“In Withdrawal from Modernity: the Western and the West Side in The Wire”

by zunguzungu

(updated to respond to PC)

(In case you’re interested — or have comments! please make suggestions! —  this is the abstract for a paper I’ll be delivering at a conference in March. I originally started out with the argument that The Wire is Frank Norris’ The Octopus without knowing it, but film genre tropes seemed like a better way to make the argument I wanted to make, especially since the show doesn’t directly reference Norris in the way it explicitly tropes on Leone. And I’ve got a separate argument I’m working on, on visuality and the conceit that “dark” is somehow automatically realistic, which culminates in bashing The Wire against Heart of Darkness to see if I can make any sparks. But that seemed less promising (and less already written), not to mention the “Wild West Side” puns I’m going to really have to resist making over and over again.)

While The Wire has often been associated with the social realism of Dickens or Balzac, the show has much more in common with the tradition in film westerns of troping the winning/passing of the West by the coming of the steam locomotive. As in this naturalist tradition, The Wire is haunted by a kind of cynical post-romanticism, not only lamenting the hopelessness of the individual under modern capitalism, but doing so by reference to the same set of generic figures: while Omar, the show’s figure of freedom, gets represented by a visual vocabulary taken from cinematic cowboy gunmen, the show represents the inevitability of fate by the train tracks where Bunk and McNulty go to drink themselves into oblivion.

Yet there is something strange in the fact that David Simon’s diagnosis of urban decline under neo-liberal withdrawal harks back to the tropes and metaphors of this earlier tradition. After all, while the naturalist symbolic vocabulary of capitalist expansion emphasizes incorporation as the dilemma of modernity, the crisis of a late-capitalist urban center like Baltimore is more like what James Ferguson has shown in the Zambian copper-belt, the experience of having been incorporated and abandoned, less a dream of modernity deferred than an addiction to modernity fostered and denied. I seek therefore to bracket off the political solutions which The Wire is (or is not) able to imagine for the crisis of the present day (a celebration of hopelessness which David Simon shorthands “The Audacity of Despair”) by reading it as a modernist address to a post-modern crisis.

When film westerns long for a time before the railroad (and all it represents), they presume modernization to be a teleological inevitability and locate the only possibility of freedom in peripheral spaces where social outlaws are able escape incorporation. The Wire mimics this gesture through a (symptomatically American) myopia towards social structure: by eliding the difference between “marriage” and “capitalism,” for example, it figures incorporation (rather than marginalization) as the source of Baltimore’s crisis. And because it shares with its predecessors a conviction of modernity’s inevitability, it is specifically unable to imagine the manner in which neo-liberal policies produce  Baltimore as an oppressive social environment and an instrument for capital accumulation precisely by rendering it peripheral, and thus forecloses all possibility of political change though collective agency.

Because film westerns situate modernization as a teleological inevitability, “freedom” gets persistently located in and associated with the periphery, the time before and the space outside of the railroad’s expansion. In such terms, “hope” is therefore a function of the extent to which individuals are able to escape an incorporation which the genre positions as inevitable. Yet in sharing this investment in an impossible marginality, The Wire also shares the Western’s generic myopia towards potentials within social structure, as when it elides the difference between “marriage” and “capitalism” (again, like the Western) into a blanket critique of any or all social “institutions,” irregardless of their relationship to global capital. In this sense, its generic language obscures what its narratives otherwise illustrates so well: the difference between being incorporated as peripheral and powerless and modernization understood as incorporation with benefits.