January 27th, 2008

Surveying Is Its Own Punishment

A good friend of mine posted an entry today that gave me a lot of food for thought, both about the work that I do and the way I would go about situating myself within it. Composing a "checklist" for her demographic, with an "amused nod" to sociologist Pierre Bourdieu," she constructs a picture with the sheen of objectivity:
1. Female
2. Middle-aged (40-56)
3. Highly/Over educated
4. Problem spouse
5. Employed outside private sector
6. Also writer/poet/artist/photographer
7. Red wine
8. Yoga
9. Yoshimatsu
10. First child after 32
11. Trader Joe's, duh
12. Therapy of one kind or another
13. Own pack of tarot cards
14. And/or I Ching and know how to use them
15. I'm getting bored of this but there's lots more.
This list reminds me of passages in Georges Perec's wonderful first novel Things, which dates from the same survey-obsessed French 1960s as the data Bourdieu analyzes in his landmark book Distinction. It also brings to mind the minimalism of some of my favorite American writing of that period, from Joan Didion to Donald Barthelme.

The difference between that era and this one turns on the way in which such lists are evaluated. Back then, some sort of legitimation, whether corporate, scholarly or literary, was usually required for lists to reach a public. With the rise of internet culture, however, the need for a stamp of approval is diminished and the number of ways of getting one, however minor, have greatly increased. This was true five years ago, when I wrote a piece for Bad Subjects about the way companies like Amazon.com were deploying user-generated lists. And it's even more true today.

For all that, though, I do think there's a difference between the sort of list my friend produced and the majority of the ones you find on the internet. She manages to convey sincerity and irony at the same time, which is another way of saying that the construction of her list seems to be shaped by considerations of form as much as content. That I can perceive that, though, may indicate the degree to which I fall on the same side of the divide she implicitly articulates between her demographic and younger ones to whom most of the items on her list would inspire confusion or, worse, ridicule. I have the tools, in other words, to understand what an "amused nod to Bourdieu" is and, what is more, to place both the list and its construction in a historical context.

The problem I confront, however, is that this capacity does nothing to give me legitimation where it counts. Being able to read a list for more than what it lists is not a skill that brings rewards in my sphere of interaction. It's the sort of thing I might want to list if following in my friend's footsteps -- an exercise I plan to undertake over the next week -- but the decision to do so would only contribute to the impression that I wanted to refine the sense of ironic detachment pervading my list-making. But what if the most sincere -- and significant -- thing I can declare about myself is that I'm incapable of not seeing myself seeing?