I hate all these year-end lists. I also love them. The first couple I read were great: Roger Ebert’s ten best films of 2009, Pitchfork’s 25 best albums of the decade. I think it was right when I read Rolling Stone’s 100 best albums of the decade, however, that I started to realize just how much the lists are hokum. Bogus. I realized this first not through any logical process of thought, but through the waves of intellectual nausea that would overwhelm me anytime I saw another list advertised. (I kept hearing myself say, “I just vomited a little in my soul.”) So I have been trying to figure this out. What’s so bad about lists?
At one level I think the issue is that the top-10 list is a bit like the carny’s call on the midway. If you’ve ever been to a serious carnival (two words normally not found together, but if you’ve been to one, you know what I mean), the din of carnys shouting into their micrphones trying to draw competitors to the dunk-tank or the basketball toss is deafening. Every carny has his hook. The dunk-tank is often insult-comedy, while the sports-based games try to get the competitive juices flowing. If they can just get you to look, they have you: it’s a verbal assault (“Dude in the red shirt – you know you want to play!”) combined with visions of gigantic stuffed animals dancing in your girlfriend’s arms. And you’re soon shelling out hard-earned ones to throw a basketball at a hoop that you know is half the size of a real basket. But you’re doing it anyway.
The lists are like that: you check a website for news on a musician or a film, or you glance at a friend’s facebook page to see what’s been going on. And there, the cyber-equivalent of the carny is yelling at you: 15 best iPhone games! 10 best films! 25 best derogatory emails sent to bosses! It’s all about attracting your attention. And it does get me. For one thing, it gets at my fear of missing something that everyone else knows about. Did I really miss one of the 10 (not that many, after all) best movies of 2009? Did I really miss one of the most amazing musical experiences of the decade? We humans enjoy having connection with other people, especially when we are using a medium as isolating and alienating as the Interwebs. And you have to add in the “stuff white people like” factor: many of the lists are selling themselves as exclusive. Get to know the 10 best movies that only the cool-people-you-want-to-be-like know about. In this sort of case, they become like the “10 commandments of cool” – do this to keep your membership in the chosen people!
There is also the similarity to what used to be called “parlor games.” I now think of them much more as college-dorm games, when freshmen, desperate for connection, sit around and compare their ten favorite movies of all time, or their ten favorite books of all time. Of course, “all time” for college freshmen is basically a five-year range, and so they are often struck by how much they agree on their selections (No way! You liked Superbad too?). It’s addictive, pseudo-intellectual, gives ample space for disagreement and connection.
The internet, seen as the public forum of our day, I think has much less the atmosphere of the town square than of the college dorm. There is lots of posing and posturing, lots of desire to connect disguised as arguments, lots of sexual innuendo that aspires to wit. And here we are on the internet, much like perpetual college freshmen: uprooted with a binary shovel from the soil that nurtured us, context-less, hungry for connection. This leads us to try to find quick connection to other people through lists of stuff, art, music, possessions. It’s about the top ten things that I have “seen” “heard” “watched” “attended” “read” “experienced”, or in a word, bought. Perhaps this is a major part of the nauseating experience of these lists: it’s the desperation to connect rooted in a consumerism that dogs every step of the way.
So, I do not want to say that lists are evil. I’m not saying that if you have enjoyed reading lots of these “10-best” and “25-best” lists over the past weeks that you are somehow intellectually inferior. I merely hope that I have described my own annoyance at these lists. For one thing: they are everywhere. For another: they hook the desperate fear of being left out, of missing something important. Finally, they plug into my desire to connect with other people through consumption. So there are my three points of annoyance with lists. Perhaps you share them. Perhaps you don’t. But whatever you do, please don’t point out that I just created another list.
The hope at the end of this frustrating activity is that in the end we might find that the desires the lists provoke in us are not necessarily bad in themselves, but that we need to look to sources that might actually satisfy! It is not surprising that in this time so often spent with family and with prayer, these lists pop up offering us another type of connection. It also is not surprising that in this season of addictive consumerism and shopping lists, we are called to remember the Christ-child who comes to be born among the poor, exiled and oppressed. Here are the real sources of connection, the real anchors of infinite satisfaction. In the end, there is no list that can finally comprehend what this year and this decade needed. There is nothing that we missed, if we took the time to journey with the one who knows us better than we know ourselves. This is the only call that is worth heeding.
This post is DEFINITELY not making my top ten blog-posts-by-a-Jesuit-in-December-2009-about-top-ten-lists list.
I’ll take that as a compliment.
Happy New Year!
Fr Michael; Top 5 reasons you may be a “list junky”:
1. you start unintentionally parting your hair like David Letterman
2. you find yourself cornering coworkers with 10 answers to their simplest of querries such as, “nice weather, eh?”
3. you find yourself thinking about the third “most expensive celebrity bling” or “most pervasive email hoax” when your butcher shouts “Number Three!”
4. When reading the newspaper story of a woman attacked by bears while skydiving over Vancouver, you subconsciously rank that as reason “number 6” as to why you don’t trust Canadians.
5. If you made it this far, well…
I think I first came across your blog via a link on Twitter.. I truly fancy the stuff I have read on your website and plan to keep reading when I find more time. Do you have a Twitter account?
As you’ve said lists make up a part of our society and they draw us in by trying to make us a part of a certain group of people. People want to be part of everything so that they do not feel excluded from others. Lists can represent what kind of person you could be, and when we realize that we have little in common with that list we feel that we are missing out. It is difficult to not notice these lists, as you pointed out, because they make up a part of our society. The list represents what you could be in a consumer society.
I just thought I I’d expand on what you said on your blog. A list is a representation of the consumer society and how we become what others are telling us to be. Many people think that what we wear or how much money we have is what determines us as human beings. Truly we are far more than what words can describe on a computer screen or a page of a magazine in a list. It is difficult to truly understand one’s self in a society where everyone wants to be somebody else. Few people can rise against this, and I stand accused. The consumer society wants us to be obsessed with our reputations; however, we don’t follow Christ very well when we do this. We are concerned about something that does not matter when we look at a list.
Thanks for your comment. I think you expand on the point of this post with a lot of insight. So much of marketing is designed to squeeze us into boxes. What’s more, if we’re not living our lives really engaged with reality, in love with the people and friends around us, we reach for those boxes to give ourselves a sense of community and connection. So – I think as long as we are aware of the pitfalls, lists can be fun and helpful. We just have to avoid mistaking them for the real fun of sharing what we love with our friends.