James F. English, The Economy of Prestige. Prizes, Awards, and the Circulation of Cultural Value. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2005.

Believe it or not, they once gave out an Olympic gold medal in Poetry. I'd say cue the slapstick, except James English thought of that already. A few pages previous to this anecdote he quotes from a Monty Python skit: "And the crowd goes quiet now as [Thomas] Hardy settles himself down at his desk..." It's one of a few gems strewn throughout this stiff but useful guide to prizes—international prizes in Poetry, and Art and such. Beyond this, The Economy of Prestige goes far towards explaining a wide range of cultural phenomena of the twenty-first century.

Those verbal gems are a blessing, they keep reminding us how ludicrous the whole idea is to begin with: a prize for writing Poetry? Why not a prize for Breathing? The answer, of course—but there is no "of course." If you ever woke up at two am to realize that the whole idea of grading poets, or painters, or anybody else as Best, Second Best or First in Show borders on insanity, then you're ready to think along the lines laid out in this book. Prizes, English points out, are one of many ways symbolic capital is created in a global economy, and he sets out, clumsily but insistently, to outline how "symbolic capital" works.

I'll take the clums, anytime. Symbolic capital is one of the great key concepts developed by the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, another one being "habitus." Symbolic capital is the whole set of values attached to behaviors that may at some point be exchangeable for economic capital—having the right skin color on a job search, for instance. Unlike money, however, symbolic capital is closely administered by a "habitus," that is a set of behaviors that define symbolic values. And different social groups (we used to call them "classes"), are likely to develop and enforce different rules of behavior. Within the world of rap a white face doesn't count for much: all things being equal, you can't "trade up" on it. In other worlds a black face might constitute a positive: symbolic capital, but only within a specific habitus that defined the proper way to behave. A prize, then, is a way to create symbolic capital, to reinforce the value of a certain habitus, such as "artist" in the liberal European sense of the word. One of the great sidelights of English's book is the donnybrooks that erupted among African writers and critics when the Nobel Prize was awarded to Wole Soyinka, a Nigerian writer who nevertheless was criticized at home for having no truck with the Africanist movement known as Negritude. The Nobel Prize, as one Nigerian critic explained, was a case of "the undesirable honoring the unreadable." Soyinka responded that "Tigers don't go around claiming their tigritude." Well, yes they do, actually, and more often than not if they don't somebody's going to claim it for them. Prizes, says English, are about allocating and defining "tigritude;" or "what a movie should look like;" or "Art." It's not about the money:

[This other economics] does not assume the primacy of the money economy; it is a matter not of reducing culture to economics, artistic motivations to money-lust, but of enlarging the notion of economics to include systems of non-monetary, cultural, and symbolic transactions.

And yet it is. Bourdieu's approach is never as interesting, never as challenging as when it confronts traditional Marxist questions about class formation and the formation of economic capital. Within the world of art symbolic capital accrues from the shows you've had, the fact that you live in Manhattan, and so forth, but as every New York artist knows, you can't pay the rent with symbolic capital. English observes that "not being about the money" is an important function of prize-giving, which puts it in the same functional category as the recent, clumsy show at PS1 devoted to works that were "not for sale." Here we begin to envision an approach that could deal with cultural texts and events the way therapy deals with patients, unearthing each time a set of specific strategies of denial and repression connected to production and relations of production: "At stake [in the giving and receiving of prizes] is the very belief in the Artist as a special category of person, and hence in Art as a special domain of existence." Well, what could be more special than not having to worry about rent? English's most interesting contribution may be his refashioning of Bourdieu's concept of "illusio," which in Bourdieu, he claims, is a rarity, "a special complication or nuance in the habitus," but in English's reading becomes a form of collective belief, almost a group delusion. The idea that art is about not being about the money often takes on this pathological dimension, easily observed among those for whom it most obviously is, too, about the money.

Group delusion or defense mechanism? Bourdieu has written at length about the "world upside-down" aspect of certain forms of symbolic capitalization, but maybe his description coul apply to the symbolic system of Capitalism itself. English brings up Bourdieu's concept of a '"strategy of condescension," a technique of behavior that enables a participant "to enjoy both the rewards of the game and the rewards due to those who are seen as standing above the game," but I wish he had put more flesh on this particular skeleton. It's obvious enough that those who denigrate a certain prize (or one specific winner of one specific prize) are upholding at the same time the illusio that such a thing as a worthwhile prize is at all possible. It's not obvious why. There's a parallel here with that strange habit among "leftists" of denigrating money per se, a superb piece of hypocrisy that automatically sets them apart from those who don't have the leisure to not worry about money to begin with. Similarly, English raises the ever-present possibility that the prize is a "Trojan Horse", exploiting those who imagine they're doing the exploiting, and (English doesn't mention that), vice versa. Quickly and inexplicably the author moves on to Bourdieu's conception of "two fields of cultural production," one "real" in the sense that it consists of artists and writers creating for a living, the others, creating for "art's sake."

From these disjointed observations one begins to gather that prizes are part of a wider cultural movement that bribes artists to not be productive economically, which is pretty much how the system operates under Capital: suppose I write a book and the book is successful—perhaps so successful that I never need to write a book again, or simply so successful that I spend a considerable amount of time flogging my book instead of writing another or, worse, enter the habitus of the prize-givers? In effect I've been co-opted into another system of symbolic formation, the talk-show circuit, for instance. This is a habitus with a radically different system of values: English mentions in passing that Jean-Paul Sartre did not simply turn down the Nobel Prize because it represented bourgeois capitalist values, he turned down all prizes on principle, even those given out by communist regimes, apparently because he felt the value-system enforced by prizes in general was incompatible with his own, regardless of the stated intention. Toni Morrison, by the way, plays a large role in this story - not a pretty one.

English concludes with a discussion of that area where the clash of cultural habitus provides, and promises to provide, the greatest challenge in years to come: the clash of cultural values within the pattern of globalization. Rightly, he points out that a "global" culture is not the "world" culture it pretends to be, that universally significant "heritage of humanity" that's always being sold through Unesco or the Museum of Modern Art. Global culture does not and cannot exist without a constant input from the local cultures that it constantly co-opts and encourages. The author makes a persuasive and ambiguous case around the South African group Ladysmith Black Mambazo, pointing out that the group emerged from the Apartheid-era world of black-only singing competitions but that its rise marked at once the end of Apartheid and the economic collapse of a certain form of African musical culture.

It was Sartre, also, who spoke of a "Marxist Horizon," meaning that Marxist theory, no matter how incomplete, could pop up again whenever other, presumably narrower theories had exhausted themselves. "The Economy of Prestige" drops off at the point where its questions become practical ones, not for Marxist professors or liberal professors, but for artists trying to make sense of their world and act within it. Because if "Global Culture" is about the falsification of the actual use-value of art in general, then it falsifies the production of art at all levels. In Canada, for instance, the definition of "what is art" is made at once to embody a wide range of cultural activities, coupled with the insistance that these cultural activities can and should be judged according to a value system which is fundamentally alien to them, and what is alienated here above all is the system of exchange, even economic exchange, hence the system of production that brought them into being in the first place. Is there such a thing as Inuit Art? Not in any museum or gallery. Is there an art that's actually detached and detachable from the relations of production that brought it forth? In your dreams, bourgie boy, and your dreams are what you like to call Art.

Here are two stories English doesn't quote in his book. The first concerns Charles-Claude-Flahaut de la Billarderie, Comte d'Angivillier, the unfortunate administrator charged with the cultural policy of Louis XVI in the years leading up to the French Revolution. Angiviller once complained that "One cause of the lack of success of many artists who have given brilliant promise in their youth, is the excessive ease of finding work." It's not that prizes are good for starving artists, it's that starving artists are good for prizes.

Here's the second story. When he was very young, and just a day out of a Southern orphanage, Ray Charles entered a singing contest. He had to, he was starving, and the price was a jar of pickles. Of course he won the prize, and took it up to his room, and then he realized he had no way to open it. Damn.

Sunday, May 5/6, 2007; revised 10/22/2016

The Invisible Ham