In defense of lists

In defense of lists

Faiz Hussain

In defense of lists

Thinking about thinking #8 16th January 2023
Al: I love this time of year for the end-of-year lists … Me (to myself): Really Al? REALLY? Wait … maybe he’s on to something. – Creative Mornings, London, December 2022

I’ve changed my mind about lists.

Receiving yet another low-quality listicle in my inbox. Immediate block. The bait-and-switch of a promising post to a bare list with no context like some kind of error message. Immediate mute. A copy-and-paste stock response to a thoughtful question as condescending as ‘let me Google that for you’. Jilted. A travel guide that’s just tourist traps. Shortchanged. Automated shuffle playing the same songs at single-level album depth. Uninspired. A bibliography without a syllabus. Why bother? Getting to page 12 of the search results. Hair-pulling frustration. Greatest Hits of a 2-album band. Moneygrab. A bar puts on the Top 40. I’m done.

I’ll be first to raise my hand about photo albums I’ve made with 300 photos that tell no story. I think it’s easy to hate on lists when they don’t meet a good standard of curation. In the same breath as my last run-on paragraph, I’m thinking about the best experiences of my life.

Guided tours of Oaxaca through an Agave spirit flight with props thanks to Lou Bank. Life-affirming. Stumbling on a goldmine of sources sandwiched by a thoughtful narrative by someone who’s actually read the list. Intellectually aroused. A perfectly executed mashup during a DJ set. Pumped. An extract that makes me want to read the primary source. Gift that keeps on giving. A walking tour of a best friend’s neighbourhood by them. Connection.

There’s something so human about (good) list-making, that you have to give some part of yourself to the process to connect what’s special about the items in the list so that they’re in living dialogue with each other. I don’t think there is a repeatable formula for it.

Who you are might be a list.

Back when my friend Malisa and I had a monthly bookclub, we chose a 2–3 books that had the same underlying story either by explicit homage or implicit ‘they didn’t realise what they were doing’. My favourite was a set that contained Faust, Jekyll & Hyde, Frankenstein, Dorian Gray, American Psycho, Fight Club and Filth.

Other than fun details like Stevenson hadn’t visited London before he wrote about it and the American Psycho film is a feminist parody, each story deals with duality either through dissociative identity disorder, a deal with the devil or through violating natural law, or masking interior versus exterior lives. The effect of reading some of these back to back – I think – made the experience of reading more meaningful, you appreciate more of the details actively, rather than taking the stories at face value.

Guess what each author did to establish each dual personality? They wrote lists. Lists that establish the binary of tastes between the two characters in one person. Patrick Bateman, Executive, loves the micro-details of printed stationary. Patrick Bateman, Serial Killer, loves 90s soul. It makes the extra chapter of Dorian Gray worthwhile. You learn what gives each character meaning in shorthand, without having to sit through their whole life experience.

Putting Alexa to shame.

Lists in-real-life are more than an exhaustive exercise to establish a personality or to front taste. They expand the boundaries and richness of our lives, not just by shortcutting the time it takes to discover things by weeding out what sucks but also teaching us how to suss out meaning on our own.

I think about “memes”, which was Richard Dawkins’ attempt to mirror “genes” a natural disposition versus what we learn through socialising and domesticating each other. Memes need to be somewhat easy to copy, invite participation from others and connect us to a piece of in-group knowledge.

Lists, similarly, have a kind of hidden coda that influences us to delve deeper. The fire-starter of a new favourite band through a mix of initmate and apocryphal knowledge. I think it’s a hunger for discovery, to be exposed to not only new things, but new things we will like (with sufficient effort). I love the film, High Fidelity for the mental calisthenics for not only ordering their musical universes, but to create meaning.

Lists can be embodied too.

Structuralist philosophy (particularly Lacan) will tell you that you can’t accurately express your experience with language. Imagination fills that accounting gap by producing better mental models (naming as metaphor, association by metonymy). And chains of this imagination turn into mythology and ritual to encode large amounts of knowledge into principles that are easy to transfer. It’s another form of discursive capture. I think a list at its best mimics this staying power. Assemblies of disparate information governed by some principle that can be spelled out in narrative imagination that allows others to ensnare new kinds of information they couldn’t capture with existing models.


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Figure 1.

Quipu #0000081938, knotted textile for administrative purposes, 4.6x4.6m or 15x15', attributed to the Incan Empire, held in Museo de Sitio de Pachacamac, Perú.<br />


Pictograms (ancient hieroglyphics or modern kanji) to the more embodied crafts like uniforms, tocapu and threaded quipus (above) take us away from the lists of bulleted enumerations and ideas put into language. When I was learning Chinese, I recall a café friend Jim telling me the difference between a connoisseur and someone who simply drinks wine – the difference is that the connoisseur (from French, lit. one who is intimately familiar with something) is that they know what exactly to look for and to expect — the tears on the glass, the leatherette that comes from aging, the impact of oxygen and water on something stored in a vaccuum. Just as a kanji user can immediately eyeball the difference and preference between 壽 and 夀, two variants of the character for longevity (Mandarin: shòu, Japanese: kotobu-ki/ju). Knowing what to look for is like reassembling the elements of a list into your working model of the world.

A point to our collections on the internet.

I clip on average 12 articles from the internet everyday.

I don’t know how many posts I like or bookmark, probably more than that. I screenshot and hipshot everything in between from moment-in-time stills of my workshops to stickers I see on the back of signposts. And I write incomplete thoughts.

It’s interesting to me that the most valuable part of social media is withdrawn. It’s what would happen if we were making connections between the likes and bookmarks we collect; reflecting on what we’ve already seen rather than engaging live.

I had a student I tutored essay writing once ask me if I ever looked back through the journals, collections, albums. Is there a right time to do that?

I’ll admit that I don’t and I wish I did. I find so much joy in creating mixtapes, syllabi, guides, stories and newsletters like this from the raw material. Every time I do I find that I’m rewarded not just by a less noisy folder on my computer, but a thoughtful collage that I want to go back to and remind myself what’s so great about life – memento mori.

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