Dr. Eric Jarosinski is assistant professor of German at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. His primary research interests include Weimar-era literature, culture and philosophy. Among his published work is the book “The Hand of the Interpreter: Essays on Meaning after Theory,” which he co-edited with Mena Mitrano and several essays that examine the intersections of language, politics, and aesthetics in the work of Walter Benjamin, Theodor W. Adorno, Siegfried Kracauer, Joseph Roth, and Vladimir Nabokov. He is currently at work on a book entitled “Cellophane Modernity,” which focuses on metaphors of transparency in modern German culture.
Recently, Dr. Jarosinski has also become an active presence on Twitter with the creation of @NeinQuarterly, which he refers to as “a compendium of utopian negation.” The wit and intelligence of the account captured our attention immediately and has clearly captured the attention of many others as well. We wanted to know more about both the man behind the account and the impetus for beginning @NeinQuarterly. We asked Dr. Jarosinski to answer some questions via email and he graciously accepted.
Little Utopia: Before we start discussing @NeinQuarterly, it might help our readers who might not be as familiar with you to have some background information on you and your profession. How did you first become interested in Germany and Germanic studies? What made you decide it was something you wanted to pursue at the graduate school level?
Dr. Eric Jarosinski: Well, I’d like to say it was Kafka, Brecht, and Thomas Mann who drew me to German. The truth, however, is a long story involving my humble origins in the American Hinterland, young love, and a strong desire to get out of the United States for a while and study abroad. From there it only gets more complicated, but I knew I wanted to continue with German in graduate school after becoming increasingly interested in the Frankfurt School and Modernism during a Fulbright year in Germany. Until that point I thought I was going to be a journalist and had spent a lot of time in college doing political reporting for a few newspapers and a magazine.
What did you enjoy most about your time living in Germany? Is there one particular story or moment that sticks out in your mind?
In a word: nein. I’ve studied in Bonn, Frankfurt, Freiburg, and Berlin — in many ways, those were my formative years, but it’s hard to say what I liked most. It wasn’t a particular experience, but simply the chance to observe and take part in everyday life from the position of an outsider. In short, what I learned most is how American I am, for better or worse. Probably worse. This has also been confirmed in my time living in the Netherlands and Italy but in different ways.
From what I’ve read about your research interests, you seem to take an interdisciplinary approach in your work. In my experience, most professors are so specialized (even those in the same department) that they can hardly understand each other’s work. What do you value about the interdisciplinary approach as opposed to, say, only focusing on Weimar-era literature?
I like to work thematically and explore a topic from numerous overlapping and at times contradictory perspectives. A goal of my work is to be able to connect with the non-specialist, and I’d like to think that my broad approach lends itself to speaking to a wider audience. The downside is that you run the risk of being a dilettante, so it’s important to do your homework and be reasonable about your claims. I usually manage to heed my own warnings about this but not always.
What are you currently working on and what classes are you teaching in the upcoming semester?
Recently I’ve been finishing a book on post-Wall state architecture in Berlin and working on another on the history of radio and the radio play in the Weimar Republic. I’m interested in how early writings on radio — primarily by Siegfried Kracauer, Bertolt Brecht, Joseph Roth and a few others — are about much more than the technology itself. Radio becomes the site for a much larger discussion about politics, aesthetics and society. My main interest is the way in which these Weimar-era thinkers are implicitly theorizing the production of space, as Lefebvre would say, in modernity.
As to teaching: In the coming semester, I have my undergraduate course on Marx and Marxism and a graduate seminar on Modernism — my two favorite courses, which is nice since this will be my last year in my current position (this is the basis for the #failedintellectual storyline of @NeinQuarterly, but I actually consider my work in the ivory tower to be a success, at least in the ways that matter to me). I’m still considering what I’ll do next, or if I’ll stay in academia at all, but I suspect that NQ will be a big part of whatever the future holds. As silly as this venture is, I’ve often been surprised to see NQ accomplish some important things. From the feedback I’ve received, I know it’s encouraged some people to learn German, study abroad, or simply to Google some of the words or concepts I’m playing with. I’ve also been really pleased to hear from a number of teachers and professors who use my material in class. Recently NQ has been receiving more media attention in Europe, so I’m happy to see there’s also interest there in my work.
OK, so let’s talk about NQ a little more. If I’m being honest, I was at first fooled by your Twitter account. I’m currently working on my thesis, which focuses on contemporary little magazines, and, in general, I’m a magazine nerd. So when I saw your account, I thought, “Oh! I can’t wait to see what this magazine is about.” Needless to say, I was surprised to learn there was no actual magazine. Why did you choose to position or format the account as a quarterly? Or is the joke simply meant to be taken literally, i.e., “No Quarterly?”
“No Quarterly?” Funny, I never thought of it that way, but maybe I should. The name was actually an attempt to make the account sound a tad more legit than its earlier incarnation — @ShitGermansSay — and meant to set the stage for a blog or website in the future. Incidentally, that time is now arriving — I hope to have neinquarterly.com off the ground this fall.
The persona you’ve created for NQ is loosely based on Theodor W. Adorno, the German sociologist and philosopher. What about his work or life drew you to him as a basis for a Twitter account?
I’ve always loved Adorno because I sense that when he’s at his “elitist” worst, he’s also at his humanitarian best. I respect his disgust with mediocrity, with the ways in which human potential is squandered. Such a loss should outrage and challenge us. That’s what his work is still teaching me a couple of decades since I was first introduced to it. In any case, the persona I’ve developed attempts to capture a tone that is both condescending and self-deprecating — this represents both the critical concepts I’m working with and my own particular reading of them.
Your tweets are a mix of literary and cultural theory, philosophy, and, sometimes, everyday mundane activities. Were you ever worried that the more abstract concepts might not translate to 140 characters?
Interesting. The mundane in NQ is perhaps the most literary or theoretical. But no, the limitations of a tweet have never been a concern. Constraints further creativity. In addition, working in an aphoristic vein is in keeping with how many of my favorite philosophers wrote. I’m hardly a Nietzsche or an Adorno, but I love the challenge of writing a somewhat clever aphorism or well-timed one-liner. Twitter is the perfect platform for it.
I might be generalizing a bit here, but it seems as if many Americans only associate Germany with certain stereotypes, e.g., drinking beer, lack of humor, speaking a harsh language, etc. From what I’ve seen and understood, NQ seems to be trying to bridge American and German cultures beyond simple stereotypes. Am I reaching here?
Nein! That’s precisely it. I’m most interested in poking fun at American clichés about Germany and vice versa. My persona has a love-hate relationship with most things, including national cultures, social media, and — not least — himself.
What have you noticed about your audience that surprised you the most? What do you want them to take away from following NQ?
I’ve been surprised most by how international my audience has become (I recently saw that NQ has followers in over 130 countries) and by how receptive and kind people have been. Though I’ve created a persona very different from myself, my own life and feelings often come through. Folks have picked me up when I’m down and been happy for me when things are going well. I have had to deal with many more hecklers as my following has grown, but that’s just part of the medium.
What I’d most like people to take away from my work is simply a bit of the joy that I’ve found in playing with words, taking apart clichés, and exploring a handful of writers and theorists who make frequent appearances in my tweets (Adorno, Kafka, Borges, Benjamin, Susan Sontag, etc.). I’m convinced that for most people, thinking is not antithetical to fun, but that it is the fun. That’s why I loathe Twitter’s tendency toward pedanticism. Correcting others’ spelling or punctuation, often incorrectly, is truly counter to the joy I’ve often found in Twitter — though my persona usually expresses this in terms of despair — and that I hope others find there as well.
I’ve noticed that some people have actually started subscribing to NQ as they would to a typical magazine. Is this a joke that I haven’t caught onto yet or have people actually given money to a non-existent magazine? If so (and you don’t mind telling us, of course), what are your plans for the subscription money? Might we see NQ t-shirts, coffee mugs or even an actual magazine?
It started as a joke, when someone suggested I ask my followers to pay off my student loan debt (like a lot of people, I’m still in quite deep and will be until the grave). Then some kind folks started to kick in a few bucks, and I went with it. Right now I’ve been using the subscription campaign as material more than anything (NQ’s surely ill-fated experiment with capitalism), but whatever I end up with will help me to finance neinquarterly.com. And, yes, merchandise is in the works. All the commodities. Truly: all the commodities.
Dr. Jarosinski, thank you for taking the time to talk with us. Best of luck with NQ and your research work.
Danke. My persona would prefer despair, of course, but I’ll take it.
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