by Matt Sitman
In a brilliant, depressing examination of lists and listicles, Mark O’Connell finds their deeper meaning:
In an interview with The Paris Review twenty years ago, Don DeLillo mentioned that “lists are a form of cultural hysteria.” From the vantage point of today, you wonder how much anyone—even someone as routinely prescient as DeLillo—could possibly have identified list-based hysteria in 1993. DeLillo’s statement also hints at something crucial about the list as a form: the tension between its gesturing toward order and its acknowledgement of order’s impossibility. The list—or, more specifically, the listicle—extends a promise of the definitive while necessarily revealing that no such promise could ever be fulfilled. It arises out of a desire to impose order on a life, a culture, a society, a difficult matter, a vast and teeming panorama of cat adorability and nineties nostalgia. Umberto Eco put it dramatically: “The list is the origin of culture. It’s part of the history of art and literature. What does culture want? To make infinity comprehensible. It also wants to create order.”
His take on why they’re the epitome of a culture actively arrayed against our attention spans:
In an essay about Internet addiction in The Dublin Review last year, the Irish novelist and short-story writer Kevin Barry wrote about how the rapid depletion of his powers of attention affected the way he composes a piece of writing: “Lately, I note, most of the essays and stories I write tend to be broken up into very short, numbered sections, because I can no longer replicate on the page the impression or sensation of consecutive, concentrated thought, because I don’t really do that anymore.” Of course, essayists have been using the list as a way to structure thought for a long time. (Sontag’s “Notes on ‘Camp,’” to point to a famous example, takes the form of a list of fifty-eight numbered fragments.) But the list is a way of writing that anticipates, and addresses itself to, a certain capriciousness in the reader. By not only allowing partial and fleeting engagement but by actively encouraging it, the list becomes the form which accommodates itself most smoothly to the way a lot of us read now, a lot of the time. It’s the house style of a distracted culture.