Photo: iStock
Photo: iStock

Opinion: A guide to the corrupt intellectual’s year-end lists

A year-end list is an act of war against all successful people except those who are included in it

Around this time every year, intellectuals release lists of people whom we should adore. This is a morally dubious, intellectually dull, and journalistically meaningless exercise. The number of suckers who take such lists seriously has gone down in the past years as the power of intellectuals has declined, but the tradition of compiling lists has endured. Here is a reader’s guide to how and why these lists are made.

1) The intellectual who agrees to compile a list of the finest minds in his field of activity will try to exclude his rivals in the tribute. The important quality of a rival is not that he or she is a contender, but that the rival is primarily an equal.

2) Envy is not an emotion that is born out of deprivation, rather envy is a quality between equals. So an academic or a writer or any other type of artist will first name superstars in his field, who are beyond competition and professionally very useful to suck up to. (The only meaningful form of networking is one that is not called networking.) Then he will create moralistic reasons to include people at the bottom who are not a threat to him. When an intellectual pays tributes to “the new voices" or “the fresh voices" or “the outliers", he or she means “people who don’t threaten my place". This is the reason why many middle-aged intellectuals appear to be generous to the youth, debutants and the provincial vernacular.

3) The non-threatening provincial intellectual is a particular favourite of Indian English writers who need hyper-moral reasons to subdue their more potent contemporaries. This is why the Indian anglicized intellectual has been so generous to, say, Perumal Murugan in ways Tamil intellectuals have never been.

4) The wariness for the contemporary is the reason why most Indian writers in English, when asked to name their favourite “Indian writers", will name either R.K. Narayan or Kiran Nagarkar—because they are not rivals.

5) The question readers should ask is whether intellectuals and artists who are vulnerable to pettiness are reliable interpreters of the world and of the mind. (The answer is “yes" but that is for another day.)

6) The greatest insult for any talented artist is not the exclusion from the lists of the petty intellectual, but to realise that the petty intellectual thinks you are his equal.

7) In American and British year-end lists, there is usually a “global" category for best books and films. In Western civilisation, “global" means stuff from Africa or Asia that is quaint enough to be foreign but not so authentic that it will be incomprehensible to the West. By the way, this is exactly how Nasa searches for extraterrestrials in the universe—a life form that is certainly not us but still organic life, drinks water and sends radio signals.

8) In recent times, a new list category has surfaced—intellectuals. This is understandable because for years intellectuals have been compiling lists and now they want to be in the lists.

9) As in the case of the word “meditation", everybody appears to be sure what the word “intellectual" means but when you start asking people specific questions you get varied and contradictory answers. An intellectual is usually referred to as a “thinker". By this people mean “an original thinker" because every human is after all “a thinker". But then it is hard to imagine intellectuals as “original thinkers" because their very success depends on how much they belong to a set of old tired thoughts, also known as ideology. Intellectuals are more of a monoculture than a sugarcane farm. But I like intellectuals—not because they are “thinkers" (they usually are not) but because they are scholarly sponges of the intelligence of other people.

10) Time magazine’s annual list of influential people is hilarious because Time itself is not influential anymore. But it is hard to refute that the list was an institution once. It was powerful in a way no Indian list, or award, ever has been. It is odd that Indian intellectuals keep talking about “Nehruvian
institutions" and “falling standards of institutions", yet they have been unable to create institutions themselves. Somehow they missed their chance in the golden age of intellectual middlemen.

11) Intellectuals love institutions because they fear absolute social democracy. An institution, after all, is meant to subdue those who have been elected by the masses. This sentiment is evident in the year-end lists, too. The lists, if you notice, are never an objective ranking of the most popular works as decided by paying consumers. The lists are always a subjective ranking of what a minority thinks is good. Objective lists are democratic. Subjective lists aspire to be institutions.

12) People on objective lists never brag about their inclusion—like those who are voted the richest or the most powerful, because they obviously are the richest and the most powerful. Those who are on the subjective lists almost always tweet about it. There is something highly inelegant about a person tweeting that he or she has been mentioned in a list. But the age of elegance in public relations is over. Now everybody needs to shout for attention. (This columnist, too, does that.) As a result, the lists are more famous than those who are listed.

13) All things considered, a year-end list is an act of war against all talented and successful people except those who are included in the lists.

Manu Joseph is a journalist and author, most recently of ‘Miss Laila, Armed and Dangerous’.

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