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Signature Course Examines the Art of Political Control

Students learn how ritual, myth, and image are used to gain and maintain power

"Historians are often drawn to the extremes of history, the point where things break down,” says Alastair Bellany, a School of Arts and Sciences professor specializing in early modern British history. Indeed, Bellany, whose work focuses on the decades leading up to the collapse of the British monarchy in 1640, and the subsequent beheading of King Charles I, has written on such topics as the history of political scandal, violence, and murder. And he has long used a rich mosaic of sources – literature, theater, and paintings – to better understand the complex undercurrents of British society as it was coming apart.
“The revolution is fascinating, partly because it leads to radical action,” he says. “But it also leads to an explosion of radical thought – there is this huge creativity unleashed by the revolution and I find that intrinsically interesting."
In his SAS Signature Course, “The Arts of Power,” Bellany employs the same approach but on a wider scale.

The course, offered in the spring 2014 semester, explores how culture – everything from religion to literature to mass media - can serve to legitimize or undermine the exercise of political power. Students will begin in ancient Rome and move methodically through history, finishing at the advent of the 21st century surveillance state. It’s a journey in which they’ll learn how to observe the telling details in the coronation of a medieval sacral king, and deconstruct the propaganda machine of the Nazi and Soviet states. They’ll also read Machiavelli and Shakespeare, study the impact of portraiture, and absorb the music of dissident rock bands.

Below, Bellany discusses how the course will help students look at their media saturated world with new, critical eyes.

SunKingSAS shutterstock 40559764Q: How did you come up with the idea for this course?

A: I wanted to do a course about how cultural means—rituals, myths and images—are used to represent or legitimate political authority.  And I wanted to explore that as a theme over 2,000 years. Examining it from ancient Rome through the Middle Ages and into the modern era is great fun, partly because the literature is so exciting.  So many great scholars, in so many different disciplines, have written on this.

Q: You’re using an eclectic set of source materials for this course, can you discuss them?

A: I use many things that would ordinarily be dismissed as political historical sources:  poetry, song, films, theatre, painting, statues and engravings.  Parts of the class borrow heavily from art history. We look at several royal portraits by Peter Paul Rubens and Anthony van Dyck, canonical artists you might come across in a baroque art seminar, but both of them brilliant political image makers.

Q: Ritual seems to be a big focus. Why is ritual so significant?

A: Rituals are powerful things, but we’re not always conscious of them or of how they work.  One of the things we do from the start of this course is explore how to interpret a ritual, whether a royal coronation, or a court festival, or a presidential inauguration.  We look at how rituals are put together, with music, movement, gesture, special effects; and at how they communicate political ideas, and create political emotions.

Q: You wrote in the introduction that although we in the 21st century like to think we’re wise to the arts of power, we, in fact, are still worked on by ritual, symbol and myth in powerful ways. How do you address that in the course?

A: I try to help students look at the world they live in with new eyes, and realize that we are as historically contingent as those "crazy" people in the 13th century who thought a king could heal the sick by touching them.

It’s the realization that what we assume to be true is simply what we assume to be true. And that people who lived in times not that long ago, people equally intelligent and sometimes infinitely more intelligent, believed things which we find ridiculous, but believed with the same kind of automatic assent that we believe certain things today.

Q: What are the particular benefits students will gain from taking this course?

A: I like to help students develop an inquisitive critical attitude. People are constantly trying to persuade us of things; politicians, for example, with slick campaign commercials and set speeches.  I’d like to get students to think critically about all of that—not "oh it’s all spin"—but "what is going on here?”

If I can cultivate historical consciousness, a kind of critical attitude, along with an ability to read texts and interpret images, that’s a pretty good legacy for a course.

School of Arts and Sciences Signature Courses are foundational courses covering engaging topics of grand intellectual sweep and enduring importance. They are designed and taught by renowned scholars who are not only recognized for their specialized research but are also eloquent and demanding award-winning teachers. For more information on Signature Courses, click here.



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