The very best piece of writing I’ve encountered on Twitter comes from a feed called NeinQuarterly.
Here it is: “At Starbucks I order under the name Godot. Then leave.”
That’s an almost perfect use of Twitter as a platform: Aphoristic, and yet hinting at a depth of knowledge underneath. It’s a joke, but one you have to know something to get. The same is true of much of what appears at NeinQuarterly, which bills itself as a “Compendium of Utopian Negation,” but is really more a labor of love.
NeinQuarterly is the brainchild of Eric Jarosinski, an assistant professor of German at the University of Pennsylvania. His specialty is Weimar literature and philosophy. Since he began posting in February 2012, he has attracted more than 44,000 followers, who come for his signature mix of disappointment and irony.
“It’s a beautiful day to discover your authentic self. And find it wanting,” reads one recent tweet. And: “You call it another wasted afternoon. I call it the power of social media.”
For Jarosinski, NeinQuarterly offers a way to foster a digital conversation, while pushing the narrow bounds of academia. “I try to keep it far away from my day job in most respects,” he explains, “and few of my students even know about it, but they are closely related. Aphorisms are my favorite thing to teach.”
Recently we corresponded via email about NeinQuarterly.
What is NeinQuarterly, and how did it start?
NeinQuartertly is a sometimes funny, sometimes melancholic, sometimes playful, sometimes bitter Twitter feed that explores the complexities and/or absurdities of everyday life and language. The idea came from my study of the philosophy of Nietzsche, Theodor Adorno and Walter Benjamin. I was primarily drawn to their development of the philosophical aphorism or “thought-image.”
NeinQuarterly’s avatar is based on Adorno, as is the general perspective of the feed, at least loosely. I’ve been developing the critical voice of a misanthrope, of an arrogant cultural pessimist, but one who’s also often sentimental, whimsical, self-aggrandizing, foolish, and in love. The persona is, in a way, the Adorno I’ve always somehow read between the lines. Or perhaps simply want to find there: an Adorno who is at his most humane when he is most critical of that which makes us less human.
When I first discovered Twitter I didn’t find it all appealing. It was just millions of people writing about the mundane details of everyday life. Then I started to follow some writers, poets and comedians and discovered ways in which you could experiment and do more interesting things with the form. The more I got to know it, the more I saw Twitter as the rebirth of a tradition of storytelling, jokes and the aphorism. And it made it possible to connect with other people, smart people, often with a sense of humor.
I discovered Twitter at a time when I found myself feeling quite isolated by my work as an academic. In writing about it, in poking fun of the Ivory Tower, I established a network among many others who felt the same way. I’m realistic about what topics can be explored on Twitter, but I also find that Twitter’s constraints fuel its originality. Rather than make a philosophical point, the challenge is to perform or enact one. Preferably two.
You call NeinQuarterly a “Compendium of Utopian Negation.” Aren’t those ideas opposed?
Yes, and the contradiction is very much intentional. To the extent that NeinQuarterly has a project, it is very much one of negation. In ridiculing, inverting or saying no to the clichés of politics and the catchphrases of pop culture, maybe it’s also somehow creating a space, however playful, to envision what else could take their place. Something we might prefer to say yes to. Or, well, not. If you’ll allow me to quote one of my own tweets: “Dialectics isn’t saying no just to say no. It’s saying no to say yes. And then saying no.”
This ironic sense of humor is one of the appeals of the feed. At the same time, many tweets are personal, as in the recent observation about students giving you hope that you wished you didn’t have to give back.
What I write is very much connected to what I’m thinking about at a given moment. I delete many of the tweets I write, often because I find them too personal after the fact.
The only real aesthetic governing what I’m doing, at least that I consciously think about, is a certain rhythm that I’m aiming for. My sentences have changed dramatically over my time on Twitter. I write much more in terms of sound than I did at the outset.
But on the whole, NeinQuarterly has been about developing a character, a voice and a perspective that can be applied to most anything. I’m often a rather depressed, anxious and pessimistic person, but fortunately I’ve always been able to laugh at myself. Eventually. It’s been my way out of my darkest times.
How did you get interested in German culture and philosophy?
I grew up in rural Wisconsin, a town called Park Falls. The population was roughly 2,500. If you look it up on Wikipedia, you’ll find this: “Park Falls has been called the most geographically isolated community in all of Wisconsin.” I doubt that’s true. But somehow, yes, it’s true.
Wisconsin was the main destination for many German immigrants who came to America in the mid-19th century. My town was full of Schmidts, Wagners, even a mean old man on my paper route named Fleischfresser. I don’t remember learning many German words apart from the sentence, “Mein Plattenspieler ist leider kaputt.” ("My turntable is unfortunately broken.") My small town’s local festivals were always accompanied by polka music, and I remember many meals of dumplings and sauerkraut visiting my friends’ families. In general, though, I wasn’t drawn to German at all. It was only when I got to college (University of Wisconsin-Madison) that I realized the wider world I could access through the language.
You’re planning to start a blog shortly. How will it be different from the Twitter feed?
After a few delays, I’m currently hoping to launch neinquarterly.com in January. My hope is that it will become an interesting forum featuring the work of many of the writers, poets, artists, political figures and academics I’ve met on Twitter over the last couple of years. I have established few guidelines so far and am letting their contributions shape what ultimately emerges.
What were your expectations when you started? How have they changed?
I really didn’t expect anything from NeinQuarterly at the outset. It was simply a way to write about the things that interest me in a mode very different from the academic prose that I was becoming less and less fond of. It helped me give voice to my frustrations and rediscover a sense of joy and playfulness in writing, even (or perhaps because) my themes are often quite dark. Over time I’ve expected more from myself in terms of the quality of my writing. I’m always trying to say more with less.