Tuesday, December 6, 2011
I Hate Snark
I hate snark.
I hate snarkiness, snarkitude, snarkishness, and every other thing in the world for which the name is snark-derived.
It's galling that some of my favorite characters and literary works – particularly ones by me – have been described as snarky or having a great deal of snark to them, and even more galling that it has sometimes been done with approval, but then I suppose I can console myself that describing snarky people well is really just a useful literary skill, like describing serial killers, street corner petition circulators, and people who leave their gum under theater seats well, and probably there are enthusiasts for all of those somewhere too.
Most galling of all is occasionally catching snark in my work when it is not the character speaking, but me (or the 'implied me'); it's like discovering a cruel or stupid streak I didn't know I had.
The snark I hate is something highly specific. There are people out there who refer to anything that is not Pollyannically upbeat and naïve as snark, which is linguistically parallel to the people who call anything with a string section classical, anything with pages between covers a novel, and anything with noodles and tomatoes 'talian sketties. (The last of those may be excused if they're still young enough to be cute).
By snark I don't mean just any old negative attitude. Negativity comes in many flavors, some of them wonderful at the right time in the right place, others at least occasionally worthy as a dash of flavoring in a complex attitude: anger, bitterness, bitchiness, bloody-mindedness, brutal honesty, calumny, contumely, cynicism, despair, depression, ennui, envy, fucking bloody-mindedness, ferocity, gibes, gracelessness, hatred, hatefulness, harassment, insult, intemperance, ingratitude, incredulity, irony, and that's all the farther I want to go until we get down far enough into the alphabet to find snark (it's somewhere between skepticism and snobbery). Snark is the one that is truly good for absolutely nothing and should be considered grounds for putting people on the list, in preparation for crossing them off.
What list? Oh, a little one I have. (They'll none of them be missed).
For a long time I couldn't put my finger on what snark was. Despite the fact that it made my blood boil whenever I heard a definite case, I couldn't come up with any rule of snarkiness or any measure of degree of snarkitude. It was like pornography, reckless driving, or douchebaggery; I knew it when I saw it in particular, but I didn't know how I knew it in general.
I knew when people were wrongly calling things "snark" that were actually sarcasm or bitter realism or fucking bloody-mindedness. Whether the subject was Batman, Tolkien, or the price of eggs, I knew snark when I heard it, and not-snark, but I had no idea what was really the difference.
All I knew was that when people were sarcastic about Batman they sometimes made me smile: "Yeah, and like, nobody ever notices that Robin turned up right after Bruce Wayne got a live-in ward?"
And when people were bitterly realistic about Tolkien, I could shrug because it seemed beside the point: "Well, how could it not sell? It's all the greatest stories in Western civilization in one tasty goulash! Of course people think it's magical, your childhood home is always magical!"
And yes, you can be fucking bloody-minded (which is different from being bloody-minded) about the price of eggs: "Have you noticed that eggs are almost two dollars a dozen? How are poor people -- "
"Fuck your shit-eating eggs, nobody fucking cares, you fucking imbecile. Let's grab some poor people and ram eggs up their butts till they bleed."
Fucking bloody mindedness is not my favorite conversation gambit, I hasten to add, now that I no longer go to holiday dinners at my mother's, but at least there's no problem with identifying it.
But snark …
"Oh, yeah, Batman, homoerotica for ten year olds that are too small to play football."
"Tolkien, yeah, the best reason ever invented for loser chicks to talk all cosmic, put on a dress with a lot of cleavage, call themselves something ending in –el, and get seduced by some puppy-dog-eyed hairy fanboy in pleather that calls himself something ending in –mir."
"You know it's probably like big banks or organized crime manipulating the price of eggs so that poor people can starve, which means at least they won't be so fat."
Those are sorta-verbatim quotes from moments when my snark bell went off.
But for ages I thought, what is this snark that so chafes my spiritual bung?
And slowly the clues drifted in, and now, fellow snark-haters, I think I've got it figured out.
The first big clue was in Michael Kelly's seminal article in the Atlantic, which pointed out this useful idea,
"Knowingness, of course, is not knowledge—indeed, is the rebuttal of knowledge. Knowledge was what squares had, or thought they had, and they thought that it was the secret of life. Knowingness is a celebration of the conceit that what the squares knew, or thought they knew, was worthless."
By knowingness Kelly means that pose that you can find in even the otherwise nicest and most pleasant teenagers, of having seen the world and knowing that everything is bogus; at that age it's a temporary, healthy defense against being shoved out into the world with severely limited experiences and a badly-explained incomplete set of inaccurate directions. Knowingness is expectable as temporary armor when a sixteen year olds are forced to talk about the world as if it made some sort of sense to them; if they just parrot what adults are saying, they'll sound like parrots, and if they admit they don't have a clue, they'll sound like a person who doesn't have a clue.
Knowingness at twenty-five, however, is habitual laziness; it's the guy who thinks he's a polymath because he has two dismissive sentences about every subject. It's the woman who couldn't follow the story of the movie, so she nods and says, "Great cinematography." It's people called upon to be brave, compassionate, or kind who aren't, and afterward explain that they could have been but they weren't going to let authority pressure them into it.
It's Bart Simpson, without the saving grace of Matt Groening's contempt. (Ever notice that, by the way? The number of characters transparently created to be objects of contempt or loathingthat are adopted as heroes? Bart Simpson, Archie Bunker, Beavis and Butthead? The number of people who root for S.M. Stirling's Draka?)
And snark has a great big element of knowingness to it. Ever seen a serious comics geek spend five minutes explaining something complex and wonderful about some obscure title or artist, only to have someone in the crowd who probably has trouble figuring out how to read comics right side up take a verbal dump on him and in that moment remind you that the speaker is Above it All because he doesn't know crap?
Ever watched two musicians locked in a conversation about a point of technique interrupted by some clever sort who has decided to ask, over and over,"But can you boogie to it?"
Ever been among the global warming deniers during a spring snowstorm? (We have a lot of both of those in Colorado, so I've had that experience a time or two too many).
But there's more to snark than just knowingness. Watch the recent remake of Footlose (I do recommend it, by the way, and don't pay attention to the critics who say it's an almost shot for shot refilming; they weren't watching the story or the characters, who are mostly much more interesting this time around exactly because they're handled with some sincere complexity). Ren pulls knowingness constantly – what else can he do? He's a fish out of water and in a very disorienting way – but he's almost never snarky (and he drops the knowingness at a couple of critical points in the story, indicating among other things that he's growing up, and more importantly wants to grow up and accepts growing up, although he's going to dance while he can).
So knowingness is part of that snark I hate but it's not the whole story. What's the rest?
Let me recommend a really hard book; hard partly because it's the translation is only serviceable, and it's hard to translate, but also hard the way a math book is hard: the density of ideas per sentence is pretty high. The book is Chaim Perelman's The Realm of Rhetoric, and several times I pushed college freshmen through it, an experience as salutary as calculus or training for a marathon and for similar reasons.
There's a lot in there, and I'm only going to talk about one little corner of it, so do not pretend you've read it just because you've read what follows; you've read the equivalent of maybe five out of its 140-some pages, and every one of those pages is a fair bit of work if you really read it, okay? Don't be one of those phonies you meet at science fiction conventions who pretends to know Dr. Samuel Johnson because he knows Heinlein didn't like him, Shakespeare because he looked through Asimov's silly compendium in the bookstore, and quantum physics because he bought the DVD of Quantum Leap. So this is an idea that's well-expressed in Perelman, and elsewhere, but it's not Perelman any more than Hobbes is "the war of each against all," "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short," and "sudden glory," your political philosophy professor's description of him as a guy who lived a long time when that wasn't easy, or a stuffed tiger.
The particular point in Perelman that I wanted to bring up is his attack on one way that rhetoric has been taught, historically: the idea that you can divide up the world of arguments and reasoning into the eternal truth of formal logic, the empirical approximation to it in informal logic, and all those bad deceptive (often self-deceptive) tricks called fallacies. Perelman points out that apart from pure math and pure taste, there are just an array of tactics, some of which are relatively more honest or fair in some circumstances. To attack a mathematician's proof because he's an adulterer is silly, and what we call an ad hominem; to attack a candidate for State Treasurer's campaign because he's a convicted embezzler is a valid indexical argument, prudently inferring present character from past behavior. To suggest it's a bad idea to start smoking because it is hard to quit and you may not be able to even after severe health problems appear – that you may become one of those pathetic people alternating drags off a cigarette and an oxygen tank – is a reasonable argument from causality, whereas arguing that the moral degeneration that begins with skipping church will lead you to becoming a mass murderer is a slippery slope, but the difference isn't in the structure of the arguments or the reasoning process – it's a question of probabilities: one happens pretty often with tight, visible causal links and the other very rarely with wobbly, unprovable causal links.
Now, one such maneuver that is widely used in modern argument (Perelman borrows and slightly modifies the ancient term "enthymeme" for them) is reduction in place of refutation. That is, rather than refute what the other side has said, you show (or try to show) that they are saying it for discreditable reasons, and thus the argument need not be refuted because it is just a ruse to be used against us. Reduction is often a great time saver and in some circumstances is absolutely the tool to use. For example, when someone tries to talk you into multi-level marketing schemes, it doesn't really matter whether they tell you "no, this isn't MLM, I wouldn't be involved with MLM, MLM is wicked", or they tell you that the way the math doesn't work is irrelevant because "you can prove anything with numbers but you can't argue with results," or they tell you it's just a modern way to bring distribution and marketing into the social media age. The correct answer is always "You are saying that because if I sign up, you get some of the money I pay in, and you would like to have some of my money." Don't refute the argument; reduce it to the expression of a hostile or exploitive intent. That's a reduction, which is more than appropriate if you really do know the intent is hostile or exploitive.
When the pedophile lobby launches into "it's just one more sexual preference," or "what about the rights of the children to voluntarily have sex with adults" or "in many cultures things are different" or whatever, the right answer is not to sit down and dissect their arguments; the right answer is "you can shut up now, because you are a sick fuck who wants to screw kids." (There can of course be reasonable arguments about ages of consent, age difference v. absolute age, and ten million public policy issues, but via reduction we may dismiss any argument in which a full grown adult asserts a right to have sex with pre-pubescents). Again, that's a valid use of a reduction.
On the other hand, reduction is often a dodge away from dealing with what may be valid on the other side. Reduction got going as an argument in the twentieth century with Freud ("you refuse to believe in the unconscious because you were weaned too early") and Marx ("you value property rights because you are a prisoner of the ruling ideology"), jumped over to the conservative side with Milton Friedman ("you only worry about the poor because silly irrational Keynesians keep you from seeing how free it makes them to choose to be poor") and defense-geekery ("the only reason you criticize using this weapon to massacre civilians is that you don't know its rate of fire and where it fits into tactical doctrine"), and can today also be found in the arts ("you're just throwing paint at canvas because collectors pay money for that" and "you put sex in there to sell more copies") and even in some of the sciences ("you only think that idea because you have the meme for it.") It's certainly overused and often dishonest; for a long time it has been hanging out on the bad end of that continuum between fallacy and valid enthymeme that Perelman pointed to.
There are more complex cases where refutation and reduction are both needed: when Republicans tell you that cutting taxes on the obscenely rich increases government revenues, one should acknowledge that a couple of times when there has been a broad, across-the-board lowering of marginal tax rates, it has been followed by an economic boom that did replace a large part of the lost revenue (though the last three times it's been tried, emphatically including the Bush II cuts, it was a revenue disaster), but there's a necessary reduction that has to be added: "You are saying that because you are a sock monkey on the fist of your major donors."
But lately, as in the last couple of decades, reduction has been subject to very mediagenic abuse. It is more interesting to reporters to cover climate-change deniers calling their opponents socialist traitors who want everyone to freeze in the dark as part of an elitist conspiracy, and green activists declaring that the skeptics are, every single one of them, stooges of the oil companies – more interesting because the reporter gets livelier quotes and more screams of outrage (while expending less effort on understanding what anyone is saying). Certainly it is easier and more entertaining than covering the complicated problem that if we are to detect serious climate change in time to do anything effective and affordable about it, we have to process some really cruddy just-barely-significant data, that the cruddiness and borderline detectability of the data is probably intrinsic to the problem, and that it can be solved but not easily, and is apt to lead to harder choices than most people have thought about. There's a really interesting intersection of science, statistics, politics, and economics here, in which scattered people of good will are trying to figure out what's going on and sizable numbers of people have pre-committed to answers with inadequate evidence rather than asking how much we can know how soon and whether it will be enough. But interesting though the real argument is, it makes shitty television next to people accusing each other.
Now, you may recall that I started off with snark, and here we are at comparative enthymemics, and you may be wondering if I'll ever end, and indeed I am wondering that myself, but here goes at a conclusion:
Snark is a dishonest reduction expressed with knowningness.
In real, true snark, the teeth-gritting irritating behavior that its practitioners so pride themselves on , the accusation of self-interest, psychological acting out, sock-puppetry, or justifying one's vices is made by adopting a knowing pose and not speaking it. Whatever the target is, whether it's awe-inspiring or charming, insightful and difficult or light and merry, the snarkist simply poses as the person who always already knows that it is "really" an evil scam, a symptom of mental illness, or a mark of being duped or intimidated, and need not explain how.
Snark is the universal solvent of cultural conversation. Someone mentions Hemingway; you mention cross-dressing, drinking, and short choppy sentences. Not only did you not have to read Hemingway, you have one-upped the other person by not having read it; you know more about it than they do because you know the important thing, that Hemingway doesn't need to be read. Star Wars has a plot straight out of a comic book, the indescribable beauty of an athlete's best moment is just ritualized combat, any given religion is a collection of three or fewer especially silly-sounding superstitions, all academic subjects are useless hazing intended to keep the wrong people from being hired, all peace protestors are just trying to get on television and soldiers are all unemployed hillbillies whose masculinity feels threatened so they've enlisted for a chance to commit war crimes. Occupy Wall Street is rebels without a clue (itself a plagiarized phrase), the Tea Party is scared old people, and nothing in the wide world matters compared to the general wonderfulness of the observer.
Compress any of those thoughts into a single brief sentence: "She's a pro-lifer because if anyone ever fucks her she wouldn't want to jeopardize her paternity suit." "She's a vegan and in PETA, must have seen Bambi too many times." Knowingness – the implication that you know everything about your target – and reduction – there is a single discreditable reason behind this.
What is snark for?
It's a currently fashionable powerful rhetorical weapon that allows the uninvolved and the never-to-be-involved to discredit people who do, or attempt – anything at all. Not just those who compete or create or dream or make or struggle in the larger world, but even those who merely try to understand or happen to feel some appreciation. The composer was a hysterical queer and that's why it's so loud and discordant, the conductor is a tax-gobbling dilettante who couldn't get a real job and that's why he keeps trying to get people to listen to all that music theory bullshit he makes up, the whole orchestra is only there because they can't make enough giving band instrument lessons to the dumb little dorks that took band, and the audience is suburban clowns showing off how much culture they have. And anyone who buys the recording is someone who is so stupid he's impressed with everyone else.
Snark is most appealing to bright articulate young people (or to bitter has-been middle-aged people who used to be bright articulate young people) because it lets them use their greatest and most already-developed talent, i.e. their articulate sense of irony, to prevent any serious commitment – even just serious articulate spectatorship – for any other purpose. It takes what are potentially good minds and parks them forever in the bleachers of the great game of discourse, muttering negative little shots at not just the people who are playing the game, but the people on the bench waiting to get into it, the people in the crowd who are following it, the people selling hot dogs, the people who will clean up afterwards, and about the very idea of anyone having anything to say… it's a peculiar mental poison that isolates and sidelines what should be the best minds of any generation.
A few ages ago, Allen Ginsberg started off Howl by noting that he had seen "the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked," as if someone might care about the best minds of a generation. By the 1990s Lisa Simpson was uttering a parody about "the best meals of my generation" – and thus signaling to everyone that we all know, really, that Ginsberg is just a silly old man raving, nothing to worrya bout, isn't it great to be here with our friends, undisturbed? No danger that we'd be starving (and uncomfortable), hysterical (chill, dude!), or naked (like, hello, does anyone see creepy sexuality here?) Isn't it funny – in a pathetic kind of way – that some people get to be starving and hysterical and naked? Thank god we never will, because we've learned to snark about it the moment we see it.
That's the essence of snark: making sure that everyone carries around an amusing little culture-proof barrier so that no culture ever gets in.
Snark: the condom of intellectual and artistic intercourse. Completely and impenetrably surrounds and covers; prevents actual interchange; people tell you it feels just like it's not there, and only people who have never experienced actual contact believe that; allows you to get very near the source of pleasure without having to develop trust, and thus without any real intimacy.
And yet, somehow, when you add up your whole acquaintance with it, it's very hard not to think the word scumbag.
If only it were as easy to discard snark.