The Null Device
On Smarm, an essay pointing out that the problem with the internet is not snark but its condemnation, and through that, smarm; i.e., emotive appeals to the idea of positivity as a virtue (as if it were motherhood or apple pie or adorable kittens), and condemnation of negativity in general:
Over time, it has become clear that anti-negativity is a worldview of its own, a particular mode of thinking and argument, no matter how evasively or vapidly it chooses to express itself. For a guiding principle of 21st century literary criticism, BuzzFeed's Fitzgerald turned to the moral and intellectual teachings of Walt Disney, in the movie Bambi: "If you can't say something nice, don't say nothing at all."Smarm (whose genesis, in its current form, the article lays at the feet of that one-man Coldplay of letters, Dave Eggers, who exhorted to “not dismiss a movie until you have made one”, singlehandedly reserving the right to engage in, rather than merely consuming, culture for those within the culture industry) may be most obviously evident on the web, in cloyingly snark-free websites like Buzzfeed and Upworthy (the latter of which spawned a satirical webtoy), and the one-sided boosterism of the “like” button, but its effects go beyond the risk of ending up with an overly warmed heart and a jaw needing to be picked up off the floor. As a content-free (and thus outside of the criteria of debate) appeal to a nebulous ideal of civility or niceness (and surely everybody loves niceness, much like kittens and cupcakes), it is a tool for disingenuously shutting down challenging voices, and is very useful for bolstering the status quo when appeals to, say, the divine right of kings or the Hobbesian necessity of there being an ultimate authority, no longer hold water: don't do it because I said so, but do it because kittens.
Smarm hopes to fill the cultural or political or religious void left by the collapse of authority, undermined by modernity and postmodernity. It's not enough anymore to point to God or the Western tradition or the civilized consensus for a definitive value judgment. Yet a person can still gesture in the direction of things that resemble those values, vaguely.As concerns about “civility” and the “tone of debate” and such are raised, the result is often a soupy homogenate of truisms, motherhood statements and content-free manufactured consensus, meeting in the middle and staying there, bathed in a glow of positive sentiment: democratic debate reduced to calming mood lighting. Which undoubtedly serves interests behind the scene just fine.
Here is Obama in 2012, wrapping up a presidential debate performance against Mitt Romney: “I believe that the free enterprise system is the greatest engine of prosperity the world's ever known. I believe in self-reliance and individual initiative and risk-takers being rewarded. But I also believe that everybody should have a fair shot and everybody should do their fair share and everybody should play by the same rules, because that's how our economy is grown. That's how we built the world's greatest middle class.”
The lone identifiable point of ideological distinction between the president and his opponent, in that passage, is the word "but." Everything else is a generic cross-partisan recitation of the indisputable: Free enterprise ... prosperity ... self-reliance ... initiative ... a fair shot ... the world's greatest middle class.And, of course, smarm is useful for ruling out points of view deemed to be inadmissible, on the grounds that they are too negative, or confrontational, or that we have outgrown such petty squabbling about actual issues:
The New York Times reported last month that in 2011, the Obama Administration decided not to nominate Rebecca M. Blank to be the head of the Council of Economic Advisers, because of "something politically dangerous" she had written in the past: In writing about poverty relief, she had used the word "redistribution."
Like every other mode, snark can sometimes be done badly or to bad purposes. Smarm, on the other hand, is never a force for good. A civilization that speaks in smarm is a civilization that has lost its ability to talk about purposes at all. It is a civilization that says "Don't Be Evil," rather than making sure it does not do evil.Topically, we are currently witnessing a tsunami of smarm over the recently deceased Nelson Mandela, as right-wing politicians, many of whom wore HANG MANDELA badges at their Conservative Students meetings or lobbied against sanctions against the apartheid regime, fawningly profess what an inspiration the great man had been to them, with the implication that Mandela was not a freedom fighter but some kind of apolitical, beatific self-help guru, a Princess Diana in Magical Negro form, come to heal us with peace and love. It's ironic to think that, as utterly wrong as Margaret Thatcher was when she denounced Mandela as a terrorist, her view was at least grounded in reality, unlike the insipid words of content-free praise her successors are heaping upon him.