“What is your view of snark,” Lou Reed’s Nephew asked me last night in the Jedediah Purdy Memorial Co-Working Wing.
“I saw Pulp Fiction in a theater,” I replied.
“A cineplex. The day it opened.”
“Sigh,” Lou Reed’s Nephew sighed, “You must breathe the stuff. I was born too late, I guess.”
“For what? The Civil War? The Belle Époque ?”
“For seeing Pulp Fiction, on opening day, in the primordial era of snark.”
I wasn’t sure what he was getting at.
“What are getting at?” I asked.
“A war is on,” he explained. “An Internet war, between snark and smarm.”
“These are bands, Snark and Smarm?”
“No,” he laughed. “But that’s very nineties of you. Awesome. Like they were on Matador or something. No, they are tones or perhaps styles. Dispositions maybe.”
“So this is a war between invisible kingdoms,” I suggested.
“More or less,” he allowed, before turning to the whiteboard, on which he was always scrawling diagrams that seemed intelligible only to him.
This one, however, was disconcertingly scrutable. It began, classically, with a Cartesian grid.
To which he added the poles under discussion.
Around these he then stalked, in his tiny cube and across the aisle into mine.
Back and forth.
“But this doesn’t get it,” he said, seemingly teasing something out of his mind. “This isn’t what it’s about. This is what it’s about.”
He took the marker back to the board and completed the remaining poles.
“Snark and smarm have always been with us,” he said, gesturing toward the board. Relaxed. Satisfied. “But both can be performed either with knowing—actual knowledge—or with mere knowing-NESS.”
In his voice, as in his diagram, he landed hard on the suffix.
-NESS. Like a serpent’s hiss.
“Now, all civilized and advanced discourse, filtered—as it used to be—for quality, used to have a certain knowningness about, whether it was positive or negative, declinist or Whigish. Snark and smarm were philosophical styles—atunements if you like—but knowingness was the medium itself.”
“You are exhausting me,” I said.
“Enough of your indie rock nihilism,” he chided. “I’m almost through.”
He returned to the board, stabbing it with useless black dots.
“But somewhere along the way,” he continued. “Knowingness and knowing became decoupled. Knowingness became cheap to acquire, in oneself and others. There were children, all the time, growing up with knowingness in their veins, like you with your aloof, shoegazing posturing.”
I did not know what to say, so I said nothing.
“It became as common and unconscious as vocal fry, this ventriloquized knowingness devoid of real knowledge, though even those who sought to buy it cheap and sell it high couldn’t believe their luck when they saw what happened next.”
“And what did happen next?” I asked, seeing that the only way out was through.
“It turned out that no one—and I mean no one—could tell the difference. Those who mastered knowingness came to be revered as the knowing, and no one even suspected the exchange. It was if all the gold bars in Fort Knox were replaced with painted logs without a single alarm going off.”
“I am confused,” I yawned. “At our very first meeting, you professed that you knew absolutely nothing, but now your game has changed. You seem to know an awful lot.”
“About this,” he admitted. “About this only. I may be the world’s leading expert on feigning knowledge while possessing none.”
“You don’t give yourself enough credit,” I said.
“No,” he said. “That’s what I’m trying to tell you. You give me too much. Everybody does.”