Friday, July 03, 2009

Snark, defined?

Kenneth Anderson (no relation!) has a post at the VC discussing snark, including this:
But beyond humor that misses, with some audiences or with all, what characterizes snark? Two things, I think. One is that it is an appeal to emotion - it is a statement with a particular affect, and the affect is an appeal to an attitude in which both writer and reader participate, but they participate in an exclusionary way. This is what makes it a branch of irony. Instead of arguing to everyone on the basis of shared reason so that, at least in principle, everyone could be included in the shared sentiment, snark depends upon exclusion. It is a refusal to offer a public argument, with the possibility of reasoned inclusion, and instead depends upon prior shared views that merely exclude because snark does not make an attempt to persuade. It is 'affectively exclusionary' in the language of moral psychology.

(Note that the greatest satire and irony appears to be exclusionary in this way - but ultimately is not. A Modest Proposal is the bitterest satire, and yet it ultimately is inclusionary, because underlying it is an appeal to a universal sentiment in which all can participate. It is not a reasoned argument, and is not an invitation to inclusion on that basis. It is, rather than argument, an invitation to see the universal moral impulse beneath the satire, and to demonstrate it by a reductio ad absurdum - an invitation to apperceive the universal value. It is a little like the Christian concept of conversion through the bearing of testimony. Despite the surface irony, in other words, truly great satire is actually an invitation to see and join the community of believers, not exclusion from it.)

Two, because snark depends upon a prior shared commitment, it is a form of question-begging argument. Not precisely a form of argument, because it is about affect, not reason. So, more precisely, snark is the affective cognate of a question-begging argument, in which the sentiment of the conclusion assumes the sentiment of the premise. It assumes that one already shares the attitudes necessary to ... share the attitudes.
I think this is right, so far as it goes, but I felt compelled to add my own comment, which may be worth reprinting here:
I would say that the snarker rather *knows* that the target of the snark does *not* share the snarker's attitudes.

The reason snark is called for is that the position being mocked is, in the snarker's view, simply ridiculous, so that arguing against it seems pedantic, boring, or silly.

One *can* argue against creationists, or Holocaust deniers, or 9/11 "truthers," or people who think that Saddam's WMD's are still in hiding somewhere, or who believe that Alger Hiss really had no Communist affiliations. But why? People who believe ridiculous things are not participating in the same "interpretive community" or "web of belief" or whatever as the snarker; they are not likely amenable to persuasion.

The snarker therefore dismissively snarks those people or their views, in effect marking the bounds of his community or his discourse in a show of sublimated hostility. (Snark is of course hostile on some level.) It's a relatively sophisticated human version of what animals do all the time in marking and defending their territory.

Flannery O'Connor famously wrote about freaks because she could still tell one when she saw one. Snarkers snark because they do not believe that all opinions are created equal, or that universal tolerance or "niceness" (see Allan Bloom, "Our Virtue," in The Closing of the American Mind -- Bloom had some choice snarking skills, IIRC) are appropriate in all circumstances.
Snarky responses are, of course, welcome. Though mistaken.

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