24 October 2010

The Broom of the System

I've lately been reading the 1987 novel "The Broom of the System," by the late David Foster Wallace. Broom was his first novel, though he later became famous with "Infinite Jest" (1996).

The title reference to a "broom" alludes to the philosophy of Ludwig Wittgenstein, which is a theme of the novel. LW wrote: "For a large class of cases — though not for all — in which we employ the word ‘meaning’ it can be defined thus: the meaning of a word is its use in the language." That line is often shortened to just three words: meaning is use.

One character in this novel explains this to another using the example of a broom. What is the more essential part of a broom, the straw bristles or the wooden handle? Most people if pressed, will say the bristles, because the bristles do the actual cleaning. But one says this because one is thinking of the use of a broom -- its use is to clean. If one thought of the same object as a baseball bat, or as a burglar's tool for breaking windows, the handle would be vastly more valuable. The change in use would change the meaning.

The protagonist of the novel is a young woman named Lenore, a 24-year-old telephone switchboard operator for a publishing company that does hardly any publishing (since it is in reality somebody's tax dodge). The catalyzing crisis of the plot is Lenore's discovery that her Wittgensteinian great-grandmother, the one who uses the broom example to explain language -- this woman, also named Lenore, had studied in England in her youth and had known LW personally -- is no longer in the nursing home where she is supposed to be -- that she and several other residents have disappeared.

One intriguing character in the novel is the manager of that nursing home, David Bloemker. Bloemker repeatedly expresses himself in an overly elaborate manner, only to have to reduce his own locutions to a much simpler form. For example, he tells Lenore that if they find her great-grandmother they will likely also find the other missing residents of the facility. Why? Because, she "enjoyed a status here -- with the facility administration, the staff, and, through the force of her personality and her evident gifts, especially with the other residents that leads one to believe that, were the mislocation a result of anything other than outright coercion ... it would not be improper to posit the location and retrieval of Lenore as near assurance of retrieving the other misplaced parties."

The younger Lenore says that she doesn't understand all of that.

Bloemker tries again, "Your great-grandmother was more or less the ringleader around here."

That sort of trick -- the comic reduction of ornate speech to plain speech -- is commonly attempted, yet it is rather hard to pull off, and I think Wallace handles it well when he uses it.

Better than, say, the screenwriters for the old television show "Gilligan's Island." In one episode of that show, the castaways discover helium escaping from the ground, and attempt to leave from the island in a balloon. When Gilligan shows the professor the source of helium, the prof says, "why, it's obviously an invisible and odorless gas." Gilligan replies, "not only that, you can't see it or smell it."

The Gilligan version of the joke is lame, Wallace's version shows how it can be done properly.

The conjunction of the two isn't unfair to Wallace, because he actually introduces Gilligan's Island into this novel. There is a restaurant in this novel's fictional version of Cleveland Ohio that is decorated like the set of that TV show.

"Once an hour the bartender would be required to do something cloddish and stupid -- a standard favorite had the bartender slipping on a bit of spilled banana daiquiri and falling and acting as if he had driven his thumb into his eye -- and the patrons would, if they were hip and in the know, say with one voice, 'Aww, Gilligan,' and laugh, and clap."

Wallace's use of the baroque-speech-turned-plain meme is not just a gag to pull out, and pull off, when Bloemker happens to be in a scene -- it is a contribution, after all, to the novelistic meditation upon language -- a contributor to the Wittgensteinian theme of the whole.

One character suggests (this is young Lenore's father, the older Lenore's grandson) that the elder Lenore has left the home because she no longer believes that she has any use. In her worldview, use is meaning. And without use, as a broom incapable anymore of sweeping, she has no further meaning. So she is willing to involve herself in a biochemical experiment in order to again have a use.

I will leave this open-ended.


Henry said...

If one thought of the same object as a baseball ball, or as a burglar's tool for breaking windows, the handle would be vastly more valuable.

I once heard John Searle make the additional point that the purpose we ascribe to something is always a choice -- even in the case of natural things. Thus, we all would say that the purpose of the heart is to pump blood, but that is because we value the heart's ability to pump blood. If we valued its ability to make a thumping sound more than we valued its ability to pump blood, then we'd say that its purpose is to make a thumping sound. This is true even though the heart no doubt evolved because of its ability to pump blood rather than its ability to make a thumping sound.

Christopher said...

That reminds me of one theory about music. Our attraction to rhythmic noises begins in the womb, where of course the developing senses and perceptive abilities of the fetus are absorbed by the boom-boom-boom of the heart.

That love of "the beat" is the reason mothers always soothe their babies by a rocking motion, a sort of replication of the heart beat as it would have been felt from a point below that organ.

So the "beat" is related to rocking or rolling motions, and both are about thythm.

It seems we do value our hearts for the thumping sound.

Henry said...


The role of the thumping sound that you point out suggests the possibility that it might have played a role in the heart's evolution. Although I continue not to doubt that the primary cause of the heart's evolution was that it pumps blood, one can imagine random mutations having caused some of our ancestors to have hearts that pumped silently and others to have hearts that pumped with a thumping sound. Natural selection enabled only the latter to survive.

Knowledge is warranted belief -- it is the body of belief that we build up because, while living in this world, we've developed good reasons for believing it. What we know, then, is what works -- and it is, necessarily, what has worked for us, each of us individually, as a first approximation. For my other blog, on the struggles for control in the corporate suites, see www.proxypartisans.blogspot.com.