Monday, July 09, 2007


[posted by Callimachus]

The Paragraph Farmer undertakes a defense of snark against my earlier assault on it as a rhetorical style. I was hoping someone would undertake a defense, and I'm gratified the gauntlet was picked up.

Part of the problem will be deciding what snark is, beyond "I know it when I see it" -- and Patrick and I seem to generally agree on it when we see it. Cribbing from my own comments thread, here's my -- not definition, but description:

As a form of humor, snark is part invective, part sarcasm, but the weakest parts of both. Its intent is to inflict pain and humiliation on the object and along the way garner admiration for the inflicter. It does not try to change my opinions, only to mock me for having them.

"Snark" as a noun is an early 20th century derivation from "snarky," which is a figurative use of the verb "snark," whose literal sense is "to snort." It's imitative of the sound of snorting, and in some Scandinavian languages it has this literal sense still. The figurative suggestion is of "snorting with derision." And if you bear that image in mind, you'll be better able to recognize pure snark and discern it from other sorts of lacerating humor, such as satire.

Snark is essentially words expended in the interest of making the speaker and his allies feel satisfied, and the sbark object uncomfortable, for things being the way they are. It has no interest in persuasion -- it presumes the lines already are firmly drawn and the fight is to the death. But neither does it strike any blows in the fight. It makes no convincing refutation of the opposition, and it attempts no serious counter-argument. It is taunts sneered by those too lazy or cowardly to get into the fight, or too bloated with their own righteousness to seek to persuade their opponents or even to treat them as sane people.

On to Patrick:

He correctly identifies snark as a tone, more than a pure humor. This is in some degree a correction of my post, and I think it's a valid one. It's a seasoning -- as he agrees -- not a main ingredient. The trouble is, an awful lot of what passes on the blogs, and especially on the leftish ones I read, is all snark, no content. That is what I am addressing.

He brings up Dorothy Parker (and he might as well have thrown in the rest of the Algonquin group). Certainly her best-known work is a series of snarky quips. Trouble is, they make pretty thin gruel for a literary reputation. Her short stories are not very powerful reading now, and even her literary reputation as the queen of that scene has been well eclipsed by Dawn Powell and others. She's more interesting now for her life than her work. Really, who remembers or reads any of the round table nowadays? Snark's buzz does not stick.

Patrick anticipates my reclassifying snark-of-which-I-approve as "honest invective" or "keen satire." I will disappoint him. Invective or satire can be flavored with snark. But snark alone is neither of those.

Satire has an ultimate aim of amending the morals and manners of some group or society: Swift's satire had a purpose -- he wanted to change specific policies and to persuade people to do so. If he had only snarked about them, he would have had no such purpose, other than to make himself feel good for what he felt.

In fact, changing the policies would have pulled the rug out from under the self-satisfaction of the snarker, whose self-worth is rooted in opposition. This is the really insidious thing about snark, and why I hate it so much, and why I see it as such a corrosive drug on the modern-day left in America.

Invective, too, though it is amenable to snark, ultimately aims at a general audience -- the public -- rather than the private circle of the writer's political allies, or the target of the writing. It seeks to discredit the misconduct in question so that the public will find it odious and rise against it. Yet pure snark takes no care to be less odious to the public than the misconduct it calls out. It takes no note of the public at all, except as another out-group not privileged to stand with the snarkers in their impotent snorting.

Both satire and invective are crippled by an excess of snark.

He mentions some bloggers I do not read or know, and then he mentions Ann Coulter, whom I certainly do know, and identifies her as "having built a career on snark," which certainly is correct. And she's a perfect example of the self-destructive force of an overdose of snark.

Her arguments, when she actually stops the insult machine long enough to make them, are lame and imperfect. They are as shoddy as Michael Moore's. And when she attempts them, she does damage to her own cause, first by making them so publicly and so poorly, and second by associating them with herself, and the public persona she inhabits which is so odious to people in the middle ground who might be persuaded by the argument if it were made well and made by someone not so proud of being a bomb-tosser. She gets her facts wrong, uses facts she thinks exist but do not, and doesn't bother to correct herself. In all this she discredits her cause. Her arguments (compared to, say George Will, when he happens to take on the same topic) are as rotten as a junkie's teeth. It's the sort of intellectual flabbiness that comes from too easy reliance on snark. Her defense-of-McCarthy argument is a classic example.

[As for Moore, he is a propagandist in his work, and a supple and effective one. When he speaks or writes, he rarely rises above snark, which is a saving grace for the nation, because it exposes his essential nature and undoes somewhat the effect of his filmmaking.]

Patrick believes there is "good, even necessary, snark" and that it "makes the case" for something. Makes it to whom? And to what purpose? Show me one person who ever has been converted out of error or convinced of truth by snark alone.

He objects to my enlistment of Mark Twain and Galileo among those who "came not by snark." By now he should be aware that I am talking about the contemporary American political scene, especially as it is represented by the blog world, especially on the left. And I am concerned especially with the art of persuasion which is the fuel of a democratic political system such as ours. It wasn't my idea or my ideal, but it is the one Americans have chosen to have. It can be done well or poorly.

He points out cases where Twain seemed to be using snark. He suggests Galileo was using snark in a case where Galileo actually was using a straw man to perform satire. But if Twain had done nothing but snark, he'd have no more reputation than Dorothy Parker. And if Galileo had done snark instead of declaring, "it moves," we might still believe in Ptolemy's universe.

My model, held up for the left to -- I hope -- recognize, is Twain railing against the Philippine War or vivisection, and Galileo maintaining the science of his observation against the dogma of the Church. I chose those quite deliberatelty as mirroring many of the modern left's positions, as it sees itself, in America. Twain's force is in the sarcasm, the irony, the invective, the cynicism of his writing. His writing here is graphic, and uses snark as seasoning. As a result, the text crackles with electricity and it thunders with indignation. When Twain writes To the Person Sitting in Darkness, is he merely congratulating himself on being better than his opponents? Is he merely preaching to the choir? Or is he setting out to change minds, and, in the process, change the world?

Snark does none of that. Nor does it care to. It either doesn't care, or it feels too impotent to do anything else.