This Is Water: Fishy Advice From David Foster Wallace

A commencement speech given in 2005 by the late American author David Foster Wallace, who is hugely influential among literary members of the generations lumped into the millennial category, reaches for a healing vision of a common humanity amid the relentless crushings of a capitalized and corporatized society.

Both the Kenyon College speech and its schmaltzy, feel-good adaptation below — which has gone viral with more than 4.5 million views since its publication May 6 — are worth hearing and seeing because they are well written and produced, and they encourage audiences to consider the struggles and predicaments of other people.

But what begins as an exciting critique of American culture slides into a mushy, contradictory and relativistic lecture about personal responsibility and the supposed power we all have to rise above the colossal societal forces distorting our lives, bodies and minds. The mind is the very thing Wallace says the graduates — whose thinking has been shaped by a dubious university system increasingly directed by corporate interests — are supposed to use to periodically free themselves, in the great American tradition of independence, from the anti-social shackles of ignorance, prejudice, irritability and selfishness, and choose “what has meaning and what doesn’t.”

The whole predicament and its potential solutions are a lot more complex than the abridged version of Wallace’s speech suggests. Further undermining the message (as Truthdig reader ADFWFan pointed out below) is the tragic fact that Wallace killed himself three years after delivering the address.


Alexander Reed Kelly
Former Associate Editor
In December 2010, Alex was arrested for civil disobedience outside the White House alongside Truthdig columnist Chris Hedges, Pentagon whistle-blower Daniel Ellsberg, healthcare activist Margaret Flowers and…
Alexander Reed Kelly

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