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Holiday post: Making a list, and checking it twice

December 20, 2013

However, it is not Santa Claus who is making the list(s), since the celebration of year end is not only a time of list-making introspection of what has happened and forecasts of what are to come, but a desire to maintain the appearance of productiveness in that year. If the public existence of these lists used to be constraint by what we see on media (web or paper), they are transmitted like memes via social media and personal/institutional email-based newsletters.

We have had university rankings, top hits in the music charts or radio, lists of people who qualified based on certain achievements accomplished by a certain age, lists of prize-winning or ‘great’ books that we should read this year if we have not done so, and lists of memorable (maybe historical) events that publications and media outlets want their specific audience to commemorate. Some of these lists are created out of empirical data that determined their rankings (statistics of particular categories, sales figures, level of demand, direct public votes) and some are by the adjudication of select individuals/committee.  If you are a reader of anthologies such as yours truly, you will always find, in the editorial remarks, why certain pieces (or personages) are included in the list of not-completely-definitive these lists may have meaning while others would pass you by without further remark.

There is a real history out there about list-making which, I am sure, coincide with the rise of the leisured class and development of the publishing/public relations/advertising industry. But that is not what this post is exploring. Instead, all I aspire to do is to understand the cultural significance of list-making in how we define our value system through what accomplishments are valued within different subcultures that are, at some levels, beholden to the superstructure of mainstream acknowledgement unavoidable in this global age.

But even as one sees the embracing of greater diversity at some levels, such as Nature’s list of 10 people who mattered, see a level of diversity in terms of who they include (and the acknowledgement of the diverse accomplishments of these people that is not oblivious to the impact of external factors to the production of science), or even the award of top science writings that do not pretend to be universal representative of all good science writing but are meant to highlight considered opinions of what good science writing is (a good thing in itself), the lists sometimes become the shortcut for us to categorize our priorities when we are short of time and overloaded beyond our ability to manage. As a scholar and graduate student, I often scan lists in journals or media of the subject I am researching as a way into getting more on the subject. The lists formed are not unlike bibliographies, with the more serious among them containing annotations describing the rationale for inclusion. If I am new to the field, such lists, with all the implications of being the best representation in that area, appear promising in guiding the clueless on how to get started. But as all lists go, the caveats are always present. Among them, the lists could potentially reinforce the status-quo of values without consideration of the problematics behind them, they reinforce particular privilege and dominant voices, and exclude from consideration what is considered too eclectic, eccentric or undefinable. More perniciously, these lists can reinforce the ghetto-image of particular accomplishments without addressing the imbalance that led to the need for creating a separate list from the mainstream.

In mulling over these lists, and all the other lists I have visited over the year, and years before, I began to question the intentionality behind the list-making, and our consciousness as consumers of these lists. Moreover, the dominance and status of the list-maker are critical to imbuing certain categories of lists with more prestige than others, at multiple levels. Even if these lists appear in the media outlets or publications that are located in specific countries, their universal reach (or appeal) already provided them with unequivocal authority. The lists attribute capital to a particular achievement of accomplishment: the production of time capsules created through choices (arbitrary or otherwise), as a representative member of a particular segment of society, of what are deemed worthy of attention. While there is greater consciousness these days when it comes to including the accomplishment of those who might not be operating from advantage, they tend to be lone tokens on the list, if only because it takes time for them to be seen, if they ever are. Often, the token inclusion are serendipitious rather than intentional, and could be attributed to sufficient level of media hype.

In the US for instance, the usual lack of diversity in the voices of those included in the lists have led to particular communities making their own lists of worthy achievements, with the African American community being the particular leader here. Some countries and regions, to counteract the invisibility of their particular achievements in the universal media of western countries (and this happens even in intra-regions of the metaphorical ‘West’), have made their own lists and produced their own awards. The study of the particular lists within particular political and sociological contexts could provide evidence for deconstructing the capital and political preoccupations of any society under focus in terms of how they see themselves through the word’s eyes, while highlighting their points of confidence and diffidence.

At the end of the day, when we look at list, we should bear in mind that they are but a manifestation of our own personal evaluation of our own worth, and how we measure that worth.  After all, the lists are non-subjective versions of the subject-oriented act of creating a CV. Short-cuts to an otherwise convoluted narrative, but a narrative that must not be occluded by the short-cuts.

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