Standort: / Meldung: "What can you achieve by saying "no"?"

Joanna Bostock

Reading between the headlines.

26. 1. 2016 - 16:14

What can you achieve by saying "no"?

A conversation with Eric Jarosinski, the man behind the Twitter phenomenon @NeinQuarterly.

Nein. Ein Manifest.

Der amerikanische Germanistikprofessor Eric Jarosinski rennt fast in Autos, weil er den nächsten Hegelwitz twittert. Dafür hat er fast 120.000 Follower. Ein Porträt von Zita Bereuter.

If you're active on Twitter, you could be one of the 126,000 followers of @NeinQuarterly. If you aren't, I recommend you check him out.

The man behind the account is American Germanist and author, Eric Jarosinski. He started tweeting in 2012 when he was trying to write a book and got stuck, now he's being described, for example, as "one of the most surprising and amazing Twitter phenomena".

Eric Jarosinski aka @NeinQuarterly

Oliver Lehmann

Joanna Bostock: Your Twitter handle is @NeinQuarterly, what does that mean? Why did you come up with that name?

Eric Jarosinski: I guess I wasn’t giving it much thought when I first came up with the name. I knew that I wanted a name that had something to do with a publication or a journal, because my background is as an academic, I was still a professor at the time, and I was trying to think of a name for something that would speak to my interests, but would also allow me to talk about whatever I wanted to talk about, and I came up with the idea of calling it “Nein”, and when I thought about it, this is when it became the tagline for this "Compendium of Utopian Negation". I thought, “well, most of the things I do have something to do with negation” (laughs), but also at the same time not just negation, and this idea of Utopian negation was really this question of what you could achieve by saying no to something, is this something you could make possible? And for me what it meant was learning to write again, but in a different way and kind of loving to write, which was the complete opposite of a complete year of a writer’s block.

You have explained that you started this Twitter activity at a point in time when you were trying to write an academic book and were having a hard time doing that, so you turned to Twitter. Tweets are a very different way of writing compared to academic writing, so what is it about Twitter that opened up possibilities for you?

I think, in general, I just felt liberated from certain expectations that I had of myself. I’ve never liked, really, any of my own writing. The hardest thing for me always was handing in a paper that I had written as a student, because it was never good enough. I always thought of other things I would like to do that could make something better than what it was that I had. It was a very painful experience and I guess in some ways it was good to push me to do better work than I might have otherwise, but it also got to be so extreme that I froze and I couldn’t write. With Twitter what appealed to me wasn’t anything about social media or the Internet; I wasn’t someone who spent a lot of time on blogs or whatever before this. It was simply that it was this little box, that only allowed for very little text, and it was never a question of, “Can I write enough to write a Tweet?” it was just a matter of, “How good can it be?” and that’s still a challenge I like. You could have the best Tweet you’ve ever written right in front of you, it’s not a matter of you spending ten years on a novel. So I never felt as responsible, in a ways, for these texts as I did when I was writing an academic article or paper of some sort.

Is it because Twitter doesn’t judge, you’re not being evaluated for what you write. Is it more of a conversation?

Well, it’s interesting. Twitter does judge, and judges harshly, and I think that something that can scare people off from Twitter is the fact that if you put too much weight on the reaction to what you’re writing, you’ll probably never find your own way of writing. I know that often some of the things that I write that I think are the best, not many people respond to them. Part of the challenge of Twitter, if you’re using it as a form for developing your writing, is not to let that kind of instantly quantified feedback along shape what it is that you’re doing. But I would say that, more than anything, it was just a matter of writing for an audience that was outside a university context to a great extent, and I felt like it was much more an audience of peers, rather than writing for someone higher up in a hierarchy that I just assumed would judge what I’m writing harshly.

The title of the lecture that you’re delivering at the University of Vienna on Thursday is, “Bringing Philosophy to a Smart Phone near You in 140 Characters”. We tend to think of philosophy as something really quite academic, so it Twitter a means of bringing philosophy to the masses, if you like?

Well, I think it can be, but in a very limited sense. I don’t think of what I’m doing as any sort of popularization of philosophy. I don’t explain any ideas, I simply try to think about translating philosophical ideas into a language that we don’t associate with philosophy. So, generally what I’m doing is working with forms that are well established, joke forms that we all know; somebody walks into a bar and something happens, in a way the most trite kind of forms, but then using them to discuss things that are not usually not put into that context, or using marketing language that we know from an ad. for a credit card company, but to say something about Nietzsche. That’s the dissonance that I like, and largely what that’s about is a type of demystification of philosophy, I would say, rather than a popularization; making it accessible, let’s say, but not accessible intellectually, but in a way more accessible in the sense of, “ Look, here’s somebody who’s actually having fun with these ideas, and that is, in fact, possible, and you might have a more productive engagement with difficult texts if you allow yourself to do something like that.

Twitter screenshot

Looking at some of your Tweets, it strikes me they can almost be read on two levels: there’s the immediate, reading the straightforward humour in some of your Tweets, as well as a deeper level where one might actually stop, think, and go, “Hmmm”...

Well, if I’m having a good day that might happen. As I see it, I am very much an amateur with the form. I’ve only been doing this a few years, my models are the masters of this form, especially now in Austria, Karl Kraus is one of the greats, or for me, I became interested in the short form first in reading Nietzsche’s aphorisms, I mean those are texts that acutally have those dimensions, and that you can spend a great deal of time thinking about. I don’t think most of what I write works that way. I would like to get to that point, one of these days, but I do hope, at least, that there are a few things that come together in one of these jokes, one of these one liners. I usually just refer to them as jokes, although a lot of them aren’t, and in fact what I’ve written for print, I’ve done this now for a paper in Germany, and one in The Netherlands, and a book that came out recently, those are texts that I try much more so to write to get the kind of reaction you’re talking about. I think there’s nothing I’ve written there you would even have any kind of laugh out loud response to, the best I can hope for is exactly that: “Hmm, that’s interesting”. That’s a very different type of writing, and for me Twitter is much more about the zinger, the one-liner, the interruption of something else you’re thinking about, or the crystalisation of something lots of people are thinking about at that moment. To me, those texts are the most ephemeral, and in a way the least multi-dimensional, but the goal is to do exactly what you are talking about.

Do you have any particular favourites? I realise that’s a difficult question given that you are approaching 34,000 tweets…

Not really… I’ve been asked that before and I used to have an answer to it. I think what I said was “signifying nothing is harder than it looks”, something like that. It’s just a dumb little line, but in a way it speaks to certain contradictions that I try to incorporate into everything that I’m doing. Or some of the things that I’ve had the most fun with are just the stupidest, most juvenile things of playing with German cognates – “hell” is a great one because “hell” in German means bright, or sunny or clear. Something I wrote is “in Germany hell is a sunny day”. Those are the things in a way I’ve enjoyed the most although I don’t think that those are the things that I’ve thought about the most, but I think that’s also part of what matters in what I’m doing: that it’s clear to people that this is just some guy who’s having fun with what he’s doing and doesn’t demand to be taken so seriously. It’s important for me that in a way there’s an exaggerated authority that’s being represented in these tweets, these are usually sort of pronouncements that are of an exaggerated gloominess but they undercut their own authority in how they’re formulated.

It’s interesting because one of your recent tweets was “Of course there’s no point. That’s why you make one”….

I think some people think that what I have done is simply being sullen and glum and if that’s all it were for me I would no longer be interested in it, and I don’t think anyone else would be either. If that’s the impression people get then I’m not doing my job very well because my hope is that I can work with things that might be the most pessimistic sentiment but expressed in a way that something of the joy in the formulation of it comes through, thereby changing what that text is. So I would say that something like what you just mentioned does work in that way. A lot of things that I write about have to do with political things that are happening right now, there are various causes I like to try to support, and I think that was one of those moments with some big thing going on. And ... what can one stupid little Twitter account do? And that was my answer to myself. There are times in which I really think I need to address the fact that no, this isn’t for me just the comic exaggeration of some gloomy sentiment, I want it to be something else at the same time.

How and when do you tweet? Is it just things that occur to you or do you set yourself a task or a certain number of tweets to produce in a day?

No. If I started to think of it in that way I would not do it very long. What’s made it possible for me to do at all, has been the smartphone: if it weren’t for that I would never have anything to do with Twitter. I can’t imagine sitting at a laptop and writing Tweets, for me the laptop is all about writing an academic book, looking at a blank screen. Part of the fun for Twitter for me was simply the different experience of writing on a smartphone, because it’s been primarily about writing when I’m in movement – I’m one of those idiots who walks around with his phone in front of his face, almost being hit by a bus – that’s happened, I’ve come very close to dangerous moments like that! I would say there’s never been a plan. I don’t like to write any tweets in advance … there’s a lot of software you can use to optimise when your tweets will be sent and so on. I’ve been careful about all of that and it’s been a challenge as things have gotten larger with this account – I don’t want to lose the thing that first made me love it, which was that it gave me room to explore a kind of writing that I had never done before and that I really enjoyed doing. If I myself start to take it too seriously, especially in this sort of hyper-rationalised way of “I’m going to write x number of tweets today”, or “I’m going to get this many followers this week” I think I would lose any passion for it.