Join 3,552 readers in helping fund MetaFilter (Hide)


John Barnes hates snark
August 31, 2012 11:09 PM   Subscribe

Snark is the universal solvent of cultural conversation. Someone mentions Hemingway; you mention cross-dressing, drinking, and short choppy sentences. Not only did you not have to read Hemingway, you have one-upped the other person by not having read it; you know more about it than they do because you know the important thing, that Hemingway doesn't need to be read. Star Wars has a plot straight out of a comic book, the indescribable beauty of an athlete's best moment is just ritualized combat, any given religion is a collection of three or fewer especially silly-sounding superstitions, all academic subjects are useless hazing intended to keep the wrong people from being hired, all peace protestors are just trying to get on television and soldiers are all unemployed hillbillies whose masculinity feels threatened so they've enlisted for a chance to commit war crimes. Occupy Wall Street is rebels without a clue (itself a plagiarized phrase), the Tea Party is scared old people, and nothing in the wide world matters compared to the general wonderfulness of the observer. [Some 3700 words from a science fiction writer deriding and analyzing the emptiness of snark as a rhetorical mode. Might need to click through Blogger's NSFW warning, though it's just text.]
posted by cgc373 (114 comments total) 112 users marked this as a favorite

 
well, Star Wars does have a plot straight out of a comic book ...
posted by philip-random at 11:11 PM on August 31, 2012 [9 favorites]


Somebody seriously missed an opportunity in not staging a "Snark Week" right after "Shark Week".
posted by oneswellfoop at 11:28 PM on August 31, 2012 [4 favorites]


Sarcasm is the lowest form of wit.
But still wit.
posted by flippant at 11:31 PM on August 31, 2012 [1 favorite]


That was a quite interesting read which has given me something to contemplate. Great stuff. Thanks for posting!
posted by hippybear at 11:33 PM on August 31, 2012 [17 favorites]


Snark is a dishonest reduction expressed with knowningness.

spelling correction comments are notoriouness for this, the lowest order of snark.
posted by stbalbach at 11:33 PM on August 31, 2012 [25 favorites]


Does he have a newsletter to which I might subscribe?
posted by bardic at 11:36 PM on August 31, 2012 [3 favorites]


spelling correction comments are notoriouness for this, the lowest order of snark.

For some of us it's a matter of twitch and auto-response, not snark.
posted by Meep! Eek! at 11:37 PM on August 31, 2012 [2 favorites]


I like his essay; a very well mannered and thoughtful way of calling people cowards. Which they are.
posted by wuwei at 11:38 PM on August 31, 2012 [2 favorites]


stbalbach, I love that more than favourites can ever show.
posted by flippant at 11:43 PM on August 31, 2012


Ever seen a serious comics geek spend five minutes explaining something complex and wonderful about some obscure title or artist, only to have someone in the crowd who probably has trouble figuring out how to read comics right side up take a verbal dump on him and in that moment remind you that the speaker is Above it All because he doesn't know crap?

Yes, this is perfect.
posted by the man of twists and turns at 11:48 PM on August 31, 2012 [12 favorites]


Snark is most appealing to bright articulate young people (or to bitter has-been middle-aged people who used to be bright articulate young people) because it lets them use their greatest and most already-developed talent, i.e. their articulate sense of irony, to prevent any serious commitment – even just serious articulate spectatorship – for any other purpose.

That describes, beautifully, the ultimate reason behind the end of my first real relationship.

If you refuse to take anything seriously, refuse to engage, refuse to involve yourself in the petty meaningless stuff that is life, why bother? Why live? If everything is just grist for the mill of cynicism, sarcasm and snark, where does love fit? Where does life? Where does that messy cycle of longing and fun and everything? If you cannot ever commit yourself enough to enjoy anything without some pseudo-post-modern self-aware commentary, what chance does the relationship have of growing?

It isn't all about enjoying something, but it is about having some joy, some in-the-experience-ness. The final straw came when I was talking about lasagne (of all things) and I was talking through my process, how I wanted things to go and he turned and said "I haven't seen you talk so passionately about anything for years now. But it's just food. I don't know what's wrong with you though." - I can remember all these little cracks opening up. That I hadn't expressed my passion for writing after he reduced it to a series of errors, I threw out all of my music because I couldn't stand one more scathing 'argument' (read polemic) about my taste in music and the death of art in Australia and I never ever mentioned how much I liked studying and researching. That I had spent years under the weight of this snark and it was killing me.

I left. I talk to friends about food and writing and music and TV and wanting to go back to uni; and every single time, every single fucking time I have to make myself take that first little leap, that first conversational gambit to say "I wrote up our DnD campaign" or "oh god this recipe is fucking insane" or "hah, I totally love Imagine Dragons". Every time I feel like they're going to not just make fun of me, because that's normal, but they are going to tell me I'm wrong to like any of it, that there is something wrong with me to enjoy any of it. I carry that with me, ten years later. Three years of solid snark still weighs me down.

I think I'm going to go have a drink. This was a little too much insight to cope with right now.
posted by geek anachronism at 11:51 PM on August 31, 2012 [227 favorites]


Interestingly, the only place where I encounter snark of the quality that might have the ability to depress any tendencies to high falutin' that I may have, is here, on Metafilter.
posted by infini at 11:54 PM on August 31, 2012 [12 favorites]


MetaTalk: the person who always already knows that it is "really" an evil scam, a symptom of mental illness, or a mark of being duped or intimidated, and need not explain how.
posted by the man of twists and turns at 11:57 PM on August 31, 2012 [1 favorite]


snark, a conversational condom.

Yeah.
posted by mule98J at 11:59 PM on August 31, 2012


As someone who used to be described as snarky and took it as a complement, I absolutely love this and agree with most every word. (I think my snark is the kind he didn't call "snark")

I do find people who dismiss actual arguments made sarcastically as weak solely because there is such a thing as bad, cheap snark, but again this is what I try to avoid. In fact, if I had a self snark detector, I'd be much happier.
posted by MCMikeNamara at 12:03 AM on September 1, 2012 [1 favorite]


Snarky people should be tied to chairs and made to watch Jiro Dreams of Sushi. Someone working toward mastery is easy to make fun of, but if they keep it up at the end of the race they'll be an expert. And expertise is awesome.
posted by 1adam12 at 12:09 AM on September 1, 2012 [8 favorites]


I think there're some interesting ideas here, and I think it helps me articulate what I don't like about a lot of twee indie culture — it's a self-conscious rejection of that knowing reduction (the dishonesty is debatable). I think that this essay could be used to make a case that the overly precious is the opposite of snark, and that it's not necessarily a positive either.

(It's also worth remembering that relationship strength is better correlated with mutual dislikes than mutual likes.)
posted by klangklangston at 12:19 AM on September 1, 2012 [9 favorites]


Yeah, I already knew all this.
posted by Jimbob at 12:25 AM on September 1, 2012 [4 favorites]


Great link.

/not snark
posted by brundlefly at 12:39 AM on September 1, 2012


i'm stealing this from internet people, but what about how deadpan irony is an inherently conservative tactic because it presumes that the correct interpretation is already understood and obvious, and so is at best preaching to the choir

also "lol @ his stab at condoms at the end, i bet he refuses to wear a condom" is a joke relating to the article, not a real thing i'm saying
posted by This, of course, alludes to you at 12:48 AM on September 1, 2012 [2 favorites]


Although he gives it a good effort, defining his terms before defining snark itself, I don't think that snark can be isolated from context. To put it another way, I don't think it can be formally defined in a way that is distinct from what the definer believes to be true about the world. One man's snark is another man's witticism. A one-sentence dismissal of creationism is justified if both interlocutors already believe it's bullshit, just as a one-sentence dismissal of global warming is. I don't think there's any way to distinguish the first from the second from the formal or rhetorical characteristics of the expression.

To illustrate, consider these possible examples of snark:

It's Bart Simpson, without the saving grace of Matt Groening's contempt.

It's the woman who couldn't follow the story of the movie, so she nods and says, "Great cinematography."

Ever seen a serious comics geek spend five minutes explaining something complex and wonderful about some obscure title or artist, only to have someone in the crowd who probably has trouble figuring out how to read comics right side up take a verbal dump on him

Don't be one of those phonies you meet at science fiction conventions who pretends to know Dr. Samuel Johnson because he knows Heinlein didn't like him

there's a necessary reduction that has to be added: "You are saying that because you are a sock monkey on the fist of your major donors."

Snark is most appealing to bright articulate young people (or to bitter has-been middle-aged people who used to be bright articulate young people

Snark: the condom of intellectual and artistic intercourse.


In the context of this essay, these examples might not count as snark. But similarly, if the speaker and audience already share the context, then many of the things Barnes identifies as snark might not be. Possibly, we might be able to identify better from worse instances -- certainly the Daily Show, for instance, has its funnier and more knee-jerky moments -- but even then, if someone doesn't already agree with you on most of the substantive issues, I doubt whether they will agree with your judgement of something said -- especially by them -- as being more or less snarky.

Although, to be fair, of course I would say all that: as a lover of witticism, if I have to choose between SF writers, I'll take the author of "The Picture of Dorian Gray" over the author of "The Duke of Uranium" any day.*

(*Just kidding; I actually happened to just finish reading his short story "Martian Heart" this afternoon, which was rather touching in places.)
posted by chortly at 12:52 AM on September 1, 2012 [4 favorites]


Some 3700 words from a science fiction writer deriding and analyzing the emptiness of snark as a rhetorical mode.

I'm guessing that as somebody I've never heard of who's bald and writes nerd books, he knows all about derision and emptiness.
posted by obiwanwasabi at 12:59 AM on September 1, 2012 [13 favorites]


John Barnes. My god.

Not quite Orson Scott Card yet, but he's getting there.
posted by MartinWisse at 1:28 AM on September 1, 2012 [1 favorite]


i like how this article turns almost everything that's internet-likely to appear after it into a self-demonstration
posted by This, of course, alludes to you at 1:59 AM on September 1, 2012 [13 favorites]


^MartinWisse, when I think of Orson Scott Card, I think of facepalmably conservative anti-gay rhetoric.

...am I missing something here?
posted by subversiveasset at 2:02 AM on September 1, 2012 [5 favorites]


I'm guessing that as somebody I've never heard of who's bald and writes nerd books, he knows all about derision and emptiness.
posted by obiwanwasabi at 9:59 PM on August 31 [2 favorites +] [!]

i like how this article turns almost everything that's internet-likely to appear after it into a self-demonstration
posted by This, of course, alludes to you at 10:59 PM on August 31 [+] [!]


Hrm.
posted by Sebmojo at 2:55 AM on September 1, 2012 [5 favorites]


This, of course, you took the words right out of my mouth.
posted by Jubey at 3:02 AM on September 1, 2012


A former good friend of mine in now an entertainment reporter/editor for a publication that gets a lot of love 'round here. His style is a culmination of different types of snark, and that's all it is: snark. I more or less stopped talking to him in real life because he'd grown so sour, and yet I still bump into his bitterness online from time to time and my god it's out of control, like a Perez Hilton with indie cred.
posted by item at 3:07 AM on September 1, 2012 [1 favorite]


Interesting. As a defense of Hemingway, it is mostly snark. He repeats the snark, and then snarks about the snark. Im down with that.

I'm a big fan of Hemingway, don't really care what anyone else thinks. But I'm a fan of snark, I have to weigh the two. On balance, Hemingway beats the snark. I'd like to see some snark about The Great Gatsby. I am willing to weigh the novel against a couple awesome burns.
posted by Ad hominem at 3:40 AM on September 1, 2012 [1 favorite]


Response to snark: no statue has ever been erected for a critic.
posted by seanmpuckett at 3:44 AM on September 1, 2012 [1 favorite]


> "Response to snark: no statue has ever been erected for a critic."

Well, except for the statues of Clement Greenberg, Charles Augustin Saint-Beuve, Vladimir Staso, John Ruskin ...
posted by kyrademon at 3:50 AM on September 1, 2012 [17 favorites]


I'm going to regret this but. I think The Old Man and the Sea and The Great Gatsby are perfect novels. White Noise, Blood Meridian and Infinite Jest miss perfection due to too many writerly gymnastics, White Noise less so than Infinite Jest obviously. From Hell is as good as any novel ever written. On balance Old Man and the Sea is the best American novel written. Best non-American novel is Forbidden Colors, The Sound of Waves, or Temple of the Golden Pavilion all by Mishima.
posted by Ad hominem at 3:58 AM on September 1, 2012 [2 favorites]


I'm going to regret this but.

I think you are fishing for "your favorite novel sucks" comments rather than snark. That may be a different fishing spot, although the two species do congregate.
posted by GenjiandProust at 4:16 AM on September 1, 2012 [8 favorites]


*glub* The Old man and the sea is over rated *glub*
posted by infini at 4:29 AM on September 1, 2012


Snark is not sarcastic ignorance. You can certainly be snarky about things you know and understand well. It's a "snide remark" that "bites and scratches" like Lewis Carroll's imaginary beasts.

The problem with Barnes' definition of snark is that it defines the failing in terms of the truth or accuracy of the statement. I think ignorance is bad, too, but why not decry ignorant knowingness and leave snark, which has another meaning that was working perfectly well, out of it?
posted by anotherpanacea at 4:41 AM on September 1, 2012 [5 favorites]


But, all those things are /true/!

Ah, truth, my old nemesis. So hard to pin down.
posted by clvrmnky at 4:47 AM on September 1, 2012


Although he gives it a good effort, defining his terms before defining snark itself, I don't think that snark can be isolated from context. To put it another way, I don't think it can be formally defined in a way that is distinct from what the definer believes to be true about the world. One man's snark is another man's witticism. A one-sentence dismissal of creationism is justified if both interlocutors already believe it's bullshit, just as a one-sentence dismissal of global warming is. I don't think there's any way to distinguish the first from the second from the formal or rhetorical characteristics of the expression.

Agreed; the essay brought up some fair points, but in large part I found it annoying in that it basically tries to cajole the reader into agreeing with him that "hey, things we both dislike are bad, yeah?" This tendency is particularly strong in the section on reductionism, which gives examples of where reductionism IS justified (Amway and Nambla!) but without rationale; he merely assumes that all reasonable can agree that MLM and pedophilia are bad.

This sort of gets at why his essay seems useless to me; it points to how a large part of how one defines "snark" depends on mutually-agreed-upon context. It would seem that his definition of Snark can only be recognized retroactively, as one of two parties realizes their mutual context isn't shared as much as they'd assumed.

Anyway, this is all to say that I read the 3700 words of the essay and find it effortful but not-rigorous-enough-to-be-useful, so if you're reading the mefi comments in order to gauge whether you should read the whole essay: I recommend against it.
posted by Greg Nog at 5:35 AM on September 1, 2012 [9 favorites]


I dont get the authors obsession with Snark who was ultimately a minor character in Thundercats
posted by Damienmce at 5:59 AM on September 1, 2012 [12 favorites]


tl;dr
posted by flabdablet at 5:59 AM on September 1, 2012


I dont get the authors obsession with Snark who was ultimately a minor character in Thundercats

Dude you've got the name wrong. Wow, that's embarassing. It's not SNARK it's PANTHRO and I would argue that far being from being MINOR he was the heart and soul of the whole team
posted by Greg Nog at 6:02 AM on September 1, 2012 [6 favorites]


I find myself in a difficult place...

While I read, enjoyed and understood Mr. Barnes sentiment, I am also a person filled with much snark. I am a great, white snark. The problem isn't that I don't take things seriously; it is that I took too many things seriously. From our youth (at least my youth) we were told to love one's country, respect the police, respect teachers, obey authority, salute the flag, believe in God, the four food groups, never tell a lie, America was the greatest country on earth, drugs are evil, and so on ad nauseum. Then, you grow up and find out, empirically, that these things are not always so. The icons fall one by one. America did some dumb sh*t, our political leaders are often bought and paid pawns for powerful interests and less concerned with individual rights, that police often abuse their powers, that priest abuse children and other priests justify it, that teachers sometimes don't know very much, that our educational system is poor, that corporate interests are above human interest, that people would rather watch American Idol than read a history book, that Fox News can legally lie, that we justify and legally sanction the use of tobacco and alcohol while vilifying other, less dangerous substances, we give Wall Street thieves trillions of dollars while calling medical care for everyone Socialism, we decry the plague of debt while turning a blind eye to the fact our whole economic system is based on debt, we tell kids to stop being lazy and get a job while we ship all the jobs overseas in the name of profit for shareholders.... the list goes on.

I know there are many wonderful things in this world. I don't think everything is dark and sinister and evil. But anyone who has lived a number of years and not seen these things is blind. Perhaps they are better off, but they are blind. How in the hell can anyone expect there not to be snark? Telling the truth doesn't get you on the news. Telling the truth doesn't get you elected. Telling the truth doesn't move you up the corporate ladder. Snark is the bastard child of disillusionment. We dare not try to find the wonder or profundity of anything as it will likely turn out to be a sham, carcinogenic, exploitive or Socialist. That parade of disillusionments is like an conga line of daggers in our hearts and in our optimism. We can't manage the contradiction between what we were told was right vs. what really happens. So, when someone tells me that Hemingway is a genius, I am skeptical. When they tell me Hemingway is a genius and say it with religious zeal, I become snarky. It is my easiest defence. I prefer reason and discussion over the merits of issues rather than snark. But sometimes, snark works because, in a deep, deep place within us, we all innately understand it. Yes, it is the weaker vessel, but how is that different from someone using a gun vs. a knife vs. bare hands in a war? It gets the job done more efficiently than all the reason in the world. It is up to the snarkee to tell me how I am wrong. The remedy for snark is a society that will tolerate nothing less than fidelity, honor, justice, integrity, equanimity and compassion. Until those ingredients are added, the snark we created will remain on the loose, wreaking havoc on our society.
posted by FrankBlack at 6:09 AM on September 1, 2012 [58 favorites]


"He's a fish out of water and in a very disorienting way." I suffer from snarkiness and it's almost always a function of social anxiety. The more anxious I feel, the stronger the urge to preempt conversations with snark. It keeps interactions short, but it's aggressive and alienating. I wonder if it's a vicious circle: alienated -> socially anxiety -> snarky -> alienated again.
posted by acheekymonkey at 6:09 AM on September 1, 2012 [2 favorites]


Now, if we can get Metafilter to turn on snark...

/visions of Internet eating itself.
posted by Artw at 6:23 AM on September 1, 2012


Metafilter: That parade of disillusionments is like an conga line of daggers in our hearts and in our optimism.
posted by localroger at 6:26 AM on September 1, 2012 [2 favorites]


Ian Fleming was the king of snark. After someone told a joke, he would wait for a beat after the punchline and then drawl languidly... "and then?"
posted by unSane at 6:26 AM on September 1, 2012 [9 favorites]


"If you refuse to take anything seriously, refuse to engage, refuse to involve yourself in the petty meaningless stuff that is life, why bother? Why live?"

Good point. I am going to go hang myself now.
posted by mr_crash_davis at 6:27 AM on September 1, 2012 [3 favorites]


refuse to involve yourself in the petty meaningless stuff that is life

Deconstructing this, I note that I tend to overlook the petty meaningless stuff that is part of life, not life itself. Hello Hobbes
posted by infini at 6:30 AM on September 1, 2012 [1 favorite]


A good essay that explains why I had to take a break from MetaFilter for a while; thanks for posting it.

> I know there are many wonderful things in this world. I don't think everything is dark and sinister and evil. But anyone who has lived a number of years and not seen these things is blind. Perhaps they are better off, but they are blind. How in the hell can anyone expect there not to be snark? ... We can't manage the contradiction between what we were told was right vs. what really happens. So, when someone tells me that Hemingway is a genius, I am skeptical.

This is the classic adolescent armor he calls "a temporary, healthy defense against being shoved out into the world with severely limited experiences and a badly-explained incomplete set of inaccurate directions." If you're an adolescent, well and good; if by "a number of years" you mean a number that doesn't start with 1, you need to get over it.
posted by languagehat at 6:43 AM on September 1, 2012 [18 favorites]


I think the most interesting bit in this argument is his very fuzzy distinction between "honest reductionism" (which is a valid and even useful technique) and "dishonest reductionism" (which is snark).

As far as I can break it down in his argument, honest reductionism depends on a shared understanding between speaker and listener of the basis for that reduction. If that shared understanding isn't there, it's snark. His line about global warming deniers in a spring snowstorm: to global warming deniers, that line is by his own definition pure snark, because the understanding that a few snowstorms don't negate e.g. the melting of Greenland isn't shared.

Which either leads the term into pure relativism -- it's snark if we don't agree -- or dependence on the correctness of the opinion being expressed -- it's only snark if it's wrong. (Which correctness is not always easy to determine, or even determinable)
posted by ook at 6:44 AM on September 1, 2012 [2 favorites]



well, Star Wars does have a plot straight out of a comic book ...


following up on this because my computer crashed moments after posting it ...

I think it points to everything I personally dislike about those who cry, "snark!". Simply, that it's become way too easy an out for some when their position is threatened, and every bit as much kneejerk cultural solvent as the alleged snark. I mean, just because it's a terse yank of the rug doesn't mean that rug shouldn't be yanked. The Star Wars narrative does border on the infantile even if you do love it, love it to death ... and so on. Sorry if this offends you, but maybe you shouldn't be so easily offended, or better yet find some cultural work of genuine substance and sophistication in which to invest your passion.

> "Response to snark: no statue has ever been erected for a critic."

Well, except for the statues of


And anyway, all a statue really means is that pigeons will be shitting on you for many years after your death.
posted by philip-random at 6:56 AM on September 1, 2012 [2 favorites]


Snark is not sarcastic ignorance.

No but snark culture is training people that it's more valuable to get in a few good jabs than it is to actually explore a topic or admit that you know less about something than someone else does.

Being snarky means you always have your transmitter tuned to "broadcast" but very rarely to "receive." It implies that your opinion is more relevant, salient, or entertaining than the actual topic at hand. This can itself start as an ironic, self-deprecating thing ("Har, I know so little about this topic, but I know that these are the jokes that can be made about it") but snark is like a drug, and you get hooked on the attention you steal away from a more established subject and draw toward yourself, and on the power you feel when you diffuse an earnest conversation (which you aren't equipped to participate in otherwise) with a squid-ink cloud of referential derision.
posted by hermitosis at 6:56 AM on September 1, 2012 [55 favorites]


I think I see one problem here:
It's Bart Simpson, without the saving grace of Matt Groening's contempt. (Ever notice that, by the way? The number of characters transparently created to be objects of contempt or loathing that are adopted as heroes? Bart Simpson, Archie Bunker, Beavis and Butthead? The number of people who root for S.M. Stirling's Draka?)
As others have pointed out, snark is one way contempt is expressed. But of all the things one may feel contempt for: wickedness, complacency, stupidity; he doesn't seem to understand what it means that many feel sympathy and compassion towards what one could see as ignorance, comfort, weakness. There's something powerful and useful to his thesis in this parenthetical, but he has left it behind and flown off into a densely written book on rhetoric to discuss approved and disapproved uses of reduction and refutation.
posted by wobh at 7:08 AM on September 1, 2012 [1 favorite]


Metafilter: it's more valuable to get in a few good jabs than it is to actually explore a topic or admit that you know less about something than someone else does.
posted by Artw at 7:16 AM on September 1, 2012 [4 favorites]


Did somebody call my name?

Oh. Carry on.
posted by Foosnark at 7:17 AM on September 1, 2012


("Har, I know so little about this topic, but I know that these are the jokes that can be made about it")

Otherwise known on Metafilter as trolling for favorites.

Snark is best employed (in moderate doses) with those whom you share assumptions about the underlying nature of the universe and the relative importance of things, to be sure. When you put it on the open internet, you open it to criticism by those who don't share those assumptions, and it frequently looks inappropriate. This is true of a lot of in-group talk whether or not it's snarky.
posted by immlass at 7:19 AM on September 1, 2012 [6 favorites]


As far as I'm concerned Snarking still means sneaking out of the house late at night to see midnight movie showings and have adventures. Everything else is just unfunny jokes.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 7:19 AM on September 1, 2012 [8 favorites]


I think that this essay could be used to make a case that the overly precious is the opposite of snark, and that it's not necessarily a positive either.

I'd argue that they are actually parallel phenomena, not opposite at all. They both rely on not really looking deeply at context and meaning, and both are at heart uncritical views of the world that serve to insulate rather than connect. I find twee just as irritating as the kind of casual snark he's describing, and I think the world would be better with less of both.
posted by Forktine at 7:21 AM on September 1, 2012 [10 favorites]


"Just the place for a Snark!" the Bellman cried,
As he landed his crew with care;
Supporting each man on the top of the tide
By a finger entwined in his hair.

"Just the place for a Snark! I have said it twice:
That alone should encourage the crew.
Just the place for a Snark! I have said it thrice:
What I tell you three times is true."
posted by egypturnash at 7:21 AM on September 1, 2012 [3 favorites]


Snark has its own value. You read something like this and you go "You're calling Bangalore an emerging tech hub, O RLY?"

Its an antidote to the carefully crafted undermining that takes place on the propaganda web.
posted by infini at 7:23 AM on September 1, 2012 [1 favorite]


I think I have a Metacrush on this whole thread.
posted by infini at 7:24 AM on September 1, 2012


I find twee just as irritating as the kind of casual snark he's describing, and I think the world would be better with less of both.


what I was trying to say,
but the statues got in the way
posted by philip-random at 7:25 AM on September 1, 2012


I think this article makes some very good points, as far as it goes.

I think it misses that snark doesn't always come from stupidity (or knowingness), although it often mostly does. Snark is often "shorthand" between people who are actually quite knowledgeable on a subject. Snark can get to the essence of something without having to re-debate every little nuance again and again. Like any tool, it can produce great things in skilled hands and abominations in unskilled hands.

(And as someone who has actually read everything Hemingway has written, "short choppy sentences" is a legitimate complaint, in my book.)
posted by Benny Andajetz at 7:27 AM on September 1, 2012 [2 favorites]


On preview, what immlass said.
posted by Benny Andajetz at 7:28 AM on September 1, 2012


Snark is best employed (in moderate doses) with those whom you share assumptions about the underlying nature of the universe and the relative importance of things, to be sure.
why the fuck would you hang out with people like that
posted by This, of course, alludes to you at 7:34 AM on September 1, 2012


I don't agree with his argument that snark is always wrong, reductionist, and from a position of contempt and ignorance.

I view snark as a valuable mechanism for piercing hype and reputation, and seeing a work or a situation from different and less flattering angles. Identifying the baseline assumptions someone else is making that might be wrong.

I engage in a lot of snarky commentary with friends, and it often revolves around eg. why we think a Kickstarter is ill-advised and won't fund; why we think X work of fiction wasn't so great and how it could be improved; why Y article's reasoning is terrible.

And the thing is, this habit we have of pick-pick-picking at things that we're being told are wonderful (but are never perfect) is a way of understanding how those things work and fit into the world... so that we can apply any lessons learned to our own work and lives going forward. I think it's made us better creators than we were before.

That's not to say snark in mixed company as a default method of communication is a good idea, because, yeah, no. But snark isn't without redeeming value, either.
posted by Andrhia at 7:39 AM on September 1, 2012 [9 favorites]


Cynicism gets a bad rap, but Diogenes was a great and a wise man. The key, I think, is that you must be the first victim of your scathing criticism.

Diogenes said "when I die, throw my body over the wall at the edge of town"
They ask "but what about the wild dogs and the carrion birds?"
"Throw a stick too, so I can keep them at bay"

The famous story where Alexander the great asks what boon he can offer, and all Diogenes asks is that he get out of his sunlight.

First and foremost, he took himself down a notch or two. Taking others down was secondary.
posted by idiopath at 7:43 AM on September 1, 2012 [5 favorites]


Actually, Star Wars has a plot right out of a Kurosawa film.
posted by Egg Shen at 7:44 AM on September 1, 2012 [3 favorites]


bardic: Does he have a newsletter to which I might subscribe?

No, but some other guy has a book.
posted by K.P. at 7:53 AM on September 1, 2012


I don't snark. I just have pure fucking hate.

Example: Pomplamoose. Hate.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 8:05 AM on September 1, 2012 [4 favorites]


why the fuck would you hang out with people like that

Because I've seen what happens when an atheist marries a charismatic Catholic and it ain't pretty.
posted by immlass at 8:29 AM on September 1, 2012 [2 favorites]


Does he have a newsletter to which I might subscribe?
He does have quite a few excellent novels. I strongly disliked "Earth Made of Glass" and "A Princess of the Aerie", but everything else I've read of his has been decent-to-fantastic. Start with "Orbital Resonance" (or anything else in the same series; they're not strictly sequels) for something in the fantastic category.

Be warned, though: while in this blog post Barnes merely explains that it's possible to be negative without being snarky, in many of his books he demonstrates it.
posted by roystgnr at 8:41 AM on September 1, 2012 [1 favorite]


> Snark is often "shorthand" between people who are actually quite knowledgeable on a subject.

Yes, but that's not what he's talking about.

> (And as someone who has actually read everything Hemingway has written, "short choppy sentences" is a legitimate complaint, in my book.)

Opening For Whom the Bell Tolls at random:
Robert Jordan pushed aside the saddle blanket that hung over the mouth of the cave and, stepping out, took a deep breath of the cold night air. The mist had cleared away and the stars were out. There was no wind, and, outside now of the warm air of the cave, heavy with smoke of both tobacco and charcoal, with the odor of cooked rice and meat, saffron, pimentos, and oil, the tarry, wine-spilled smell of the big skin hung beside the door, hung by the neck and the four legs extended, wine drawn from a plug fitted in one leg, wine that spilled a little onto the earth of the floor, settling the dust smell; out now from the odors of different herbs whose names he did not know that hung in bunches from the ceiling, with long ropes of garlic, away now from the copper-penny, red wine and garlic, horse sweat and man sweat dried in the clothing (acrid and gray the man sweat, sweet and sickly the dried brushed-off lather of horse sweat), of the men at the table, Robert Jordan breathed deeply of the clear night air of the mountains that smelled of the pines and of the dew on the grass in the meadow by the stream. Dew had fallen heavily since the wind had dropped, but, as he stood there, he thought there would be frost by morning.
Hemingway knew how to use short sentences well, and he knew how to use long sentences well. He was a good writer. But you knew that.
posted by languagehat at 8:45 AM on September 1, 2012 [14 favorites]


Instead of calling it "knowingness", can we call it "knowigance"? (as in, "knowogance is empty arrogance of knowledge"?)

Oh, and thanks to roystgnr's prompting I just realized that had I read Mother of Storms years ago. That was a doozy. (but fascinating and definitely memorable) Might have to pick up some of his other stuff.
posted by ropeladder at 8:45 AM on September 1, 2012 [2 favorites]


(you can, um, spell it either way...)
posted by ropeladder at 8:47 AM on September 1, 2012


A relevant tale often told between schoolchildren during my childhood.

(Though in our version it was The Putdown Clown, his insults were more personal and nasty, and it was the Swiss Institute of Putdowns that the protagonist attended.)
posted by Artw at 8:53 AM on September 1, 2012


Oh also, if you liked this article you may like this book about popular language.
posted by ropeladder at 8:57 AM on September 1, 2012


If you can't easily recognize the context which makes for the sour, ignorant, and malicious Snark that Barnes is talking about, you might be the problem.
posted by hellslinger at 9:17 AM on September 1, 2012 [2 favorites]


Interesting food for thought, and thanks for posting it.

I do think, though, that's he's missing one use of snark that I see all the time: As simple shorthand for "I won't let my assent be presumed by virtue of my silence, but I also refuse to have a lengthy discussion on your terms about a subject of your choosing." For example, the typical MeFite's snark at some Ayn Rand devotee.

I also think that his distinction of "honest" vs "dishonest" reductivism may be true, but fairly useless in practice, since it will too easily come out to mean reduction I agree with or don't.

(BTW, I like that notion, klang, that "snark" and "twee" are sort of antonyms)
posted by tyllwin at 9:34 AM on September 1, 2012 [3 favorites]


Being snarky means you always have your transmitter tuned to "broadcast" but very rarely to "receive."

It is precisely this claim that I am challenging. Snark, in the traditional sense, does not mean a refusal to listen or learn from those who do or may know more. Barnes has redefined the word to mean that. The thing he describes is bad, but why call it snark? I can't help feeling that it's because it allows him to tar knowledgeable "snide remarks" with the brush of ignorant knowingness. Perhaps that's not fair, but that's how it feels.

I'm not trying to prescriptive about the meaning of the word, but when I find a someone claiming a meaning for a word I was using with seemingly good understanding among several different communities, I feel like they're being prescriptive with me. Not sure how to deal with that.
posted by anotherpanacea at 9:36 AM on September 1, 2012 [4 favorites]


I'm not trying to BE prescriptive...
posted by anotherpanacea at 9:41 AM on September 1, 2012


Snark doesn't kill conversations, people do! You can can pry my snark from my cold, dead hands.

But seriously, I'm that guy.

(palms face)
posted by roboton666 at 9:45 AM on September 1, 2012


Wait a second...did we just get trolled?
posted by roboton666 at 9:50 AM on September 1, 2012


I like Roger Ebert's formulation (which is far more succinct and to the point) better than John Barnes':

Snarking is cultural vandalism. I have arrived at this conclusion belatedly. I have been guilty of snarking, and of enjoying snarks. In the matter of snarking, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child. But it has grown entirely out of hand. It is time to put away childish things. I must restore my balance, view the world in a fair way, hope to inspire more appreciation than ridicule. No doubt there will always be a role for snarking, given the proper target and an appropriate venue, and I reserve the right to snark when it is deserved, as in certain movie reviews. But in general I must become more well-behaved .... It's important sometimes to be reminded that it's okay to admire. To praise. To enjoy yourself. To admit to having a good time. To not care about what other, snarkier, people might say.
posted by blucevalo at 9:58 AM on September 1, 2012 [14 favorites]


I'm not trying to prescriptive about the meaning of the word, but when I find a someone claiming a meaning for a word I was using with seemingly good understanding among several different communities, I feel like they're being prescriptive with me. Not sure how to deal with that.

I find that interesting. (And I don't mean that last sentence sarcastically. I genuinely find it interesting, and I think you for your post.)

Just so I understand you, are you saying that the following? If someone writes a paper and starts by saying, "In this paper, I'm going to define 'cat' as a reptile with no legs," it upsets you because you feel he's somehow forcing his definition on you?

(I realize "cat" probably isn't an emotive term for you. I'm trying to abstract your point into a general principle.)

Even if a writer clearly states that he's using a label to point to a specific definition -- that he's using a word in a special sense -- do you tend to doubt his honesty? Do you think, "No. You're claiming to do that, but you really want everyone to use the word that way. Or you think everyone does use the word that way"?

Or is it something specifically about Barnes' essay that irks you -- e.g. you're usually okay with people using words however they want, as long as they clearly explain how they're using them, but there's some specific thing Barnes is doing that makes this an exception.

Maybe having spend decades as a programmer has trained my brain to think differently. Dozens of times a day, I see x = 5 and then, later, in another context, x = "foo," so I'm used to reading labels in a very contextual way.

My instinctive way of reading an essay like this, is to think of "snark" as an arbitrary label. I may generally use the word in a different way, but I understand (and feel) that Barnes isn't writing about what I call "snark. He's writing about a different topic. If I was him, and I heard your criticism, I would say, "Well, what if I go back an rewrite my essay to say 'there's a thing I hate which I'll call X, and here's how I define it,' and from then on refer to it as X? Would that upset you less?"
posted by grumblebee at 10:03 AM on September 1, 2012 [1 favorite]


I'm not trying to prescriptive about the meaning of the word, but when I find a someone claiming a meaning for a word I was using with seemingly good understanding among several different communities, I feel like they're being prescriptive with me. Not sure how to deal with that.

I suggest, "cool story bro"

I imagine John Barnes would claim that as an example of exactly the kind of snark he objects to. This may support or refute his argument, depending on your opinion of his argument.
posted by LogicalDash at 10:05 AM on September 1, 2012 [1 favorite]


The problem isn't that I don't take things seriously; it is that I took too many things seriously. From our youth (at least my youth) we were told to love one's country, respect the police, respect teachers, obey authority, salute the flag, believe in God, the four food groups, never tell a lie, America was the greatest country on earth, drugs are evil, and so on ad nauseum. Then, you grow up and find out, empirically, that these things are not always so. The icons fall one by one. America did some dumb sh*t, our political leaders are often bought and paid pawns for powerful interests and less concerned with individual rights, that police often abuse their powers, that priest abuse children and other priests justify it, that teachers sometimes don't know very much, that our educational system is poor,

The problem is that you didn't, like many of us did, continue past that immediate disillusionment to discover the truth; something that might have been done if you weren't so busy reducing it.

Because our educational system is poor AND many teachers are still noble human beings accepting terrible pay in order to increase the sum total of knowledge in the world. Because the flag was worn and saluted by those who committed atrocities at My Lai, and by the brave warrant officer who stood between his fellow soldiers and the rest of the civilians, and threatened to shoot them if they didn't stop - and both of those things came from that faith in America. Because priests have justified child molestation in the name of God and other priests have made homes for the homeless in the name of God. Police often abuse their powers and also, sometimes, put themselves into danger, pull battered women and children out of hell, and rescue exploited and trafficked persons. Drugs are neither as bad as some say nor the salvation of the human species. Things are a thousand shades that never can be explored if you're busy dismissing things from the viewpoint of your disillusionment, and it does everyone a disservice.
posted by corb at 10:06 AM on September 1, 2012 [41 favorites]


It is possible to both be snarky and to honestly enjoy things. There are many things I honestly enjoy and/or admire (note: this is why I am enjoying so much of the Mark Reads/Watches -- he is right now reading/watching things he honestly enjoys, and it's fun to read), but it's not as if the first snarky word out of my mouth means I will never enjoy anything again. And defining snark as lack of knowledge -- more specifically, Barnes defining snark as "only those things I do not like" -- is misunderstanding what it is.

Yes, too much snark -- or negativity, in general -- can be tiresome. But so can untempered enthusiasm.
posted by jeather at 10:24 AM on September 1, 2012 [1 favorite]


Corb: favorited for truth
posted by BlueHorse at 10:45 AM on September 1, 2012 [2 favorites]


This reminded me of Foucault's dislike for polemics:
Questions and answers depend on a game—a game that is at once pleasant and difficult—in which each of the two partners takes pains to use only the rights given him by the other and by the accepted form of dialogue.

The polemicist, on the other hand, proceeds encased in privileges that he possesses in advance and will never agree to question. On principle, he possesses rights authorizing him to wage war and making that struggle a just undertaking; the person he confronts is not a partner in search for the truth but an adversary, an enemy who is wrong, who is harmful, and whose very existence constitutes a threat. For him, then the game consists not of recognizing this person as a subject having the right to speak but of abolishing him as interlocutor, from any possible dialogue; and his final objective will be not to come as close as possible to a difficult truth but to bring about the triumph of the just cause he has been manifestly upholding from the beginning. The polemicist relies on a legitimacy that his adversary is by definition denied. link
posted by TheGoodBlood at 11:00 AM on September 1, 2012 [17 favorites]


Maybe having spend decades as a programmer has trained my brain to think differently. Dozens of times a day, I see x = 5 and then, later, in another context, x = "foo," so I'm used to reading labels in a very contextual way.

Well, I teach logic so I'm generally capable of thinking in terms of variables and arbitrary assignments of meaning. But as you point out, that's a bit more difficult when the term has emotive value. In rhetoric there is a technique of using overly precise or nonstandard definitions as a part of an overall equivocation, or to take advantage of this definition to troll others in a supposedly blameless way, for example: "by Mefites I mean stupid people, no relation to members of the Metafilter community." But maybe I'm wrong to prize "snark" in this way.
posted by anotherpanacea at 12:49 PM on September 1, 2012 [1 favorite]


seanmpuckett: Response to snark: no statue has ever been erected for a critic.

But it should have been.
posted by dmayhood at 1:44 PM on September 1, 2012


Admittedly, Orwell was not a snarkist, as a rule.
posted by dmayhood at 2:12 PM on September 1, 2012


Oh, please. Orwell totally didn't give Big Brother a fair shake. Zero unemployment, a telescreen in every house, daily exercise for everyone...
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 2:59 PM on September 1, 2012 [1 favorite]


I grant that perpetual self-satisfied snark is indeed obnoxious, given its hollowness and insincerity, but is chronic and utterly sincere rage really a viable alternative in the long run?
posted by belarius at 6:18 PM on September 1, 2012 [1 favorite]


I grant that perpetual self-satisfied snark is indeed obnoxious, given its hollowness and insincerity, but is chronic and utterly sincere rage really a viable alternative in the long run?

I hate snark at least as much as Barnes, but I'd say if those are your only two options, snark or chronic rage, you should go with snark.
posted by grumblebee at 7:36 PM on September 1, 2012


Snark, and Orwell's statue:

“A doughty warrior in the cause of liberty, free thought and political prose as clear as a glass pane, Orwell deserves his statue all right -- but ... today's BBC - aka the Ministry of Truth -- might not be the best place for it after all,” Nigel Jones wrote at the Daily Mail.

Thanks for the link, dmayhood.
posted by mule98J at 9:46 PM on September 1, 2012


It is possible to both be snarky and to honestly enjoy things.

- jeather

I'm sure it is. But snark makes the enjoyment of those things by others into some irrevocable social faux pas. Usually - occasionally there are wonderful interludes where the snark is simply dismissed or ignored. But that initial snark is not aimed at furthering anyone's enjoyment, or continuing the discussion. It is simply a negating of the energy and passion behind the conversation.

At best you've interrupted the conversation with needless and mindless negativity. At worst you've just shut down someone honestly and genuinely sharing their enthusiasm and all of the consequences of that.

There are conversations where humour and negativity and even snark is welcome and fun. It isn't when someone is sharing something they enjoy and you simply must puncture their bubble with your rapier-like wit.
posted by geek anachronism at 11:21 PM on September 1, 2012 [4 favorites]


There are conversations where humour and negativity and even snark is welcome and fun. It isn't when someone is sharing something they enjoy and you simply must puncture their bubble with your rapier-like wit.

I agree. Snark can be a competitive sport, and a mean one. I can be snarky about things I enjoy, and it's fun, but you need to know the time and place and crowd. The time is never in response to "Here's something I love!"

I was really responding to the initial piece, not to your story. I like snark; I think snark has a place in the world, and that it can be positive. But I also honestly enjoy a lot of things that people snark about (I honestly enjoy Disney world, for instance, and not in a hipster irony sort of way), and I don't think the two have trouble coexisting. Assholes can be snarky, but that doesn't make snark bad all the time, it just makes asshole assholey. (Or, at best, immature.)
posted by jeather at 6:27 AM on September 2, 2012 [1 favorite]


I'm enjoying the popularity of snark. My adventure safari travel agency for nerds, "The Hunting of the Snark," has never been more profitable.
posted by bendy at 8:29 AM on September 2, 2012


I LOVE "great white snark." Someone needs to use that as a MeFi name.
posted by jenfullmoon at 8:02 PM on September 2, 2012


@thegoodblood

Thank you, that was great.
posted by This, of course, alludes to you at 4:53 AM on September 3, 2012


found this while surfing:

wiki: New sincerity:
In response to the hegemony of metafictional and self-conscious irony in contemporary fiction, writer David Foster Wallace predicted, in his 1993 essay "E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction," a new literary movement which would espouse something like the New Sincerity ethos:
posted by the man of twists and turns at 5:28 AM on September 3, 2012


The problem with the word "snark" is exactly what Barnes points out -- it's so ill-defined and so fluid that being against it opens the door to a very selective view of what snark is and is not. I know plenty of people who would bemoan snark on the internet and then turn around and tell you that anyone who doesn't revere the same things they do is a philistine. There's a certain "it's not snark if it's true" philosophy that makes complaining about snark mostly pointless, since it circles back to ultimately just putting down people who don't think like you, which ironically is what snark is in the first place.

With that said, I am emphatically in agreement with his crusade against bragging about not knowing anything about something, which I absolutely detest. People who take pride in all the things they are too smart/cool to know about drive me absolutely bazoo. ("I've never heard of Breaking Bad, which I guess is because I read a book every now and then.") (Which, please note, is very different from "[shrug] Television does nothing for me and I'd rather be doing something else," to which I have no objection.) Rather than hanging the word "snark" on it, which takes us nowhere, I'd rather just call it what it is: priding yourself on all the things you hold in uninformed contempt. It's depressing and destructive.
posted by Linda_Holmes at 8:35 AM on September 3, 2012 [3 favorites]


This has been a really good thread. Thanks all.

Self-link: Snark Polemics and Contrite Fallibilism
posted by anotherpanacea at 7:06 AM on September 4, 2012 [2 favorites]


Wow, anotherpanacea, I much preferred that to the original article. Thanks for posting it!
posted by Greg Nog at 9:18 AM on September 4, 2012


There are conversations where humour and negativity and even snark is welcome and fun. It isn't when someone is sharing something they enjoy and you simply must puncture their bubble with your rapier-like wit.

Whoever posts the first comment should have to click through this.
posted by Artw at 9:49 AM on September 4, 2012 [1 favorite]


Thanks Greg Nog! For my part, I can't overemphasize how much TheGoodBlood's timely Foucault quotation helped me think this through. That was pretty awesome.
posted by anotherpanacea at 10:10 AM on September 4, 2012


First off, there is already a better word for the specific phenomenon he's describing - it's called being dismissive, and even more on-point, dismissing things out of hand. There's no reason even to invoke the concept of snark when dismissiveness does the job on its own.

Then, on top of it all, he engages in the very behavior he's decrying!
Reduction got going as an argument in the twentieth century with Freud ("you refuse to believe in the unconscious because you were weaned too early") and Marx ("you value property rights because you are a prisoner of the ruling ideology"), jumped over to the conservative side with Milton Friedman ("you only worry about the poor because silly irrational Keynesians keep you from seeing how free it makes them to choose to be poor") and defense-geekery ("the only reason you criticize using this weapon to massacre civilians is that you don't know its rate of fire and where it fits into tactical doctrine"), and can today also be found in the arts ("you're just throwing paint at canvas because collectors pay money for that" and "you put sex in there to sell more copies") and even in some of the sciences ("you only think that idea because you have the meme for it.")
He just "snarked" all over Freud, Marx, Friedman, Dawkins, et al. in the exact same manner he was complaining about. He reduced huge bodies of work to glib quips which show how the original writers were obviously wrong and don't need to be read to be rejected. I don't like reductionism either, but it deserves to be rigorously engaged with and debunked, not just tossed aside lightly (it should be thrown with great force etc.).

Either the whole thing was some kind of elaborate meta-joke, or this fellow is shamefully lacking in self-awareness.
posted by overeducated_alligator at 2:04 PM on September 4, 2012 [1 favorite]


> Either the whole thing was some kind of elaborate meta-joke, or this fellow is shamefully lacking in self-awareness.

Uh huh. Got a mirror handy?
posted by languagehat at 2:43 PM on September 4, 2012


Languagehat, I don't understand what you're trying to say with that comment -- you think I'm being snarky/dismissive?

My intention is to complain about specific problems with the blog post, problems which seem so obvious to me that they make me question the quality of the piece as a whole. I'm not meaning to sardonically scoff at the writer from a safe perch of wry emotional detachment. If anything, I'm pissed off at him because I think the core of his criticisms are true, but deserve much better expression!
posted by overeducated_alligator at 4:05 PM on September 4, 2012


Yeah, this is a use/mention problem, overeducated_alligator. It doesn't look like he subscribes to the parenthetical reduction; he's accusing proponents of those views of acting towards their critics in a reductive way. (This is called a "self-sealing argument.") Of course, at base any naturalized account of epistemology (or any account of motivations that focuses on the sources of potential errot) will suffer from some degree of this, but as you point out there are better and worse ways to do it.

I honestly can't decide what languagehat is doing here. Is this one of those moments when the elaborate meta-joke is coming from inside the thread?
posted by anotherpanacea at 4:08 PM on September 4, 2012


A late update: John Barnes noticed us a while back and said nice things.

Over at Metafilter, cgc373 noticed my I Hate Snark post from December, and provoked a very interesting discussion of it, of exactly the type that I can enjoy reading because I'm not the least bit responsible for maintaining or policing it, and therefore feel fairly little desire to comment, defend, expand, etc. myself. But if you've been wanting to say something about it, a bunch of civil and smart people (some of whom I agree with more than others, obviously) are talking about it there.
posted by cgc373 at 1:09 AM on September 27, 2012


"Also, in his blog, Joshua Miller posted something so interesting that in a week or a month or whenever I know what I think about it, I'll probably say something in this blog, so go read his piece and watch this space."

Oh, wow. That's pretty awesome. Thanks cgc373!
posted by anotherpanacea at 5:07 AM on September 27, 2012


Whoa. I didn't follow his link, so I didn't recognize Joshua Miller as anotherpanacea. Cool!
posted by cgc373 at 5:18 AM on September 27, 2012


« Older "Over the years in animation, there have been a lo...  |  Discover new indie music with ... Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments