Friday, August 26, 2005

The Hunting of the Snarky

(Author's Note and Disclaimer: It was late. I couldn't sleep. Much of this is tongue-in-cheek. If it riles you up, you probably shouldn't be reading my blog anyhow.)

Over on QueerJoe's blog, he has posted the following:
Early on, most on-line knitting communities tended to melt into the overall philosophy of the KnitList, which was "don't cause controversy", "don't rock the boat", "be nice"...

Then some blogs took up the call for more snarky, attitudinal commentary on knitting
Now, as a child I learned in the last line of Lewis Carroll's epic poem that a snark was a boojum, and considered the matter settled. But here we have an obvious use of the old word taking on a new meaning.

What, then, is snark? Is it wit? Is it nastiness? Can one snark good-naturedly, or is it mean-spirited by definition?

As with any neologism, I doubt there's a hard-and-fast answer. But maybe I can zero in on the meaning as it occurs in the narrow sector of knitting blogs and fora.

The KnitList: Absence of Snark

If, as Joe avers, the KnitList was the primordial ooze from which sprang the blogs and message fora that now constitute the online knitting community, we can accept its core values as embodying the opposite of snark or non-snark.

With Joe as our guide, we witness the KnitList as an organization eschewing
  • controversy,
and which values
  • conformity,
and which self-polices participants to make sure they are always
  • nice.
"Nice" is a tricky word. For greater clarity, let's consult the dictionary to see which of the many definitions most likely are meant in the context of the KnitList. (You have nothing else to do tonight, right? If you do, why are you still reading this?)

These are the logical candidates:
  • pleasant or pleasing or agreeable in nature or appearance,
  • decent: socially or conventionally correct,
  • courteous: exhibiting courtesy and politeness.
To be "nice," in the realm of the KnitList, may therefore be taken as being agreeable in nature, conventionally correct, and polite.

Snark as Alternative Value System

If snark, as a quality or perceived value system, was considered so incompatible with the KnitList that its advocates were inspired to break away and form their own list, we can logically surmise that snark would display attributes opposite those above. Those partial to snark would therefore welcome:
  • controversy,
would value
  • self-expression over conformity
and would at least on occasion enter the realm of the
  • unpleasant, unconventional, impolite (opposities of "nice").
To test our theorem, we must find at least one example of a forum or blog which demonstrates the quality of "snark."

While Joe, like any quick-witted gay man, has his moments, the generally accepted ne plus ultra of knitting snark is undoubtedly The Knitting Curmudgeon. Does it conform to our definition?

Here is Marilyn, the eponymous curmudgeon, exhibiting in one representative paragraph all of the attributes of snark. The topic is the term "Knitting Universe."
And those of you who knit, know the genesis of those words. Well, I find that concept offensive. Yes, it's true. I am offended. While I wouldn't put it in the same league as abuse of women and children, discrimination, instruments of mass destruction and other things that offend a great many of us, I still find the term odious. Why? Well, without risking a lawsuit, let me say that it takes big brass ones for one magazine to define The Knitting Universe as it pertains to the editorial staff and its bombastic, out-of-control publisher. Yeah, I know. I'll never work for them after this little essay. Ask me if I care.
We have here controversy ("I am offended"), self-expression over conformity ("I'll never work for them...") and the employment of sentiments not within the realm of conventional politeness ("big brass ones," "Ask me if I care.").

We have, in short, a museum-quality example of snark.

Coexistence of
Snark and Non-Snark

This cursory bit of pondering leads me to believe that snark can be defined as an entire value system, not simply a manner or speaking or a figure or speech.

And as the presence of only one value system would indicate a fascist regime, I would venture to say that the continued co-existence of snark and non-snark communities should be reassuring to both camps.

However, as with any value system, when snark is employed it will tend to encourage those who share it and alienate those who do not. This is perhaps the reason that snark-based blogs often draw dissenting commentary from those who lead non-snark lives, and vice-versa.

Conclusion: In Defense of Snark

Without wishing to enter (it's nearly midnight, for heaven's sake. am I nuts?) the larger argument of whether knitting and needlework are art or craft, I do wish to point out that the qualities of snark, as defined above, are those which delineate the "critical" aspect of any art form, be it painting, cinema, writing, or any other.

Viable, lasting art cannot be created in a critical vacuum. A world in which art is created according to a single, strict set of principles and policed for conformity seldom inspires works that outlive the moment of creation. Witness the state-backed operas and public artworks of the former Soviet Union, most of which now strike one, at best, as emotionally stillborn curiosities.

If an art is to progress, or even persist, history demonstrates time and again that a self-critical population is necessary to prevent sterility and vacuuity. Artistic "golden ages," such as the Renaissance and the explosion of jazz in the 1920s, often emerge when a community is radically re-evaluating its own identities and questioning established conventions.

It defies logic, but stasis and stability are often enemies of creativity. As André Gide wrote: "Greece banished the man who added a string to the lyre. Art dies of liberty, and thrives on restraint."

Without criticism, you have no art.

Without snark, you would probably have mostly ponchos and toilet paper covers.

Take your pick.


geogrrl said...

Excellent post. I've only been reading your blog for a short time, but colour me impressed.

TurnipToes said...

Oh Franklin, you make me chuckle inside approvingly. I one day strive to filled with snark.

Colleen said...

You can't see me - but I'm standing and saluting you - and Joe and Marilyn, too.

Ann said...

The college that I work for has a Professor Snark who appears once a year for the annual employee Christmas party. Snark and company provide a skit filled with jabs at the college administration. Very often pushing the envelope and walking a thin line. It can be the highlight of the event.

Up until reading your blog, I thought the snark topic was covered...I feel somehow further enlightened. :o)

dragon knitter said...

"Without snark, you would probably have mostly ponchos and toilet paper covers." sing it brother!

birdfarm said...

Ah, Franklin, you are inimitable: imo, a fantastic post. "...snark can be defined as an entire value system..." Which you just did, brilliantly.

If I may be so bold as to gild this lily.... Like any classic essay, it starts with something apparently incidental and seamlessly cultivates that initial germ into an insightful commentary on much larger themes fundamental to human social existence--all with dry wit and spectacular intellectual lucidity. The historical references, both useful and impressive, provided the perfect punctuation. Altogether incisive and thought-provoking cultural criticism. Bravo.

This should be published somewhere. Oh, wait. It was. Next thought: RHR really should be reading this; she'd love it.

For what it's worth, "snarky" may be more of a paleo- than a neologism: I have heard my mother use the term on many occasions, and paleologisms are (as you well know) her specialty.

And, lastly: "...the presence of only one value system would indicate a fascist regime..." Intriguing....definite food for future thought. I reflected a lot on the presence of one overpowering value system in Japan, although certainly some faint countercurrents exist on the margins (more later on that). In any case, do you have any reading recommendations that would further elaborate on this theme? (No, I'm not kidding; rather, I'm unemployed and over-educated).


Ann said...


I have been reprimanded for my snarkiness (at work) while the reprimanders have (privately) told me that they appreciate my saying what they can't.

I salute you, and Joe and the Curmudgeon.

Elizabeth said...

I don't aspire to snarkiness myself, but I applaud a certain amount of it in others. Too much niceness is not a good thing. When I first discovered Marilyn's blog, she was collecting submissions for the Christmas Crap-Along 2003. (Unfortunately, those photos are no longer available.) And I thought to myself, here's someone with a cutting sense of humor. And I like it.

Fran / Blue Gal said...

The reason that Marilyn can be snarky is because she is an excellent knitter. One look at the quality of her work and you realize her snarkiness (great word) is an attack on the mediocrity of "the knitting universe," and I mean that specifically and generally. She is not bitchy, she is inspirational. I wish more new knitters had a sense of apprenticeship toward the goal of being an artisan like KC.

Carol said...

Brilliant post. Is the derivation of the word: "snark" = "snide" + "sarc[-asm]? Guess I better go Google the OED.

Elizabeth said...

Franklin, It's time to turn on the character recognition option. It will eliminate a lot of the spam.

goblinbox said...

Okay, you know I love you, right? But stop with the ponchos! I intend to knit and wear one someday, and I won't have you mocking me.

Brilliant essay, btw. ;-)

Unknown said...

Thanks, Franklin et al. Can this boy write or what? Such talent.

Here's a little hint: Most of us snarks are actually sensitive, passionate people. I love knitting more than any other craft, and I've done most of them. Even the simplest of knitted garments can be elegant if the knitter cares enough. You don't have to be an expert to make nice things and get that great sense of satisfaction.

Unfortunately, there has arisen this bizarre laziness and lowering of standards that I find appalling. So I have to snark. It's the only way to fight mediocrity.

Of course, I am the third generation of snarky women, so I suppose that it's part of my genetic makeup.

kbsalazar said...

Anyone who can put such an incisive philosophical spin on snark has a brilliant future in the wonderful world of proposal writing. Especially if they yearn for the feel of the deadline lash across their clavicles. Let me know if you want to change fields. (Ouch. Hit me again, please.) -K.

Susan said...

Marilyn says, "Unfortunately, there has arisen this bizarre laziness and lowering of standards that I find appalling. So I have to snark. It's the only way to fight mediocrity." you think this could apply to my high school teaching? Maybe I should up my snarkiness.

birdfarm said...

My general sense of schools is that both students and teachers generally feel defensive, inadequate, and self-loathing--and that's on a good day. I'm not sure more snark is what's needed in that environment. But, hey, your mileage may vary.

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