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Why Jonathan Franzen Is Fascinated by the Work of a Forgotten 20th Century Viennese Thinker

Critic Karl Kraus was ahead of his time in seeing how technological discoveries diverged from the moral and spiritual progress of society.

Photo Credit: pogonici


“The most impressive  thing about Kraus as a thinker,” writes Jonathan Franzen in his brilliantly annotated new book of translations of Karl Kraus, the 20th-century Viennese critic, “may be how early and clearly he recognized the divergence of technological progress from moral and spiritual progress.” Not a Luddite, Kraus was one of the early owners of an automobile, which he employed to travel the European continent, and, later, he took to flying in airplanes. He also tweaked Shakespeare for the radio, a medium he endorsed. More significantly, he published upwards of 900 editions of his near-weekly journal  Die Fackel (The Torch), with a print run of 30,000 copies at its peak. Religiously subscribed to by important German-language writers such as Thomas Mann, Franz Kafka, Walter Benjamin, Sigmund Freud, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Theodor Adorno, and Gershom Scholem,  Die Fackel functioned very much like a popular blog to the extent that it would gloss a passage of text taken from the media in order to disseminate its creator’s opinions to its followers. And yet, as Franzen points out, Kraus probably would have assailed today’s blogs as relentlessly as he did the popular blog-like feuilletons that so entranced readers of early 20th-century Vienna’s most respected newspapers. Like any prophetic thinker, Kraus could be contradictory, acidic, and even apocalyptic, and in 1908 he wrote, “Progress makes purses out of human skin.” But Franzen suggests — rightly, I think — that Kraus’s criticisms of our indulgences and addictions were ultimately hopeful: he thought the world could be bettered.

If Kraus’s views about modernity and especially about technology have something to say to us (despite expressing his fear of overstating the parallels, Franzen believes they bear significantly on our own cultural and technological moment), they seem to fly in the face of one of our biggest assumptions: that technology unleashes our creative sides. This belief is so prevalent in our culture that it has become both a cliché and a practice, which is why we see it manifesting itself in everything from Apple commercials and apps to our classrooms — without appearing to give anyone pause. Enter Karl Kraus: “A key factor for Kraus,” Franzen writes in one of his welcome and, often, very involving footnotes, “was that technology and modernization were diminishing the space that the imagination needed to thrive.”

I myself arrived at a similar view about the time I noticed, four or five years ago, that flatscreens were being installed in restaurants, hotels, banks, airports, gas stations, and office lobbies — virtually any place where people had to wait for something. My first concern was that public spaces were being turned into Chuck E. Cheese–like environments where potentially risky encounters with our thoughts or other people could be effortlessly averted by taking refuge in flashing, blaring screens. But subsequent thoughts had more to do with my being a novelist: I grew frustrated that I could no longer bring a clutch of manuscript pages or an inspiring novel with me to a doctor’s appointment — what was the point of trying to read in the waiting area when it was being blasted with cable news or college football? And I was jealous that the flatscreens (to say nothing of the smartphones that were starting to show up in people’s hands) were drawing everyone’s attention away from their books — or, worse, replacing the activity of reading books, period. And then my young children started going to school, and I was forced to confront our culture’s beliefs about technology and imagination head on.

Consider these statements I’ve sampled from the website of an esteemed California K-12 private school that is very much concerned with the moral and spiritual progress of its students:

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