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.

Competition for Acclaim in 5th-Century Athens

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Symbolic competition in fifth-century Athens primarily involved educated men seeking to win acclaim in events that institutionally gathered an audience for them. Men largely did not need to compete for attention. The institutions of the city structured public attention. Men competed to have institutionally presented public attention make them the most praised among men.

Athenian city institutions such as assemblies, courts, and festivals presented the public to symbolic competitors. The public for symbolic competition in fifth-century Athens was primarily free men who were full citizens of Athens. Such men numbered roughly 50,000 in fifth-century Athens and 25,000 in fourth-century Athens. All of the Athenian public lived in Athens or its surrounding rural districts. The Athenian Assembly consisting of roughly 6,000 free adult male citizens. It gathered forty times a year for wide-ranging discussions. Any participant in the Assembly could speak. The Assembly generally decided matters through voting by show of hands.^ The Athenian Assembly thus frequently gathered 10-20% of the Athenian public for discussions and decisions.

In addition, men frequently pursued legal claims against each other in publicly adjudicated cases. Juries heard and decided cases. The juries were from 501 to 1500 free adult male citizens. Jurors were selected randomly from among a pool of persons willing to serve. Jurors were paid for serving.^ Speeches and Aristophanes’s comedies register concern about persons eager to serve on juries.^ Juries, like assemblies, made a large share of the Athenian public readily accessible to symbolic competitors.

Public attention in fifth-century Athens had much less potential range than public attention in other publics. For example, most books in the U.S. today sell fewer than 200 copies, but some sell more than 2 million copies. The potential range in public attention possible for book authors in the U.S. today is orders of magnitude greater than the potential range in public attention in fifth-century Athens. A free man in Athens could readily present a speech to 10% of the Athenian public. Having a book reach 10% of the U.S. public would be an extraordinary feat today.

The Athenian public also gathered for poetic competitions. The City (Great) Dionysia and the Lenaia were multi-day, multi-event festivals in which poetic competitors presented tragedies, comedies, and satyrs. The theatre was located at the foot of the Acropolis. Performances took place in daylight. Perhaps 4,000-7,000 persons, arranged by civic groups in the theatre, looked upon the performance and each other. They also looked out at buildings and places that surrounded the theatre of Dionysus to form the civic landscape of fifth-century Athens.^

Poetic competitors in fifth-century Athens largely competed for acclaim, not attention. Attendance at the theatre in fifth-century Athens appears to have been “a citizen’s duty, privilege, and requirement.”^ Each play was predominately performed at only one city festival. Texts of the plays probably weren’t circulated until the last decades of the fifth century. A poet who wrote an award-winning tragedy was publicly crowned with a garland at the conclusion of the festival. He won public acclaim. He did not win a larger public for his work than the one that attended to the work of his vanquished rival.

Authoring dramatic poetry for Athenian festivals would have been feasible for a considerable number of Athenians. Study of poetry, especially Homer’s epic poems the Odyssey and the Iliad, was central to education and moral instruction. Poetry featured prominently in civic events. Rhetorical skills were indispensable for public life. Theatrical experience was common:

the dramatic and dithyrambic choruses at the City Dionysia alone, in a peacetime year in the third quarter of the fifth century, comprised 665 men and 500 boys, all of citizen status, and on plausible assumptions about demography and behaviour it is not at all unlikely that a majority of the adult citizens who watched the performances in the Theatre of Dionysus had as some time taken part in them – quite apart from those whose fathers, brothers or sons had done so.^

Poets did not need to be rich to author a play for an Athenian festival. Chorus sponsors paid the poet and actors. Chorus sponsors also arranged financing for the training of the chorus and for the cost of costumes and other equipment. The poet who received a chorus had to provide only his time and poetic skill.

Poetic competition to participate in festivals apparently was much less intense than poetic competition among those who presented. A city magistrate (archon) in charge of the festival selected poets from among those who “asked for a chorus.” The criteria for this choice are not recorded in extant records:

The criteria of selection are not known; perhaps none were laid down and each magistrate chose any way he liked. He is unlikely to have read complete scripts; he may have been guided by the previous successes and reputations of the various authors.^

The appointment of festival drama judges, in contrast, involved intricate democratic formalities. Just before the start of the performances, one name was publicly selected at random from names in each of ten urns. There was one urn for each of the ten tribes constituting the Athenian polis. The urns contained names that the governing Council (Boule) had selected for inclusion. When selected, the person stepped forward from the assembled public, took a reserved seat at the front of the theatre, and swore an oath to judge rightly. Immediately after the performances, judges recorded their votes on tablets. These tablets were then immediately counted to reveal the winner.^ The stark contrast between the procedures for selecting participating poets and for selecting the winning poet points to much more intense poetic competitive within the festivals than in admittance to them.

Rejecting poets who asked for a chorus apparently wasn’t a common practice. One scholar has observed:

although we cannot be sure of precise figures, it seems fair to conclude that Euripides, like Sophocles, was rarely if ever refused a chorus.^

Aristophanes’ Peace (ll. 780-815), like Frogs (ll. 89-99), suggests that even bad tragic poets could manage to get a chorus. Desire to accommodate more poets and choruses may have partly motivated the addition of five comedies to the City Dionysia in 486, the start of comedic performances at the Lenaia about 441, and the addition of tragic performances at the Lenaia about 435.

Many tragic poets competed at multiple festivals in fifth-century Athens. Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides, participated as tragic poets in an estimated 19, 34, and 28 festivals across 41, 61, and 49 years of successful applications, respectively. Six less-noted tragic poets competed in at least eight festivals each. Names of roughly 45 fifth-century tragic poets have been preserved in extant records.^ If the total number of fifth-century tragic poets was about sixty, then tragic poets other than Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, and the six other leading ones averaged about three festival participations each. The longevity of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and others as festival participants suggests that only incremental artistic innovation occurred in this competitive field.^

Factors other than competition among tragic poets were probably the most significant constraints on their entry into festivals. In 405 BCE, shortly after the deaths of Sophocles and Euripides at old ages, Aristophanes, a comic poet, suggested that young tragic poets lacked enduring merit:

Heracles: But don’t we have a whole horde of babies today
churning out tragedies and out-babbling Euripides
by the mile?

Dionysus: They’re nonentities, all,
like swallows twittering away
and murdering their art; and though they have the gall
to wangle themselves a Chorus,
after they’ve pissed all over Tragedy they’re never
heard of again.^

In 410, a chorus sponsor (choregos) spent ten times the average yearly wages of a building worker to equip and train a tragic chorus.^ ^ Producing the required, fixed number of tragic plays for festivals was expensive. Social networks, new social ambitions, and slowly changing social reputations were probably more important than poetic distinction for determining poets who participated in the festivals.^ Close kin of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides subsequently became tragic poets. This paternalism is consistent with the importance of social networks in determining festival participation.

Competition among tragic poets within the festivals was probably intense. Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides did not always win in the festivals in which they participated. Estimated festival winning percentages for Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides are 68%, 71%, and 14%, respectively. In some years none of those poets even appeared in a festival. Other poets scored 66% of the victories in the tragic poetry competitions across the span of years for which Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides were active. In circumstances of broadly diffused poetic skills and slow poetic innovation, the victors in tragic competitions were probably only slightly better than their rivals. The continual crowning of winning tragic poets other than Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides probably heightened the public drama of victory and defeat.

Good opportunities to gain comparable public attention may have lessened competition to participate in festivals as a tragic poet. At the City Dionysia from 486 BCE, poets could offer three tragic plays and a satyr play, a comedy, or a dithyramb. A comedy or a dithyramb demanded much less pre-festival preparation than the work required from tragic poets. Moreover, comic poets had twice as many positions for participation in the City Dionysia and the Lenaia as tragic poets did (at both festivals in total, 10 positions for comic poets compared to 5 for tragic poets). These different poetic opportunities may have evolved partly as an effort-based selection mechanism among poets interested in participating in the festivals. In addition to the opportunities to participate as poets in the festivals, citizens had forty opportunities a year to speak at the 6000-citizen Assembly and many other opportunities for public speech. Being a tragic poet required a relatively large investment for a presentation to the public. Many other opportunities for public attention, although less prominent in the civic calendar, may have offered a similar over-all cost-benefit ratio for achieving public acclaim.

Crowds at Public Executions Depended on Attacting Attention

face of a prisoner

Public executions were common in fifteenth through eighteenth century Europe. The size of the crowd at a public execution depended on the extent to which the event attracted attention. Public executions were leading symbolic events for which publicity shaped attendance. Public executions were also central to the rise of competition for attention to printed works.

Like the City Dionysus in fifth-century Athens, penal executions in early modern Europe were civic events. Executions usually occurred at generally established dates in the civic calendar. Executions were organized by civic officials and performed for all to see at a fixed, sanctioned civic location. Civic revenue funded the cost of the execution. A formal civic procession conveyed the person to be executed from a prison to the execution site. The execution site was usually a gallows where the condemned was hung. The execution ritual itself included well-established formal elements, such as last words from the condemned, prayers, psalm-singing, and authorized disposal of the body.

Unlike the City Dionysus in fifth-century Athens, public executions were not presented to a given-sized public. As a civic institution, an execution itself was not a must-attend event. The size of the public attending an execution depended greatly on the circumstances of the case and the extent to which it made news. When a single person with no public reputation was hung at Tyburn for a standard, uncontroversial crime (a man murdering another man of similar social class in a quarrel), the crowd may have been only a few hundred persons. In other circumstances, crowds at Tyburn were said to number in the thousands, or the tens of thousands, or to have reached 100,000 in particularly sensational cases.

The structure of the crowd at public executions indicates aspects of competition for attention. Unlike at a theatre, the crowd attending a hanging at Tyburn was not largely seated in solid, fixed positions (seats) that were allocated according to economic and social relations (ticket prices, social status and group affiliation). While the architecture of theatres held attendees in place and focused their attention on the stage, most of the crowd at public executions moved freely about the site. Persons could engage in vending, shouting, playing, thieving, and other interests unrelated to the hanging. Crowds at public executions prompted elite concern. Elite artists represented the crowd as large, chaotic, and composed mainly of ignorant, brutish, low-class persons.^ Hogarth’s famous print of an execution at Tyburn has a broadside seller at the center-front of the crowded frame. She holds a baby and chants a ballad while facing away from the hanging.

Public executions were associated with competition for attention to printed works. Execution sermons became leading popular books in late seventeenth-century colonial New England. Accounts of crime, criminals, and punishment were also among the most popular printed texts in England from about that time. Broadsides about persons executed for non-political crimes probably existed in England from at least as far back as the mid-sixteenth century. In 1624, when a print syndicate called the “ballad partners” formed, an elite poet satirized the demand for ballads with a reference to a ballad “of some branded slave / Hang’d at Tybourne.”^

By the eighteenth century, English printers competed aggressively with each other to produce execution broadsides. They sold their product wholesale to a large number of highly competitive hawkers or “patterers,” most of whom roamed the streets in search of sales. The wholesale market operated on a cash basis.^ This arrangement eliminated costs of managing credit and gave street-sellers high-powered incentives to make sales. With little concern for truthful representation, printers and sellers fabricated and recycled “last dying speeches.” They worked together to take best advantage of the execution drama:

The last dying speeches and executions are all printed the day before. … The flying stationers {sellers} goes with the papers in their pockets, and stand under the drop, and as soon as ever it falls, and long before the breath it out of the body, they begin bawling out.^

Sheets were sold on the street for as little as a halfpenny. To lessen costs, printers often re-used woodcuts:

“Here you have an exact likeness,” they {sellers} say, “of the murderer, taken at the bar of the Old Bailey!” when all the time it is an old wood-cut that’s been used for every criminal for the last forty years.^ ^

These cheap woodcut images made the broadsides more attractive to persons who had difficulty reading. Some execution broadsides included verses that could be sung (ballads). This feature also increased the value of the broadside to persons who had difficulty reading. Persons could more easily read a song that they had heard. Moreover, singing (chanting) ballads served as an attention-getting marketing mechanism. For broadsides’ competitive success, rapid, low-cost, high-volume production and marketing excellence were more important than artistry of texts and images.

Execution broadsides were highly successful in attracting attention. A visitor to Munich in 1781 observed that death sentences and gallows speeches were sold in the streets in thousands.^ A Londoner recalled that execution broadsides, offered for a halfpenny, had enormous sales in the 1770s and 1780s.^ For one sensational murder trial and execution in 1823, the leading London broadside printer produced perhaps 500,000 broadsides in eight days.^ ^ ^ Two executions in 1849 each reportedly generated 2.5 million execution broadsides. That figure represents, for each case, about one sheet for every four persons ages 15 years old and older in England and Wales about that time. Four other executions in London in the first half on the nineteenth century reportedly generated about 1.65 million broadsides each.^ ^ Execution broadsides were blockbuster hits in the leading popular media of the early nineteenth century.

Public executions and execution broadsides in eighteenth and early nineteenth century England varied enormously in the size of the public that particular instances attracted. Such variation characterizes competition for attention. The executioner, the minister, the guards, and other civic officials had well-bounded roles. They were not positioned to compete with each other for acclaim. Civic officials prepared prisoners to acknowledge guilt, express remorse, and to seek external salvation. Prisoners who remained defiant at their execution challenged the political order as a whole. They did not challenge a similarly situated competitor for acclaim. Public executions were primarily events in competition for attention with other symbolic public works.