The New Statesman Essay - The tyranny of the list

Ziauddin Sardar denounces Books of the Century and all similar compilations

Unbridled generosity has arrived at my local Sainsbury's petrol station. A couple of weeks ago, they awarded me a medal simply for filling my car with their petrol. The medal is a splendid silver coin: one side is adorned with an optimistic logo and the words "into a new millennium"; the other side contains a portrait of Gandhi encircled with the legend, "Makers of the Millennium". Gandhi is one of Sainsbury's list of 22 people (21 of them men) "whose vision and determination, flair and compassion have shaped the world we live in". The more petrol I buy, the more medals I get until, eventually, I get the full set of 22.

As the millennium approaches, everyone is making lists. Waterstone's lists the 100 books that made the century, Sky lists 100 millennium movies (though motion pictures have been with us for only a century), the National Portrait Gallery lists 100 iconic images, Classic FM lists the music of the millennium. There are all sorts of other lists, unrelated to the millennium: lists of most powerful people, best actors, best beaches, best restaurants, most beautiful women. Apparently there are people who collect lists of lists. My fellow New Statesman contributor Hunter Davies has even produced a Book of British Lists (Hamlyn, 1980). As if that wasn't enough, he moved triumphantly to Hunter Davies' Bigger Book of British Lists (Hamlyn, 1982).

It is a universally attested truism that nearly all these lists are perversely inaccurate. The top ten of anything, in list form, invariably puts the most obvious first choice well down the order in favour of some inane, unworthy or purely modish selection. For example, Waterstone's 100 books of the century has Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings at number one, while Joyce's Ulysses struggles for the number four spot. The existence of a list excites your comparative juices, only to appal and confound your sense of justice and cast doubt on other people's powers of reasoning.

This is why lists are such good promotional material: they are guaranteed to attract attention and generate fuss. All you need is an anniversary, some hook on which to hang summation and summary judgement. Hence, each year, during the what-to-give season, books of lists, all topically updated, crowd the shelves of bookshops. And there is no anniversary quite like the millennium. The overtones of millenarian foreclosure, the end-of-everything frisson, positively require summation and summary judgement.

But I fear that the present passion for lists is not a passing fad that will fade with the passing of the millennium. Lists are here to stay. Indeed, they are set to become a standard feature of our cultural landscape.

Why? First, lists have become the intellectual counterpart of shopping. The album that comes with Sainbury's "Makers of the millennium" is designed like a Past Times catalogue. You read it like a shopping catalogue; but it has the added illusion of communicating and synthesising knowledge in a world where fragmentation is the norm. Thus, the Independent is publishing weekly lists of 50 best clubs, 50 best gardens, 50 best museums and so on, under the generic title of "The Knowledge". The inference is that knowing the top ten of anything is equivalent to knowing the thing itself, that knowing the top ten books is like actually reading them. The list is the route map to familiarity with the essential landmarks of cultural orientation. To know they exist, to be able to drop their names in conversation, is the contemporary alchemist's lodestone of cultural competence.

Second, lists provide an assurance of certainty and quality in a world where everything has become relative and all things are supposedly interchangeable. The whole idea of excellence has become a subject of parody and its very existence is questioned. So lists of classics, best films and actors, greatest scientists of this century, most memorable celebrities, however much we may dispute them, create an illusion of standard and quality in a world of "dumbing down". They suggest that excellence is still out there, even though popular culture itself is awash with mediocrity.

Third, lists are a very good device for setting an agenda. Consider one of the most amusing juxtapositions in Sainsbury's "Makers". Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart is selected as the key personality in the performing arts category. Meanwhile, the category of music itself belongs to Live Aid, which, if memory serves, was an event, a cause, a brief heady moment rather than a specific musical endeavour or achievement. Moreover, while the list pigeonholes 1,000 years into 21 names, it needs two whole categories for sport.

Clearly, an agenda is at work here; and a list is nothing if not the product of an agenda - cultural, political, populist and intellectual. And one must say racist, since the Chinese do not appear at all (though the past millennium is scarcely imaginable without paper, compass and gunpowder) and the only representation of African Americans, or indeed Africans at all, is in the two sports categories: Jesse Owens and Muhammad Ali.

But there are other, deeper reasons why lists will be with us for the foreseeable future. We are going through a phase of rapid change. Three forces in particular are making the world anew: globalisation, democratisation, and decolonisation. Each of these is transforming the shape of culture, art and literature. Globalisation, for example, has enabled a few cultural products to travel from the east to the west. Hence, the sudden popularity in Europe and America of such things as Quawwali, the devotional music of the Sufis. Or the discovery that Iran and China produce more original, and truly cinematic, films than Hollywood. The appearance of so many Indian novelists (including the Indian diaspora) on the Booker prize list suggests that India, rather than England, is the true home of the contemporary English novel. Not surprisingly, such developments are (unconsciously) perceived by the west as a threat to its cultural domination. Lists provide a way of reclaiming increasingly dissipating power.

Ultimately, a list, like Sainsbury's Makers, Waterstone's Books of the Century and Sky's Movies of the Millennium, are expressions of cultural power. The relationship between lists and power is best demonstrated by the grandest list of all: the western canon.

The Greek word canon means reed, and hence measuring stick. The canon represents the yardstick for measuring civilisation. But a canon is also a cannon: it is a yardstick to beat other pretenders to claims of civilisation such as India, Islam, China, Japan, Africa. This is why so much cultural energy is spent on producing lists of classics.

Lists derive their power partly from their educational value, their use in nurturing the future generation. The debate about the western canon, for example, is a debate about what should be taught at universities - or, you could say, about how we should indoctrinate our children with Anglo-Saxon culture. In his highly praised tome, The Western Canon: the books and schools of the ages, Harold Bloom presents the debate in terms of a holy war. The Canon is always capitalised and it is perpetually under attack from capitalised anti-canonisers: Feminists, Afrocentrists, Marxists, Blacks, Asians, and so on.

Bloom is right in seeing the battle over canons in particular, and the whole notion of lists in general, in religious terms. In a world that has lost all notions of the sacred, classics serve a religious and spiritual function. Lists thus acquire a holy connotation; they provide us with something to admire, to look up to, to believe in.

We now read lists with the same devotion with which we once approached the Bible. And we grant them all the religious connotations of universality and eternity. The National Film Registry of the US Library of Congress has a list of 200 classic films (all American, need I add?) that have been saved for all time. The British Film Institute has its own list of 360 films that are supposed to have universal appeal and, as such, must be saved for posterity.

Just as all those who are exposed to the truths of a religion must adhere to the faith or be judged as heretics, so we must acknowledge the universal truth inherent in these films or be judged philistines. And, if by chance some calamity strikes us all, we can die happy in the knowledge that civilisation will be salvaged by these timeless and universal cultural products.

Lists tie the past, as imagined by the west, to a global future. So advances in contemporary philosophic, historic and sociological scholarship, which have exposed the notion that the west is the beginning and end of all civilisation as a grand delusion, are brushed aside. Most lists take it for granted that nothing of any importance happened during the millennium until it was almost halfway over. The earliest reference on Sainsbury's "Makers" list is to Leonardo da Vinci, who flourished in the 15th century and who makes it in the category "visionaries and inventors". This is a wonderful example of how a list distorts reality, since - as a visionary and inventor - Leonardo cribbed a great deal from Roger Bacon. But popularisers know that most people haven't heard of this Bacon and, in any case, confuse him with other Bacons. Further, Roger Bacon was a product of the 12th-century renaissance, sponsored by Europe's debt to the learning of Muslim civilisation, a connection far too close for comfort.

Leonardo may have been a fine painter, but none of his inventions actually worked. The point is that, by starting with his doodles, the previous five centuries of largely non-western history are wiped clean. All the work of the millennium falls on the shoulders of Britain and the US, with the occasional input from Italy, Germany and Holland. Of the 21 categories listed, only six have anything to do with a past beyond the 20th century. And even those are coloured by our contemporary preoccupations, so that, in the category of "time", we have John Harrison of whom no one had heard till the publication, in 1995, of Dava Sobel's bestseller, Longitude.

The perception of the nature of time, indeed, is one of the things that has changed most during the past few decades, and most dramatically over the millennium. The notion of linear progress now stands thoroughly discredited. But it was not even comprehensible to anyone before the Enlightenment. "Time" as an entity in which continuous progressive change takes place was only firmly established in the post-Darwinian era. But Sainsbury's "Makers", like so many lists, offers us a sense of history that is deeply linear and unashamedly Victorian. The past 1,000 years were created and shaped solely by the west; other cultures were merely passive spectators.

While the world becomes increasingly plural, lists create a delusion of monolithic unity. Demands for pluralism are forcing many colleges, course outlines and reading lists to include a wider range of cultural products, to incorporate material from outside the mainstream of European and American culture. Lists counteract this tendency by suggesting that a homogenous and overarching culture is endorsed throughout the globe and everyone, no matter their creed or colour, will enjoy and endorse the selected items.

So who would object to Henry Ford, selected in the Sainsbury's list in the "transport" category? He was, after all, the man who enabled us all to have a car in any colour we chose so long as it was black (though I prefer to believe he earned his place on the list by declaring that "history is bunk"). Or who would dare say anything against Neil Armstrong, everyone's "space" hero? But the cynics could ask: did Armstrong, or even Kennedy and Nasa take us to space? Or was it Werner von Braun? Would the space programme of the US or Russia be imaginable without the capture by each side of the leading minds of Hitler's rocket programme? But to concede that humanity's supposed achievements in space owe their inception to the militarist racism of Hitler, and his ability to get the German scientific class to do his bidding, would be nothing short of serious cultural pollution. It is not the kind of thing we can teach our children.

The aim of list-making is not to recognise foundational achievements or inspire historic honesty, but to present instantly recognised names and a sanitised trajectory for understanding how a recreation of the past is involved with how we live now and will make our way into the future. An iconic name makes a list look and sound good and creates the illusion of cultural consensus, while allowing the list to work as an instrument of power and dominance.

There is, however, one area where lists have succumbed to historical forces. We can now notice the impact of democracy on most lists. Sky's Millennium Movies, for example, is a product of popular opinion. And what a sorry lot the public turns out to be. The greatest film of all time? Star Wars. Which possibly deserves a place, if only because it is the highest money-earner of all time. But how on earth did Titanic get to be second on the list? The answer is contained in the list itself. Of the 100 films listed, only six were made before 1950. So "all time" turns out to be a short period in the public memory. The people who bother to fill out the questionnaires have clearly seen very few films indeed.

We can easily dismiss such lists. In contrast, the expert list purports to be a matter of considered, mature and reasoned judgement. "We have thought long and hard,'" says the introduction to Sainsbury's "Makers". That's why they included Gandhi, one of the two outsiders (the other being Mother Teresa) on the list in the category of "great leaders - peace". The Mahatma would have understood perfectly that his name has a wide currency, though I doubt he would have taken it peacefully. The cornerstone of his philosophy was ahimsa, or non-violence. His cause was non-violent guerrilla war against all forms of subjugation, which in his mind was associated largely with colonialism. He laid the blame for colonialism solely on the shoulders of western civilisation. Indeed, he wasn't too happy with putting the terms "western" and "civilisation" next to each other. When a reporter asked him what he thought of western civilisation, Gandhi replied that it would be a good idea.

So, it is more than a little ironic that a list that so glorifies western civilisation uses Gandhi as an instrument for legitimacy and wider recognition. It is as though all that the Mahatma stood for, said and wrote, excites only silence. His name has recognition value, but his philosophy is irrelevant.

In lists you can do what you could not do in history: you can colonise the very idea of Gandhi.

Ziauddin Sardar, writer and broadcaster, describes himself as a ‘critical polymath’. He is the author of over 40 books, including the highly acclaimed ‘Desperately Seeking Paradise’. He is Visiting Professor, School of Arts, the City University, London and editor of ‘Futures’, the monthly journal of planning, policy and futures studies.

This article first appeared in the 15 November 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Guns and the Dome