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    Tuesday, May 30, 2006

    On Lists, Winners, and Favorites

    It almost goes without saying these days that lists (the Top 50 Conservative Rock Songs, the Top 10 Worst Bush Administration Mistakes, the Top 10 Novels of the Last 25 Years, etc) are gauche. Of course, nothing really goes without saying, unfortunately. Nothing goes without being compared to pornography either:

    For lists today, no matter how titillating, are like pornography: Once the guilt sets in, you can't escape feeling dirty for having lingered over them.

    (That was from Lindsay Waters's recent article in The Chronicle. Time for a new metaphor, folks.)

    My mother always refused to answer my questions as a kid, if they went along the lines of "If you could pick any ______, what would you pick?" or "What's your favorite ______?" saying she found them impossible.

    I feel that way when people want my favorite songs. I'm like, "Are you serious?" I might, might, be able to give you a top 25 albums or something, but I feel some kind of terror at the notion of narrowing down my songs. I don't know what difference it makes.

    But I'm a list-lover. I adore looking at everyone's little profiles and seeing that, you know, everyone loves The Godfather, but this person actually likes Part III. I guess I'm one of those High Fidelity people who thinks that these things, tastes and the ability to analyze them, categorize them, bastardize their importance, omit and revise and pay homage, tells you something. Probably something smaller than it appears. But something.

    I'm not being at all original when I say that "favorites" or "lists" are a function of identity-formation. In the case of the list of literary theorists Waters writes about (it appeared in Critical Inquiry), it participates in the constant reformation of the identity of literary studies, just as ranking your favorite movies identifies you as both a type and a deviation from a type. So, the identity of Literary Studies?

    Jacques Derrida (177), Sigmund Freud (174), Michel Foucault (160), Walter Benjamin (147). Then we drop down below 100 citations: Roland Barthes (92), Jacques Lacan (80), Fredric Jameson (79), Edward Said (77). Harvard philosopher Stanley Cavell ranks at No. 12, tied with Friedrich Nietzsche with 57 citations. The majority of the rest of our most-cited theorists huddle together with more modest numbers to their names. Harvard lit crit Homi K. Bhabha (an editor of CI) ties with Aristotle at No. 27, each with 38 cites; Harvard's Greenblatt ties with MIT's Noam Chomsky at No. 80, with 17 cites; Henry Louis Gates Jr. (again Harvard) ties with Friedrich Kittler, a media theorist from Germany, for 57, with 24 cites. Barbara E. Johnson (Harvard) is named but unranked with 12 cites. Once you get past the Europeans, the list is heavily East Coast, heavily establishment, and hardly does justice to what was once the fun of reading CI (although it may indicate what the journal has become in recent years).

    The authors of the ranking, Anne H. Stevens, an assistant professor of English at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas, and Jay W. Williams, Critical Inquiry's managing editor, note that "Benjamin's works are cited nonargumentatively," which I think is a nice way of saying his ideas are just window dressing, not engaged with. That must be why he ranks high as one of the most perfectly citable authors of all, because you can cite him reverently without having to figure out what he said. With Benjamin a citation is the academic equivalent of the purely ritual move, like a ballplayer's sign of the cross.

    But the genuflecting to Benjamin points, perhaps, to something hocus-pocus about this whole counting exercise. The essay that accompanies CI's list crows that the theories featured in the journal "share a tendency to question received wisdom and accept few absolutes or foundations." Yet this list seems like a monument to CI's importance. Guys, you don't need to do this. You really have been consistently the best journal for emerging ideas in the humanities for a generation. Relax into your status as senior citizens.

    More important, being critical (in the sense Immanuel Kant used the term) means first of all being self-critical. You humanists should have looked into the literature on the methodology of lists, which the social scientists who pioneered making them have reflected upon. That universal genius, the late sociologist Robert K. Merton, wrote a series of telling scholarly articles about the potentially harmful effects of compiling lists of citations, and about numerology in general when it comes to evaluating the real worth of scholarship. Indeed, the way the numbers fall out in CI's ranking seems to reveal the workings of what Merton called the "Matthew Effect," where fame becomes its own promotion, and the few most famous names get more credit for their ideas than less known thinkers with the same ideas might.


    Obviously, the "identity" of Literary Studies via this list is formed, as by all lists, by what's left out as much as by what's included. But part of this undermines the "Matthew Effect", as everyone jumps in the fray to say, "What about Madhu Dubey?" or "Where's Linda Hutcheon?" or whatever. Also, we go, "Why are we all citing the same people? Are we, perhaps, stodgy and still bowing to Harvard white guys and European scholars? Is this cool or not?"

    So, the identity of literary studies, or anything else, is hardly solidified in the list itself, but rather in the process of making the list and the process of critiquing the list and later making counter-list after counter-list.

    When, for example, Stephin Merritt makes a list, a discussion occurs, even if the premise is mostly stupid (that he is a racist because he didn't put any, or enough, hip-hop on his faves) over the state of music criticism and music generally and race. I guarantee this Critical Inquiry list is going to make people uncomfortable with the careless citation of Walter Benjamin, which is a very good thing. It certainly makes me feel strange about my over-reliance on Foucault. Not that I had any illusions about the proliferation of riffs on Foucault out there, not that I thought there was anything even approximating originality about my citing Foucault,
    just that seeing it like this might make me try harder to reach beyond the list.

    So, we, as individuals (scholars, viewers, bloggers, writers, listeners, readers, etc) tend to construct or exhibit our identities through lists (which are often counter-lists to Big Lists, to begin with) and to develop and change these lists as a way of tracing our respective critical evolutions. The moment when, at 19 or 20, I tried sushi, and it shot to the top of my Favorite Foods list ousting the long-time, almost life-long winner (pancakes with peanut butter); the moment when I had the world's worst, partly frozen in the middle, strange tasting sashimi, and it plumetted. Does it matter? Narcissistically, yes. To me. It makes self-reflection possible for me and I've noticed the same for others. It is not without flaws (how is it that everyone has Fellini on their fave filmmakers list, but, with probing, admit to not having finished one of his films?) nor is the process the deepest one can go, but I think it brings to the superficial fore many deeper concerns.

    Also, I would much rather have my identity based on my aethestic preferences than on a lot of other garbage. Of course, my aesthetic preferences are not without class, race, gender, sexual orientation, regional markers. But I think that fandom has shown the quirkiness of these markers.

    4 Comments:

    Blogger belledame222 said...

    I love lists too, goddamit. in my case i think it's somehow related to some sort of compulsive-hoarding impulse, or something.

    11:32 PM  
    Blogger EL said...

    Yeah, I think that may be part of it for me too. But I'll defend it anyway I can. :)

    9:05 AM  
    Blogger zp said...

    ok, here i go. again.

    (i) i was reading a blog that said, "x knows me better than i know myself" and i thought now why is that special? unless one really believes that one is determined by a interior, singular self . . . if one is, rather, known by one's deeds, appearance, practices, than others would know us better than ourselves. if one becomes in relation to exterior forces (class, race, gender, time, place), then again, others who also have access to the structures, would know us better than ourselves.

    (ii) then i was looking at my allconsuming lists (or, this might apply to my librarything lists too); these aren't favorites (maybe the books are, i bought them and kept them because i loved them or needed them) they are rather the things that have accumulated, in relation to the exterior forces of my life (education and thus, class, race, gender, geography, time). so they aren't necessarily a projection out of an identity, but rather a register of the forces that have determined my becoming . . .

    how's that for a defense of lists?

    7:38 AM  
    Blogger EL said...

    How's that? Fucking great, zp. Thanks for your invaluable help!

    8:19 PM  

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