Ordinary Invisibility

“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?'”

-David Foster Wallace, “This Is Water: Some Thoughts, Delivered on a Significant Occasion, about Living a Compassionate Life (transcription of the Kenyon Commencement Address), republished in Farnam Street, April 2012.

I’m surprised to find that I have not referenced David Foster Wallace’s This Is Water before. I thought about it in when thinking about the kinds of things that are so ubiquitous that we tend not to see them. Some things that come to mind that are water to us:

  • The hidden labor that makes everything in our lives possible, from migrant workers harvesting industrial agriculture, people working in slaughterhouses, sewing the clothing we wear, manufacturing electronics, etc.
  • There are more slaves today than at any other point in human history.
  • Related, sexual trafficking is a variety of slavery and is pervasive.
  • It is clear the modern lifestyles are destroying the environment, such as the use of plastics.
  • The Standard American Diet is giving us all chronic health conditions.
  • Mass media distracts people from engaging directly with ideas and the people around them.

I’ve only scratched the surface here. What else so permeates our environment that we don’t notice it, even though we know on some level it is there?

The 1619 Project – The New York Times

The 1619 Project is a major initiative from The New York Times observing the 400th anniversary of the beginning of American slavery. It aims to reframe the country’s history, understanding 1619 as our true founding, and placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of the story we tell ourselves about who we are.

https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2019/08/14/magazine/1619-america-slavery.html

You’ll Never Be as Radical as This 18th-Century Quaker Dwarf

“Disparaged and abandoned by his fellow Quakers, Lay eventually helped win the debate over slavery. He wanted to provoke, to unsettle, even to confound — to make people think and act. His greatest power, indeed his genius, lay in his gift as an agitator. In every meeting he attended, public or private, he drew a line over the issue of slavery. He asked everyone he met, Which side are you on?”

—Remixer, Marcus. “You’ll Never Be as Radical as This 18th-Century Quaker Dwarf.” The New York Times. August 12, 2017.

Which side are you on is probably a good question we all should be asking of ourselves (and others).