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.

The game is the frame: what realworld software can learn from games

Sebastian Deterding has put together an attractive and substantive presentation for UXCamp Europe, exploring the principles of game design and how these principles may or may not be applicable to software design. Historically, user experience has focused on tasks and efficiency, not fun.

To cut to the chase, Deterding concludes that software user experience is fundamentally different from games, for two reasons. Most importantly, what makes games fun is that they are voluntary and have no real-world consequences. If there is obligation or consequences, then the fun goes away. Secondly, in a game, the designer controls the tools and the goals, but in realworld activities, the designer is traditionally very remote from the actual goals. At work, the goals are set by managers, by the needs of the company for things like sales and solving customer problems – not by the software designer.

To first order, Deterding is right, and this explains why the application of game design principles to realworld activities often falls short. Social software “game-design” systems that reward users for actions like making blog comments – actions that are meaningless by themselves, and become drudgery in a realworld context.

But I don’t think game principles apply only when there are no realworld consequences or obligations. For example, fundraising campaigns have long used public thermometers and social competition, for the realworld goal of supporting nonprofit causes. People participate in these programs as volunteers – it’s not the same kind of obligation as a job you’ll be fired from if you neglect. But people participate with a sense of community obligation, and the campaigns build on people’s sense of social obligation to each other. In a particular community, someone can choose not to participate, at some real cost to community standing.

To give another example, Chris Messina gave a recent talk, where he explains how he used game design practices from Flickr in helping to design and promote a campaign to spread Firefox, when the open source browser was a scrappy newcomer gaining recruits against incumbent Ineternet Explorer. The campaign had explicit tools that helped participants climb a ladder of activity, and meet their personal goals by meeting the goals of the Firefox project.

Ladder of participation, SpreadFirefox campaign

So I don’t think that a game needs to be free of realworld consequences or obligations. But the game needs to be aligned with those consequences and social dynamics.

The other issue that Deterding raises is that software designers are traditionally far removed from realworld goals. This is true – and this is something that needs to be fixed for game mechanics in realworld games to be anything more than window dressing. This means that tools need to be configurable to provide much more control to the people with real world goals, to integrate them into the experience.

Deterding reaches a similar conclusion to John Hagel, John Seely Brown, and their team at Deloitte, from a different direction. They argue that social software in the enterprise is bound to fail, unless and until it is connected to the realworld business goals and metrics. And this is going to be a key focus of the next generations of business social software.

Unlike Deterding, I don’t think that fun is orthogonal to realworld impact. But fun in a real world context is enabled (or, more often than not, removed) by social dynamics – by leadership and culture. And by the degree to which the goals of an organization align or thwart the goals of participants. Tools can’t do these things, can’t fix them if they’re broken, can’t add them if they’re missing.

So, I agree with Deterding that the shallow use of game dynamics doesn’t do much good for software for activities with realworld consequences. I am more optimistic than Detarding about the potential, but only when the goals and social dynamics, leadership and culture are aligned.

I strongly recommend the presentation if you are thinking about this topic – the presentation walks through elements such as clear goals, bite-sized actions, scaffolded challenges, and social comparison that make up a game, has good comparisons and contrasts with software design, and has good resources for further learning:

In Griot Time by Banning Eyre

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Facebook and mobile publics

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

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

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

Fragments of Redemption by Susan Handelman

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

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

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

Benjamin and Scholem

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What do I think?

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

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

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

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

The unselfish social network

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Where is social context?

In yesterday’s post on the problem with Facebook Like, I wrote that Facebook is trying to be the sole provider of social context. This got me thinking about the various places that social context may be represented in a networked software system:

  1. in the object or message (which ActivityStreams helps enable)
  2. in the context where it is created
  3. in the contexts where it is seen and used
  4. in each node of the social graph
  5. in sets of social graph elements
  6. in decentralized elements of the social graph (e.g. aggregated/syndicated profile elements)
  7. shared understanding in participants minds
  8. unshared understandings in participants minds

Facebook’s model is seeking consolidation in two places. By replacing a metadata-rich, standardized, ActivityStream based representation of the message with a proprietary API call, Facebook is foreclosing opportunities for the adding of context in creation and in viewing and utilization (items 1-3 in the list).

By acting as the sole provider of social graph and profile services, Facebook is seeking to own those aspects of context (item 4, 5, and 6 in the list). Is Facebook doing anything to enable the exchange of subsets? (item 5 in the list)

But the even the proposed more open models social graph models don’t yet support context well enough, if I understand them right. The portable social graph initiative was based on a simple model that the user wants to bring his or her friends from service to service en masse, and this just isn’t true. It would be great to see an OPML-like standard for friend lists. I don’t think this exists yet. I’m told by standards geek friends that there are standards for 6, but I haven’t seen implementations. Pointers to resources are welcome.

Decentralization, experimentation, and diversity

The future that I am rooting for uses a decentralized model that supports experimentation with many different ways of creating and supporting social contexts. I’d love to hear for people steeped in the standards world to explain which elements actually support this vision, and I’d love to see more development that uses it. Even in a world with a big Facebook, locally specialized needs can be the seeds of disruptive change.

Last, but not at all least, are the aspects of social context that aren’t represented in the nodes and lines in the graph, or the messages and objects that traverse the graph, but among the people. It is always the case that the communication and social understanding, and social misunderstandings and conflicts among people are richer than the bits transmitted by electrons. Social context is in the cultural structures and discourses that people live in, and are largely outside the scope of the communication tools we use, although the tools and use of tools are shaped by culture. Part of the reason for humility and experimentation in design is the knowledge that models and tools are never going fully represent what is happening socially, they can only augment social experience to some degree.

One of my concerns about rise of the one-true-network graph is the potential loss of diverse experiences. By displaying one’s Facebook own friends in a third party site, is this locking one into one’s existing friend network and foreclosing opportunities to meet new people in new contexts? Surely, we sometimes want to share with close friends, but also to use different contexts as opportunities to make new acquaintances.

A recent academic study at Insead video link here shows that people are more creative when they get the chance to live abroad. Cities with diverse populations tend to be more creative, interesting places. Social network concentration is comforting and not a bad thing in itself, but social network lockin is stifling.

I think that the representation of social context is hard, and diversity is healthy, and that’s why I’d like to see standardized elements that can support a lot of decentralized, competitive experimentation.

The strong and weak case for social objects

Adrian Chan wrote an interesting blog post last week arguing against the common notion of the social object. I think Adrian’s mostly right. Social objects are useful, but the arguments in favor of social objects are made way too strongly, blinding designers to a wealth of opportunities that support the interactions surrounding objects, and not just the objects themselves.

The idea of social objects was crystallized in 2005 by Jyri Engestrom, building on a 1997 academic paper by Karin Knorr-Cetina. Later on Rashmi Sinha created an excellent presentation elaborating on many aspects of the overall social object design pattern.

In comments, Jyri makes a categorical case that “the object gives us a reason to talk to each other.” This strong version of the argument fails. Jyri brings the example of Linked In, a social network where people don’t simply connect to connect, they connect because of a social object, a job that binds them. But even this seemingly clear and sensible argument about LinkedIn doesn’t work very well. Even in Linked In, the interactions aren’t mediated by “a job”, but an industry or field, and topics and informally defined communities within that.

The weaker form of the case for social objects is valid – if you are a LinkedIn designer you definitely want to enable people to represent their jobs and find others who are co-workers or alumni. But the strong case fails. In fact, using the design pattern in Linked In overly strongly causes a design failure, and is the reason that I often use Facebook or Twitter instead of LInked in to represent a professional connection! Linked in requires you to say how you know someone within an explicit taxonomy – a job or institution. But if I know someone within an informally constituted social design community, say met at a meetup, I need to know their email to join on Linked in. And I don’t bother, I use Twitter or Facebook instead.

Even in Slideshare, which Rashmi Sinha designed around the idea of social objects, people are sharing objects – slides – within a variety of social contexts including conferences, marketing lead generation, technical standards development, humor, church sermons, that involve many sorts of social relations & interactions. If you are designing SlideShare, you want to look closely at the object to figure out common things that people want to do with slides presentations, such as rate and comment. And then you might want to look at the broader set of interactions for other ways of providing value to people – such marketing lead gen tools, or conference-related services.

As Adrian Chan observes, what’s meaningful isn’t just the object, but a set of social interactions and practices that surround the object. An excellent example of objects that subordinate to social dynamics is the story of Farmville. What’s compelling about the design of Farmville – what makes people obsessed with playing it – isn’t the game tokens, but the set of social obligations around the exchange of these tokens. Another example is the use of Formspring by teenagers to harass and bully each other, see this post by danah boyd.

Out of curiousity, I went back and read the original Knorr-Cetina article, and was not persuaded by her theoretical case that objects are in fact the center of sociality. The article used broad sociological generalities – people are alienated individuals in a knowledge economy – to make the case that objects have now become the elements that draw people together in the absence of other social ties.

In her focus on objects, Knorr-Cetina appears to ignores large swaths of history, sociology/anthropology and social theory about the social practices that bring people together. She writes “in a knowledge society, object relations substitute for and become constitutive of social relations… for example, objects serve as centering and integrating devices for regimes of expertise that transcend an expert’s lifetime and create the collective conventions and moral order communitarians are concerned about.”

But there have long have been social conventions and processes and bodies of knowledge in various fields. The transition to modernity extracted knowledge from heritable social structures into subcultures that are communicated through networks and institutions with greater social mobility. Just to pick one quick example, Elizabeth Eistenstein did a good job of writing about this transition in the context of the spread of printing. But Eisenstein wrote that printing and books facilitated these changes and practices, not that books *were* the changes and practices. Why use specific objects as synechdoche for the swath of the practices, networks and institutions that enable knowledge discourse?

Perhaps there is some academic or theoretical context that I am missing, which makes the article more meaningful than it appears. In any rate, going back to the source does not seem to provide justification for the “strong case” for social objects, which is that they are *the primary cause* for people to communicate, rather than being part of a matrix of practices, relationships, and things. The now-familiar social object design pattern is good and useful – it doesn’t need to be done away with, but it is limited, and there are more aspects of social design that become visible when one considers the interactions around the objects.

The problem with Facebook Like

The problem with Facebook Like is that it breaks Activity Streams and instead tries be the sole provider of social context.

Currently, activity updates are tightly bound to the service in which they were created. In order to share with others, the choices are blunt – annoy all your Facebook friends with game updates, annoy all your twitter followers with 4square checkins. By giving activity streams a standard vocabulary and metadata, applications will gain the capability to create more refined – and contexually relevant – posting choices and reading filters.

But that’s what Facebook’s “Like” gets rid of. See, there’s an alternative vision about social context. And that is that Facebook is your one and only source of context. Thomas Vanderwal suggests, in the discussion of Facebook’s recent announcement, that Facebook is not doing such a great job of this today: “The social graph is dangerous without context and much more dangerous w/ partial context.” ActivityStreams fosters competition among services that want to provide social context of various sorts, and Like forecloses that competition.

Elias Bizannes does the technical analysis to support this conclusion in an excellent post on the Data Portability project blog which analyzes the open-ness of Facebook’s Open Graph Protocol. Bizannes writes that:

the proposed page header metadata “a play to increase the quantity of semantic data on the web and then capture social gestures (aka “Likes”) made against those concrete semantic objects – think a web-wide recommendation engine. This is a big step forward for Tim Berners-Lee’s vision of the semantic web.

Currently, however, these gestures are submitted to FB’s proprietary database using proprietary API calls. This was not the most open way to execute on this functionality. Instead, these gestures could be written out to a site-specific Activity Stream that can then be indexed by any web-crawler.

There is a simple way for Facebook to remedy this situation, which is to support the Activity Streams standard for like updates. In this way, Facebook could compete to actually be the superior provider of social context – it has a major opportunity here – without closing off competition to other sites, tools and services.

If Facebook doesn’t do this, the challenge for those who’ll benefit from competition is to make it very easy to support standard activity streams – and then use that data to actually do a better job than Facebook at supporting the social desires of users