The Chronicle Review

#failedintellectual

@NeinQuarterly says goodbye to academe and hello to whatever

June 30, 2014

I regret to inform you that this will not be the light-hearted goodbye to the academy I started writing weeks ago. Nor the gin-soaked rant it inevitably became. Nor the self-serving sob story I tell myself in my weaker moments. Nor, perhaps, any other of the many subgenres of what has come to be known as "Quit Lit."

Because, let’s be honest, the only thing worse than a German professor trying to be light-hearted is a soon-to-be ex-German professor trying to write a gin-soaked rant without extensive footnotes. Or a self-serving sob story without ripping off The Sorrows of Young Werther. No, in the end, I decided it’s probably best not to let broken dreams, rage, and regret be confined by bourgeois conventions of genre. They surely deserve better bourgeois conventions. So, too, the darkness my inglorious demise reflects and the darker darkness it heralds, which shall remain implied.

Here, then, a long story short:

In the spring of 2013, with the clock running down and the writing very much on the wall, I decided to withdraw myself from tenure consideration at an Ivy League research university. In other words, I quit before I could be fired. I’d grown tired of the low-stakes, high-anxiety bitterness of academic politics; weary of performing the performative weariness of academic writing; severely depressed by the severely depressing German literature I had once happily endured. All in all, pretty routine academic despair for anyone fortunate enough to land a tenure-track job. For the scores of adjuncts out there, as we all know, the situation is far worse.

Despite my many blessings, however, I clearly wasn’t happy. One Wednesday afternoon, my therapist said he’d stopped worrying that I wouldn’t get tenure and started worrying that I would. Previous sons and daughters of Freud, Jung, or the American pharmaceuticals industry had prescribed Zweig, Nietzsche, or Prozac. He suggested I find a good deus ex machina. And it arrived: via the Internet.

Having never been one for blogs or social media, I was singularly unimpressed with Twitter when introduced. Yet I soon found its 140-character limit, relative anonymity, and potential escape from my isolation extremely liberating. I invented a fictitious journal, Nein.Quarterly: A Compendium of Utopian Negation, and began developing an online persona based on Theodor W. Adorno, one of the philosophers I’d been struggling to write about in the book I was working on. Soon I was writing jokes and aphorisms about philosophy, art, language, and literature.

What’s emerged in the two years since then is a voice that is misanthropic yet romantic, authoritative yet ridiculous, principled yet darkly nihilistic. In short, I found a voice of my own that I had never developed amid the tortured qualifiers and anxious hedging of my academic work. And, surprisingly, that voice has gradually found real resonance and a broad international audience of some 77,000 followers in more than 100 countries.

My accomplishments to date have been modest, yet they might well mean more to me than my abandoned book project ever could have: Some folks are learning German, reading Kafka, or studying philosophy who might not have otherwise; I’ve been able to represent a somewhat alternative, self-critical American perspective abroad; and I’ve become probably one of the few people in the history of social media to block both his employer and Joyce Carol Oates.

Since leaving the tenure track, I’ve taken to calling myself a #failedintellectual online. The hashtag became a minor meme, then something of a guiding ethos. In truth, I suppose, it’s also a lie. Looking back on my years in the academy, I think I succeeded at what I really wanted to accomplish. I greatly improved my teaching and did my best to pass on what my best teachers taught me: how to read carefully, think boldly, write convincingly.

Though I do hope to teach again, that’s over for the moment. Now the hustle of trying to make a living as an Internet aphorist burdened with student-loan debt truly begins. So far I’ve been able to make some initial moves into old media, just in time for the death of print, and I’ve started writing for various German newspapers. (Nein.Quarterly now runs as a column on the opinion page of Germany’s weekly Die Zeit, and other projects are in the works.) I’ve also been raising start-up capital for a Nein.Quarterly blog or app. And I’ve been working on a book, one I actually want to write.

This, then, is goodbye. At least for now. Yet I urge you to carry on, my professorial comrades. Yours is a noble calling. So, too, I hope is that of my newfound function/dubious distinction as some sort of "public intellectual." Ultimately, friends, we are all captain and crew of the same ship. Battered by the storm. In danger of sinking. Slowly. Ever so slowly. In a bottle.

Eric Jarosinski writes for Die Zeit and the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. His first book, Nein. A Manifesto, will be published next year in German by S. Fischer Verlage and in Dutch by Lebowski Publishers.