Corrupting the Youth, History and Historians

Hunting Snark – and History

 Or, <eye roll> Primary Documents </eye roll>

Tom Scocca’s recent snarking on smarm has got me thinking about the connections between history, as it is written and pursued, and one of the defining literary styles of our time. But before I bloviate over a blog post, here’s the essay: go have a look.

I’ll wait.


What’s got me interested, in particular, is the way in which the essay sets about establishing its authority. I think Scocca does it early, with an anecdote about Thumper:

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.”

The line is uttered by Thumper, Bambi’s young bunny companion, but its attribution is more complicated than that—Thumper’s mother is making him recite a rule handed down by his father, by way of admonishing her son for unkindness. It is scolding, couched as an appeal to goodness, in the name of an absent authority.

~Tom Scocca, “On Smarm,”, 12/05/2013

It strikes me that Scocca buries the opposition to snark – and deflates any appeal to glossy smiles as a ruling virtue of civilization – by neatly deploying a historical argument. He finds an origin point for the Buzzfeed perspective on book reviews, brings it to our attention, and situates it in context. With its supports now naked and brightly lit, the reader can’t help but think the position being investigated stands upon shaky, if not outright dangerous, argumentative ground.

Going back in time to expose origins and thus create textual space to establish the grounds for a new argument is, of course, a technique so ingrained in historians’ and other scholars’ work that it is almost not worth mentioning. (If only he had started with this surprising anecdote about a historical character, the essay might be ready for publication in a leading journal!)

It’s also a move Scocca repeats several times, as he builds his case for aggressive criticism against nice, bland centrist agreement (see: his etymology of “smarm”; the piling up of biblical citations; the dredging up of Denby’s past positions).

This methodological device is not the only tool used in the essay, not by any means; Scocca’s skills are such that he’s made reviews of Manhattan weather into an art form. But it is a particularly interesting one, given the target of is ire. Smarm, he tells us “hopes to fill the cultural or political or religious void left by the collapse of authority, undermined by modernity and postmodernity.” Its users invoke “an ersatz” authority, “but the appearance of authority is usually enough to get by with.” Scocca’s essay, by contrast, builds its case, in part, on virtuoso performances of research, which are exercises in truth-telling that establish its own authority.

That he does so without footnotes or other scholarly apparatus isn’t a problem: the language of the essay advertises its own transparency through its direct “real talk” and mild profanity (rhetorical tools that help to define successful snark). The Daily Show trades in similar tactics, similarly well deployed. (The repeated glyph of glassy-eyed rabbit signals section-breaks is a nice touch, too).

And in a small but significant way, both put the lie to the idea that “modernity” or “postmodernity” have collapsed authority. Methods of persuasion based on authority still function – but the authority lies in showing your work, or appearing to do so. Implicit trust on an argument based upon where it issues forth from is perhaps on shakier ground – but as Socrates could’ve told you before his hemlock latte, speaking ex cathedra has never been done from a completely secure chair.

Again, my intention is not to analyze of Scocca’s argument as a whole, the tools he uses to make it, or even its broader implications. Far greater minds than mine are at work on that opus now, 140 characters at a time.


But I am interested in what it all means for history. I don’t think historical thinking is reliably pro- or anti-snark, per se. As that statement typifies, I think historical arguments prejudice one toward the “it’s complicated” status – and that’s the lesson. Thinking historically is decidely one way to get free of smarm, and expose it; indeed, that’s one of its key features as a discipline. The political centrism Scocca inveighs against in the final part of his essay does its work, in his view, by making its policy conclusions apolitical – not up for debate. That also makes it ahistorical, because it occludes investigation of how things came to be accepted as settled.

At the very least, I don’t worry that the professional practice of history is in any danger of all-encompassing positivity and its product, bullshit – outside of the genre of recommendation letters, that is.

Further, I think you can make the case that the attitude snark embodies when done well – when it is the “theory of cynicism” Scocca describes it as – is actually quite copacetic to historical inquiry. Theorizing the world as a cynic (as opposed to being merely cynical) means being skeptical; which is to say, being disposed to ask questions about meanings, origins, and processes. Taken beyond the internet-age tropes and Gawker-ready world-weary affects – much as I enjoy them at times – isn’t snark doing the work that we encourage our students, our colleagues, and ourselves to do with sources?

Image: Bookcover front of “The Hunting of the Snark” by Lewis Carroll and Henry Holiday (1876), Wikimedia Commons.