Thrown Gauntlet: Trophy Economy by Blaise Larmee

Posted by on March 29th, 2010 at 12:01 AM

Thrown Gauntlet

This is the first of a semi-regular series. Under this Thrown Gauntlet header, you can expect to find statements, reviews, theses, judgments that you will almost certainly want to talk back to.


Trophy Economy

The printed object has become a trophy, a decorative object whose value lies not in itself but in the values it embodies and the performance it refers to.

The widespread and increasingly significant role of digital services has effectively separated content from medium. Or, better phrased, it has permanently destabilized print culture’s hold on content. Text and image, formerly only widely accessible via printed means, now exist in an alternative format. This format follows different codes of production and consumption. It is decentralized, it is available instantly, and, most seductively, it is free.

What happens to the printed object once its content becomes decentralized? When a consumer reads a comic online and then purchases a physical copy, the content of the comic is, for the consumer, without location. Online content can be accessed through multiple platforms and devices. In this context, the book is just another screen. The physical version becomes a hollow trophy, a signifier of cultural values, a rewarding/recording of its own existence, an indicator of class, taste, investment strategy, morality, etc.

A Trophy for Trophies

In an age of torrents and Rapidshare it is no longer the content of a book that is notable; it is the thousands of dollars spent on its publication. Publishing has become a performance, a symbolic gesture, and the trophy is both the object and recording of this gesture.

The trophy celebrates not only itself but the entire trophy economy to which it belongs, and to whom it owes its existence. There are a considerable number of critics, creators, consumers and publishers who participate in the trophy economy and therefore hold a vested interest in maintaining its cultural dominance. Participants promote binaries of permanent/impermanent, stable/unstable, and moral/immoral in an effort to simultaneously reinforce the value of the trophy economy and undermine its digital alternative.

Participants appeal to an environmental sense of conservation as well, effectively creating a zoo (or, in keeping with our metaphor, a “trophy room”) of endangered species on display. When the newspaper economy started burning down, McSweeney’s rushed into the flames to produce a single collectors’ edition newspaper. This trophy existed as a memorial for the fallen publishers and as a tribute to all participants — publishers, consumers, and unpaid volunteers — in the struggle to keep the trophy economy alive.

Trophy Subculture

Many subcultures are monetarily subsidized by trophies. By investing in a trophy the consumer is investing in a trophy’s corresponding (or one of its corresponding) subculture(s) and affirming their own membership of this subculture. Creators today can attempt to create their own subculture(s) and/or expand upon/exploit existing subculture(s).

Unlike their digital counterparts, trophies require investment of money. This investment can increase or decrease in value, and may translate into nonmonetary value, such as cultural/societal value, as well. As the trophy economy becomes more concentrated as a subculture itself it will increasingly fetishize its own physicality and print-based origin. As its trophies become more and more decorative and elaborate it will deserve these trophies more and more. That is the beauty of the trophy economy — it deserves every trophy it gets.

UPDATE: Jared Gardner responds.

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12 Responses to “Thrown Gauntlet: Trophy Economy by Blaise Larmee”

  1. Jason Overby says:

    I’m starting to completely embrace this.  I haven’t bought a CD in many, many years at this point – primarily because it takes longer (and is more expensive) to rip the contents of a CD (thereby allowing me to put it on an iPod) than to download the songs.  Movies, TV shows are also more conveniently obtained and experienced on the computer.  The last holdout for me has been books, but for the last nine months or so, most of my “reading” has been done either on my iPod or by listening to audiobooks (having a kid makes speed and convienience in culture imbibing very important).

    I’m almost to the point where I feel like culture, in general, is about the experience of it at a given time and not about holding an object or even the cachet that comes from finishing a book.  I was at Powell’s the other day, and I couldn’t get up enough excitement to buy anything (not even that McSweeny’s).  It’s like the things just keep piling up around me after they’ve ceased being useful.

  2. Matt Kish says:

    Your binary of values is something that, to many, is a complete inversion of truth and speaks loudly to your privilege. For many, enjoying content without the medium (i.e. digitally, through downloads, filesharing, etc.) is not only not “free,” it is not possible. In order to access the iTunes store, an mp3 blog, an online comic, and so on, one must at the very least have access to, and in most cases ownership of, a computer, internet services and portable listening / viewing devices. In your rush to position this binary of physical copies being the outdated and obsolete trophies of a (maybe?) more materially wealthy class while the digital frontier is the playground of the true revolutionary thinker and everyman, you’re completely ignoring how inaccessible the digital frontier is to so many people. Take a walk down to the public library on a Saturday afternoon and see just how many people have no access at all, outside their one hour each day at the library, to this digital world you write so eloquently about.

  3. Tony Remple says:

    Or travel outside of the western world to any number of “developing nations” and witness how limited or completely unavailable computer/internet access is.

  4. J Cross says:

    I think this essay is about the culture of art and entertainment that has developed in first world countries like America and parts of Europe and Asia/Australia. I’d bet that Blaise is aware that there are homeless people and many developing countries and cultures that totally don’t torrent stuff all the time or at all. But don’t forget this is the WordPress site/blog for the hit comics community publication “The Comics Journal”.

  5. I’m not blasé about the form my porn takes.

  6. dan m says:

    What inane drivel! I find this essay sterile, mechanistic, and basically snotty. A truly perfect example of a familiar type of intellectual masturbation — a phrase I don’t use lightly, believe me. In this case the content of the piece and tone match perfectly. It’s a snide put-down, using tired phrases like “fetish,” and the fresher, but no less snide “trophy,” of the physical — printed matter — vs. non-physical “content.” This coincides exactly with the writer’s arrogant and uptight tone that attempts to obliterate all that is emotional and physical — as though he is trying to deny that he has a physical body. And all of it draped in the sort of long-post-Marxist analysis that was getting tiresome when I was in college 30 years ago. Digital media are fine. But people like to hold paper in their hands and read what’s on it. It’s physical and real and the relationship between the reader and the book has its satisfactions. A book is not a trophy, it’s a comforting and aesthetically pleasing way of taking in “content.” And yes, it can be a pleasure for its own sake. I’m bothered by expensive, over-produced monstrosities like $125 Kramer’s Ergots — but to suggest that a photo-copied minicomic of a webcomic is some sort of fetish is simply juvenile.

  7. dan m says:

    Oh wait… was the whole piece a parody?

    • cmxrdr says:

      dag dan m, you said the stuff i was going to say. lucky for me, you missed a few things. for one, the phrase “codes of production and consumption” is also particularly vacuous and meaningless. as i was reading this, i was hoping that the words “modality” and “hegemony” were going to pop up as those are my favorite gibberish buzzwords. also, you forgot to point out that the hardware used to access the mystical electronic content have become the real “fetish” objects. the ipads, ipods, and kindles of the world are little more than wildly overpriced “look at me” types of devices that broadcast class and status more than any book ever could.

  8. dan m says:

    Good point, cm! A $1.00 minicomic (or even a $10 trade paperback) is a fetishistic, bourgeois trophy — as opposed to some slick little i-whatever, which will liberate us all from the tyranny of the object — until the newer model or next generation gadget comes out!

    He’s pulling our legs, don’t you think?

  9. […] 31, 2010 by John Dermot Woods Blaise Larmee has a really compelling opinion piece up at The Comics Journal. He describes the world of book selling (and comic-art-object selling) as a “trophy […]

  10. Mike Hunter says:

    Jeez, what a gigantic load of bullshit. Starting with that steaming-fresh dump-truck load of:

    ——————
    Blaise Larmee writes:
    The printed object has become a trophy, a decorative object whose value lies not in itself but in the values it embodies and the performance it refers to…
    —————–

    So, whether it’s an exquisitely hand-illuminated and bound Medieval prayerbook or deliciously pulpy old comic, they are worthless in and of themselves; their value is in “the values they embody and the performance they refer to”?

    Somebody give this guy a “swirlie,” please…

    —————–
    The widespread and increasingly significant role of digital services has effectively separated content from medium. Or, better phrased, it has permanently destabilized print culture’s hold on content.
    —————–

    Where have we heard this before? “This new technology of television will eliminate ignorance” and “…lead to a harmonious ‘global village'”; before the dot-com bust, we heard techno-prophets gushing how “the Internet has changed everything in the world of business”; we’ve heard about an “end to history” and that “9/11 changed everything“…

    —————–
    Text and image, formerly only widely accessible via printed means, now exist in an alternative format. This format follows different codes of production and consumption. It is decentralized, it is available instantly, and, most seductively, it is free.
    ——————

    Kudos to Matt Kish for being the first to dismantle this smug, blithe bit of malarkey. Larmee might as well be saying, “why do we need those messy, smelly ranches with their badly-treated cattle for, now that we can get our meat neatly plastic-wrapped in the supermarket?”

    ——————
    In an age of torrents and Rapidshare it is no longer the content of a book that is notable; it is the thousands of dollars spent on its publication. Publishing has become a performance, a symbolic gesture, and the trophy is both the object and recording of this gesture.
    ——————-

    The contents of a book are irrelevant; publishers lay out hard-earned cash as a mere “symbolic gesture”? What planet does this guy exist in?

    ——————–
    Unlike their digital counterparts, trophies require investment of money.
    ——————–

    Who needs scanners, Wacom pads, computers, monitors, Internet access? Digital “content” just springs forth directly from the creator’s brain onto the Web.

    ———————
    Jason Overby says:
    -I’m starting to completely embrace this. I haven’t bought a CD in many, many years at this point – primarily because it takes longer (and is more expensive) to rip the contents of a CD (thereby allowing me to put it on an iPod) than to download the songs.
    ———————

    God forbid you should listen to them (and get a far richer auditory experience) in a CD player! That would mean you couldn’t have total, instant self-indulgence, 24/7…

    ———————-
    Movies, TV shows are also more conveniently obtained and experienced on the computer.
    ———————–

    Yeah, art museums and travel are also “more conveniently obtained and experienced on the computer.”

    So what if much is lost in the translation, if convenience is the primary factor to be considered? (As Larmee explains, content is irrelevant, anyway…)