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Monday, October 15, 2007

Eddie Vedder and the economy of prestige

James English's The Economy of Prestige: Prizes, Awards, and the Circulation of Cultural Value is the only academic book I know of with an epigram from Eddie Vedder: "I don't know what this means. I don't think it means anything" (his 1996 Grammy acceptance speech for "Spin the Black Circle").

English's book is worth reading every year at Nobel Prize, National Book Award, and Academy Award seasons because he so spot-on in analyzing small and large controversies that recur year after year as though the awards happened in art vacuums (or, more to the point, art cesspools where any award is viewed cynically and opportunistically). English's point is that we argue over who deserves an award because we're unsure what the awards are measuring--art or cultural prestige, or both. Louis Menand wrote a good review of the book when it came out in 2005. As usual, it's fascinating to read this year's discussions of the Nobel prizes for Doris Lessing and Al Gore with English's book: consider how low-key Lessing was about the award, Harold Bloom's grumpy criticism of the prize being more political than deserved, Gore's publicity compared with his co-recipients', the politicization of the prize (this is a great column from Paul Krugman).

Here's English on why the criticisms of the prize sound similar year after year and why they hold up the economy of the prize's prestige, even as they attempt to knock it down:
It is thus no exaggeration to say that antiprize rhetoric is part of the discursive apparatus of prizes themselves, produced by those whom they enlist as their own agents and serving interests that those agents share with sponsors and administrators. Apart from being a means of derivative consecration for journalist-critics (since members of this faction often receive the symbolically subsidiary but structurally primary honor of being asked to serve as nominators or judges), prizes have traditionally been useful in providing regular occasions for such critics to rehearse Enlightenment pieties about 'pure' art and 'authentic' forms of greatness or genius, and thereby to align themselves with 'higher' values, or more symbolically potent forms of capital, than those which dominate the (scandalously impure) prize economy as well as the journalistic field itself. Such rehearsals do nothing to discredit the cultural prize, and in fact serve as a crucial support for it inasmuch as they help to keep aloft the collective belief or make-belief in artistic value as such, in the disinterested judgment of taste, the hierarchy of value or prestige that is not a homology of social hierarchies, nor a euphemized form of social violence. Like the mid-century magazine profiles of 'great writers on vacation' memorably described by Roland Barthes in Mythologies, the journalistic coverage of prizes has served by its very emphasis on the banal, the social, the petty side of cultural life--the bickering or cheating, the insider deals, what is often referred to as the 'politics' of arts and letters--to reinforce belief in the higher, apolitical, 'intrinsically different' nature of artists and artistic value. The prize has depended on this collective belief, since its own currency, however tainted or debased, is understood to derive from this other and purer form, which stands in relation to the economy of cultural prestige as gold did to the cash economy in the days of the gold standard--perfectly magical guarantor of an imperfectly magical system.

My favorite part of the book is English's chapter on alternative responses to prizes (including Irwin Corey's odd acceptance of the 1974 National Book Award for Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow and the debate about Toni Morrison's Pulitzer Prize). Morrison's Beloved did not win the National Book Award or the National Book Critics Circle Award when it was nominated in 1987-88. In response, June Jordan, Amiri Baraka, Maya Angelou, Alice Walker and others wrote a letter to the New York Times Book Review calling Morrison's missing out on these prizes "oversight and harmful whimsy." After Morrison was awarded the Pulitzer Prize, Christopher Hitchens, among others, criticized Jordan's letter and insisted that Morrison's Pulitzer was tainted because others had campaigned for it. English's point is not that Morrison did not "deserve" her prize; in fact, he's more interested in how people collapsed a more interesting discussion about, say, the historical particularities of a prize in a particular year, into claims about deservedness and artistic merit. English writes of Hitchens' polemic:
In effect, his rhetoric of scandal, for all its prize-bashing bluster, serves to redirect a genuinely deviant or critical intervention, a contemporary departure from the old scheme of art versus money, art versus politics, onto the established paths of the modern ideology of art. What Morrison and her supporters did was to recognize and critique the prize for what it is--a thoroughly social economic, and (racist) political instrument--and to credit it with real, even potentially decisive power in determining long-term literary valuations, and to make an open and candid bid for it as such, leveraging their own forms of social and symbolic capital toward that end. From the standpoint of the prize, this is playing the game rather too knowingly and too explicitly, laying out the various interests and stakes and balance sheets, and publicly proposing a 'deal.' But ostensible prize-bashers such as Hitchens can be counted on to scold the interloper and lead her back to her proper place above or beyond or outside the proverbial backrooms where literary value is so scandalously manufactured by committee--that is, by groups of merely human agents.

Hitchens writes these pieces every single year. Here's the one on Lessing (who deserves it, he says) and here's the one on Harold Pinter (who doesn't). It's like a press-the-button kind of writing from him.

Really, my favorite responses to these awards are the "oh, this is my favorite of her books" comments--comments that take up the generosity of the award and repay it with enthusiasm, reconsideration, or something else unexpected. Jenny Davidson's long post about reading Lessing at the library is a good example. I'll recommend English's book and say that it was amazing to read it right after I finished J.M. Coetzee's Elizabeth Costello, one of the most frustrating and rewarding books I've read in a long time. The main character is an author who's just been awarded a major literary prize and who reflects on writing, being interviewed, the future of the novel, what to say and what not to say at speeches, and a million other things. Here's the maddening last paragraph of her acceptance speech--a paragraph that reminds me a lot of Lessing's bemused reaction to her Nobel:
"There is every reason, then, for me to feel less than certain about myself as I stand before you. Despite this splendid award, for which I am deeply grateful, despite the promise it makes that, gathered into the illustrious company of those who have won it before me, I am beyond time's envious grasp, we all know, if we are being realistic, that it is only a matter of time before the books which you honour, and with whose genesis I have had something to do, will cease to be read and eventually cease to be read and eventually cease to be remembered. And properly so. There must be some limit to the burden of remembering that we impose on our children and grandchildren. They will have a world of their own, of which we should be less and less part. Thank you."

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Blogger Ben on Sat Oct 15, 05:21:00 PM:
Just went back and read this. I'm fascinated by that idea that criticism of award decisions that holds them up to the Aristotelean artistic ideal actually serve to legitimize and glorify the award itself. A bravura digest of the issue, Alice!