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Some thoughts on ‘This is Water.’

ABL and ALH share some of their thoughts on 'This is Water.' To what extent do you agree or disagree?
A picture of the ocean

We share our thoughts on the discussion questions for ‘This is Water’. To what extent do you agree or disagree?

1. How does Foster Wallace use the parables or stories to impact on his audience? 

The first story of the fish: aside from gaining the audience’s trust by demonstrating his understanding and refusal of conventions, he uses it to provide a structure to his speech by returning to it at the end in a way that both provides a surprising reminder of the beginning and a satisfying conclusion. The story essentially illustrates the idea that we should be aware of what is hidden in plain sight around us. The Eskimo story is also used to surprise the audience: Wallace presents a typical liberal arts response to the story which is that “the exact same experience can mean two totally different things to two different people” – diversity is something that we value and we are reluctant to ascribe objective value to one interpretation over the other. He then subverts this by providing a new perspective on the story to illustrate his point that we construct meaning from inside our heads and that this is an unconscious, default setting; that any kind of blind certainty is bad for us. The story of the adult driving home/in the supermarket is used to appeal to his audience’s emotions and empathy. It is also a way to couch universal arguments in the relatable personal, the essential idea being that we can consciously choose to look differently at people.

All the stories dovetail into each other: Wallace refocuses his argument through bringing in another story, enabling him to keep his audience interested as well as allowing each story to work in coherent conjunction with each other to reinforce his message in a multi-layered way.

2. David Foster Wallace’s speech is clearly crafted and yet he manages to convey sincerity. How does he manage to balance rhetorical craft with sincerity?

The rhetorical devices tend to work under the surface of the speech rather than being too obvious and merely flourishes for their own sake. They are clearly subservient to his message. Wallace’s sincerity pervades the whole thing. His use of first person when imagining the supermarket experience for example, places him in the position of a typical judgemental adult that needs to remember compassion. Perhaps it’s the sense that he is partly addressing himself in the speech that contributes to the sincere appeal, particularly through his ultimate message that “it is unimaginably hard to do this, to stay conscious and alive in the adult world day in and day out.” This is a struggle he identifies with, even while he is also passing on his wisdom to the young graduates.

3. What does Wallace want to convey about thought, academic education and the “totally obvious” cliché?

Education is about more than acquiring knowledge; you should leave with the capacity to choose what to ‘worship’, choose how to think and learn to escape the lonely prison of the self. Academic education can hinder our ability to pay attention to the outside world and others, however, since academics can end up living inside their heads.

Wallace presents clichés throughout the speech, making it clear that he’s aware of the jaded dismissal of the cliché; he revisits these clichés, which express “a great and terrible truth”, therefore making them meaningful once more. He reworks the clichés to help them unlock new significance. His use of cliché really illustrates his point that his message – that we need to be aware of the outside world – is nothing new, just like clichés are nothing new. We need however to keep reminding ourselves of these truths that we already know rather than become jaded by them and therefore numb to them.

Why the focus on clichés?  The cliché can be a linguistic form of knowing something without truly knowing it in an experiential form, the latter of which is what he wants their education to be for them. So the clichés allow him to offer a series of examples of something they ‘know’ to be true but have yet to properly experience and therefore are yet to properly appreciate, which softens the ground for his main message about them not really knowing what ‘day in day out’ means, which he says directly to them. (Another reason is just that reinvigorating clichés was one of his interests (this is something he tackles in his novel ‘Infinite Jest’ through when writing about the experience of recovering from addiction in the AA). ) 

4. Wallace punctuates his speech with assurances that he is not preaching or providing a moral message. Is this true?

It doesn’t feel like Wallace is presenting himself as a moral authority. He is keen to keep his audience on board by highlighting that he’s not preaching at them, so his assurances are also partly a rhetorical device. It would seem that his message could be perceived as a moral one, nonetheless: looking outside of oneself to learn to understand others. However, he does reframe our concept of morality: he surprises us with his reframing of worship as not just worship of a god but worship as a universal experience; his re-definition of worship might be a way for him to engage with what we ascribe the most importance to – we can worship many things like power and money for example. He also presents the value of “staying alert and attentive” as a rational life choice, rather than as a belief. It is harmful to be a slave to one’s mind and “your natural default setting of being uniquely, completely, imperially alone day in and day out”, therefore logically, we should consider alternative ways of constructing a more meaningful life.

5. What techniques does he use to engage his audience and get them to like and trust him?

He establishes his credibility with them, by showing he understands the conventions of commencement speeches but is prepared to speak honestly rather than conventionally. He is thus competent and genuine. Part of his establishment of a connection to his graduate audience involves his use of an informal register, direct address, mild swearing, self-deprecating humour, relaying of anecdotes through first-hand experience. He also appeals to them as liberal arts thinkers: he doesn’t patronise them – for example, he expects them to understand the irony in the fish and Eskimo stories – and he also involves them in his thinking process by drawing them into a journey through the stories with a satisfying final reveal. He also extends his appeal beyond the graduates themselves, to all those adults who’ve experienced the fraught commute home and irritated rush round a soulless supermarket and recognise themselves wryly in the cynical judgements of others they liberally dispense.

The humour contributes to the geniality of the talk, which makes people more likely to listen if not to agree. The shifts in register add to the humour; they bring him close to the audience of graduands (closer to their linguistic usage and less like a lecture or sermon); they bring moments of drama to sustain interest. The vocabulary choice is for similar reasons. Early on, ‘bullshitty’ is slightly shocking because a swear word is being used in a formal setting, but only a mild one and rendered less direct by being used as an adjective. It lets the audience know he is not entirely a safe pair of hands, so they (graduands) become interested in what will happen next, but is still a relatively safe pair of hands (so the administration is not too worried). It says to the audience, ‘we both know this sort of speech genre has a lot of BS conventions, but at least the stories are less bad than some of the other bits.’ It flatters them as being those in the know, along with the speaker, thus creating a group of them and him over against some imagined others who don’t know. 

6. What does Wallace say about attention as a form of spirituality (or perhaps religion), and what do you think about what he says? 

Wallace says that choosing to pay attention to what is happening to you and not filtering it through default cultural and egocentric lenses offers the possibility of being freer, more aware, less miserable and annoyed, and perhaps more compassionate. Wallace is almost delivering a sermon, but he emphasises his audience’s prerogative to disagree with him, bases it on the authority of his experience and the many myths and stories in which his message has been ‘codified,’ and focuses more on the form of practice than the content of belief.  

7. If ‘worship’ is defined as attending and constructing meaning, is it true that we all worship and that choosing what to worship is one of the most important tasks of adult life?

Wallace suggests we choose something outside ourselves as a focus for attention and a way of constructing meaning. This could be a god or some set of ethical principles. He offers a pragmatic justification for this: egocentric options will cause us suffering, but the latter will help us be freer, suffer less and be more aware of others and reality. Since we do all pay attention to certain things and do tend to construct meaning, it is difficult to disagree with that aspect of his speech. His choice to define this activity as worship is interesting and provocative. Worship tends to be, in part, the ascription of highest value to the highest good or being in someone’s life, so Wallace is trying here to engage with the deepest and most important part of people’s identity. 

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David Foster Wallace: Literature and Philosophy

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