When I was in the second grade, a now dim tidelet of a memory, a weak link over the cholesterol and the neural network, the teacher gave us all a challenge. We were supposed to write down every book we read. At the end of the school year, the person with the most books on the list would get a prize. I can’t remember what the prize was – a pencil sharpener? A gold star? Whatever.
Well, at the end of the year I had the most books. So I won the prize. And was congratulated by my parents, too. But what I still remember was how sheepish I felt. Because many of the books I wrote on my list were only half read. I was being, in a word that I didn’t know back then, “aspirational”.
Perhaps it was that experience that soured me on the whole prize biz. Although perhaps it is because I am not a prize winner. I haven’t won a prize since second grade – it has been a prizeless life. And I have long been puzzled by the whole prize economy. Like, here’s my questions: what is a prize, how did it come lumbering into this here Western Culture, why do we want to “win” them, and particularly why have the arts and sciences centered prizes so much?
First off, lets start with some wild bourgeois speculation. I can, actually, understand how prize mania starts. Prizes are so part of the warp-n-woofery of childhood that it would be hard for American 21st century parents to find a substitute if, through some magic wand, we abolished prize giving. Baby is always being given treats for good behavior. And as baby grows into pre-schooler and then schooler, the treats keep coming at a Pavlovian pace. When the child is bad, you can threaten to take away dessert, or something, thus making dessert a prize. And when you want your child to be good, you often promise a prize – go to the dentist with a minimum of screaming and afterwards you get the ice cream. At the same time, school work and prizes go together like that there ice cream goes with some chocolate sauce. Prizes produce the kind of emulation, or are supposed to, that we want to hatch in our hominids: compete, God damn it!
Competition and prizes go way back in this here Western Culture. Among the Greeks, the very gods competed. It was a beauty competition between Hera, Aphrodite and Athena, judged by Paris, that became the root cause of the Trojan war. The Greeks even marked time with Olympic competitions, where prizes were rewarded – and they rewarded prizes to poets, too. Poor Sappho committed suicide, prizeless and in love, according to legend, while Sophocles won the first place prize for his plays 24 times at the Dionysia, a festival that included play competitions. For the athletes, prizes were ritual objects, crowns, corona, of myrtle or olive. The Romans had a custom of awarding soldiers corona obsidionalis, made of wild flowers. These crowns signified a connection between the divine and the profane world, but one should beware of the Victorian view of the Romans and Greeks as gentlemen competing with no commercial reward – as Moehle points out, the Greek cities gave monetary rewards to victors, even if the judges strictly awarded crowns. Ancient Greek has many words related to “geras” – the common term for honor. Emile Beneviste devotes a whole chapter to the semantic field of geras in Le Vocabulaire Des Institutions Indo-Europennes, showing that it covers the ground between a particular prize that is contended for an the spirit of honor of, say, a household.
I should note here that etymologists group together prize (or prix) with price and praise, deriving them from the Latin pretium, with further connotations of honor. We still retain that tie with honor in honorarium. The Greeks, however, could very well separate price or gain from prize or honor. Aristotle in the Nichomachaen Ethics writes:
“Now the greatest external good we should assume to be the thing which we offer as a tribute to the gods, and which is most coveted by men of high station, and is the prize awarded for the noblest deeds; and such a thing is honour, for honour is clearly the greatest of external goods.”
The strange economy of the prize is expressed in the strange logic of Aristotle’s sentence – that the thing that is offered to the gods is the same as the prize that is awarded for the noblest deeds. It is as if the nobleman diverts from the gods a certain sacrifice – not materially, but abstractly. It is an odd interception of currency, which is validated by being offered to the Gods – thus, a divine currency – and that consists of the greatest of external goods: honour. That it is external – that it requires an other to recognize it – and that it is given to the gods, but is somehow annexed by the men of the highest station, make it a strange kind of tribute, or currency.
The sinuosity of the reasoning here brings us to the society that presents a great contrast to the prize-centric Greeks: the Hebrews. There is the same grouping around words for price (pras) and honor, but the semantic field here ultimately revolves around the deep questioning of prizes, which is represented by the prophetic voice.
Many biblical scholars attribute Jesus’s phrase: a prophet is not without honor (tīmḗ) except in his own home to the anti-Jewish bias among the Gospel writers, who were writing within an apologetic for the deep separation that had emerged between the temple and the Christian meetingplaces. This may be so, but one determination does not exclude another: Jesus, here, is drawing out a shrewd conclusion from the prophetic literature: it is a literature in which the prophet is marked out by dishonor in his home. A prophet with honor is, by this definition, a counterfeit prophet.
From Isaiah to Jonah, the prophet’s course was one of anti-prizes: of being thrust into wells, tossed into boneyards, forced to eat uncleanliness for a sign, or to marry a prostitute for a sign, etc. This is such a consistent textual tale that I think I’m justified in saying that there is a clear opposition between the prize-winner and the prophet. It is from the prophetic point of view that prizes lose their honor, or rather, betray themselves as false honors.
I spot a sad decline in this ethos in Daniel. That book contains wonders, but Daniel himself is an impossible upstart, always relying on his pull with high placed Babylonian friends. Yes, he went into the lion’s den, but the wildness is missing in Daniel – which may be why it is not among the prophetic books in the Hebrew Bible. Daniel’s most famous talent is for dream-telling, which is how he rises in Nebuchadnezzar’s court. He can not only interpret dreams, he can divine them. In other words, a perfect prize-winning candidate:
“The secret which the king hath demanded cannot the wise men, the astrologers, the magicians, the soothsayers, shew unto the king;
But there is a God in heaven that revealeth secrets, and maketh known to the king Nebuchadnezzar what shall be in the latter days. Thy dream, and the visions of thy head upon thy bed, are these;
As for thee, O king, thy thoughts came into thy mind upon thy bed, what should come to pass hereafter: and he that revealeth secrets maketh known to thee what shall come to pass.
But as for me, this secret is not revealed to me for any wisdom that I have more than any living, but for their sakes that shall make known the interpretation to the king, and that thou mightest know the thoughts of thy heart.”
Now it is rather ungenerous of me to carp at Daniel, but this emollient language to the King is far removed from the tone of prophets like Jeremiah:
“They have belied the Lord, and said, It is not he; neither shall evil come upon us; neither shall we see sword nor famine:
And the prophets shall become wind, and the word is not in them: thus shall it be done unto them.
Wherefore thus saith the Lord God of hosts, Because ye speak this word, behold, I will make my words in thy mouth fire, and this people wood, and it shall devour them.”
This is the stuff! It is very much not the stuff prizes are made of. Jeremiah’s words, or the Lord’s words in Jeremiah, are related to the stuff that graffiti is made of, and zines, and the lyrics of garage bands that don’t give a fuck, and not to the court liberalism of Daniel. The prophetic spirit isn’t working for a prize: they are working out the lineaments of a world without prizes, without bribes to the spirit.
This, at least, is how I like to think of my teen-scorn for the prize, and why I get amazed and annoyed when otherwise sane people take prizes too seriously. However, I know the otherwise sane people have the upper hand. Whenever a group wants to get more respect, they form an association and give out prizes. The era of neoliberalism is symbolized, for me, in the Nobel Prize for Economics, which us carpers never tire of pointing out is not a real Nobel (as if the real Nobels, a prize set up by a merchant of death to perpetuate his name, were somehow sacrosanct). The reign of a slap-happy theology for plutocrats started way back in the 70s, when, coincidentally, that economics Nobel was set up. Notice that there is none for, say, history or sociology – cause those cats don’t reliably come when Moneybags calls.
It is a harsh creed, the prophetic one. All the allurements, in this fallen world, are on the side of the Greeks. Or, to be less syrupy, money and fame aren’t chopped liver. Poets rarely make a living on their poetry, and physicists rarely get any attention outside of their own group for discovering sub-atomic particles – as Molly Bloom might say, what are they when they’re at home? And the life of the experimental novelist is as low and bare as anything conjured up by Ezekiel in the valley of bones.
One of the twentieth century prophets, Freud, might call the prize compensation. Capitalist culture has a tendency to totalitarianism of the libertarian kind, where everything is up for sale. In reality, though, it relies on the same old biology it always did, in which the intelligence is always human, as is the sociability, and free lunches are what we all grow up on. The ridiculous vogue for talking about capital this and capital that – social capital, cultural capital, human capital – is a poor disguise to dissemble Capital, or the money accumulated from surplus labor value and financialization, in its struggle with productive and improductive Labor. From the long tradition of patronage, the writer, poet, alchemist and chemist are on the side of the aristocracy or monarchy. But at certain crucial junctures it is not all poems to Appleton Manor – at these junctures art and science cross with prophecy. Prizes are compensatory mechanisms that disarm the danger of these junctions.
Which is all very fine and fierce, but at this point in the argument I become Daniel-like, a dickerer, not a namer (which is the root of prophet in Hebrew – navi, which the Encyclopedia Brittanica assures me is nabū, nabāʾum, “to proclaim, mention, call, summon.”), at the thought that melts all of us secret lottery ticket buyers and real estate dreamers: what if, someday, I won a prize, and it came with cash?