ENGA11H3 Study Guide - Dover Beach, Fake Love, New Imperialism

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Published on 12 Aug 2012
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What is it we want to say about the Twentieth century? What might others say centuries hence? What
makes it different from any other? What issues from former centuries are still present, either as a
difficult legacy, or a promise unfulfilled, or a nightmare as yet forestalled but still an ominous possibility?
And, given these questions, what is the role of Art, literature and film that is also unique? A preliminary
answer to that question might be posed as follows: because “answers” have less and less credibility in a
more and more subjective world view, Art in the Twentieth Century develops more and more
sophisticated ways to ask more subtle and more challenging questions. What the Twentieth Century
needs, in other words, is not more answers, but better questions. And there is a deep urgency to this
concern since some of the worst episodes of the Twentieth CenturyImperialism, World Wars,
Genocide, Fascism, the Atomic Bomb, the neo-Imperialism of globalized capitalismall come from
people and institutions “sure” that they have the answers and therefore determined to ignore (or
worse, eliminate) whoever challenges them. The most dangerous attitude of our time is not uncertainty
but a false certitude presented as “the way things need, should or have to be”. Such a false certitude is
often backed up by force to protect the people promoting it from doubt.
A good deal of Twentieth Century Art is devoted to suggesting alternative “realities” so that being told
“that’s just the way it is” can be countered with “but how did it get that way?”. In other words, a
traditional belief in “essentialism”–that things had some fundamental essence that could be discerned,
gets replaced by “constructivism”–a sense that the “meaning” we think is “inherent” in the thing, has
actually been placed there by us, and represents what we need to see, and what we want to find, rather
than something essential and separate from us. In contrast to this, Science has developed an
extraordinary capacity to discover “objective knowledge”, supposedly untainted by the subjective, but
the uses to which this Science then gets put remain very subjective indeed. One reason the wars of the
Twentieth century have been so devastating is that the weaponry has been improved courtesy of
various scientific discoveries. The discovery, in other words, may be “objective,” but the use to which it
is put, is not. A great deal of anxiety in the Twentieth Century revolves around the question of whether
or not we have the wisdom to use what scientific knowledge has made possible. And, beyond that, do
we have the moral and ethical structure? Increased technical innovation is often conflated with a sense
that we are advancing in terms of our humanitybut the two operate separately, and innovation does
not necessarily signal an increase in the understanding of ourselves, our world, or our relation to our
world. All of these issues are contained in the poem “Dover Beach”. The moonlit ocean the poet sees as
so beautiful, he then imagines as indicating something serene and full--and, in an older poetic tradition,
he would have gone on to assume the world is therefore essentially serene and full--but he realizes this
is his own projection, and therefore a construction, to try and reassure him about what he fears he
lacks: fullness (a sense of completeness) and serenity. He tries, in other words, to find evidence “out
there” of what he can not be sure of “inside”. This crisis of certitude I have called “the loss of
transcendental certitude” to connect it to the increased sense of the absence of a divine force ruling and
ordering the universe beyond the limited and even corrupt sensibility we bring to that task ourselves. In
fact, he feels neither serenity nor completeness, and the grating roar of the ocean waves ceaselessly
pulling back pebbles and throwing them up the beach again, undercuts his constructed image of the
peaceful moonlit ocean, and he is thereby forced to acknowledge it is indifferent to his existence and
will not supply or guarantee anything. It is then he turns to his companion and demands truth and
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Document Summary

What the twentieth century needs, in other words, is not more answers, but better questions. And there is a deep urgency to this concern since some of the worst episodes of the twentieth century imperialism, world wars, Genocide, fascism, the atomic bomb, the neo-imperialism of globalized capitalism all come from people and institutions sure that they have the answers and therefore determined to ignore (or worse, eliminate) whoever challenges them. The most dangerous attitude of our time is not uncertainty but a false certitude presented as the way things need, should or have to be . Such a false certitude is often backed up by force to protect the people promoting it from doubt. A good deal of twentieth century art is devoted to suggesting alternative realities so that being told. That"s just the way it is can be countered with but how did it get that way? .

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