What the **** is wrong with Jonathan Franzen? (Drive-by Cultural Criticisms, No. 1)

Here’s the thing: Modernity, especially the reality this word describes in Western societies at the moment, deserves all it can get in terms of critical analysis. There is not nearly enough of it to go around, though there is a lot of relativistic rubbish that is passed off as such. Given the sheer lack of useful cultural criticism (in the sense of Kulturkritik), but also our allegedly shortening attention spans (which I will turn to presently), with this essay let me introduce what may well become a regular-ish feature on this blog: A series of “Drive-by Cultural Criticisms”. 

What the **** is wrong with Jonathan Franzen, one of my favourite writers? I will tell you what. The man suffers from an existential disease most of us contend with: Modernity. Published on Friday the 13th here on the Guardian website, Jonathan Franzen’s “What is wrong with the modern world” is what some literary scholars in the German speaking world like to call Kulturkritik (and some scholars will aggressively deny that this is what it is). As with most pieces of this particular genre of cultural criticism, however, it does not withstand the slightest cultural criticism itself. To be sure, there is a lot that is wrong with the modern world. What’s also wrong, however, is  the way he is dealing with this important question. The unhappy essay published here in the Guardian on Friday the 13th of September of 2013 is a case in point.

The Karl Kraus Koolaid will give you Acid Reflux

Poor man Jonathan has spent too much time drinking the Karl Kraus koolaid. Don’t get me wrong: In good measure, this potent stuff is delicious and healthy; full of complex free radicals that punch holes into the hardening arteries of ignorance. But beware the early Twentieth Century bacteria that fester here and turn everything sour! When sipped carefully, the brilliant but utterly self-important Viennese satirist is a deliciously acerbic read; but inhale too much of the stuff, and your own breath will smell stale, if not acidic, and your words will be dripping with bile. Equally self-important people like Franzen, whose own tone of voice can hardly be called fragrant (takes one to know one, eh?), need to be particularly careful.  If I ever succumb to the temptation of reading his latest book, the “The Kraus Project”, I will do so with a supply of cherry-flavoured antacids…in the meantime, I will continue to be entertained by his bilious exasperations provided they are diluted by the mellifluous waters of mass media communication which he neither likes nor understands, and yet uses proficiently with the assured naivete only the utterly self-involved and proudly ignorant are capable of. Just google his name to discover exploits with Oprah Winfrey, BBC 4, and more. Or check the tweets on “Franzo”.

The big argument around the “dehumanising” aspects of technological progress: That is what Franzen ascribes to Kraus. When Franzen complains about Twitter (and other forms of mass media) using forms of mass media, and doing so as an “artist” whose “art” necessarily works with mass media and its materiality, it is little more than embarrassing. I experience a severe case of “fremdschämen” whenever Franzen pops up on TV. God and time willing, I want to revisit the actual flawed argumention in his essay at a later stage in detail. In the meantime, let me just say this (before I head out the door, sorry, in a rush): The solution is obvious – in my view at least. What Herr Franzen needs to do is

  1. get over himself and
  2. read some Chesterton.

Although 2. would certainly help with 1. and might need to come first. How I know? Perhaps because Chesterton also cured me of the same existential disease.

What is wrong with Jonathan Franzen? (CC Image: Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile)
What is wrong with Jonathan Franzen? (CC Image: Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile)