Monday, April 11, 2011

The Program in Oxford

Tony Blair's years as prime minister (1997-2007) represent a tumultuous period in British history. He oversaw a process of devolution that granted greater self-governance to Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland, and he simultaneously sought to integrate Britain more fully into the European Union. He took a courageous stand for some individual freedoms, such as the right of gays and lesbians to form civil partnerships and to serve in the military, but his government also dramatically increased its use of invasive surveillance technologies to track and modify people's everyday behavior. The country fought unpopular wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, decried by many as imperialist and anti-Islamic, while at the very same time immigration and demographic trends were making Britain itself more and more multiracial, multiethnic, and religiously mixed. Throughout it all, the increasingly globalized British economy boomed and busted, producing extremes of wealth and impoverishment and progressively undermining the government's ability to sustain what remained of the cradle-to-grave social safety net created in the aftermath of World War II.

In the spirit of previous Honors summer study abroad courses, this one inquires into the ways a nation makes itself intelligible to itself as a people with a shared history and destiny. The contradictions of the Blair years make it an especially interesting object of study. How did writers, artists, and intellectuals define, redefine, or criticize "Britishness" in a period when one could no longer clearly associate the term with a particular skin color, religious confession, place of origin, or sexuality? How was "Britishness" positioned against possible alternatives and enemies? What role did the War on Terror play? What role have Black British, South Asian diasporic, and other minority cultures played in the shaping (or destabilizing) of the New Britain? How has the memory of the nation's imperial past - the era when half the planet's landmass was under British rule - influenced its twenty-first century self-conception?
Oxford represents an extraordinary location for asking these questions. Its museums, libraries, playhouses, monuments, and architecture provide many opportunities to inquire into how the past meets the present and how the British are seeking to make sense of themselves and their place in a swiftly changing uncertain world. It will also provide an inspirational backdrop as we study landmark works by contemporary writers, performers and visual artists such as David Dabydeen, Tracey Emin, Carol Ann Duffy, Mona Hatoum, Sarah Kane, Anish Kapoor, Martin Krimp, David Mitchell, Zadie Smith, and Gillian Wearing.

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