An Interview with Eric Jarosinski
Whenever Eric Jarosinski ran late for our class (“Nietzsche’s Modernity”) at the University of Pennsylvania, he’d invariably send us mass emails with subject lines like, “Thus was Zarathustra 10-15 mn late.” Or after news of a snow day: “Die Another Day. In Venice.” For an email ominously titled “Krank,” he’d add, “That’s German for sick. Because that’s how bad I’m feeling right now.”
That constant impulse to write playful, incisive, well-punctuated aphorisms has made Jarosinski a Twitter phenomenon. He has almost 88,000 followers, an incredibly large number considering Jarosinski’s favorite topics include hermeneutics (“Another beautiful day for signifying nothing”) and grammar (“An Oxford comma walks into a bar. Orders a gin, and tonic.”) Under the handle Nein Quarterly, a fictional magazine that may soon become real, Jarosinski takes on the persona of “Nein,” a zeppelin-flying alter ego of Theodor W. Adorno that turns a critical, monocled eye on the world.
Jarosinski’s tongue-in-cheek self-identification as a #FailedIntellectual after he decided to leave academia resonates with an audience looking to think outside traditional academic boundaries. His most earnest tweets come when promoting crowd-sourced or free resources for thought, like the avant-garde UbuWeb or the “PDF library” Arg Dot Org.
Our interview took place over email; he responded on various Apple devices.
I. MAYBE WATCH A WERNER HERZOG DOCUMENTARY
THE BELIEVER: You’ve recently inked a book deal for NEIN. A MANIFESTO, which means you’re moving back to writing books, this time in “small but potent clusters of text.” What does that mean exactly? Is Nein really Nein without Twitter?
ERIC JAROSINKI: Embarrassing. I don’t really know. That’s promotional text I didn’t write myself. I think it means “short but good.” That’s what I’ve been trying to write anyway, with varying degrees of success.
And yes, Nein is still Nein without Twitter, at least in spirit, but not exactly in form. I am trying to write for the book as a medium, just as I’ve tried to learn to write for Twitter as a medium. I know nothing about music, but I’m tempted to say something about tweets being about dissonance and sharp counterpoints, but for print I’m trying to think more in terms of composition, maybe some sort of little textual fugues. Uh, small but potent clusters of, uh, textual fugues.
BLVR: The promotional text on Lebowski Publishers’ website says that the book will, “As good old Horace would have put it, instruct and delight in equal measure.” That seems a little medieval for Nein—what are you hoping to instruct readers about?
EJ: You’ll have to ask my agent. The only thing I’ve ever tried to teach is a type of respectfully irreverent spirit in approaching the authors, thinkers, and ideas that have meant a great deal to me. At my best, I’d like to think I’m helping in some very small way to put the critical back into critical theory—by demystifying thinkers whose very objective was demystification.
BLVR: What is your schedule like now that you’re no longer a professor? Do you find that you have more time to think and write without a defined career, or less?
EJ: Well, it’s summertime, and the damaged life is easy… Though not for much longer, as I just got my last professorial paycheck. I get up relatively early, read a lot of German news, play basketball in a South Philly playground for an hour or so, usually writing some jokes in breaks, then often end up in a favorite dive bar by mid-afternoon to write. In the evening I grill on my front steps, read, maybe watch a Werner Herzog documentary. Most of my writing is done late at night. The uneasy sleep of an ongoing mid-life crisis is good for that.
BLVR: It’s funny that you say you watch a lot of Herzog’s films, because Nein’s tweets often remind me of Herzog’s dramatic voice-overs in his documentaries. What interests you about them?
EJ: I’m fascinated by Herzog’s own fascination, his intensity really. Every time I watch one of his films I’m reminded that I’m wasting my time if I’m not living with some degree of passion. And for a long time I wasn’t. Your question reminds me that I applied for Werner Herzog’s Rogue Film School in LA in August. Haven’t heard anything. Probably not good news.
You tweet a lot about the differences between theory and praxis. Is that one of your reasons for leaving academia?
EJ: It’d be nice if I could claim such a quasi-heroic narrative. However, I’m mainly leaving because I was unhappy and failed to finish the academic tome I needed to produce in order to get tenure. If I hadn’t made the decision to leave, it would have been made for me soon thereafter.
But, yes, in truth the tension between theory and praxis has been part of my thinking at least since graduate school. My most rewarding experiences came from the years I spent as an organizer for a labor union for teaching and research assistants (the TAA at the University of Wisconsin-Madison). Labor unions are all about praxis, of course, but the best ones theorize their own praxis. Hopefully to make it better, though it doesn’t always work that way.
BLVR: If the best labor unions theorize their own praxis, do you think academics need more praxis for all of their theories?
EJ: Perhaps, but I’d say that’s teaching, among other things. And most in the profession are no strangers to that. The question is how much you value teaching, how much your institution supports it, and how closely your work in the classroom is connected to your research, etc.
BLVR: Why did you develop the character of Nein? You’ve said that you often find yourself deleting tweets that you wrote because they are too personal. Do you ever feel like you’re losing control of this persona, or that the persona is becoming you?
EJ: Developing the persona was a way to translate my interest in theory, art, culture, etc. into a type of storytelling that I’ve always enjoyed but never really combined with my academic interests.
And, yes, I delete a lot. The most common reason, however, is that on any given day, at least 75 percent of what I write is crap. Or maybe it was good for the moment, but no longer.
As to control of the persona, I think Nein is becoming more like me. Though maybe sometime it’s the other way around. In any case, I know that no matter what that smart-ass cartoon Adorno says, I usually mean it somehow.
II. WHY IS ADORNO WEARING A MONOCLE?
BLVR: Why is Adorno wearing a monocle?
EJ: I’ve never thought about that very carefully, to be honest. To reference one of Adorno’s most famous aphorisms, I guess it’s a sort of splinter in the eye that serves as a magnifying glass of the strain of cultural arrogance that turn many off to his work. As I see it, however, Adorno is sometimes at his humanitarian best when he’s at his “elitist” worst. His disgust is certainly directed toward the “popular,” but mainly because of the loss of human imagination and potential it represents for him. On another level, the monocle is also a signifier of a certain theory aristocracy that I like to poke fun of—while participating in it, of course.
BLVR: Comparing criticism to a splinter in the eye sounds rather painful—do you think it’s possible to take up a truly critical position without becoming totally alienated or cynical?
EJ: I do, I suppose, as long as being “truly critical” doesn’t mean being a purist of some sort. My impression is that the orthodox burn out or turn bitter rather quickly.
BLVR: You’ve been critical of the American desire for quickness and efficiency at the sacrifice of other things. Do you ever have that frustration with Twitter and how ephemeral and disposable everything is?
EJ: Perhaps I should, but I don’t. I don’t think Twitter has much to do with efficiency. For me, at least, it’s probably more about wasting time in a somewhat more interesting way than I used to. Writing instead of indulging in the four-to five-hour post-seminar depression nap.
BLVR: Are you ever afraid of Nein Quarterly becoming too popular, or too established? Do you think there is a happy medium between being an academic in the ivory tower and being a star on social media?
EJ: Not really, because I still believe in what I’m doing. And when I look back at old tweets, I think I’ve learned a lot and continue to work to get better. I’ve certainly had to deal with fans calling me a sell-out; I hate that, but I also understand it. My only regret about having a larger following is that it means dealing with more jerks, low-grade stalkers, humorless academics, etc. And I certainly don’t walk around feeling like some sort of star. It’d be a real mistake to confuse Twitter-famous with famous-famous.
For now I’m just happy to have gotten out of a career that was great in some ways (teaching), but a slow and extensively footnoted death in others (research). Ultimately, I’d love to teach again, but it’s hard to say whether I’ll get the chance. I hope so.
BLVR: What’s your personal favorite tweet that you’ve written?
EJ: I don’t really like any of them very much, to be honest, and least not over time. I probably laughed to myself most about a series of stupid spoonerisms. “Balter Wenjamin” comes to mind. I miss him.
BLVR: Speaking of student loan debt, was the process of accumulating it worth it to you?
EJ: I hate the burden, as I’m sure everyone does, and students now are much more indebted than my generation was. But yes, it was worth it. No question.
BLVR: What are you reading right now? Anything good?
EJ: I read terribly slowly, so I can’t claim it’s been all that much recently. I have been reading some of Stefan Zweig’s novellas, however. I read George Prochnik’s excellent new biography of Zweig earlier this year—The Impossible Exile—and it got me interested in reading him again. The best thing I’ve read lately is an American classic: Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio. His writing has taught me a lot about the beauty of brevity.
BLVR: You tweet pretty consistently about a certain group of writers, mainly Borges, Kafka, and Hemingway. What is it about them that interests you, their personalities, or is it something else?
EJ: They’ve become a cast of characters really. They’re authors who have meant a lot to me over the years and who people tend to know, of course. They also have very distinct personalities that help in conjuring an image and mimicking a style. That certainly helps when writing something as short as a tweet.
III. THE GODS I’M TRYING TO PLEASE
BLVR: The tension between what you might call “elite culture” and popular culture seems to underlie a lot of the suspicion surrounding things like philosophy, poetry, avant-garde art, etc., which you often tweet about. Twitter seems like one way to try to bridge that gap. But do you think that gap can be bridged, or should be bridged?
EJ: A gap is probably inevitable, and maybe not entirely a bad thing, but it’s worth crossing when possible. I was scared off from many great things when I was younger because I was made to feel stupid. And I still do quite a bit. That anxiety is something I’m trying to actively work against in what I’m doing with Nein.
BLVR: How do you imagine your audience when you’re writing?
EJ: Honestly, I try not to. If I did, I probably wouldn’t be able to write. I’d be too nervous. I probably think more in terms of the tone, rhythm, and structure of what I’m writing. Those are the gods I’m trying to please, though I often don’t.
BLVR: When do you think a person turns to read Nein’s tweets?
EJ: While at work, I imagine. Or some followers in Germany tell me they read them first thing in the morning because of the time difference. I can’t imagine it’s the best way to start your day.
BLVR: In class you used to talk a lot about contradiction, and it seems like that interest is continued in Nein’s obsession with negation. Is the state of being unsure, of that space between no and yes, something that you think we have trouble with as a society?
EJ: Perhaps. Indecision is a luxury few can afford. For me it’s been a state of possibility, but also of anxiety. In most of my more recent life decisions, I’ve chosen risk over security. Sometimes that’s worked out, and sometimes it hasn’t. Right now am just hoping to get out of my student loan debt without much of a steady income. As risks go, that’s pretty low compared to what most people face every day. And the payoff is that I can spend the day being someone more like the person I am, or want to be. At least for now.
BLVR: What do you think is the point of trying to state a contradiction, as you describe your writing process in the New Yorker?
EJ: I wish I could say something smart here about dialectics, but I think the point for me is largely pleasure. The joy that sometimes accompanies thought, which was all too rare in my research and writing as a professor. Whatever it is that makes you laugh when you imagine the plausibly absurd, no matter how dark the reality.