The Significance of Subjective Reality in David Foster Wallace’s Speech This is Water

April 19, 2021 by Essay Writer

Empathy Dissolving in Society

In David Foster Wallace’s renowned speech entitled This Is Water, subjectivity is seen as essential to the human condition. Wallace claims that it is impossible to separate ones prior opinions, thoughts, and experiences from their current experience. Whether we like it or not, we exist in a conscious state that is constantly tainted by our notions, and thus all reality is subjective to the one experiencing it. Wallace draws a metaphor between humans and fish; we each live immersed in our own reality, without the realization that it exists, much like how fish live in water, but do not realize they are in water, because they have never known life not in water. After reading this speech by Wallace, I brought the mental framing of questioning my subjective reality to texts discussed in class, Empathy by Hodges and Myers, and “Nosedive” directed by Joe Wright, which in itself supports Wallace’s claim. These texts display that empathy created through the act of distancing or even rejecting the intrinsic subjective perspective that we project onto the objective reality that surrounds us.

There are different perspectives on what reality means. Some believe in a subjective reality, in which each individual has a unique version of what is reality, and no true version exists, everyone simply exists in varying degrees of perception. Objective reality, on the other hand, is one single reality, in which a higher truth of what is real exists. When humans bring their own perspectives and emotions into their view of the world, they are creating their subjective reality. However, when one exercises empathy, it is crucial (yet impossible to the fullest extent) to abandon our own personal biases. To truly be fully empathetic with another, they must view their situation through the lenses of their subjective reality. Whether an objective reality exists, and humans are just constantly existing in a perpetual state of subjective realities that do not encapsulate the true objective reality, or if there is no truth to reality at all, is an unanswerable question.

Empathy by Hodges and Myers attempts to empirically dissect what empathy is. Hodges and Myers shed light on the idea of imposing one’s own ideas onto another’s when using empathy; “However, most definitions share the idea of one person’s response to his or her perceptions of another person’s current experience …Its origins are traced to the German word Einfühlung, which translates literally as “feeling into” (as in projecting oneself into something else)” (Hodges and Myers, 296). It is evident that Hodges and Myers believe through linguistics that the very word empathy necessitates projection. However, they later contradict this statement. They write, “people imagine themselves in the other person’s place, a view that meshes nicely with false consensus effects and other egocentric phenomena studied in social psychology. The theory view argues that people develop theories about human thought and behavior that they then use to predict and explain other people’s actions, explaining humans’ ability to tailor their perspective taking to a particular other person” (Hodges and Myers, 297). Empathy is accomplished when one attempts to imagine another’s beliefs, ideas, notions et cetera, and shed their own. Despite this, empathy is so often associated with projecting one’s own reality onto others, because it is nearly impossible to completely shed our reality. Wallace writes, “Everything in my own immediate experience supports my deep belief that I am the absolute center of the universe…there is no experience you’ve had that you were not at the absolute center of. The world as you experience it is right there in front of you…Other people’s thoughts and feelings have to be communicated to you somehow, but your own are so immediate, urgent, real.” Not only is it just difficult to employ empathy, but also it is not possible to be 100% unbiased in it.

“Nosedive”, an episode of British science fiction television show Black Mirror takes an extreme, allegorical take of a lack of empathy in our society. In the episode, people rate each interaction they have with others on an instantaneous service right on their phones. This culture relies heavily on first impressions and instantaneous judgments, which creates a norm for abandoning empathy. The protagonist, Lacie, receives social backlash through this rating system for incidents that are out of her control, and it is easy for others to see only the abrasive surface, and rate her lower, rather than stopping to consider her perspective. This extreme system highlights a parallel in our society, in which we form judgments only moments after meeting others. This phenomenon has biological roots, as humans have been conditioned to assess others quickly, as a remnant of our days when we had to fight for survival. “Nosedive” makes the claim that humans today have taken this to the extreme, choosing to abandon all belief in objective reality, and ignoring the possibility of others’ subjective realities, in favor of slipping into the comfortable lull of our own subjective reality, in which our thoughts and opinions reign above all.

Empathy is a characteristic intrinsic to most humans; yet as a whole we struggle to use it effectively. The root of most disagreements lies within different perspectives and mindsets, resulting in a lack of empathy. While empathy is becoming less emphasized in society and our modern culture due to advancing technology, there is an essential barrier that makes empathy unnatural, causing us to gravitate away from empathy, because each individual person exists in their own form of subjective reality.

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