This Is Water

Kelly Wilson

Although born in Ohio, Kelly lived in Caracas, Venezuela for the first six years of her life before moving back to Cincinnati. As a sophomore at Davidson, Kelly is a Chidsey Leadership Fellow and a News Editor for The Davidsonian.  She is also involved with the Pre-Business Society and is currently devising a proposal for a Center major in Neuroeconomics, the application of neuroscientific and economic ideas to study how people make decisions, particularly when money is involved.  Her other interests include cooking, thrift shopping, running, poetry, and listening to NPR. Following her graduation from Davidson, Kelly intends to work for a major corporation and eventually earn her MBA. Kelly’s work comes from Professor Christine Marshall’s English 101: Writing Marginality.

David Foster Wallace’s 2005 Kenyon College Commencement Address has gained national recognition for its poignant, practical advice on navigating day-to-day adult life. In his speech, Wallace asserts that the real value of a liberal arts education is learning to become aware of how we choose to think because this mindfulness brings freedom and vitality. His conversational style conceals his deliberate use of point of view, varying types of appeals, and frequent vignettes, all of which work together as a system in his address. Furthermore, the seeming casualness with which Wallace makes his argument–that by consciously prioritizing attention, one resists self-centeredness–belies his complicated use of rhetorical tools to convincingly and appealingly support his claim.

Wallace’s varied use of the first and second person points of view involves listeners in his thinking process. By relaying anecdotes and thoughts through first-hand experience, Wallace maintains a personal and direct tone, and his conversational style challenges his audience to relate to his ideas and view his words as part of an informal dialogue rather than a complex argument. Comments scattered throughout his speech, such as, “I’m sure you guys know by now” and “You get the idea” establish a familiar and relaxed feeling because they resemble American colloquial speech patterns. These remarks convey Wallace’s confidence in his listeners’ ability to understand at his level; they casually close the gap between speaker and audience.

Wallace’s point of view choices are also apt because they correspond to his audience of recent Kenyon College graduates and their families, who, as supporters of the liberal arts, tend to value process over end result. Catering to his audience, WallaceWallace11-300x274 This Is Water involves them in the process of his speech by drawing them into the story rather than simply making a claim and supporting it with facts. A more formal speech filled with erudite language would lose the interest of listeners expecting to hear an enjoyable talk about a broad life principle that they can carry into their future endeavors.

In the first sentence of his speech, Wallace breaks down the barriers that inherently exist between the audience and himself by clearly indicating that what follows will be candid: “If anybody feels like perspiring, I’d advice you to go ahead because I’m sure going to.” He tells some stories in the second person, placing his audience in a hypothetical situation: “let’s say it’s an average adult day, and you get up in the morning, go to your challenging, white-collar, college-graduate job. . .” The inclusion of “you” pulls listeners into the action; Wallace directly challenges his audience to think in terms of their own lives because his argument states that they must change their own mindsets. Yet, later in the same story, he uses the first person to make himself the subject when he says, “I can think about how our children’s children will despise us for wasting all the future’s fuel. . .and how spoiled and stupid and selfish and disgusting we all are.” Had Wallace chosen to use the third person, his ideas would have come across as mere generalizations about society rather than as specific situations relevant to the life of each person in his audience. Wallace’s fluidity with point of view naturally involves the audience and emphasizes that consciousness is a collective process. He notes that all of us, “I” and “you,” must make an effort to adjust our awareness each day and that even he never fully perfects it because it is a daily practice to strive for rather than a singular accomplishment to be finalized. Though most listeners remain unaware of how he uses this tool during his speech, it directly affects their reception of the address a accessible.

Wallace uses numerous rhetorical modes of persuasion to make his argument convincing, and point of view allows him to appeal to ethos, which testifies to a speaker’s credibility. Wallace openly warns his listeners that “if you’re worried that I plan to present myself here as the wise, older fish explaining what water is to you younger fish, please don’t be.” By bluntly admitting that he is “not the wise old fish,” or the persona many commencement speakers adopt, Wallace actually establishes his credibility with the audience in two ways. First, this acknowledgement indicates that he knows the genre. Second, Wallace’s candor and humility put listeners at ease because they realize he is not pretending to be someone he is not, so they can trust him. Later, he assures his audience again: “I’m not getting ready to lecture you about compassion or other-directedness or all the so-called virtues.” Not only does this allay the worries he presumes his audience might have about the purpose of his speech before they tune him out, but it also assures them that he has already considered their concerns and has made an effort to avoid catalyzing their natural anxieties. Wallace cleverly challenges the tradition of commencement speeches only after first showing that he has studied the genre. The audience thus becomes appreciative, and Wallace emerges as both competent and genuine.

Wallace’s appeal to logos, or his audience’s logical and rational abilities, comes in the form of stories that illustrate the choices people must make about how to view familiar situations. In both the fish and Eskimo stories, the audience logically concludes that characters in both situations suffer from flaws in their reasoning. The fish in Wallace’s story asks, “What the hell is water?” and the atheist incorrectly assumes that God does not exist because He was not there to rescue him; instead, he had to rely on “a couple of Eskimos.” In both instances, the audience understands Wallace’s conceptual jokes, which result from irony: people would expect fish to know what water is, and the Eskimos who “happened to come wandering by” the abandoned atheist were most likely sent by God. Both stories support Wallace’s argument that “blind certainty, a close-mindedness that amounts to an imprisonment so total that the prisoner doesn’t even know he’s locked up” is the result of a lack of awareness.

Wallace also uses parallelism in his appeal to logos to creat a cause-effect construct that rationally proves his argument: if people do not make the choice about how to think, then they will default to a self-centered view of the world and live deadened and dull lives. This parallelism of if-then statements makes his cause-effect logic clear: “If you’re automatically sure that you know what reality is. . .then you, like me, probably won’t consider possibilities that aren’t annoying and miserable. But if you really learn how to pay attention, then you will know there are other options.” Wallace offers his audince one way to look at the world through a series of examples that appeal to reason because he explains an action (namely, exercising mindfulness of a daily basis) and its consequence–a meaningful, non-miserable existence.

Perhaps Wallace’s genius derives from how he skillfully entwines appeals to logos and pathos, his audience’s emotional response. Imbedded within his reasoning, which again consists of a cause-effect construct and parallelism, Wallace catalyzes feeling: “If you worship money and things. . .then you will never have enough. . .Worship your body. . .and you will always feel ugly. . .Worship power, you will end up feeling weak and afraid. . .Worship your intellect. . .you will end up feeling stupid.” Wallace’s repetition of “worship” and the parallelism of his sentences imitate the routine way people go about their lives. His argument’s urgent yet universal nature pertains to the most basic human emotions people feel every day.

Wallace’s spot-on descriptions of how people view everyday situations from a cynical perspective allow the reader to empathize with him.  For example, he says:

You can choose to look differently at this fat, dead-eyed, over-made-up lady who just screamed at her kid in the checkout line. Maybe she’s not usually like this. Maybe she’s been up three straight nights holding the hand of a husband who is dying of bone cancer. Or maybe this very lady is the low-wage clerk at the motor vehicle department, who just yesterday helped your spouse resolve a horrific, infuriating, red-tape problem through some small act of bureaucratic kindness.

Wallace’s harsh language rings true to listeners who have found themselves thinking the same way about strangers after a long day. Suddenly, listeners can emotionally identify with the situation, and Wallace’s argument emerges as even more pertinent to their lives. His repetition of “maybe” at the beginning of three consecutive sentences establishes a rhythm that evokes emotion and amplifies his thought Wallace admits that in this hypothetical situation, “none of this is likely, but it’s also not impossible.” Here, logic plays a role in admitting the improbability of the aforementioned story, but because it is possible, the hypothetical situation maintains its emotional effect on listeners, who suddenly reflect on similar situations in which they have not given others the benefit of the doubt. In other words, Wallace argues that people must use their rational abilities to feel compassion.

While Wallace’s use of various rhetorical devices creates a powerful and complex argument, the way he intentionally uses first and second person points of view–to address not only his audience but also himself–is ironic and haunting in light of his suicide at age forty-six.

The repetition of vignettes, or parables, grounds Wallace’s speech and lends coherence to the stories that entertain his audience, but by refering to them several times at various moments and interrupting them to provide his own insights, the speech works as a system. Wallace refocuses his argument constantly either by making reference to a story or suggesting another hypothetical situation at least every two minutes, and this keeps listeners involved in his argument for the speech’s entirety, giving them no opportunity to let their thoughts drift.  One of the ways humans learn is through repetition; thus, Wallace’s technique emphasizes through reiteration. At the beginning of the address, Wallace’s fish story concludes with a punch line: “What the hell is water?” but by the end of the speech, when listeners have forgotten the story, he reconnects the audience to the parable, saying, “we have to keep reminding ourselves over and over: ‘This is water.’ ‘This is water.'” This reference to the fish’s habitat at the conclusion of the speech reminds the audience of how the speech began, and ties together the strands of Wallace’s dense, winding argument. The audience leaves with a sense of completion because the speech’s structure seamlessly connects Wallace’s early example to his claim and evidence. Parables by themselves offer a most basic pedagogy. For example, Christ make use of parables to teach his disciples how they should live. Storytelling is an effective tool because it brings a concept to a fundamental level, one to which the audience can easily relate. But Wallace’s skill lies in how he transitions among his parables. They are not singular units but rather work together to create a coherent system of meanings.

The conversational nature of Wallace’s speech appeals to a broad audience, yet his use of numerous rhetorical devices reveals a complex argument that compiles convincing evidence as a system. Wallace has two reasons for presenting his argument in this way. First, the speech’s informal tone keeps it accessible to his audience; his message is significant, and he wants people to hear what he has to say. Second, Wallace resists simplistically supporting his claim because he wants his speech to transform his audience’s lives. To do this, he must present his argument from a variety of perspectives so that few can dispute his ideas. Wallace does not mean for these rhetorical tools to be obvious to listeners; instead, these devices almost subconsciously convert his audience to this way of thinking.

While Wallace’s use of various rhetorical devices creates a powerful and complex argument, the way he intentionally uses first and second person points of view–to address not only his audience but also himself–is ironic and haunting in light of his suicide at age forty-six. The subject of Wallace’s speech  involves “how to keep from going through your comfortable, prosperous, respectable adult life dead, unconscious, a slave to your head and to your natural default setting of being uniquely, completely, imperially alone day in and day out.” Yet, in spite of his own cautionary words, Wallace’s suicide serves as evidence that he wasn’t even able to live day in and day out with the mindset he proposes. This sad reality demonstrates that the Kenyon graduates weren’t the only audience Wallace tried to reach. He was also writing the speech for himself. In his attempt to influence others, Wallace needed to remind himself about how to consciously navigate life. Interestingly, at the end of his address, Wallace notes that staying conscious “really is the job of a lifetime.” His suicide confirms this truth: it is one thing to understand what Wallace is saying about approaching life, but it is completely different to maintain a compassionate mindset at every moment. Thus, Wallace’s legacy reminds us that though it may not be easy, we must keep swimming and remembering “this is water.”


Wallace, David Foster. “Commencement Address, Kenyon College, 2005.” More Intelligent Life. com (website). (accessed October 15, 2009.)