Inter Alia #15: Toward a Phenomenology of Snark

February 9, 2009 | 1 book mentioned 2 3 min read

Today on WNYC’s The Brian Lehrer Show, David Denby put in an appearance promoting his new book, Snark. I’m not sure what qualifies Denby, a movie critic, to save us from “a strain of nasty, knowing abuse spreading like pinkeye through the national conversation.” Nor am I entirely sure we are in need of saving. That said, I’ve enjoyed Denby’s recent feistiness in the back pages of The New Yorker (after some mid-Bush-era doldrums), and was perfectly happy to give him a hearing while I made lunch.

coverSuffice it to say, I was underwhelmed. The segment largely consisted of Denby listening to audio clips of SNL and Crossfire declaring whether or not they constituted “snark.” In place of any really useful distinction between “nasty” snark and legitimate discourse, we got a tendentious history lesson (Diogenes but no Juvenal?) and a jurisprudential approach to snark that amounts to “I know it when I see it.”

Do we need anything more than that? Do we need to define snark? I would argue that we do. Ever since Heidi Julavits popularized the term, in her March 2003 Believer manifesto, the word “snark” has been used as a cudgel against all manner of populist tomfoolery (Julavits singles out The New York Post), even as it has proven useless against the pungent attitudinizing of Gawker and its discontents. (For fun, check out the Denby comment thread.) Moreover, the pejorative overtones of the floating signifier “snark” imply that equally fatuous but positive commentary is somehow less damaging to “the national conversation.” If we’re going to have a conversation about that conversation, it seems worth knowing what we’re talking about when we talk about snark. So here, tendered with love and humility, are some notes toward a phenomenology of snark.

  1. Snark is, above all, a tone, and this is what makes it so difficult to pin down. Julavits calls it a “hostile, knowing, bitter tone of contempt,” but forecloses the possibility that hostility and bitterness might be legitimate critical positions. And again, for some reason, online text often reads as more hostile than it actually is. (Think of the phenomenon of the misunderstood email.) No, it’s not negativity, but been-there, seen-that “knowingness,” that is the call-note of snark. (It is impossible to surprise a Snark.) However, allowance must be made for the fact that some people actually know things. Perhaps snark, properly understood, involves a tone of knowingness that doesn’t correspond to actual knowledge. (Truly great snark would thus be impossible to identify: persuading us of its authority, it would be ignorance that leaves no fingerprints.)
  2. A related point: snark is a response disproportionate to the offense, a comment that outshouts the original post. The Snark expends more emotional and intellectual energy formulating his aphorisms than he did consuming, or skimming, their subject. Otherwise, we would have to recognize his hostility, bitterness, or contempt as legitimate. (We carp because we care.) Currently, the perfect object of snark for me is Benjamin Button; it’s a movie I’ll never see, but have put a great deal of thought into making fun of. This lack of regard is more deeply wounding to Benjamin Button fans than it would be if I actually had a legitimate grievance against the film.
  3. The true Snark, perhaps by virtue of his reflexive contempt, cannot be bothered to understand the object of his snark – to expand the compass of his sympathies, to assume good faith. Thus James Wood, even at his most trenchant, does not get accused of snark, whereas Lee Siegel, for all his anti-web fulminations, often seems to be writing from the very heart of snarkness. Siegel believes the length of his essays, and their appearance in print, indemnifies him against his own charges, but is wrong (see numbers 1 and 2 above). Brevity is the soul of wit, but not necessarily of snark.
  4. Snark is a kind of show of plumage, almost a mating ritual. As such, snark always calls more attention to the Snark than to snarked. But again, just because the dagger is driven in with a flourish does not mean it is done snarkily. The thoughtful, the passionate, and the justly aggrieved – Nietzsche, Oscar Wilde, Anthony Lane – are entitled to be stylish, without being shouted down for snark.
  5. Morally, snark is no better or worse than genial puffery; indeed, it is its dark twin, its complement, an advertisement for the self. Snark is more aesthetically pleasing than puff, however, by virtue of the complexity of its defense mechanisms. It reduces criticism of itself to a negation of a negation – that is, to mere snark. Hence: Denby.

Such notes can only be preliminary. They attempt to prepare the ground for, but do not answer, more important questions: Is snark truly a conjunctivitic plague upon the nation? Or is it, rather, a form of hygiene, defending us against an epidemic of epiphenomena we do not and should not care about? Perhaps the answers are not to be found in intellectualizing, but in a tortured embrace of our own snarky sides. As Susan Sontag might say, in place of a hermeneutics, we need an erotics of snark.

As always, your thoughts (even snarky ones) are welcome.

is the author of City on Fire and A Field Guide to the North American Family. In 2017, he was named one of Granta's Best Young American Novelists.


  1. I am rather surprised that no one seems to have commented on this excellent post. I haven't read Denby's book, but based on what I have read about it, it wouldn't surprise me if Mr. Hallberg's single page got to the heart of the matter more efficiently than Denby's 150 pages.

    I am divided on snark, as many of us seem to be. On the one hand, robust satire can indeed perform a hygienic function in a craptastic media culture. The Onion often fulfills that function, South Park often does, the underrated sports commentator Jim Rome at his best does as well. But unearned snark (which Rome was frequently guilty of in his younger days) is simply annoying and a waste of time. Perhaps, as with any form, there is 10-25% that is passable to superior (I am being more generous than Sturgeon's Law), and 75% that is unworthy. Since all snark involves identifying the unworthy in other formats, unworthy snark is perhaps especially annoying because it pretends a superiority it has not itself demonstrated.

Add Your Comment:

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.