November 2018

White Heterosexual Power in David Foster Wallace’s The Broom of the System

David Foster Wallace knew the likes of Brett Kavanaugh quite well; the author’s experiences as witness to, and perhaps participant in, this privileged culture should be the primary angle at which we view the novel, at the nexus of masculinity, race, and sexuality.

by Dan Moorin

In his public testimony, Brett Kavanaugh set out to prove the credibility of his manhood, and he did so through the use of women and girls. Kavanaugh’s repeated invocation of women, (using them as character witnesses, telling us he coaches girls’ sports, teaches girls, hires girls, has feminist friends), and in particular the fact that he has a wife and a daughter, fits within a long history of white men shoring up masculine power via the construct of heterosexuality. Indeed, as Adrienne Rich famously reminds us, “heterosexuality… needs to be recognized and studied as a political institution in and of itself.[1]

In the wake of the hearing, online commentators did analyze the politics of heterosexuality, some turning to the work of the late Eve Sedgwick’s, Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire. In this text, the famed queer theorist recognizes that men often use women to define themselves against other men in a homosocial, male-dominated political sphere. Writing for The New York Times Magazine, Lauren Oyler countered such a move to queer theory, claiming that these ideological discussions turn the conversation away from Judge Kavanaugh and instead towards a too generalizable notion of toxic masculinity. Oyler notes that the term toxic masculinity has become a pseudo-academic brand of pop-psychology: “[toxic masculinity] is now invoked as the root cause for everything from sexual harassment to violence against women to mass shootings to the popularity of David Foster Wallace.”

I find Oyler’s trepidation regarding the term toxic masculinity reactionary and strange. Like racism, sexism is a structural, institutional issue, one that rears its head in material ways, from micro aggression to rape and murder. Black Feminist organizations active in the 1970s, such as The Combahee River Collective, produced intersectional analyses of mutually constitutive structural forces to understand how and why people experience oppression.[2] They analyzed words like heterosexism and homophobia, and readers of their work are better for it. Thus, unlike Oyler, I’m less interested in the misuse of a term like toxic masculinity, and more interested in the following: in what ways does the work of David Foster Wallace signal toxic masculinity, and how might literature scholars and teachers use his work in the classroom?

 

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Image courtesy of Penguin.

Though it receives far less attention than the voluminous Infinite Jest, Wallace’s first novel, The Broom of the System (1987)—written while he was an undergrad at Amherst College—begins, apropos of Kavanaugh’s upbringing, in the elitist space of a New England liberal arts college: a dorm room at Mount Holyoke. A handful of preppy bros from Amherst barge their way into the dorm room just as the female occupants are discussing the ubiquity of rape on campus. Clarice says to her sister, “I don’t think it’s too different anywhere else, Lenore… I don’t think it is. You get used to it. It’s really just common sense” (Foster Wallace 9). This common sense, that men rape women on elite U.S. college campuses, is, I’d like to argue, satirized as an issue rooted in biological essentialism: “So Clarice tells Lenore all this business about how Pat Proctor’s a bull and what bulls are…” [emphasis mine] (Foster Wallace 7). Bulls will be bulls! Boys simply “are”—they want to and do “fuck” girls. Whether or not white male fans of Foster Wallace fail to register this satire, or whether or not this was the late author’s intention, we can read the novel as a parody of traditionally white, male-dominated culture, and the sexual agency white men exercise in a racist, patriarchal society.

 

In fact, The Broom of the System and the Kavanaugh hearings are quite explicitly involved in a shared discourse on elite white masculinity. In his testimony, Kavanaugh asserted confidently, over and over again, “we drank beer”; Foster Wallace’s fictive Amherst alumni have “lake[s] of beer” (Foster Wallace 235) in them. Kavanaugh asserted with “strategic misrepresentation” the facts of his young adulthood—because, after all, “a really important part of being [an Amherst man] is learning how to lie” (Foster Wallace 238). Kavanaugh is an exemplary liar and beer drinker, a proper elite college bro: “[the Amherst fraternity alum] had had at least ten beers, was entering into negotiations for the eleventh, and didn’t seem the slightest bit tipsy…. This was collegiate manhood as I had come to know it [emphasis mine] (Foster Wallace 227). David Foster Wallace knew the likes of Brett Kavanaugh quite well; the author’s experiences as witness to, and perhaps participant in, this privileged culture should be the primary angle at which we view the novel, at the nexus of masculinity, race, and sexuality. Aligning our reading practice as such, Foster Wallace’s postmodern zaniness takes a back seat to more pressing political questions regarding race, gender, and sexuality.

While there are a number of ways we might interpret David Foster Wallace, reading The Broom of the System with a primary lens of sexuality places the politics of his postmodern brilliance in a pedagogically productive historical and cultural context

What happens when we orient our reading of The Broom of the System through the primary lens of sexuality? To begin with, heterosexuality is parodied, from start to finish, as a biological obsession. The helplessly heterosexual male protagonist of Broom, 42-year-old Rick Vigorous, is sexually “obsessed and also obsessed with hiding his obsession” (Foster Wallace 24) for the novel’s female lead and his “fake” fiancé, the beautiful and intelligent 24-year-old Lenore Beadsman. Consider Rick’s pathological, dogged heterosexual imagination when he’s not sleeping with Lenore:

I have a truly horrible dream which invariably occurs on the nights I am Lenoreless in my bed. I am attempting to stimulate the clitoris of Queen Victoria with the back of a tortoise-shell hairbrush. Her voluminous skirts swirl around her waist and my head. Her enormous cottage-cheese thighs rest heavy on my shoulders, spill out in front of my sweating face…. There are odors. The Queen’s impatient breathing is thunder above me as I kneel at the throne. Time passes. Finally her voice is heard, overhead, metalled with disgust and frustration: “We are not aroused.” I am punched in the arm by a guard and flung into a pit at the bottom of which boil the figures of countless mice. I awake with a mouth full of fur. Begging for more time. A ribbed brush (Foster Wallace 44).

Rick’s need to sexually satisfy Lenore explodes into a heterosexual impulse to stimulate the clitoris of all women everywhere. “Woman” is objectified under the sign of her universal, inescapable “smell.” “Her” body is hypercorporalized, stripped of sexual agency and visibility, and targeted with an unfairness (Rick can never arouse the Queen’s thunderous disgust) that borders on hatred and misogyny. Consequently, Rick makes a sympathetic plea for the “truth” of his heterosexual orientation. As the co-owner of a publishing firm, Rick further speaks this anxiety through the literary submissions he receives from troubled college students, one of whom writes of a man that somehow finds a way to “hang around with women without necessarily falling in love with them” (Foster Wallace 184). In contradistinction to the sexually predatory bulls of the opening scene, those who exercise sexuality as a tool of masculine domination, Foster Wallace presents through Rick, at the other end of the heterosexual spectrum, a man infinitely fearful of emasculation, one who wishes he could live free from the biologically ingrained temptation to earn manhood through sexually gratifying every female body on earth. This close reading critiques the ideological notion that male heterosexuality is biologically fixed (as is woman’s hypervisibile sexual availability), on either end, as either a Darwinist competition for true manhood, or an existential, interior battle in which man wrestles to suppress, control, and ultimately receive recognition for his fatefully inadequate sexuality.

Of course, this heterosexual spectrum is defined, in part, through its opposite—an equally fixed, gay sexual orientation. Rick states to a fellow fraternity alum, to ease the tension of their introduction, “Look, I’m not a homosexual either” (Foster Wallace 226). And yet, their bonding at a local bar (and they happen to have “accidentally” met at a gay bar) is marked by a homosocial, homoerotic bathroom session, one that belies the strategic misrepresentation that heterosexual contact and desire means heterosexual identity. Penises out in the bathroom stall, Rick shares, “I tried to last just as long as I could. Long after my last tinkle had ceased to sound, I could still hear the roar of Lang’s jet. This was an Amherst man.” (Foster Wallace 232). These homoerotics—Lang’s roaring jet of a pee stream, Rick trying to last as long as he can—fit neatly within new research by Jane Ward. In Not Gay: Sex Between Straight White Men (2015), Ward notes “the ways that whiteness and masculinity—as a particular nexus of power—enable certain kinds of sexual contact, sexual mobility, and sexual border crossing that are not possible, or at least don’t carry the same cultural meanings, when enacted by men of color” (Ward 6). Lang and Rick can be as gay as they want to without “being” gay—their whiteness and maleness allow them to remain heterosexual “Amherst men,” period. Whiteness grants sexual fluidity at no political cost, while the sexuality of white women, and women and men of color is always overdetermined and rendered suspicious under the gaze of a universally assumed, politically empowered white male heterosexuality. The ubiquity of this gaze is mirrored across the pages of the novel itself, which are, as I’ve outlined in brief, heavily saturated by the fantastically fetishizing gaze of every single white male character. Not a scene goes by in which a white male character fails to notice the erotic potential of female (or, as in the case above, male) body parts.

So much of the literature we put in front of students takes for granted a universalized notion of sexuality as white, male, and hetero, as if heterosex and heterosexuality are the same thing.

However cautiously, this normalized white male sexual gaze recognizes race, too. To my knowledge, there is but one non-white character in the novel, Walinda Peahen, a black woman that serves as Lenore’s boss, and who is represented entirely through blackface: “You the chump be makin’ that nasty food my child like to choke on one time?” Walinda says to Lenore’s massively rich, corporate executive father. To which Lenore’s father responds, “My what a perfectly charming negress” (Foster Wallace 454). Falling within the sociological and cultural stereotype of the failing, dependent black matriarch, Walinda is rendered incapable of saving her child at the hands of the white male corporate elite. Foster Wallace deploys “negress” in a comedic attempt to show the pathetic ignorance and indifference of America’s patriarchal .01%. Furthermore, Walinda’s response to Mr. Beadsmen’s racist offense, “Boy, I gonna kill you for that,” renders her black female sexuality deviant and inherently dangerous. Though she may be a woman, and thus an object of white male desire, her stained matriarchal capacities render her a sign of biological terror, a “charming” object to be either appropriated for economic gain or enjoyed, with caution, as an exoticized sexual fetish.

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Pictured: elite white maleness. Image courtesy of The Nation.

So much of the literature we put in front of students takes for granted a universalized notion of sexuality as white, male, and hetero, as if heterosex and heterosexuality are the same thing. In truth, the former is an embodied act, while the latter is a political construct. This is what leads queer feminist Sara Ahmed to state, “… we could say that heterosexuality functions as a background, as that which is behind actions that are repeated over time and with force, and that insofar as it is behind does not come into view.”[3] It’s the invisible universalization of male sexuality which allows many entitled white men to enjoy full sexual mobility and cross sexual borders, including violent and exploitative acts of aggression in hetero and homosexual contact that are otherwise interpreted in the cultural imagination as causalities of hardwired libidinal impulse. As Audre Lorde states, “… rape is not aggressive sexuality, it is sexualized aggression.”[4] At the present moment, the answer to this unfortunate reality seems to be that, over time, men figure out how to control “it” (their penis?), while talk of “real” sex and sexuality is saved for late night specials and “perverse” internet activity. This is what leads Robert Reid-Pharr, one of our foremost critics on race and sexuality, to ask, with his patented polemic edge, “what do we think when we fuck(?)”[5]

While there are a number of ways we might interpret David Foster Wallace, reading The Broom of the System with a primary lens of sexuality places the politics of his postmodern brilliance in a pedagogically productive historical and cultural context. How do maturing boys, for instance, engage with questions of sexual desire and intimacy in today’s media saturated, racial and gender coded culture? How do they understand the “nature” of their sexuality, particularly elite white boys? Perhaps heterosexuality functions so well as a political identity because public institutions find it difficult to discuss sex and sexuality as an open dialogue, let alone as a structural and epistemic formation that figures the meaning of sexuality—and what constitutes normal and nonnormative sexual identities and practices—via constructs of race.[6] In my own experiences teaching at the K-12 level, I’ve often witnessed what Eric Darnell Pritchard notes as a false discourse on safety and inclusion for students and teachers alike, one which disproportionately harms queer of color youth.[7] Teachers often shrug their shoulders at the behavior of young boys, confused or perhaps unable to respond appropriately to homophobia, heterosexism, and racism, leaving the solutions to this violence—understood in the muted mainstream imaginary as an unfortunate reality of biological maleness—up to time, as if these same boys will somehow figure out the best way to handle their sexuality through trial and error (at which point, for instance, they’ll have proven themselves ready for a supreme court chair). While I am not and rarely do place blame on teachers—in my experience, they rarely receive the institutional support necessary to effect change and lead balanced lives—I would suggest that a literature course invested in a Critical Men’s Studies lens could make effective use of a novel such as David Foster Wallace’s The Broom of the System for the intersectional-consciousness-raising of privileged white boys.    

1920249038_1886001550.jpegDan Moorin is enrolled in the M.A. in American Studies program at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. His research interests include masculinity studies, theories of race, gender, and sexuality, literature, history, cultural studies, and humanities pedagogy. Prior to graduate school, he worked as a K-12 educator, primarily at the middle school level.   

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Notes

[1] Rich, Adrienne. “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence.” Signs 5, no. 4 (Summer 1980): 637.

[2] Hill Collins, Patricia and Bigle, Sirma. Intersectionality (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2016).

[3] Ahmed, Sara. Queer Phenomenology: Orientations, Objects, Others (Durham: Duke University Press, 2006), 87.

[4] Lorde, Audre. “Age, Race, Class, and Sex: Women Redefining Difference” in Words of Fire: An Anthology of African-American Feminist Thought (New York: The New Press, 1995), 289.

[5] Reid-Pharr, Robert. “Dinge” in The Routledge Queer Studies Reader. Ed. Donald E. Hall and Annamarie Jagose, with Andrea Bebell and Susan Potter (London: Routledge, 2013), 213.

[6] Ferguson, Roderick. Aberrations in Black: Toward a Queer of Color Critique (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2004).

[7] Pritchard, Eric Darnell. “For Colored Kids Who Committed Suicide, Our Outrage Isn’t Enough: Queer Youth of Color, Bullying, and the Discursive limits of Identity and Safety.” Harvard Educational Review 83, no. 2 (Summer 2013): 320-402.

Works Cited

Rich, Adrienne. “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence.” Signs 5, no. 4 (Summer 1980): 631-660.  

Foster Wallace, David. The Broom of the System. New York: Penguin Books, 2010.

Connell, R.W.. Masculinities. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995.

Ward, Jane. Not Gay: Sex Between Straight White Men. New York: NYU Press, 2015.

Ahmed, Sara. Queer Phenomenology: Orientations, Objects, Others. Durham: Duke University Press, 2006.

Lorde, Audre. “Age, Race, Class, and Sex: Women Redefining Difference” in Words of Fire: An Anthology of African-American Feminist Thought. New York: The New Press, 1995.

Reid-Pharr, Robert. “Dinge” in The Routledge Queer Studies Reader. Ed. Donald E. Hall and Annamarie Jagose, with Andrea Bebell and Susan Potter. London: Routledge, 2013.

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