Lists are one of those things that seem easy to define until you think about them too much. Michael Meredith explores the slipperiness of defining lists in an article he wrote for the Canadian Centre for Architecture’s (CCA’s) “Find and Tell” series. For him, lists are author-less, yet personal; never complete but never incomplete; neither completely poetry, nor prose. Furthermore, they are both a tool as well as a collection of parts, neither needing to follow conventional rules of grammar nor have syntactic coherence. Meredith says that “[t]here exists a sort of objective indifference in their technique and, perversely, something deeply human and personal.” In many ways, an architectural vocabulary is incredibly helpful for defining lists; they are loose stacks (a “piling up of words” for Meredith), often created from related but non-self-similar elements. Lists could be defined in an entirely formalist sense—vertical, column-like, and delineated by ornamental and structural bullets and dashes.
Meredith says that lists feel incredibly contemporary, serendipitously so given that “incredibly contemporary” is a phrase that I am inclined to use to describe MOS’ work. That Meredith would draw our attention to these seemingly mundane and marginal collections is apt given his formal and architectural interests in the indifferent accumulation of parts and indifference in general.
In this colloquial sense, I agree with Meredith’s definition of lists as nonchalant mechanisms of organization. He shows us that list-making is incredibly useful as a methodological tool by analyzing various Hejduk archival finds with lists of his own. In this framing, a list is a tool and technique, neutral until deployed and highly dependent upon whom deploys it and how. Meredith explains that “lists are how we communicate through fragments, how we code, how we schedule things…” He goes on to give a brief bibliography of lists in various art and intellectual works, from Sol Lewitt’s instructions to David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King to Carl Andre’s text pieces.
I am reminded of Kenneth Goldsmith’s projects which compile data and information to such a degree that one questions whether Goldsmith is making lists or archives. (Is there any difference?) One of my favorite Goldsmith projects, Capital: New York, Capital of the 20th Century, is in a sense a giant list of excerpts from other writings about New York. Each is composed and coherent, but the book as a whole is a somewhat random collection of thoughts on New York. It takes its organizational inspiration from Walter Benjamin’s famous, unfinished work, The Arcades Project, which very well might be the progenitor of many 20th century lists. In both Goldsmith’s reinterpretation and Benjamin’s original, the methodology of the list, that of collection, accumulation, shuffling, and rearranging, is deployed to spectacular ends.
Both Goldsmith’s and Benjamin’s books are organized by way of loose lists: for Goldsmith they include “Sex,” “Central Park,” “Commodity,” “Apocalypse,” “Gentrification,” “1964 World’s Fair,” “Mapplethorpe,” etc. and for Benjamin “Boredom, Eternal Return,” “Advertising,” “Catacombs,” “Marx,” “Dream House, Museum, Spa,” and so on. The process for creating these books was not unlike making a list; the authors compiled relevant information, writings, and ideas for each category, which were later to be further dissected and organized.
The paradox of lists is that even in seemingly disorganized states, they are always pushing for organization. While it may be tempting to define lists by their relative lack of coherence compared to standard prose and text, in order to do so we must assume that our thoughts have any coherence to begin with. Even if this assumption holds in an anthropocentric sense, it quickly deteriorates when one considers human languages’ lack of intelligibility to other non-human systems, species, and processes. The best writing in any other language than that which you know is nothing more than a seemingly random collection of words, a list. If we disregard the formal and geometric definitions of a list, then all writing is a list, albeit with horizontal rather than vertical sequences. In the Japanese and traditional Chinese tategaki (縦書き) format of writing, vertical succession of words is standard, further blurring any notion that a list might be fundamentally determined by its shape or form. But the flip side of everything being an unorganized sequence of words and data is everything being completely organized, whether we can perceive the organization or not.
As Meredith hinted, lists have significant computer programming implications, organizing information and data sets and forming the backbone of coding. Lists keep track of calculations made and actions taken, and programmers pay careful attention to construct their lists in such a way that the computer’s memory is not overly taxed when the lists start to grow. At an even deeper level, lists of zeros and ones transcribe every action and memory of the computer, and the computer’s failure to make such lists renders it futile. In some sense, the history of computing has been one of figuring out how to more efficiently write, store, and transfer lists. The advent of quantum computing is significant in part because of its promise to free computing from the zero-one binary and allow for complex simulations that benefit from evermore advanced lists.
Architects are no strangers to the computational power of lists and encounter them frequently in ubiquitous yellow Grasshopper panels. We reverse, sort, sub, replace, shift, split, and use the listed numbers as the geometrical basis for forms we wish to generate. Beyond parametric scripting, architects use lists all the time in the form of schedules to help provide further information on various building components such as doors, windows, and finishes. These lists require extensive effort and attention and provide further instruction on how to complete the building as imagined by the designers, specifying such information as size, material, color, attachment, and fire rating.
Likewise when we jot down a to-do list, we discipline the unruly and ephemeral thoughts in our heads, much the same way an architect attempts to discipline the contractor. It is this organizational tendency that makes many lists extremely partisan and ideological, even once their author is no longer associated with them; they have the ability to organize the world in ways which include and exclude (in the case of an FBI watchlist) or in ways which allow certain analyses to be run (in the case of demographic census data). That which is unlisted prevents certain questions from ever being asked. In France, it is illegal to compile demographic data related to ethnicity or race, and hence there are only rough estimates of how many minorities live in the country, making it difficult to track discrimination or lack of representation in critical areas such as healthcare, government employment, and housing. Corporations are similarly susceptible to this “out of sight, out of mind” fallacy when they fail to list and account for the environmental and social externalities of their production, leaving the collective society to account for the damage and unintended consequences. If there is any hope in advancing our current economic paradigm, better lists seem crucial.
During his time at the CCA, Meredith found a cassette recording of a conversation between Hejduk and Eisenman, which he describes as like “listening to a recorded phone conversation between good friends.” He summarizes this conversation by saying, “For better or worse, this world—their world—is the world of lists: of ideas, of history, of bibliographies, of archives.” It seems now that we all live in a world of lists. Seventy-nine years after Walter Benjamin’s death, lists are everywhere. (Was it always so?) Playlists, watch lists, top 10 bar lists, top 33 new restaurant lists, best spots to cool off for summer lists, hottest destinations of 2019 lists (so on and so forth so much so that the word “listicle” was created), who’s who list, “My List +” on Netflix, Amazon wish lists, guest lists, honey-do lists, DJ Lists, Listservs, CVs, blacklists…Should we believe Google’s incredibly seductive Ngram Viewer, the mentions of the word list has steadily increased from the 1700s until today. Even as many of these lists feel outdated or like distant memories in the pandemic era, the list is seemingly poised to continue to play a large role in our lives, taking on new significance in the act of contact tracing, or cataloguing and listing everyone and everywhere you’ve been if you test positive.
Another pandemic-amplified case study might be that of musicians who are now completely beholden to lists, especially so as we spend more time at home continually streaming. Increasingly, having their music listed on one of Spotify’s hundreds if not thousands of playlists is the new pathway to success. Whereas once the radio DJ was key for disseminating and popularizing new music, today humans and algorithms in Stockholm and Cupertino have a huge part in determining an artist’s success. Record companies spend resources and time to make sure their artists appear on these playlists, and companies find it worthy of their advertising budget to create and sponsor playlists.
The role of this kind of “discovery” list also extends beyond our headphones. Google Maps now has an Explore feature which creates lists of historic places, museums, and dive bars. Increasingly, China is deploying its vast surveillance state and facial recognition technology to create numerous lists of various kinds of people in cities across the country.
Even without such advanced technology, lists have always had within them the capability to create in groups and out groups. The word list is derived from the circa 1600 Middle English word “liste” meaning “border, edging, or stripe.” Earlier meanings of the word sometimes referred to a cloth edge meant to keep the rest of the garment from unravelling, again pointing to the list’s organizing and disciplining capacity and origins. Today many common idioms suggest the same. “He didn’t make the list” and “My name is on the list” are two phrases which can be used both literally or metaphorically to instantly denote exclusion and inclusion. “It wasn’t on my list” is both an admission of potential negligence and a signal that a said task wasn’t properly demarcated as needing to be addressed. Likewise the rejection of lists entirely can carry liberating connotations. In the video for the 1994 house classic “Club Lonely” by Lil Louis (Marvin Burns) an interaction between a club doorman and patron goes like this,
Um, excuse me, Charles.
My name is on the list.
The DJ’s list.
Ms. Thing, there is no guest list tonight!
To break free from the list can be to break free from categorization and exclusion, a sign of maximum inclusivity. Is a world without lists possible or desirable? Michael Meredith is right in calling our attention the the indifference of lists per se. The act of list-making on the other hand is anything but. Here again the etymology of the word list is helpful. A lesser known meaning references a ship leaning to one side. On the one hand, this interpretation can be seen negatively, as ships often listed when they were leaking or had unbalanced cargo. On the other hand, this tilt or inclination could be seen in a positive sense, and indeed the words list and lust are related. Etymological research suggests that in the mid-12th century both listen and lusten were used to mean “to please, desire,” coming from the Old English lystan. Perhaps the best use of the list today would be to use it to make explicit our desires, and then organize ways to achieve them.