Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Is This Water?: David Foster Wallace and the Value of a Liberal Education

David Foster Wallace
Graduation season is coming to a close, which gives us an opportunity to reflect not only on our college experiences, but also on graduating itself. I graduated from Wisconsin’s Lawrence University this past weekend, and the celebration of accomplishment seemed a little odd to me, since I mostly feel strange about suddenly leaving the tiny college, rather than feeling like I really accomplished anything there. Our commencement speaker was former Good Morning America host Charlie Gibson, and it was weird to hear him deliver harmless political commentary in person instead of hearing it emanating from my parent’s television set a room over. Probably the most revered recent commencement speech was delivered at Kenyon College in 2005 by the author probably most revered by undergraduates (emphasis on the ‘under’…), David Foster Wallace. In the speech, titled This is Water, DFW reflects on the genre tropes of commencement speeches and attempts to transcend them. He observes that liberal arts commencement speakers focus on the intrinsic value of a liberal education- that it teaches you how to think. Although he partially denounces the ‘banal platitudes’ typically offered by orators, he does offer some advice about surviving adult life, namely that everyone has to believe in something—and if you choose to believe in your intelligence, looks or wealth you will end up in bad shape. You’re better off humbly trying to live by an inviolable ethical code (he rattles off belief systems associated with various religions and philosophies) than pursuing the ever-popular cult of the self. A liberal education ought to make one insightful enough to realize that ‘banal platitudes’ gain power and depth when they are lived out in everyday life. The message to graduates, despite DFW’s initial slipperiness, is clear: you had better use your critical skills to discern what the empathetic, moral thing to do or think in every situation is, because your only other option is spiraling into shallow self absorption. But what if this is a false choice? What if ‘banal platitudes’ derive their power not from their inherent humaneness, but from their banality? If that were the case, then rejecting them certainly wouldn’t be shallow.

DFW includes in his speech a typical ‘adulthood’ situation- a commuter stopping at the supermarket on their way home from work. He describes the claustrophobic scenes on the highway and in the store and discusses the two ways he sees of coping with them—either by being annoyed by the people in front of you in line yelling at their kids and the cell-phone jabbering SUV drivers cutting you off on the road, or by empathizing with them and imagining the quotidian struggles that they themselves endure. For DFW, empathy and sincerity are strategies that allow us to redeem a bad situation. What he failed to articulate in this speech, but what his books (namely the posthumously published The Pale King) impress upon me is that a steadfast belief in the power of empathy is just as destructive and superficial as self-worship. The type of empathy he espouses in his speech is basically this: if a person’s behavior seems to embody some contradiction of late capitalism (i.e. a person driving an SUV covered with progressive bumper stickers), imagine the redeeming circumstances that led to their current condition (i.e. anxieties about rush hour traffic lead them to buy a larger car). Regarding these hypothetical scenarios, DFW concedes that “none of this is likely”.  In The Pale King, the dryness of his prose is owed to the fact that, increasingly, our ability to empathize with one another is engulfed by the incomprehensibility of our situation.
Deleuze and Guattari

In Anti-Oedipus, Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari describe the Oedipal formulation as the fountain where psychoanalysts gather to wash their hands of the world’s iniquities. Deleuze and Guattari saw psychoanalysis as a tool in the service of repression. Sincerity, the attempt to see each other clearly, is likewise often effectively an attempt not to see the Other as an equal, but to use the Other as a way to suppress one’s own awareness of systemic inequalities and oppression. If a liberal education really promotes freethinking, then we should be free enough to see one another’s contradictory behaviors as affirmations of life rather than forces of death, and to see discrepancy and inconsistency as our life-blood.  In his introduction to Anti-Oedipus, Mark Seem quotes Henry Miller, “everybody becomes a healer the moment he forgets about himself… Nobody can do it for another—it is a private affair which is best done collectively.” In order to ‘empathize’ within the situation of arbitrary dominations that our identities arise in, we should forget about our sense of entitlement and recognize ourselves in the errors, ignorance and cruelty of others.

1 comment:

  1. Love that someone's writing about David Foster Wallace... I discovered him last year and he's became my favorite writer. I haven't graduated yet (congratulations on your own graduation) but I remember listening to This Is Water a few months ago. At first I was disappointed; loads of people bigged it up as if it had the answers to all life but he just talked about very everyday things, but it's really grown on me. I haven't read The Pale King so I comment on that, but I agree with the message he was trying to get across in Water: that if you look outside yourself and make your job emphasizing yourself then your inner self will find its own way, while if you only look inward then the outside world, and your view of others, will only get worse. At least that's what I got from it.

    Great post, keep up the good work.