Eric Jarosinski: the rock star philosopher of Twitter

Nein. An interview with Eric Jarosinski, the American philosopher who became a star on Twitter and the author of the book of aphorisms, “Nein.”

Interview by Simone Pieranni and Benedetto Vecchi, il manifesto, Oct. 27 2015, Rome

Eric Jarosinski in Rome

“I star­ted wri­ting when I was no lon­ger able to write,” says Eric Jaro­sinki, who is a pro­fes­sor of Ger­man lite­ra­ture in the U.S. and orien­ted to the life of the fai­led intellectual.

Like so many others, he disco­ve­red Twit­ter and star­ted wri­ting apho­ri­sms and jokes based on para­do­xes and puns. The mea­ning does not mat­ter; what counts is the rhy­thm, irony and the so often used Nein. On Twit­ter, where the fee­lings of the human tide wan­der freely, often fed by ego and exhi­bi­tio­nism, Jarosinski’s “no” broke through. His fol­lo­wers increa­sed along­side his fame.

An arti­cle in The New Yor­ker maga­zine cata­pul­ted him to the gene­ral public. He began to work with new­spa­pers and publi­shed Nein, a book of apho­ri­sms. He has become a glo­bal suc­cess, rea­ching out of the net­work and joi­ning the discus­sion on phi­lo­so­phy, on the fate of net­work cul­ture, on politics.

Some jour­na­lists com­pare Jarosinski’s apho­ri­sms to Theo­dor W. Adorno’s wri­tings. Others com­pare him to Frie­drich Nie­tzsche, or to the frag­men­tary style of Wal­ter Ben­ja­min. None of this is right, says the per­son con­cer­ned. It is sim­ply his cri­ti­cal atti­tude con­den­sed into 140 cha­rac­ters, which is the con­straint impo­sed by the social net­work and used by Jaro­sinki for the pur­pose of cla­rity and effectiveness.

Now he has thou­sands of Twit­ter fol­lo­wers and a line of Nein mer­chan­dise. Like a rock star, he began his tour.

What did you expect would come out of your Twit­ter acti­vity? Were you ready for this kind of suc­cess?

I expec­ted nothing, to be honest. I wan­ted to write regu­lar phi­lo­so­phi­cal texts, but I could not do it any­more. I had a sort of writer’s block. At the begin­ning, I was wri­ting on Twit­ter for myself. Then I began to have an audience of Ger­man jour­na­lists who were on their com­pu­ters at the same time I was online. We can the­re­fore say that it became a media phe­no­me­non tied to the old way of doing jour­na­lism. At this point, the per­so­nal diary that I was buil­ding became some­thing else. The sub­jects, the the­mes that I faced were let “free.” I was not fol­lo­wing a pro­gram defi­ned in advance, but I began to pay more atten­tion to the reception.

You have a phi­lo­so­phi­cal back­ground that echoes in your tweets. Does it mean that the only online for­mat for phi­lo­so­phy is the aphorism?

I do not think at all of discus­sing phi­lo­so­phy. Sim­ply, I think I can make a con­tri­bu­tion to the tea­ching of phi­lo­so­phy. Howe­ver, I love seve­ral wri­ters who chose the apho­rism for­mat for their phi­lo­so­phi­zing. Maybe I was influen­ced by the shape of their choice to express ideas and thoughts. In a few words, I asked myself how a con­cept can be com­mu­ni­ca­ted in sim­ple terms and with a cla­rity that is often igno­red by many philosophers.

Many phi­lo­so­phers state that their out­put is not philosophy…

It is an inte­re­sting idea, and it rela­tes to what I’ve done and what I do on the inter­net. I know well the dif­fe­rence bet­ween a play on words and the long, tiring pro­cess lea­ding to the defi­ni­tion of a con­cept or the assess­ment of a typi­cal phi­lo­so­phi­cal theme. I star­ted play­ing with words, and I con­ti­nued to play. Over time, when I came out of that diary, I set a goal: I wan­ted to trans­late phi­lo­so­phi­cal the­mes in a lan­guage that can attract the atten­tion of a wider audience, not limi­ted to the aca­de­mic cir­cles where often phi­lo­so­phy is con­fi­ned. The role I assi­gned myself, then, is the trans­la­tor. I do that using wordplay.

As an author, you chal­lenge the Ger­man phi­lo­so­phi­cal cul­ture with a disen­chan­ted online approach. In fact, there is no atti­tude of rejec­tion of the inter­net, as an envi­ron­ment that denies the pos­si­bi­lity of deve­lo­ping an “authen­tic” thought, in your apho­ri­sms. But con­ver­sely, there is no apo­lo­ge­tic pro­pen­sity of the pos­si­bi­li­ties offe­red by online communication…

I fre­quen­ted the Ger­man phi­lo­so­phi­cal world for more than 20 years. Here, too, chance has played a major role, because I approa­ched the Ger­man phi­lo­so­phers by chance, as I did with Twit­ter. They were 20 very intense years. I fell in love with Ger­man phi­lo­so­phy, then I hated it, finally I rea­ched the con­clu­sion that I could, perhaps, know it. So I made the acquain­tance of the other.

I invite all my stu­dents to expe­rience it, because kno­wing the other is inspi­ring. After 20 years in Ger­many, I rea­li­zed that I had recon­ci­led with my being Ame­ri­can, which I had strug­gled with before. In fact, I almost fled from my coun­try. I went back home enri­ched, chan­ged, tran­sfor­med, grown.

With the rising num­ber of fol­lo­wers, have you chan­ged your mes­sa­ges? Has suc­cess influen­ced your message?

I am more care­ful in the pro­cess than before. What I miss the most now is the loss of the per­so­nal input in my tweets.

How will the cha­rac­ter voi­ced through Twit­ter evolve beyond the book?

It has already chan­ged a lot. At the begin­ning, I was invol­ved in phi­lo­so­phy, Ger­man stu­dies, I got tired of this type of aca­de­mic work and I tried to give the account what the Ame­ri­cans call a “voice,” a style. And this voice quic­kly became more poli­ti­cal. This ine­xo­ra­bly led to two advan­ta­ges: I can deal with issues that inte­rest me, and I got empo­we­red by the increa­sing online visi­bi­lity. This power allows me to direct my audience to things that I think are impor­tant. It is known that in the aca­de­mic world, the con­nec­tion bet­ween theory and prac­tice is mis­sing. In the past I was enga­ged with trade unions, I was an acti­vist and I wan­ted my prin­ci­ples to be always evi­dent, without beco­ming dogmatic.

Evol­ving toward poli­tics is not a good thing for busi­ness. Expres­sing a cri­ti­cal point of view of the poli­ti­cal esta­blish­ment does not make you rich, but I was not loo­king for finan­cial suc­cess at the begin­ning. As a result, my “audience” has hel­ped me to make a living lec­tu­ring and taking part in semi­nars. The deci­sion to poli­ti­cize the tweets does not mean, howe­ver, to take sec­ta­rian posi­tions. I often check the pro­fi­les of my fol­lo­wers; there are many who seem to have a clear poli­ti­cal posi­tion that does not match mine. I assume that there may be points of con­flict, but I’m happy. For me, the pro­fi­les of those who fol­low me are more impor­tant than the num­ber of followers.

How does the con­for­mism in Twit­ter affect your interaction with the public?

I could have writ­ten this book using wri­ting bits and more popu­lar and reco­gni­zed topics, but I wan­ted to find a way to say some impor­tant things that would reflect myself after 10 years. This book is writ­ten in a form which is mis­sing in today’s phi­lo­so­phy. It oscil­la­tes bet­ween the joke, a play and poe­try. The rhy­thm binds eve­ry­thing toge­ther. In the Ger­man trans­la­tion, for exam­ple, I wor­ked clo­sely with the trans­la­tors who were espe­cially atten­tive to what I was say­ing, but for me, the most impor­tant thing was the pace. This was the real chal­lenge of the Frank­furt School at the begin­ning: They used the expres­sion “leave a mes­sage in a bottle.”

The form, rhy­thm and irony are the shape of the bot­tle. The chal­lenge is to put the mes­sage inside. It works espe­cially in jour­na­lism, and suc­cess lies in com­bi­ning the old and the new, just as did Wal­ter Ben­ja­min, who was not afraid to com­pete with mass cul­ture and the tech­no­logy that ena­bled the mass distri­bu­tion of high cul­ture. Jour­na­lism perhaps can be a vehi­cle of this new form of expression.

Will your pre­sence on the inter­net change with the mone­ti­za­tion of your suc­cess with this book and other mar­ke­ting activities?

We tend to think that those who have many Twit­ter fol­lo­wers are very suc­ces­sful, but this does not trans­late into money, even for Twit­ter itself. I use it like a band does, I make money going on tour, and musi­cians have under­stood this mecha­nism well. So I want to tra­vel, but I do not want to make regu­lar rea­dings, because they would be bad poe­try rea­dings. So, I use a trick: I stand with my back to the audience, serious and pre­cise, and make jokes to a video that makes jokes. I’m an aca­de­mic and the videos create a short cir­cuit that works well. I really like wri­ting funny things, but I’m not an actor.

The inter­net is the place to try to give shape to reflec­tions on the world, kno­wing that buil­ding up an audience, a public, is a real job. The web, howe­ver, accepts eve­ry­thing. Con­for­mist posi­tions and uncon­ven­tio­nal posi­tions. Con­sen­sus to the domi­nant thought and dis­sent, even radi­cal depar­ture from the sta­tus quo. What mat­ters is that the flow does not ever stop. What do you think?

Con­tra­dic­tion is an inte­gral part of my online per­sona. I can say that one of my inten­tions at the begin­ning of this adven­ture was to build soli­da­rity with a cri­ti­cal point of view, without, I repeat, any dog­ma­tic claim. I star­ted from the assump­tion that we had lost eve­ry­thing and there was nothing else to lose. I just wan­ted to express my adhe­rence to cer­tain prin­ci­ples. If this is under­stan­da­ble from the indi­vi­dual point of view, this recall of prin­ci­ples on the public dimen­sion is inhe­rent to the ethos, that is, to public ethics. But I wan­ted to speak to a com­mu­nity of those who don’t have any com­mu­nity to belong to.

Online, there is a gene­ral, gene­ric public. I tur­ned and I turn to those who share a cri­ti­cal view of rea­lity, but without ever fal­ling into jibes or fron­tal attacks to those who express a rather dif­fe­rent point of view. Social media is the king­dom of the per­so­na­li­za­tion of cri­ti­cism. Online, instead of attac­king posi­tions dif­fe­rent from their own, it is pre­fer­red to insult the person.

Howe­ver, I choose to pro­ceed dif­fe­ren­tly: This is my posi­tion, what do you think? As I said, I think of a com­mu­nity of those who do not belong any­where, that is, of those who have already lost everything.

As for the net­work, I do not think the inter­net will change the rea­lity. I was an acti­vist. I used the phone, mai­ling lists, text mes­sa­ges and the first social media to publi­cize sit-ins, demon­stra­tions. But I am con­vin­ced that without a vis-à-vis rela­tion­ship, you’ll never con­vince a per­son to par­ti­ci­pate in a demon­stra­tion. If this live con­tact is mis­sing, you can col­lect a lot of “likes,” or your tweet may be ret­wee­ted, but no one will engage direc­tly. Among my fol­lo­wers, there are com­mit­ted jour­na­lists, acti­vists, theo­rists, media cri­tics, but this com­mu­nity of indi­vi­duals is rele­ga­ted to the net­work. To change the rea­lity we need much more than a “like.”

Enjoyed mee­ting the good peo­ple of @ilmanifesto today. Even if they stole their name from my book. #gra­zie
— Nein. (@NeinQuarterly) Octo­ber 22, 2015

Originally published in English at il manifesto global

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