Continuing to Trouble Michaels: The Wire and the Spirit of Capitalist Critique

by zunguzungu

From the outset, I should admit that I find it difficult to engage with Walter Benn Michaels’ arguments because they simply do not resemble any reality, literary or historical, which I recognize. I admire his Our America: Nativism, Modernism, and Pluralism a great deal, but the fact that he could write that book without mentioning Jose Marti seems to me symptomatic of a problem that has gotten worse as his work has become more and more directly polemic: a performed ignorance of the very literary tradition of American immigrant writing that he sets out to critique. I don’t want to get to deep into that, though; he’s been making the kind of claim he made in the essay that Andrew first responded to for a while (and there have been good discussions and critiques of it elsewhere), so it doesn’t seem worth it to rehash here what I think he mis-frames as a class vs. race argument. Instead — like Andrew, I think — I’m more interested in what a poor reader his approach seems to have made of such an otherwise astute critic, and some thoughts about why.

For example, in the original article, he dismisses the genre of the memoir as a whole by grandly pronouncing that “Every sentence in every one of them, true or false, literary or non-, tells us that there are only individuals and (most memoirs add) their families.” From here he goes on to call it an “entirely Thatcherite genre,” as if every single memoir in the last twenty-five years is simply an extended gloss on Margaret Thatcher’s famous statement that “There is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families.”

I would be hesitant to criticize someone who has read every sentence in every one of the memoirs written in the last twenty five years. I’ve read only a few. But, then, nothing in Michaels’ argument requires him to have read even a single one, does it? To understand what a memoir is, his argument implies, all you have to know is what its purpose is in present day society, what its function is. And since he can presume that the entire genre has a single function, he can categorically dismiss its entirety en-masse: what matters is not what is actually written in the memoirs themselves, but the principles of selection used by the nefarious agents of capitalism who bring you Oprah’s Book Club and the talent-less, passive readers who apparently ingest them. It is in this sense that Michaels seems to feel that the memoir is a grave threat to leftism: to the significant extent that the institutions and structures of the publishing industry reflect conservative values (a phenomenon wholly unique to our time, it seems), dissent literature must be totally inconceivable, and these dupes of capitalism will foist upon us all manner of vile books.

But if this is the problem, then it wouldn’t matter what is actually written, would it? After all, even if you accept his contention that novels about slavery are celebrated only because they celebrate a history that makes “us” feel good, the conclusion that the books about slavery are ruining class politics is approximately one fallacy of the undistributed middle away from being supported by it: the fact that some people like it for that reason plus the fact that other people like it does not mean that all people like it for that reason.

I don’t accept that claim, of course, but that’s not even what’s at issue here: even if a novel like Beloved were only read for that reason, it doesn’t make that the only thing going on the book. I once had a student who believed that Things Fall Apart was a novel celebrating the Christianizing of Africa, but it would be preposterous to blame Achebe for that reading. Bad readings produce bad texts, while it is the power of good readers (and responsibility, if they’re teachers) to both produce better ones and articulate why. But while you do that (I think) by going back to the text itself, by showing what it means and what it can mean, I think it’s significant that Michaels contentions seem to be totally dislocated from the books themselves, which have simply disappeared over the course of the argument. If we know what a book is by its social function, by the manner in which its critics interpellate it, then does it even matter what is written inside?

Maybe I shouldn’t even have written this post; as Jonathan Mayhew put it, “the absurdity of the conclusion is the direct result of a very narrow conceptualization of the relation between history and literature,” and maybe that’s all that needs to be said. But because I can, I want to look closer at the claim of Michaels’ that I think fails most dramatically and show why by reference to the text he’s mis-reading, his argument that “the characters on The Wire are interesting but they’re deeply subordinate to structures.” I’ve spent so much time watching and thinking and writing about The Wire that I’ve developed an embarrassingly proprietary affection for it, so I feel righteously confident in saying that he is completely wrong, that his statement couldn’t be more wrong, and that its wrongness is up there with my student’s notion of a Things Fall Apart that celebrates colonialism.

Here’s why. While the fact that Michaels gives no reasoning for his assertion makes it difficult to mount a counter-argument (since one cannot argue against an argument which is absent), it is worth noting that he is very literally cherry picking the evidence even in that single sentence: he admits that The Wire’s characters are “interesting,” but judges this fact to be of no importance in assessing what the show actually does. Once again, this makes the job of the critic awfully easy: if there’s an aspect of a work we don’t care for, it seems, we can simply ignore it. And maybe its only because the new critics got to me young, but I find the claim that a show with a cast of dozens and dozens of detailed character studies is somehow not about character something like, say, announcing that James Joyce had no interest in experimental writing techniques — that all that stuff was there, sure, but it wasn’t really important — because his are really novels about Irish class politics.

It’s an extreme case, of course, but I think it’s the extremity of it that proves the rule. Moreover, in declaring “character and family” to be red herrings, he has to pretty much ignore the thing that, I would assert, makes the show tick, the fact that every narrative event of any consequence in the entirety of the show begins with individuals tilting against the windmills of the systems in which they are embedded. Without people like McNulty, Bell, Carcetti, and Colvin, there is no plot, in a very literal sense, since everything that happens in the show occurs as a result of their decisions to go rogue. In this sense, if you boil the show’s narratives down, you have a similar story repeated in many variations: individuals dissatisfied with their social systems attempting to work from within to reform them faced by the forces who benefit from the status quo working to stop them.

They pretty much fail of course; as Simon has put it, the show’s protagonists are “fated and doomed people,” while “postmodern institutions” are the show‘s “Olympian gods, indifferent, venal, selfish, hurling lightning bolts and hitting people in the ass for no reason.” And were he to actually mount an argument in support of his assertion, I imagine that Michaels might claim that this illustrates his point: the fact that the show’s characters so persistently fail in their quests to reform the system indexes the impossibility of the individual in the face of capitalist structures. But Simon’s analogy with Greek tragedy is instructive precisely because it highlights the extent to which The Wire is not precisely the same thing, the extent to which the tragic failure of the individual is different from being merely “subordinate” to the systems in which they are embedded.

For one thing, while it might be true that the show’s characters have a great deal of difficulty getting anything to happen the way they want it to, their interventions nevertheless have consequences. For example, one of the show’s programmatic moments comes in season one, immediately after Kima Greggs has been shot. McNulty is horrified, recognizing — correctly — that she’s taken the risks she has because of the investigation which he more or less started, the glory of which he suddenly finds turning to ashes in his mouth. Nothing is worth this, he tells Daniels, but Daniels pulls him up short, telling him (I’m paraphrasing here) that it doesn’t matter, that he needs to get over himself because the thing he’s started has now become bigger than him, has grown legs of its own. This is what McNulty mostly doesn’t understand over the course of the series (and what Kima, significantly, does): not only do our actions have consequences for which we are responsible, but we do not control those consequences. And while our good intentions — or our belief that we have them — will not prevent us from walking that road to hell, it doesn’t make us any less the proximate cause for the consequences of them.

It is important, I think, that the show is concerned with both unintended consequences (and the problem of culpability or responsibility implied), because it runs contrary to Michael’s claim that there is no individual agency in the show; it is, in fact, precisely because our actions have real consequences that we need to consider the responsibilities we have for them. And while it may be true that no one can live outside the structures of capitalism — and as I argued here, Omar is precisely the exception that proves this rule — neither can those structures exist without the interested cooperation of those who live within them, a cooperation has to be bought off. In this sense, while the bosses may not be dependent on their subordinates in precisely the same ways as their subordinates are dependent on them (since that’s what makes those hierarchies unequal), the fact that they are dependent on each other is the show’s basic narrative premise: McNulty is a threat to Rawls precisely because bosses need loyalty, and D’Angelo is a threat (and an ultimately fatal one) to Avon Barksdale for the same reason.

In this sense, it is precisely not the point that the individual always fails to get what they, individually, want. McNulty never quite gets his man, Bell gets gunned down by the wild west violence he sought to corral, Carcetti becomes corrupt, Colvin’s experiment gets paved over, and even Daniels is put out to pasture. This is all true. But while the show might powerfully argue the Marxian point that capital is very, very good at absorbing and assimilating any and all challenges to its functioning, it is also just as careful in measuring the limitations to capital’s sway, the places which capital not only cannot go but where social structures spring up which exist outside of a purely capitalist logic of action. This, in fact, is precisely why every effort to rationalize the system (“to make sense of this game,” as Stringer puts it) ultimately fails: not only does capitalism create its own externalities (and requires them as dumping grounds), but these externalities represent a particular kind of shelter from the storm, one which (for example) people in West Baltimore might find quite attractive.

There are two points to be made. One is the notion that even people thoroughly embedded in capitalist structures have agency which they need to take account of, what I would call the McNulty lesson. But the other is that there are numerous, numerous examples of characters in the show whose behavior cannot be reduced to or understood by reference only to the demands of a materialist capitalism. Cutty’s gym, Colvin’s adoption of Namond, Prezbo’s transformation into a teacher, officer McNulty’s metaphoric death and resurrection as husband, Carver’s development into a community minded police officer, and the show’s own dogged attachment to Baltimore as home each speak to logics of action that are only capitalist in a reproductive sense: they seek to capitalize on present action to produce the dividends of futurity. And while The Wire might trace the ways that capitalist structures instrumentalize and capitalize on these kinds of desires (as when the Barksdales use the idea of “family” to do business), the show is just as attentive to the ways that these logics of action are basically and irreconcilably different, as when the Barksdale crew’s failure as a family also destroys it as a business.

This is why the show both takes a zeal in painting the breakdown of family structures and has a sentimental streak a mile wide: like the failure of the individual, the failure of family is a tragedy as a direct function of how highly valued the family is. And this is why the show’s celebration of professionalism ultimately boils down to a reconceptualization of work as family, why it charts the extent to which “professions” serve less as expressions of a capitalist function than as blind spots within a declining capitalism that no longer wants to see and control everything.

In both cases, the important thing is that “the family” is a point of desire rooted in a distaste for capitalism itself. As Freamon tells McNulty, “the job will not save you” because cases end, because when one task will simply be replaced by another one, chasing bad guys provides only the illusion of progression. Instead, what saves Jimmy McNulty is the extent to which he transforms his job into a family; in the case of Beady Russel, quite literally, but metaphorically in the case of his policeman’s wake. Futurity and reproduction are often quite irrational in economic terms, and as such, represent a desire for something outside of neo-liberalism’s moneterization of everything. It is important, in other words, that these kinds of dividends are totally illegible by neo-liberal standards of value, an economic materialism which (ironically) Michaels shares in claiming the right to decide “what people really want” by reference to a secular gospel that man lives by bread alone.

Perhaps more importantly, I call shenanigans when Michaels takes it for granted that “individuals” and “structures” are both mutually opposed and irreconcilably different: not only is there no room for mid-level level structures in such an analysis, but the very framework is as complicit in the neoliberal conceptualization of the world as anything Michaels wants to locate in the memoir. In this sense, I both agree whole-heartedly with Andrew that Michaels’ rejection of “the family narrative” in literature is based in a basic unwillingness to understand what that trope represents (stemming, apparently, from a disinclination to actually read the American immigrant literary tradition), but it’s his fatally bad sociology that allows him to do so: if he presumes that “structure” stands in for oppressive capitalism while the “individual” is the thing being oppressed, then it becomes possible to see the family structure as just another epiphenomenon of that capitalist system. But it ain’t necessarily so: as Stringer Bell’s sterile apartment reminds us, capital accumulation might allow you to buy and develop housing units, but it quite clearly does not create a home. And as the The Wire doggedly and persistently argues, familial social action is utterly different, even intrinsically hostile, to the kinds of social actions that characterize the neo-liberalism of those who occupy the highest echelons of its society.

This is not to deny that “the family” can often be assimilated into the service of a capitalist logic, nor does the show. But Michaels rejects categorically what he can’t be bothered to understand. The Barksdale plotline doesn’t simply argue that a family is a business, but traces out the ways that a family becomes a business by ceasing to be a family. In a business, you can cut your employees loose, but since the logic of family is the development of futurity through human capital, treating people as disposable labor both runs contrary to it and invites counter-action from the involved agents. In this sense, when Avon treats his people (especially his nephew) like temporary labor, he signs his own arrest warrant, eliminating their investment in him: D‘Angelo flips because he recognizes that Avon will “lay off” even his own nephew. Marlo, on the other hand, succeeds precisely because he makes his dependants more dependant on him than he is of them. He can be a terrifyingly unstoppable engine of expansion precisely because he has no personal desires or social attachments that can be used against him, and absolutely zero desire for futurity.

To return to Michaels’ “bad sociology,” my problem with what I take to be the logic behind his argument is that his sense of structure is basically and essentially functionalist. For him, I think, the fact that capitalist structures exist to fulfill a capitalist function means that to be part of them is also be co-opted by them. It’s on this basis, after all, that he reads the tragic failure of individuals as being “deeply subordinate to structures”: because they are embedded in these oppressive structures, they cannot be free from being interpellated into the function of those structures.

In this sense, he implicitly denies two basic premises I take as fundamental to modern post-functionalist sociology, which I’m going to take from Anthony Giddens’ Central Problems in Social Theory: Action, Structure, and Contradiction in Social Analysis, a “non-functionalist manifesto” whose riveting title belies its intellectual power. The first is the idea that “every social actor knows a great deal about the conditions of reproduction of the society of which he or she is a member,” something which, again, The Wire illustrates quite well: the adeptness of people like McNulty in using institutional micro-tactics to clear space for themselves within that system shows the kinds of knowledges that only people within the system can deploy (what James Scott has usefully called Metis). As Giddens puts it, “Power relations are always two-way; that is to say, however subordinate an actor may be in a social relationship, the very fact of involvement in that relationship gives him a certain amount of power over the other. Those in subordinate positions in social systems are frequently adept at converting whatever resources they possess into some degree of control over the conditions of reproduction of those social systems.”

In sharp contrast to the ways to a Malinowskian functionalism, then (which focused on the social logics that individuals participated in without understanding, and as such were essentially agents of), Giddens’ brand of structuralism argues that people might be dependent on the systems they live in, but that they negotiate the price of their subordination with a particular set of resources derived, in many cases, from that very social embeddedness. Yet Michaels’ functionalism (like Malinowski’s) presumes that a structure can have only one function, and one which, in the case of capitalism (which is what the word “structure” means to Michaels, right?), is purely oppressive. Which brings me to my second maxim from Giddens, the idea that “any explanation of social reproduction which imputes teleology to social systems must be declared invalid.” This is where The Wire’s emphasis both on futurity and on the unintended consequences of interventions come together: while a functionalist imagines capitalism only by reference to a particular telos (the “primacy of markets” as Michaels puts it), Giddens’ (and The Wire’s) structuralism is able to theorize social reproduction as something distinct from the fantasy of the free market. After all, as Karl Polonyi, for one, has shown, the idea that the market is ever truly free is an ideological fantasy used (by people like Margaret Thatcher) both to efface the underlying structures which define market practice and to dispute the legitimacy of other forms of social organization.

Which means that there’s something fundamentally off about approaching the “free market” as the telos of capitalist reproduction, in a way that The Wire quite powerfully illustrates. A truly free market would be of precisely no use to capitalists, as Marx himself understood quite well: the goal of the capitalist is precisely not to create the telos of a level playing field, but to warp existing economic structures so that they structurally advantage one’s own interests. Capitalism reproduces itself as a social system, in other words, not by attempting to bring into existence a particular ideal form, but by creating structures which selectively inhibit other social actors than yourself. Which is why Marlo is the The Wire’s figure for the savagery of unfettered capitalism: he becomes as powerful as he does not by evading the structures that regulate market society, but by employing and subverting the ones that already exist to work in his own favor. He therefore takes control of the co-op by transforming it, he fills the wire with noise so that nothing can be heard, and he leaves bodies in the vacant spaces left by others. He wins the game by embracing Weber’s spirit of capitalism, by replacing consumption with capitalization, and by subverting and repressing all forms of desire — especially that of reproduction and the attachment of family — he becomes a faceless agent of endless expansion, successful precisely to the extent that he lacks any standard by which his failure would even be legible.