When I was growing up, a Snark was a fictional creature created by Lewis Carroll, in his fitful poem, The Hunting of the Snark. By the time I was coming to terms with the fact my ass was on the line in a shooting War in Vietnam, the humble creature had taken over the body of a pissant Corporal in Joe Heller‘s Catch-22. And today, the Snark has morphed again; today, Snark is contempt in a free-floating void.
Just as surely as the worm will turn, snark becomes a localized and personal approach to all that is worthy of contempt. There is a reflexive element involved in our take on the values any one target of our contempt embodies, and it usually results in a juicing of our own self-worth, even to levels of self-righteous anger. As our fragile collective reality lumbers farther and farther from the great divine purpose of consciousness, tumbling like cosmonaut Frank Poole in 2001: A Space Odyssey, we feel the constraints of cynicism tightening around our sense of reason like a vise squeezing an egg; and finally…
rumour is fact;
accusation is proof;
gossip is news.
No, we’re not talking about Fux Noise, despite the spot on description. We’re talking about a book-length definition of snark by a native New Yorker intellectual elitist. You will not want to do more than skim David Denby’s dribbling diatribe on snark, but do be sure to take the time and read Adam Sternbergh‘s rebuttal, here.
Snark is hazing on the page. It prides itself on wit, but it’s closer to a leg stuck out in a school corridor that sends some kid flying. It pretends to be all in fun, and anyone who’s annoyed by it will be greeted with the retort, “How can you take this seriously? What’s wrong with you?”— [Are you a Teabag-AfterBirther?] which has the doubly aggressive effect of putting the victim on the defensive. No one wants to argue with a joke, so this is shrewd as far as it goes. But some of these funsters [“funsters”? Really?? I thought that was something that grew on your feet] are mean little toughs. Snark seizes on any vulnerability or weakness it can find— a slip of the tongue, a sentence not quite up to date, a bit of flab, [Oh, say, 300 lbs. worth] an exposed boob, a blotch, a blemish, a wrinkle, [an open festering wound], an open fly, an open mouth, a closed mouth [a closed mind]. It exploits— slyly, teasingly— race and gender prejudice. [Oh PLEASE, crakkah.] When there are no vulnerabilities, it makes them up. [Denby has a weakness for Earl Grey canapés.] Snark razzes pomp, but it razzes certain kinds of strength, too— people who are unaffectedly serious. [Are you fuckin’ kidding me?] Snarky writers can’t bear being outclassed by anyone, [that’s a lie, you cretin] and snark becomes the vehicle of their resentment and contempt. When writers of snark turn their attention to anyone even slightly well known, they choose to regard rumour [since when does a New Yorker spell rumor this way?] as fact, accusation as proof, gossip as news. Once something negative is said, snark repeats and pumps up the remark, with nasty commentary added as a tweak.
When you are living in a nation awash in bullshit,
it should not be surprising when people cry out,
The nation is awash in bullshit!
and maybe throw in an extraneous
And your mother dresses you funny!
— Adam Sternbergh
The fifth principle of snark: the reckless-disregard principle. Ignore the routine responsibilities of journalism. The more flagrantly you ignore them the better. In the internet age, the rumour, [sic] the smear or the taunt, if it’s pungently phrased, spreads instantly through the web; [who’s your ISP, dude? God?] and from thence into the mainstream press. The internet will quickly turn snark into meme. And once the item appears, its truth or falsity is irrelevant.
Well of course, fuck NO. That’s precisely when its truth or falsity is most relevant. The fact is that snark, like any literary convention, is a tool that can be wielded like a scalpel, or a Louisville Slugger; it becomes precise or indiscriminate in direct proportion to the skill of its employer. But the snark-laden meme is not the message. If you’re not smart enough to separate the wheat from the chaff, the truth from the fact, then truth held no meaning for you in the first place.
This raises a tricky question that Denby, like most of snark’s critics, never addresses: Where exactly did all this snark come from? Did we simply transform overnight into a nation of venal assholes? I’d argue that slackers adopted irony not as a pose of hipster cynicism but as a defense against inheriting a two-faced world. When no one—from politicians to pundits—says what he actually means, irony becomes a logical self-inoculation. Similarly, snark, irony’s brat, flourishes in an age of doublespeak and idiocy that’s too rarely called out elsewhere. Snark is not a honk of blasé detachment; it’s a clarion call of frustrated outrage.
When you are living in a nation awash in bullshit, it should not be surprising when people cry out, The nation is awash in bullshit! and maybe throw in an extraneous And your mother dresses you funny!
The simple, snark-free truth is this. There is so much wrong with the way life and culture are currently valued, lived, and experienced in America today by a huge, backward looking minority, that irony and snark must per force ooze from every pore of our collective bag of national skin until we free ourselves from its grasping claws. Here’s just one endemic example.
Our elites— the ones in Congress, the ones on Wall Street and the ones being produced at prestigious universities and business schools— do not have the capacity to fix our financial mess. Indeed, they will make it worse. They have no concept, thanks to the educations they have received, of the common good. They are stunted, timid and uncreative bureaucrats who are trained to carry out systems management. They see only piecemeal solutions which will satisfy the corporate structure. They are about numbers, profits and personal advancement. They are as able to deny gravely ill people medical coverage to increase company profits as they are able to use taxpayer dollars to peddle costly weapons systems to blood-soaked dictatorships. The human consequences never figure into their balance sheets.
When Barack Obama ignited our collective hope that he would lead us in the ways and means to fix our sick consumer corporate vulture-culture, a door swung wide to a future where snark would be unnecessary. When there is no need of irony, snark sounds just like hate.
And indeed, when it is employed by the fearful troglodytes of the tattered traditional values of a time that must pass from reality into the pages of our history, it is nothing but hate speech. Traditional intellectuals like Denby who cannot or refuse to change, are simply incapable of hearing and comprehending what the true nature of snark in a progressive world is all about. Another sign that a culture so desperately in need of change is going to change whether they like it or not. It will just be too fuggin’ snarkalicious if they’re all at 9-12 meetups with their guns on dressed like white-trash urban cowboys when the levee finally breaks.