The OF Blog: On the subjectiveness of lists

Thursday, April 15, 2010

On the subjectiveness of lists

One of the hazards of cataloging a collection is the actual handling of texts long neglected.  Recently, I found myself sorting through my non-fiction collection and picking up my copy of E.P. Thompson's Customs in Common.  Reading through the introduction, where Thompson echoes Peter Burke's observations on how "folklore" is in large part the projection of elite/upper class value judgments onto a purported mapping of popular culture/belief systems, made me think in part of a more recent book, Umberto Eco's The Vertigo of Lists (The Infinity of Lists in the US).

In that work, Eco discusses the various semiotic/semantic values assigned to various lists in Western European societies from the time of the ancient Greeks and Romans to the present.  There are lists ranking the gravity of sins, lists for types of beauty, and so forth.  But one thing popped into my mind as I reflected over what I recalled reading in both the Eco and Thompson books:  just how subjective the ranking and classification of preference (or customs, traditions, and other value systems) really is.

This musing dovetails nicely into an interesting little set of conversations that sprung up on a few blogs yesterday about the "value" of a new fantasy award, the Gemmell Awards.  I chose not to blog about these awards this year for several reasons, but it is interesting reading the thoughts posted first by James Long at Speculative Horizons and then rebuttals of sorts posted at Genre Reader and NextRead.  Take a moment to read each of these threads before continuing here.

Finished?  Want to know what I thought of the arguments presented by those three and the people commenting on their posts?  Hopeful that I'll bash the power of the PR machines that promote "popular" works?  Optimistic/fearful that I'll rip into other awards in the process?  Don't give a damn any which way?

The truth of the matter is that list-making of this nature is a very recent phenomenon in literature.  The oldest extant literary awards are barely a century old, compared to a written record that goes back over 4000 years.  The "need" to quantify subjective reading experiences (and perhaps to justify, if only to one's own self, one's own preferences) is perhaps related to that imperfect "mapping" that I mentioned in the first paragraph of this article.  Before one could argue just how "good" or "bad" awards like the Gemmell Awards are for a particular subset of literature (or for any subset of material culture, for that matter), it probably would be best to explore just why would it matter so.

What is at stake in determining who is eligible for such awards?  Is it related to a perceived need for certain categories to be "represented" more than they might be for other subjective list-making activities?  What assigned values are given to the selection process?  What biases and cultural prejudices are going to crop up in the evaluation process that leads to the creation of shortlists and then so-called "winners"?

To know where one stands on those questions is to know much better, it would seem, where one places the most value on the various attempts to quantify the subjective.  That being said, for myself, the highest value is assigned to viewing lists as windows into the mentalités of those, who over space, time, and cultures, have created such lists.  Understanding what influenced their list creations is just as important, if not more so, than trying to weigh just how "good" or "bad" such lists might be.  So perhaps instead of arguing the merits/deficiencies of awards such as the Gemmells, perhaps a closer look at the mechanics involved in establishing such awards and why people place such value (or discount the value others put on them) may be in order? 

Customs in common, indeed.


Martin said...

The truth of the matter is that list-making of this nature is a very recent phenomenon in literature. The oldest extant literary awards are barely a century old, compared to a written record that goes back over 4000 years.

Presumably because prior to then, a well-informed individual could have read most of what was available. So awards mirror the explosion in the quantity of published works over the last century and represent an imperfect coping device (I wouldn't quite call it "mapping").

Larry said...

For the most part, yes. I would just add (and for those familiar with Thompson and Burke's works would probably have guessed) that I think the awards in part reflect the social polarization that expanded after the printing and educational revolutions of the 15th-19th centuries. After all, the hoi polloi must not have discerning tastes, or so it went.

Elena said...

If you want to see the greatest list of all time (totally off-topic as it is not book related, except in that it IS a rather fascinating glimpse into a certain list-making mindset), go here:

Larry said...

Amusing list. Reminds me of certain discussions I had to endure during breaks in class when girls would start talking about others :P

Elena said...

Ha! exactly. brought me back to earlier days when my friends and i were the girls making such lists.

Larry said...

I remember the time that I found a "slambook" in my 6th grade class and I was so angry that I slung it down on my desk. Thing was, my left index finger was caught in the motion and I cracked it there. Thing swelled up in class. Had to go get some athletic tape put on it after class ended :P

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