Plenty of mean, very little meaning

God save us from Gawker’s world.

The New York-based media gossip website, which launched in 2002 and has distinguished itself by, among other things, attacking writer Neal Pollack’s young son, Elijah, is generally regarded as the prototype of a new style of cultural discourse: dismissive, superior, jaded, marked by what David Denby, in “Snark: It’s Mean, It’s Personal, and It’s Ruining Our Conversation,” calls “false knowingness,” a way of pretending to be more clued-in than it is.

Denby quotes Gawker founder Nick Denton: “The ideal Gawker item is something triggered by a quote at a party, or an incident, or a story somewhere else and serves to expose hypocrisy, or turn conventional wisdom on its head, and it’s 100 words long, 200 max.” This, Denby continues, is “snark’s mission statement -- indolent parasitism as a work ethos.”

“Snark” aspires to make a counter-argument: that the culture of mean, as exemplified by Gawker, TMZ and Perez Hilton, is not just idiotic but a dehumanizing force. “We are in a shaky moment,” Denby writes, “a moment of transition, and I think it’s reasonable to ask: What are we doing to ourselves? What kind of journalistic culture do we want? . . . What kind of national conversation?”


These are excellent questions, the kind any thinking person ought to be asking as the top-down authority of traditional media yields to the fluidity of the electronic frontier. What makes this new paradigm so exciting, after all, is what makes it so unsettling: that we can respond to anything instantaneously, almost without thinking, Twittering and posting and YouTubing in an endless monologue, like Joyce’s stream of consciousness run amok.

“The trouble with today’s snarky pipsqueaks who break off a sentence or two, or who write a couple of mean paragraphs,” Denby notes, in a snarky aside of his own, “is that they don’t go far enough; they don’t have a coherent view of life. Spinning around in the media from moment to moment, they don’t stand for anything, push for anything; they’re mere opportunists without dedication, and they don’t win any victories.”

Missing perspective

What Denby’s really talking about is consciousness, the idea that writers, thinkers, commentators ought to have a point of view. This seems obvious enough, but it tends to get lost in the noise of constant conversation, all the commenting and cross-posting, the tiny feuds and insignificant disputes.

What is the worldview of a comments thread, with its anonymous posters spewing hateful rhetoric? Or of a site like Hot or Not, where people post photos of themselves and ask to be rated on their looks? "[B]y offering themselves up to be judged,” Denby writes, “the participants are buying into the snark culture. . . . ‘Here I am, judge me. Will I be destroyed by what you say?’ ”

There’s a voyeuristic component here, not dissimilar to, say, the audition round of “American Idol,” which draws huge ratings precisely because it allows us a forum for tearing other people down. The message in both instances is, “don’t try this at home,” unless you want to become a target of ridicule.

Yet what is the source of this ridicule, and of the dissatisfaction that fuels it? For Denby, it’s a function of “what might be called ‘superfluous anger,’ which presents itself to the snarker and his fans as entirely justified nastiness. The joke -- attempted joke -- disguises the bizarre rancor from both parties.”

That’s an excellent observation, evoking not only the contemptuousness of our culture, but also its justification, the illusion that it’s all a big in-joke. This makes for a self-fulfilling prophecy, since anyone who offers a critique clearly doesn’t get it, which renders the act of criticism moot.

Denby, of course, is a prime target for such dismissal; in his 60s, the longtime film critic at the New Yorker, he’s likely to be written off in certain quarters by virtue of demographics alone. Yet if he means “Snark” as a corrective, it’s a corrective that comes with problems of its own. For one thing, he never fully defines his terms, using snark as a convenient catch-all for a media culture gone out of control.

To mitigate that, he tries to frame a capsule history of the subject, beginning with Lewis Carroll’s “The Hunting of the Snark” -- Carroll’s subtitle was “An Agony, in Eight Fits”; Denby constructs his book in seven “fits” -- before moving on to touchstones as diverse as the Roman satirist Juvenal, Alexander Pope and Spy magazine.

Still, even though all that suggests some sort of loose context, the book ultimately doesn’t hang together, since Juvenal was less a writer of snark than of invective (related but not the same), while Carroll’s poem was about a mythical beast that, despite Denby’s best efforts to connect it, has nothing to do with attitude. It’s a stretch from “For the Snark was a Boojum, you see,” the last line of Carroll’s epic, to Denby’s assertion that "[t]he snark is the thing that makes you disappear” -- a reference to both the fate of Carroll’s snark hunters and the effects of modern snark.

Dialogue suppressed

More to the point, the problem with “Snark” is that Denby doesn’t take it far enough. It’s not snark, after all, that is the problem so much as all the sound and fury signifying nothing, the tendency of the media to comment less on the world than on themselves. Whatever happened to writing as communication, a way to share certain information, certain experiences, certain issues and beliefs? Whatever happened to the notion of engagement, the idea that media, such as they are, should be a two-way process, that we want to be part of a discussion rather than listen to a speech?

This is the critique that gets thrown around about traditional media -- that they’re prescriptive, hierarchical, interested only in promoting their views. But if sites like Gawker are the alternative, we might as well give up and walk away.

No, what we need is a revolution in sensibility, a return to civil discourse, a way of opening, rather than closing down, debate.

This too is what Denby means to argue, that we deserve better, not just from our media outlets, but also from ourselves.