When I started reading Tom Scocca’s article “On Smarm” I was excited. I love critical discussions of modern communication. I love criticisms of the lies we tell ourselves and others and the characters we invent for ourselves. I love reading about our collective falsehoods that become our truths. It’s why I loved Baudrillard. This is the vein, generally, that I thought Scocca was going to mine and for the first quarter of the article he did. But then he got lost in citing examples and flinging shit, deservedly, at David Eggers, and dragging out everyone he disliked and flinging shit at them too. Some might deserve it, I don’t know. Most of them aren’t on my radar but as I continued reading I started to really wonder why he was bringing up all these issues of inherent meaning, traditional meaning, lack of meaning, the defense of post modernity which, from what I can tell, exists almost solely to avoid talking about “the thing itself,” and not just go ahead and curse God and all the fathers that lived? This was a dense read by Scocca and he clearly has a lot on his mind. A lot of it was interesting but ultimately it’s ruined when he sets up the strawman known as Smarm while condemning the creation of strawmen and seeks to elevate himself and Snark by destroying it. I sincerely think that’s a damn shame.
The section on politicians and the media was fantastic, I mean it. It was spot on and just angry enough, just breathless enough. Yes, absolutely, Smarm in this case is the elite pretending that they believe in a standard, that their authority is backed by something when it’s all a ruse for the rubes. I loved that. A discussion of that and only that would have been great but Scocca broadens his topic too much, way too much, and he’s clearly trying to draw a line and set up sides. However, that can’t work because Snark and Smarm are synonyms, they aren’t antonyms, they aren’t opposites. They’re both insincerity. One is intended to deceive and the other is intended to derail and trivialize. Neither are honest. Both are lies. One is a sin of commission and the other is a sin of omission but they’re both sins. The difference is that Snark is desperately lonely because it’s in a state of permanent rebellion. Smarm knows exactly what it wants. It wants you to be fooled by it. But Snark isn’t some purveyor of truth telling. It’s lazy criticism. Smarm can be taken down easily and Scocca does so with a number of examples and he’s not explicitly Snarky about it. He makes arguments and supports them. He tells me why Smarm is bad and, at the end, I understand. So why is Snark necessary? How is it anything more than comment section reactionary stuff? How is it valid? It’s not. Again, Snark is intended to discredit and derail, never to address.
I was going to write a tight response to this article but that’s very difficult to do because it’s written in what are essentially vinettes. There are sections separated only by a Thumper rabbit image in place of a transition. The article jumps around from example to statement to example. I don’t dislike the style but it’s difficult to directly reply to. I’ll do my best.
Towards the middle and end of the article we start to see what Scocca’s impetus is for writing this article in the first place. Old men with old standards suck, criticism of me sucks, criticism of my Snarky writer friends is somehow awful simply because I/they are being criticized. I can’t think of anything more juvenile and what really kills me, what I really dislike is that there’s no actual defense of Snark anywhere in the article. Scocca doesn’t deny the Snarkiness but he embraces it without defending it. There’s an assumption of audience agreement in the article (typical of Snark actually.) He doesn’t provide a justification for it. It’s a hit and run in regards to Snark. By tying the two topics together what you have is a derailment of the original cultural discussion of Snarkiness. It avoids “the thing itself.” That’s pretty Snarky.
As with Snark, what we need is not some imagined return to some previous state of civility, what we need is better arguments based on evidence, good writing, precise thought.
Scocca could have done both. He could have tried to defend Snarkiness while also condemning the Smarmsters but he didn’t and I think Scocca should ask himself why he didn’t because by not doing so he gave it all away. He conceded all his rhetorical territory for the simple reason that arguments against Snark, however imperfect, are real and substantive. This seemed to amount to “but look, they’re ever bigger jerks.” Please, no one’s buying that. You have to give me something here because otherwise I’m going to continue to think of Snark as basically just ressentiment.
Here’s some thoughts I wrote down as I was reading this:
Buzzfeed’s now adopted a “no negativity” business plan for reviewing books. Buzzfeed is setting up a books section like the Oprah Book Club and by that I mean they’re going to be creatively advertising books. There isn’t likely going to be heavy criticism present at all. Why use this as an example of anything? It’s not false. It’s exactly what it claims to be which is Buzzfeed reviewing books. When the NYTimes or Chicago Tribune subscribe to this “speak no evil” mantra then I’ll worry, but Buzzfeed? What’s next, pointing out how romance novels are slick with sentimentality?
As with Snark, what we need is not some imagined return to some previous state of civility, what we need is better arguments based on evidence, good writing, precise thought. That in and of itself will create civility as it acknowledges the existence and importance of civilization.
What the article ultimately does is elevate Snark above Smarm since Snark is a reaction to dishonesty. However, there’s a problem here because group identifying, choir preaching, vacancy is a primary aspect of Snark. So, when I see the demonization of Smarm and the elevation of Snark in the same argument I have to wonder if the entire argument is Snark. That may be an unanswerable question but I certainly wondered more than once if Scocca was trying to con me in which case the entire article is actually more akin to something like meta-Smarm utilizing Snark as the rhetorical device.
This article should have been an argument against the insincere powers that be while providing a solid definition of Smarm. It’s a good argument to have to be sure but the discussion of Snark and how, somehow, Snark is good or, at least, not bad, is a useless one to make. On a basic level, people know that both are simply forms of insincerity. One is used to feign virtue while the other is used to cut off discussion while pretending virtue lies elsewhere. Where? Snark doesn’t know. That’s not up to Snark to figure out for you because Snark is the half child of Post Modernity and Post Modernity has no idea what anything is or even if it “is.” It’s great for discussion but terrible for solutions, which is why only academics and artists take it seriously. Those groups aren’t looking for solutions or conclusions.
The following are some specific quotes from the article which I wanted to address directly. From the article regarding criticism of Gawker for being snarky:
“And Denby’s book on snark does, besides singling out my employer, directly disparage multiple friends or colleagues of mine. Smarm, which is always on the lookout for bias and ulterior motives, would insist on noting this. Reading Denby’s criticism of the people I like is to some extent irritating emotionally, but mostly it’s irritating because the reason these people are my friends or colleagues is that I have found their outlooks—their work—congenial. They have seen the viscous creeping of smarm, and they have said something about it.”
Directly disparaging multiple friends? How dare anyone criticize? That’s pearl clutching at its finest. It’s Smarm. Pot meet kettle. Besides, Snark is constantly looking for bias and ulterior motives as well. It’s all part of being insincere and avoiding “the thing itself.”
The entire Snark/Smarm dynamic in the article and the agreement of so many commenters seems to have more to do with its air of iconoclasm and rebellion, taking it to the old bastards once again, speaking truth to power. So, what exactly is the truth here again because I sure can’t find it? Untruth I can find. Untruth seems to be any argument or stance that isn’t perfect, that doesn’t take every variable into account with 100% accuracy, that doesn’t head off every possible misstep with hand holding. Untruth is any person that changes their mind and then tells you that you’re wrong for judging them. Yes, I’m stepping outside the direct examples in the article but I feel safe doing so. In my experience, Snark looks for cracks and circles. It’s the jackal of rhetorical devices.
Look, one doesn’t have to agree with Denby on everything to think he has a point and Gawker’s coverage of him is just weird. There’s so much of it that it’s almost like they think they’re in a war with him, a film critic that most people haven’t even heard of. I don’t get it. So a guy made an argument in a book and he had some good points and some bad ones. When has that ever not been the case?
But I’m not writing this to defend Denby. Snark is the only thing I’ve read by him and I didn’t even recall that he was a film critic until I started reading some articles in order to write this one. I’m writing because while I initially found the article brave in a lot of ways I also feel like I’m reading a lot of strawman arguments that simply aren’t needed and that’s the real enemy in all this, bad or lazy argumentation.
People want to be uplifted, and through social media people want to demonstrate to other people that they are the kind of people who appreciate being uplifted. Negativity is a bad market niche, according to no less a figure than Malcolm Gladwell—a known expert, in theory and practice, on the marketing power of popularity:
“[T]here’s very little negative stuff you can put in a book or an article before you turn most of your audience away. Negative stuff is interesting the first time, but you’ll never re-read a negative article. You’ll re-read a positive one. Part of the reason that my books have had a long shelf life is that they’re optimistic, and optimism permits that kind of longevity.”
One curious fact about this long view is that it’s quite untrue. I can’t recall ever, unless compelled by duty, rereading a Malcolm Gladwell article.
What? Scocca doesn’t re-read Gladwell and so no one else does so Gladwell’s wrong? Oh my. Look, I’ve never read Gladwell in my life but on its face I know that different people like different things and if people re-read his stuff and it’s optimistic then it’s probably because they like reading optimistic writing. Scocca seems to be trying to find a golden formula to apply. If Scocca thinks most people are intellectually lazy or stupid, which he seems to, then he should say that. He shouldn’t be insecure about it and try to prove that things are some other way so that he can say Gladwell is wrong.
Scocca goes on to say:
“What I have reread is Mencken on the Scopes Trial, Hunter Thompson on Richard Nixon, and Dorothy Parker on most things—to say nothing of Orwell on poverty and Du Bois on racism, or David Foster Wallace on the existential horror of a leisure cruise. This belief that oblivion awaits the naysayers and the snarkers shouldn’t survive a glance at the bookshelf.”
Awesome, truly, but most people don’t. Most people don’t even know who these people are. Most people aren’t very well educated and they’re trying to get by during what seem to be permanently shitty economic times because they’re perpetually depressed. That’s what they should be doing because that’s all modern dialogue demands of them. Do I wish it were otherwise? Hell yes, but I’m not going to shit on people because it’s not. Talk about things, not people.
Rage, rage, against the dying of the light. Jesus, this absolutist stuff kills me.
Again, from the original article:
“When we detach ourselves from the logic of smarm, it becomes possible instead to read Julie & Julia as a chilling portrait of sociopathy, and Black Swan as hysterical junk, and Eggers’s Wild Things as a false and creepy enactment of somebody’s idea of what childhood ought to be about. (I’m relying on the New Yorker excerpt on that last one, because God knows I’m not reading or watching the whole thing.)”
This is simple deconstruction at its most elementary level and, in the case of Eggers, all his stuff rings false to me. Yes, yes, you don’t like false sentiment, fine. You don’t like self delusion, fine. None of that has to do with Smarm being worse than Snark or Snark being some genuine and legitimate reaction false sentiment. It’s a self fueling vehicle. Culture of A begets culture of B and all of it is meaningless, repeat. The problem is that sometimes, often actually,the sentiment is not false and sometimes a false sentiment can say something true, and sometimes a person guilty of false sentiment didn’t mean to be. In those cases, Snark is an assassin and a tyrant, not a liberator, not a freedom fighter.
“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.”
Well, that was hardly worth saying but I guess Scocca told them. Rage, rage, against the dying of the light. Jesus, this absolutist stuff kills me. People change over time, they are weak and frail and make mistakes. They decide to make money instead of art because they want to afford good schools for their children. They want that car they’ve always dreamt of. They lie to themselves for years and then break out of the lie in fear and shame and beg forgiveness. Or, they die alone or not alone while willing the lie to the back of their minds. People do all kinds of things. They believe things sincerely which the insincere state believing it’s false, that only a fool would believe such a thing. The “fool” lives by that belief and it truly enriches them. It enriches those around them. What exactly is true here? What exactly isn’t? The point is the thing itself. The point is what gets done with thoughts. The point is planning and appraising problems.
And, as for the “we are exactly the same size as you are” statement, what is size in this discussion again? Wealth? Inherent value? All I’m getting from the last bit, the final paragraph of the entire article, is “you think you’re better than me?” Why does Scocca even care what Dave Eggers thinks of him or anyone?
I just can’t. Smarm is a worthy topic, absolutely, but everything else that came after in this article stinks of insecurity and impotent rage at the idea that someone, somewhere might be succeeding while not being 100% genuine. That phenomenon isn’t new. It’s as old as humankind. The rain falls on the just and unjust alike, remember? The unworthy succeed while the hard working suffer. That’s bad, but setting up a false dynamic between Snark and Smarm is possibly worse than saying nothing at all because it divorces discussion from the thing being discussed. We’re talking about discourse here and Snark and Smarm poison discourse. What’s the best way to have better discourse? Discuss the topic, whatever it is, without introducing fallacies into the mix and without seeking to falsely moralize or derail discussion with appeals to collective cultural belief.
Address the thing itself, always.