Q&A: Nein Quarterly


If you are on Twit­ter, you might know @NeinQuarterly – a slightly pes­si­mistic, whim­si­cal cynic with a soft spot for Theo­dor W. Adorno and Ger­man Umlaute. With his witty apho­risms on Euro­pean cul­ture, cri­ti­cal theory and the Ger­man lan­guage, he has gai­ned more fol­lo­wers than the ava­rage intel­lec­tual mis­an­thrope can handle.

A quick inter­net search for the man behind the Nein ser­vers brought us Eric Jaro­sin­ski, a sur­pri­sin­gly char­ming, non-monocled  pro­fes­sor of Ger­man at the Uni­ver­sity of Penn­sil­va­nia in Phil­adel­phia. Our fri­end and inter­view whizz kid Juliane Lie­bert tal­ked to him about his aca­de­mic work, Ber­lin and the Ü…

It’s really early where you are, right?

Oh, no. Not for a Satur­day. It‘s ele­ven in the morning. So you want to ask me some ques­ti­ons about … about ME?

Haha. Yes. So one of your topics is the rhe­to­ri­cal con­struc­tion of Nazi Ber­lin. What‘s that?

Well the book I’ve been wri­t­ing is about trans­pa­rency as a meta­phor in archi­tec­ture, essen­ti­ally archi­tec­ture built in Ber­lin since 1989, most famously the Reichs­tag Cup­ola, for instance. In doing my back­ground rese­arch, I became inte­res­ted in a num­ber of pro­pa­ganda texts about Ber­lin from the Nazi era. Lar­gely books and pam­phlets about the city’s sup­po­sed trans­for­ma­tion under the Nazis, turning it into a rep­re­sen­ta­tion of a cer­tain Ger­ma­nic essence. There are a lot of meta­phors rela­ted to trans­pa­rency from that time. Goeb­bels, for instance, talks about the city beco­m­ing cle­arly orde­red and rea­dily com­pre­hen­si­ble, as if seen through glass. That’s inte­res­ting, because now trans­pa­rency is used to rep­re­sent open­ness, demo­cracy, free­dom, and com­ing to terms with the past … and it’s striking to see how the same meta­phor has been used in dif­fe­rent ways over time in order to serve vastly dif­fe­rent agendas.

There are also a lot of volu­mes of illus­tra­ted books for visi­tors to Ber­lin from the 1930s, a kind of Nazi-tourist cul­ture. They are about what to see, but also about how to see it. There are for example maps of the city with indi­ca­ti­ons where early mem­bers of the Nazi party died in street fights …


Yeah, one of the most inte­res­ting books I found was cal­led Wir Wan­dern durch das Natio­nal­so­zia­lis­ti­sche Ber­lin and it is the story of the city as told from this per­spec­tive. I’ve lived in Ber­lin for a couple of years, so I knew some of the pla­ces men­tio­ned in the book, but it was inte­res­ting to see them from this highly ideo­lo­gi­cal point of view. I am not a trai­ned archi­tect, but I have a real inte­rest in how archi­tec­ture is writ­ten about and how it is instru­men­ta­li­zed in the name of a cul­tu­ral or poli­ti­cal agenda.

So you have lived in Berlin?

Yes, I‘ve lived in many dif­fe­rent parts of the city. The lon­gest stretch was almost two years, and I‘ve moved pro­bably six or seven times. I was just sub­let­ting pla­ces, and it was always just a shor­ter period of time. I only had two suit­ca­ses, so it also made it pos­si­ble to move with just a taxi and to get to know daily life in various neigh­borhoods. The city became really big for me then, I had my bar­ber in Neu­kölln, and I had my clea­ner in Prenzl­berg – just ever­y­day things you’d usually do in one part of the city spread out, because I deve­l­o­ped a rela­ti­onship to those little things in various parts of the city. But I really bene­fit­ted from that. It became clear to me that even in the lar­gest city you can restrict your­self to pretty small cor­ners of the place, just because you have your routines.First as tragedy, then as farce, then as interview

What did you do?

I was working on my dis­ser­ta­tion, so I was able to focus on my rese­arch and wri­t­ing. I con­sider mys­elf very for­t­u­nate to have had that amount of time. There‘s a lot of pres­sure in the Ame­ri­can aca­de­mic sys­tem and incre­a­sin­gly in the Ger­man one, too, to rush through gra­duate pro­grams. To actually get a chance to do things at a slo­wer pace but in a mea­ningful way really mat­te­red to me. For me the expe­ri­ence more than anything has been the plea­sure that I‘ve taken in dis­co­ve­r­ing new things, but pri­ma­rily new things wit­hin the con­text of the ever­y­day. I also tell my stu­dents that they should study abroad, because if you’re just a tou­rist some­where, you‘ll never know that expe­ri­ence. Which is one of being at a place long enough to hate it, and then to love it, and then to hate it and then to love it … you know, to first have dif­fi­cul­ties, then have things work out–that‘s the great value, more than anything else. Ber­lin is diverse enough to allow for many dif­fe­rent ways of being and of living, with very dif­fe­rent cir­cles one can get acquain­ted with.

 What’s a typi­cal way if some­body from the US, for example your stu­dents, would speak about Ber­lin or Ger­many now?

It’s dif­fi­cult to gene­ra­lize, but one things I’ve noti­ced is that they might have very dif­fe­rent asso­cia­ti­ons with Ger­many than they do with Ber­lin. People might have a lot of nega­tive expec­ta­ti­ons about Ger­many, but very posi­tive ones about Ber­lin … and when they spend time there they have to rea­lise that those things belong toge­ther. Ber­lin is not some little town in the Bava­rian Hin­ter­land, of course. It has a con­nec­tion to a lar­ger cul­ture, right? It‘s a place with all these cool, uni­que things, yet at the same time you also often find your­self doing these ste­reo­ty­pi­cal Ger­man things, like wait­ing for the red light to change. I didn‘t come to Ber­lin with quite the same back­ground. I’d lived in a few other pla­ces in Ger­many first. For me that was good pre­pa­ra­tion. I had an idea of what the cul­ture was like in gene­ral and could then enjoy the more dis­tinc­tive things about Berlin.

Alt­hough it is really ugly if we‘re honest, huh?

Maybe. That’s the inte­res­ting thing about it. People expect Ber­lin to be more on the order of Paris or Rome, in terms of monu­men­tal archi­tec­ture, for instance, but that’s not really what Ber­lin is about, at least not for me. I stop­ped thin­king about cities in terms of beau­ti­ful or not beau­ti­ful a long time ago.

What’s your inte­rest in the Nazi era?

The thing I’m really inte­res­ted in is actually the period from 1900 to the late 1920s, early 1930s, but I’ve become more inte­res­ted in the Nazi era because lots of the things I’ve read and writ­ten about have a cer­tain after­life in that period. I‘ve been led there more his­to­ri­cally than anything else. What always comes up in teaching is under­li­ning the import­ance of Germany’s Nazi past in terms of its pre­sence today–without let­ting that overs­ha­dow ever­y­thing else.

Yes, people for­get that all the time.

Yeah, that’s just the way it works. It’s not new or sur­pri­sing. To me that’s the inte­res­ting thing about doing more his­to­ri­cal work. It‘s about remin­ding your­self of that, and remin­ding your­self of the con­clu­si­ons you’ve drawn, and the things that have become so natu­ral to you but were not ine­vi­ta­ble. I was recently teaching a Nietz­sche course, so I‘m thin­king a lot about history, loo­king at how mora­lity or noti­ons of social order emer­ged cul­tu­rally and his­to­ri­cally, and how they could have emer­ged dif­fer­ently, but also the ways how we impose a cer­tain logic or expla­na­tion upon these things that are ser­ving dif­fe­rent agen­das again. What I’m try­ing to teach is that ele­ment of debate, of dis­agree­ment and cer­tainly of con­tes­ted posi­ti­ons. Ger­many has a really vibrant cul­ture of debate, I think, not least because of its history.

What‘s the worst thing about learning German?

People find the gram­mar really hard. But they pro­bably just don‘t have a good teacher. I make a lot of jokes about the dif­fi­culty of Ger­man gram­mar, alt­hough I don‘t really believe in it. It has a repu­ta­tion of being a very harsh lan­guage, that it’s not a beau­ti­ful lan­guage, and that’s some­thing I play with on my Twit­ter feed. Because again, just like I don’t think of Ber­lin as being a beau­ti­ful or a ugly city, that‘s also not how I think about lan­gua­ges. For me it is really inte­res­ting to just lis­ten to the way Ger­man native speakers speak and the way the lan­guage is con­stantly changing.

… and how do they speak?

Well, I pay atten­tion to regio­nal dif­fe­ren­ces, choice of words, lis­ten­ing for expres­si­ons that maybe I wanna pick up. That to me is the fun of being outs­ide your own cul­ture. The ever­y­day beco­mes so much more inte­res­ting. A con­ver­sa­tion on the train that might be annoy­ing to you at home, is then an oppor­tu­nity to over­hear somebody‘s color­ful use of lan­guage… How does one per­son work with this lan­guage that I‘ve learnt as an outs­ider, how does someone who grew up with it, use it, play with it, make it their own. I‘ve lear­ned the most about Ger­man from fri­ends of mine, because of the dis­tinc­tive ways that they use it. I‘m often never sure if this is an expres­sion that ever­yone knows or just one of the many Ste­fans I know (Ever­yone male in their late thir­ties, early for­ties seems to be named Ste­fan, right?!). The deve­lop­ment of the lan­guage that we use has become a dis­tinc­tive part of our fri­endship. There’s a history to the way we talk to each other, and that‘s some­thing that I really like.

You’re spen­ding a lot of time on Twit­ter, twee­ting as Nein Quar­tely …

This twit­ter thing, as silly as it is most of the time, does pro­vide an oppor­tu­nity for me to really think about a lot of these things in a much more con­scious way … about what I can do with Ger­man or with a spe­ci­fic expres­sion. What I like about it most is the unex­pec­ted dis­co­very of a con­nec­tion bet­ween words, some play on words or just a rela­ti­onship that one wouldn’t have other­wise – mainly because when you‘re dea­ling with such a small amount of text, you get to know it dif­fer­ently, more closely.

You’re obses­sed with Umlaute?

Well, thats part of the Twit­ter per­sona I’ve deve­l­o­ped, but yes.

So Nein Quar­tely is a kind of character?

Yes, not only, but lar­gely. It’s loo­sely based on one of the phi­lo­sophers I work with… you know Theo­dor W. Adorno?

Sure. But he wasn’t obses­sed with Umlaute!

Per­haps not, but he did write an essay on punc­tua­tion marks…

So whats your favo­rite Umlaut?


And why?

… Why? It’s inte­res­ting. You can do a lot with it. I mean, it’s a really banal thing, but the Ü is a smi­ley face, right? And its also inte­res­ting because I have this obses­sion … I mean, you know how little text you have in a tweet? So I pay atten­tion to the cha­rac­ters, I even pay atten­tion some­ti­mes to what they look like. Cal­ling atten­tion to an Umlaut is taking some­thing that is easily iden­ti­fia­ble as Ger­man, but than making some­thing play­ful out of it.

Haha. Thank you.

For more information on Nein Quarterly, visit the official website.

This article has been re-posted with kind permission from the excellent Strollology blog, where it first appeared.