The internet is populated by listicles; they are now ubiquitous, finding their way into every corner of cyberspace. It is true that the listicle has been a key feature of modern magazine journalism, but the infinite space of the internet makes them a particularly attractive proposition for content farms. They are easy to produce and easy to read, making them the perfect form of writing in an environment dominated by content farmers and SEO strategists with their eyes firmly fixed on generating revenue.
This is not to say that the idea of ‘the list’ or ‘the top…’ is fundamentally wrong, a symptom of the corrupted modern mind, worn down by late capitalism and all the detritus that comes with it (although it might be). Lists can be wonderful ways of encountering the world. This is something joyfully demonstrated in the film High Fidelity. The core group of characters, a group of men working in a Chicago record store, live their lives through lists. Many of the lists seem to be rather obscure, yet the more obscure, the more intriguing the result. Indeed, the idea of the list comes to form the backdrop of the film, as John Cusack’s character, Rob, deals with his break up from his long-term girlfriend, Laura, by placing her within his list of his ‘top five break-ups of all time’. At first sight this may seem childish. To a certain extent it probably is. Yet while it might demonstrate Rob’s infantilism or arrested development, it is nevertheless shown to be important because it allows him to place his failed relationship within a specific context. So although it might appear immature it is also a way of ‘finding some perspective’ (generally considered ‘the grown up thing to do’). The list becomes a narrative through which Rob comes to terms with the disappointments of life.
Umberto Eco has also written about lists. He wrote in Der Spiegel (which I found via this article in Gawker)
The list is the origin of culture… What does culture want? To make infinity comprehensible. It also wants to create order — not always, but often. And how, as a human being, does one face infinity? How does one attempt to grasp the incomprehensible? Through lists, through catalogs, through collections in museums and through encyclopedias and dictionaries.
Lists, therefore, are an encounter with death, or more specifically a facing up to death – ‘We have a limit, a very discouraging, humiliating limit: death. That’s why we like all the things that we assume have no limits and, therefore, no end. It’s a way of escaping thoughts about death. We like lists because we don’t want to die.’ It is not difficult to see that the taxonomising impulse inherent in list making is an attempt to make the incomprehensible comprehensible – to understand ‘infinity’. However, it is unclear whether it follows that lists are attractive to humanity because they ‘have no limits’, and that subsequently they become a way of diverting us from the fact of our own inexorable movement towards death. Eco is right in most senses, but wring in this way: lists are not limitless but rather limiting. They are ways of ordering and organising knowledge. Lists are not limitless things that provide an escape from the limits imposed by death, but rather the opposite. They are limiting, ways of comprehending the world. By contrast, death is incomprehensible and unknowable – it is death that is ‘limitless’ because it cannot be conceived or understood (at this point, another video from High Fidelity is apt…)
The ability to organise and structure knowledge is one of the beauties of the list, as Eco suggests, yet in the ubiquitous form of the internet listicle, this organisation becomes a way of stripping away the necessity of thought or context. The listicle makes knowledge manageable. Indeed, it tells you what you ought to know. Knowledge is made immediate, digestible even.
The sense of ‘order’ put forward by Eco in his discussion of lists is a creative one; it is an order that is made by the curiosity and ingenuity of the human mind. The order that is inherent in the listicle, however, is completely uncreative and ultimately anti-intellectual. Indeed, for the most part, listicles may seem harmless. Yet I recently encountered a listicle that was so inappropriate for its subject matter that it was laughably obscene: ‘The Top 10 Things The Nazis Got Right’. At first sight, a title like this appears to be deliberately provocative. My immediate response was that it was a satirical piece making pretty much the point I am trying to make here. Yet upon closer inspection, it became clear that the piece was too earnest and ultimately lacking in any humour whatsoever that it was a genuine article (or rather, listicle).
The National Socialist German Workers’ Party (Nazi party) is one of the most infamous political systems in the history of the earth, made famous by their severe acts of cruelty and completely inhuman behavior. Despite that, the Nazi government implemented a number of policies which were for the good of their people and those of the future; many of these policies are now implemented by our own governments.
The writer goes on to put in a disclaimer that ‘this is NOT an endorsement of the Nazi regime’; the writer hopes, instead, that ‘this list hopefully shows that even amidst great evil, the good of man is still able to shine through’. The listicle has exceeded its humble beginnings in content farm internet writing, and has now become a force for the redemption of humanity.
The problem with the list, as anyone could probably point out, is that it fails to place any of these items into context. When ‘animal conservation’ is listed as one of the things the Nazis ‘got right’, for example, the writer fails to place the policy within the context of Nazi nationalism. Conservation may be admirable, but it is wrong to view such a policy outside of the ideological context of Nazism. Similar arguments could be made for many of these entries. Even where there are potentially interesting points, such as the mention of the development of cinema in Nazi Germany, particularly Riefenstahl’s The Triumph of The Will, the interesting yet problematic nature of the relationship between aesthetics and fascism is not discussed at all.
What we have in this listicle is a complete deterioration of thought into soundbites, pieces of trivia. It may be an extreme example, but it is also a useful example as it highlights exactly what is lost in the listicle form. If nothing else, one at least needs to be aware of the limitations of the form: cute animals are fine; Nazis not so much.