“There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, ‘Morning, boys. How’s the water?’ And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, ‘What the hell is water?’”
“The immediate point of [this] fish story,” David Foster Wallace points out – referring to the opening lines of his “This Is Water” commencement speech to the 2005 graduating class of Kenyon College – “is merely that the most obvious, ubiquitous, important realities are often the ones that are hardest to see and talk about.”
I am in the early stages of attempting some projects about some bodies of water: a big American pond and a small New Mexican pond, for starters. The point of these projects will be to talk about the water in these ponds as water– that is, to acknowledge the insidious nature of a cultural environment so ubiquitous and so deeply rooted in our individual and communal self-conceptions as to escape observation entirely – to be taken for granted, in the absence of a strict and mindful intent to the contrary. “The trick,” Foster Wallace says, “is keeping the truth up front in daily consciousness.” In practice, this turns out to be a very difficult trick.
The fact of the matter is that David Foster Wallace was not the first person to make these observations, about the “water” of culture or the difficulty of critical self-examination (which he acknowledges to be “banal platitudes” which can nonetheless “have a life-or-death importance”). And while I’ve chosen David Foster Wallace’s iteration of these observations to introduce the projects I want to attempt, his iteration is not the first one that struck me or lit a fire under me. That distinction belongs to James Baldwin, in two essays on white consciousness called “The White Problem” and “On Being White… and Other Lies.” From Baldwin’s vantage point, I could spot a few cairns – in Cornel West and The Hidden Wound and Beloved and The Autobiography of Malcolm X and elsewhere – and now I am starting to stitch a path together, interval by interval, to see where it leads. This is the first project. It will require me to talk a lot about the war crimes of white supremacy and racial capitalism, which is uncomfortable for me as a beneficiary of them, and it will require me to critically examine my own whiteness, which is also uncomfortable for me as a beneficiary of whiteness, and I guess I hope that the discomfort is in large part the point. The past and present logics of white supremacy are the water of American culture, and if it is difficult to keep the neutral truths "up front" in daily consciousness, it is doubly difficult (and doubly important) with the ugly ones.
The second project – closer to home – will focus on the development of a new cultural identity, a local identity, that is not “white” (although I am white and probably always will be, in most ways). It will focus on using a sense of place as a point of reference: to prompt critical self-examination or reflexivity; to preserve a meaningful notion of community; and to offer an alternative to white, American identity. Although the contours of this second project are even less clear to me than the contours of the first, I sense that much of the work will be in the critical analysis of the seemingly endless and violent series of dispossessions – of land, sovereignty, and other autonomy – that form the spine of New Mexico’s history, the central column where all nervous energy collects and from which that nervous energy emanates.
I can honestly say I have no idea how these two projects will unfold, or where they will lead, but I am excited to document them, even or especially as early scribblings, in this forum.