Seeing the Water
December 17, 2019
It strikes me that commencement speeches are invitational “OK, Boomer” occasions. Some old guy, like me, is supposed to congratulate you on what you have accomplished and offer advice for what lies ahead of you. While you, and pretty much everyone else, including me, just wants to get to the part where your name is called, followed by lots of smiles and hugs.
And I do want to celebrate with you, to heartily congratulate you on what you have accomplished. I hope you have something fun planned to celebrate this accomplishment. And, frankly, I’m somewhat at a loss for what to say about what lies ahead. I must admit that I find it increasingly hard to recognize this world myself. I do wish you all great success, but this time you’ve spent here is about more than just preparation for that success.
So…what do I think this time has been about?
A liberal arts education, right from the start, when Cicero invented it in Republican Rome, was about mapping the world and our place in it. Not merely, or even mainly in terms of vocation. Now, more than ever, it’s not really about information, or learning ABOUT things. We have Google now for that.
Let me just emphasize that: We have the internet now. You’re the generation born into a world that has always had that. Born into a world of crazy fast change, scary change. A world that has, as my daughter likes to say, a few issues. A world in which the most fundamental structures and dynamics are all really new. Mostly in the last century. Even things we wouldn’t think are new, like the concept of identity itself. A world that’s really hard to really understand.
David Foster Wallace thematized the role of education in a radically changing world in his fairly famous 2005 commencement address at Kenyon College. He told a story that he stole from the interesting popular culture critic, Sut Jhally, who borrowed it from Marshall McLuhan, the Medium is the Message guy.
The story goes like this: Two fish are swimming along and an older fish swimming the other way passes them and asks, “How’s the water.” The two fish don’t say anything, but after they swim along a little more, one turns to the other and asks, “What’s water?!”
The point of the story is that it’s often the things most present for us that we least understand, or even know at all.
Wallace says, “One thing about which fish know exactly nothing is water, since they have no anti-environment which would enable them to perceive the element they live in.”
A liberal arts education is about learning to see the water. It’s hard to do, now more than ever.
What all three of those guys telling fish stories were getting at is that we now live in a world most of human history has in no way prepared us for. A mass media/social media, image saturated, consumer culture in which everything, even us, especially us, has become commodity.
We spend tremendous energy, time, and capital making ourselves into commodities, adopting particular personal or group identities…tribes. The marketplace functions primarily to offer pre-packaged identities for us to adopt and abandon through market transactions. Most of our talk isn’t even trying to communicate anymore. We speak in emblems, badges. What we say is either aimed at or taken as identifying ourselves, calling out our tribe, signaling whether we should engage or walk away depending on whether we belong in the same group.
Zygmunt Baumann calls this last century the liquid modern age. Liquid because we are constantly in motion, moving from one place to another, one job to another, from one identity to another, from passion and enthusiasm to apathy and boredom and back.
Jacques Ellul has persuasively argued that we live in the most heavily propagandized culture in the history of the world. And he argues it is made possible by and requires mass media.
The technology explosion has played a crucial role in all these changes.
For instance, about 150 years ago, the great jurist Oliver Wendell Holmes, wrote a little essay called “The Stereoscope and the Stereograph.” It was about the new invention we call a camera. He said that this was a radically new way to create images in the world, not drawn or painted, but captured. And we can make as many copies of them as we like. It scared him. He thought that the camera made it possible to take the skin of the world but leaving the flesh and bones behind. He feared we would come to prefer the image over the thing. Welcome to our world. And that’s when images were sepia-toned and fuzzy and still. Think about what impact our current life-like moving images that we can beam from pretty much anywhere to anywhere live has on us. There are an unlimited number of copies of anything we like, even us, available to anyone, anywhere, anytime.
It is a disorienting, anxiety-producing, raging river of a world. The water we swim in isn’t a calm pool in Thoreau’s woods. It’s not even merely an ocean, swelling and crashing. It’s moving fast! So very fast.
That is why, in the 21st century, a liberal arts education, the work we have done together here has in important part been aimed at helping you see more clearly this very world, how it works, its eddies and currents.
That is why, in the 21st century, a liberal arts education, the work we have done together here has in important part been aimed at helping you see more clearly this very world, how it works, its eddies and currents. Our job has been, at least in significant part, to show you the water. What you do with that is up to you.
It’s not like we can jump out of the water, though. If we’re fish, it’s just where we live. This is our environment. This radically different world, undergoing almost unimaginable rapid change, is where we live. And there is work to do.
Recently, in just the past few years, some interesting people have started talking about how to live in this radically new world. Alia Al-Saji writes about how we might allow the disruption and disorientation of our new world to make us pause (her word is “Hesitation”). If we can hesitate, we may be able to see our seeing, to disrupt our habits of behavior and perception and see differently, together. Gloria Anzaldua offers a spatial metaphor for something very similar. She borrows the Nahuatl word Nepantla, which means the “in-between,” the “borderland.” Her idea is that if we can learn to inhabit the borderlands, we can begin to practice a double-vision, a seeing together the same but differently, a seeing that reaches across boundaries and perspectives. We are more and more becoming borderland people. All of us; because we are continually crossing boundaries as we change and flow. That’s what happens when you live in rivers. When your world is in constant motion.
But you didn’t learn to see the water just so you can be woke! So you can assume a self-righteous superiority because you can see the current sweeping you along while others do not. Maybe I’m idealistic, but I think that if you can see the forces at work on you, you can retain some agency, some ability to influence those currents, maybe even the direction of change. The forces are powerful. No doubt.
But anytime in this world you are made to feel that you do not have power, ask yourself, cui bono. Who benefits from you thinking you do not.
That’s why I’m talking about this now, at your graduation. It’s not to bum you out about the world on this special day. There’s one last really important thing I want you to see about the water. I want to correct Wallace and Jhally and McLuhan. We’re not fish. This rapidly evolving new world isn’t happening to us, it’s happening through us. We’re not victims of it, we are participants in it, creators of it. We’re doing all of this.
These jarring forces I’ve been talking about aren’t external. We are those forces. Our habits and practices comprise them. We are the water. The question is how will we live together such that we flow in the direction we desire to, that will benefit us, that will connect and sustain us. You have the power to decide that. Use it. Use it well. That’s what lies ahead of you.
Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. Gingko Press (1964) https://web.mit.edu/allanmc/www/mcluhan.mediummessage.pdf
Zygmunt Bauman, Liquid Modernity. Polity (2000)
— Liquid Times. Polity (2006)
— Consuming Life. Polity (2013)
Jacques Ellul, Propaganda: The Formation of Men’s Attitudes. Vintage (1973)
Oliver Wendell Holmes, “The Stereoscope and the Stereograph,” The Atlantic (June, 1859) https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/1859/06/the-stereoscope-and-the-stereograph/303361/
Alia Al-Saji, “The Racialization of Muslim Veils,” Philosophy and Social Criticism, 36(8) 875-902 (2010) http://web.mit.edu/~sgrp/2013/no1/Al-Saji2010.pdf
— “A Phenomenology of Hesitation: Interrupting racializing habits of seeing” In Emily Lee (ed.), Living Alterities: Phenomenology, Embodiment, and Race. State University of New York Press. pp. 133-172 (2014)
Gloria Anzaldúa, Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza. Aunt Lute Books (2012)
— La Luz en lo Oscuro/Light in the Dark. Duke University Press (2015)