It was while he was in a tenure-track position in the German department at the University of Pennsylvania that Eric Jarosinski discovered Twitter.
He was making slow progress on the book he needed to complete about the Frankfurt School and felt “frustrated by the worn-out jargon of my own discipline”. He therefore abandoned his plans for an academic career and “started using Twitter to make jokes about Hegel and Nietzsche instead”.
Describing himself as a “failed intellectual”, Dr Jarosinski created the Nein Twitter feed (@NeinQuarterly) as “a compendium of utopian negation”. Typical recent posts include “Yes, Twitter, If there’s one thing worse than your self-loathing narcissism, it’s my own” and “Well, friends, you could always try fatalism. But no: it will not work”. Challenged to say something about Swiss politics, he responded “Swiss politics: A story of Jekyll and Heidi”. The feed now has 120,000 followers.
Since Dr Jarosinski has lived in Germany and the Netherlands, is fluent in the relevant languages and makes a point of following political developments in both countries, he now produces a weekly “column” for both Die Zeit and NRC Handelsblad. Each follows a set formula of four tweet-length comments and serves, he says, “the function of a political cartoon with texts”.
He tries to “avoid being predictable or dogmatic” and takes “the soundbite of the week” on topics such as the current refugee crisis, which he then “adds to, takes apart or creates variations on…I want to create awareness of how issues are reframed rhetorically”. The “columns” sometimes use classic literature or pop cultural references to comment on the news, while also being so short that they require readers to do “a lot of filling in the blanks”.
Although he has deliberately tried to “avoid current issues” and “take a broader perspective”, Dr Jarosinski’s new book, Nein. A Manifesto, uses exactly the same format as his “columns”.
Take the definitions of the different branches of philosophy titled #FAQ: “Ontology: what the fuck? Causality: why the fuck? Epistemology: how the why the fuck? Phenomenology: the fuck.”
Or what about #TheoriesOfSocialMedia: “Joy. Found online. In almost filling the emptiness. Created online”? The book also includes a quirky glossary offering “definitions” such as “Brunch: The one thing everybody believes in on Sunday” and “Discretion: An undertaker who never says die”.
Along with his writing, Dr Jarosinski travels with a show where he adopts the persona of “a boring professor” in order to “play straight man to a screen”. Members of the audience are asked to read out some of his tweets because “liking to write jokes doesn’t make you a comedian”.
One such performance, “@NeinQuarterly: Being Human and Twitter”, is taking place at London’s Senate House on 17 November as part of the national Being Human festival of the humanities.
Eric Jarosinski’s Nein. A Manifesto has just been published by The Text Publishing Company.