Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Dumb and Dumber

Making a list was a Victorian-era parlor game, a way to fill the empty hours, a way to ward off boredom. As I’ve discussed before, there is a Puritanical motive for the making of lists, for the mental activity that determines the selection of a list is perversity (resistance, obstinacy). In other words, when faced with the choice of having something or nothing (even if that something is “just a little,” i.e., the Reality Principle), desire chooses something: perversely--out of necessity--it selects a single object of pleasure out of a vast number of possibilities: the rarified, fetishized object--one object charged with wondrous, excessive meaning. Each element of the set (the list) is like a game piece one must select before the game starts, the game being how to negotiate the operation of pleasure within a highly restricted economy premised on lack. (See the film A Christmas Story.)

If memory serves, lists used to be short. Now, lists are very long and hence have become dumber and dumber: instead of 10 items, for example, one can--perversely--list 11 (apparently some missed the joke in This is Spinal Tap) by using the alibi of the “tie”: two (presumably) rare and singular objects cannot, paradoxically, be sufficiently distinguished. Or, alternatively, you can choose to do what Rolling Stone magazine recently did with its list of the 50 Best Albums of 2015. Since critics do not want time--the final judge--to prove them wrong, their “Best Of” lists get longer and longer as a way to hedge their bets. The “50 Best” list also reveals the extent to which Rolling Stone has developed what might be called a homogeneous “house style,” because while no authorship is attributed to the piece and no single author could have possibly written all 50 entries, the style remains consistent throughout. So much for the critical acumen and perspective of an original, distinctive critic--this is a list by committee. Perhaps this list by committee suggests that with a large stable of writers, you have to keep them all busy, so the solution by the management is to order the list to be very long in order to give them all something to do. Of course, Rolling Stone is no different than any of the other powerful media institutions, which all feel compelled at this time of year to engage in some sort of tremendously dumb historical rundown.

Hence, one cannot avoid the connection between language and power. As Robert Christgau observed about 15 years ago, the idea of a rock canon is a complete absurdity. Still, the notion of a rock canon hangs on, a consequence of the powerful connection between music and memory. As he says, “Canonization is institutional. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is a canonizing institution.” What was once a game played by the idle rich has become an instrument of institutional power, and as Christgau indicates, Rolling Stones uses its economic power to enforce a canon—as perverse as it is ludicrous. Once more, all the “Best of” lists being issued this time of year reveal how we live not in an age of axioms (universally accepted truths that are potentially falsifiable), but in an age of aphorisms (statements of personal taste).