Measuring out our lives with lists
At this time of year it is impossible to avoid lists - best of, worst of, and all the bizarre categories in between. This year, of course, the outbreak of lists has reached epidemic proportions. The arrival of the big 2000 is an opportunity to combine the twin preoccupations of making lists and dividing history up into bite-sized portions - a set of cue cards for life.
Lists are absurd because they reduce all human life to a lowest common denominator. If it does not appear in a list it probably did not happen and it certainly does not matter. But they can be instructive. The significance lies not in the list itself but in the preoccupation with making them.
When we are bombarded with information, yet there is little sense of purpose or judgement in politics, culture or art, making a list is a comfortable way of making sense of the data smog that we inhabit. You may not understand what's going on around you, and may have little to say or celebrate in the here and now, but at least you can have a list.
Here are some lists culled from browsing the magazine racks in a Nashville bookstore. How about 'Irish Americans of the century' - including Grace Kelly, John Wayne, William Faulkner and Ronald Reagan. Or my favourite, Guitar One's 'Best riffs of the century', a dizzying progression from Segovia to Ozzy Osbourne. (What happened to Neil Young's opening riff to Cinnamon Girl?). But pride of place must go to Entertainment Weekly's list of '50 greatest lists'. Step forward not only the 10 commandments but also People magazine's '50 most beautiful people'. No room, however, for 'Great books of the Western world' or anything like it.
Lists, for all their stupidity, do contextualise the priorities and preoccupations of the moment. They are useful for sociologists, not real people. The ever-more rapid circulation of lists in ever-diminishing circles is testimony to Andy Warhol's adage that everybody will be famous for 15 minutes. The loss of a sense of significance produces an exaggerated emphasis on the novel. See how quickly last year's film hit reaches the canon of all-time greats, or how often this year's thing features in polls of the all-time top of the pops (although The Beatles did beat off Robbie Williams in the recent HMV/Channel 4/Classic FM poll).
Lists are ways in which we mark out our own lives. We might make lists of things to do to avoid doing any of them, but it goes further than this. We define ourselves through lists of things that we like and dislike. What a lot we may have in common with the person that we met at the party if our favourite film was Citizen Kane, we both regard penicillin as the greatest discovery of the century, and our favourite sports figure is Carl Lewis.
But we know, or should know, that life is more than a computer dating agency. The list compiler and the list peruser pursue their lives vicariously. Whenever we retreat to a list for anything other than an aide memoire we evade making our own priorities. We capitulate to the homogenisation of taste and the dilution of discrimination. To shape the world in a list rather than a dialogue with our peers is to neglect our own critical faculties. I think your list sucks because....
I don't think I can be allowed to escape the flak, so I offer you two lists. Neither is numbered in any order of importance. They tell you nothing more than a glimpse of the way I look at the world today.
Events that shaped the century:
Symbols and icons of the century:
- The assassination of Franz Ferdinand
- The Russian Revolution
- The Wall Street crash
- The Fall of Singapore or the Suez Crisis
- Pearl Harbour
- The Battle of Stalingrad
- The end of the Bretton Woods agreement
- The fall of the Berlin Wall
- West Ham United's first FA Cup
- My birth
- Muhammad Ali
- Che Guevara
- The Statue of Liberty
- (Picasso's) Guernica
- (A Ford Mustang on) Route 66
- Neil Armstrong
- 7E = MC2
- Peace, Bread, Land
- (Andy Warhol's) Marilyn Monroe
Reproduced from LM issue 126, December 1999/January 2000