Hunting the virtual snark

> Snark: A Polemic in Seven Fits, by David Denby

David Denby, author and film critic at the New Yorker, serves up a spirited and pithy book on a growing culture of nastiness in public discourse which has been particularly empowered by the Internet. Denby has dubbed the style he abhors “snark,” which is employed with “zero interest in civic virtue or anything else except the power to ridicule,” as opposed to the more redeeming practices of satire, irony, or any form of humor which has a point beyond getting a laugh.

Denby hunts snark for us like a bird dog, startling it from the underbrush and into the light. In the poem by Charles Dodgson (Lewis Carroll) entitled “The Hunting of the Snark,” published in 1876, Dodgson’s Snark was a creature with no sense of humor (and several other nonsense attributes), largely harmless except for one variety: the Boojum, which can make you disappear (death is implied). Denby’s snark is “a degeneration of invective into smear or just dull slagging,” fed to unnatural proportions by the Internet, which has allowed it to “matestasize as a pop writing form: A snarky insult, embedded in a story or a post, quickly gets traffic; it gets linked to other blogs; and soon it has spread like a sneezy cold through the vast kindergarten of the Web.”

But what is it? Denby offers an anatomy of snark in several “principles”: it is an attack without reason, appeals to common prejudices (thinly disguised, if possible), uses old jokes with a new twist, assumes anything negative is true (or at least useable), ignores journalistic responsibility, and reduces human complexity to caricature (and repeats it ad infinitum). He quotes from a gossip site blogger’s own working assumptions: “Everyone [of our targets] was fatter or older or worse-skinned than he or she pretended to be. Every man was cheating on his partner; all women were slutty. Writers were plagiarists or talentless hacks or shameless beneficiaries of nepotism. Everyone was a hypocrite. No one was loved. There was no success that couldn’t be hollowed out by the revelation of some deep-seated inadequacy.”

Snark as a practice employed by satirists and humorists, Denby claims, goes back to classical times, crowned by the work of Juvenal (the experience of reading him is “rather like getting drunk during an obscene night in a comedy club”). After a brief overview of its practitioners in Greece and Rome, he skips medieval times and fast-forwards to the eighteenth century, where Swift and Pope were the masters–especially Pope, who was vindictive with far less purpose than Swift (Denby calls the Dunciad “a flame-breathing dragon stomping on toads”). Denby is no censor, and loves a biting comment or joke as much as the next guy, but he stresses that we should do it for a purpose other than sheer bile.

His main concern is that the proliferation of snark as a discourse, protected by anonymity and distributed globally as only the Internet can, will seep into those with the most vulnerability and exposure to the Web: kids. Bullying in school has become a national problem with tragic outcomes. Online bullying is a similar and growing phenomenon, and as social interaction on the web becomes more pervasive and complex, so will our ability to use it as humans have always used such venues–to create and exert power. “Snarking your enemies” can be promulgated on the web for all to see, for all time. “We know about Big Brother—the federal government listening in on phone conversations as it hunts for terrorists—but it’s Little Brother, the neighbor with the iPhone, who may be the scariest monitor in the future.”

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