Snark, Smarm, and Rhetorical Correctness

I’ve been finding it difficult to watch The Daily Show lately. I used to catch it all the time, but now I can’t even get through a half a clip online. It’s not that John Stewart isn’t funny (he is), and it’s not that I disagree with the show’s politics (I’m more or less sympatico with their brand of liberalism). The show just doesn’t do it for me anymore. According to Tom Scocca, this may be evidence that I’m a smarmy, smarmy man.

Let me explain. Scocca’s got a long article up at Gawker that defends “snark” as a legitimate response to “smarm.” Here are his definitions of both terms:

The word, as used now, is a fairly recent addition to the language, and it is not always entirely clear what “snark” may be. But it’s an attitude, and a negative attitude—a “hostile, knowing, bitter tone of contempt,” is how Heidi Julavits described it in 2003, while formally bestowing the name of “snark” on it, in the inaugural issue of The Believer.

…The decade that followed did little to clear up the trouble; if anything, the identification of “snark” gave people a way to avoid thinking very hard about it. Snark is supposed to be self-evidently and self-explanatorily bad: “nasty,” “low,” and “snide,” to pick a few words from the first page of David Denby’s 2009 tract Snark: It’s Mean, It’s Personal, and It’s Ruining Our Conversation. (I bought the Denby book used for six bucks, to cut him out of the loop on any royalties.)


What is smarm, exactly? 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.

Smarm would rather talk about anything other than smarm. Why, smarm asks, can’t everyone just be nicer?

…Smarm should be understood as a type of bullshit, then—it expresses one agenda, while actually pursuing a different one. It is a kind of moral and ethical misdirection. Its genuine purposes lie beneath the greased-over surface.

Scocca goes on to give a ton of examples of smarminess in action, and he’s particularly hard on Dave Eggers, David Denby, and conservatives in both major political parties (poor Joe Lieberman gets just roasted–as well he should). In some respects, “On Smarm” is in the tradition of Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language,” DFW’s “Tense Present” and Bromwich’s “Euphemism and American Violence” in that tries to explain problems in our culture by looking at what is happening to our language. But Scocca doesn’t focus on the words and rhetorical devices we use, but rather on what we say to each other about who has the right to say what they say the way they say it. Got all that?

As a denunciation of smarm, the essay is great. Like Faulkner’s Snopes Trilogy, “On Smarm” sees the desire for respectability as the impetus for both smarm’s misdirection, and for smarmers’ attacks on snark and the snarky. What the essay fails to really deal with though is the fact that both snark and smarm are forms of irony, though irony employed in very different ways and for very different purposes. Stephen Colbert combines both forms into one character  as he snarks a smarmy game in order to make the smarm of the right apparent to his respectable liberal audience, who already feel the way he wants them to feel, but who enjoy getting to laugh snarkily anyway. Is this joke even funny anymore?

So yes, smarm is fought with snark, which gives birth to more smarm. The snark-smarm cycle ad infinitum. I hate smarm too. Every time someone gets misty-eyed when using words like “liberty,” “freedom,” “equality,” or “democracy” without explaining what they mean, I want to barf. They’re just abstractions masquerading as facts. People should be asked to define their terms, pressed for hard evidence to back up their assertions, and called out when their real motives become clear. Snark is one way of doing this. But it’s evasive and gives the snarker the out of saying that he was “just kidding.” It probably isn’t the most effective way if what you actually want to do is convince the people you’re calling out to be less smarmy. And if you believe that some groups of people are inherently smarmy, and therefore not worth engaging directly, aren’t you making an argument remarkably similar to the one Mitt Romney made about the “47%?”

Near the end of “On Smarm” though, things make more sense. This hasn’t really been a defense of snark or a hit piece on smarm. No, it’s about Scocca’s irritation with people he finds irritating dismissing the “little” people who criticize them. These last few paragraphs are frankly hard to read:

Recall that what set Eggers off, in his exchange with the Advocate, was the letter writer’s impolite reference to “selling out.” Him? Dave Eggers? He was getting the money he needed—deserved—to pursue the brave and thrilling projects he picked out for himself (Tom Peters: “A project-based world is ideal for growing your brand… Today you have to think, breathe, act, and work in projects”). He was giving money away to charities. How dare some snotty college kid cast aspersions on the success he had made?

Why, the whole idea of selling out was a terrible, bitter lie, told by “wimps” to justify their wimpiness. That was a peculiar position to take if you had just lived through the ’90s, as Eggers had, a decade that saw Disney eat Miramax and Creed sell more copies of its first two albums than Nirvana had sold of Bleach and Nevermind. But again, Eggers wasn’t making a point. He was taking an attitude. He was naming an enemy…

…Above (or beneath) it all, they are little. Eggers writes of his former critical self, “I was a complete, weaselly little prick.” He asks: “What kind of small-hearted person wants an artist to adhere to a set of rules, to stay forever within a narrow envelope which we’ve created for them?” He answers, and answers, and answers: “the lazy and small … small and embittered … narrow-hearted … the tiny voices of tiny people.”

The actual answer, and his actual fear—the fear that keeps the smarmers tossing on their bullshit-stuffed mattresses on the beds of bullshit they would have us all sleep in—is this: We are exactly the same size as you are. Everybody is.

Yes, everyone is the same size on their bullshit mattresses, but Dave Eggers is a more successful writer than I (or Scocca) will ever be. More people will read what Eggers has written. He’s made a lot of money off his writing. And even though I teach kids to write clearly for a living, Dave Eggers has probably done more to help kids write through his 826 Valencia projects than I have in teaching composition classes. And that’s fine. I still feel free to critique his work, but I don’t expect him to care, and I wouldn’t expect him to hold his tongue if something particularly dickish I said got back to him. Why should he if we’re just two similarly-sized people?

And you can add “selling out” to that earlier list of vomit-inducing words. (Seriously, what the hell is he talking about with that living through the ’90s stuff?) Scocca’s piece is really a long way of telling us that he would never sell out like the smarmers he snarks on. Which is absolutely perfect given that the kind of snarky negative criticism he would like to see more of (and that I have totally written myself–might even be writing right now) is always more about the critic than the idea, text, or person being criticized. So what have we learned? Tom Scocca is not smarmy and will never sell out. I feel better knowing this. Honestly.


One thought on “Snark, Smarm, and Rhetorical Correctness

  1. Pingback: Sunday Links | The General Reader

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