In Praise of Sardony

Dom Rottman

9 June 2022

Though you have almost certainly experienced sardonicism, or, the more pretentious term I prefer, sardony, and doubtless have been sardonic before, the term itself isn’t so common. What is Sardonicism? It is a form of truth-telling as a cynical mode of expression. For the time being, let’s not think too much about what it means to tell the truth–but for starters, I do not think it’s radical to say that there are many ways to communicate truth, and in many cases, stating it plainly is not the best way to go about it, to do it justice.

Before getting deeper into sardonicism, it’ll help us to define it negatively against two similar (and often related) forms of expression: sarcasm and irony. Sarcasm, surely, is a very familiar and almost everyday phenomenon (oh, really?). Sarcasm, by intentionally employing language inauthentically, conveys a certain intimate knowledge–though I am stating x, I know that circumstances are actually y–and as a result, the truth of y is stated through x. Sarcasm is a form of irony: circumstances where that which appears or is expressed actually leads to or signifies the contrary. Boycotts on certain companies or organizations, for example, when loudly proclaimed on social media, can often lead to an actual increase in sales. Socrates was famous for being ironic: in proclaiming his ignorance to his interlocutors, he drew out that their own beliefs were actually contradictory or otherwise unstable, making him, as the Oracle said, the “wisest man in Athens” by default.

Sardonicism, in contrast to irony, has no interest in hiding the truth behind the opposite. It communicates truth directly, but not plainly. It would bring into the light the nature of things which are generally considered to be better left hidden, and does so with mockery, in a skepticism or critique of their value. It laughs at the absurdity of how many uncomfortable and dark things are conveniently ignored in order to maintain that which is good. It collapses the ironic: the good and beautiful appearance is thrown back into the brutality of what makes it possible. It is uncertain how sardonicism arose in its current meaning, other than, for whatever reason, being etymologically tied to the island of Sardinia. The Soviet Folklorist Vladimir Propp has my favorite theory–he writes of how the ancient Sardinians would kill their old, and laugh loudly while doing so. We can imagine how such people would brutally murder the elderly for whatever reason–to appease the gods, to end their suffering, because they were a burden–and laugh at the fact that this brutal, heinous act was a part of their way of life to be pious or otherwise maintain their society.

“Oh come now, Dom, this is just about communication, you obviously don’t mean sardony or sardonicism to have such an exaggerated connotation.”

Don’t I, though?

What are you wearing? No, really, what are you wearing? Clothes, I hope, clothes that were likely made in some southeastern Asian country by underpaid children. What are you reading this on? A computer, your phone, something with delicately crafted pieces made of rare metals, manufactured in factories filled with various toxic fumes and health hazards, nets hanging outside the windows. Oh, and of course those people are underpaid too, even more so than you (yeah, you’re likely underpaid, what of it?). Have you eaten anything today? Have you had coffee yet today? That fair-trade certified logo may mean that yes, maybe the workers on the farm have better material conditions than those southeastern Asian sweatshops, but how much surplus value was skimmed by the shipping company, and finally the vendor who stamps their name on the product, whose workers are probably also underpaid or, in any case, do not realize the full value of their labor? Organic this, organic that, farm-to-table–meaningless! Every food is organic, strictly speaking, and every food is farm to table, strictly speaking, you only hope that less interference in the process of production happens, that the supply chain is shorter, that each act on it is more fair and green, and that maybe that will all make it okay?

Ah yes, the classic guilt trip “you live in a society” speech, the “no ethical consumption under capitalism” bit, how original, you pretentious artisan coffee-sipping culture commodity-gluttoning aesthete; oh hello pot, may I introduce you to my friend the kettle–no, no, don’t get me wrong. I’m not judging. I’m not suggesting that you–no, I don’t even want you to–sew your own clothes, become a luddite, live out in the country, off the grid, and become a subsistence farmer. I’m not even judging stuff, stuff is good, I can’t imagine life without computers, smartphones or…food. The fact that we basically need these things makes it worse. But I want you to take a moment and think about it. Let it sink in. Do you feel it? The guilt context of the living–that your entire world is built as a consequence of many sins–is so totalizing that it becomes hard to recognize, much less reckon with. Some are more in tune with it than others, and at different times and in different frequencies. Many ignore it. In fact, we have to, for to contemplate each and every instance of wrongdoing and fully grasp it in its severity would paralyze. We’re already miserable enough–do we really need to be guilty too? I did not intend to make you feel ashamed. If you did, then too bad, and if you didn’t, I don’t care. I’m just reminding you of some things.

“What am I to do?” No, really, think about it. Vote? Hilarious. Look where that got you–whether you mean ballots or wallets. Some nerds on the internet are better at collapsing hedge funds than you. And did you believe that old man? You should have. I did. He said nothing would fundamentally change! Oh, you mean the other one? Who talked about American carnage? Yeah, I believed him too.

Donate? Oh, you mean beyond what you need for your tax write-off. Well first of all, you had better look at the books of your favorite nonprofit, and even then, God knows what your money is doing. Oh, and PACs? I thought we hated Citizens United. Plus, don’t you feel a little scummy? I don’t think funding lobbyists makes you look good. And don’t lie, you know in your heart of hearts you’re donating in bad faith.

Take to the Streets? Okay, that sounds a little better. But personally I think we’re both much more comfortable doing this, staying behind a screen, you reading this, then back to doomscrolling, me writing this, then back to wallowing in my personal misery… Getting arrested seems a little inconvenient right now, no?. Especially if that arrest is preceded by tear gas, rubber bullets, and miscellaneous indiscriminate–actually no, I forgot I’m dark, so discriminate–acts of violence desecrating my body.

God, aren’t you tired of being nice? Don’t you just want to go fucking apeshit?

There are, at this point, two modes of sardony; expression of the truth comes in two parts: violence and vice. For various moral and legal reasons the first part is not literal or material. In culture, in ideology, in art, in entertainment, imaginary violence is sardonic metaphor for material violence. Yeah yeah yeah, we all have our favorite violent villains, the Darth Vaders and the Dio Brandos and the Thanoses and whoever. But they’re the bad guys. You ever think about how violent the good guys are? Who are Master Chief, Solid Snake, Goku (oh, especially Goku), James Bond, Ezio (The game’s called Assassin’s fucking Creed), The Avengers, The Jedi, without the guns, the superpowers, the blades, the magic, the lightsabers? A bunch of goody-two-shoes shmucks playing one-dimensional protagonists in another ideological cultural commodity that we call a “story” because some Swiss psychiatrist wanted us all to be boring. And besides, what’s wrong the bad guys anyway? Don’t you have the most fun in video games when you get to control them? Their powers are so much sicker, they’re so much more badass…

More honest protagonists: The Vault Hunters in Borderlands buying cheap, physics-defying tacticool guns by the dozen to mulch down corporate mooks for liberation and loot. The axe scene fight in Snowpiercer. Hell yeah. Shoot first, punch first, ask questions later. Live out the fantasy of your great-grandfathers from the turn of the 20th century who beat the living shit out of their robber baron bosses. You probably don’t know because you likely don’t run in radical internet circles, but have you noticed the amount of guillotines popping up in memes and stuff recently? One was even outside Jeff Bezos’ house the other day. No, no one’s actually going to try and use it; Like I said, we’re too chickenshit to even block a street. But is the expression not just? “The naked truth of decolonization evokes for us the searing bullets and bloodstained knives which emanate from it;”1 the only language known from birth that effects change is that of violence; so it is with all oppositions of oppressor and oppressed. To talk to the king you have to speak the king’s language, and he sprays bullets out of his fucking mouth. I’m sick of all these feel-good biopics ("they love blood, they love action, not this talky, depressing, philosophical bullshit"),2 and blockbuster producers don’t have the balls to make more than overpriced and overchoreographed CGI abominations that leave me with a headache. Come on, don’t be ashamed, show us those bloody deathmatches that we never get in real life–no drones, no explosions, real melees so close to the boom mic that my stomach curls at the breaking bones and gushing, sloshing gore, so close to the camera that the blood spurts break the fucking lens and leap through the movie screen to stain my shirt crimson; I want full on uncensored hunger games shit with a hard R.

Indulge me. Indulge yourself. Nothing hits better after a long week of work than a bottle of booze and shooting out the rainbow guts and brain matter of aliens–I swear to God I’m a better shot drunk–okay maybe not, but who cares, I feel like a god, seamlessly double-triple-wielding swords staves guns blazing weaving in inconceivable space magic bullshit mowing down every sentient being in sight a million to one. Okay, okay fine, that part isn’t your thing. But let’s go back to the alcohol, the literal fucking poison that some of us would guzzle by the gallon if we could stand it, even though so much as one glass isn’t good for you (wine is good for the heart? Whatever makes you sleep at night). Weed is weak shit. Who wants to be mellow, stop avoiding the pain and emotion, start being alive, feel the danger, be the danger, who wants to dance and sing tone-deaf when they’re high? 70’s and 80’s… and 90’s, and 00’s, and 10’s, and 20’s stoner alt rock crap is for picnics and music festivals. It’s Friday night. Live a little, throw out your discriminating taste and music theory education that makes your friends want to smack you, start blaring basic beats and hip-hop that you don’t even appreciate so loudly that you go past worrying about tinnitus to the point of actually getting tinnitus.

What is it about popular music that enthralls us? Are we really so impressionable under alcohol, and is the music so catchy, so intentionally and brilliantly crafted, that we’ll just buy into whatever the lyrics are without a thought? Maybe. There’s always a good reason to shake our fist in the air at the culture industry, whose success partly owed to the dispensation of ideology.

But that’s the comfortable answer.

Be charitable to your neighbor for once. Assume they have more than one brain cell and are fully capable of recognizing lyrics. How many white guys who insist that they listen to hip hop and rap “for the beat” have you actually believed? The beats are often great, sure, but lyrics are integral to a song, and this is the most true for hip hop and rap, where the rhythm and flow of the verse functions as its own instrument and a part of the beat. One would have to be literally deaf to ignore the fact that the chart-topping hip-hop and rap singles are about objectifying women, making stupid amounts of money, and spending it all on overpriced crap like jewelry and cars and clothes (They said you can rap about anything except for Jesus/That means guns, sex, lies, videotape/But if I talk about God, my record won’t get played, huh?),3 name-dropping brands as free advertisement so frequently that the house of Arnault fell ass-backwards into continuing the legacy of French colonialism. And how could the ones at the top of the hierarchy relate to anything else? What does a trust fund kid care about the material struggles of the ghetto? In lyrics the cursed hedonistic image of our reality is spoken in full knowledge of what it is, and in full knowledge of the oppression and dispossession and outright carnage that it all currently depends on. But does that stop anybody from singing these songs? Even me? Men and women of all races, creeds, and classes? Hell no.

Today our hero is none other than Patrick Bateman. There is no more fitting expression of truth than a soulless, outrageously rich man dancing around his flat to Huey Lewis and the News’ “Hip to be Square,” as he takes an axe and mutilates the living shit out of his business partner, hacking away and away at his skull to egregious lengths as blood and grey matter splatters all over his face, before enjoying a cigar and absorbing the blaring music–and me watching, cackling away into oblivion. Irony is outdated. We’re living in irony, in the fact that our imaginary of “peaceful and happy” is coextensive with pure carnage. It’s time to tell the truth.

But today there is nothing more wicked than telling the truth.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m still going to make fun of white boys who proclaim their fondness for Kendrick Lamar despite their favorite song of his being “Backseat Freestyle,” and who have the audacity to order Hennessy in a dive bar, ignorant of the bartender pouring a glass of cheap brandy because there’s no way in hell he’d know the difference (I had a mid-shelf cognac the other night. Between that, Grey Goose, and Bordeauxs and Beaujolaises, I’m starting to think that the French should just stay away from alcohol). But when the next Kanye song comes on, am I going to go nuts and (poorly) rap with him? You’re goddamn right I am. The romance of today’s hedonism, of the overstuffed bar on weekend nights, a humid swamp reeking of booze and exposed, sweating flesh–is often bemoaned, and in some cases, rightly so. But it is not only uncharitable, but also self-soothing to imagine this as the ignorant indulgence of the masses. Indeed, to imagine it as such is in fact a projection of blindness, an attempt to ignore a more sinister reality, that every misguided soul in the bar is actually entirely conscious of reality and their situation within it. The inebriated verse, the blood and broken glass, fluid-stained ground, and vicious stomping upon it become true expression, and one of acceptance. Such an acceptance cannot be but sardonic. It cannot be celebrated. It is bitter, it is cynical. The word belies the image. In violence it is burst asunder. The disjunction of irony is reified into the conjunction of sardony, and communicates pure horror.

  1. Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth ↩︎

  2. Birdman, 2018 ↩︎

  3. Kanye West, “Jesus Walks” ↩︎