A Value for All Things

The end of every year brings many things; one of the most popular seem to be lists. As the last days of December roll around one will see the categorizing of the top movies, books, songs, albums, art exhibits, YouTube videos, album covers, mistakes, new words, new trends, bad trends, worst days, best days, best-worst days, funny names, flash mobs, memes, people, victories, defeats, photographs, and so on. All in all it seems a rather harmless way to end the year, but there is a problem. Not with the lists per se, but with the mentality that causes us to purse lists.

What is intrinsic to a list is that it not only differentiates but orders, thus assigning a value to each thing in the list. The first ranked movie (book, song, etc.) has a greater value than the second ranked. Thus if you only see one movie this year, see “The Hobbit” (“Lincoln,” “Django Unchained,” etc.); it’s worth is categorized.

Now this makes perfect sense for some things (stocks, for example; there is nothing more to them than value) and is not completely out of place for others. But it is horribly misguided in many cases (people, for example; Time’s Person of the Year now is accompanied by a list of runners-up, making an implicit value judgement) and in others is useless if not damaging despite our acceptance.

In this last category would belong most top ten lists, particularly those of various art forms such as cinema and literature. We have become almost jaded to the lists to the point that we tend to find it odd if a critic does not release one. Yet it is an act of value judgement with no real worth to anyone except for perhaps the critic.

The release of a top ten list from a critic declares that these ten films are the most worth watching, the ones released this year with the most value. Clearly one can disagree with the list but it is also clear most people do not (that is, most people who trust a given critic trust that those ten films have high, if not the highest, value). Further, the critic has not simply assigned an abstract value (“These ten films are worth watching”) he has given them a specific weight (“This one film is worth more than the other nine”).

At the heart of the problem here is that listing and creating ordered value is a monetary move: one lists assets, companies, etc., by their worth in a strictly comparative fashion. To organize things that properly beyond the realm of wealth (the quality of a film as opposed to its box office receipts) in the fashion of wealth encourages us to view them as commodities. Anything that can be listed can be bought or sold.

The problem is not the lists; the problem is that we as a culture are fascinated with them and desire to have everything put into such succinct value-format (this extends to our obsession with rating everything as well). Good in this life cannot be easily organized into a hierarchy of worth; to do so is push everything into the material and all material into tradable goods. We can no longer see things as they are; everything and everyone has their price, and thus becomes replaceable and, in the end, worthless.

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