Friday, December 20, 2013

On smark

I finally read the Gawker screed defending snark against smarm, quite ready to rally to the side of snark against the likes of Malcolm Gladwell and Dave Eggers, whom I also find cloying, but came away from it no longer sure what the difference between snark and smarm was. Is it smarm when Joe Lieberman implores us to stop criticizing him and snark when Tom Scocca implores with equal earnestness that we continue to do so? Is it snark to write a windy plea for continued criticism of the powerful that contains no trace of humor and appeals entirely to the indignation of the downtrodden (or those who've styled themselves as such)?

Scocca defines smarm as, "Scolding, couched as an appeal to goodness, in the name of an absent authority...Smarm is a kind of performance—an assumption of the forms of seriousness, of virtue, of constructiveness, without the substance. Smarm is concerned with appropriateness and with tone. Smarm disapproves." All perhaps to some degree true of smarm, but equally true of his own essay. Scocca is goodness incarnate - willing to stand against the powerful and successful for the little man, a humble Gawker editor, a less famous writer than his nemeses, appealing to his own invisible authorities - good taste, but even more than that, great justice. Earnest criticism for great justice is not snark. Maybe, because it's sharp rather than lugubrious like smarm, we can call what Scocca has produced here "smark." But snark is criticism with style, wit, and no heartfelt commitment to a Good Cause beyond good writing. And this thing is not that thing.

Here is Scocca smarking at Eggers:
It is no accident that he is addressing undergraduates here...He is explicitly performing, for an audience of his inferiors...It is also no accident that Eggers is full of shit. He is so passionate, and his passion has such rhetorical momentum, that it is almost possible to overlook the fact that the literal proposition he's putting forward, in the name of large-heartedness and honesty, is bogus and insulting.
"It is also no accident that Eggers is full of shit" - that line is the sum of the wit contained in the entire essay. The rest is precisely passion with rhetorical momentum in defense of a bogus and insulting proposition - that it is our moral duty to fight the power! By using our words! To attack everything and everyone more powerful, famous, or highly-praised than ourselves because they're probably up to no good! Goodness is in obscurity, until that's exposed to fame, and then it immediately goes sour. Well, how far down can that proposition go? Look at this, Tom Scocca, here I am, a two-bit blogger who cowers in the shadow of the internet empire you run, and I am sticking it to you! I expect an appreciation ASAP (in the form of some publicity, preferably).

One more thing, on smark and authority. Scocca makes a big stink about the "collapse of traditional authority," that much longed for specter of order which has always existed only in this exact state of subsequently-lamented collapse. As if there was ever any "traditional authority" that put to rest quarrels over whether A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius is worth reading or the tweets of politicians are to be taken seriously.
Smarm hopes to fill the cultural or political or religious void left by the collapse of authority, undermined by modernity and postmodernity...What currently fills the space left by the waning or absence of traditional authority, for the most part, is the ideology and logic of the market.
Really. I am waiting for some diligent medievalist to uncover a palimpsest of some diocesan priest's observations about the discourse of the day - "Oy, ever since Pope Gregory riled up the monarchs of Europe, all authority has collapsed! We are bereft! Left to decide for ourselves whether the passing minstrel show is any good and what to name our children. Some among us have styled themselves "critics," purveyors of taste without credentials, and they have attacked the previous such purveyors for their suspect ties to the neighborhood gentry, and now the whole place is up in arms, the simple people knowing not whom to believe about minstrels and the best names for their children."


Phoebe said...

The Gawker post is very long (not that I'm in any position to snark on such things), and I did not reach the end of it, losing it somewhere where it veered off into a political rambling. But the basic idea - that snark's a reaction against smarm - seems right. While I didn't phrase it as a cause-and-effect situation, this is where I was going in this post: there are two moods for online discourse, hyper-sincere (YPIS, etc.) and finding it hilarious when people display even the slightest sensitivity.

And maybe the two converge - like if snark is directed against (imagined) haves, and smarm used to speak for (imagined) have-nots. But they're different in tone, no?

Miss Self-Important said...

Yes, I agree that there is in principle a difference between smarm and snark, and I maintain my allegiance to the latter, but I don't see this difference on display in Scocca's essay, which is just as smarmy as Gladwell's, except the tone is indignant rather than conciliatory. To say that these are two different tones that can be deployed in rhetoric is to observe that the sky is blue. I'd like to claim (or re-claim) snark for purposes entirely unrelated to a debate between haves and have-nots, which is always rooted finally in doe-eyed sincerity, whether that sincerity comes out as indignation or conciliation. Snark is for criticism of bad art - bad writing especially, but I suppose also other art forms which I don't know much about. And what is good or bad writing has very little to do with whether it's defending the haves or the have-nots. In short, perhaps there is a good reason that you got bored of this essay when it veered off into political rambling (I was kept attentive only by the fact of being stuck on a six-hour flight) - because while snark can be used to deride politicians and political speech, it's not a essentially a partisan cudgel.

Miss Self-Important said...

Also, upon re-reading your post, I should add that I'm not sure that the stoicism (vs. hyperventilation) of internet insult-victims is snark. If snark is primarily a tone adopted by book reviewers or other critics of cultural products, it doesn't seem entirely applicable to students who've been mocked by their teachers online. They're not going to turn Jonathan Swift on their English teachers.

Phoebe said...

"To say that these are two different tones that can be deployed in rhetoric is to observe that the sky is blue."

Sure. My point - perhaps not Scocca's, or not so explicitly - was that internet writing/cultural criticism (?) these days tends to be one or the other. It's not that these are two possibilities, it's that they're the only two.

The stoicism isn't snark - it's the only possible reaction to snark. The hyperventilation is - by Scocca's definition - smarm. Snark enters into it when teachers mock student writing. There are other forms of snark - guilty! - where the target text's author is someone who ought to know better, whom you're not in a position of authority over.

But "snark" may not even be the best term here, because it encompasses just about any negative take on a piece of writing that's itself intended to be clever. Whereas the types of responses I was talking about in that post are just a kind of blanket anti-sincerity. Gratuitous sarcasm as response to something logically and not particularly emotionally argued.

Miss Self-Important said...

Hm, maybe I'm missing something - what's an example of the sarcasm-stoicism tone that you're thinking of?

"My point - perhaps not Scocca's, or not so explicitly - was that internet writing/cultural criticism (?) these days tends to be one or the other. It's not that these are two possibilities, it's that they're the only two."

That may be so, as you amply demonstrate with your diligent YPIS tracking, but I don't think either of these poses - the 'victim in tears' and the 'victim indignant' - are quite snark. The victim indignant is negative, yes, but his negativity lacks cleverness and panache. It's just as angry as smarm is, and it seeks to shut down some portion of speech (in this case, the no-negative-feelings speech) as much as smarm does. All this victim-rhetoric does that, whatever tone is ends up taking. I would like to claim snark for a kind of criticism that's above personal victimhood. Smarm is easy to mock for reasons other than that Dave Eggers is picking on you.

Phoebe said...

"I don't think either of these poses - the 'victim in tears' and the 'victim indignant' - are quite snark."

I don't either, but snark isn't something a "victim" does. The thing I was describing - which is at most a subset of snark - is the smart-aleck response to anything perceived as earnest/sincere/insufficiently ironic. It's sometimes clever, but more often just a kind of gratuitous attempt to see where someone's insecurities lie. It's more hipster detachment than anything else.

As for examples, as I mentioned over at WWPD, this would be a lot of the Petey comments. (Since I mentioned this, there haven't been, I think, any more Petey comments.) But it was also the tone of Gawker circa whenever they were still doing those celebrity-sightings maps. Not the maps themselves, just that era.

Miss Self-Important said...

So, the kind of internet comments that fall just short of the elaborate vitriolic trolling on 4chan? Ok, then yes, the world of internet comments does seem to be divided b/w that and the sorts of "this made me cry!" comments accompanying Upworthy shares on my FB feed, which is unmistakably smarm. But in that battle, I can't even take sides. I think internet commenting should be banned on any site that is likely to receive more than 20 comments per item (this would exclude my blog, obvi), and habitual internet commenters - snarky and smarmy - should be caned, like in Singapore. I can only side with snark in long-form criticism and reviewing.

Phoebe said...

But does this dichotomy really just exist in genres where "trolling" is relevant? (I.e. blog-commenting, and I'm noting the irony.) Or, what changes when the arena does? Facebook status updates classically fall into two categories: excessively positive/boastful and excessively Debbie Downer/haz-a-sad. Both of which are more smarm than snark - is the snark, then, the offline reaction? What people really feel - and express to their nearest and dearest - when confronted with the more egregious examples?

Anyway, I think you're right that snark needs to be long-form, though. Or offline Without a context - and a context could be a longer conversation - it tends to just seem nasty.