The Cultural Economy of Awards and Prizes

And continuing with the week’s theme of lists and rankings, Michael Sandlin reviews James F. English’s The Economy of Prestige: Prizes, Awards, and the Circulation of Cultural Value, in PopMatters.

English approaches his topic with a postmodernist critic’s eye, viewing the world of cultural prizes through the monocle of French theorist Pierre Bourdieu: he often deploys Bourdieu’s own terminology (when speaking of the “consecration” of artists, for example), and defines the cultural awards racket in terms of absence and illusion, or as Baudrillaud or Macherey might say (with a thumbs-up and a wink), it’s “a manipulation of signs that takes the place of an absent reality.” This po-mo reasoning naturally leads to English’s recurring references to the “collective make-believe” that artist, press, and general public must (and do) perpetuate in order for awards to potently function as “symbolic capital,” in an increasingly de-industrialized, “weightless” economy.

English’s advancements in the woefully thin discourse on cultural prizes are many; but his most crucial breakthrough may be the complicit role he sees in high-profile critics of awards (or those behind anti-award awards like the Razzies), whose insults are actually essential to perpetuating “prize frenzy.” And this is where Bourdieu again rears his bereted head, as English speaks of the “styles of condescension” that play an important role in the symbolic empowerment of cultural prizes. And considering there’s little difference today between good and bad publicity, clued-in anti-awards critics, often prizewinners themselves, engage in public naysaying that simply fuels the hype machine. And in this way the scandal-dependent prizes — like say, the Booker — stay relevant in the eyes of an increasingly controversy-hungry media and the public at large.

Question is, can we detect any real hope from English’s study that this all-powerful “collective make-believe” will ever be dispelled?