Competition for Acclaim vs. Competition for Attention

face of a prisoner

Competition for acclaim differs from competition for attention. Theatrical producers in fifth-century Athens competed intensely for acclaim and relatively little for attention. Fragmenting standards for acclaim and intense competition for attention enveloped producers of public works in early modern Europe and continues to the present. The modern marketing truism, “there’s no such thing as bad publicity,”^ would be incomprehensible in fifth-century Athens. It was well understood in Europe early in the nineteenth century.

Differences between competition for acclaim and competition for attention encompass the historical change from patronage economics to commercial economics in early modern England. An English writer in 1830 remarked on the change in competition among writers:

From the time of Pope {early 1700s} to the present day {1830} the readers have been constantly becoming more and more numerous, and the writers, consequently, more and more independent. It is assuredly a great evil that men, fitted by their talents and acquirements to enlighten and charm the world, should be reduced to the necessity of flattering wicked and foolish patrons in return for the sustenance of life. But, though we heartily rejoice that this evil is removed, we cannot but see with concern that another evil has succeeded to it. The public is now the patron, and a most liberal patron. All that the rich and powerful bestowed on authors from the time of Maecenas to that of Harley would not, we apprehend, make up a sum equal to that which has been paid by English booksellers to authors during the last fifty years. Men of letters have accordingly ceased to court individuals, and have begun to court the public. They formerly used flattery. They now use puffing {advertising and marketing}.^

Only a few authors had a realistic opportunity to gain the support of a rich and powerful person and to become one of that person’s few favorites. In contrast, an author’s commercial support from the public depended on profitably selling many copies of works to many persons in competition with many other authors who sought to do likewise.^ ^ The change from the patronage of the rich and powerful to public commercial success involved a change from competition for acclaim to competition for attention.

Competition for acclaim and competition for attention are two general, different models not limited to the specifics of any particular historical forms of competition. The process for determining acclaim at the festivals of Athens differed in important ways from the techniques for achieving acclaim from a particular patron in early modern societies. Similarly, the specifics of competition for attention typically depend on symbolic form, e.g. novel or poetry, and differ across different demographic groups, e.g. men and women. Like money and status, acclaim and attention are common, broad measures of success. Acclaim and attention can occur together, but they are meaningfully distinguishable.

Competition for acclaim and competition for attention have no necessary relation to a work’s intrinsic value. True art and true scholarship can conflict with established institutions of acclaim as easily as they can conflict with the imperatives of fame. Both competition for acclaim and competition for attention imply institutions and constraints that an artist or scholar must navigate to achieve success. Only personal integrity and willingness to fail testify to intrinsic value, as one human being best understands it, in whatever circumstances she or he works.

Differences between competition for acclaim and competition for attention are not equivalent to differences between orality and literacy. Scholars of communication across history have considered extensively differences between oral and written communication.^ Both speechwriters in fifth-century Athens and twenty-first century musicians competed for attention to their products. Twenty-first century musicians compete to attract attention to their music. Speechwriters in fifth-century Athens competed to attract customers for written speeches that they wrote for others to speak. Competition among modern musicians is oral competition in a predominately literate society. Competition among Greek speechwriters was literary competition in a primarily oral society. Oral and written communication can be means of both attracting attention or winning acclaim. Communication media do not determine the structure of symbolic competition.

Differences between competition for acclaim and competition for attention do not necessarily correspond to differences between performance and symbolic artifact. Twenty-first century playwrights compete to attract attention (attendees) to their plays, just as sporting teams compete for spectators to their matches. In contrast, journalists at elite, late-twentieth-century U.S. newspapers competed with each other to win acclaim, such as Pulitzer Prizes, for news reports that had little effect on their newspapers’ circulation or readership. Academics have competed with each other to place their scholarly articles in a small number of prestigious journals with relatively fixed circulation. That’s also competition for acclaim. More generally, the public for a symbolic performance is not necessarily fixed. Within a temporal framework encompassing more than just a single of many possible performance times, the size of the public for performance can be highly elastic. Performers can seek future audiences. On the other hand, publics for symbolic artifacts can be institutionally established such that the public’s size is relatively stable and the number of works presented to them is tightly limited. Performance doesn’t imply competition for acclaim any more than symbolic artifacts imply competition for attention.

Differences in symbolic competition have real effects. Pragmatics emphasizes micro-circumstances of communicative acts. Analysis of genres emphasizes structural differences in communication types. Just as in relation to pragmatics and genre, persons shape their communication with sensitivity to macro-structures of symbolic competition. Competition for acclaim and competition for attention imply different personal standpoints, plot-character weightings, and emotional dynamics. Those differences in turn imply differences in accountability and different aggregate communicative effects.

Leave a comment (will be included in public domain license)

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *