Contra David Simon

by zunguzungu

“It seems to be a cop show, blue lights flashing, but we were actually trying to mask something different within a cop show when we created this. This show’s really about the American city, and, you know, about how we live together and its about how institutions have an effect on individuals and how regardless of what you are committed to, cop, longshoreman, drug dealer, politician, you are ultimately compromised and must contend with whatever institution you’ve committed to”

I’ve got to deal with David Simon at some point, since I’m basically arguing that his show is able to articulate something that his direct statements to interviewers and so forth are not, that something crucial is lost in the way he represents the show as opposed to the way the show itself represents itself. These are his words from the commentary track on the very first episode, and he sounds sure of himself, getting right to the point. But does he? What does “committed” mean here? Why does he repeat the word? What does it mean to commit to an institution I’ve been grading papers lately, and a certain kind of reliance on particular words is sometimes symptomatic of a particular kind of intellectual problem: words like “theme” or “portray” or “diction” often get asked to carry a tremendous amount of weight for beginning writers who are up against the really knotty issues of interpretation that literary critics spend their lives dancing around. These words almost become fetish objects, black boxes into which all the maddening problems of hermeneutics can be placed out of sight, or at least held down long enough that the students can get some work done around them.

“Commit” seems to me to be doing that kind of work here, not because David Simon is the equivalent of my students, but because he’s facing a similar kind of problem: a tremendously complex problem that needs to get bracketed off so he can address what he’s really interested in. In this pair of sentences, he’s not trying to get into the complexities of attachment, the ambiguous ways we are all products of the places we produce around us; instead, he’s simply emphasizing that the show is, as he told Nick Hornby, an “anti-cop show, a rebellion of sorts against all the horseshit police procedurals afflicting American television.”

As such, it does what a great many “anti-” narratives do: it produces a telos of negativity in response to the affirmative telos of its adversary. The show is, therefore, “about untethered capitalism run amok, about how power and money actually route themselves in a postmodern American city, and, ultimately, about why we as an urban people are no longer able to solve our problems or heal our wounds.”

If I were grading a paper, I would write in the margins questions like: “How do power and money route themselves? Why are we unable to solve our problems? Heal our wounds?” In his formulation, however, the how’s and why’s of it are not the point. Instead, as Simon emphasizes, The Wire is “Greek tragedy for the new millennium.” Noting that while “other high-end HBO fare…offer a good deal of Macbeth or Richard III or Hamlet in their focus on the angst and machinations of the central characters” he looks elsewhere for analogues to the The Wire: “We’re stealing instead from an earlier, less-traveled construct-the Greeks-lifting our thematic stance wholesale from Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides to create doomed and fated protagonists who confront a rigged game and their own mortality.”

I don’t think Aeschylus is the best point of comparison; to me, the clearest predecessors are American naturalists like Frank Norris and journalists like Jacob Riis. Not only does Simon clearly have a desire to show how the other half lives, but there is nothing more overtly fatalistic about the power of capitalist institutions to crush the lives of individuals than a novel like Norris’ The Octopus. In fact, The Wire‘s aspiration to “slice off another piece of the American city” each season matches quite well Norris’ conception of his Wheat trilogy, which would start with the railroad, move to the processing plants, and then on to the stock market (I think). And both share the methodology of isolating parts in order that, “by the end of the run, a simulated Baltimore would stand in for urban America, and the fundamental problems of urbanity would be fully addressed.”

Maybe Norris was channeling the Greeks too. But my point is that he goes to the Greeks because his task in those few sentences is not to address the stunning complexity of what it means to commit to an institution; his rhetorical occasion is articulating fundamentally different ethos of a show like The Wire, which — as an attempt to defamiliarize and disillusion an audience accustomed to a choice between the liberal and conservative myths of American society — chooses to attack the very structure of myth itself, the narratives of belief, faith, and social coherence that make myth work and that myths make work. As an attack on the narratives which structure our attitudes towards such institutions — that drug dealers are either vicious criminals or society’s rejects, that police are either princes of the city or a destructive force for evil — he takes the rhetorical tact of attacking all narrative, producing an anti-narrative and defining the show in such terms.

He therefore does a pretty bad job of actually describing what makes the show so very, very brilliant: the way it addresses not only the profoundly ambiguous and multivalent ways we are embedded in social contexts but — especially — the ways these social constructions interface with each other, the way we are articulated in structures which we, always, work to re-articulate and navigate. I’ve used some fetish object words myself there; “articulate” is a good one, since it quite pointedly does not distinguish between articulate-as-self-expression and articulate-as-place-different-parts-in-relation-to-each-other. So is “embedded,” which means something between (or embracing both) being at rest and at home or being contained and controlled. But I do so because I want to leave open what the structure of his argument forces him to close down, the ways that, when it comes to attachment and belonging, the devil lives in the details, the how’s and whys of being attached and the wherefores of our agency within it.

What I’m too facetious not to call David Simon’s fear of commitment, I then argue, leads him to miss the ways his show so elegantly and brilliantly tracks that devil down into the hole. I’m just going to quote myself here to finish this off:

“As Ed White notes, in his excellent The Backcountry and the City, Americans tend to be extremely bad at talking about the social space between “Self” and “System”; in his words:

“to give an obvious example, we today use the term “institution” to refer to voting and marriage, legislative government or the House of Representatives, the marketplace or the Bank of North America. Our impoverished vocabulary for collectives slides carelessly from the precise acts and attitudes of the here and now to the general systems of history.”

It’s like Borges’ Chinese encyclopedia. If “marriage,” “B&B enterprises,” and the Baltimore PD are all “institutions,” is the word still doing any real work as a signifier? Illustrating exactly that point, there’s a moment in the DVD commentary for episode 3:11 that made light bulbs go off in my mind. As the writer of that show takes note of the various ways that the main street standoff between Omar and Brother Mouzone is patterned after Westerns (he mentions Leone, Ford, and Hawkes, and particularly cites the professional respect they show as they discuss each other’s guns), he goes on to draw a larger comparison with the use that the Western (and Samurai film) makes of the “outsider” figure. As in The Magnificent Seven (or, rather, Seven Samurai), the community must be protected by outsiders who fit in nowhere. “Like McNulty,” he tosses off, “Who doesn’t fit anywhere, not even in the institution of marriage.”

I think this analogy between marriage and capitalism is at the heart of what makes the show work, and though it probably won’t end up in the paper I’m delivering on Saturday, the show is at its smartest when it picks it apart, when it treats them not as the same thing but as significantly different variations on a single problem, the problem of attachment. Love is one way to imagine attachment, and so is subjection, but as different as those things may be in the abstract, it’s only by analogy that we can pick apart why the differences are distinct. And – as I’m trying to tease out now – the show picks at those analogies, the subtlety and flex inherent in open-ended attachments  in interesting ways which its spokesperson has a tendency to flatten out.