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New Literary History 33.1 (2002) 109-135

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Winning the Culture Game:
Prizes, Awards, and the Rules of Art*

James F. English

There is no form of cultural capital so ubiquitous, so powerful, so widely talked about, and yet so little explored by scholars as the cultural prize. Prizes and awards fairly dominate the cultural landscape these days, literally tens of thousands of them vying for our notice, lists of them appearing in every resumé, every promotional blurb, every feature story or obituary of practically anyone connected with the production of art. 1 Indeed, the sense that the cultural universe has become super-saturated with prizes, that there are more prizes than our collective cultural achievements can possibly justify, is the great and recurring theme of prize punditry. Gore Vidal says that in the U.S. there are more literary prizes than there are writers. 2 Peter Porter, the Australian poet, says there are so many prizes in his country that "there is hardly any writer in Sydney who has not won one." 3 A British novelist jokes about attending a "great literary function" in Bloomsbury where he turned out to be "one of only two fiction writers present never to have won a literary award," and where the other such writer was managing to go undetected by laying claim to an award of his own invention--the "Pemberton-Frost Memorial Prize." 4 The author thus found himself in a perfect comic inversion of the normative prize scenario: a single loser emerging from a congested field of winners. The whole literary awards scene, as numerous commentators have observed, has come to resemble the "Caucus-race" of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, where the Dodo announces that "everybody has won, and all must have prizes." 5

This is not a specifically literary circumstance, of course, but a general feature of contemporary cultural life. Woody Allen's character in Annie [End Page 109] Hall (1977) remarks, apropos of the Grammys, that awards are being conferred for such doubtful cultural achievements that Hitler could get one for "greatest fascist dictator"--and the joke has become a staple in all the fields of culture from journalism to architecture. Everywhere we find the same mocking or disdainful complaint: "So many awards," as a columnist reviewing a spate of new music awards shows puts it, "so little excellence." 6 But this joke, and the attitude it bespeaks of sneering indifference or condescension to the awards industry, seems to have prevented us from making any rigorous inquiry into the cultural logic in which prizes are today so inextricably embedded. It is, in fact, a residual joke, somewhat out of step with the contemporary, pitched along lines which are essentially modernist and which depend on a certain consensus and, you could say, an unproblematic faith among the actual producers of art regarding the distinction, indeed the opposition, between legitimate forms of artistic recognition on the one hand and mere bourgeois credentials or consecrations on the other. "Honors dishonor," Flaubert famously said. But that resoundingly simple dictum no longer holds today, at least not in the way it did a hundred or even thirty years ago. This is not to say that the modern discourse of art in which prizes and prestige are figured as opposing terms has ceased to reverberate, or that it lacks any tactical utility within the sites of contemporary culture. On the contrary, it continues to resonate even with those of us who are presumed to know better, and it can still be wielded effectively in the academy as well as in the dailies. But the game called culture is played differently now than it used to be, with more diverse agents (institutional as well as individual agents) employing more complex and varied strategies. Those of us who are interested in what Pierre Bourdieu has called the rules of art would do well to put our habitual sneers aside and begin to inquire more systematically into the prize's functioning, both in the narrow sense, as a piece of objectified symbolic capital...


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