also, there are plenty of places where the close reading of halachic material, or aggadic material that is less wild on the surface also reveals surprising and self-questioning ideas (as an arbitrary example off the top of my head, the material that Susan Handelman quotes in her section on Levinas about the nature of the Messiah).

To my ears, Boyarin also doesn’t quite catch the tone and gist of the Rabbis’ humor (of course this is a subjective opinion!) The misreading can be seen in the midrash in which God sends Moses to listen at the study hall of the Talmud’s Rabbi Akiva. Moses doesn’t understand a word, but is gratified when Akiba acknowledges that he is teaching the Torah that Moses brought from Sinai. (234) Boyarin argues that Moses’ incomprehension of the later sage’s discourse is used to undermine and discredit knowledge itself, since Moses’ truth has been distorted beyond all recognition. Instead, I agree with the reading of this story brought by Ouaknin, that the result is a sincere illustration of the continuity of an evolving tradition. Yes, the Rabbis are poking fun at their own enterprise, which has changed greatly from earlier generations. But the continuity of tradition is not in its replication, but in continuing reinterpretation and evolution that diverges from its original form, but it’s the chain of transmission and intent of continuity that maintains the tradition.

The midrash continues in a darker vein, where God shows Moses a vision of Akiba being flayed alive by the Romans (240). Boyarin argues that this illustrates a failure of the Rabbinic project of rational legalism. But the talmud’s Rabbis weren’t rationalist in that way; Akiba wasn’t Maimonides. I’d put this into a different context – into the problem of theodicy shown strongly in the book of Job, and (according to recent scholarship) highlighted in the Babylonian talmud, influenced by Sasanian/Zoroastrian thinking on theodicy.

Boyarin also uses Bahktin’s analysis of Menippean satire to interpret Alcibiades’ caustic portrayal of Socrates in the Symposium. Stumbling late to the party, a drunk Alcibiades portrays Socrates as a fat, ugly, Satyr-like figure who was a sexual tease who rejected Alcibiades’ advances after taking the younger man to bed. In the narrative framework of the Symposium, the plainest reading of this section seems to be making fun of Alcibiades, not Socrates. But Boyarin asks us to read the caricature straight – as showing the flaws in Plato’s hero. Now, this is good deconstructive, reader-centric interpretation. Maybe Plato didn’t intend for us to see Alcibiades’ caricature straight, but as readers we can and do, and the contradiction was always embedded in the text.

On the other hand, I don’t think it’s quite right to equate Alcibiades’ caricature of Socrates with the Aggadic comic portraits of obese rabbis. The caricature of Socrates is put into the mouth of Socrates’ enemy. The caricatures of Rabbi Meir and others are told in the anonymous narrative voice of the Talmud. The comic and self-parodying elements in the Talmud are woven into the fabric of the text; it incorporates its own irreverence in a different way than Plato does.

To summarize, Socrates and the Fat Rabbis provides a different reading of the discourse of the Babylonian Talmud than other scholars who read the Talmud and other Rabbinic sources in the context of postmodern thinking, including Kraemer, Ouaknin, and Frank. Boyarin sees the Talmud as containing contradictions in dialog with each other. But he sees the Talmud’s style of represented argument as fundamentally monologic. Instead he hears the built-in dialog within the conflicts among heterogenous styles in the text, particularly the elements of ribald humor. I don’t really buy the argument, but I think it’s an interesting and thought-provoking reading, so I enjoyed the book.

One of the themes in the other books is to look at how concepts in Rabbinic thinking have influenced modern thought. One might connect elements of the spiral by looking at the way that Bakhtin assimilated the thought of Hermann Cohen, who “insiste[d] that conceptualization of the world is a never-ending process with no final conclusion.” Boyarin doesn’t do this, and there’s no particular reason that he should. Instead, Boyarin focuses on reading the Talmud and Plato’s works as literature, using tools of literary analysis, which is interesting on its own. And it would be interesting to take these themes further than Boyarin does.

I think the weakest part of the book is Boyarin’s attempt to historically justify reading the Menippean comic genre itself into the Babylonian Talmud, by assuming general cultural influences in the ancient world. Surely there are a great many parallels between the genres and stories expressed in Jewish canon and other literatures and cultures in the ancient world. And I look forward to reading other works on the Talmud that trace these strands with more depth and detail. But Boyarin doesn’t look broadly for the rich cultural history that is surely there. Instead, he picks Menippean satire and traces those resemblances specifically, through Bakhtin’s interpretive framework. I don’t think this is necessarily wrong, but I strongly suspect it’s too limited. I also suspect that it is reductive to attribute the Babylonian Talmud’s wildly diverse mixture of genres to Menippean satire. Why did the editors of the Talmud so strongly resist genre separation? Good question, I don’t think answered by the Menippean analogy. Fortunately, not all questions are answered yet.