Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

Prizing "Otherness": A Short History of the Booker

Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

Prizing "Otherness": A Short History of the Booker

Article excerpt

Introduction: Postcoloniality, Exoticism, and the Politics of Value

[V]alue is always `transitive'--that is to say, value for somebody in a particular situation--and ... always culturally and historically specific.

(Terry Eagleton, "The Question of Value")(1)

Sociologists of literature, among other materialist-oriented critics, have stressed the artificiality of the distinction between the "inside" and "outside" of literary texts.(2) Literature emerges, not as a locus of immanent value but as a site of contestation between different discursive regimes. The word "regime," as John Frow has suggested, connotes a politics of value whereby the literary text, far from functioning as an independent aesthetic object, circulates within a complex network of social relations and significations (p. 145).(3) Literary texts, like other cultural forms, have no intrinsic meaning or value: meaning and value are contingent, rather, on changing sets of historical circumstance (p. 145). The value of a literary text is a site of institutional struggle-a struggle, over such issues as authorship, authenticity, and legitimacy, which involves several different but interconnected levels of mediation.

This emphasis on struggle seems especially pertinent to so-called postcolonial" literatures, which often tend to display and/or interrogate the conflicted material circumstances governing their own production. Postcoloniality, as Gayatri Spivak sees it, describes a state of constant vigilance to the neo-colonial "regimes of value" (Appadurai) through which literary texts (among other cultural forms) are produced, distributed, and consumed. One such regime of value pertains to the Western (Euro-American) education system, which is increasingly invested in the promotion and certification of "marginal" products (Spivak). Another is the metropolitan publishing industry, which has placed its stake in the postcolonial as a convenient device for the merchandising of exotic--culturally "othered"--goods. Both of these agencies arguably participate in what we might call an alterity industry": one which involves the trafficking not only of culturally othered" artifacts but of the institutional values that are brought to bear in their support.(4) As I have argued elsewhere, postcoloniality implies a condition of contradiction between anti-colonial ideologies and neo-colonial market schemes.(5) This is not to accuse postcolonial writers and scholars reductively of complicity, or to discredit the interrogatory and/or oppositional work that many of them do. It is rather to see that work as being bound up in a late-capitalist mode of production, where such value-laden terms as "marginality," "authenticity," and "resistance" circulate as commodities available for commercial exploitation, and as signs within a larger serniotic system--the "postcolonial exotic" (Huggan).(6)

One of the most obvious ways in which this serniotic system functions is through the legitimizing machinery of the literary award or prize. As Pierre Bourdieu has argued,(7) the prize exists within a wider framework of symbolic sanction or "consecration." Literary prizes, in other words, do more than reward the significant achievement of a writer; they stake a claim in the right to judge--to legitimize--that writer's work:

[T]he fundamental stake in literary struggles is the monopoly of literary

legitimacy ... the monopoly of the power to say with authority who are

authorized to call themselves writers; or, to put it another way, . . . the

monopoly of the power to consecrate producers or products (we are dealing

with a world of belief and the consecrated writer is the one who has the

power to consecrate and to win assent when he or she consecrates an author

or work-with a preface, a favorable review, a prize, etc.). (P. 42)

Bourdieu's emphasis is on the various ways in which writers accumulate cultural capital: the means by which they acquire and, in turn, confer recognition and prestige. …

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