Infernal Machine   /   February 18, 2014

Twitter as Aphorism

Brianne Alcala

Most tweets are little more than banal self-promotion or mindless snark. Few are experiments in forms of social critique. But for University of Pennsylvania Professor of German Studies Eric Jarosinski, Twitter's formal constraint of just 144 characters has freed him of the endless equivocations of academic prose. Jarosinki started his tenure-track position at UPenn in 2007 as a scholar of the Frankfurt School and critical theory, working on figures such as Theodor Adorno, Walter Benjamin, and Siegfried Kracauer. As he was struggling to write a book and compose in a language that could get him tenure, he began a Twitter feed, NeinQuarterly, that helped him recover, as he recently put it in a New Yorker interview, "the playful sides of German thinkers":

Adopting the Twitter persona was “extremely liberating,” he said, because it helped him to remember what had attracted him to the Frankfurt School philosophers in the first place: their more literary works, especially their aphorisms. Adorno: “The splinter in your eye is the best magnifying glass.” Or, as one NeinQuarterly tweet has it: “ADORNO. German for YOLO.”

Composing for Twitter also forced him to think about matters of form and the shape that social critique could take, something that Frankfurt School figures like Adorno and Benjamin wrote a great deal about. A good tweet, says Jarosinski, does something particular:

“You’re trying to find a way to state contradiction. You’re writing a cartoon caption for a cartoon that doesn’t exist…. It’s the old Gary Larson trick,” he said, referring to the creator of “The Far Side.” “What you really need to do in a cartoon is set someone up for the moment that comes next, after that frame, but is not depicted.” Tweets, he has learned, work best in dialogue form, because dialogue helps readers imagine a scene. “An early tweet of mine would have said, ‘No bourgeois morality on the bus.’… The better tweet is, ‘Sorry, sir, no bourgeois morality on the bus.’”

A good day on Twitter for him is when he can discover “a new structure” that he can use over and over. “I guess I want to see myself as an aphorist,” Jarosinski said. “And not even a Twitter aphorist. I think we need to reestablish that as a profession.”

Twitter as critique, anyone?