On Literalism; or, how The Glossary ruined DFW’s commencement address


If you are familiar with any one work of the late author David Foster Wallace, it is likely to be his commencement speech for the 2005 graduating class of Keynon College, a small liberal arts school in Ohio. The audio recording of the speech has been fairly popular on YouTube, and the transcript of the short speech was published as a slim volume called This is Water: Some Thoughts, Delivered on a Significant Occasion, on Living a Compassionate Life, by DFW’s regular publisher, Little, Brown, to be dutifully given to every college and high-school grad until the end of time.

If you were unfamiliar with this before, you might be now, because the speech has been turned into a 9 minute ‘videogram’ by a group called The Glossary, and millions have been sharing this new, ‘excerpt’ on Facebook and Twitter. The Glossary has taken the speech, shortened it, illustrated it with actors, added music, and in doing so, completely missed the point.

The problem is the mode of representation, a kind of theatricalised literalism of a conceptual or philosophical enquiry, and the seeming incompatibility of the two forms. Therefore, the video as adaptation of David Foster Wallace’s speech raises for me a number of interesting issues regarding the limits of (theatrical) representation, the incongruity of concepts and embodiment, and the desire for packaged profundities over the work of thinking, which, in a way is precisely what DFW is trying to warn against in the video.

Firstly, here is the original:

(Part 1)

(Part 2)

And this is the adaptation by The Glossary:

For the purposes of this post, I will refer to the original commencement address as ‘The Speech’, and The Glossary’s adaptation as This is Water – after all, the phrase ‘this is water’ merely refers to the small joke DFW bookends his address with. I doubt he ever intended it to be the title. The Speech is an explication by example of a simple but profound idea: that much of life is driven by forces outside of our control (jobs, institutions, the desires of others) and therefore conscious awareness of our own thoughts and how we construct meaning out of the world and the others in it is the basis of freedom. One’s ‘default setting’, DFW argues, is set to perceive the world as centred around the self, and therefore a situation like a crowded supermarket can seem deeply, ‘personally’, unfair. It’s similar to Emmanuel Levinas’ idea of the encounter with the face of the other being the condition of ethical action, or any other number of philosophers who have written on intersubjectivity – which is not surprising, considering DFW’s background in philosophy (his first degree). 

Why does The Glossary’s This is Water so badly miss the point of The Speech, then? Firstly, there is their notable exclusion of any of The Speech’s material on a liberal arts education. The point DFW makes is that the old platitude that university education (especially in the arts) is meant to ‘teach you how to think’ has some truth to it. That: it really means ‘learning to exercise some control over how and what you think.’ [1] By removing this framing, The Glossary effectively remove any reference to where these abilities of mindfulness and awareness are meant to come from: education, the skills of reading deeply, thinking critically. The Speech is made into a sermon, to be followed and reflected upon like a horoscope or one of those Our Daily Bread pamphlets.

Contributing to this sanctifying of DFW’s words as delivering objective truth-content is The Glossary’s use of cartoony subtitles (in a indie-movie, hand-drawn font) that flash up in the frame whenever ‘SIGNIFICANT WORDS’ are said. For example, at 7.28 DFW’s voice discusses ‘real freedom’, meaning for us to question what freedom is, &c. The subtitle that flashes above the ‘thoughtful’ actor’s head is ‘(Real) Freedom: Understanding how to think (see also, choosing)’. The subtitle’s amateurish, hand-drawn quality combined with its invocation of a dictionary suggest something strikingly opposite to DFW’s intention. It says, ‘This is the definition of real freedom’, and worse, ‘don’t trust what you’ve heard, listen to this. This is real wisdom.’ Worse yet, at 5.29, as DFW says ‘please don’t think I’m giving up moral advice or that you’re supposed to think this way’, a subtitle flashes up reading ‘You’re supposed to think this way.’ Which, I imagine is just sloppiness and sophistry rather than a subliminal message.

But secondly, and more importantly, beyond the Garden State tweeness of the subtitles and music, The Glossary’s use of actors and their mode of theatrical literalism communicate some very unexpected and distasteful subtext to The Speech. This is Water left a rather sour aftertaste in my mouth. By embodying the words so bluntly, so literally, This is Water brings out infuriating class prejudices that were not present (or at least, as noticeable) in The Speech. The speculative universal ‘you’ of The Speech’s second-person voice is suddenly recognisably a particular ‘type’: white, white-collar job, middle-class preferences, male (and later on, female – he finds his other half in the supermarket).

I certainly do not recognize myself in that ‘universal you’ made ‘particular you’ in This is Water but, I would wager, neither would many of the people addressed in that graduating class at Keynon.

Consider the moment from 7.08 to 7.10: above the suggested din of the supermarket, with its stressed out single mothers, crying children, and harried precariat, we see the handsome white male salariat worker and the pretty female white salariat worker share a look. As they meet eyes the swell of music tell us that they are (as suggested by the words) rising above the rabble, able to cope with this scene of proletarian existence because they are mindful and can ‘choose’ what to think. But what the image suggests is that they are able to cope with this scene of proletarian existence because they are going to go home to their respective two-bedroom flats to cook risotto and watch Netflix and maybe shop for furniture online. The signifier is too small for what is being signified.

At 7.40 our salariat heroes leave together – one notices that no moments of exchange (bar, one assumes, a market transaction) takes place between the middle-class and working class characters. The working class characters are defiantly ‘othered’ – women, people of colour, older persons, overweight bodies. By representing the bodies of the working class presence in this way, the video reproduces accepted prejudices about what class looks like.

And that’s the thing. It’s really introductory semiotics: when words are published, and read, the reader recognizes the signifier and connects it with what is signified – with concepts such as ‘freedom’ or such, then it is always a political question of what determines the contact of that signifier (this is why Žižek/Lacan’s concept of the point de capiton, or ‘quilting point’ – the thing that holds together the network of signifiers – is so useful in ideological critique).

Put the speech into performance, though, and something else happens – now, the words signify, but they resonate in the event of performance with the bodies of those present. Crucially, Wallace, who was a middle-class white male, and those in the convocation ceremony at Keynon. This does not determine the meaning of the words, but it gives them weight and form as part of an event. The graduating audience would likely weigh up their relation to the words in terms of their own experiences (spurred by Wallace’s rhetorical flourishes – ‘Consider’, ‘I submit to you’ – which provoke this sort of analysis) and will be looking around the room to form a picture of the ‘you’ that is being addressed. This ‘you’ becomes an ‘us’, which is different than ‘them.’

In video, however, the signifiers are literally imagined by the images on screen and the actors (and to a certain extent, the music). In effect, it says – here is what this means – don’t ask, don’t look, don’t analyse. This is what ‘you’ look like. And ‘you’ are not ‘them.’

This type of reading, of course, is one of the skills that a liberal arts education is meant to develop – the ability to inhabit language and use it in ways that perhaps challenge the typical modes of meaning. Heidegger famously called language the ‘House of Being’ and so a liberal arts education I suppose is like Grand Designs. In other words, I’d hope that any of the Keynon class present at that convocation, or any other, would be able to look at The Glossary’s This is Water and see past its sophistry.

[1] Wallace, D.F. (2005). This is Water: Some thoughts, delivered on a significant occasion, on living a compassionate life. London: Little, Brown. p. 3.

UPDATE: So, I clicked on the Upworthy link again to finish writing this post, and an update on the bottom of the page said that the original video had been taken down by the David Foster Wallace Literary Trust. I found another copy on YouTube. There is a petition, apparently, to have it put up again, because it ‘has an important message that serves a real public interest.’ When we miss the point, we really miss the point.

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