David Foster Wallace’s Famous Commencement Speech “This is Water” Visualized in a Short Film

David Foster Wallace was a hyper-anxious chronicler of the minute details of a certain kind of upper-middle-class American life. In his hands, it took on sometimes luminous, sometimes jaundiced qualities. Wallace was also something of a metaphysician: reflective teacher, wise-beyond-his-years thinker, and (tragically in hindsight) quite self-deprecating literary superstar. In the latter capacity, he was often called on to perform the duties of a docent, administering commencement speeches, for example, which he did for the graduating class of Kenyon in 2005.

He began with a story: two young fish meet an older fish, who asks them “How’s the water?” The younger fish look at each other and say, “What the hell is water?” Foster Wallace explains the story this way:

The point of the fish story is merely that the most obvious, important realities are often the ones that are hardest to see and talk about. Stated as an English sentence, of course, this is just a banal platitude, but the fact is that in the day to day trenches of adult existence, banal platitudes can have a life or death importance, or so I wish to suggest to you on this dry and lovely morning.

Foster Wallace acknowledges that the anecdote is a cliché of the genre of commencement speeches. He follows it up by challenging, then re-affirming, another cliché: that the purpose of a liberal arts education is to “teach you how to think.” The whole speech is well worth hearing.

In the video above, “This is Water,” The Glossary—“fine purveyors of stimulating videograms”—take an abridged version of the original audio recording and set it to a series of provocative images. In their interpretation, Foster Wallace’s speech takes on the kind of middle-class neurosis of David Fincher’s realization of Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club.

It’s a dystopian vision of post-grad life that brings vivid clarity to one of my mentors’ pieces of advice: “There are two worst things: One, you don’t get a job. Two, you get a job.” Or one could always quote Morrissey: “I was looking for a job, and then I found a job. And heaven knows I’m miserable now.” I still haven’t figured out what’s worse. I hope some of those Kenyon grads have.

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Related Content:

David Foster Wallace’s 1994 Syllabus: How to Teach Serious Literature with Lightweight Books

David Foster Wallace: The Big, Uncut Interview (2003)

David Foster Wallace Breaks Down Five Common Word Usage Mistakes in English

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Washington, DC. Follow him @jdmagness

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