Sunday, February 15, 2009

Snark Bites

A few weeks ago media critic David Denby released a wafer-thin jeremiad upon an unsuspecting world, decrying its nasty mores and louche conversational standards. The problems of Denby's perceptions are multiple, as they tend to be in these cases, but can be safely pared down to major bungled premises, which can each be further deconstructed:
  1. This tone of incivility that the kids have adopted is undermining our precious national conversation.

  2. The operational aesthetic of snark is too flighty and disingenuous to be taken as a reliable barometer of taste.

  3. Everybody was happier when we weren't so egregiously meeeeeaaan to one another.

As you might imagine, my answer to each of those is a resounding "bullshit". I can see why professional writers might be aghast at this tectonic democratization of the gathering and dispensation of information -- and worse yet, opinion. But it's ridiculous for any of them to be shocked at the prospect. People have always been to one another, frequently just for the sheer fun of it. There's more of it because more people are empowered to take part in it.

And it's just a waste of time anymore to try to synthesize a coherent aggregate of "taste" in this country, as far as art goes. There's no art anymore, for better or worse. There's stuff you like, and stuff you don't like. And you may freely bounce the providers of those commodities back and forth as needed; if a band you used to like "sells out" on you with their latest release, then you smack 'em around a bit, you feel better about them letting you down perhaps.

Either way, it's rarely as personal as Denby imagines in his overwrought subtitle. And again, niche marketing has so thoroughly portioned pop culture into vaguely overlapping slivers, there's no way to pin down a unifying cultural ground, making it useless to postulate cultural theories. If Americans have any common cultural traits aside from instant gratification and sensory overstimulation, I am blissfully unaware of them.

In fact, internets snark has spawned quite a cultural aesthetic all its own, which Denby might be able to stand back and admire to a certain extent (even if he can't agree with specific premises), if he weren't telling these kids to get off his virtual lawn. From lolcats to the use of leet-jargon to satirize the hand-wringing epistles that litter the internets, there are innovations in snark that have been useful in highlighting and marginalizing people who have proven themselves unskilled at concepts of tone or content or intellectually honest argument. Nowhere has this been used to greater effect than the sphere of political commentary.

And that lies at the heart of point number one, which appears to be Denby's central, and tragically flawed, thesis. Denby, like every other stuffed shirt given a perch of commentary privilege, fails to broaden his scope of "civility". To the established bastions of cultural and political acuity, "incivility" is a transgression of the highest order, and it consists of using nasty words and making personal comments about one's opponents. This is true even if those rhetorical devices are put to the service of describing or declaiming said opponents' actions and words, which our cultural arbiters never quite get around to worrying about.

Thus, the idea of (for instance) waterboarding and force-feeding and mock-executing and otherwise terrorizing people who have never been charged with a crime, yet have been whisked around the world to this or that secret prison, those things are never discussed in terms how "civil" they are. In fact, in this "conversation" that is whimsically imagined, the legality of those things is hardly discussed, certainly not in "polite" "conversation".

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.

Indeed. It's a weapon of disempowerment, of effective disenfranchisement. Really, it's the only weapon the common man has at his disposal anymore, lest his e-mail be data-mined and profiled for trip-wire words and phrases, lest his vote actually mean something. This "conversation" Denby imagines is a hoot -- it consists of overpaid talking heads and teevee-friendly "consultants" pretending to lob something back and forth on this or that defense-contractor-owned Sunday chat show, something which is supposed to be useful information but is usually neither of those things. Then apparently we all retreat to our local donut shops and cracker barrels and debate the finer points with our peers or something. In a civil tone, of course.

It's the intellectually-stunted pretense that because there are two corporate-owned and -operated political parties, that there are only two sides to any issue, and that both are equally valid, just different, and we should all convene in stand-up orgy of bipartisan comity. It fails to account for the possibility that one side might be unreasonable as a deliberate tactic, appealing primarily to spiteful goons and cultural revanchists, and that the other side is simply a clowder of dickless wonders, always trying to appease their bitterest enemies, no matter the popular mandate, no matter the electoral advantage.

I suppose that's bound to happen if you're immersed long enough in the cocktail-party aesthetic that defines "serious" and "civil" discourse. There is probably a mathematically definable equation, that the degree of snark is roughly proportional to how much one's life is directly affected by the malfeasance of those in charge. It's easier and more professionally aware to maintain the veneer of staid detachment when you know you'll bump into some of these cocksuckers at the next event.

The idea that referring to idiots and clowns and buffoons and liars in such terms is undermining some sacred common conversation is ludicrous even at first glance, and only gets more so once one attains even a passing familiarity both with the established "formal" culture everyone pretends to revere but not-so-secretly loathes, and the "underground" culture which is really what reg'lar people are talking about. What undermines the conversation is lies, and cynicism, and greed, incompetence, institutional calcification. Coincidentally, it's also most of what fuels the vitriolic nature of the criticism.

Anybody can pick on Maureen Dowd; it takes balls to step up and say that the people who run the country -- not the people who talk and write about them in uncharitable terms -- are the goddamned problem.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Snark is the Mad Magazine of the internet age. (And thank god we had writers like Paul Krassner giving kids an early dose of healthy skepticism and gleeful snark with which to evaluate 50's - 60's advertising and conformity propaganda.)

As the yippies understood (and kids need to), unrelenting ridicule is often the best weapon.