Legend of Nein: The man behind the monocle

Eric Jarosinski, aka @NeinQuarterly, in Berlin

Eric Jarosinski, aka @NeinQuarterly, sits down for an interview over Milchkaffee and Riesling.

What Grumpy Cat is to the Internet’s feline lovers, @NeinQuarterly is to Germanistik appreciators everywhere. The endearingly pessimistic Twitter feed, created by University of Pennsylvania professor Eric Jarosinski, has long filled a particular niche for Americans ensnared in the intricate quirkiness of German philosophy and culture. Recently, the phenomenon of Nein has also taken the German media by storm, bringing the man himself on multiple tours around Deutschland. On his latest visit to Berlin, I got the chance to sit down with the mind behind one of Twitter’s most wickedly humorous, subversive and thoughtful feeds.

On promoting German through humor

With his appealingly concise blend of existential despair, irony and philosophical depth, Jarosinski has managed a master feat: In 140 characters, the much-maligned German language becomes sexy, hip and uproariously funny. Can platforms like Twitter be used to win over new German Studies majors? Jein.

“There’s a difference between laughing about a German joke and actually learning the language. It takes a tremendous amount of work to do that,” Jarosinski emphasized. “There are lots of ways that German programs have tried to attract people, sometimes successfully, but ultimately, I think that most departments have lived from double majors, people who are studying something else and do German along with it. I actually studied journalism and German was more of a hobby. I ended up going for German because I wanted to go to grad school – I felt that I was too ignorant to be released from college already, after a bachelor’s degree.”

“You can get paid to get a Ph.D. in German”

Jarosinski, who is in his last semester of teaching at UPenn, took time to reflect on the state of the German Studies major. The Herr Professor cautioned against reading too much into doomsday predictions regarding small departments and limited numbers of students.

“Ever since I started in the field, as a graduate student in the mid 90s, the talk was that the field was in a crisis and things weren’t going to get any better,” he said. However, with few undergraduates studying German and even fewer going on to grad school, the compounded scarcity places doctoral candidates at an advantage.

“It’s a very good time to go to grad school in German right now, in terms of getting funding,” explained Jarosinski. “You can get paid to get a Ph.D. in German. The numbers of applicants are down everywhere, even at the very best of schools. Even when you have people who are German majors, they’re not encouraged to go into graduate study, and I understand why not: There aren’t many jobs, and you really should only do it if it’s truly a passion that you would do even if there weren’t a job. But there are opportunities.”

On the importance of studying abroad

“I think something that has really played into the dwindling number of German majors is that fewer and fewer students in the U.S. study abroad for more than a semester,” suggested Jarosinski. The advantage of a year abroad? “By the time you were done, you pretty much had a German major completed.” Beyond credit considerations, Jarosinski sees the experience of overcoming misunderstandings and challenging circumstances as highly valuable. “Cultural differences for Americans in Germany are very difficult, because so much looks the same, but it’s different in little odd ways you don’t expect. It’s a complicated landscape to navigate.”

Life advice for grad students

“I was not someone who studied in a very efficient way; it took me a long time to finish my Ph.D.,” Jarosinski admitted freely. “But I think that what I got out of it is valuable, although it doesn’t necessarily look valuable on a resume. For me, it was a matter of having time and the possibility to travel. Those are real luxuries, especially in the United States. Americans are often shocked when they realize how short-changed they are in terms of time off from their jobs. They’re living in an affluent society, like Germany, and yet they can’t get away from their jobs for more than a couple of weeks per year.”

The mind behind the Twitter monocle delivered a bit of sage advice for striving students, to the effect of: Make like a German Sunday and take things slowly.

“Graduate students are pressured to get through their studies quickly, but I tell them, there’s very little in it for them to get done quickly. In fact that’s in the institution’s interest, it’s not really in their own,” Jarosinski said.

“The more conscious I became about language, the harder it was to do journalism.”

Jarosinski explained his approach to Twitter as “more of a craft than anything else – I think about it as working with my hands, manipulating things, playing with things, toying with them.” For him, a refreshing change from the constraints of university research writing, as well as from the “pat formulations and cliches” that had driven him away from journalism as a grad student. “The more conscious I became about language and studying literature and philosophy, the harder it was to do journalism,” he said.

Ironically, his maverick wordsmithing on Twitter has now opened doors back in the realm of traditional journalism, this time with the freedom to remain expressively flexible and true to his personal format. With writing gigs lined up for “Die Zeit” and the “Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung,” Jarosinski elaborated on shifting paradigms in the media world.

“I think journalism is changing because it has to change, and that’s a good thing,” he asserted. “Like the field of German itself, because of the crisis mentality, it’s had to change. It has not been able to take for granted that it can keep doing what it’s always done. We have to assume that everybody knows everything already. What we need to offer is some kind of respective interpretation.”

Media star: A cultural theorist on the other end of the microscope

Eric Jarosinski aka NeinQuarterly in Berlin offices of "Zeit Online"

Jarosinski speaks in the Berlin offices of “Zeit Online.”

For Jarosinski, the whirlwind press tours and extensive coverage were a new and demanding experience. “I didn’t know what my own story was, and I had to tell it to a mass audience,” he remembered. “You can imagine, every day the next biggest German publication is in your email. It’s bizarre. That’s not the way I’m used to living, and it came out of nowhere. When you’ve spent all your time studying the mechanisms of culture, it’s strange to be within the object of that focus.”

“Sometimes it’s very amusing and interesting, other times it’s frustrating,” he said of the heightened attention and scrutiny. “But I have been very grateful for the kind of media coverage I’ve had. It’s often people who have followed what I’ve been doing for a long time and so they have some idea about what it is and some important questions. Twitter takes as much as it gives and can be harsh, but on balance, it’s been very kind to me.”

Regarding the enthusiastic response of native German speakers to his brand of humor, Jarosinski theorized that one aspect of the appeal was the surprise of finding an intimate perspective into German culture originating from the other side of the pond.

“I don’t know if Germans are very used to an American perspective that is also very familiar with their own culture,” he pointed out. “If you see Americans on TV here, they’re normally from show business or from politics. In both cases, even if they’re very interested in this culture, they haven’t had the opportunity to spend the kind of time here that they would have to spend in order to really know the place.” It’s not just net addicts and college-aged German Studies buffs who respond to Jarosinski’s perspective with Begeisterung: At a public Q&A session in the Berlin offices of “Zeit Online,” the Green party’s parliamentary co-chair, Katrin Göring-Eckardt, live-tweeted the event with rapt enthusiasm.

Most-used app: Langenscheidt’s “Deutsch als Fremdsprache”

Among his favorite raw materials for the tweet smithy are advertising slogans, Jarosinski revealed: “Taking cliches, fixed formulations or slogans and playing with them, thinking with them in some different way that demonstrates a certain truth or contradiction about them, something that makes you see them in a different light,” he explained. “Often I will start simply with something like that and think about what else I find in it, what I would find in it by rearranging it, what kinds of puns are in it.”

The Neinmeister’s most important tool? The dictionary. Not just your average Duden – the Langenscheidt “Deutsch als Fremdsprache” volume is his favorite. “I should get a commission on that book, I’ve recommended it to so many students in the past,” he laughed. “They’ve [also] got a good app. That’s my most-used app, Langenscheidt’s ‘Deutsch als Fremdsprache’ app.”

“It’s all in German, but it’s for non-native speakers,” he explained. “You can look up words and find these very basic definitions of things, which is also hilarious. It gives a lot of information about how to use the word in various sentences, what the opposite of the word is . . . German has so many shades of meaning. You have a different prefix, your verb means something very different. I often look for those things to discover some dimension of a word I didn’t know about. That’s often what ignites the joke.”

Jarosinski expressed particular fondness for the German noun “der Stillstand.” “I like it because the English word is ‘standstill,’ which is the opposite,” he stated. “I like the dialectical dynamic quality that has, especially in a word that is about things not moving at all.”

Brunch with a side of modern philosophy

The @NeinQuarterly persona is also famously fond of brunch.

But just how does this connoisseur of negation go about gestalting an ideal, leisurely brunch on one of those endless German Sundays?

“Let me see. I usually have a beer with German brunch, that’s always important,” Jarosinski revealed. “Bratkartoffeln in some form… Brötchen would definitely be involved, some sort of Rührei is always good. They’re different here from American scrambled eggs. There’d probably be a little Speck involved, and a lot of Obst. And definitely Milchkaffee.”

Milchkaffee © Nomad News

Because the best brunch is a shared brunch, Nomad News offered to conjure up the German philosopher of Jarosinski’s choice, living or dead, to partake in this tasty imaginary adventure. Who would the lucky brunch partner be?

“Maybe Peter Sloterdijk. Or maybe a German author I like who just wrote something for the “F.A.Z.” – Hans Magnus Enzensberger. He’s someone I met many years ago, and I’d like to hang out with him again – that would be fun,” reminisced Jarosinski.

Don’t tell the hipsters, but Berlin is still special

The king of brunch also shared anecdotes from his years living in Berlin, staying out in the world’s latest party scene and being accordingly late to brunch and various other engagements.

“They were never the most efficient, my years in Berlin,” said Jarosinski wryly. “But I learned a lot from them. That’s what I fear people will lose if they’re under too much pressure to get too much done too quickly. You need the time to think, to do other things, to gain some perspective and some context in what it is that you’re doing. If you’re just rushing to become a professor, I don’t know what kind of professor you become, when you’re done with it all.”

Jarosinski delivered a nuanced assessment of the realities of life in Berlin, where the boundless hedonism of the party lifestyle runs up against existential struggles, disillusionment and cynicism.

“People fall in love with Berlin, usually in the summer – they don’t understand that you’re going to be so depressed in the wintertime,” he cautioned. “But also: they think Berlin is cheap, but if you need to make a living in Berlin and you find a job, you’re going to be making a lot less money here. There is a reason why a lot of things cost less; that’s the economy. It’s great if your money is coming from elsewhere, but if it’s actually coming from that place, it’s going to look different.”

“That being said, I still think Berlin is a special place, one that I like,” said Jarosinski, who first came to Berlin in the 1990s and has witnessed its transformation over the ensuing years. “I don’t want to become one of those old-timers who says things were so better in the past – to me, that’s ridiculous, it’s what everyone would have said who had spent time here ten or twenty years before then. Everyone has the same old story to tell. If there’s one thing I’m sensitive to, it’s telling that same old story.”

Pläne für die Zukunft

Eric Jarosinski aka NeinQuarterly in Berlin offices of "Zeit Online"While Jarosinski will have much more time in the future to tell new stories in fresh ways, he will also miss teaching itself. “I’d like to still do it in some way, a little teaching job here or there. I’m leaving the job I have now with the knowledge that I’m someone who likes teaching and is not very interested in research,” he said.

The next steps in the evolution of @NeinQuarterly remain fluid. “It’s still very fragile and in the beginning phases,” Jarosinski stressed. “To actually turn something like that into a career is a whole other step. There’s interest in a book project, but it has to be the right one, and I haven’t found it yet. Any book that I would write, I wouldn’t want it to be just for today; I’d want you to be able to pick it up in a few years time and still find something in it.”

Want a little more Nein in your life? On @NeinQuarterly’s website, followers can directly support upcoming blog projects and associated endeavors.

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