The Secret Life of Lobsters

The Secret Life of Lobsters by Trevor Corson is fitting follow-up to Mike Kurlansky’s Cod. The decline of the once-dominant predator fish opened an ecological niche for their crustacean prey, resulting in a boom in the population of lobsters. Kurlansky tells a tragic tale of the decline by overfishing of the Atlantic cultural and economic staple, which has not recovered even now. Corson tells a more optimistic story – how the Maine lobstering community banded together over the decades to uphold practices that preserve the breeding population and sustain the fishing community along with their catch.

The Secret Life of Lobsters combines detective stories of scientific research uncovering bizarre details of the lobster life cycle, and dramatic struggles among fisherman and scientists about the state of the lobster population. Over time, independent biologists built relationships with fishermen, learning from their day-to-day knowledge, engaging astute fishermen in data collection, countering assessments of government scientists further from the fish, and becoming a force in policy decisions about the fishery.

A depressing share of environmental histories tell stories of the human overexploitation of resources, and the decline and risk to human populations and cultures when the resources are depleted. The Secret Life of Lobsters tells a more optimistic story of responsible stewardship bolstered by science. I recommend the book, wish luck to the lobster fishery, and hope our civilization can do more like this.

Two books on the US Civil Rights Movement

In Origin of the Civil Rights Movement, sociologist Aldon Morris methodically undermines theories that the US Civil Rights Movement was a spontaneous, unplanned outpouring of discontent, opened by changes in underlying social conditions, swept forward by charismatic leaders in the moment, and funded by privileged classes (Piven/Cloward; Weber; Oberschall).

You probably knew by now that Rosa Parks was no simple old lady yearning to rest her feet after a long day of work – she was a longtime civil rights activist. You may have known – I didn’t – that she had been the secretary of the local NAACP chapter for a dozen years and a founder of the Youth Council which brought direct action to the otherwise legally-focused and bureaucratic organization. The bus boycott was so “spontaneous” that organizers happened to have 35,000 mimeographed flyers with boycott instructions ready to go the day after Parks was arrested.

The famous Montgomery bus boycott was preceded by a similar boycott several years earlier in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, where the black community organized a complete private carpool replacement ride system, free to riders so as not to violate taxi regulations, funded by donations from local churchgoers. In Montgomery, the replacement ride system was designed by letter carriers who knew every street in the city.

The Civil Rights Movement was powered, coordinated, and very largely funded by local networks of black churches. Practices and tactics were transferred by networks of ministers, and activists who connected at social justice retreat centers.

Charismatic leadership was an important aspect of the Civil Rights Movement, not because these leaders sprouted from the medium of chaos at a time of ferment, but because the Black church already had a cultural pattern of charismatic leadership, and these existing leaders already had the ability to engage and mobilize their communities.

Morris identifies exceptions to the “pattern” of charismatic leadership, including Rosa Parks, Ella Baker, and Bayard Rustin; he observes the facts that women were kept out of the highest ranks and away from public visibility; and that Rustin operated behind the scenes because he was gay; but Morris doesn’t connect enough of the dots regarding leadership that actually happened but wasn’t visible because it didn’t fit the model of charismatic masculine leadership.

The forces that triggered the events of the 50s and early 60s weren’t unpredictable like earthquakes. The 50s racist terror campaigns were unleashed in response to the Brown case – the NAACP had been working for years taking school desegregation through the courts, and the repression was intended to punish the community and prevent more integration. The direct action of the 50s and 60s filled a void created by concerted government attacks against the NAACP, which was banned in Alabama for nine years and hamstrung in many other southern states.

Morris shows how the civil rights movement built upon existing social structures, and grew when people organized and took leadership. Yes, and… a belief that movements by “the masses” emerge “spontaneously” is reminiscent of ideas about the primitive and emotional nature of “lower orders”, that is to say, a reflection of the stereotypes held by the supposedly sophisticated and rational theorists. Morris doesn’t go there, but academics flocked there in the decade after “Origins” was published in 84. Perhaps feminist/postcolonial discourse was hampered by lots of big words and bad writing, but it had a point.

I really liked this book not because of the theoretical arguments but because of the history. Aldon Morris gets behind the hagiography to the stories of how African-Americans organized to take down segregation. My favorite story in the book was about Septima Clark and the citizenship schools. Literacy tests were a major barrier preventing black people from registering to vote. So the former schoolteacher, who lost her job because of her NAACP affiliation after teaching for 40 years, organized schools to teach adults to read, starting on Johns Island, South Carolina.

After discussing the opportunity at a Highlander School retreat, Clark, Esau Jenkins, and Myles Horton looked into why adult education efforts had not yet been successful. Turns out that the classes were held in elementary school classrooms, taught by elementary school teachers. Adults felt humiliated sitting at tiny desks, resented the approach of teachers used to dealing with children, and were uninterested in reading elementary school primers. The civil rights activists trained literate adults to teach, taught using material interesting to grownups, like the Sears catalog and the state constitution, and held classes in beauty shops, which were already community gathering places, and weren’t vulnerable to white economic reprisal since beauticians didn’t depend on whites for their business.

SCLC and SNCC, alternate ways of organizing

Aldon Morris’ book on SCLC references Stanford professor Clayborne Carson’s work on SNCC, telling the story of the two civil rights groups’ different approaches from a perspective closer to SCLC. Carson’s In Struggle traces the evolution of SNCC from its emergence in nonviolent organizing to help coordinate student lunch counter desegregation protests, to organizing freedom rides and voter registration drives in the south, through its evolution to a more ideological and pro-violent but less powerful faction.

The SCLC relied on charismatic leadership, with Martin Luther King at the head of the movement. By contrast, SNCC strongly distrusted this model of charismatic leadership. Born out of spontaneous student protests, SNCC maintained a distrust of hierarchy and insisted on freedom of individual thought and action. They provided training and resources for organizers who went out into the field; and considered themselves successful when the outcome of an organizing effort was an institution – school, economic development, political party, that took root on its own. However, SNCC also resisted central organization, to the point that disorganization made it less effective.

At times the organizations and different approaches worked in tandem, at other times in tension. Carson describes episodes where King’s charisma excited people in a region, and SNCC organizers followed up to register voters. Morris’ recounts an unsuccessful boycotts initiative in Albany, Georgia organized by SNCC. The Morris account contends that the SNCC organizers did not enough research about how much targeted businesses depended on black customers, so they underestimated their leverage in negotiations. Also, SNCC had not lined up financial support to bail protesters from jail. They called on SCLC and Martin Luther King for fundraising help, but were very leery that SCLC would get the credit. Tensions between the groups contributed to the civil rights groups negotiating a bad deal with the white leadership, who quickly reneged.

According to Carson, the strength of the SNCC approach was that by including ordinary people in decision-making, local leaders emerged to play longstanding roles in their communities. In one of the most moving stories told by the book, John Hullett and Charles Smith helped organize voting in the deeply racist Lowndes County in the face of violent opposition. In 1970 Hullett was elected sherriff, a year later Smith became county commissioners. In 1978 they ran a slate of 8 black candidates who swept their races, long after the early SNCC organizers lost patience and became radicalized with the slow pace of change.

SNCC’s philosophical individualism helped it resist the pernicious influence of mid-century US anti-communist paranoia. SNCC was notable among left organizations because it didn’t banish communists, despite the constant red-baiting and fears of communist infiltration in the media, government, and legal system.

The two books differ in their portrayal of the role of media strategy in the civil rights movement. Morris focuses on the ways that the SCLC’s organizing efforts achieved local goals with mass mobilization of local people and local resources. It debunks myths that most financial resources and substantial organizational resources for the civil rights movement came from outside help. It de-emphasizes the idea that triggering racist violence was a media strategy intended to shock and appeal to the sympathies of white voters. In particular, Morris contends that Birmingham was chosen as the location for major protests because of the strong local mobilization center led by Rev. Shuttlesworth, not because Bull Connor was liable to be vicious on camera.

By contrast, in describing SNCC’s activism, Carson emphasizes the role of media strategy and appeals to the federal government. Particularly in its voter registration work, SNCC chose places with a high risk of racist violence, banking that media coverage would bring national attention to the violence, and the Johnson and Kennedy administrations would feel compelled to bring federal law enforcement to the rescue.

Before reading Carson’s book, I didn’t know that the Freedom Ride left with 13 activists on board and 3 journalists. The Freedom Rides were were strongly focused on gaining public awareness, and shocking the broad American public with portrayals of racist violence. At the 50th anniversary of the Freedom Rides, as the pictures are shown again, the civil rights organizers’ media strategy is successfully communicating to yet another generation.

Carson’s book illustrates the tensions with the strategy designed to trigger federal action, and the fitful and compromising actions of the Kennedy and Johnson administrations. SNCC organizers lost patience with the liberal establishment, and turned to further radicalization. The voting rights acts and civil rights acts, which are taught as the culmination of civil rights struggle – were anti-climactic to SNCC.

Carson does a good job describing the debates and conflicts within SNCC, and the constant evolution as events happened and people’s ideas changed. Carson portrays the transition to the separatist, violent black power era as a decline for SNCC. “Black power” was a slogan that caught on, but it wasn’t accompanied by organized actions or coherent ideology. In Carson’s telling, SNCC turned to extreme rhetoric and ideological infighting after its organizing capability had diminished. Carson does a good job of showing that the excessive attention to the group’s violent rhetoric and thuggish behavior from media and law enforcement came when the “leaders” actually didn’t have many followers anymore.

Even in books that focuses more on method than hagiography, the work of the civil rights organizers is moving and inspiring. Or perhaps especially – I find it more inspiring to learn how change was brought about by people doing things, than by tales of saints being saintly. Plus it’s breathtaking to consider how much risk people took in challenging white supremacy; risk of physical violence, and risk to livelihood.

If you already have a strong background in the history of the US civil rights movement, you know the information and you may know these books. If your knowledge of the civil rights movement comes from headlines and hagiography, I recommend both books.

An Entirely Synthetic Fish

When I was a kid in the 70s, the family went car-camping to visit relatives across the country.  All across the country, there were signs by the highway for trout fishing and rainbow trout. Why were these trout found all over the country? Where did they come from? Why was recreational trout-fishing ubiquitous, like golden arches and HoJos?

Anders Halvorson tells the story in An Entirely Synthetic Fish: How Rainbow Trout Beguiled America and Overran the World. Starting in the 1870s, an effort began to spread “superior fish” around the country and around the world.  Populations of brook trout on the East Coast were declining as industrial pollution destroyed habitat and warmed streams. Rainbow trout could tolerate higher temperatures and dirtier environments. Advocates of fish stocking argued that spreading hardier fish would solve the problem, since surely it was not feasible to cut the industrial pollution that inevitably accompanied progress.

The spread of fish around the US in the latter 1800s was part of a worldwide movement among colonizing societies to “acclimatize” species  from colonial territories to the old world, and from the old world to the new. Starlings were imported to the US by an eccentric New York drugs manufacturer who believed that US culture would be elevated by exposure to all of the species mentioned in Shakespeare; starlings were among his greatest successes. Halvorson connects the confident dissemination of species around the globe with broader ideologies:

As a philosophy, acclimatization fit well with American ideas of progress and manifest destiny. The white man would rightfully and inevitably replace the native people of the continent, civilization would supplant wilderness, and new plants and animals would ultimately oust their native counterparts. “Our only object can be to improve our fishing, and make our stock of sporting fish, if possible, the best in the world,” wrote one avid promoter of the idea.” Let the best fish, like the best man, win.”

Rainbow trout were considered elite among fish; they were seen as a noble adversary for sport fishing since they were easily attracted to fishing lures and tended to struggle aggressively on the fishing line.  The spread of rainbow trout across the US helped support the rapid growth of fishing as a sport. Fin de siecle promoters were concerned about the decline of white Anglo-Saxon manhood as the upper classes enaged in white collar work while immigrants and African-Americans took over physical labor. Hiking, camping, fishing and other outdoor sports would bolster white masculinity.

Starting in the late 1900s parks started to make money by charging for fishing permits; the trend escalated in the mid-20th century with the federalization of fishing licence fees. The fees from recreational fishing fed a massive rainbow trout hachery and stocking enterprise. After World War II, an enterprising former military pilot experimented and found that fish would survive being dropped from airplanes, and demobilized pilots made their living “planting” fish in lakes and rivers on a grand scale around the country. Fish stocking was extremely popular; fishing hobbyists would beg game services to stock their favorite fishing spot.  By 2004, the US government disseminated over 40 million pounds of fish per year, over half of which consisted of rainbow trout.

But the system started to slowly unravel starting in 1962, when fishing management agencies botched an effort to poison all of the fish in the Green River watershed, covering most of southeastern Wyoming and a chunk of Northwestern Utah. The practice of poisoning existing “inferior” species and replacing them with trout had become routine in the 1950s. The agencies had planned to introduce an antidote to stop the poisoning north of Dinosaur National Monument, a newly minted national park that had recently been saved from development by the rising Sierra Club. But the antidote failed; the fish in the national park were killed, the story made the news, and the seemingly sensible policy of replacing species wholesale never seemed quite so benign again.

Gradually, research into river ecosystems cast increasing doubt on the benefits of stocking lakes and rivers with rainbow trout. In the 1960s, government scientists inventoried fish and realized that restocking waters where trout were already acclimatized actually had a negative return. When new fish were stocked, the newcomers, raised in the crowded hatcheries, aggressively competed with existing fish but didn’t survive long in the wild; the net result was fewer fish, not more fish. Some fisheries started cutting back on fishing in areas where “wild” fish were already doing fine.

In the 1990s, research into the ecosystems of Sierra Lakes, which had no fish until the stocking program, revealed that the introduced fish devastated the populations of frogs, birds and bats. When fish were removed, the other species bounced back.  In many districts today, the fish and wildlife agencies are attempting to gradually reversing the stocking of rainbow trout, and seeking to  restore the balance of earlier species. The restoration can be difficult since Rainbow Trout have interbred with native species. It is difficult to determine which populations have enough of the native species to be worth special efforts to preserve.

“An Entirely Synthetic Fish” joins the short list of my favorite books of environmental history, for the way that reveals strange and changing trends in American society, while unravelling the history of seemingly ordinary fishing spots around the country. Yet the story Halvorson tells reveals that seemingly rational efforts to understand and deal with the natural world were intertwined with human ideologies about ethnicity, gender, and the relation between people and the rest of the natural world. Even contemporary focus on restoring native habitats reflects human-centerered attitude toward nature; in this case the pre-stocking native ecosystem is seen as better, although the continent has seen numerous turnovers of species resulting from introductions and extinctions not caused by people. Activities conducted under the auspices of science, government authority, and popular demand are vulnerable to the follies of their time, which is cause for humility and skepticism about conventional wisdom.

When will open ebooks cross the chasm?

Over the weekend, Cory Doctorow wrote and then updated a blog post referring to new and simpler ways of removing DRM from Kindle ebooks.

Cory Doctorow’s BoingBoing readers are no strangers to digital rights. In the comments section, many readers explained why they were thankful for the new tools. They want to be able to read ebooks they buy on any device that they own. They want to be able to protect their investment in case they want to buy a different ereader in the future. They understand that the policies of publishers and device makers are hostile to customers, trying to lock customers into a single device platform, and force customers to buy new media when they switch devices.

Doctorow’s readers also are more tech-savvy than the average ereader user. They are able to use command-line scripts and geeky tools, and follow detailed-instructions for multi-step processes. BoingBoing readers are technology early adopters. They understand the limitations of ereaders, and are willing to go through substantial hassle in order turning ebook files into assets they can use in the future.

Twenty years ago, Geoffrey Moore wrote “Crossing the Chasm” the technology marketing classic which described gulf between technology early adopters and mainstream buyers. It can take a long time to bridge that gap. Most buyers of e-readers probably don’t yet know that if they want to buy a different brand, their investment in the ebooks they purchased will be worthless.

It took seven years between Apple’s launch of iTunes and iPod, the first massively popular tools for digital music, and Amazon’s sale of un-encumbered digital music. Only one year later, Apple started offering DRM-free music as a standard offer. In the ebook market, Amazon and Apple are the market leaders, and they have mutually incompatible DRM’s book formats.

How long will it take for the knowledge about the limitations of ereader technology reach the majority of buyers of ebooks? What story will finally break into mainstream media and result in mass awareness that ereader lock-in is bad for buyers? What surge in customer demand, and what competitive trend will cause ebook providers to finally stop inconveniencing customers in the vain hope of longterm lockin?

The Magicians

The Magicians by Lev Grossman, a story that adapts childrens’ fantasy novels for grownups, is two stories together.

The inner story in the fantasy frame structure is a thought experiment exploring what happens when you run a children’s fantasy plot with adult characters. Fantasy classics the Chronicles of Narnia, Peter Pan – create enchanted worlds that are accessible to children – when a character reaches adolescence the magical world is out of reach; or the characters can stay in the enchanted land only if they resist growing up.

In the Magicians, Grossman has characters in their 20s travel to a magical world as adults. This is an opportunity for irony and dark humor. Cute things become dodgy or sinister – there is an alcoholic talking bear and lethal stuffed bunny. Characters can ask some of the logical questions – if character has a time machine, why do they not go back in time to fix problems; if a character is a god, why do they need others to help solve problems and allow suffering in the universe; and what’s the motivation of adults who write childrens fantasy novels anyway?

The adult characters and ironic tone facilitate the political questions implicit in the genre – when humans travel to an strange land and become heroes through combat and leaders by apparent local acclaim, isn’t there an element of colonialism? When there are sides in a conflict, how can you tell the “good guys” from the “bad guys”, or maybe there’s just a civil war, and the humans are being manipulated by the locals.

The inner story, the Narnia takeoff, has flaws as a story. It tries to combine irony and straight up plot, with setup, conflict, combat, and denouement, and does so unevenly. There are time travel mechanics and political machinations, where each development creates different understanding until the whole thing is unravelled at the end. I think the puzzle creation and resolution works well. The story and drama, not so much. But even though the half-parody of the Narnia genre has its flaws, I enjoyed the playing out of the thought experiment.

Where the inner story plays on Narnia and its cousins, the outer frame story plays off of Harry Potter; the characters are students at a college for magicians. But the main references, the way it reads to me, are Yale/Harvard (the author studied at both schools), and novels of GenX anti-coming-of-age.

The campus buildings at Brakebill are retro architecture with details full of stories, the school’s customs are thick with ritual and tradition, the schoolwork itself has appealing substance and rigor, the students are expected to master the discipline and also to grow into adult sexuality, alcohol, and connoisseurship. The elite selection and socialization inculcates participants from a variety of class backgrounds into a ethnicity-free international upper-middle-class, where participants from Europe and South America are known for their accents and locally styled skills, but not any substantive differences.

But when students graduate and are forced to leave this idyll, there is nowhere to go but an empty world where choices are high-paying management consulting, finance, and law; genteel academia; public service taking little bites out of unsolveable problems. Graduates defer vapid adulthood with alcohol and drug-fueled chronic hipsterism. The Brakebills network insulates graduates from the economic consequences of slackerdom, as long as their misadventures are short of fatal.

When students make it through the rigorous selection process to study magic at Brakebills, they leave behind the vapidity of modern life and enter a world where gestures and sounds take on meaning and power, where the mix of diligently acquired craft and self-discovered spirit can transform reality. Magic, yeah sure, Grossman is talking about art in general and literature in particular.

There is an odd exchange in the book, where one of the characters observes that Quentin, the main character “believes in magic”, unlike most of his peers. This is strange, given that magic at Brakebills is indubitably real – characters cast spells that change physical reality. There is no doubt that magic happens in the world of the story. What characters believe in, or don’t, is the meaning of magic, it’s power to rise above the purposeless, emptiness, and misery of life.

The strongest characteristic of Quentin, the main character, is his chronic unhappiness and self-hatred, which he takes out on himself and those around him, an observation that his too-good girlfriend makes explicitly, a weakness in the “show-not-tell” esthetic of fiction, and a handy moral summary for the perhaps-dense reader. This is the allegory of the frame narrative – young artist learns his craft and struggles with the hope that it will redeem life, and the apparent reality that it doesn’t; that life is one thing after another; that misery comes from within, and that being a jerk has consequences.

The Magician explores the tensions between the esthetics of the modern novel (write what you know, often a world without given meaning or morality) and fantasy literature (explore a world of the imagination, where good and evil are explicit). The book is an interesting exploration of the contrasts between those expectations. As in the GenX coming-of-age novels that the frame story resembles, the world of adulthood that the young magicians grow into has sex and drugs and alcohol, but no consequences or responsibilities. That’s a valid fictional world, and a somewhat claustrophobic reading experience.

The Signifying Monkey

The Signifying Monkey, the major scholarly work of Henry Louis Gates, influential scholar of African-American literature, has long been a gap in my education. Gates left Yale in ’85 as a rising star – eventually to build the African-American studies practice at Harvard – before I could take his class, but some of the ideas in the book were deja vu familiar to me from lectures in other classes on related topics.

The book is an attempt to create a theory of African-American literature based on African-American cultural traditions. The first part describes African-American traditions of conversational rhetoric – clever, indirect, often-competitive “Signifying” (the “dozens”, a traditional game of insult is a subset of Signifying.) Gates illustrates these traditions with examples and analysis from anthropologists, evaluating their explanations with his own experience as a native speaker. Gates connects these oral traditions with artistic techniques of variation, parody and pastiche in Jazz and various other African-American art forms. Gates connects the origin of these practices to West African religion – the trickster deity Esu-Elegbara, who mediates between other gods and humans through divination practices yielding cryptic messages for the seeker. The connection from the African to African-American tradition comes via the still-told folktale of the “Signifying Monkey”, in which a trickster Monkey outwits a braggart Lion. The second part of the book seeks to use the theory of Signifying to explicate a series of texts – a set of slave narratives, and then several novels from the canon, by writers including Zora Neale Hurston, Ishmael Reed, and Tony Morrison.

The section on theory seems very Yale-of-the-time in its strengths and flaws. The African-derived tradition is explained to convey truths from Ifa, the guide of determinate meanings, in the voice of Esu, the god of indeterminate meanings, through the oblique messages from the oracle. In seeking an origin myth, Gates finds predecessors to post-modern literary interpretation. But this reading strategically omits characteristics of the African situation. In Yoruba religion, the word from Esu/Elegbara was transmitted through the mediation and heirophantic practices of a priest, after the seeker attempted to propitiate the deity through sacrifices. And the seeker was not expected to revel in the ambiguity of the answer (and the infinite possible answers of the divination ritual), but to understand the answer as destiny and to apply it to the situation for which advice was sought. EIther Gates is suggesting that the professor of literature is playing the role of the priest (which I don’t think he is), or he is positing a kind of new age protestant version of the African ritual, in which the reader has the ability to observe and revel in the multiple meanings of the text, and to choose the appropriate combination of simultaneous meanings that apply.

In the Yale postmodern tradition, Gates repeats the homiletic tropes used to introduce deconstructive ideas that I heard retold in class after class – text comes from the latin “tissus”, to weave. Repeated and distorted images appear as a hall of mirrors. A “copula” – a grammatical connective element – enables parts of the text to “copulate.” Gates occasionally engages in original postmodern-style wordplay – in some places more effective to my taste than others. One example is core to the book – Gates uses the term Signifyin(g) for the African-American oral tradition of clever indirect expression, parenthesizing the “g” to refer to the African-American pronounciation; the African-American Signifyin(g) is contrasted to Western signification, the supposedly direct mapping from signifier to signified; and he uses the capitalization to Signify on the pretensions of the Western sense to authoritativeness. Is there a connection between the French “signe” (sign) and “singe” (monkey)? Gates briefly speculates – a high post-modern trickster would swing with that joke. Gates’ language is nowhere near as dense, but also not as witty as Prof Derrida.

One aspect that’s troubling to me about Gates’ reading is his claim that the Lion is outwitted because he takes the Monkey’s figurative language literally. What the Monkey does in the folktale is to falsely allege that the more-powerful Elephant has been talking trash about the Lion behind the Lion’s back. Now, if the Monkey had directly insulted the Lion in terms familiar from the “dozens” tradition of ritual insult – “your momma is so fat…” then the Lion would be at fault for taking the mock-insult literally. But the Monkey puts the insult in the mouth of the absent elephant – he wasn’t using figurative language, he was lying. (Native speakers reading this please let me know if the listener is also supposed to detect insults attributed to third persons).

What’s worse, Gates then uses Signifying to stand for all use of figurative language. While traditional insults use figurative language (Your momma lives in a tin can), those images are a strange and limited analog for all of figurative language. Gates stretches the application of Signifying to cover a wide range of literary rhetoric, while only minimally describing the patently obvious characteristic, which is the use of trickery and indirection to cope with situations where the speaker has less power than the listener. I’ll get back to this issue in a bit.

In the second part of the book, Gates uses the idea of Signification in his characterization of an African-American literary tradition. As in the first part, some parts of the argument seem more effective to me than others. In Signifying Monkey, Gates was building an argument in favor of the existence of a tradition of African-American literature, with tropes and rhetorical strategies that repeated and were deliberately varied by writers in the tradition. For example, in early slave narratives, the Talking Book (the naive impression of one who can’t read that a book must be talking to its readers) was a common trope that writers used to illustrate their transition to literacy and freedom. Reading Gates’ argument in favor of the existence of a tradition, it takes effort to assimilate the fact that not long ago there were arguments that such a thing didn’t exist. Racist ideology held that black writers could not create original work, but could only imitate; as a consequence black writers including Charles Chesnutt (who hadn’t read predecessors, who were admittedly hard to find), Richard Wright, and Ralph Ellison (who had a much less strong case) asserted that they were only mildly influenced by other black writers.

But in making an indisputable case in favor of a tradition, Gates argues too strongly at times. In a review not long after Signifying Monkey was published, writer and academic John Edgar Wideman observed that Gates’ argued a little too strongly that each author of a slave narrative – Gronniosaw, Marrant, Cugoano, was deliberately reading and revising specific prior works – without evidence that the influence was so direct. It is enough of an argument that the genre of narrative used common conventions, and each practitioner in the tradition varied the conventions for his ends.

The more serious weakness is the way that Gates uses the concept of Signifying to stand for the notion of literary influence itself. Each writer that varied the tropes of the genre was Signifying on their predecessors. Meanwhile, one of the narratives was the story of a John Marrant, a Black man who fell captive to a Native American tribe, avoided execution by demonstrating his literacy and Christian piety, and eventually thrived with his captors. The narrative, published in 1785, draws at least as strongly on other narratives of Indian captivity and of religious piety. If Signifying means a distinctive African-American literary form of influence and variation, how to explain the way that Marrant also used and varied the conventions of these other common narrative genres.

The argument for tradition and influence is even stronger, and the argument against Signification as a distinctively African-American method of literary influence is weaker, when Gates reads several works of modern African-American novelists. In Their Eyes Were Watching God, Zora Neale Hurston uses the social practices of Signifying as an important plot and thematic device, and uses an “free indirect” rhetorical technique that at once captures the African-American style of speech and illustrates the divided and evolving consciousness of her main character. Gates shows how Ishmael Reed uses parody and pastiche to critique traditions of the black novel, including the confessional mode, representative realism, orderly plots, blackness as natural transcendent presence, and mystical Afro-centrism (this last critique is me reading Reed following Gates’ argument, and not necessarily Gates himself). Finally, Gates shows Alice Walker in the Color Purple modifying Zora Neale Hurston’s use of a different sort of free indirect rhetorical style to convey the voice and emerging identity of her narrator.

Gates makes powerful cases that these writers are working in tradition, building and extending and critiquing each others’ work. But it is not at all clear to me that Signifying in this theoretical sense represents a special sort of African-American literary influence distinct from other sorts of literary influence. Writers always build on the work of earlier writers. Later parts of the bible modify earlier parts, and the Hebrew bible reworks earlier Semitic traditions. Dante rewrites and modifies Virgil. Cervantes parodies chivalric romances in Don Quixote. It’s how writing works, and how art works, how culture works. African-American writers respond to other African-American writers, and other predecessors (Reed’s Mumbo Jumbo is obviously also in the broader tradition of modern/postmodern literature). Is Reed’s response to Black writers Signifying, and to other writers not? Or is the way that African-American writers respond to predecessors Signifying, as distinct to the way other writers respond? I don’t think so, and Gates doesn’t even try to make the case. He does not look at Hurston in the context of other writers using “regional” narrative conventions to parse out ways that her use of tradition is Signification, in a way that is distinct from how white writers use regional conventions. He does not look at Reed in the context of other modern/postmodern narrative and parse out different strategies of influence with African-American vs. other predecessors. Without this argument, it all looks like influence, variation, and intertextuality to me.

Getting back to the issue of power in the practice of Signifying, one of the main themes that Hurston and Walker have in common is a female main character finding her voice and her identity by telling off an abusive man.In this book, and throughout his career, Gates has focused on finding and emphasizing the work of female writers (and in the footnotes, Gates cites insights from a variety of female colleagues, so he’s respecting peers, not just valorizing dead people and written texts). But in the book, Gates goes light on Signifying as a tool for the less-powerful to confront the more-powerful. Perhaps he’s working in the Signifying tradition of implication and indirection, and the critiques of power are left as exercises for the reader.

In summary, the Signifying Monkey makes a complex argument, some parts of which seem to me more persuasive than others. There is an African-American tradition of spoken rhetoric, emphasizing cleverness and indirection, which has roots in African tradition, and exists in continuing practice. There is a tradition of African-American literature, characterized by tropes and rhetorical strategies that are repeated and varied, including Signifying as a trope and a represented practice and a rhetorical resource. Strong arguments, well-defended with interesting readings that yield insight into the tradition as a whole and important writers in particular. I liked the book and recommend it for these strengths, if you enjoy literary analysis.

But Signifying as a Afro-centric roots of post-modernism? A nice origin myth, with the strengths and weaknesses of other origin myths for contemporary ideas. And Signifying, in a theoretical sense, as a distinctively African-American form of literary influence? I don’t see it. Although, if anyone reading does, please let me know and make the case.

Parenthetically, Gates’ search for and discovery of pre-modern ethnic sources for postmodern literary ideas reminds me a bit of parallel efforts finding traditions of polyvocal truth in Rabbinic rhetoric. There’s an interesting parallel in the strategy to search for alternatives to ideologies of unitary truth in non-Western traditions. In order to read Rabbinic rhetoric as a resource for post-modern thought in this way, one needs to abstract it, in a manner analogous to the way that Gates does, from built in mechanisms of authority.

p.s. Disclosure: Reed’s Mumbo-Jumbo is the only one of the novels that Gates treats in depth here that I haven’t read yet. Have you? Should I? And did you read the Signifying Monkey at some point in your education? What did you think?

Networked communication – theory and practice

In the last few weeks I read three books on related topics – the theory and practice of networks for social change. Deanna Zandt’s Share This, Beth Kanter and Allison Fine’s Networked Nonprofit, and Manuel Castells Communication Power. Share This and Networked Nonprofit are practical books for people engaged in nonprofit and advocacy work; Communication Power is a work of sociology by an academic personally interested in political activism and social change.

The thought behind reading the books together was that Castells would provide a bigger picture framework to put the more practical books into context. He does, but not in any definitive way, perhaps because the story is very much in progress. Share This and Networked Nonprofit are both differently excellent for people newer to the use of social media for social change; for more current and advanced advice, follow the authors online.

Share This and Networked Nonprofit are written primarily for people who are experienced at advocacy and nonprofit work, but new to social media. This focus supports the authors’ work, helping established organizations and professionals orient themselves toward new tools and new ways of working.

Share This has more personal advice for people with a background in advocacy and organizing. The book coaches readers through the personal experience of sharing stories and building relationships through social media. It helps people think about the decisions about how much to share, how to negotiate fuzzy personal and professional boundaries, to connect across social boundaries in the interest of social change, to manage attention and use critical thinking to handle the flood of social network messages, to overcome some of the common fears of using the internet and social media.

Deanna Zandt’s outlook on social media derives from older traditions of feminist consciousness raising (“the personal is political”) and personal storytelling from the Chicago school of community organizing. She sees personal connection as the foundation for social transformation: “through sharing with others, we ultimately build the trust and empathy that are the building blocks of change.” This viewpoint is a deliberate choice – people can use social media with many sorts of intentions; advocating empathy in the interest of social justice is one choice, which I like better than some other alternatives.

The Networked Nonprofit focuses less on the personal and emotional side of social media, and more on the organizational and institutional aspects. The book advocates for the use of social media to enable structural improvements in the way nonprofits work. The nonprofit sector has grown tremendously in recent years, in the number of organizations, employees, and budgets. The conventional structure of a nonprofit organization is a standalone entity which competes with others for funding, whose professional staff are isolated from donors, volunteers, and constituents. Fine and Kanter contend that this structure sets the organizations up for underachievement and sets staff up for exhaustion and burnout.

Instead of seeing themselves as standalone organizations, nonprofits should see themselves as part of a network. They could use the internet and social media tools to do a better job of engaging the support, skills, and interests of constituents, and could coordinate with complementary organizations to have a greater impact without taking on more overload. Some of the organizations that do this most effectively are ones created in the last decade with the network as part of their fabric. For example, Surfriders is a loose organization of surfers dedicated to protecting the seashore; local chapters have complete independence to create their own events and communications, with support tools from the core organization. The book is full of other case studies in which more traditional organizations are evolving to be more networked.

One of the interesting trends cited in the book was of a new generation of “network weaving” free agents who use network resources to initiate social action and advocacy, but who are not permanently affiliated with any particular nonprofit organization. This was exciting to me, since it felt like a description of how I’ve worked for years, without a name for the practice. I’ve done organizing and advocacy in tech policy, environment, open government, and other issues; I connect people and organizations, and leverage the resources and brand of organizations in a way that furthers the mission of the organizations, without taking on a permanent affiliation. It’s felt like a secret art, and it’s cool to be able to put a description and a name to the practice.

I read Communications Power by sociologist Manuel Castells at the same time, in the expectation that it would provide a broader context for the practical trends described by Zandt and Fine/Kanter. It does. I was also looking to the book to provide an analysis of the relationship between networks, politics, and social action, complementary to the culturally-focused analysis that Kazys Varnelis summarizes. It definitely does.

Castells traces the broader trends of the rise of communications networks, and their the role in the formation of identity and social connections, the dissemination of ideas, the structure of organizations, and the allocation of power. Castells’ first section provides a survey of sociological literature on the subjects (a handy bibliography for those of us interested laypeople without degrees in sociology). The second section takes a whirlwind tour of trends toward media consolidation and the rise of the internet in recent decades. For those who have followed these topics in mainstream and trade press, this is a skimmable rehash; perhaps there are sociologists and activists less familiar with the material who would find these sections more interesting. The third section draws interesting connections from neuropsychology to explain the relationship between emotion and reason in the formation of public opinion. They are not opposites; rather emotion and cognitive dissonance bring people’s attention to facts. The messengers – celebrities in mass media, or peers in social networks, play an important role in bringing people’s attention to the message.

The book picks up the pace in the second half, where Castells uses the background set up in the first half to explore a series of case studies with original analysis. Programming Networks of Mind and Power provides a case study of the Bush Administration’s political communication during the Iraq War, manipulating the mass media to build public support for invasion based on false information. Reprogramming Networks looks at four examples where networks are being used by people to organize and influence events; the rise of the environmental movement around climate change, the anti-globalization movement, “smart mob” protests in Spain that changed the outcome of an election, and the Obama presidential campaign.

Castell’s big picture sociology is more general and more complex than the practitioners’ books. Castells traces the rise of networked communication in the context of an interlocking matrix of state power, financial/commercial power, and mass media. New aspects of identity, new means of transmitting ideas, and new forms of coordination coexist and interact with existing forms. A number of the practical insights in ShareThis and NetNon are connected to larger patterns – the online expression of identity that Zandt advocates is connected to changes that Castells observes and validates with original and cited research; the evolution toward networked organizations is also connected to larger trends Castells describes.

ShareThis and “NetNon” are short and focused, while Communication Power is long and sprawling and requires substantial skimming to get through. I don’t begrudge Zandt, Fine and Kanter their tight focus on new trends. Those authors wouldn’t argue that social media alone is enough – activists and nonprofit managers need to consider a broader mix of media and methods to build a constituency in today’s world. Zandt has great coaching about personal adaptation to social media, and NetNon has a lot of insight about organizational structure and tactics, but neither book is the place to go for insight into big-picture strategy about social change in the networked era. Castells’ case study about the global advances of the environmental movement, with many networked organizations, substantial use of internet organizing, and celebrities communicating in mass media, provides interesting food for thought for nonprofits and advocates interested in joining forces for large-scale change (and its examples of organizing innovation dovetail with the mode described in Networked Notprofit). Though, at the moment, with the Obama administration’s failure to pass climate legislation in its moment of historical opportunity, there are as many questions as answers about the role and limitation of networked organizing.

Something that is missing in all of the books is a connection between network and structure that I suspect may be a key to movement success in the long term. A truly ad hoc, networked organization can have dramatic impact in the short term – flash mobs organized rapidly to overthrow governments and change election results in the Phillipines, Korea, and Spain. But can a purely ad hoc networked organization succeed at larger-scale, long-term change? Even in the age of easy networked communication, organizations are serve as an entity to handle money, and as a vehicle for storing and transmitting culture and practices to a constantly changing constituent base. The larger open source/open content projects, such as Apache and Wikipedia, have created foundations to provide an organizational base for networked peer production activities. The gap between the techniques of networked self-organization and the needs of long-term organizing is a gap I’ve observed before, in works such as Howard Rheingold’s Smart Mobs and Clay Shirky’s Here Comes Everybody – there need to be methods to link networked action in the moment to the longer-lasting coordination it takes to make big social changes – movements to abolish slavery, to gain civil rights for African-Americans, to gain the vote for women, took persistence over many years- a flash mob wouldn’t have done the trick.

Perhaps this is a weakness of the sociological form, but Castells’ analysis of the structures and forces in situations neglects the effects of circumstances and specific agency. If the 2000 presidential election in Florida had gone slightly differently, if Gore had campaigned a little better that season, then several of the major stories in Communications Power would likely have played out very differently – the aftermath of the World Trade Center bombings would have been different, the developments in the movement to combat climate change would have been different. Castells provides a rich, if familiar analysis of the Bush Administration’s success at disinformation and media manipulation during the Iraq War. But was the passivity and gullibility of the US media really baked into the structure of our society, or could leading media organizations have taken a more risky and aggressive path at reporting the truth earlier – that Iraq didn’t have weapons of mass destruction, and wasn’t linked to Al Qaeda.

The main conclusion of Castells’ book is simple and useful – to understand power, look at the communication networks, who controls them, what they communicate through the network and how. Beyond the strong main argument, Christian Fuchs of the University of Saltzburg critiques the Castells’ argument as social theory in several ways. Fuchs observes that Castell’s notion of power overemphasizes coercive power; and that Castells’ use of networking metaphors drawn from computer networks (programming, switching) may obfuscate the different properties of a social network made of sentient people; both observations I also made when reading the book. Fuchs argues that Castells’ use of “autonomy” is theoretically vague; I don’t have enough social theory background to understand that critique. Castells analyzes a number of mechanisms of persuasion used in mass media communication: framing, agenda-setting, priming, and indexing. Fuchs asks whether the same techniques would be used by insurgents doing peer organizing (based on observing the Netroots I’d say yes); in addition, I would ask about what different sorts of persuasion may come into play with peer media.

The two practical books have different limitations. Both books are written primarily for readers who are relatively new to social media; for people those who are already engaged in using online tools as a component of organizing and advocacy, these books leave one hungry for more. At Netroots Nation, I talked to a GenY friend who has been a pioneer in online political campaigns, and is now in charge of online advocacy for a progressive organization. He was somewhat baffled by the Networked Nonprofit’s emphasis on breaking down silos – still a new and needed idea for many, though it was old hat to him.

For people who are already deeply engaged in using the internet and social media for advocacy and social change, there’s a need for more advanced material: on using new media and older media together effectively, on combining the strength of the network and the structure of the organization, on the challenges of building diverse personal connections and coalitions when online networks are part of the practice; on the complex relationships between fact and emotion, messenger and message in advocacy and organizing. The authors’ ongoing work online continues to provide more in-depth resources for post-introductory networked nonprofit and advocacy. If you have other favorite sources, please let me know in comments!

All of the books are politically oriented, and I don’t think that is a bad thing. Share This is assertively progressive; Networked Nonprofit is less overtly liberal, and the anecdotes and case studies cover a broader range of the political spectrum, but the language includes assumptions and code from the left side of the political spectrum, for example the authors describe themselves as “experts in social media for social good.” Manuel Castells opens the book with stories of his youthful opposition to the Franco dictatorship, and the way he tells and frames the stories, including the Lakoffian way he uses the concept of framing, derives from a leftish perspective. These books assume ideals of social justice, environmental health, cultural tolerance; and the ideas that people can and should organize to pursue these goals.

There are other books that might be written, looking at the use of social media across the political spectrum, or from another part of the political spectrum; from the perspective of commerce and people’s identification with the stuff we buy, from the perspective of culture, identity, and creativity; from the perspectives of people’s everyday lives, gossiping and flirting and sharing jokes and showing off. Those books will be worth reading also, but these books aren’t those books. Christopher Lasch argues that a having a point of view helps people to understand and apply information. From this perspective, I see the social/political orientation as constraint and a strength, not a weakness.

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.

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.

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)