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New Left Review 114, November-December 2018


carlos spoerhase

RANKINGS: A PRE-HISTORY

The everyday life of the 21st century is deeply marked by numerical rankings. [1] This essay draws on historical research presented in Carlos Spoerhase, ‘Das Maß der Potsdamer Garde’, Jahrbuch der Deutschen Schillergesellschaft, no. 58, 2014. Thanks to Mark Kyburz for translating much of the text into English. From creditworthiness to the international ‘ease of doing business’ index, from five-star reviews of films or restaurants to the ‘impact factor’ of scholarly journals, they not only serve to describe and evaluate the world, but also in some respects help to change it. Evaluative lists as such are nothing new, of course; they have existed since Antiquity. The ‘canons’ of exemplary works compiled by Hellenistic philologists were of this type; but these depended largely upon critical-aesthetic evaluations. Vice versa, purely commercial lists—bestsellers, top tens and so forth—made no pretence of establishing artistic value. Operating in the medium of the digit, the specific authority that rankings have assumed today derives from their claim to be the result of numerically established worth. What are the origins of this type of valuation? In which domains did it first emerge? The answers lead to an epoch and a field of knowledge not normally associated with rankings: the 18th-century critics of European art and literature, who developed quantitative models of comparatio.

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