Final Countdown: Truimph of the List
by Pil and Galia Kollectiv
the middle of the island lay a green glade with a smooth floor, surrounded
by flowering shrubs. Here the Hattifatteners had their secret meeting
place, where they forgathered once a year at midsummer. About three hundred
of them had already found their way there and at least four hundred more
were expected. In the middle of the glade they had put up a high pole,
painted blue. On this hung a barometer. They skimmed silently over the
grass bowing haughtily to each other, and everytime they passed the barometer
they bowed deeply to it. (This looked a bit ridiculous)".
Tove Jansson, Finn Family Moomintroll
At the end of its days, much like the Hattifatteners in Tove Jansson's classic children's novel, the Face magazine seemed to bow down to the barometer. (This indeed looked a bit ridiculous). First introduced as part of the magazine's hype section to demarcate the rise and fall of monthly trends, it had taken over the entire section, which was now crisscrossed with arrows pointing up and down, filled with little lists and top tens and fives, about as useful as a Situationist map in navigating the consumer culture it was so devotedly serving. Within less than a year from this revamp, though, it would be a dead, alongside the shortlived reincarnation of Sleazenation as Sleaze. In a sense, it created its own redundancy, together with now deceased music magazines like Melody Maker and Select. If all it could do was provide a list, there were other, better ways of obtaining lists. If this was what information had been reduced to, no need for analysis, no authoritarian journalist providing insight and observation, the internet was rife with that.
Lists were now being compiled daily on blogs and forums the style bible was witnessing a democratic takeover equivalent to Martin Luther's Reformation. If Luther challenged the Church's hegemony by divesting it of its status as sole interpreter of the bible, print, as Asa Briggs and Peter Burke contend, "converted the Reformation into a permanent revolution": there was no longer any point in burning heretics if their ideas were in wide circulation. With the list as its new scripture, society might well be similarly shaking off the shackles of the media's authority and the dictates of the culture industry in the name of some kind of protestant consumerism. The extent to which this new religion signifies a democratic revolution remains to be seen.
It's hard to pinpoint exactly when the list took over, but somewhere along the information superhighway the data got too heavy and compression was deemed necessary. For Paul Morley, it was inevitable, the only means of communication available to an android Kylie and a Japanese noise monger, Masami Akita, a.k.a. Merzbau, on the road to the city of the future: "They find common ground in the list. The list is what brings a world of chaos into some kind of pattern. The list fixes a broken world floating out into the outer space of emptiness. The list links us to ourselves, places us together, puts us in order. The list soothes us in the way it organises memory and shapes consciousness. Everybody loves a list for making sense of the awesome nature of all the stuff that surrounds us. The list is at the heart of everything. Everything is part of a list. Humanity is one long list linking nothing with something". The list is here a form of exchange, a universal language of information coded as consumerism (Kylie matches Akita's Roland SDE 1000 delay unit with L'Oreal makeup, Translucide in Nude Beige and Cheek-to-Cheek Sculpting Blush duet in Desert Rose).
style magazines and presidential election campaigns alike the list has
become the only prism through which political views can be articulated,
often in the language of statistics rather than polemics. Compressed into
neatly designed factoids, the shockingly trivial and the banality of the
shocking become increasingly hard to distinguish: a presidential candidates
silvery hairline and his views on public health insurance, a central Asian
dictators love of melons and the appalling record of human rights
in his post-soviet kingdom all become equivalent under the stern tyranny
of the list.
The restructuring of information as a bullet point list goes beyond journalism, and its consequences can be felt in other media, as well as in what remains of unmediated life. It is no wonder that the general demise of the lifestyle magazine as an authoritarian institution coincided with the rise of another cultural phenomenon: reality TV. While the first UK reality TV program, The Family, dating as far back as the 1970s, was intended as a social experiment in democratization that would make the real, unedited, lives of an ordinary working class Northern family into primetime worthy material, the shows that came thirty years later did something even more extreme. Suddenly television cameras turned narcissistically onto themselves and, just like the list in magazines, made the way that information was structured, the marketecture in corporate slang, meaningful, not to mention desirable, in itself. Reality TV shows operate through selection, judgment, editing and hierarchy, and the pop idol who is forged through this endless process of production is phrased in a different language from the star-as-outsider that preceded him.
postwar, progressive, optimistic discourse of the lifestyle magazine has
been gradually replaced by the dry laconic language of statistics. Baudrillard
predicted that "information, in the sense of data processing, will
put an end, [
] is already putting an end, to the reign of advertising".
The essence of technology, of digital data, has passed on its binary genes
to all the chrome pages that its Photoshopped universe has spawned. Just
as the visionary-corporate speak that emerged from silicon valley in the
early eighties was reduced to, and is now organized and controlled by,
Powerpoint presentations, so the computer has become not only a fetish
of 8 bit simplicity but an underlying structure whose logic has infiltrated
every aspect of our culture.
It is a well known fact that more people vote for Pop Idol contenders than in municipal elections. Politicians like to refer to this as a worrying sign of the current weakness of democracy. But participating in Reality TV elections and not in 'real' elections is not just a symptom of public apathy - it points to a more fundamental problem in the structure of western democracy. Voting for pop idol is, quite literally, a game show, a simulation of judgment-making or a performance of elective procedures. The voters gain nothing by choosing either contender other than validating their opinions through, choosing which cultural product to desire, and in a sense, desiring to choose.
is somewhat similar to John Seabrook's description of how decisions are
made in the White House: "Clinton relied on opinion polls to an extent
that had never been seen before in any White House. His surveys of public
opinion were not so much polls as market research. The same project going
on in the White House was also going on in the offices of the media executives
around Times Square, and in the culture at large. It was an attempt to
match consumption to production: to figure out what the public wanted
and then give it to them." (Seabrook 2000, 7).