While we are busy tweeting, texting and spending, the world is drifting towards disaster, believes Jonathan Franzen, whose despair at our insatiable technoconsumerism echoes the apocalyptic essays of the satirist Karl Kraus – ‘the Great Hater.’
Karl Kraus was an Austrian satirist and a central figure in fin-de-siecle Vienna’s famously rich life of the mind. From 1899 until his death in 1936, he edited and published the influential magazine Die Fackel (The Torch); from 1911 onward, he was also the magazine’s sole author. Although Kraus would probably have hated blogs, Die Fackel was like a blog that everybody who mattered in the German-speaking world, from Freud to Kafka to Walter Benjamin, found it necessary to read and have an attitude toward. Kraus was especially well known for his aphorisms – for example, “Psychoanalysis is that disease of the mind for which it believes itself to be the cure” – and at the height of his popularity he drew thousands to his public readings.
The thing about Kraus is that he’s is very hard to follow on a first reading – deliberately hard. He was the scourge of throwaway journalism, and to his cult-like followers his dense and intricately coded style formed an agreeable barrier to entry; it kept the uninitiated out. Kraus himself remarked of the playwright Hermann Bahr, before attacking him: “If he understands one sentence of the essay, I’ll retract the entire thing.” If you read Kraus’s sentences more than once, you’ll find that they have a lot to say to us in our own media-saturated, technology-crazed, apocalypse-haunted historical moment.
Here, for example, is the first paragraph of his essay “Heine and the Consequences”.
"Two strains of intellectual vulgarity: defenselessness against content and defenselessness against form. The one experiences only the material side of art. It is of German origin. The other experiences even the rawest of materials artistically. It is of Romance origin. [Romance meaning Romance-language — French or Italian.] To the one, art is an instrument; to the other, life is an ornament. In which hell would the artist prefer to fry? He’d surely still rather live among the Germans. For although they’ve strapped art into the Procrustean Folding Bed of their commerce, they’ve also made life sober, and this is a blessing: fantasy thrives, and every man can put his own light in the barren windowframes. Just spare me the pretty ribbons! Spare me this good taste that over there and down there delights the eye and irritates the imagination. Spare me this melody of life that disturbs my own music, which comes into its own only in the roaring of the German workday. Spare me this universal higher level of refinement from which it’s so easy to observe that the newspaper seller in Paris has more charm than the Prussian publisher."
First footnote: Kraus’s suspicion of the “melody of life” in France and Italy still has merit. His contention here – that walking down a street in Paris or Rome is an aesthetic experience in itself – is confirmed by the ongoing popularity of France and Italy as vacation destinations and by the “envy me” tone of American Francophiles and Italophiles announcing their travel plans. If you say you’re taking a trip to Germany, you’d better be able to explain what specifically you’re planning to do there, or else people will wonder why you’re not going someplace where life is beautiful. Even now, Germany insists on content over form. If the concept of coolness had existed in Kraus’s time, he might have said that Germany is uncool.
This suggests a more contemporary version of Kraus’s dichotomy: Mac versus PC. Isn’t the essence of the Apple product that you achieve coolness simply by virtue of owning it? It doesn’t even matter what you’re creating on your Mac Air. Simply using a Mac Air, experiencing the elegant design of its hardware and software, is a pleasure in itself, like walking down a street in Paris. Whereas, when you’re working on some clunky, utilitarian PC, the only thing to enjoy is the quality of your work itself. As Kraus says of Germanic life, the PC “sobers” what you’re doing; it allows you to see it unadorned. This was especially true in the years of DOS operating systems and early Windows.
One of the developments that Kraus will decry in this essay – the Viennese dolling-up of German language and culture with decorative elements imported from Romance language and culture – has a correlative in more recent editions of Windows, which borrow ever more features from Apple but still can’t conceal their essential uncool Windowsness. Worse yet, in chasing after Apple elegance, they betray the old austere beauty of PC functionality. They still don’t work as well as Macs do, and they’re ugly by both cool and utilitarian standards.
And yet, to echo Kraus, I’d still rather live among PCs. Any chance that I might have switched to Apple was negated by the famous and long-running series of Apple ads aimed at persuading people like me to switch. The argument was eminently reasonable, but it was delivered by a personified Mac (played by the actor Justin Long) of such insufferable smugness that he made the miseries of Windows attractive by comparison. You wouldn’t want to read a novel about the Mac: what would there be to say except that everything is groovy? Characters in novels need to have actual desires; and the character in the Apple ads who had desires was the PC, played by John Hodgman. His attempts to defend himself and to pass himself off as cool were funny, and he suffered, like a human being. (There were local versions of the ad around the world, with comedians David Mitchell and Robert Webb as the PC and Mac in the UK).
I’d be remiss if I didn’t add that the concept of “cool” has been so fully co-opted by the tech industries that some adjacent word such as “hip” is needed to describe those online voices who proceeded to hate on Long and deem Hodgman to be the cool one. The restlessness of who or what is considered hip nowadays may be an artifact of what Marx famously identified as the “restless” nature of capitalism. One of the worst things about the internet is that it tempts everyone to be a sophisticate – to take positions on what is hip and to consider, under pain of being considered unhip, the positions that everyone else is taking. Kraus may not have cared about hipness per se, but he certainly revelled in taking positions and was keenly attuned to the positions of others. He was a sophisticate, and this is one reason Die Fackel has a bloglike feel. Kraus spent a lot of time reading stuff he hated, so as to be able to hate it with authority.
"Believe me, you color-happy people, in cultures where every blockhead has individuality, individuality becomes a thing for blockheads."
Second footnote: You’re not allowed to say things like this in America nowadays, no matter how much the billion (or is it 2 billion now?) “individualised” Facebook pages may make you want to say them. Kraus was known, in his day, to his many enemies, as the Great Hater. By most accounts, he was a tender and generous man in his private life, with many loyal friends. But once he starts winding the stem of his polemical rhetoric, it carries him into extremely harsh registers.
The individualised “blockheads” that Kraus has in mind here aren’t hoi polloi. Although Kraus could sound like an elitist, he wasn’t in the business of denigrating the masses or lowbrow culture; the calculated difficulty of his writing wasn’t a barricade against the barbarians. It was aimed, instead, at bright and well-educated cultural authorities who embraced a phony kind of individuality – people Kraus believed ought to have known better.
It’s not clear that Kraus’s shrill, ex cathedra denunciations were the most effective way to change hearts and minds. But I confess to feeling some version of his disappointment when a novelist who I believe ought to have known better, Salman Rushdie, succumbs to Twitter. Or when a politically committed print magazine that I respect, N+1, denigrates print magazines as terminally “male,” celebrates the internet as “female,” and somehow neglects to consider the internet’s accelerating pauperisation of freelance writers. Or when good lefty professors who once resisted alienation – who criticised capitalism for its restless assault on every tradition and every community that gets in its way – start calling the corporatised internet “revolutionary.”
"Spare me the picturesque moil on the rind of an old gorgonzola in place of the dependable white monotony of cream cheese! Life is hard to digest both here and there. But the Romance diet beautifies the spoilage; you swallow the bait and go belly up. The German regimen spoils beauty and puts us to the test: how do we recreate it? Romance culture makes everyman a poet. Art’s a piece of cake there. And Heaven a hell."
Submerged in this paragraph is the implication that Kraus’s Vienna was an in-between case – like Windows Vista. Its language and orientation were German, but it was the co-capital of a Roman Catholic empire reaching far into southern Europe, and it was in love with its own notion of its special, charming Viennese spirit and lifestyle. (“The streets of Vienna are paved with culture,” goes one of Kraus’s aphorisms. “The streets of other cities with asphalt.”) To Kraus, the supposed cultural charm of Vienna amounted to a tissue of hypocrisies stretched over soon-to-be-catastrophic contradictions, which he was bent on unmasking with his satire. The paragraph may come down harder on Latin culture than on German, but Kraus was actually fond of vacationing in Italy and had some of his most romantic experiences there. For him, the place with the really dangerous disconnect between content and form was Austria, which was rapidly modernising while retaining early-19th-century political and social models. Kraus was obsessed with the role of modern newspapers in papering over the contradictions. Like the Hearst papers in America, the bourgeois Viennese press had immense political and financial influence, and was demonstrably corrupt. It profited greatly from the first world war and was instrumental in sustaining charming Viennese myths like the “hero’s death” through years of mechanised slaughter. The Great War was precisely the Austrian apocalypse that Kraus had been prophesying, and he relentlessly satirised the press’s complicity in it.
Vienna in 1910 was, thus, a special case. And yet you could argue that America in 2013 is a similarly special case: another weakened empire telling itself stories of its exceptionalism while it drifts towards apocalypse of some sort, fiscal or epidemiological, climatic-environmental or thermonuclear. Our far left may hate religion and think we coddle Israel, our far right may hate illegal immigrants and think we coddle black people, and nobody may know how the economy is supposed to work now that markets have gone global, but the actual substance of our daily lives is total distraction. We can’t face the real problems; we spent a trillion dollars not really solving a problem in Iraq that wasn’t really a problem; we can’t even agree on how to keep healthcare costs from devouring the GNP. What we can all agree to do instead is to deliver ourselves to the cool new media and technologies, to Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg and Jeff Bezos, and to let them profit at our expense. Our situation looks quite a bit like Vienna’s in 1910, except that newspaper technology has been replaced by digital technology and Viennese charm by American coolness.
Consider the first paragraph of a second Kraus essay, “Nestroy and Posterity”. The essay is ostensibly a celebration of Johann Nestroy, a leading figure in the Golden Age of Viennese theatre, in the first half of the 19th century. By the time Kraus published it, in 1912, Nestroy was underrated, misread and substantially forgotten, and Kraus takes this to be a symptom of what’s wrong with modernity. In his essay “Apocalypse”, a few years earlier, he’d written: “Culture can’t catch its breath, and in the end a dead humanity lies next to its works, whose invention cost us so much of our intellect that we had none left to put them to use. We were complicated enough to build machines and too primitive to make them serve us.” To me the most impressive thing about Kraus as a thinker may be how early and clearly he recognised the divergence of technological progress from moral and spiritual progress. A succeeding century of the former, involving scientific advances that would have seemed miraculous not long ago, has resulted in high-resolution smartphone videos of dudes dropping Mentos into litre bottles of Diet Pepsi and shouting “Whoa!” Technovisionaries of the 1990s promised that the internet would usher in a new world of peace, love, and understanding, and Twitter executives are still banging the utopianist drum, claiming foundational credit for the Arab spring. To listen to them, you’d think it was inconceivable that eastern Europe could liberate itself from the Soviets without the benefit of cellphones, or that a bunch of Americans revolted against the British and produced the US constitution without 4G capability.
"Nestroy and Posterity" begins:
"We cannot celebrate his memory the way a posterity ought to, by acknowledging a debt we’re called upon to honor, and so we want to celebrate his memory by confessing to a bankruptcy that dishonors us, we inhabitants of a time that has lost the capacity to be a posterity… How could the eternal Builder fail to learn from the experiences of this century? For as long as there have been geniuses, they’ve been placed into a time like temporary tenants, while the plaster was still drying; they moved out and left things cozier for humanity. For as long as there have been engineers, however, the house has been getting less habitable. God have mercy on the development! Better that He not allow artists to be born than with the consolation that this future of ours will be better for their having lived before us. This world! Let it just try to feel like a posterity, and, at the insinuation that it owes its progress to a detour of the Mind, it will give out a laugh that seems to say: More Dentists Prefer Pepsodent. A laugh based on an idea of Roosevelt’s and orchestrated by Bernard Shaw. It’s the laugh that’s done with everything and can do whatever. For the technicians have burned the bridges, and the future is: whatever follows automatically."
Nowadays, the refrain is that “there’s no stopping our powerful new technologies”. Grassroots resistance to these technologies is almost entirely confined to health and safety issues, and meanwhile various logics – of war theory, of technology, of the marketplace – keep unfolding automatically. We find ourselves living in a world with hydrogen bombs because uranium bombs just weren’t going to get the job done; we find ourselves spending most of our waking hours texting and emailing and Tweeting and posting on colour-screen gadgets because Moore’s law said we could. We’re told that, to remain competitive economically, we need to forget about the humanities and teach our children “passion” for digital technology and prepare them to spend their entire lives incessantly re-educating themselves to keep up with it. The logic says that if we want things like Zappos.com or home DVR capability – and who wouldn’t want them? – we need to say goodbye to job stability and hello to a lifetime of anxiety. We need to become as restless as capitalism itself.