Nein. A Manifesto
House of Anansi Press
128 Sterling Road, Lower Level
Toronto, ON, M6R 2B7
2015, 128 pp., $19.95, ISBN: 9781487000288
Imagine this: it’s 2012 and a professor teaching at an Ivy League institution—let’s say he has a PhD in German Literature and Culture and teaches at the University of Pennsylvania—decides to withdraw his application for tenure to propagate a persona of nihilistic humour on Twitter—a persona which happens to be inspired by the professor’s own work on the Frankfurt School’s thinker Theodor Adorno.
Absurd? Yes. And also: No.
This character is real and his name is Eric Jarosinski, though that is not how he is known to the over 130,000 followers of his Twitter account: @NeinQuarterly. Since 2012, Jarosinski, as Nein, has been carving out a space for himself as a self-defined “internet aphorist,” occupying the blurry no-man’s land between philosophy, literary and pop culture criticism, language, and humour. Nein’s Twitter success (albeit statistically modest) has since led Jarosinski’s work out of the thunderhead and into the ink of journals like The New Yorker, The Paris Review, and the Wall Street Journal.
With Nein. A Manifesto, Jarosinski’s first book, the voice of Nein is making further inroads into the archaic medium of print. The book is broken into nine short sections of internet aphorisms, whose section titles make philosophically negative statements meant to portray what Nein, as a concept, is by saying what it isn’t: “Nein is not style. Nein is not syntax,” “Nein is not the medium. Nein is not the message,” “Nein does not take questions,” and so on. The aphorisms included in each section (titled with hashtags like “#EvilTongues,” “#MyHegelianValentine,” and “#God”) are ever-playful, darkly humorous, and—on occasion—very poetic. Following these nine sections is the book’s glossary, where Jarosinski gives fresh definition of words and concepts ranging from love to philosophy to the GOP and mid-life crises, and attempts to more closely fit each definition into the Nein perspective. For example, Nein defines “hipster” as “Indifference wasted on the young,” “nihilism” as “The idealistic notion that nothing can change the world,” and “time” as, simply, “Wasted space.”
The aphorisms in Nein. A Manifesto display precisely the kind of wit, character, and minimalism necessary to stand out in Twitter’s never-ending stream of tweets (around 500 million are posted per day) with its 140 character restraint. For example, “#SaveTheReceipt” reads:
Thank you for shopping at Nietzsche’s.
Please no eternal returns.
Thank you for shopping at Freud’s.
Have a nice Dad.
Aphorisms like this, and Nein’s glossary definitions, make it clear that a true intellect is at play on both philosophical and linguistic levels (see here the near-pun and freudian slip of “Have a nice Dad”). In the book’s glossary, for instance, Jarosinski redefines “Negotiation” as “The art of making a turn of phrase sound like a change of heart.” The book—as any book of aphorisms should be—is riddled with quotable sentiments like this one, which, though pessimistic and often negative, resonate with an authentic, pithy truth.
The whole book, circling around this concept and character of Nein, which Jarosinski (in the Afterword) defines as “misanthropic yet romantic, authoritative yet absurd, principled yet darkly nihilistic,” is intensely contradictory and philosophically disagreeable in the best way. The word “nein” itself is, of course, German for “no,” but according to Jarosinski’s introduction, his nein is not “no;” at least not simply. His no is: “Not just any no, [it is a] no of not now. Not yet. And not only.” From Jarosinski’s view, Nein stands in conceptually for a pure, nuanced kind of negativity, of which his audience (whom he claims “live in a world of yes. A tyranny of yes”) have yet to become numb to. Nein is a no which, for Jarosinski, holds the positive possibility that “yes” once did.
The aesthetic of Nein. A Manifesto reflects this productive negativity, with its circular contradictions and grim humour. An example of a blatantly contradictory aphorism is “#AllTheoryIsLocal,” which reads:
Let’s be honest.
It’s all politics.
The rest is aesthetics.
Which is also politics.
Here we see Jarosinski play into the circle, first stating that all which is not politics is aesthetics, only to immediately contradict himself by saying that what remains is aesthetics, “Which is also politics.” Jarosinski’s turns, oftentimes using contradictions of these sorts, cause a great many of his aphorisms to fall apart as soon as they begin to stand. The Jarosinski aphorism often deconstructs itself, belying its own contents and leaving the reader to ponder little more than its structural skeleton. Since the construction of many of Jarosinski’s aphorisms are rooted in philosophical, logical, or academic tropes—like the “all x is y” construction of “#AllTheoryIsLocal”—what remains of the aphorism is its satirical grin. Jarosinski uses contradiction to nihilistically betray the substance of the aphorism, while using argumentative forms, such as in “#AllTheoryIsLocal,” to satirize the value of that which is often contained in such rhetoric. As a self proclaimed failed intellectual, this seems to be a very conscious act.
In “#AllTheoryIsLocal” we also get a sense for Jarosinski’s use of rhythm. Nein almost always puts a full stop where there should be (or, at least, where one might expect there to be) a comma, which jars the flow of his statements in order to enforce the finality of the line’s jab. Jarosinski rarely, if ever, doesn’t end a line on a full stop (though at times he does use a colon), even when what remains on the line is a just a fragment. His fragmentary use of the sentence, paired with the contradictions in the aphorisms—which often causes the arguments to fractal in on themselves and fall apart—all play into the self-effacing, deconstructive quality of Jarosinski’s Nein persona, where most, if not all, of Nein’s statements stand only long enough to cut themselves down. Which brings out his humour. And his character. And his point.
Through this act of aesthetic (on a mechanical level) and philosophical contradiction, though, the book seems to embody a strange kind of hope. By means of negating any optimistic viewpoint in favour of a more holistically nihilistic perspective, we see (by relief) what is left unsaid. In his Afterword, Jarosinski quotes Franz Kafka as having said that “there is always hope—just not for us.” This note is reminiscent, to me, of what Søren Kierkegaard says early on in Either/Or:
it is only through opposition that the object of desire is possessed […] the melancholic has the best-developed sense of humour, the most extravagant person is often the one most prone to the picturesque, the dissolute one often the most moral, the doubter often the most religious […] simply recall that it is through sin that one first catches sight of salvation.
In his own unflinching, nihilistic, and deconstructive way, Jarosinski does just this: shows us what we have by holding up and tearing it down in front of us. By being shown how broken our world and our beliefs are, we get some sense of hope that if Jarosinski can tear it down, perhaps it can also be rebuilt—that there is, in the spirit of contradiction, some optimism inherent in his deconstruction.
While Nein. A Manifesto seems to be interested in translating both the format and the spirit of Jarosinski’s Twitter presence into print, it (perhaps inevitably) falls short. The format of the aphorisms, titled with hashtags (which are overtly Twitter) and broken into sets of four lines (which feel extremely non-Twitter) make the book feel somewhat confused about what it wants to be. The four-line structure adds some sense of completeness to the aphorisms (in their taking up more space, one page each) but also undercuts most of the possibilities for “surprise” by making us hyper-aware of the way the aphorisms are formatted. For instance, if these aphorisms are read in succession, the similarities in their structures emerge and you begin to see the argumentative patterns inherent to them—most often, for example, the last two lines of each aphorism carry most of the weight, like the punchline of a joke. The aphorisms begin to seem wearily similar. The glossary, on the other hand, sloughs this four line/one per-page form and by so doing provides a more faithful translation of the feeling of Jarosinski’s Tweets (which are not broken into lines), and seems to hit the reader with more variety and surprise because it has not been so heavy-handedly re-formatted.
In the glossary of Nein. A Manifesto the aphorism is defined as “1. Old ships in new bottles. 2. Philosophy for those with little Zeit. Written by those with little Geist.” This second definition, in some ways, epitomizes Jarosinksi’s presence on Twitter: created for those with little Zeit (time) by those with little Geist (spirit). This definition hints toward what feels like the most significant absence in this iteration of Jarosinski’s interaction and conversation with the world, with the zeitgeist. The missing piece is, of course, the world.
While the book strives to capture Nein’s presence on Twitter, what it is missing is the organic and unique contextualization of Nein’s thoughts being voiced on Twitter itself. When reading my own Twitter feed I get the sensation that I’m staring into the stream of conscious of a great many—quite frankly—narcissistic, boring, snarky consumerists. The stream of tweets, to crudely simplify it, is an ever-overwhelming cavalcade of politics, personal anecdotes, bad jokes, good jokes, faux-activism, truer-activism, and pictures of cats. To get agrarian, it is both the wheat and the chaff; both substance and empty casings. To get a sense of Twitter’s overwhelming scale, if you were to read one tweet per-second it would take you approximately 6000 days—or 16 years—for you to get through just one day’s worth of tweets (assuming that the statistic of 500 million tweets per day is accurate).
It is in this context—of chaos, of random clutter and juxtapositions—that the Nein aphorism thrives. Between the promoted tweet advertising a service that sends you a new pair of underwear every month and the terrible pun made by someone I follow because they followed me first and I felt obligated to return the favour, the Nein tweet finds its best place. It’s the nihilistic, skeptical, sarcastic relief, a kind of hopeless-yet-hopeful self-aware oasis amongst the aggrandizing dribble—the blowhard faff—which riddles all social media. In typical Nein, contradictory sarcasm, his “#MixedReception” reads:
The good news:
Technology has brought us together.
This is also the bad news.
There is a sense, with the Nein tweet, that Jarosinski is in the Twitter stream alongside us, that the good news and the bad news is that he’s there as a kind of log we can grab hold of on our journey across, as someone we can take a breath with while we attempt to stay afloat and not be overwhelmed by the tug of the undertow.
But the undertow must be there, tugging at us, for the buoyant relief to have its full effect.
The biggest problem with this book to me seems to be related to the way a foghorn, when divorced from its fog, loses its gorgeous, atmospheric quality and simply becomes noise. How can this kind of content, which seems to be so beautifully aware of its position within its very specific social media platform, exist properly outside of it? Can it ever? This could well be a problem inherent in an attempt to gather aphorisms into a book, because when the aphorism is divorced from its best context, conversation, it may always feel both individually incomplete and collectively oversaturated, insofar as it is the kind of wit and intelligence better spritzed rather than soaked in. Every page of Nein. A Manifesto—by its definition as a book of aphorisms—has a wisecrack.
But the absence which should be most grieved, I believe, when it comes to Nein’s feed itself, is not only its context on Twitter, but the sense of mortality that Twitter’s ever-rolling feed has, the feeling, both when writing and reading, that everything is slowly slipping out into the babble. A tweet is inherently transitory, and survives only as long as it is pulled up by the users who like it and retweet it. This dimension of the platform plays perfectly into Nein’s nihilistic philosophy because its hopeful-hopelessness is—necessarily by its being on Twitter—fleeting, which adds both poignant urgency and relevance. But when a page in a book always holds the same aphorism, as is the case in the “platform” of a physical text, Nein’s work is less effacing, less urgent, and Jarosinski’s wisdom—which I would argue thrives on this destructive mortality—becomes more permanent, more timeless, more billboard than half-heard call from the window of a passing bus.
While I believe that Nein. A Manifesto falls short—in many ways—of being a good translation of Jarosinski’s Twitter-magic into book form, there is something to be admired in the attempt. The aphorisms themselves are still funny, smart, and at times very poignant. But I think I praise the glossary of the book particularly because it seems to be the freshest section in that it is the least interested in attempting to mimic Twitter. The book just seems to have tried too hard to emulate and contain Twitter that its shortcomings arrive in its failure to encapsulate the sense of Twitter’s essentially frustrating, anxiety-inducing, uniquely overwhelming qualities, all of which are what makes @NeinQuarterly such an effective presence there. Personally, I would have loved to see Jarosinski take a few more steps away from Twitter to consciously play with the book as a platform, to let Nein’s geist storm through the pages in the way that he did with the glossary, which is a very book thing done in a very Nein way.
But why would Jarosinski create a book so Twitter-esque when its content—for the most part—is already available on Twitter? I expect that there are several reasons, the first of which being pragmatic: there is almost no money to be made on Twitter itself. Unless you are a celebrity advertising someone’s product, or are advertising and selling your own products, Twitter offers no tangible ways to make money (unlike a platform like YouTube, which allows users to monetize their original content with ads). Jarosinski himself says of money and Twitter, in an interview with il manifesto: “We tend to think that those who have many Twitter followers are very successful, but this does not translate into money.” He says this “even for Twitter itself,” which hints towards Twitter’s own difficulties in becoming profitable, which didn’t begin to happen until last year. What Twitter offers is a platform for the advertisement of one’s own “brand.” This is what Jarosinski has done with Nein’s personality, and if it were not for Twitter there would be little worth to his brand at all. Nein’s Twitter brand only makes money in that it makes Jarosinski himself more valuable, in the same way that some people run for president in the US to raise his or her speaking fee. So in relation to this reality, Jarosinski’s book feels somewhat like a bow to capitalistic demands, a seemingly innocent and financially necessary surrender.
But another reason why Jarosinski may have decided to make the book is to participate in the creation of a permanent artefact that is representative of his work on the impermanent platform of Twitter. In the il manifesto interview Jarosinski said of the book: “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.” Herein: the rub. While I find it hard to reprimand or critique Jarosinski for his attempting to monetize his work (because the economics of creativity these days does not encourage one to work for free) I do believe that it’s possible to criticize this desire for permanence. When he says that he wants something “that would reflect [himself] after 10 years” it seems to me that he is slipping from Nein’s integrity, from the most interesting aspect of his work on Twitter: its impermanence, and its grinning facade in the face of it. By creating the book intending to reflect himself after 10 years, and meanwhile avoiding the “more popular and recognized topics,” Jarosinski rejects so much of the reactionary wit, the fire-in-the-pan relevance that Nein’s Twitter feed has.
With this book Jarosinski has stepped, to some degree, outside of time—outside of the endless stream. But in stepping largely out of time—and out of the way of the zeitgeist—Jarosinski is also taking a step out of character. Jarosinski, in making this book, has modulated and censored Nein’s nihilism, has made a hierarchy where Nein’s nihilistic responses are made more important to the world it is responding to—which is absent from the book. By attempting to make himself more timelessly relevant—more permanent—with the book, Jarosinski has leapt out of the continuous river, the river that he had been standing in for years, to join the ranks of those who comment from the shore. Nein, through Jarosinski’s desire for permanence through his denial of the “popular,” (the now) has lost his place as a pure, pop-culture mimic, cynic, and bannerman, causing his insider’s claim to satire the hypermodern world and its social media-amnesia to dwindle. Jarosinski has, it seems, traded some of Nein’s relevance for permanence.
John Stintzi is a Canadian-American writer, instructor, and visual artist. His poetry, fiction, and book reviews can be found in Lemon Hound, The Malahat Review, Los Angeles Review of Books, Matrix Magazine, The Southampton Review, CV2, Geez, The Winnipeg Review, and the anthology The Shadow Over Portage and Main. He currently lives in Jersey City, NJ, where he argues metaphysics with a cat named Freyja, and is completing his first novel.