Ceremony and Fantastika: Watching The Hugo Awards

“The Hugo Award ceremony. . . expresses for (and to) fandom its self-image, the face by which the community would like to be known in the wider world outside the genre.” – Camille Bacon-Smith

“The custom of awarding prizes, medals, or trophies to artists — selecting outstanding individuals from various fields of cultural endeavor and presenting them with special tokens of esteem — is both an utterly familiar and unexceptional practice and a profoundly strange and alienating one.” - James F. English

For the first time ever, I watched the Hugo Awards this week, in their entirety (yes, including the long pre-ceremony slide show/concert). I have never attended a Worldcon and the biggest award ceremony I have been to is the Shirley Jackson Awards at Readercon. I find them hard to sit through as ceremonies but mesmerising as social endeavours. I am personally ambivalent about and anthropologically fascinated by awards ceremonies, and these feelings are even more pronounced regarding those focused on literature and the fantastic. The Hugo Awards, as “science fiction’s most prestigious award” in English, are particularly intriguing because of their visibility, manner of selection, and place in the culture and history of the field. They are a powerful device for generating symbolic capital and reproducing ideas and distinctions in the literary field of fantastika.

This is what makes awards, their ceremonies, and their place and uses in what Pierre Bourdieu called “the field of cultural production” interesting to me: what they tell us about how fantastika is reproduced and lived through not just our practices but our narratives, identities, economies, and social relations. The Hugos are elevating, flawed, transfiguring, and contentious, as all awards should be (socially speaking); they not only honor the winners but put forth standards and reward those who (in the eyes of those who participate in the award-granting) emulate a prevailing interpretation of those standards. Awards at this level for a particular field are significant, both in the sense of social importance and in the sense of creating social and cultural resources within and outside of the literary field. This is why, as conflicted as I am about awards, I have to keep looking at them and wondering just what it is they are doing.

Watching this year’s Hugos, I thought a lot about Bourdieu’s idea of how awards work in the field of production, and of what “the field” itself (particularly the literary field) is. As Bourdieu defined it:

“a field is a separate social universe having its own laws of functioning independent of those of politics and the economy. The existence of the writers, as fact and as value, is inseparable from the existence of the literary field as an autonomous universe endowed with specific principles of evaluation of practices and works.”

Throughout his work he talks about “the field” as a conceptual space of struggle, where legitimation is debated and dispensed and cultural assets are given value and exchanged. This may sound extremely contentious, but “struggle” here does not mean pitched battles, and the assets being exchanged are in large measure not monetary nor of universal currency. Contention and its resolution are what social interaction is all about, really, as we each make our way through our lives and try to understand what other people are doing and thinking while trying to enact our own ideas and agendas. “The field” is an attempt to grasp and delimit the context in which social interaction takes place.

The Hugos are the result of a 20th-century trend in the proliferation of arts awards and prizes translated into a distinctive ceremony for the field of fantastika. Watching the awards that distinctiveness comes right to the fore; the combination of pomp and familiarity [especially joking], the appreciation of history and ritual mixing with the dynamics of the current moment, the tension between competition and affability. But that broader trend, with its unexceptional yet alienating element, comes out in the format of the awards, an earnest, self-conscious interpretation of the way that other awards ceremonies are structured and performed to grant the awards wider currency and cultural resonance. I felt at several points that I was watching a rendition of, say, the Oscars, but also an inversion of them in some way, as people more comfortable sitting at a computer and creating worlds with words (or at the artist’s easel creating images) tried to both imitate and innovate on a formal, ubiquitous custom.

What was put forth by presenters and winners alike was a combination of elation and unease that is less pronounced in other ceremonies of this sort, and to an extent, that is a good thing. The moment of transformation, when the liminal nominees are changed into one winner and several permanent nominees (because nomination holds some significance in the field), is more self-consciously obvious in the Hugo ceremony. The moment of condensed, intense validation, where the award is bestowed and all complexity is reduced to the conceit that one person is the best in the field, shows even on the faces of the most seasoned winners and presenters. Because, unlike some awards ceremonies, the granting of a Hugo is immediately shared back to the field as a reflection of it, and regardless of individual opinions warps the social context a bit.

It does this in part because of the particular ethic that is negotiated between the professional, semi-professional, amateur, and fannish constituencies of the field. The award is not just for the work itself, not just for the artist, but for the combination of social, discursive, and symbolic value of both as a historicized accomplishment, as something done for the field. As Camille Bacon-Smith characterizes it:

“. . . the core of this community is not about wishing, it’s about doing. Every moment of enculturation, every ceremony and conversation is about doing something valued in the community. At the Hugo Awards ceremony, fandom offers to the outside world its vision of itself not as consumers, but as creators of the genre and the world that genre creates.”

I think that the ceremony also projects this back to the field itself, to reinforce ideas of what the genre is to “the community” and the close relationship between them. This is one reason why I think that we rarely see daring, difficult works win a Hugo; because the “best” is often something that is graspable and comfortable more than provocative and ingenious. Awards like the Hugo are usually more about stability than change. What is “the best” for a given year or era is not just a matter of inherent textual or discursive qualities, but is conditioned by social forces, by contentions and gratifications, by some of those struggles of Bourdieu’s. The Hugos, however, are not just a reflection of a social ethic within the literary field of production; rather, that is the point from which we should look at the awards more carefully, and consider what they do for the field and what they reflect about the field and the literature it produces.

While watching the ceremony it is hard to keep the literature in mind, and the ritual moment itself quickly fades. But it is not just a moment of culmination; both before and after the actual ceremony the Hugos are a point of discussion and prestige. The fact of the award is constant within the field, and often represents the field as well.

“[T]he institutional conditions of its [fantastika’s] production” have some correlation to the literary field that Bourdieu writes about, but only at a basic level. The hierarchies, the social conventions, and membership and prestige strategies of the field are different in form and sociality; on top of that, the field itself stands for and produces something else in relation to the larger-scale societies it works within than the writers and artists of France did.

Through the generation and valuation of texts and ideas we create the conditions and resources of the field, and the Hugos exemplify this, incompletely and problematically, but powerfully. This is reflected in the way the awards are both accepted and interrogated (see Jo Walton’s “Revisiting the Hugos” for a good example of the latter) The conditions of the struggles within the field of fantastika are complicated by a combination of semi-egalitarianism and fluid social positions, but remain in orbit of the literature. The Hugo Awards ceremony is where people and the literature are brought together and both are recognized and lauded, but the social effects generated by it go beyond just recognition and praise. We rarely think about what awards like the Hugo produce, and what they could produce, if we took the time to look at them from different angles.

7 thoughts on “Ceremony and Fantastika: Watching The Hugo Awards”

  1. Yes…go on. It was just getting interesting…and then you apparently fell off of a cliff with your computer! jv

  2. True, Paul. As I suspected when I wrote this, however, it is not complete, because it took me all of that to get at what I really wanted to talk about! The next step is to talk about some of those angles for examining what the Hugos produce in the field and what we can see from their vantage points. There is a lot more to scrutinize, both by looking at the ceremony more closely and looking at how the Hugos are discussed and represented in the field. I’m not sure if I can cover it in a “Part Two” or not. Hmmm. . . .

  3. Where I thought you were going to go with this was to say that the public performance of offering someone an award (as opposed to doing such a thing privately, which almost never happens) is partly a matter of a group of individuals rewarding another individual for accomplishing some certain thing, but also a matter of a community covertly granting an award to itself for possessing some certain pleasing characteristic. This would be true of pretty much any award ceremony (Hugos; Oscars; the Olympics; Employee of the Month), but there’s a gap, however small or large, between what a community openly professes to praise (“the hardest working employee at Conglomo in the month of April!”) and what that same community is secretly pleased to see itself as (“a group of people who are wise, talented, and beautiful enough to give a salary bonus to Conglomo employee #98368!”). And the nature of that gap is usually unique to a given community.

    So how do the Hugo Awards illustrate specifically what that gap is, or might be, for the sf community? That’s what I’d be interested in reading more about, if I’m not putting words in your mouth.

  4. Yes, I’m eagerly waiting for a close analysis of the actual events of the ceremony itself (which I did not watch).  If you’re going to use Victor Turner with the concepts of the liminal and the communitas, let’s see some thick description of the ceremony.  :)

  5. Dexter: Thanks for the insightful comment. I think that “gap” is definitely something I would want to write more about. I thought of it more as a distinction between formal and informal representations and effects, between what the award is said to do and what the award actually does, but your comment adds a third level to that of what different subjects want it to do. I think that, following Bacon-Smith’s observation, the explicit message is that the Hugo is an award for a completed accomplishment that represents the literature or the ideas of the genre in a particular form (text, art, film, graphic novel), but is just the clearest message. I think that the gap you refer to is actually a number of fissures that open up over the course of the selection process and afterwards, between the ideal of the awards and the reception of them by different participants in the field. All sorts of cultural capital can be potentially generated in the negotiation of those fissures, from very personal sorts to a type that benefits the bearer in fields and institutions outside of fantastika. What is unique in SF in this regard is the relative closeness of the participants in the field and the lack of interlocutors between them trying to translate the meaning of the awards for them, an aspect of the field that has become more intense and intimate with the growth of social media and instant communication. I would need to do more work on this part, but I think this results in multiple formal and informal meanings being generated and more contestation of those meanings surrounding the Hugo than with many other awards.

    There is definitely a lot more to think about!

    Felix: Communitas! I need to go back and read up on that; Turner hits some salient points that I think Bourdieu misses, and one thing that comes through in the ceremony is shared experience and intimations of unity among the ceremony participants, although it seems less forced than in larger awards ceremonies like the Oscars. Heh, this also makes me wonder how the notion of pilgrimage works with conventions!

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