My recent study of Adorno has me looking at popular culture and everyday interactions through Adorno-shaded lenses. One phenomenon that jumps out at me is the tendency toward spurious “ranking,” that is, the expression of personal preference as an objective feature of the work. We don’t hear that our friends really liked a given album, for instance — we hear that it’s probably one of the best albums of the year. Even on purely personal measures, there’s a tendency toward ranking, as when one declares a given film their “favorite movie of all time.”
Why do we talk like this? Certainly learning that Ulysses was declared the greatest novel of the 20th century by some authoritative source doesn’t tell us anything concrete about the book. Such lists rarely include any discussion of the methodology or standards employed to reach the listed judgments, and they certainly don’t include any extended discussion of how the works in question concretely met those standards. At best, rankings serve as a kind of advertisement for the books on them. When you see that Ulysses or Citizen Kane or Beethoven’s Ninth is “the best,” you think to yourself, “I should check that out, or at least feel guilty for not doing so.”
I’d say the same applies for purely personal declarations: they are quite literally “word of mouth advertising.” They are structured exactly like an advertisement. The declaration that a book is surely one of the best of the decade, for instance, could be seamlessly transplanted onto the back of the book as a “blurb,” and the hipster’s passionate endorsement of the best album of the year would not be out of place in a full-page ad for the album in a music magazine. (In this respect, one could read Zizek’s famously exaggerated book blurbs — recently I read one in which he declared Adrian Johnston the greatest political philosopher of all time — as in line with his recommendation to undermine the dominant ideology by taking it as seriously as possible. We’re supposed to reduce scholarly works to consumer goods with the language of marketing? Alright, then let’s really do it!)
Certainly the superabundance of cultural production, which has not been matched by an increase in our available attention, makes advocacy and prioritizing inevitable. Yet these rankings become a kind of black hole of attention and debate. Very rarely does a ranking prompt discussion of the actual expressive content of a work — the debate almost always remains on the level of the ranking itself (“What kind of fool could think Citizen Kane is more important than Breathless?”).
Our discussion of cultural goods implicitly endorses their reduction to competing commodities, so that when we’re talking about Joyce vs. Proust, we might as well be talking about Coke vs. Pepsi. And the only alternative I can think of is the notion that serious criticism, which tests the quality of the work by demonstrating the degree to which it sustains and rewards the scarce attention we devote to it, would really be the best possible advertisement for a work.