Tuesday, April 14, 2015

"The List is the Origin of Culture:" or, be glad today's listicles aren't all about sheep

Umberto Eco wrote that the list was the beginning of culture. Susan Sontag made lists of what she liked and disliked. Nabokov made lists of things he hated.

Illustration of Susan Sontag’s favorite things by Lynore Avery on Brainpickings.

And lists go back way, way further. Some of the oldest written records, Sumerian tablets, contain lists of tribute that make such important distinctions as those between “fat sheep” and “fine fat sheep.” Lists make accountability and accuracy possible (you might really need to make sure those sheep were gonna be both fine AND fat, okay?). The need for accuracy in trade and tribute was probably the very genesis of Sumerian script.

The other main Sumerian genre was religious literature. Poetic entreaties to the goddess Inanna by one of the first recorded poets, a woman named Enhueduanna, comprise some of the oldest written prayers. What is a prayer if not a list? In this one, the attributes of the goddess and the fervent hopes of the believer form an endless litany of items.

You might say a list has no inherent narrative, but it doesn’t take much to give it one - or to make a list that evokes a familiar story. The girl, the stepmother, the work, the weeping, the ball, the prince, the shoe. See? A simple list of symbols, archetypes, can tell us everything. This particular list is a refraction of culture and not an underpinning of it, but Cinderella is a story whose elements appear in almost all cultures (I absolutely love the Chinese version). If lists begin history and culture, they can also help classify and understand it.

Lists may not be narrative, but they can tell a story. Take royal inventories and household records. Just by her Household Book, a ledger recording everything about the money and items needed in royal life, we know Queen Isabella of England and her attendants regularly took baths. Medieval people are all smelly and unwashed, right? Not these aristocratic ladies - Isabella’s Household Book for 1311 records lists of wooden bathtubs and bathing clothes, and payments for regular repairs to each. Already, this list has changed the story. We also know that medieval people usually slept naked, but that aristocratic ladies like Queen Isabella ordered “bathing garments” to go with their tubs. Priorities.

Today, the “listicle” is loudly decried as the end of journalism and proof of laughable modern attention spans. Sites like Buzzfeed and Cracked are supposed to represent the lowest common denominator, “clickbait” intended just to briefly entertain the masses - even though these days Buzzfeed is doing amazing, “serious” journalistic work in addition to “The 10 Disney Moments that Make You Cry Like a Baby” (ok, I made that one up, but I wouldn’t be surprised. And I’d click on it). While The 22 Chicken Wings You Have to Try Before You Die may not seem up there with fervent prayers to Inanna, lists have a long and glorious history. And plenty of those venerable cuneiform tablets were just talking about sheep, anyway.

Further Reading:
Queen Isabella, by the incredible Alison Weir, who turns royal account books into spellbinding narrative.
As Consciousness is Harnessed to Flesh, Susan Sontag’s notebooks from 1964-1980, where she writes “I create value. I confer value....Hence, my compulsion to make ‘lists.’”

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