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This Is Water: David Foster Wallace on Life

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On the anniversary of the tragic literary hero’s death, revisiting his only public insights on life.

Four years ago today, David Foster Wallace took his own life, becoming a kind of patron-saint of the “tortured genius” myth of creativity. Just three years prior to his suicide, he stepped onto the podium at Kenyon College and delivered one of the most timeless graduation speeches of all time — the only public talk he ever gave on his views of life. The speech, which includes a remark about suicide by firearms that came to be extensively discussed after DFW’s own eventual suicide, was published as a slim book titled This Is Water: Some Thoughts, Delivered on a Significant Occasion, about Living a Compassionate Life.

You can hear the original delivery in two parts below, along with the the most poignant passages.

On solipsism and compassion, and the choice to see the other:

Here is just one example of the total wrongness of something I tend to be automatically sure of: everything in my own immediate experience supports my deep belief that I am the absolute centre of the universe; the realest, most vivid and important person in existence. We rarely think about this sort of natural, basic self-centredness because it’s so socially repulsive. But it’s pretty much the same for all of us. It is our default setting, hard-wired into our boards at birth. Think about it: there is no experience you have had that you are not the absolute centre of. The world as you experience it is there in front of YOU or behind YOU, to the left or right of YOU, on YOUR TV or YOUR monitor. And so on. Other people’s thoughts and feelings have to be communicated to you somehow, but your own are so immediate, urgent, real.

Please don’t worry that I’m getting ready to lecture you about compassion or other-directedness or all the so-called virtues. This is not a matter of virtue. It’s a matter of my choosing to do the work of somehow altering or getting free of my natural, hard-wired default setting which is to be deeply and literally self-centered and to see and interpret everything through this lens of self. People who can adjust their natural default setting this way are often described as being ‘well-adjusted’, which I suggest to you is not an accidental term.

On the double-edged sword of the intellect, which Einstein, Steve Jobs, and Anne Lamott have spoken to:

It is extremely difficult to stay alert and attentive, instead of getting hypnotized by the constant monologue inside your own head (may be happening right now). Twenty years after my own graduation, I have come gradually to understand that the liberal arts cliché about teaching you how to think is actually shorthand for a much deeper, more serious idea: learning how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience. Because if you cannot exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed. Think of the old cliché about ‘the mind being an excellent servant but a terrible master.’

This, like many clichés, so lame and unexciting on the surface, actually expresses a great and terrible truth. 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. And the truth is that most of these suicides are actually dead long before they pull the trigger.

And I submit that this is what the real, no-bullshit value of your liberal arts education is supposed to be about: 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.

On empathy and kindness, echoing Einstein:

[P]lease don’t think that I’m giving you moral advice, or that I’m saying you are supposed to think this way, or that anyone expects you to just automatically do it. Because it’s hard. It takes will and effort, and if you are like me, some days you won’t be able to do it, or you just flat out won’t want to.

But most days, if you’re aware enough to give yourself a choice, 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. Of course, none of this is likely, but it’s also not impossible. It just depends what you want to consider. If you’re automatically sure that you know what reality is, and you are operating on your default setting, 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. It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, hot, slow, consumer-hell type situation as not only meaningful, but sacred, on fire with the same force that made the stars: love, fellowship, the mystical oneness of all things deep down.

On false ideals and real freedom, or what Paul Graham has called the trap of prestige:

Worship power, you will end up feeling weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to numb you to your own fear. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart, you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. But the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they’re evil or sinful, it’s that they’re unconscious. They are default settings.

They’re the kind of worship you just gradually slip into, day after day, getting more and more selective about what you see and how you measure value without ever being fully aware that that’s what you’re doing.

And the so-called real world will not discourage you from operating on your default settings, because the so-called real world of men and money and power hums merrily along in a pool of fear and anger and frustration and craving and worship of self. Our own present culture has harnessed these forces in ways that have yielded extraordinary wealth and comfort and personal freedom. The freedom all to be lords of our tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the centre of all creation. This kind of freedom has much to recommend it. But of course there are all different kinds of freedom, and the kind that is most precious you will not hear much talk about much in the great outside world of wanting and achieving…. The really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day.

That is real freedom. That is being educated, and understanding how to think. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default setting, the rat race, the constant gnawing sense of having had, and lost, some infinite thing.

On what “education” really means and the art of being fully awake to the world:

[T]he real value of a real education [has] almost nothing to do with knowledge, and everything to do with simple awareness; awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, all the time, that we have to keep reminding ourselves over and over:

‘This is water.’

‘This is water.’

It is unimaginably hard to do this, to stay conscious and alive in the adult world day in and day out. Which means yet another grand cliché turns out to be true: your education really IS the job of a lifetime.

In the altogether excellent Magic Hours: Essays on Creators and Creation, Tom Bissell writes:

The terrible master eventually defeated David Foster Wallace, which makes it easy to forget that none of the cloudlessly sane and true things he had to say about life in 2005 are any less sane or true today, however tragic the truth now seems. This Is Water does nothing to lessen the pain of Wallace’s defeat. What it does is remind us of his strength and goodness and decency — the parts of him the terrible master could never defeat, and never will.

Complement with the newly released David Foster Wallace biography.


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Bodybuilders’ World « surreal photography by Kurt Stallaert


belgian photographer kurt stallaert has conceived a series of hyper-realistic images entitled ‘bodybuilder’s world’. the personal project suggests an imaginary world with a literal ‘powerful twist’. at first glance the subjects look ordinary in their daily surroundings, but on closer inspection they have been augmented to look like avid members of the professional fitness sport. the faces of the individuals, often those of children, are attached to the superhuman trunk of a bodybuilder generating a peculiar sense of curiosity, particularly within the everyday life setting.





www.kurtstallaert.com

Ecohols « JØRN

How would products of great brands of alcoholic spirits look, if they were packed in beverage cartons instead of their prominent bottles? Times are changing, what remains of the brand?  

design by JØRN

Berlin based photographer Malte Pietschmann: If India was a Movie

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“If india was a movie” ist als freies Projekt in Nord-Indien (genauer Himachal Pradesh und Jammu & Kashmir) entstanden. Nachdem bereits zahlreiche Arbeiten und Serien umgesetzt wurden, die das indische Leben und die dortigen kulturellen Unterschiede und Kontraste beleuchten, beschäftigt sich “If india was a movie” mit der Fragestellung wie vergleichbare Arbeiten aussähen, wenn jedes Portrait ein eigenständiges Filmplakat wäre.”        –DMIG

www.maltepietschmann.com

 

Cars I See stays with BMW for its second episode

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Frazer Spowart told the story of a devoted BMW E30 owner in the first installment of Cars I See. Now for the second episode, the subject is a 1972 BMW 2002 that’s lavished with love by Patrick Burns, who’s BMW affliction is inherited from his father Wendell. There’s forty years of soul in Patrick’s car, and it’s a driver.

The inevitable blemishes are part of the car’s personality, though, and one of the things Patrick enjoys is picking up more stories from the people he encounters when he’s out with his distinctive silver 2002. It’s a another well-told story where the car, while playing a central role, is but a vehicle for fostering deeper human connections. Scroll down to watch Episode 2 of Cars I See.

Source: Autoblog

 

Infra « Images from the Congo by Richard Mosse

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“They say that Napoleon was colourblind & blood for him as green as grass.”

– from Unrecounted by WG Sebald

For centuries, the Congo has compelled and defied the Western imagination. Richard Mosse brings to this subject the use of a discontinued military surveillance technology, a type of color infrared film called Kodak Aerochrome. Originally developed for camouflage detection, this aerial reconnaissance film registers an invisible spectrum of infrared light, rendering the green landscape in vivid hues of lavender, crimson, and hot pink.

Infrared film also found civilian uses among cartographers, agronomists, hydrologists, and archaeologists, to reveal subtle changes in the landscape. In the late 1960s, the medium was appropriated in the cover art of albums by rock musicians like Jimi Hendrix or the Grateful Dead, trickling into the popular imagination as the palette of psychedelic (from the Greek for “soul-manifesting”) experience, eventually accumulating a kitsch aesthetic.
On his journeys in eastern Congo, Mosse photographed rebel groups of constantly switching allegiances, fighting nomadically in a jungle war zone plagued by frequent ambushes, massacres, and systematic sexual violence. These tragic narratives urgently need telling but cannot be easily described. Like Joseph Conrad a century before him, Mosse discovered a disorienting and ineffable conflict situation, so trenchantly real that it verges on the abstract, at the limits of description.
In his extraordinary series of essays on Africa, The Shadow of the Sun, Ryszard Kapuściński reminds us that “The richness of every European language is a richness in ability to describe its own culture, represent its own world. When it ventures to do the same for another culture, however, it betrays its limitations, underdevelopment, semantic weakness.”
Infra offers a radical rethinking of how to depict a conflict as complex and intractable as that of the ongoing war in the Congo. The results offer a fevered inflation of the traditional reportage document, underlining the tension between art, fiction, and photojournalism. Infra initiates a dialogue with photography that begins as an intoxicating meditation on a broken documentary genre, but ends as a haunting elegy for a vividly beautiful land touched by unspeakable tragedy.
Richard Mosse (born 1980, Ireland) is a recipient of the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Fellowship 2011, with a generous supplemental stipend from the Leon Levy Foundation. Mosse, currently based in New York, earned an MFA in Photography from Yale School of Art in 2008 and a Postgraduate Diploma in Fine Art from Goldsmiths, London, in 2005. He will have solo exhibitions at the Weatherspoon Art Museum, North Carolina, and the Savannah College of Art and Design, Hong Kong, in January, 2012. Infra was included in Dublin Contemporary 2011 and will be shown in solo exhibitions at Open Eye, Liverpool and Belfast Exposed in 2012. Mosse has exhibited work at Tate Modern, London, the Akademie der Künste, Berlin, Kunsthalle Munich, among others. Mosse’s public collections include the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art, Kansas City, the Martin Z. Margulies Collection, Miami, the Musée de l’Élysée, Lausanne, the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, and the Nelson Atkins Museum, Kansas City. In 2012, Mosse will begin a residency at Künstlerhaus Bethanien in Berlin.  -text via Jack Shainman Gallery

Smoke « A series of portrait photography by Miki Takahashi

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all photos © miki takahashi