The Jerk Prodigy, Or: Who Am I To A Person That Doesn't Like Me?
When I was looking through my DayOne posts - the recent acquisition of the journaling app by automattic made me curious; I had not been using the app in a couple of years - I stumbled upon a journal entry that included a few screenshots of tweets that a quite popular German political Twitterer (maybe 30k followers back then, now around 50k followers) had posted, that berated me fiercely. How stupid I was and how dare I speak up against this person. They called me a baboon that needed to be put into place amongst other things. I think they called me sexist, too. I didn’t have the heart to plunge deeper into the post. As I was simply too shocked. I had completely forgotten about this life altering experience half a decade ago. But here it was. And the remembering began.
What had happened? When I was studying history of science and technology I was not shy to speak up. I was a young man that deemed himself smart and with a talent for research. I also had way too much time on my hands, which made me “dangerous” in class. I read and studied furiously. And what I learned I wanted to apply. That is, nothing went past me in class. Any little uncertainty that came up, I problematized - to the frustration of my professors, I’m sure, as well as my classmates. I wanted to be a researcher, or no, I wanted to be a prodigy. A person with great potential to become an exceptional researcher. I dreamt big. And I wanted my professors to see how smart I was. I had this dream that somebody would take me under their wing, make me behave, by offering a path to a career in research. I wanted to be tamed, I think, so that I could become the beautiful, creative researcher that I thought I ought to be.
In any case, this phase of my life was a messy one and so were the discussions in the seminars. Lots of arguments, lots and lots of monologuing on my part. Oh, my poor classmates, forgive me! But that’s who I was back then and although I look back with shame, I would be lying if I would not point out that this time of my life was one of the most instructive phases of it as well.
I remember neither subject of the course nor the specific book introduction, chapter or article that we were assigned to read for this weeks class. What I do remember is that I disagreed vehemently with the author’s premise that nobody had as of yet really looked into the topic at hand, except herself. That the author was female was incidental to my disagreement. But I never liked this take. To me, history was all about uncovering more and more aspects of the past. And a new take was adding a new shade, a new layer to the beautiful complexities of historiography as it related to the topic at hand. There is no singular fundamental take on history that subsumes all other takes - or at least not for long. History is best, I thought, if it was a humbling exercise, one in which your own strong opinions and values get somewhat relativized. History, to me, was a quest for authenticity, for serious inquiry, that ought not to bend to the political fashions of the day - even if I happen to agree with them. History ought to be historicist, in the German sense, where the understanding of a happening stems from a process of trying to find plausibility in the actions through sympathy for the actors - no matter how vile their behavior would be deemed, probably rightfully so, in our time. In short I was a young man looking for authenticity in a world full of ironic takes. I craved sincerity. “Be real with me”, I thought often, “I want to like you”. “I want to be sure that you like me”, if you say so, too. I was lonely and longed for reliability.
It was well known amongst history of science students back then, that we had a minor celebrity in our midst. This person was a young politician of some clout. An up-and-comer that had gotten a taste of political authority, of respect towards their own person, after being elected to the city’s parliament. They were invited to talk shows and interviewed a few times for TV and radio back then. They carried the aura of demanding respect into our classroom as well. Wearing nice long woolen coats, good fitting suits and expensive looking scarfs, not at all what the rest of us normals wore and especially not me, the wild man in the shabby cloths. They were standing out. They had understood that clothes make the person. At the same time their public persona was one of irony, of trolling for the greater good, or what they perceived as the greater good. They were a postmodern politician. One that always seemed to play both sides of the un/certainty coin: Claiming “Facts first!” but being crowned troll of the year some years earlier.
The actual quarrel around which I have been circulating for this handful of paragraphs is explained quickly: My adversary had read the text different than me - or not differently, but more affirmatively. The claim of a fundamental take did not repel them, quite the opposite. They bought the author’s points about what others had overlooked, maybe they bought the idea of a perfect all-encompassing historical take as well? I wasn’t sure back then, but I was sure that history doesn’t bend to a totalitarian approach. Writing history is a process of picking and choosing, of simplification. So I argued against their notion, vehemently. That the author had a feminist viewpoint - which was so incidental to my points - became the linchpin of the discussion. To this day I am sure of this: Even a struggle so central to modern societal progress as equality can only ever be an aspect of historiography. You may base a whole career on feminist history - and that would be an important pursuit - but nobody would claim everything is said and done when we have told all there is to tell about this struggle. No. No! And again: No!
I would like to claim that I stayed as calm as I am now, writing all this down however many years later, but that would be a lie. We shouted at each other. I didn’t permit this person, or my professor for that matter, to have the last word. I was incapable to give in, to allow this person to lug his intimidating aura around to steamroll me. After all, this was academia! Or its impoverished simulacrum at least. And arguments ought to count more than any accomplishments in other arenas of society here. Finally, the person just left in the middle of the class, infuriated, slamming the door. I was about to make another remark about their bad attitude, but was silenced by my professor: “Martin!” He only shouted this one word. My name. “Martin!” “There it was”, I thought. Finally an acknowledgement. I felt oddly good. I felt put into place. And wasn’t this what I wanted? To be put into place?
A few hours later, still pumped up from the altercation, I learned that my opponent had posted the tweets they did. I don’t think they assumed that I was a Twitter user or would seek ought their timeline - if they cared at all. I found myself in an exceptional situation: I could read what another person that didn’t like me thought about me. They just had put it out there for anyone to read. That included me and their kinda big audience. Some people liked those tweets, others retweeted them. And even though I knew, intellectually, that these tweets weren’t meant for me or were in the end about me, really (they were about this persons anger), I felt deeply hurt. I felt seen, in a bad way. I felt revealed, caught. I felt like I was laughable. The whole village, their village, had it out for me, pointing, be it in anger or amusement about this anti-feminist idiot, who came to town, unbidden, to insult the mayor with his retrograde ideas, the fool, not even able to see how antiprogressive he is. I felt my artifice was visible as such. The political ascriptions didn’t bother me, because they weren’t accurate. But the persona that was described between the lines did. This mess of piled up insecurities that held up the disguise of an eager student was laid bare. There I was, in my most unfavorable interpretation. However, I couldn’t deny the fact that it was a possible interpretation. It had a connection to reality. Yes, I was a self-serious jerk. And I knew it, I realized it, sometimes. And in this moment, I could see it clearly, I wasn’t the only one who was aware. I felt deeply ashamed.
As though a pill as it is swallow to remember all of this, to rethink all of this: I am grateful that I had the strength back then to screenshot those tweets and put them into my journal. I don’t know if I knew it back then, but I preserved a seminal moment in my life. There is no real moral here. And I couldn’t point to this vignette as the cause for things being different from there on out. I carried on a couple of years longer with this prodigy-jerk persona, before it finally clicked that this wasn’t the way. Erosion takes its time. But I will always think back to this moment in my life when thinking about where the beginning of the end of that persona is located. It’s right then and there. I am a better person for it today, prodigy or not.