More on Less in The Wire

by zunguzungu

In the previous post, I put McNulty, Omar, and Colvin into a single category, calling them all “outlawyers,” people whose position in the show’s dramatic arc is defined by the possibilities for justice that they offer precisely because (and to the extent that) they aren’t part of the system. Colvin can do what he does in Hamsterdam because his district is essentially off headquarters’ radar, Omar ambiguously lives outside the game (has his own “code” instead), and McNulty ignores the chain of command as it pleases him. Each of them is able to do good precisely to the extent that they are able to operate outside of these oppressive regimes of power, but that extent is fairly limited: McNulty’s emotional well being is pretty much inversely proportionate to how much of a maverick he feels like being, Colvin ultimately is not as autonomous from headquarters as he thinks, and Hamsterdam is ultimately unable to establish its own code of outlawry, as the poignant final scene of season three establishes.

Omar is a different case, and I don’t have him figured out yet. He feels anomalous to me, somewhat outside the logic of the show as a whole, so I’m going to content myself for the moment with thinking about why that might be, what it is about him that the other two don’t share. And as I’ve been musing over John B’s post at Blog Meridian, I’ve been thinking that maybe what I find most interesting about the term “outlawyer” is the way it melds rural and urban referents together into a single term, a shotgun wedding whose violence speaks to the significant difference the term has to elide. And maybe that’s what I’m doing with Omar and McNulty/Colvin: what if the former is a cowboy, while the latter duo is the urban equivalent, the noir hero? The distinction, I think, would be that while a cowboy speaks to the possibility of escape (the way Huck lights out to the territories), a noir hero ultimately exists in a world without alternative points of reference, or rather, a world without any spaces where these points of reference could still obtain. Therefore, while a noir figure might nostalgically refer back to a kind of chivalric pastoral (the noir detective as knight errant being a major trope in Chandler, for example), it ultimately is still only nostalgia; the terms of the urban narrative demand that the urban dweller could never actually escape the institutional frameworks of modernity. In noir, therefore, like most of The Wire, one can either come to terms with these institutions of modernity (one can decide that getting married is a good thing, be a good cop, etc) or one can fight them (bucking the system in self-destructive ways). But there is no middle space, which McNulty’s character arc illustrates: either he’s a loose cannon cheating on his partner or he’s a beat cop who wants to come home and have kids. No in between.

Omar, on the other hand, seems to me to be quite singular within The Wire exactly because he illustrates the aporia in that kind of thinking: he does establish his own kind of law, carving out a kind of practical space for an alternate mode of sexuality and existence separate from the game. Having said that, I wonder, though. Perhaps he only suggests the possibility, raising the question of whether such a thing can exist in order to close it down; after all, as he admits when being cross examined by the Barksdale’s lawyer, they are both parasites on the drug trade, and he doesn’t exactly have a happy ending anyway. I would hypothesize, however, that while the tendency of noir towards tragedy probably has something to do with its inability to imagine a space outside the world created by the modern city, the continuing appeal of the cowboy genre has something to do with the way it can always, however implausibly, suggest a space outside modernity, and as such, suggest the possibility of escape. Cowboys might understand the law, might recognize its existence, but they also can afford to ignore it (in a way that Phillip Marlowe never could) because there is a space for them, the space of the frontier, outside of it. Stagecoach can end with John Wayne implausibly driving off with his new bride, presumably to enjoy a happy ending, exactly because the Western still presumes the possibility of escape: the frontier is still a space where one can escape what Doc Boone calls the “blessings of civilization.”

In The Wire, on the other hand, the operative fiction is that “the system” is all-encompassing, such that every possible alternate system or institutions turns out to be simply another alternate version of the show’s dreaded nemesis, the institution. The Barksdale organization is simply another version of an American corporation (as Stringer Bell is lionized for recognizing), as is the BPD, as is marriage, and so on. And maybe that’s why The Wire seems to share in the oh-so-American homogenous distrust of systems: if there is no alternative, then neither can there be cleavages within that system, no dynamic challenge rising out from within. Thus, Brother Mouzone (as figure for the Nation of Islam) turns out to be simply another contract worker, and Stringer Bell’s past connection to Black Liberation makes him not an anti-capitalist but an ultra-capitalist, reading Wealth of Nations in his spare time and living the bourgeois dream of an apartment with muted colors, sheathed swords, and sterile cleanliness.

This all misses, I think, the broader significance of “informality” as a mode of existence, because especially as neo-liberalism becomes a ruling regime, the vast majority of human existence on this planet is becoming more and more free from surveillance and discipline, not less. That’s what neo-liberalism is, after all: starving the institutions of order and discipline of the resources they would need to keep order and discipline. Jean Francois Bayart’s The Criminalization of the State in Africa, for example, says some absolutely brilliant things about how institutions and commercial networks that used to be seen as “criminal” have thrived and grown under the regimes of structural adjustment, and he draws the conclusion that (if I dare to paraphrase him) these systems and networks might be the basis for future state structures in Africa. Not necessarily a positive thing, as he would be the first to admit, but the argument has enormous implications for how we think about the relationship between “the system” and “outlawry” broadly understood: while a show like The Wire brilliantly skewers the torturous logic behind the “do more with less” ethos of neoliberalism, it also marries that framework with the cop show presumption that crime is an aberration, an outlawry that cannot be its own source (or definition) of justice, and a challenge to the established order that can only ultimately fail to obtain. What Bayart suggests, instead, is that crime has always been a kind of origin point for state institutions, the distinction simply being that a criminal network ceases to be criminal when, like Stringer Bell, it achieves the legitimacy that success provides. This was what organizations like The Nation of Islam and the Black Panthers wanted to create, as they explicitly said: to challenge the state’s monopoly on violence by claiming the right to use violence themselves, they proposed to become new centers of state authority themselves. But while Bayart goes a long way to illustrating how structural adjustment’s assault on the formal state has so hollowed out the various sub-Saharan governments as to make them into “shadow states” serving as a cover for the true powers beneath (commercial networks which have gone a long ways towards achieving the kinds of legitimacy that would de-criminalize them), The Wire seems to suggest these kinds of possibilities only to close them down. Stringer Bell, implausibly, dies right when he was about to be taken down by an incredibly heroic effort by the police, precisely the kind of police heroics that the show’s main thrust would seem to be to deny can exist. Perhaps, as in Capra, it does this only because it has to, because the demands of the genre are that the criminal be caught and the police return home triumphant. But if season three was actually going to be an allegory for Iraq, Hamsterdam wouldn’t be shut down, it would, like Sadr city, become the real center of power drawing City Hall into its wake.