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First Paper Assignment

Fall, 2008

I introduced the webpage entitled Roman Power and Roman Imperial Sculpture with the following quotation:

Power is very rarely limited to the pure exercise of brute force....Power is ...a far more complex and mysterious quality than any apparently simple manifestation of it would appear. It is as much a matter of impression, of theatre, of persuading those over whom authority is wielded to collude in their subjugation. Insofar as power is a matter of presentation, its cultural currency in antiquity (and still today) was the creation, manipulation, and display of images. In the propagation of the imperial office, at any rate, art was power (Jas Elsner, Imperial Rome and Christian Triumph, Oxford, 1998, p. 53).

We can see the truth of Elsner's statement in our examination of Roman Imperial Art. We see in works like those associated with emperors like Augustus or Marcus Aurelius how the Romans used art to do more than simply represent power; art was used to construct or create power. The development of defined formulas for imperial images and the intentional choice of style enabled the artists to construct an image of the emperor that would appeal to the Roman audience. The panels from the time of Marcus Aurelius, for example, construct his image as a strong, just, pious, liberal, and benevolent Emperor.

As Elsner hints at through his parenthetical aside, his statement is as valid today as it was in Ancient Rome. The campaign ad does today much of what imperial sculpture did in the Roman period. Who wins in an election is frequently less of a question as to who has the better ideas than who is more successful in creating an image that appeals to the broadest segment of the population. Advertisers draw upon images and themes that are easily readable by the targeted audience. The image needs to appear "natural" and fit. As an example of an image that didn't fit, you might consider the ludicrous image of Michael Dukakis driving a tank during the 1988 campaign or John Kerry wind-surfing in the 2004 election.

Critical to the Republican success since the 1980 election has been their ability to effectively create the image that they are stronger and will be able to defend America against its enemies: Reagan with Russia ("the evil Empire") and Bush with terrorism. Consider here how the Romans set themselves off from what they called the "barbarians." In so doing, the battle became perceived of as less of a question of Roman self-interest than of the defense of civilization against the "barbarian." Fast forward to the following excerpt from a speech President Bush delivered in September 2003: "No free nation can be neutral in the fight between civilization and chaos. Terrorists in Iraq have attacked representatives of the civilized world, and opposing them and defeating them must be the cause of the civilized world."

Republicans have also been much more successful in appealing to traditional values. Remember in Rome how it was important for the emperor to demonstrate his pietas or devotion to traditional customs. Appeal to the importance of family as the central institution in Roman society was central in Augustus's claim to power. The parallels between images of Roman authority and the central themes of Republican ideology are striking.

Like artists, advertisers can construct reality.

For your first paper assignment, I would like you to develop a three to five page paper around one of the following options:

1) Go to the page on the McCain/Palin web-site or the Obama/Biden site. Select one of the campaign ads, and critically analyze it in terms of the use of images and themes. In your discussion you should also pay attention to questions of style.

2) Go to the same web-sites linked above and select ads dealing with the same issue from the two campaigns, and compare how they use images and style to make their points.

3) Do a comparison between the Marcus Aurelius panels and a series of either the McCain or Obama ads. Remember how the Marcus Aurelius panels appeal to different facets of Roman life, and see how the campaign ads target different facets of American life.

4) Critically analyze the performance of McCain and Obama in the debates. Focus on the images employed by the two candidates and their styles.

5) If you have other creative ideas as to how to approach this paper, see me or e-mail me and we can discuss them, but you must get my approval to do this.

Nota bene: although we all have our strongly held political points of view, this paper is not about who you think is right and who you think is wrong. It is about the use of images and the choice of styles.

There are two different stages or due dates for this assignment. For Monday, October 6, you are expected to bring in a draft of your paper. You will workshop your drafts with two other students. So every student will have their paper read by two students. Re-vision is central to my approach to writing. I think it is important to be open to serious reconsideration of your approach and ideas presented in your draft. The following Monday, October 13, you will be expected to submit a final draft of your paper. The paper should be approximately 3 to 5 pages in length. It is crucial that when you submit your paper that you give me an accurate link or reference to the source of the ad.

Related Webpages

"The Living Room Candidate," an innovative online exhibit of presidential campaign ads presented by the Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria, N.Y.

Political Communication Lab at Stanford University.

Todd Gitlin, "Race for president builds characters: Once again, we're treated to not just a campaign but a collision of myths." Los Angeles Times, September 28, 2008.