Of course it was inevitable that I should turn my semiotic eye this time around upon one of the most significant events in popular cultural history: the awarding of the Nobel Prize in Literature to Bob Dylan. But the question is not whether Dylan deserved the prize (I really really don't want to go there) nor even whether songwriters should be equated with musically-unenhanced poets; no, the semiotic question is, quite simply: what does this award signify?
Let's start with the fact that I am discussing this at all. How, one might ask, did it come to pass that the posthumous legacy of the Swedish inventor of dynamite should come to be not only the world's most prestigious award, but should also have bequeathed to a small, and rather secretive, committee in Stockholm the power to create and even influence history? For that is what the prize does: it plays a significant role in determining which scientists, economists, and writers will be most remembered and whose work will be given most authority, and it also, through its Peace awards, has a way of intervening in ongoing human conflicts and, as in the case with the award to Barack Obama, electoral politics.
It is also worth noting (and this should be especially poignant for scholars) how the Prize also has a way of indicating what really counts in human intellectual endeavor: physics, but not mathematics; medicine, but not biology; chemistry, but not engineering; economics, but not political science; literature, but not painting, music, or sculpture; and nothing in the way of scholarship—not history, nor anthropology, nor literary criticism, nor even philosophy (which is why Bertrand Russell was awarded the prize for literature).
So let me repeat, how did the Will, and will, of one man from a rather small country accomplish this?
I can't answer this question entirely, but I can offer some suggestions. First, it is useful to note that the Prize came into existence just on the cusp of the final transition from feudalism to capitalism. For where science and art were once the retainers of Crown and Church, whose patronage alone was sufficient reward for early scientists and artists, in the capitalist era individual enterprise and competition are the motivators for human endeavor. (It is striking to note in this regard that the Nobel Prize was created by a wealthy industrial capitalist, but the award is handed over by the King of Sweden.) Competition is what prizes are all about, and as we head further and further into the era of hypercapitalism, we accordingly get more and more competitive awards: more Oscars, Grammys, Emmys, Tony's, Pulitzers . . . the list seems endless.
Thus, we might say that the Nobel Prize got there first, was, that is to say, the first arrival in the bourgeois era of competitive achievement. Itself the title holder in the Most Venerable Award sweepstakes, the Prize is a signifier of capitalism's worship of whatever is biggest and "best," turning even art and science into a contest—with all the "winners" and "losers" that contests entail.
Which takes me to the second signification I see in the Dylan award. For by giving the prize to a superstar of popular culture, the Nobel committee has not only given its vastly influential imprimatur to a once marginalized region of human creativity, it has signified that the ancient wall between "high" culture and "low" really is tumbling down. (I've been saying this for over twenty years in every edition of Signs of Life in the U.S.A., so I ought to be grateful to the folks in Stockholm for putting some authority behind it.)
But having really, shall we say, dynamited the last remnants of high cultural ascendancy over low, the members of the Nobel committee may have opened a flood gate that they did not anticipate. For now a host of songwriters, screenwriters, TV script writers, and goodness knows who else that the culture industry has made rich and powerful, will come knocking at their door. Having everything except a Nobel Prize, they will likely be found lobbying, imploring, schmoozing, advertising . . . in short going through the whole playbook of competitive awards seeking to gain the one trophy missing from their collections.
I can see it now: laureates on the red carpet.