My Blog List

Friday, December 16, 2011

Power, Ritual, and Society

That was the name of the course I just finished at the University of Maryland. The course followed the topic of political power and ritual through both theory and historical events in a generally chronological sequence beginning with Aristotle. Although classified both as a history and a religious studies course, none of the six required books were written by historians or theologians, and two were fiction, a play by Spanish author Lope de Vega, and a novel by D.H. Lawrence. In addition, there were about a dozen articles and book excerpts, some from historians and one from a theologian, St. Thomas Aquinas.

Lectures and discussion groups examined such topics as whether human nature was essentially good and rational (Aristotle, St. Thomas, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau thought yes while St. Augustine and Machiavelli thought no), whether humans are social and political by nature (Aristotle said yes, and Rousseau said no), whether economics was the driving force of history (as Karl Marx believed), and whether public ritual and ceremony, which had been so crucial to political power in the middle ages and early modern period in Europe, were still important in a modern industrial society with its emphasis on science and rationality.

The final readings were from the 20th century's Michel Foucault, and the lectures elaborated on his studies of the history of punishment, the change from public physical brutality as "a spectacular and discontinuous intervention of power" to the modern state's invisible, discrete surveillance as "an automatic functioning of power." An original and controversial thinker, Foucault presented Jeremy Bentham's 19th century design for a modern prison, the panopticon, which Foucault came to regard as a metaphor for modern society.

I'll have to think some more about these subjects.

No comments:

Post a Comment