Final Countdown: Truimph of the List

by Pil and Galia Kollectiv

"In 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).

In life 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 candidate’s silvery hairline and his views on public health insurance, a central Asian dictator’s 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.
This is the stuff of Adorno and Horkheimer's bleakest nightmare, an extreme version of a culture where "marked differentiations such as those of A and B films, or of stories in magazines in different price ranges, depend not so much on subject matter as on classifying, organising, and labeling consumers. Something is provided for all so that none may escape". Products A and B are no longer just consumed under the deceptive guise of difference, they become the primary unit of human communication.
For Alexis de Tocqueville, whose 1835 study of democracy in America could not have been written without the aid of a time machine, the American affliction valuing 'pure' data over ideas also resulted in proliferation without real diversity: "The personal opinion of the editors have no weight in the eyes of the public. What they seek in a newspaper is a knowledge of facts, and it is only by altering those facts that a journalist can contribute to the support of his own views". He goes on to describe an all too familiar tabloid nation.

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.

The 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.
In one of the best science fiction moments in film history, the blasé hero of the 70's dystopian masterpiece Rollerball asks the super-computer that controls all the knowledge in the world and has replaced all the libraries: "I want to know about corporate decisions, who makes them, how they're made". Standing in front of the huge translucent blue super computer in the new state of the art palace of information, he soon realises that inside the machine there is no meaningful knowledge, no answers to his questions, just the imprint of the shadow of his own unanswered question. All he is left with is a spectacle of information, a simulation of thinking, caged in this vast impotent architectural structure glorifying nothingness like a gigantic gothic church without a God.

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.

This 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).

With the disappearance of the authority and the autonomy of the magazine, there are no more opinions to survey, no more views to contest, only a blueprint of a system of codification, in perpetual motion but with fixed boundaries. There is nothing more terrifying, writes De Tocqueville, than the notion "though in continual motion, humanity will cease to advance". At the same time, connections are being made, formed like neural synapses in the brain, linking society in an ever growing list of meanings produced not in the traditional, linear way, but as a hypertext, pure surface. It is quite possible that the dialogue we witnessed earlier was taking place between an android and the entrails of a car – that the Japanese musician was incidental. If the list seems insufficient as a defining structure for the culture we continue to consume voraciously, perhaps we will need to find a way to read between the lines.