28 January 2009

What is Snark?

The public sphere suffers from a plague of snarkiness, according to the diagnosis of David Denby, a movie critic for The New Yorker who has written a slim but learned denunciation of this alleged tendency of our culture. After approximately 120 pages, it becomes apparent that Denby, for all his erudition, does not know snark, but does know what he doesn't like.

In Snark: It's Mean, It's Personal, and It's Ruining Our Conversation, Denby traces the antecedents of snark back to the drinking poets of ancient Greece, the first authors (to our knowledge) to make an art out of insult, and to Juvenal, the satirist of classical Rome. The geneaology runs through Alexander Pope's Dunciad and the 20th century satirical magazines Private Eye and Spy before reaching the present day, when snark runs rampant at every level of culture, from the New York Times to gossipy websites like JuicyCampus. The word snark itself is a nonsense syllable coined by Lewis Carroll for his mock-epic poem, The Hunting of the Snark. It seems to have acquired its modern meaning of a certain snideness without much reference to Carroll, though Denby tries to equate the Carroll snark's ability to annihilate hunters with the reputed desire of some snarky writers that the targets of their spleen disappear from the face of the earth.

So what distinguishes snark? Midway through the book Denby proclaims nine principles of snark, which I paraphrase here: 1. Attack without reason; 2. Appeal to common, hackneyed prejudices; 3. Use media references and old jokes to attack; 4. Assume all negative info to be true; 5.Take no responsibility for accuracy; 6. Caricature everyone; 7. Put celebrities through a cycle of adoration followed by loathing; 8. Attack anything old; 9.Attack overpriced restaurants.

I'm not sure if all these cohere into in a systematic style, but part of Denby's complaint is that snark lacks style. It is lazy in practice, going consistently for the lowest common denominator of invective. Certain writers are not snarky, no matter how vicious they are in their criticism, because style redeems them. H.L. Mencken is an example of a writer whose style elevates him above snark, while Maureen Dowd is identified as the definitive practitioner of snark. Denby's rap against Dowd is that she seems to believe in nothing and assumes that no one else does. He makes her a scapegoat for Al Gore's defeat in the 2000 presidential election, an occasion when Gore was definitely victimized by an attitude that could be called snarky. Gore and Hilary Clinton are the primary victims of snark in Denby's account, and I got the sense that Denby's objections to snark are linked to a higher regard for Secretary Clinton than many other people have. But he describes something real when denouncing the tendency to dismiss idealism as a disguise for power grabbing. As for Dowd, her recent bootlicking on behalf of Caroline Kennedy, which I've discussed recently, throws into question Denby's characterization of her as some glib nihilist. If she later insults Caroline, however, Denby's thesis might be partially proved.

Denby gives us enough information to speculate for ourselves on the existence and essence of snark. For me, the most telling passage appears on page 84: "American life is a viciously competitive race, in which every ego has to fight for a limited amount of oxygen. In that atmosphere, then, adoration of another is experienced as a loss, a wound. Reduced in some way, we want to hit back." He's talking about the particular phenomena of snarkiness toward celebrities, but I think he's on to something bigger. Snark, as he describes it, flourishes on the internet, where to his somewhat unjustified chagrin it's all too easy to post anonymous comments on practically anything. The internet, along with cable TV, is creating the global village of some futurists' wildest dreams. For some people, the world is being transformed to one big schoolyard or water cooler spot in the office. Everyone and everything is a subject for gossip, and for some people, everyone is a potential competitor. Just as the bully asserts himself by putting down his classmates or his neighbor, so the snarky modern asserts himself by putting down celebrities, politicians, and random people in chatrooms and newsgroups. But snark can just as easily be the defensive scorn of the outsider, the nerd or the goth whose impulsive reaction to any hint of superiority is "You're not all that!"

Denby makes a big deal out of the implicit cliquishness of snark. One way he defines it is as a kind of in-joke addressed to an implicit in-group that assumes a posture of superiority to the target of snark. Compared to a mere cynic who might say to someone, "You're not better than anybody else," the practitioner of snark, Denby suggests, says, "You're not better than anybody else -- but I am, because I have you figured out!" But defined that way, snark is not so new, except in the global sweep of it noted above.

Likewise, Denby seems more troubled by reactionary snark aimed at liberals like Gore, Mrs. Clinton, or President Obama than by snark aimed the other way. He makes a few token nods at snark targeting Governor Palin or Senator McCain, but the examples he cites seem feeble in comparison to reactionary snark. He actually suggests, in his comments on Maureen Dowd, that George W. Bush was effectively immune to snark, at least as practiced by Dowd. For all its purported corrosive effect, snark fails as "an adequate critique of power." It seems to work only when used to suppress idealists who strive for reform. If so, is the problem "snark" or is it really a reactionary mentality expressed with snark? Is snark essentially reactionary? Denby doesn't want to say it outright, but that's where everything points. Snark seems to be hostile toward anyone who seems, let alone claims to be superior, and equally hostile toward any suggestion that things can be better or that we, including the snarky skeptic, can do better. A prevalence of snark is certainly no aid to progress.

Let me suggest, in closing, that what Denby calls snark is a fad rather than a style -- a phenomenon of a period when people are only beginning to learn how to communicate with one another in the virtual global village. It could be a reaction characteristic of this moment, and one that will pass with it. If so, we might worry less about correcting snark itself than in going on about the work of cultural evolution, ignoring snark as best we can, until it ends up on the proverbial ash-heap of history. And if we want to be snarky about it, we might remind our antagonists of where they'll end up.


hobbyfan said...

I would amend #9 to read: "attack overpriced restaurants, movie theatre concessions, & concerts", but that's just me.

Samuel Wilson said...

But then it ceases to be snarky and simply becomes cheap -- or does that make me snarky? Do you see how difficult this is?