The Quiet Radicalism of the Year-End List

In a year in which time itself has seemed to shift, all those “Best of 2017” articles suggest much more than critics’ tastes.

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This summer, in reaction to the latest news cycle that had been packed with news of President Trump, CNN aired a segment that attempted to summarize the administration’s recent—and many—doings. “Trump, in the last four weeks,” the anchor Brooke Baldwin said—at this point she took a big breath to prepare for all the things she was about to list for her viewers—“fires his chief strategist, fires his chief of staff, hires a new one, hires a new communications director, fires him, hires a new one, his fourth in seven months … ” The segment continued on like that for more than two minutes, update after update, reminder after reminder, the list of it all scrolling next to Baldwin on a split screen as she read: not a contextualization of presidential activities so much as an indictment of them. At one point Baldwin paused, dramatically, to take a drink of water, as off-camera producers laughed at her joke. Tragedy, comedy, and farce, all rolled into one.

That segment aired in August, or—according to the very specific form of time-dilation that has occurred in 2017—approximately 15.2 months ago. I’ve thought back to it many times this month, though, while reading through all the lists and rankings and collections that are such a traditional element of this time of year—works of journalism that try in their own way to do what CNN was endeavoring, ostensibly, to do this summer: to summarize. To contextualize. To take a messy world and make some sense of it. CNN was attempting to take a month and put it in relief; the end-of-year articles—all those Mosts and Worsts and Favorites and Tops and Bests and Bests of the Bests and People of the Year—are aiming to do the same with the year that has been.

There is a certain falsity to all of those lists, sure (and not merely because so many of them are published in early December, which is a pretty severe insult to all the days remaining in the month whose events will go unacknowledged): The lists are, overall, subjective things masquerading as objective ones. They suggest logic where there is only taste, order where there is, in reality, only a cluttered world of jumbled truths. And yet. I love reading them. I love comparing them. I love arguing with them. And this year, in particular, I have appreciated the simple fact of their existence. Because this year—this is what CNN was acknowledging and mocking, those eons ago in August—was a year of chaos, and a year of glut. It was a year in which the American media adopted, en masse, a certain Trumptropism. It was a year that found that media’s traditional measures of time itself—news cycles, informational rhythms, long-honed assumptions about the American attention span—becoming another norm that has been challenged by the Trump administration.

The nation has a kind of collective circadian state, regulated not only by national holidays and the like, but also by more quotidian forces: the workweek. The weekend. This year, however, has brought one more force: the presidential body. One man’s moods. One man’s rhythms. He couldn’t sleep last night. He was up early enough to watch Fox & Friends. He is grouchy today. And, so, for many Americans, 2017 has amounted to a permanent kind of jet lag: bodily schedules misaligned with social ones. There is so much happening, always. There is so much to know, unceasingly. There is so much that won’t be known.

Which is also to say that there is so much that won’t be paid attention to. If one of the functions of the American media is to give order to the world’s messiness, to help people make determinations about what—and who—deserves their attention and care, 2017 was the year in which that ordering function lost some of its stability. Tweet by presidential tweet. Comment by presidential comment. The structures ceded themselves to the leader; they bent, obligingly, to his whims. As Farhad Manjoo, a technology columnist at The New York Times, wrote earlier this year, Trump “has taken up semipermanent residence on every outlet of any kind, political or not. He is no longer just the message. In many cases, he has become the medium, the ether through which all other stories flow.”

And, so: All those Saturday-morning tweets, met with dutiful assessments by indignation-weary hosts on cable news. All those Friday-evening news dumps—which have long been standard practice in American politics, but which have occurred with a striking new ferocity over the past year. All the chaos. All the instability. All the shocks to the system. The great promise Trump made to Americans has also been his—and, consequently, our—great peril: that anything might happen, at any moment. There are no schedules, no protocols, no time for every purpose under heaven. The president, today, might decide to mock a nuclear-armed dictator. He might pick a petty fight. He might play golf.

And: He might not. The stability of the schedule is another norm that Trump’s administration is challenging. The information that can reasonably be fit into a day; the news that can reasonably be given the gift of attention; the soft sanctity of workdays and weekends and holidays—all of it has now been revealed not as a given, but as a mere tradition. Another thing that can be undone in an instant.

So whether the president’s seemingly ad-hoc approach to governance is evidence of a sweeping political strategy or simply of egocentrism by other means, the effect, for many citizens, has been the same: The social elements of time itself—foremost among them a sense of what one citizen can be reasonably expected to know of the world in a given day or week or month—have shifted. What a year this week has been, the joke goes, and it has retained its relevance, week after week.

In that context, all those 2017-in-X lists—be they easy content for weary journalists; honest attempts to make sense of things; testaments to change and forward movement; or, as is generally the case, some combination thereof—have functioned as much more than works of preemptive nostalgia. They have also, in their way, made arguments—for stability, for schedules, for the general assumption that some things must transcend the caprices of individual people. Those lists have, with all their sweeping assessments of movies and TV shows and albums and books and people—with all their cheeky declarations about the proper way to arrange those declarations in the first place—reclaimed some of the order that 2017 has so effectively destabilized.

And they’ve done that via the medium that, in years past, has been as cloying as it has been useful. Time’s Person of the Year may have long read as a marketing gimmick; this year, though, its selection reads as urgently relevant. Same with all those dictionaries releasing their various words of the year—complicit, feminism, youthquake—and encouraging discussion about the politics that have occasioned those selections. Same with so many other lists and selections and collections that, in doing what they have always done, have now adopted an air of radicalism. Each list, on top of all the other things such lists are supposed to do, gives the impression of paused time, of order, of meaning: How do you measure, measure a year. Each one rejects chaos. Each one refuses to be distracted by tweets posted or insults flung. Each one stands up for something bigger, more collective, more democratic than itself. And that’s all on top of the lists’ most basic and happy function: to celebrate the simple fact that the Earth, in spite of it all, has managed once again to make its way around the sun.