The Listmaker

April 26, 2013 § Leave a comment

Maria Popova at Brain Pickings notes that Susan Sontag liked making lists, and that lists are “very much a currency of culture, today’s favorite attention-exploitation device in an information economy of countless listicles and innumerable numerical headlines.” The latest volume of Sontag’s collected journals, As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh: Journals and Notebooks, 1964-1980, is dotted with a good number of them (some of which Popova shares), and in an entry from 1967, Sontag digs into her fascination with them:

I perceive value, I confer value, I create value, I even create — or guarantee — existence. Hence, my compulsion to make “lists.” The things (Beethoven’s music, movies, business firms) won’t exist unless I signify my interest in them by at least noting down their names.

Nothing exists unless I maintain it (by my interest, or my potential interest). This is an ultimate, mostly subliminal anxiety. Hence, I must remain always, both in principle + actively, interested in everything. Taking all of knowledge as my province.

Lists are about segregation, compartmentalization: sorting out what belongs to a category from what does not. Books you wish to read, favorite films, possible names for your children. Cities you have visited. They become useless when left open-ended. We are by nature segregators, even in our relationships: we choose particular people to pursue getting to know better, and in doing so leave others behind.

Also: it is notable that among Sontag’s list of dislikes are “being photographed” and “taking photographs.” This from a writer who called photography “the inventory of mortality,” a predatory activity reductive in its storytelling, and who wrote, “In America, the photographer is not simply the person who records the past but the one who invents it.”1

1“Melancholy Objects,” in On Photography (1973), 1990, p. 67



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