The Conversation is a remarkable film in all sorts of ways, but it’s as a striking contrast with The Wire that I found myself responding to it. Despite a few nods in the direction of self-awareness, The Wire is, I think, mostly oblivious to its own medium; especially compared to a movie like The Conversation, which is absolutely obsessed with the idea of surveillance and what doing it does to us, The Wire is curiously uncurious about what it does to people to watch other people, what effect the technology itself has on them, and on what kinds of subjectivities get formed by that process.
Think of Gene Hackman going to confession, for example; in The Conversation it’s more than merely a wink at another mode of surveillance: by making his own surveillance activities into the object of surveillance, he is spurred towards the crisis of consciousness that drives the narrative from that point forward, not only the notion that looking is itself a form of involvement (a responsibility he has previously repressed) but the realization that who he is has been shaped and warped by his professional as a private eavesdropper. We see this from the start, in fact; his personal life is not only in shambles because of his obsession with knowing and his defensive paranoia (as the birthday wine and the failed love affair show) but also because he himself is not in control of the surveillance machine. The twist at the end, and what happens to his apartment, make clear that putting your faith in surveillance is a trap: Hackman is misled both because he seeks to know and because this quest is turned against him (and, in fact, the manner in which the movie manipulates us to fall into the same trap is sort of sublime. We jump to the same wrong conclusions as he does).
The Wire does none of this. While there’s a certain kind of brilliance in how it makes a gripping narrative about the economies of information flow that structure social institutions, there’s also a failure to recognize that those institutions tell their own useful fictions, that being a good cop, or a good teacher, or a good reporter can mean both mastering a certain kind of data flow only by also being subject to it. The problem, instead, is that good reporters get fired, good cops ride the boat, and good teachers get chewed up: the institutions of the liberal state have been betrayed from above. But from where comes the presumption that if they had been allowed to do their job, things would have gotten better? Newspapers have always been political tools of the ruling class, the police have been an instrument of social repression for like always, and while I believe in education as a positive social force, you don’t have to work very hard to make an argument for the ways educational institutions can and do get used for social control.
These are complex issues, of course, but while The Wire drips with rage that well-meaning liberals lack real power in today’s society, The Conversation is based on the notion that the road to hell is paved with good intentions: it tells the story of socially sanctioned modes of information gathering and dissemination being not only manipulated for murderous and anti-democratic purposes, but it illustrates the way a basically good hearted person becomes the instrument of that murderous engine. And the more he tries to insert himself into the process, the more he tries to control the instruments of the liberal surveillance state, the more he is himself warped and crushed by it.
In other words, what’s curious about The Wire is not only its failure to think about the repressive use to which liberal social modes of surveillance have always been put, but the extent to which it fails to think about what mastering these modes of power does to the good intentioned people that do it. There are a lot of reasons for that, I think; it’s a cop show created by a former cop, so the extent to which it takes police subjectivity for granted is no surprise. As a muckraking naturalist narration, it takes the conventions of expository naturalism for granted. As a show about teachers and newspapers written by a former teacher and reporter, the kinds of surveillance that drive those institutions are presumed, rather than rendered themselves the object of analysis. And so forth. But I think a certain kind of techno-philia also enables it to make this mistake: while Gene Hackman makes all his own tools and machines — emphasizing his organic imbrication into the process (and the process in him) — “the wire” is always a tool in The Wire, an alienated object that because it exists only to be used, can only be used, and otherwise sits there passively.