Saturday, September 11, 2010

Renaissance, Reformation, and China

It's been such a pleasure to discover a series published by Oxford of very short introductions (to historical periods, famous people, and various -isms). Using my Amazon Prime account (which I love and students can get for free for a year) in two days and for $9 I had in my hands Jerry Brotton's The Renaissance: A Very Short Introduction. In 125 brief pages, it gives a great overview of this period.

The image here is Raphael's fresco of the Donation of Constantine. There's Constantine, formally conveying secular authority of the Roman Empire to the Catholic Church.  I spoke about that document in the Digital Civilization class -- how Lorenzo Valla discredited it through linguistic analysis and proved it to be of medieval origins. What I didn't know
was that Raphael was hired by the Catholic church to paint this, as part of a general effort (led by Julius II, the same one that hired Michelangelo to do so many works) to awe the masses with impressive art, architecture, and sculpture. Much of that period's great artistic productions turned out to be a pre-Reformation public relations campaign. I also learned that Martin Luther read Valla's refutation of the Donation of Constantine when it was published in Germany in 1517, the same year he nailed those 95 theses to the door of the church in Wittenberg, ushering in the Protestant Reformation.

This coming week we'll b talking about the Protestant Reformation. Brotton's history informed me about the Counter-Reformation, the effort by the Catholic church to refute Luther and reassert Catholic authority. What I hadn't known was how successful the Counter-Reformation was. The church might have been slow on the draw with printing, but its institutional influence was (and still is) enormous. It organized educational efforts (the Jesuits), and mass censorship and book burning (via the infamous Index of Prohibited Books (1563) and by 1600, the church had reclaimed one third of those previously lost to the Protestant Reformation.

Now, to bring this home to something more current, I turn to the research of a student of mine from Spring, 2010, Allison Frost. She researched how China has been ramping up its efforts at using electronic tools. She used George Orwell's famous book about totalitarianism, 1984, and made convincing arguments that China truly has become Big Brother (see this post). I thought this literary comparison was simplistic at first, but she kept finding more and more proof of how the Chinese government has very shrewdly learned how to tap into the power of the Internet and new media to increase its surveillance and control over its population (see this post about China's "Ministry of Truth" in controlling the Internet).

See the comparison? I so appreciate history's lessons. The Counter-Reformation might be 450 years in the past, but we see the same dynamics going on with the Internet and China as happened with printing and Catholicism back then. I'm glad to have found both Brotton's book and to have had a sharp student like Allison to connect the dots on China as Big Brother.


hsmaggie said...

Did you know that you can download Amazon's Kindle for PC for free (go to Amazon, Kindle Store, Kindle for PC) also for iPhone, Blackberry, iPad, etc; then follow up with a free download of a small portion of each book in their list (often the very books we are looking at! If you are buying books new from Amazon (as opposed to buying used from someone else), if you buy them as Kindle digits, they are less expensive. And, if you have the Kindle for PC, you don't have to buy the expensive Kindle reader, but can read them on your computer!

Shaun Frenza said...

The thing I really want to know is when are we going to start making these reforms here in America. Orwell promised us an totalitarian regime just after I was born and I know that we're trying to get there, but what's the hold up? And where's my flying car!?

But seriously - Part of our digital civilization is highly political and as time goes on will we have increasing suppression of the internet? Should we have them?

James Wilcox said...

Its interesting to see the challenges that modern age technology brings against censorship.

A big example of this in the last few week is that of Iran and Blackberry. The ability for Blackberry to work off of its own encrypted channels made it to difficult for the governments to censor so they have put up threats to ban blackberry use within the country.

New technologies challenge old barriers.

Jeffrey Whitlock said...

It is quite the interesting political debate, recently rekindled by the recent WikiLeaks release of scores of military documents. It is frustrating to see many people talk of "internet regulation" i.e. censorship.
On a different note, it is not surprising to me that the Chinese government is exerting great effort to restrict information to its citizens. I believe that the Communist Party of China has realized that they have unleashed an insuppressible tide when they opened up their markets to the Western world. Try as they might, the mass dissemination of Western culture and thought in China will prove impossible for the party to control. I believe that a massive political upheaval in China is inevitable. Historically, democratization of information leads to democratization of government…

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