Texts for Nothing
By Jan MieszkowskiSeptember 28, 2015
Nein. A Manifesto by Eric Jarosinski
My ambition is to say in ten sentences what everyone else says in a book — what everyone else does not say in a book.
— Friedrich Nietzsche
Yes, everything’s already been said. But not by you.
— Eric Jarosinski (deleted tweet)
EVERY ERA has its doomsayers who declare that eloquence is on the brink of extinction. Ours is no exception. Today we are frequently warned that speed and convenience have taken precedence over elegance of expression. In texts, blogs, and discussion threads, fragmentary sentences with meager punctuation are said to have become the norm, acronyms and emojis supplanting subtler turns of phrase, if not the very ambition to write “well.”
Among the facilitators of this casual, proudly ephemeral style, there would appear to be no bigger sinner than Twitter. The one thing that everyone knows about this popular social media site is that tweets have to be very short. The 140-character limit is a vestige of “SMS” messaging systems on which Twitter’s users no longer rely, but it is widely accepted that to abolish the restriction would be tantamount to destroying the medium. For many who have never tried to tweet — and some who have — the compulsory brevity relegates the resulting compositions to the scrapheap of the trivial. Under such conditions, one may be able to fashion the equivalent of headlines or catchy slogans, but any pretension to argumentative development, much less profundity, has to be regarded as suspect in the extreme.
Those who have labored with the 140-character form have a very different sense of its possibilities and limits. A tweet — any tweet — mocks and rejects the internet’s defining resource: unlimited space in which to ruminate, ramble, or pontificate. How the aspiring tweeter wrestles with the provocation of this mandatory concision proves decisive. She may rebel against the constraint, whether by fashioning strings of connected tweets, posting photos of longer chunks of text, or abandoning the medium altogether. Alternatively, she may embrace the fact that every detail in a 140-character composition — every syllable, punctuation mark, space — is supremely consequential. If your goal is to learn to write formal poetry — or ad copy — there are worse ways to hone your craft than by tweeting.
Many contemporary poets have taken a stab at tweet-length texts or “micropoems”; in some cases, it has become a regular feature of their work. Pushing the envelope even further, there have been a number of efforts to bring that lengthiest of “long-form” prose genres, the novel, into contact with this shortest of short forms. The conceptual poet Vanessa Place tweeted Gone With the Wind word for word over a six-year period. In early 2013, the novelist Teju Cole produced a series of widely circulated tweets — he called them “short stories” — in which he transformed the first lines of canonical works such as Ulysses, Moby-Dick, and Mrs. Dalloway into accounts of drone strikes.
If it is not unusual for authors who have established reputations off-line to experiment with online forms, it is less common for writers to travel in the other direction. Eric Jarosinski first made a name for himself as a Twitter aphorist; his success led to print columns in the German weekly Die Zeit and later the Dutch NRC Handelsblad, and he now continues his project in book form with Nein. A Manifesto. For more than three years, Jarosinski’s followers (currently numbering over 117,000) have enjoyed his steady stream of extremely witty tweets. Sometimes light and playful, sometimes tortured or paradoxical, each is accompanied by his avatar, a cartoon drawing of what appears to be Theodor W. Adorno sporting a monocle. (Adorno did not actually wear a monocle, although his contemporary Fritz Lang did.) The Twitter account was originally called “Shit Germans Say”; Jarosinski subsequently retitled it “Nein Quarterly,” which he describes as a fictional journal and — with a nod to the Marxist philosopher Ernst Bloch — a “Compendium of Utopian Negation.”
When he first began tweeting in January of 2012, Jarosinski was a scholar of 20th-century German literature and culture at the University of Pennsylvania, and he has always specialized in witticisms about Teutonic literature and philosophy as well as the grammar, morphology, and phonetics of the German language itself. Many of his tweets comment on the complexities of intercultural and interlinguistic encounters, as when he plays with the faux-homophony of “you” and “ü”: “I love ü. And it’s just that simple.” Jarosinski has a remarkable ability to transform esoteric material into broadly accessible humor, spoofing the dramas of Samuel Beckett (“At Starbucks I order under the name Godot. Then leave”), Walter Benjamin’s thoughts about the angel of history (“Trust me: History’s no angel”), or the surrealist art of René Magritte (“On the Internet nobody knows you’re not a pipe”). At moments, Nein Quarterly’s tweets bridge the divide between the recondite and the quotidian so effectively that the loftiest of texts and theories can start to seem surprisingly relevant to daily life.
While many of Jarosinski’s individual aphorisms are triumphs of stand-alone wit, they are also intricately interrelated in ways that few internet humorists can match. This is an oeuvre of considerable internal complexity, an expansive network of self-references and self-critiques. One distinctive feature of Jarosinski’s work is the wealth of memes he devises. These are structures or templates that can be reused to produce numerous tweets, the repetition itself gradually becoming part of the comic effect. The catchiest phrase of a 2013 Eminem/Rihanna collaboration — “I’m friends with the monster that’s under my bed” — was the impetus for dozens of wry formulations: “God. The monster above our beds.” “Many of you have inquired. And I thank you. The monster under my bed is on vacation. Under yours.” In another case, he took a famous line from Wordsworth as the premise for a host of ruminations about wandering, loneliness, and clouds: “Wandering lonely as a word cloud. Made of ones. And zeros.” “I wandered lonely as a clear blue sky. Not a cloud in sight.” These memes are regularly appropriated by Jarosinski’s many imitators, some of whom seem to have no idea that their quips about Magritte’s pipe, the Untergang of the workweek, or “the first rule of ____ Club” belong to a genre that he pioneered. Suffice it to say that no one regularly tweeting intellectual or academic humor in either English or German has escaped his influence.
One might assume that Jarosinski’s audience would be composed primarily of academics embracing their own, as has been the case with other widely read Twitter accounts that lampoon university culture. From the start, however, his appeal was broader, in part because his tweets provide a way for people who have completed their studies and gone on to non-academic pursuits to reconnect with authors and ideas they once enjoyed. Perhaps even more crucial to Jarosinski’s success has been the complexity of the online persona he has fashioned. The starting point is the imitation of Adorno’s authoritative tone, which is distinguished by his legendarily pessimistic views about the future of humankind and his principled — some would say relentless — commitment to dialectical Marxism. Jarosinski enriches this basic profile with intimations of various other satirists, including the Viennese author Karl Kraus, whose harsh quips were tailor-made for Twitter: “One of the most widespread diseases is diagnosis”; “A writer is someone who can make a riddle out of an answer.” The resulting compound, however, is anything but a caricature. In a 24-hour period, Nein Quarterly’s moody, irreverent, often self-contradictory voice can radiate generosity and encouragement, become vague or dreamy, and then turn impatient, irritable, or outright hostile. The face may be a cartoon, but the mix of jubilation, sincerity, and perpetual disappointment feels all too human.
To be sure, the degree to which the “personality” behind this Twitter voice is an authorial construct is one of the account’s abiding themes. Jarosinski routinely plays with doubts about whether or not he is writing in character, ironically disavowing certain features of his online self even as he appears to be making straightforwardly autobiographical statements. Whatever form this kaleidoscope of identities takes at any given point, the vicissitudes of affect — usually of a poignantly unpleasant variety — are always at the forefront. Jarosinski’s first tweet was “Schade” (German for “Too bad” or “Pity”); his second was the similarly negative “Selber schuld” (“Blame yourself”). In the tens of thousands of ensuing tweets, expressions of guilt, self-recrimination, and despair have recurred countless times, but the deadpan humor never entirely recedes, so it remains vexingly ambiguous whether what is being lamented is the way of the world, the failings of the lamenter, or the impotence of lamentation itself.
Having left academia to devote himself to Nein Quarterly full-time, Jarosinski now enjoys a larger readership than most university professors could ever dream of. He has used this platform to promote other writers and critics, and he has made forays into political satire, most notably with the 2013 Gezi Park protests in Turkey — “#Gezi, vidi, vici”; “I gezi what you did there” — and the recent debt crisis in Greece: “Europe. A Greek start-up bought by Germany. Then sold to Google.” For the past year, Jarosinski has been on a “Failed Intellectual Goodwill Tour,” presenting his work throughout the United States and Europe. In addition to the English edition, his book is appearing in Dutch, Finnish, German, Italian, and Spanish.
The obvious question for Nein. A Manifesto is whether a Twitter oeuvre, even an extremely literate and literary one, can be “translated” to the printed page. After all, the tweet is the poster child for the putative ephemerality of online culture. The densest 140-character text requires, at most, a few seconds to read, and even the most widely fav’d and retweeted missive quickly recedes in one’s timeline, displaced by countless other less memorable ones. In contrast, a book — whether in paper or electronic form — makes considerable demands on the time and intellect of any potential reader, who will bring to it a lifetime of expectations that may bear little resemblance to those of someone surfing the internet. These very tensions have often been the subject of Nein Quarterly tweets: “Should you need me, I'll be squandering the utopian potential of social media. By reading a book.” “We used to have literature, critical essays, philosophical investigations. Never really caught on.”
Jarosinski avoids one potential pitfall by giving his book a clear structure. The main portion of the text consists of nine sections, each of which begins with a statement about a quasi-anthropomorphized nein: “Nein does not take questions”; “Nein does not thank you for shopping.” These introductory announcements are followed by 8–15 pages; at the top of each is the cartoon Adorno, below it a hashtag, and then four short sections of text separated by horizontal lines. These pieces resemble the print columns Jarosinski began writing for Die Zeit in 2014 and NRC Handelsblad earlier this year, although his newspaper columns tend to deal with the events of the week, whereas the Manifesto draws on the core themes and memes of the Twitter account.
The contrast between these texts and Jarosinski’s tweets is underscored by the 15-page glossary with which the Manifesto closes. Written in the style of Flaubert’s Dictionary of Received Ideas (“Ethics: Curiosity killed by a cat”; “Kafka: A law under arrest”), it gives a sense of what the book would have looked like had Jarosinski transposed his online material onto the printed page largely unchanged.
It also helps us identify the authority that form enjoys in all of Jarosinski’s work. Every page of the main section of the Manifesto conforms to an identical template, just as every one of his tweets, like anyone else’s, must respect the 140-character limit. While the layout makes each piece look like a miniature manifesto — something that an enterprising Protestant might well nail to a door — the internal dynamics of these short texts vary widely. Many of them turn on droll inversions of a sort that long-time Nein Quarterly followers will readily recognize: the desirable is exposed as undesirable, the revolutionary becomes bourgeois and has brunch. Some, like “#Formulaic” (pictured above), resemble mathematical proofs, with complex patterns of repetitions and substitutions. In certain cases, the third and fourth lines of a sequence will reverse the claims of the first two, leaving one torn between turning back to a beginning that is no longer viable and going forward without any ground to stand on. Here, the tone can be almost pedagogical, as if we were being taught the rudiments of dialectical thinking. At other moments, the text acquires a narrative voice — often musing or wistful — and one has the sense of reading a (very) short story with a beginning, middle, and end.
Some of Jarosinski’s references will be obscure for readers outside the academy, or even career academics who haven’t worked or studied in literature departments heavily invested in 20th-century continental theory. A typical “in-joke” involves an invocation of Saussurean linguistics via an interlingual pun: “#DeferredSentence / My French: / Pardoned. / My langue: / Out on parole.” The majority of the topics, however, are broadly accessible, if not universally so. They include the failed promises of technology; seemingly insurmountable obstacles to interpersonal communication (as well as doubts about whether such communication is in fact desirable); and the general precariousness of the world in the 21st century. One could argue that in the end it doesn’t matter how conversant one is with any given subject, because the familiar and the unfamiliar are constantly in flux. Jarosinski’s humor doesn’t disturb quite enough to prompt the conclusion that the most intimate and the most frightening things in our lives are one and the same, but the premonition of such an insight nags his reader, a low-grade sense of the uncanny that never entirely goes away.
Each page of the main part of the Manifesto presents a balanced comic composition that is smoothly executed to elegant effect. Beneath the polished surfaces of humor and satire, complexities are legion. If one attempts to move beyond the pleasure (principle) of wit and take these pieces seriously as arguments, one quickly discovers that they are informed by an erudition and analytic sophistication that would easily pass muster in an academic context, coupled with a clarity and ruthless efficiency that is all too often lacking in such venues. Consider, for example, “#CallMeFeuerbach”: “Thank you for calling the philosophers. / We’re busy at the moment interpreting the world. / If you’re calling to change it, please stay on the line. / The Revolution will be with you soon.” The hashtag alone presents a hermeneutic puzzle. Does it allude to Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Call Me Maybe,” the opening lines of Melville’s Moby-Dick, or the call of conscience in Heidegger, the external voice in our head that pulls us out of the familiar patterns of everyday life? In asking this question, however, one has in some sense already lost, since part of what is in question here is the assumption that such a clear determination could, or should, be made. Things get more complicated when one notes what is not there, namely a space between “Me” and “Feuerbach,” where the presence or absence of a comma would drastically alter the meaning of the three-word sentence, but the hashtag form dictates a collapse of the sentence into a continuous string of letters, so one can’t even speak of the space as having been “left out.” The body of the text (“We’re busy at the moment interpreting the world”) obviously plays on the best known of Marx’s “Theses on Feuerbach,” which is among the most famous passages in his oeuvre. But Jarosinski brings his predecessor in the manifesto genre close precisely in order to keep him at a distance. At the end of these 35 words, we have become “revolutionary” only in as much as we are forever turning in circles, embarrassed that we’re still trying to unpack the musty baggage of intellectual history, anxious that the desire to do so will irremediably mark us as one of those philosophers who merely interprets the world, and unsure whether we would have stayed on the line if this had been our call in the first place.
Many of Jarosinski’s tweets comment on their own structure, and the book’s format brings this self-reflexive quality of his writing more graphically to the fore. The layout, with relatively few words to the page, calls attention to the ironic deference to — and subsequent subversion of — different kinds of sequences (a, b, c; 1, 2, 3). Each section is carefully ordered, but there is a constant suggestion that it is the very need for order that is being challenged. This agenda is set out explicitly in a piece entitled “#OrderOfOperations”: “The poetry of negation. / Or the negation of poetry. / The inversion of cliché. / Or the cliché of inversion.” In virtuoso fashion, these four lines stage a series of inversions that (a) illustrate what inversion is; (b) raise the possibility that this short text is itself either the poetry of negation, the negation of poetry, or both; and (c) leave us entirely unsure whether we are being shown what poetry, negation, inversion, and/or cliché are, or if, to the contrary, we are learning that we don’t understand the first thing about these concepts. “#OrderOfOperations” thus becomes a kind of meta-template, forcing us to ask whether Jarosinski — or anyone else — couldn’t simply plug other words into the structure and produce something equally witty, and if so, whether the ease of this “operation” discredits the claim of any individual instantiation of the template to be saying something unclichéd.
Given his gloomy subject matter, it is often assumed that Jarosinski’s talent lies in knowing how to let the negative do its work 24–7. Labels such as “radical pessimism” or “nihilism” fail, however, to do justice to his corpus and its transcendental signifier: nein. Whether the word bespeaks the systematic, the disordered, or the monstrous, in Jarosinski’s hands it is never something that can be neatly delimited, much less controlled. On some level, this should not be surprising. Twitter, after all, has a curiously intimate relationship with negation: No, you may not write more than 140 characters; no, you may not edit the text after you’ve tweeted it; no, you may not reorder your tweets after posting them. Moreover, just as a tweet ignores the demands for clarification, explanation, or context that we normally impose on a text, so the word no abjures many of the standard responsibilities of words, most notably by failing to enter into syntactic relations with other words. No is one of the most consequential of linguistic elements, but it doesn’t play well with its verbal brethren.
If the volatility of no is one of Jarosinski’s constant preoccupations, the first section of his Manifesto also reminds us that it is not precisely no that is at issue: “Nein is not no. Nein is not yes. Nein is nein.” Jarosinski writes within a Hegelian intellectual tradition in which the force of the negative can never be converted into something irreducibly positive, or separated out as a neatly defined reference point or operation against which other terms or powers could be measured. If negation is a crucial part of any clarifying or constructive gesture, it is always potentially disruptive and destructive as well. Adorno is often remembered for saying nein to mass culture, to jazz, to the radical student movement — in short, to much of what the New Left of the 1960s regarded as progressive. Yet with a rigor that has rarely been rivaled, Adorno and his Frankfurt School colleagues explored a variety of ways of saying nein to the authoritarian aspects of 20th-century capitalism. Expressions of frustration from today’s intellectuals about the evils of “neoliberalism” often sound like the outbursts of guests arriving late to this less-than-festive party.
One may be inclined to declare that Jarosinski’s proclamations of hopelessness and despair are “just jokes,” but part of the “joke” is precisely how few venues there are for expressing consternation about the state of the world to an audience that will take it seriously. In the face of mounting wealth inequality, planet-threatening environmental devastation, and an omnipresent potential for violence, the real question may be why everyone isn’t trying to channel Adorno, by whatever means necessary.
There is considerable irony that Adorno, the virulent critic of Walt Disney films, is now regularly admired by tens of thousands in cartoon form. One of the lessons of Nein. A Manifesto, however, is that one cannot assume that the most sober engagement with an oeuvre will necessarily lead to the most faithful or productive interpretation. The Adorno who appears on a Critical Theory syllabus or in the footnotes of a Verso book is not necessarily any more or less “authentic” than the version of Adorno haunting Nein Quarterly. In the end, academics may turn out to be the biggest offenders when it comes to reducing philosophers’ arguments to caricatures rather than trying to understand them in their own terms.
We regret to inform you that I’m leaving Twitter for good. Until tomorrow. When I’ll be back for evil.
— Eric Jarosinski (deleted tweet)
Jarosinski likes to say that Adorno would have hated Twitter, although many of the one-liners in Minima Moralia would unquestionably have made popular tweets. The apparent contradiction helps us see how Jarosinski’s work continues the Frankfurt School’s critical project. Historically, many of the very philosophers famous for writing aphorisms have been suspicious of the form. Combining the self-evidence of an axiom with the authority of a dictum, aphorisms are threatening because they appear to be independent of any conceptual or linguistic system that would lay claim to understanding them. This is why aphorisms were embraced by Adorno, who repeatedly stressed that a genuine break with the status quo would have to be in part a verbal revolt, an interplay of the systematic and the radically experimental that would articulate new discursive forms. In asking what it would mean in this day and age to intervene productively in what passes for the “mass media,” Nein. A Manifesto enjoins us to follow Adorno’s lead and pursue such an enterprise in creative ways, all the while cautioning us not to take it for granted that our good intentions will suffice to ensure that we will be part of the solution rather than part of the problem.
Despite his constant references to language’s failure to facilitate communication or mutual empathy, Jarosinski’s oeuvre is ultimately an ode to language. With a lover’s scrutiny, his work raises questions about the power — and impotence — of verbal dynamics, questions with which disturbingly few of his contemporaries, inside or outside the academy, are willing to trouble themselves. There are many amateur and professional humorists out there writing tweets, and there are many political and cultural theorists writing books, but there is no one who is producing anything comparable to these incisively self-critical prose poems. We should all hope that what Jarosinski has told his fans applies to himself as well: “If you’re going to leave Twitter, there’s something you should know: You won’t.”
Jan Mieszkowski is professor of German and Comparative Literature at Reed College. He is the author of Watching War (2012) and Labors of Imagination: Aesthetics and Political Economy from Kant to Althusser (2006).
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