“Objectivity can only be the author’s and therefore subjective, even if he is editing a newsreel.”
Andrei Tarkovsky. Sculpting in Time. 150.
The Listicle is not a set of propositions to be controverted or debated. It presents itself as an accumulation of pure facts.
The Listicle establishes no relationship between the reader and the author; in fact, it denies the latter’s very existence. The world of the listicle is the world of unmediated access to objective reality. Frequently, no authors at all are listed; when they are, it is more often than not as ‘staff’ or ‘contributors’—and why would it be otherwise? Their function, we are to believe, is essentially technical, not creative. The author never died, he just incorporated. Thus the author, henceforth no more than a brand, is credited on Buzzfeed as companies are on their ‘promoted’ articles.
To the non-human text is attached the equally lifeless information vessel: the form of the listicle is a form asphyxiating critical thought. The domain of the list is, after all, the domain of mundane factuality, and the listicle rattles of its various points with all the thoughtless surety of a shop inventory or a table of contents. The brilliance of the listicle is that even when it smuggles literary or journalistic content into the form, we still approach it as a ‘list’ with all the various cognitive mechanisms we’ve been trained to bear upon them. To read a listicle is not to interrogate the text as one would an essay or article, but to merely accept what is given as facts in need of no investigation. As such, the listicle doesn’t even presume to inconvenience us with the production of our own reactions: each point comes with a designated reaction gif—any active part in the practice of ‘reading’ demanded of us by more outmoded literary forms now comes packaged in an all-in-one-deal. As when Brecht sarcastically suggested the government simply “dissolve the people and elect another,” the reaction gif makes quite passe the old cliche that one must ‘write for their audience’: the listicle’s audience is already contained within the text, with all their pre-established responses in perfect harmony with the author’s designs.
The appeal of the Buzzfeed quiz expresses a generalized desire to become a reaction gif oneself.
As pure ideology the listicle takes on the form of pure theoretical practice. As Althusser’s generalities worked upon each other to produce concrete knowledge, with human agents figuring as but epiphenomena, in proper algebraic form the listicle cancels out the human factor on either side of the author-reader equation. Even their mode of proliferation now seems to be striving to live up to the whole venture’s fervent commitment to theoretical anti-humanism: whereas ‘people’—or even, shudder, ‘friends’—used to have to post them on social media, they now appear on your newsfeed of their own accord, as just one more facet of our wonderful consumer-oriented web2.0 experience.
In dedication to interdisciplinary studies, the listicle far surpasses the most subversive critical theorists and avant-garde writers in the business right now — could Reza Negarestani even have thought to write panegyrics to Israel and “23 Reasons why Moms are the Best” in the same exact format. The brilliance of the form’s apparent indifference to content is that one begins to approach even listicles presenting the most obviously political content with the same degree of criticality one brings to bear upon a list of animals doing cute things.
Thus is the insidiousness of the ostensibly tongue-in-cheek titles one constantly sees in the vein of “21 Pictures That Prove That Moms Know Everything” : while on one level– and on a level no one can directly criticize without seeming absurd– proof is merely used in a hyperbolic manner for the sake of a joke, in the broader social context in which listicles figure, the medium’s implicit standard of proof is dissolved into so many cute exaggerations.
The proliferation of the listicle is not merely an insulated incident of poor aesthetic sensibilities or sub-par journalism, but perhaps the penultimate expression of a general cultural gravitation towards both what is prepackaged and that which makes pretensions to objectivity. It should surprise no one that the world of the listicle’s dominance is also the world of steeply declining rates of readership in the west, particularly in the case of fiction; all of this is to say, it is a world in which we are encouraged to engage, not in the ruthless criticism of everything in existence, but the tireless acceptance of whatever we are told. When Buzzfeed releases pieces like “14 Moments from RT’s Coverage of the Russian Invasion of Ukraine” — with, of course, the very telling reassurance “We watched so you didn’t have to”– the point is not to encourage greater scrutiny media in general, but quite the opposite: to implicitly remind us just how objective and correct western media is compared to the agitprop swilled by those inscrutable eastern masses. The irony in that the whole article uncritically takes as its starting point highly contentious western framing of the issue, or the fact that it fails to address any of the ‘insane’ moments from western coverage– which any even-handed analysis would find in equal if not far more substantial amounts than in RT’s– was apparently beyond the authors’s grasp.
As the attendant literary form of the global counterrevolution now reigning supreme under the banner of Thatcher’s famous claim that there is “no such thing as society,” there are now offered to we totally atomized neoliberal subjects not essays or even articles in which each discrete element is understood as one part of a totality, but equally isolated textual atoms merely arranged into a ‘list.’
Such a form militates against narratives or schemas, it denies the fact that everything we understand is only made comprehensible in terms of the particular framework we as readers bring to bear upon it, and that the author only composed the listicle as a coherent text by engaging not with a world of isolated facts but a totality. Like Lukacs’s “blinkered empiricist,” the listicle author “will of course deny that facts can only become facts within the framework of a system – which will vary with the knowledge desired. He believes that every piece of data from economic life, every statistic, every raw event already constitutes an important fact. In so doing he forgets that however simple an enumeration of ‘facts’ may be, however lacking in commentary, it already implies an ‘interpretation’. Already at this stage the facts have been comprehended by a theory, a method; they have been wrenched from their living context and fitted into a theory.”As literary-Thatcherism, the listicle declares “there is no system,” its neatly organized points granting us nothing but “clear”, unmediated truths.
If the philosophers only interpreted the world, in various ways, the listicle suggests we refrain from even this.