Our Distraction: Franzen’s Kraus Project

Jonathan Franzen has done something of real consequence, making Karl Kraus known and available in a new way.

By Andrew WinerSeptember 22, 2013

    Our Distraction: Franzen’s Kraus Project

    The Kraus Project by Jonathan Franzen. Farrar, Straus, Giroux. 304 pages.

     “THE MOST IMPRESSIVE thing about Kraus as a thinker,” writes Jonathan Franzen in his brilliantly annotated new book of translations of Karl Kraus, the 20th-century Viennese critic, “may be how early and clearly he recognized the divergence of technological progress from moral and spiritual progress.” Not a Luddite, Kraus was one of the early owners of an automobile, which he employed to travel the European continent, and, later, he took to flying in airplanes. He also tweaked Shakespeare for the radio, a medium he endorsed. More significantly, he published upwards of 900 editions of his near-weekly journal Die Fackel (The Torch), with a print run of 30,000 copies at its peak. Religiously subscribed to by important German-language writers such as Thomas Mann, Franz Kafka, Walter Benjamin, Sigmund Freud, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Theodor Adorno, and Gershom Scholem, Die Fackel functioned very much like a popular blog to the extent that it would gloss a passage of text taken from the media in order to disseminate its creator’s opinions to its followers. And yet, as Franzen points out, Kraus probably would have assailed today’s blogs as relentlessly as he did the popular blog-like feuilletons that so entranced readers of early 20th-century Vienna’s most respected newspapers. Like any prophetic thinker, Kraus could be contradictory, acidic, and even apocalyptic, and in 1908 he wrote, “Progress makes purses out of human skin.” But Franzen suggests — rightly, I think — that Kraus’s criticisms of our indulgences and addictions were ultimately hopeful: he thought the world could be bettered.

    If Kraus’s views about modernity and especially about technology have something to say to us (despite expressing his fear of overstating the parallels, Franzen believes they bear significantly on our own cultural and technological moment), they seem to fly in the face of one of our biggest assumptions: that technology unleashes our creative sides. This belief is so prevalent in our culture that it has become both a cliché and a practice, which is why we see it manifesting itself in everything from Apple commercials and apps to our classrooms — without appearing to give anyone pause. Enter Karl Kraus: “A key factor for Kraus,” Franzen writes in one of his welcome and, often, very involving footnotes, “was that technology and modernization were diminishing the space that the imagination needed to thrive.”

    I myself arrived at a similar view about the time I noticed, four or five years ago, that flatscreens were being installed in restaurants, hotels, banks, airports, gas stations, and office lobbies — virtually any place where people had to wait for something. My first concern was that public spaces were being turned into Chuck E. Cheese–like environments where potentially risky encounters with our thoughts or other people could be effortlessly averted by taking refuge in flashing, blaring screens. But subsequent thoughts had more to do with my being a novelist: I grew frustrated that I could no longer bring a clutch of manuscript pages or an inspiring novel with me to a doctor’s appointment — what was the point of trying to read in the waiting area when it was being blasted with cable news or college football? And I was jealous that the flatscreens (to say nothing of the smartphones that were starting to show up in people’s hands) were drawing everyone’s attention away from their books — or, worse, replacing the activity of reading books, period. And then my young children started going to school, and I was forced to confront our culture’s beliefs about technology and imagination head on.

    Consider these statements I’ve sampled from the website of an esteemed California K-12 private school that is very much concerned with the moral and spiritual progress of its students:

    If we want our students to thrive and lead in adulthood, we must continue to provide them technology-rich learning environments that facilitate active learning, creative problem solving and collaboration along with curriculum infused with opportunities to develop computational thinking skills.

    As technology rapidly advances and integrates into every aspect of lives [sic], our children naturally envision technological solutions and innovations.

    Classrooms, tables, chairs, books, paper, pencils, white boards and computers will continue to be necessary resources in learning. The iPad allows the students and the faculty to better integrate these tools in a practical and user friendly central location.

    A personal device is imperative to making the most out of the time our students spend in school.

    We know that in order to nurture the inspiration, skills and talent needed of the 21st century and to prepare students to serve and lead the world with its technological complexities and global challenges, education must be relevant, hands-on, exciting, engaging, rigorous and yes, fun.

    To many parents, such mission statements will sound right on. But Kraus likely would have highlighted their jingoistic paranoia and alarmism. (It’s a scary, ever-changing, 21st century world out there with lots of technological complexities and global challenges! As technology rapidly advances and integrates into every aspect of lives, your child’s going to fall behind China’s children if she or he doesn’t stay relevant and keep up with all the new personal devices and all the latest apps!) Kraus would have descried in them the patriotic and militaristic sentiments (Your child must grow up to lead the world!) propagated by the feuilletons, the implicit calls for exceptionalism that were turning the aging empire to which he belonged into “a research lab for the Apocalypse,” as he once described Austria. “Kraus hated bad language because he loved good language,” writes Franzen, and in hundreds of rebarbative aphorisms and aperçu-rich essays painstakingly crafted out of a German prose so original and pure it couldn’t be contaminated (and often even deciphered) by lesser critics, Kraus never hid his belief that linguistic corruption was more often than not a sign of social or political or spiritual corruption. With his characteristic glossing technique, Kraus presumably would have thrown into relief one of these sentences’ numerous solecisms and used it as a jumping off place for a rant about how absurdly mistaken we are to allow our humanistic belief in the liberating powers of the internet (and the devices that deliver it to us) to be so thoroughly internalized by K-12 pedagogy. It’s easy enough to imagine him starting with the idea that our cognitive abilities atrophy while we jump around the web in a state of semi-distraction. (In his famous wisdom book, Dicta and Contradicta, he wrote that the media’s mission “is to spread culture while destroying the attention span.”) But Kraus would likely have gone beyond such an argument to question why students are on the internet at all while at school, and to ask what iPads are doing in the classroom in the first place. That greed and arrogance lie behind much of our technological progress was self-evident for Kraus, and I like to imagine him calling our public and private schools out for pushing the products of major tech giants like Apple Inc. onto students, and thus for insidiously, if (sometimes) inadvertently, participating in those companies’ efforts at instilling lifelong devotion to their brands in the nation’s young. He surely would have italicized the addiction to electronic devices that is being encouraged in students (and parents) by phrases like “a personal device is imperative.” (Because without one, the implication being, we wouldn’t know how to use our time correctly!) And, after questioning its logic, he might have shown how the claim that an iPad “allows the students and the faculty to better integrate” inert objects (tables, chairs, books, paper, and pencils) fosters a sense that technology is our savior: without it we’re lost.

    This kind of speculation about how Kraus might have glossed contemporary public rhetoric is something Franzen does in The Kraus Project (perhaps most deliciously with AOL’s recently tabloidized home page). He sees real parallels between the problems faced by people confronting an emergent mass-media machine in the late stages of the Habsburg Empire and the struggles of anyone here in the late stages of the American experiment — that is, anyone who is trying to preserve a sense of meaningful individuality and subjectivity in the midst of an invasive and radicalized techno-consumerist environment, one that has people happily objectifying themselves on social networking sites like Facebook, and willfully exposing pretty much everything that used to be private — their whereabouts at any given moment, or what they’re watching, listening to, eating, thinking, or buying. As Franzen sees it, this capitulation to technology may be our one commonality. “Our Far Left may hate religion and think we coddle Israel,” he writes in another of his impassioned footnotes,

    our Far Right may hate illegal immigrants and think we coddle black people, and nobody may know how the economy is supposed to work now that our manufacturing jobs have gone overseas, but the actual substance of our daily lives is total electronic distraction.

    While the country can’t agree on how to solve our most substantial problems, Franzen argues:

    What we can all agree to do instead is to deliver ourselves to the cool new media and technologies, to Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg and Jeff Bezos, and to let them profit at our expense. Our situation looks quite a bit like Vienna’s in 1910, except that newspaper technology (telephone, telegraph, the high-speed printing press) has been replaced by digital technology and Viennese charm by American coolness.

    That — American coolness — can function as a sort of seductive blind, Franzen suggests, especially in its manifestation on the internet. Much in the same way that the feuilletons of Kraus’s day occupied readers’ attention to the near-exclusion of worthwhile reading (“furnishing casual readers everywhere with the most agreeable of excuses for avoiding literature” as Kraus put it), the internet “tempts everyone,” writes Franzen, “to consider, under pain of being considered unhip, the positions that everyone else is taking.” The price we pay for this keeping up is time — it takes up a lot of time to see what everyone is saying — and, still, we’re left with an anxiety that attends to what Franzen calls “the restlessness of who or what is considered hip nowadays.” Here, again, Kraus — despite fighting particular figures and battles that have long since been forgotten by all but a few scholars — seems undeniably relevant when he writes that “culture can’t catch its breath.”

    It’s a beautiful way of putting the problem, and it’s part of what inspires Franzen to wonder who has the time anymore to read literature with so many blogs to keep up with. The pressure to do just that — keep up with blogs — can often overwhelm even the staunchest resisters, this reviewer included. For one, many bloggers seem so impressively sophisticated, so all-knowing, and even the vaunted literary journal n+1 has called print magazines terminally “male” (Franzen laments that denigration). When I allow myself to read literary blog pages (the plural is intentional: as soon as I finish reading one, or even while I’m in the middle of reading one, I find myself clicking a link to another, and another, and another…), the experience often feels like chasing literary nourishment down a rat hole, to use an old poker phrase — a rat hole that can actually contain a lot of good food, but where all is nevertheless a kind of darkness, where it can be difficult to distinguish much, and where there is no way to see how much you’ve consumed. Too often, I unhook myself from the screen, after such sojourns in the literary blogosphere, in a state of stupefaction rather than satisfaction. I only have myself to blame. It would all be so much better if I could simply discipline myself. When Franzen writes that “the new infernal machine” (i.e. our devices, our screens, the internet, social media, as opposed to Kraus’s “infernal machine” of mass media) is “far more enslavingly addictive, and far more pandering to people’s worst impulses, than newspapers ever were,” I offer him an assent born of experience, and want only to unplug from the machine. Going cold turkey becomes an increasingly appealing, if difficult, solution. And, yes, I’m well aware of writing these thoughts for an online literary venue — one I admire very much, and that publishes writers I respect — just as Franzen is well aware that cyber-skeptic books such as The Kraus Project get regularly reviewed and discussed on the internet. Such are a few of the many contradictions of our strange moment.

    Other Krausian themes Franzen touches on in his footnotes range from the “the tyranny of niceness, in contemporary fiction […] enforced by terror of the Internet and its ninth-grade social dynamics” (Kraus can be instructive here: he famously showed no hesitation in taking down his friends as strenuously as he did his enemies) to the intermingling in esteemed places like The New York Times online and The New Yorker online of subjective, impressionistic journalism (blogs) with institutional journalism (a trend that has led to, among other things, the attrition of freelance journalists), and from the way techno-consumerism couples Enlightenment, humanist rhetoric like freedom and empowerment and connection with an unabashed pursuit of profit and monopoly-building to the way we keep “handing over basic memory function to a global corporate system of control” every time we reach “for an iPhone to retrieve the kind of fact it used to be the brain’s responsibility to remember.”

    Lest all of this is starting to sound too tendentious, it’s important to note that The Kraus Project is many things besides social and technological criticism. It’s of course a work of translation (more on this in a moment). And it’s an account of Franzen’s confrontation with both a great critic and himself — with the younger Jonathan Franzen who, in Kraus’s anger and eloquence, found what young writers often seek in other writers: their true kin. What Franzen says Kraus did for the forgotten comic genius of 19th-century Viennese theater, Johann Nestroy, could also be said of what Franzen does for Kraus in The Kraus Project. Franzen: “To champion Nestroy is at once to make him a more satisfactory father and to demonstrate the champion’s own superior strength. Nestroy in 1912 needed Kraus’s help, and Kraus needed to provide it.” At this point in his career, the last thing most people probably expected from Franzen, who has risen to the heights of literary fame on the basis of his last two wildly successful novels, is a labor-intensive translation of a difficult and largely unknown Austrian writer. And yet, to reframe Franzen’s statement about Kraus and Nestroy slightly: a mostly unknown Austrian writer named Karl Kraus needed Franzen’s help, and Franzen needed to provide it. Because part of what makes Franzen such an effective and compelling storyteller is that, aside from being a supremely gifted novelist, he is also an instinctive moralist — like Kraus. (The Kraus Project provides a welcome corrective to the idea that Kraus’s satirical bent limited him to the role of a mere complainer and cynic — a characterization that even an otherwise electrifying and insightful commentator on Kraus such as Clive James has put forward.) And a fine moralist dares to question what the vast majority don’t, often arriving at inconvenient and unpopular truths. It’s inconvenient, and it’s unpopular, to consider that there might be a problem — not just on a health and safety level, but on the level of humanity’s larger well-being — with our attachment to personal electronic devices. Nevertheless, Franzen frets and he worries that “we find ourselves spending most of our waking hours texting and e-mailing and tweeting and posting on color-screen gadgets.”

    And, admittedly, I fret and I worry along with him. My fifteen years of teaching at universities have coincided precisely with the metastatic rise of the internet as a way of life (it’s almost quaint to recall how, in the late '90s, I and my fellow graduate students discovered this “cool little research tool called Google that nobody knows about”), and my experience in the classrooms and lecture halls has shown me that there’s no question students learn the most by putting down their devices and engaging in direct conversations and Socratic discussions with the professor and their peers. Given that a mere PowerPoint presentation can hypnotize students into a staring stupor that prevents them from thinking about what’s being discussed, I remain deeply concerned about the move — driven mostly by administrative greed and economic concerns, but increasingly embraced by well-intentioned academics whose iPhones and iPads and MacBooks are very dear to them — toward online education at pretty much every university and college in the land.

    And I worry about what’s happening to the students long before they reach college. Looking for schools for our children, my wife and I toured virtually every school, public and private, within a 20-mile radius of our home. All of them proudly presented similar techno-boosterist rhetoric about how the times are changing fast. (Franzen: “Times have changed: the watchword of the ideology of Progress. Aren’t we lucky that our phones are so smart now! The only thing that hasn’t changed is the tone of writers celebrating how things have changed.”) All of them mentioned the 21st century and the word “global” at least twice. And all of them boasted of the technology they either already had or were planning to install in the classrooms. After visiting enough of these schools, we started to feel that the only difference between them was who could afford to have the latest electronic gear. None of this should come as a particular surprise when the prestigious universities into which these schools are trying to place their graduates are at the forefront of promoting the belief that students need technology in order to learn more effectively. This month’s edition of Harvard Magazine describes how “faculty members across Harvard are exploring and inventing new ways to engage students and reimagine education in today’s global, digital, and fast-changing world,” (there are those catchphrases again!) and “adding a digital twist […] to enhance teaching and learning on campus and beyond.” In one of his footnotes, Franzen complains that,

    We’re told that, to remain competitive economically, we need to forget about the humanities and teach our children “passion” (to use Thomas Friedman’s word in a 2013 Times column) for digital technology and prepare them to spend their entire lives incessantly reeducating themselves to keep up with it. […] We need to become as restless as capitalism itself.

    And at school meetings and gatherings, I’ve noticed the real fear other parents harbor about their children falling behind. My counter-fear is that they’ll fall behind because of the smartphones, iPads, and other screen-based devices being in the classroom (let alone on their persons the rest of the time). And this counter-fear of mine extends to social and physiological health, too. Parents with a child who suffers from tics (many children do) may have come across the suggestion, from a doctor, a webpage, or a magazine article, to wean the child off screens for at least 12 consecutive days. I am also concerned that the impulse to always click to the next screen, so encouraged by the internet, can have adverse effects on children with ADHD. I expect to be called a Luddite for expressing these concerns, even by a number of my literary and intellectual friends; if much of your life and work are spent looking at a screen (my life and work are — it’s one reason why I’m not a Luddite), it’s only natural to want a screen-based way of life to be legitimized — by newspapers, by your friends, by films and television shows, and, yes, even by hip literary novels. I’ve noticed that, in this one arena, a majority of my academic colleagues — professors who normally apply their criticality to all aspects of life — happily join the fray and actually question the questioner. Many are the instances where I’ve been on the receiving end of puzzled looks, or long lectures, when I’ve dared to question our addiction to the electronic drip. You’re an idiot, apparently, if you question whether technology equals actual progress (as Kraus did, and Franzen does). But I’ve caught my university students watching pornography during lecture, and many of them are always IMing during class. I’ve seen the difference (the diminishment) in their papers. Go ahead, keep telling me that these technologies can be beneficial to education.

    And not for a second, by the way, do I worry that a student would fall behind in a learning environment in which no iPads or even computers were allowed — because the culture presses everything on them anyway. Most of America’s youngest already know how to use an iPad or a computer, and, if they don’t already, they’ll know how to use a smartphone soon enough, no instructions required. The fear — parental, pedagogical, or cultural — is bogus. The pervasiveness of technology has rendered it so.

    As a novelist, I know firsthand how silence can benefit thought and creativity. I hope that my children and all children will have space in their lives for contemplation, which can help them not only to make and discern significance, but find their way to rich intellectual and spiritual experiences. I also hope that they can develop and maintain a penetrating curiosity about others. Curiosity has been granted a new inside track by social media, one that, on first and second glance, would seem to be beneficial: going onto our social media website of choice, we can gain access to what used to be the very private thoughts of others. But I’m talking about the kind of curiosity we employ when in the physical presence of strangers, our deep interest in people. With no textual pipeline into their thoughts, and especially without looking at each other because we’re looking at our smartphones, this kind of curiosity can weaken from lack of exercise. It certainly is much less in practice now, as anyone who’s sat in an airport lobby in the last five years can attest: other people are there but no one’s watching them. We may occasionally look up from our screens, and our eyes may occasionally land on a stranger, but, without a developed and felt sense of curiosity about them, without looking into them instead of just at them, we approach that dangerous point of considering other people objects.

    Naturally, I feel that our lives are enriched or diminished by the quality and nature (and not necessarily by the quantity) of our utterances. I favor considered and shaped utterances over those that are farted out, the carefully written essay or novel over the status update or wiki entry. Like Franzen, I fret over our increasing inability to qualitatively distinguish between these things in an electronic environment that, as with the feuilletons in Kraus’s day, can elide and erase the boundaries between careful thoughts and hasty ones, between good prose and shabby writing. I’m interested in high and low, but I’m not very interested in a world in which they are equated.

    If The Kraus Project is the work of a moralist, it’s a moralist’s labor of love — love of Karl Kraus, love of significance and literary values, love of our world in spite of the author’s highly articulated problems with it. And it must have been a labor. One of the reasons I shied away from Kraus after reading a little of him in my college German courses was that his prose was dense, idiosyncratic, difficult, even in his aphorisms. In comparison, Musil, Kafka, and even Mann and Benjamin were easy to read. And then there were Kraus’s constant allusions — often to poems and novels and plays by his hero Goethe, but also to a whole constellation of writers and thinkers (many of them his enemies) and cultural entities and artifacts from the German-speaking world with which I had little or no familiarity, despite my years of German coursework. With the help of my professor, I could come to understand the brilliance and humor of a phrase, or even of a whole sentence, but I quickly gave up on ever writing a paper on Kraus. That Franzen not only tackled him just out of college, but strove, during his fellowship year in Berlin, to begin translating the notoriously difficult author is truly remarkable to this fairly fluent reader of German. It was almost another three decades before Franzen resumed and finished the job, but in my opinion, The Kraus Project is a masterwork of translation. For their relevance to his own cultural concerns, Franzen has selected two main essays — “Heine and the Consequences,” Kraus’s assault on what he viewed as his era’s mistaken worship of the great 19th-century German writer, Heinrich Heine, and “Nestroy and Posterity,” Kraus’s rare and scintillating paean to the underappreciated satirist — along with two smaller afterwords to the Heine essay, and, finally, Kraus’s truly magnificent poem about the powerlessness of words in the face of an emergent Nazism, entitled, “Let no one ask.” (The latter’s final line, in Franzen’s lovely translation (with assistance from Damion Searls and Jonathan Galassi), reads “The Word went under when that world awoke.”) While remaining faithful to the meaning, and as much as possible, to the structure and phraseology of Kraus’s often rhetorically pivoting sentences, Franzen translates them into a contemporary English that somehow retains Kraus’s voice and richness even as it shines with Franzen’s characteristic lucidity (readers will notice many of Franzen’s favorite words), and so succeeds in rendering Kraus’s two cantankerous and fiery essays understandable by a lay American audience with no background in Austrian and German literary history. In this endeavor he fruitfully enlists the help of Kraus scholar Paul Reitter and Austrian writer Daniel Kehlmann — both of whom contribute healthily to the book’s robust and “deviant” (as Kehlmann calls them at one point) footnotes. A warm, personable, understatedly witty exchange between these three contemporary writers occurs in the interstices (and sometimes in the actual text) of the footnotes, and it’s hard not to enjoy the affection and admiration that flows between them; reading their annotations is akin to being in a small room as three extremely intelligent, subtle people talk, concur, and sometimes gently argue over something they know a lot about. And it can buoy a struggling reader when these three occasionally admit that, for the life of them, they have no idea what Kraus is talking about in a certain line.

    For, whether in the original German or in Franzen’s clear translations, Kraus still isn’t easy. This fact in itself can serve as a tonic to precisely the kind of fast, glib, high-decibel commentary that both Kraus and Franzen have a problem with. One can’t read The Kraus Project quickly without missing whole swaths of meaning and significance, and without missing out on the experience of carefulness, and slowness, and shapeliness. (“The form is the thought,” as Kraus wrote) Were one to ignore the original German (on the left facing pages) and perhaps even the footnotes (don’t!) and to concentrate only on the translated Kraus, one would experience something similar to reading in a foreign language in which one is fairly, but not entirely, fluent. Anyone who’s ever tried that can attest to the earned rewards of such reading.

    The Kraus Project is also, of course, the work of an artist. At a fundamental level, the book is about writing — sometimes literally, as in prose styles and syntactical choices, sometimes literarily, as when Franzen shares the moral cases he once assembled against the writings of John Updike and Philip Roth, and sometimes extra-literarily, as when Franzen expresses disappointment about Salman Rushdie’s tweeting, or about the effects of recent technological developments on the world he knows perhaps most intimately, the one to which he’s contributed so significantly, and that has given him much in return, publishing:

    Amazon wants a world in which books are either self-published or published by Amazon itself, with readers dependent on Amazon reviews in choosing books, and with authors responsible for their own promotion. The work of yakkers and tweeters and braggers, and of people with the money to pay somebody to churn out hundreds of five-star reviews for them, will flourish in that world. (Kraus’s dictate “Sing, bird, or die” could now read “Tweet, bird, or die.”) But what happens to the people who became writers because yakking and tweeting and bragging felt to them like intolerably shallow forms of social engagement? What happens to the people who want to communicate in depth, individual to individual, in the quiet and permanence of the printed word, and who were shaped by their love of writers who wrote when publication still assured some kind of quality control and literary reputations were more than a matter of self-promotional decibel levels?

    Franzen briefly considers the possibility that it could all turn around, but he doesn’t seem very convinced. As he implies was the case with Karl Kraus, people who critically examine something that already looks inevitable are often backed into a corner, complaining but still hopeful. Theirs are important voices. The Bible is filled with them. So are our philosophical canons.

    Still, we and our ways of living are dying all the time. The tech giants will continue to ply us with their addictive products, personal devices will proliferate, and we’ll keep looking for ways not to feel alone. I don’t know if this world can be bettered, but those of us who enjoy basic political freedoms and are privileged to live above the poverty line can still select much of the way we want to live in and interact with it. Personal oases are possible. As for what technological progress has wrought and wreaked, it may already be game over, but there is always a new one on. Whether or not we’re being forced to join the new game is part of what The Kraus Project wrestles with. If it turns out that we are, this brave book may help readers articulate, for themselves and for others, how they’ll play it.


    Andrew Winer is the author, most recently, of The Marriage Artist: A Novel. [more]

    LARB Contributor

    Photograph by Nancy LeVine / www.browneyesgallery.com


    Andrew Winer is the author of the novels The Marriage Artist (Henry Holt & Picador) and The Color Midnight Made, which was a national bestseller. He was educated in computer science and visual art, and practiced both disciplines in New York City before turning to writing. Other work of his has been published in philosophical journals.  He is Chair of Creative Writing at the University of California, Riverside, and a recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in Fiction. Married to author Charmaine Craig, he is completing a new novel about American religion and politics.


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