Some Musings on the Cultural Work and Significance of the Hugo Awards


“The particular requirement of awards-that the judges read a whole heap of novels-is, more than anything, the things that makes awards screwy.”- Adam Roberts

“[N]o commentor can altogether avoid participating in the very economy of prestige, the very system of valuing and devaluing, esteeming and disesteeming, that he or she undertakes to examine. My point, though, is. . . . to stress the peculiar resistance prizes seem to have mounted against any real scrutiny of their functions and effects.” – James F. English

In last week’s column I ended my discussion of the Hugo Awards with a question: why is it that the awards incite both spirited defense and myriad criticisms? The point of that question was not to set up more discussion or debates, but to seriously consider what constitutes the effects of these awards. The social and cultural “work” (not the best term, but the best one we have in a discourse saturated with capitalistic meanings) of awards is not just limited to the fact of their granting, or to the ritualized celebration that bestows them on artists, or even to the measure of prestige that they grant to the recipient and back to those that grant them. Awards in general, and the Hugos in particular, are not just objects of exchange and contention in their specific fields and beyond; they are symbols of sodality, of enchantment, and of adumbration.

The Hugo Awards operate within an economy of prestige, a non-financial transactional system of creating and exchanging value that mainly relates to the literary field of production. The Hugos also contribute to the social reproduction of groups and positions within the field and, because of the field’s connections to the capitalist system around it, are potentially effective in increasing the success of the recipient and those associated with them in the financial economy. The Hugos as highly-valued cultural objects influence the relationship of the recipients (and to some extent the nominees) to both economies by accumulating and promulgating symbolic capital. But the awards, in large measure, are less about the winners than they are about the social groups who maintain and use them.


Much of the Hugos’ significance arises from, and is also contested by, the culture and community that interacts with and around fantastic literature (more specifically SF, but the slate of nominees has exceeded that descriptor for some time). Like many awards, however, the Hugo is caught “between a festal and a bureaucratic orientation towards culture, between the celebration and the administration of cultural work” as James English puts it in his book The Economy of Prestige: Prizes, Awards, and the Circulation of Cultural Value. Unlike many other awards, however, the Hugo Awards rely on a system of social reproduction that blurs the boundaries between these orientations, and this blurring gives the Hugo Awards much of their power (and, simultaneously, critique and resistance). They are not only produced by the voters, but by an organization that is simultaneously festal and bureaucratic, loosely structured but socially invaluable, permanent in form but flexible in location. That system depends on the maintenance of a small core organization (the committees of the WSFS) that uses a major celebration (Worldcon) to reproduce key relationships and symbols of the field of literary production and reinvest social relations within and around it with vitality and normativity.

The reproduction of that system itself, and by extension the field of literary production, is part of the cultural work that the Hugos perform, not only in the “consecration” (as Bourdieu put it) the awards grant, but in the relationships that system facilitates between those involved and invested in the field of production: authors, readers, and everyone in-between. The Hugos produce solidarity and contention, sociality and alienation, and generate a lot of social power because of the methods employed to select them (as I outlined last week). But these productions are not sets of dualities: they interpenetrate each other. The sociality created by the Hugos generates contention and agreement, while the practice of the awards and the affinities they forge foments alienation that can be dismissive or perceptively critical. “[T]o complain about prizes is to participate in a conventional ritual of derision that, according to English, strengthens the very system of rewards that it assails,” as one reviewer of The Economy of Prestige noted. It takes accord and dissension to power an economy of prestige, as well as other social effects, even prestige itself.

Prestige is not easy to quantify. The word itself has mutated in meaning since its use began probably in the 16th-century; its etymology reveals that it changed from “illusion” to “trick” to its modern usage as reputation and distinction. But the dictionary definition that it is “reputation achieved” leaves out a lot unless you also link it not just to its root definition but to another sense of the term: “the power to influence or impress; glamour.” Prestige is not an inevitable effect of an accomplishment; it is the result of an accomplishment pronounced into being as special, an enchanting of it (to speak it until others accept the idea). It is not just created, but becomes an active component of the discourse, re-told and reproduced in conversations and through practices, inscribed in narrative and displayed as an icon (as the Wikipedia entry on the Hugos demonstrates). Once the ritual investiture takes place, a symbolic transformation takes place that endows new meaning onto the recipient and their work personally and situates them as the new iteration of the award in the field, a revitalization of the award. The Hugo is a sort of living symbol, resonant and confuted.

The term is not just a label, it is a component of the social magic we employ to make the world significant and recognizable. Prestige is not a thing: it is not the rocket trophy or the medal or the scroll; it is a social enchantment bestowed upon someone by a marked group, whether that is a family, a tribe, a corporation, or a set of voters for the fulfillment of socially approved accomplishments. But not everyone accepts that, and it may be, if English is correct, that awards cannot exist and have power without being challenged and debated. “The bitterness about the process” as Andrew Trembley characterized it in last week’s comments comes inevitably from the process itself, from a resistance to the social glamour. More to the point, it arises from the very fact of the awards themselves and the system that they are a part of.

The Hugos do not just create symbolic capital for the recipient; they create it for the entire field, and that is the conundrum that underlies the awards. Regardless of levels of inclusivity, or expansion of categories, or openness of process, at the end of the day the Hugos create a very small group of prestige-bearers who ideally embody the ideals and tastes of the entire field. The problem is not how many people vote; it is that there is one winner in each category. These awards are symbols of adumbration: they create a condensed group of “the Best” in the field, and while many people (both supporters and critics) acknowledge that they are more a reflection of the preferences of the moment, they become historicized and essentialized within the literary lineage of the field without qualification. “[T]he winner might actually represent the story which has actually alienated the least number of voters, rather than excited them,” for example, or the award might be for contributions other than the one nominated, or the award might be given to someone who already has prestige as a re-invocation of respect for them. None of this is reflected in the award itself, and only circulates informally within the field of production. The awards become a structure for conversations about the literature and overshadow the discourse on both literary and social subjects.

There is a paradox when an award that is the most prestigious in its field and that specifically names a work “the Best” of a given year is a product of social relations more than delineated qualities. What is the prestige based upon; is it the work “itself” or the symbolic capital generated by the process of a work’s (and thus an artist’s) entitlement? The answer to this question varies from work to work, but has a constant element that powers it and, in the end, is a bit of a trick question. No award is ever just about the work “itself” because every artistic production has a social life that is conditioned by a host of forces. And yet, again paradoxically, that social life may be short and influenced by factors and judgments of the moment within the field of production itself (as Adam Roberts’ 2009 discussion highlights). As James English pointed out in his work, there is also a paradox in selecting works soon after publication and labeling them with an unqualified designation of excellence, but this too may be necessary for many awards because of the need for temporally-ritualized social reproduction. In the end, an award is a product of a series of paradoxes that some participants in the field of production try to eliminate in order to re-present their vision of that field and impart onto their favored artists prestige that promotes that vision and the field that it sees.

3 thoughts on “Some Musings on the Cultural Work and Significance of the Hugo Awards”

  1. The Hugos do not just create symbolic capital for the recipient; they create it for the entire field, and that is the conundrum that underlies the awards. Regardless of levels of inclusivity, or expansion of categories, or openness of process, at the end of the day the Hugos create a very small group of prestige-bearers who ideally embody the ideals and tastes of the entire field.

     

    And that dovetailed nicely with my point in your last column, John. I agree, its a conundrum.  

  2. “[T]he winner might actually represent the story which has actually alienated the least number of voters, rather than excited them,”

    This is something Instant Run-off Voting does. In an ideal situation, it drives to the most commonly popular candidate. A candidate who is offensive to a majority of the electorate will be driven out. In a less-than-ideal situation, it will drive to a candidate the the electorate can at least be satisfied with, if not thrilled with.

    In modern politics, the last Oakland mayoral election displayed this. The ostensible front-runner was swept under by a tide of second preferences; the folks voting for other candidates wanted anybody but Don Perata and they voted their preferences accordingly. There’s indication that the current San Francisco election has the same kind of groundswell against Lee, and a similar result is expected.

    In the 2011 Hugos, there was a groundswell against Randall Munroe in the Fan Artist category (his subject matter is fannish, but it’s exploited commercially and makes him his living) and against StarShipSofa in the Fanzine category (even SSS listeners have said that the subject matter isn’t as fannish as it used to be, but many more voters seem to agree the presentation is fundamentally different than a print periodical).

    the award might be given to someone who already has prestige as a re-invocation of respect for them

    This is an “the electorate is made up of idiots” argument, but it’s one that I strongly support. It’s been made numerous times. Whether it’s a mediocre work by a great (and popular) writer or an artist who hadn’t produced (or published/sold depending on the rules at the time) any new work in the year of eligibility, I’m disappointed in the electorate voting for a comfortable relationship on those merits alone. But it does happen sometimes.

    The awards become a structure for conversations about the literature and overshadow the discourse on both literary and social subjects.

    We’re too tied up in the latter. The former is ignored or discounted, particularly the nominations process and shortlist driving reading and discussion. Mike Glyer had a great post at File770 about the perennial “I’ve never heard of most of these nominees” gripe. You can, as the pessimists do, discount the nomination process as being out of touch with everything that’s important in the world. Or you can, as the optimists do, look at the short list and say “Neat. New things to read. I wonder what the nominators saw in these works.”

    As James English pointed out in his work, there is also a paradox in selecting works soon after publication and labeling them with an unqualified designation of excellence, but this too may be necessary for many awards because of the need for temporally-ritualized social reproduction.

    The Worldcon is going to select some timely and topical works that, under the glare of history and reflection, become horribly dated. It might be amusing to do a “Hugos: 20 years later” cycle, look at the long list (every nomination), re-nominate and re-vote for what we now think was the best work of the year. I expect we would see a lot of “Well, the original winner was good, but it wasn’t the outstanding classic of the year.”

    Of course, I hear a Hugo administrator screaming at me about the associated workload…

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