"This is Water"-- Remediating David Foster Wallace's Kenyon Commencement Speech

Delivered in  twenty-three minutes, David Foster Wallace's 2005 commencement speech at Kenyon College had an audience of a few hundred. However, in the years which followed, the transcription of Wallace's speech became an internet phenomenon, coursing through millions of email boxes and introducing the writer to people unfamiliar with his complex fiction.  "Thanks to the enthusiasm" of people who knew nothing about Wallace's work, and the "magic of the cut-and-paste function," Tom Bissell remarks that the address likely ranks "high among the most widely read things Wallace ever wrote." But perhaps the most significant testament to the speech's popularity is that the short speech would eventually become a book in its own right. In the year after Wallace's passing, the "Transcription of the 2005 Kenyon Commencement Address" became This Is Water: Some Thoughts, Delivered on a Significant Occasion, about Living a Compassionate Life (2009). And yet, even as Little, Brown's publication of the lecture gave the speech permanence and stability, it also aroused significant debate about whether the form of this publication worked with or against the speech's message. In examining the remediation of Wallace's speech, I suggest that the debate refracts core concerns that Wallace addresses.

                                     Image credit: Edrants.com

In the beginning of his address to 2005's graduating class at Kenyon college, David Foster Wallace begins with a parable: "There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, "Morning, boys, how's the water?" And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, "What the hell is water?" Demonstrating a self-reflexivity that marks all of his fiction, he follows up that this anecdote follows a standard convention of the "bullshitty" commencement speech genre, and that he is not going to presume the role of the "wise old fish" that tells the younger ones what the water is like. In the words which follow, Wallace concisely makes an argument about the need for a capitalist society's "students" to reflect upon their surroundings and to be aware of the generative possibilities that might exist behind frustrations and antagonisms we confront every day.

wallace opening anecdotepts

While many of the speech's fans first encountered the speech through an endless chain of email forwards, nested in forwarding arrows [>>>], Little, Brown's publication of This is Water is a highly polished, even reverential rendition of Wallace's words.  In order to emphasize the weight of each line, and, undoubtedly, to draw the text out into a saleable book form), each of the 135 sentences of Wallace's speech (minus one--which we will get to in a moment) is given its own page. Hence, the opening page (above) is followed by the subsequent three sentence-pages. 

While readers familiar with Wallace's Kenyon speech will find that most of the content has maintained intact, This is Water does include a single, but very  substantial, revision that has raised some criticism. Following Wallace's point about the mind being a "good servant and a terrible master," Wallace states in the original speech: "It is not the least bit coincidental that adults who commit suicide with firearms almost always shoot themselves in: the head. They shoot the terrible master." In This is Water, the final sentence from the quote above was taken out. This line was, in fact, a go-to line for the authors of many of Wallace's obituaries, who see in this moment an ominous foreshadowing of his eventual suicide. For Tom Bissell, the textual excision is understandable because "Any mention of self-annihilation in Wallace's work...now has a blast radius that obscures everything around it." Thus, Bissell suggest that the oft-cited line might distract readers from the core  elements of the speech.

Reception of the posthumously-published edition of Wallace's speech has been divided in ways that point to, on one hand, the lasting power of the content of his speech, but also a concern about its place and meaning of a society that has had to "commence" going on without him. While reviews of the content of the speech have been almost uniformly positive, there has been criticism of the format of This is Water. After all, one may ask, does the omission of the line "they shoot the terrible master" and the stretching out of Wallace's prose into sentence units refigure and protect an image of Wallace as the "Wise old fish?" Zach Baron of the Village Voice points out that lines like "I am not the wise old fish," take on the feeling of zen mantras,  certainly gaining emphasis, but perhaps doing so in the wrong way. Ultimately, he cannot shake the feeling that the format goes against the principles of the speech: "The net effect is to imply an entirely different kind of wisdom--of the Tuesdays With Morrie variety--than whatever actual wisdom is contained therein. " Fans of the book, on the other hand, including the most "liked" Amazon review of the text, argue that the book format finally gives the speech the "stature it deserves," and argue that the knee-jerk resistance tot he speech is evidence of the kind of cynicism that Wallace speaks out against in the speech. These debates also inevitably intersect with the question of whether Wallace's speech was mostly to be taken as a survival guide to life within modern capitalism or an affirmation of it. 

we are maniac this is water

Image Credit: Maniac.com.sg

Hosting a different rendition of the Kenyon speech--one which includes various asides that do not make it into This is Water. Manic.com reframes the issue of Wallace's speech and its relationship to consumer culture by depicting it as a nourishing and replenishing text that is in itself understandable as a commodity. Ironically, the debate over the commencement speech's remediation echoes a kernel of ambivalence within the speech itself. Midway through the address, Wallace suggests that it can be useful to have it within your power to "experience a crowded, loud, slow, consumer-hell-type situation as not only meaningful but sacred, on fire with the same force that lit the stars - compassion, love, the sub-surface unity of all things." Wallace then follows, "Not that that mystical stuff's necessarily true: the only thing that's capital-T True is that you get to decide how you're going to try to see it. You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn't. You get to decide what to worship." Thus, we might also see our perception of Wallace's speech in its various contexts (for "free" through the hypercaptilized system of the world wide web, or for pay under the auspices of Little, Brown) as a situation in which we can exercise similar choice. 

An Audio Transcript of Wallace's speech is available on Youtube. Part OnePart Two.

View a written Transcript of Wallace's speech here.


DFW Caught on Tape

When applying to Kenyon as a high school senior I was told that David Foster Wallace had spoken at Commencement just a few years prior. I didn't know of the name, had never heard of the writer. In fact, for the first year or so, whenever I heard "David Foster Wallace," a mental image of a man resembling William. F. Buckley popped into my head. Don't ask.

As I prepare to graduate and am faced with a Commencement speaker who will assuredly not make the same type of waves as Wallace in '05 or Franzen in '11, I feel shunned. Disrespected. We have a literary tradition here, maybe one we might be a smidge too proud of, but we'll have some do-gooder alum speak at graduation. So, to reconcile myself to the misdeed that has been done, I have resorted to the Special Collections department in the library. There is a video copy, one of what I assume to be a very minimal amount, of DFW's Commencement address. I've spent some serious time with this thing, albeit our dates are relegated to its home in the library--it isn't allowed outside. When I first watched it in September after years of reading it online, I was enamored. And crying. I had only seen Wallace in photographs--I had never heard his voice. To do so, to watch him live and breathe and speak and spit and sweat was an experience. If you'd like to hear more about the video and my experience with it, let me know.

Yes, Please!

Wow, I would love to know more about the video and your experience with it. The words themselves have been so powerful for me, and they have been fundamental to my sense of purpose as a writer and teacher. They continue to strike a strong emotional chord with me as well. Any insights you could provide about the video would be greatly appreciated! Best, Ty

Class of '05

I graduated from Kenyon in 2005 and as soon as the ceremony was over my friends and I got together to talk about it. Everyone was floored. There isn't one among my class that wasn't. We couldn't get over what DFW said. In fact, when I talk to classmates the speech almost always comes up. It is near and dear to each of our hearts. Kenyon sent us all a transcript of the speech but my parents were of the few that took video. I watched it once a week before it got lost in the shuffle when I went to grad school (though I still hope it will miraculously turn up). For a while after that I read it online and then in 2009 it surfaced as an audio version on YouTube which I still listen too probably biweekly. No one expected it to be that amazing. To say it has a profound impact on me is a laughable understatement. I can see why the person at the top feels let down by her speaker. We are a thoughtful, privileged bunch that go to Kenyo and we pride ourselves on our literary tastes. Wallace was perfect in that regard


Reading your comment made me listen to this today, and I am incredibly moved.  I wish I'd had such a brilliant commencement speaker at my college that year (and just had to look it up to remember who it was, which probably tells you everything).


So how is he as a speaker?  Good sense of delivery?

Recent comments