There are these two young fish swimming along. One of them is showing the other a video on their cell phone. It’s called “This is Water.”
They happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who hears them watching the video, and says “Morning boys! How about that David Foster Wallace?”
The two young fish swim on for a bit. The video ends, and eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes “What the hell is David Foster Wallace?”
In 2005, David Foster Wallace gave the commencement address at Kenyon College. His speech is titled This is Water, and it covers life, death, atheism, religion, reality and perception. It seeks new meaning to clichéd attitudes toward liberal arts education. It is critical of the commencement speech genre itself.
As in all of DFW’s writing, This is Water is remarkably self-aware, not only in its genre critique, but also revealing DFW’s very real and personal struggle to come to these terms about the world, and his ongoing difficulty in making the choices he’s saying are so critical. It is, quite simply, the best and most profound commencement speech that our puny consciousness could even conceive.
Eight years later, just this month, The Glossary (a “fine purveyor of stimulating videograms”) released “THIS IS WATER” : a 1/3 length cut of DFW’s original audio, layered over a video filled with the very trendiest of Instagram filtered images, fast cut ‘hip hop montages’, and animated typography. The video went viral, with over 4 million views in the first week.
Media coverage of the “THIS IS WATER” video has been unanimously positive (insofar as “Hey, this video went viral. It’s inspiring.” is “positive,” or even “coverage”). Adweek went so far as to say the video “single-handedly resurrected the voice of troubled literary genius David Foster Wallace." 
Let me be the first to call it out, then.
According to their interview with Adweek, The Glossary’s stated intent with the video was to “spread the message to a wider audience.” The director, Matt Friedell, was particularly moved by DFW’s speech, and so his startup production company made this “passion project” on a shoestring budget. The fact that this video wasn’t made as a slick viral marketing piece for Hachette is its one redeeming quality.
But make no mistake: it’s not DFW they’re promoting here. It’s themselves. “THIS IS WATER” does nothing to promote DFW and his work, because it is unrelated at best and completely antithetical at worst.
What is the greatest insult to a writer’s work? To misinterpret it. To dumb it down and repackage it up as something completely different, so that the work becomes widely associated with the opposite message. It is like making a monument to Martin Luther King Jr. and inscribing upon it an abbreviated quote that makes him look self-aggrandizing.
“THIS IS WATER” cuts out nearly 60% of the original This is Water speech. It cuts all of the content that critiques graduation speeches, liberal arts, and education itself. It cuts all of the discussion of religion, ontology, and phenomenological experience (including a second, more bleak story of two guys at a bar in Alaska). It definitely cuts every mention of suicide, which is perhaps the most radical concept one can possibly mention in a graduation speech.
All that’s left is one “didactish little parable story” and a “you can change your attitude!” pep talk about empathy.
The videography is the most damning indication of this dumbed down message. Every shot is painfully literal. A fish, an alarm clock, a grocery cart. Any concept more abstract than that is illustrated by slapping up some big white chalk type, with custom animations that add nothing to our understanding of the message (“You get to consciously DECIDE what has meaning” blares the type, pointing straight at the guy’s head, with a set of scales for good measure). Because DFW’s delivery wasn’t apparently compelling enough by itself, they set it to stock Movie Trailer Music: quirky marimba theme, moment-of-wonder piano arpeggios. There’s even an implied love story where the main skinny white woman and the main skinny white man notice each other in the crowded store and walk out to the parking lot together.
In the process of all this cutting and glossing and trendwhoring, The Glossary totally commodifies DFW’s speech. The video turns it from a harrowing, brilliant insight into a memeified platitude. This is Water is not about changing your attitude nor seizing the day. The revelation is not that you should try feeling a modicum of empathy for your fellow man. And the way to understand what DFW was trying to convey at Kenyon is not to watch a nine-minute Youtube video and then post the link on your Facebook wall to make sure everyone knows that it “really makes you think!” 
DFW’s writing is difficult, by design. It’s challenging and inaccessible because it is important to keep intellectual rigor, not only in our scholarship, but in other media as well. This isn’t to say that all media should be challenging (DFW himself taught “airport books” on his syllabus) but it definitely shouldn’t be stripped down to its bones by the content piranhas if it attempts to swim in deeper rivers.
Let it not be said that I am blind to the “message” here. I can have empathy for my fellow man. Clearly The Glossary thought they were making this video in tribute to DFW. Clearly they meant it when they told Adweek about passion and being inspired, and that they agonized over what to cut from the full speech. But it is just as clear that they failed to comprehend and follow DFW’s teaching. They were interacting with his writing the only way they know how: by glossing it down for mass consumption. And who can blame them, when the only measure of achievement in media is how mass the consumption is? How many hits, how many copies sold, how many millions grossed at the domestic box office, how many followers or subscribers or likes. That’s the currency of the day. Not depth, not scholarship.
Mass media culture is complicit in this very kind of idea evisceration millions of times a day. Content is a consumable, meant to be shoved in your faceholes as quickly and efficiently as possible. Pithy image macros reduce every social and political opinion to talking points. Listicles masquerade as “news.”
This is why DFW’s work is especially important right now.
The Glossary cites production expense as the main reason they cut almost 60% of the original 22-minute speech, but also (crucially) “that length of video is tough to release online.”
Well then you shouldn’t release it online.
When you set out to honor someone, you must honor them by the spirit and the letter. All a writer has after they have departed this Earth are their words. You must honor them in full.
So let me say in closing:
If DFW means something to you
If while reading him you ever, even for the briefest moment, felt the water
Then listen to the original commencement speech in full. Read Infinite Jest and all the footnotes. Take on an intellectual challenge.
That is how you honor David Foster Wallace.
 You’ll note that I use the all caps and quotation marks to indicate the video, and the italics to indicate the speech, because, quite simply, they are not the same.
 As if his work needed saving from the cruel obscurity of Not Being A Thing People Post About on Facebook.
 The phrase most guaranteed to indicate the opposite of what it says, next to “Not racist but…”