Notes on Snark 1, Violent Metaphors, and Therapeutic Authoritarianism

In idle moments, I sometimes think I should write a short book titled, Notes on Snark.  The intent is not to write snark, but instead to analyze it as a rhetorical form.  I realize that David Denby was supposed to have done this in his book Snark.  Unfortunately, I read the book and concluded – I was not alone in so thinking – that Denby started out well but soon succumbed to the temptation to define as snark merely things he disagreed with or disliked.  (There is also Sunstein and Web 2.0, but that is different from the Philosophic Inquiry I have in mind. Anyway, what I write below are revisable notes for this project.)

I’m interested in snark as a form of rhetoric, in which the chief quality is irony that turns into a sneer.  Irony is a more difficult concept than it might appear on the surface, because it depends upon subtle ways in which it assumes a knowing audience, and in so doing assumes an affect toward it.  I’m interested in the analysis of affect, in language and literature, in philosophy, and particularly in the social sciences that claim to be affectless, but which I find to be the expression of deep moral psychologies, the denial of which seems sometimes to be crucial to the claim of “science.”  Put another way, I’m interested in the sensibility of sense – the sensibility that underlies the discipline of economics, for example.  But I’m also interested in the sense of sensibility – the analysis of the affect that underlies snark in the blogosphere, for example.

(This is a very idle-hour project, one at best for a short essay-book a couple of years from now.  If you are a publisher and want to talk with me about it on a timeline of three years, email me.  But I do mean a serious essay that will bore most readers hoping for witty, ironic insights.  I’m interested in something closer to the 18th century moraliste essay.  Smith on the moral sentiments, Burke on the sublime, Anderson on … snark.  Hmm.)

So I might post on this occasionally as I think about the rhetorical relationships, hence the “1” above.  But for examples, well, there is no lack.  Consider this, for example, with the specifics stripped away:

[AAAA], The [ZZZZ] shite, the Dollar Store version of [FFFF], is very possibly the dumbest  on this or any other Internet. To be sure, he has his competition ([SSSS]!). But he is rather special!

However, idiotically mistaking closed captioning for STALINIST MARCHING ORDERS was, like, so this afternoon. The latest outrage is that  [TTTT] [did] [MMMM], which is wicked and conniving and wicked, for obvious reasons, these reasons being, well because. Anyone who [BBBB] is worse than Hitler, who didn’t [BBBB], but murdered millions of innocents.

Many similar things have been said on left and right – so many times one wonders when WordPress will make it a template.  And plus two paragraphs more, it garnered 200 or so comments.  This is snark, and it is a question as to what it conveys or is intended to convey, with respect to defining a community of readers.

Yet I am not a believer in keeping it civil all the time.  I’m not 100% anti-snark.  On the contrary, it’s precisely because I believe in affect as relevant that I think it worth studying closely.  Irony, sneer, parody, satire, abuse, anger, incivility – all those can convey signals that are crucial to human relationships, including political ones.  I am with the school of thought in the current debates saying the point of politics is not to banish anger, but to convert it into forms of engagement.  That does not mean losing the anger; it means abandoning the violence, and the acceptance that sometimes you win, sometimes you lose, but unlike war, you are deliberately not playing for keeps.

We are able to keep the metaphors of violence precisely because we will not be violent.  The often-offered view these days that the metaphors justify actual violence arises from a deeply mistaken moral psychology.  It arises from a deep assumption that the citizenry are actually infants, incapable of distinguishing between wish and action, between fantasy and reality.  Freud returns as the repressed.  This is a view marvelously agreeable to our elites and our political class, deep Freudians all, however, because it asserts that the citizenry are not adults, but infants, caught in the grip of an infantilism that says we the people cannot distinguish between metaphor and deed, and stand in need of guidance from our elite betters, who apparently can.  Therapeutic authoritarianism.

It’s not just infantilism, the inability to distinguish fantasy from deed.  It is also narcissism.  Narcissism, as Jonathan Lear observed in an essay upon the death of Christopher “Culture of Narcissism” Lasch, is not self-love, as understood in the common parlance, and even less merely self-centered pleasure-seeking.  It is, rather, being unable to “see the boundaries between self and world, wandering in the hall of mirrors that [is] our image-saturated society.”  It is conducive to elite governance, to elite political management through the culture of therapeutic authoritarianism, to regard the citizenry as infants and narcissists in this way.  Understanding the citizenry as mere consumers lost in the hall of mirrors is, to put it mildly, an invitation to therapeutic guidance to direct and manage them.  (That’s using Lasch’s frame of reference, and yes, we are going to have to talk a lot more about social theory of the New Class if we hope to have a framework of ideas adequate to explaining the current conditions of our elites.  People get ready.)

The therapeutic category is one that goes a long way to explaining how so many of the political class seem to believe that they are doing the citizenry a great service, at great sacrifice to themselves, and that the rest of us should be grateful. This is a question of affect that conditions the conduct of politics, the presuppositions of who owes what to whom, the “directionality” of authority in a representative democracy.  Its affective quality seems to me not something that can be elided.

Anger in political discourse, then, has an important and honored place; likewise the metaphors of violence and war.  Snark has a place, too, because a lot of politics is a matter of defining who is in your community and who is out; and the sneer is likewise a time honored way of doing it.  At some point, however, it loses its bite, and the question is when and how.  One answer is that it loses its bite when everyone has more or less sorted themselves into their affective communities; “ridicule,” as Mathilde de la Mole’s father said of France of 1830, is “no longer possible in a democracy with two political parties.”

There’s something to that; the party system means that the objects of ridicule have, in important ways, put themselves beyond reach by retreating to their insulated communities.  Unfortunately, the moment when the two parties share so little in common that ridicule has no bite, even in principle, might well define the moment when there is no shared political community.  Vive (a certain amount of) snark?