Tag: The Wire

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

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.

Methodology on The Corner

I’m working on a post about Sudhir Venkatesh, Bronislaw Malinowski, and the ways that social scientists stage their relationships with their human subjects. It’s something I’ve thinking about for a while because it’s related to the work I’m doing trying to connect people like Henry Morton Stanley to people like Jomo Kenyatta: all of these figures presented themselves as “seeing from the native’s point of view” in some sense, and it was important for each of them to highlight that innovation as the thing that made their visions and their work superior to that of their predecessors. There’s something very interesting that happens with this, I think, something that has to be considered very carefully: not only does social science change when it comes to be seen as a thing that happens not in the laboratory of the scholar’s mind but as something that has to be done out “in the field,” but it also changes the status of the natives themselves. If knowledge is not to be found in books and libraries but rather in the lived practice of natives, then the locus of science has, in an important way, moved out from the centers to the periphery. One can’t know about those out-there places without going to them; instead of an imperial eye seeing out, you’ve got an imperial eye blinded by its very location, while — at least in theory — the native becomes the one who knows the real dirt.

Or, at least, that’s the optimistic reading. It is also possible to note that each of these figures, albeit in different ways, resists this logic: Malinowski might see from the native’s point of view, for example, but the native himself never seems to quite get to, and an epistemological inequality is retained by re-locating it onto the social scientist who travels. And I got interested in Venkatesh after reading Tenured Radical‘s damning takedown of his book Gang Leader For A Day, a post I got to via CM, who shares with me, I think, an interest in how a scoundrel like Venkatesh maps onto The Wire, both how placing the two side by side in conceptual terms helps us understand them, and what happens when the two interact (as when Venkatesh watches The Wire with “real” gangsters). After all, The Wire is, itself, a form of practicing social science: as a realist text (if a journalistic and dramatic realism rather than a sociological one), it makes claims about what is really going on the world, claims it backs up by the expertise of its creators, Baltimore natives Ed Burns (a former homicide cop and teacher) and David Simon (journalist). So not only is it interesting to note the spectacle of Venkatesh interpreting how his “informants” relate to The Wire — since, implicitly, the claim is that his informants are even more realistical-er than the show itself — but it’s interesting to compare methodological orientations in a general sense.

For example, the way that Kima deals with Bubbles models a kind of conscious responsibility about the ways a social researcher might behave. In season one, when Bubbles considers getting clean, Kima both explicitly recognizes (to him) that a clean informant is no good to her and helps him get clean. In other words, the show recognizes — through Kima — that Bubbles is literally only useful as someone to be exploited, that since he can only help her as a drug addict, his usefulness is a function of his own self-destructive patterns and that paying him for them only accelerates them. Yet this exploitation becomes a stepping stone towards something else: while they come together because of a zero-sum contest in which each is trying to hustle the other, out of that relationship comes the kind of professional respect (almost familial, as all the professional relationships are in The Wire) that makes it possible for them to transcend that very partnership. One of the interesting things about the show’s long term arc, in fact, is that Bubbles completely recedes from Kima’s world as he gets clean; we never even see her read the newspaper story about him, which would have been their only point of contact by that point.

At the same time, McNulty seems to represent the show’s bad conscience of itself, both oblivious to and enabling of his human subjects’ problems. When he overpays Bubbles, and Kima reproaches him, his response is telling: “I respect the work,” he says, because treating Bubbles as a free agent, pretending that how and on what terms he will work (and how he will spend his earnings) are wholly Bubble’s choice has the effect of denying that any of it is McNulty’s responsibility. In Marxist terms, imagining a free labor market allows the employer to take advantage from built in coercion, and this is precisely what rendering Bubbles as a “worker” does for McNulty: allows him to forget that he is a slave to the drug, and to any source of income that allows him access to it.

Precisely because Kima saw Bubbles as something more than an employee or subject, she could see her relationship with him as implying at least some level of responsibility, some measure of investment in his life. But McNulty’s “What the fuck did I do?” catch-phrase illustrates, the evasion of responsibility defines his character throughout the show; returning the homeless guy to Baltimore at the end of the show is his redemptive moment because he gets to undo the most attenuated form of de-personalizing his actions so as to evade responsibility for him (inventing a serial killer). But the “I respect the work” line does something very similar, erasing such considerations from his worldview: instead of a person, Bubbles is merely a worker, to be paid or not based on the value created, and non-existent to McNulty otherwise (and McNulty non-existent to him otherwise). Not that a drug addict needs to be treated like a child, of course, but he can only treat his own intervention as a non-factor by treating Bubbles like an fully free adult, by carefully unthinking the ways that Bubble’s lack of freedom of choice makes it easy for McNulty to exploit him (and how that value created is thereby, in a certain very particular sense, coerced and unfree).

I fixate on this moment as an example of responsible social science practice, though, because I think it has its origin in the kind of research that David Simon and Ed Burns did as journalists, long before they became TV writers. They understood, in a way that I found quite fresh, that the researcher cannot not be in their subject’s world. Their book The Corner: A Year in the Life of an Inner City Neighborhood might be more journalism than social science, but it displays such a strikingly different sense of ethical responsibility than Venkatesh’s that it stands as a nice contrast to his work.: while he takes refuge in popular writing to escape the ethical imperative to not be an asshole, these journalists developed the necessary rigor precisely because of it. As they write:

“A year is a long time to watch people struggle and suffer, and many people were doing a lot of both on Fayette Street in 1993. We were reporters, yet we did not avoid the chance to encourage those who wanted to change, to give some measure of emotional support to people when they talked about getting straight or looking into detox and recovery.

“In the beginning this caused us some concern. The usual policy of strict nonintervention argues that if someone asks for a lift to the methadone clinic, the reporter says no. The notion is that if the man is meant to get in a meth program, he’ll do it whether or not a reporter and his automobile happen to be on hand. Similarly, if that man is dollars light for a morning blast, then he should stay light whether or not the reporter has cash in his pocket.

“That impartial stance sounds well and good until the day the reporter is confronted with another human being so sick and tired that he breaks down and cries openly for someone to drive him to a clinic. Or the day that same reporter takes a run-and-gun dope fiend out of the corner mix for a two-hour interview, only to see him become ill from withdrawal. If the fiend was on his game, he’d have blast money by now; instead, he spent his morning talking about his life to a writer. And Lord, the man needs to hold five dollars in a hurry.

As a rule, we did not intervene in the swirl of events. But there were a few instances when we ignored the rule. We came to this project as reporters, but over time we found ourselves caring more about our subjects than we ever expected. If that helped or hurt someone more than he or she would have been helped or hurt, then it could be argued that our source material is tainted. Yet the limited support we provided had decidedly little effect. DeAndre, Fran, Gary — all began the year in the corner mix, all of them ended there. And Blue — who escaped from his own shooting gallery — did so quietly and with little encouragement from anyone. Perhaps all our journalistic concerns about nonintervention are predicated on a touch of vanity. The corner culture and addiction are powerful forces — equal to or greater than all the legal barriers and social programming arrayed against them. On Fayette Street, the odds do not change because someone pops up with a notepad and the occasional kindness.

“Our best guide in these matters proved to be none other than Elliot Liebow, who, in 1962 and 1963, conducted his classic study of Washington, D.C. street-corner men in similar fashion. In his notes on methodology for Tally’s Corner, Liebow wrote: “The people I was observing knew I was observing them. Some exploited me, not as an outsider, but rather as one who, as a rule, had more resources than they did. When one of them came up with resources — money or a car, for example — he too was exploited in the same way. I usually tried to limit money or other favors to what I thought each would have gotten from another friend had he the same resources as I. I tried to meet requests as best as I could without becoming conspicuous.”

Most researchers would like to forget that they are, as Liebow notes, simply one of many social agents who are equipped with more resources than their subjects. Certainly McNulty does. But Simon and Burns cite Liebow because they recognize, like him, that their subjects live in the same world as they and all of us do. A researcher with a car and a bank account is not an alien being that beams in and violates the cultural purity of the corner culture, and Prime Directives dictating non-interference are not about protecting the subjects as much as they are about protecting the researchers from having to admit already always being implicated in what is already going on. And as Simon and Burns recognize, their power to abstract themselves out of the scene — even if they wanted — is sharply limited. But pretending that your subjects are free to choose is a way of denying that you are exploiting their un-freedom, that you are in fact benefiting from precisely the thing you like to imagine doesn’t exist: asymmetrical social and economic hierarchy. And pretending that a researcher isn’t exploiting his subjects — that he isn’t deriving a kind of value from them which they will not share — is not all that different from any of the other myriad ways “the corner” is economically integrated into the larger economy of our shared world. Poverty can pay well for the people who aren’t poor. Only a real asshole would pretend otherwise while taking advantage of it. And I’m not talking about the ordinary gaping orifice that all of us possess. I mean an all-encompassing, all-consuming, out-of-proportion-to-every-other-facet-of-his-humanity chasm — if I may quote Shakespeare — “from whose bourn no traveler has ever returned.”

The Wire! Part Six!

An excerpt from the finished part of the paper I’m struggling to finish so I can deliver it tomorrow:

…it’s become a cliché to call The Wire the best TV show ever made, but the real thrust of statements like that is the claim that the show has transcended the medium of television; that, in contrast to the mediocrity of TV more generally, The Wire approaches the status of real literature. Now, I wouldn’t be giving this paper if I didn’t think this were true on a certain level, but such claims sort of miss the point: if “TV” is being defined by its mediocrity, then calling it the best TV show ever is damningly faint praise. And by measuring it according to the question of whether it is or is not like “other TV,” the complexity of the show’s generic lineage gets flattened out into a simplistic assertion of the show’s quality. In this sense, when the show’s writers and critics have pointed out its affiliation with social realism, American naturalism, and Greek tragedy, the point has generally been simply to establish the show’s credentials as real literature. This isn’t CSI, they tell us; The Wire is Dickensian, muckraking journalism, or High Tragedy.

These are the important reference points for the show, I think. Critics are not wrong to liken The Wire to the kind of social realism of a Dickens or a Balzac, since, as an interviewer put it (to Simon’s approval), the show does “swoop from high to low, from the mayor’s office to the street corner-and the street-corner dealers are shown more empathy and compassion than anyone has mustered before.” And even The Wire’s form — serial and episodic with a multitude of characters but aiming at producing a unified narrative of a unified social order — is Dickensian in the way it integrate the uniqueness of the part into a synthetic narrative of social totality.

The show has also been compared with twentieth century naturalists like Upton Sinclair, Jacob Riis, or Frank Norris, and here, too, the parallel is instructive: David Simon is a self-identified muckraker, the show’s aspiration to show “how the other half lives” is a profoundly Riis-ian ambition, and the American tragedy narrative of the show has a great deal in common with a Dreiser or Norris. In addition, David Simon has himself called The Wire “Greek tragedy for the new millenium,” emphasizing that “the postmodern institutions are the Olympian forces…the police department, or the drug economy, or the political structures, or the school administration, or the macroeconomic forces…always prove larger, and those characters with hubris enough to challenge the postmodern construct of American empire are invariably mocked, marginalized, or crushed.”

If we bracket off television’s perpetual inferiority complex, however, it’s worth noting not only that each of these generic modes are irreducibly different things, but that none of them quite describe The Wire. For one thing, the show’s urban spaces are unquestionably a very different kind of cityscape than Dickens’ London or Balzac’s Paris; as cities defined by their “greatness,” they could serve as metonyms for France and Britain at their imperial peak, the most highly developed capitalist economies in the world. But the Baltimore of The Wire is a city defined by its peripheral isolation, a forgotten city wedged between Philadelphia and DC and left to rot. Its problem, in other words, isn’t the discontent of American civilization; its problem is that it is located outside of America (as characters in The Wire often bitterly remark).

And while The Wire might also share with American naturalism a voyeuristic fascination with social breakdown (rather than social realism’s faith in its essential coherence), those turn of the last century novels were still basically structured by the telos of modernity and the inevitability of progress: as with Dickens or Balzac, Sinclair or Norris’ worlds were embedded in a capital h History which moved in one direction only. Progress might be a terrible thing, as William James put it, but no one doubted that it was coming; that history moves forward as inevitably and as remorselessly as the wheels fate.

In The Wire, on the other hand, history is moving backwards: the most omnipresent landscape feature is the “vacant,” shuttered up apartments left to rot and ruin, and the corners where drug slingers set up shop are invariably boarded up store fronts. The second season is literally a Greek tragedy about the decline of the American working class, the fourth is about the collapse of the school system, and the fifth is about the auto-cannibalism of American journalism. And over the course of the five seasons, the drug narrative is one in which relatively sympathetic and legible mob bosses are replaced by Marlo Stanfield, a character who is not so much evil as empty, an illegible cipher. If there’s one thing that unites the show as a whole, in other words, it’s the sense that things, as they have always been, are falling apart. Yet if things fall apart, and if the center cannot hold, is it therefore the case that mere anarchy has been loosed upon the world? Or is some rough beast slouching towards Bethlehem to be born? In other words, how do we aestheticize, historicize, and analyze collapse?

The Wire, part five: “The queen ain’t no bitch”

A programmatic moment in The Wire‘s first season is when D’Angelo teaches the young’uns to play chess. When he explains that the king is the main piece — but that he’s “got no hustle” and is dependant on his underlings — the allegory with Avon and his crew is obvious; comparing the rook to the stash house, in fact, seems necessary only to establish the board as a direct metaphor for the drug crew. But the young’uns understand the analogy from the get-go: as D’Angelo explains that pawns get knocked out early and only rarely (“unless they some smart-ass pawns”) advance to queen status, their impressed silence indicates that they get the message loud and clear.

It’s interesting, in that vein, that pawns do not become kings; at best, they can aspire to be the king’s first minister, and that this single example of mobility is embedded in the general statement that “everybody stays who he is.” But I’m interested in the valance on the term “bitch,” here, especially as it becomes an idiom for rendering the problem of power and mobility legible. Misogyny runs deep, of course, but I’d suggest that while an epiphenomenon of the term’s use is a casual naturalization of misogyny, that isn’t primarily what it’s about. Instead, while the police have “suction” as their term for the ways an institution coheres — the ways different parts are sucked together to their mutual convenience and inconvenience — the show’s drug dealers adjudicate power relations through the distinction of bitches and being “the man”: you’re a bitch if you can be used, whereas you are the man if you do the using. Obviously, this is not a genderless idiom (since being female usually means being a bitch, and “the man” is, obviously, coded male), yet gender is here more a function of power than the reverse, I think. The Queen, after all, ain’t no bitch.

Compared to the intricacies of the show’s formal institutions — in which the chain of command is practically defined in the breach — this idiom is much simpler. There is no middle ground, and this is the point: it is built into the logic of the system that one cannot avoid using others without being used, and that the only way to avoid being used by others is to use others yourself. It is an economy of commodification: transform others into objects or be transformed into one yourself. It is impossible to be a man without a bitch, and vice versa, and these are the only options available to them. It therefore naturalizes a loveless system, coding selfish behavior as strength and unselfish behavior as weakness and eliminating all other possibilities. The family, in other words, is unthinkable.

D’Angelo’s tragedy — which is the narrative arc of season one — is that he understands this, that he sees the impossibility of the ideals he nevertheless holds to, but that, Hamlet-like, he can do absolutely nothing to escape that destiny. Or perhaps Oedipus is the better metaphor: he has no desire to fuck the mother figure — he genuinely does prefer love and would like his potential families to work out — but family is always just out of reach for him, and violence always intrudes.

His girlfriend Donette wants things he is unwilling to give — a house, a home — and part of this is the machismo of the character he seems unable to avoid playing. Yet it’s also not hard to understand why Donette would be an unattractive option for him: she is mostly shown to us as an archetypical shrew, always demanding, only demanding, a normality which he finds himself not only rejecting as an attachment, but out of a certain kind of guilt. In the restaurant scene, for example, it is D’Angelo (not Donette) who is unwilling to let the illusion go unpunctured; we don’t belong here, he tells her, but as we’ve learned about him as a character, he says this out of self-loathing. What’s more, as a minor lieutenant in the Barksdale crew, a live-in baby-mama (or even a wife) would necessitate increased dependence on his uncle, would embed him even deeper.

Shardeen is a bit different, since she seems not to ask those things of him, but that relationship ultimately breaks up because she discovers him to be implicated in the economy of subjection after all. Though he wanted nothing to do with it (and was horrified when he found out), he was at the party when Shardeen’s co-worker died after being “used” and was rolled up in a carpet and left in a dumpster. This again, is the tragedy of D’Angelo: as horrified as he is by what he sees and learns, he does nothing. But that’s the end for Shardeen, who, of course, knows about people being constructed as objects of consumption. As a dancer in a strip club (though “mostly” not a prostitute, as she puts it), she already walks a fine line between playing tricks on her customers and selling herself as a trick.

It’s Kima, however, who knows how to flip her; when she points out that “They use people and when they throw them away, they find a way to say it ain’t on them.” Which is why, by the way, it has to be Kima who gets shot when she’s dressed up as “one of Orlando’s hoes”: just as D’Angelo’s dilemma is how to live in a world defined by being a dog or being eaten, the writers bend over backwards to create a situation where McNulty can realize that he, too, is using everyone around him, and that a queer woman of color ultimately “takes two for the company” because of it. There’s something disturbing about how organically the reconciliation between Rawls and McNulty (and the general coming together of the entire BPD) flows out of the wounded body of a shot police officer, the way the fraternity of men needs a sacrificed woman to heal their wounds, and I think this is precisely the point: McNulty sees, for the first time, that his crusades were never even about his own cleverness, but that his cleverness was a function of his ability to manipulate the system, to get people like Kima (whose color, he notes, puts them in undercover situations he would never have to face) to go into harm’s way. His manipulations, he realizes, has consequences: one cannot be the man without creating bitches.

Yet while McNulty ultimately gets saved (sort of) by professionalism — about which more should definitely be said — and the Freamon/Shardeen pairing seems to imply that some middle ground between using and being used is possible (Freamon, after all, is the one who directs her into dangerous situations), D’Angelo gets destroyed by his inability to see through the lie that is his mother, by the particular impossibility of starting over in that mythical place “somewhere else” which is posited as his lot. I think forward to season five, Michael’s “I’m not going to pay you to be my mother.” As with that relationship, it is pretty clear that D’Angelo’s mother is not really a mother in the sense he wants her to be; as she tells him, without the family business there would be no family, which shoes that the family is ultimately just a function of the business (which her willingness to send her son to jail to preserve her financial well being illustrates). There’s more to that character than that, of course — she, too, is implicated in a system about which she has at least mixed feelings — but the point is that, again, D’Angelo (like Wallace) cannot escape from the illusion of a home which has never been real, but which is all he has ever known.

Contra David Simon

“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.

The Wire, part three: On Suction

The thing about “suction” is that it sucks both ways. I’m particularly susceptible to this line of thinking given all the time I’ve spent reading about patron-client relations in African politics, but it’s significant that we first learn the term in reference to a client who must placate his patron: Prez’s sergeant refuses to take Prez back to help Daniels because, as he says, he’s got suction with Valchek and needs to stay on his good side for the next round of promotions. In other words, it’s not a power structure but an alliance between a stronger and a weaker party, a situation of asymmetrical reciprocity. But if this sucks for both parties (in the colloquial sense), both parties are also drawn together.

McNulty’s story, for example, initially begins with his precarious position between patrons: does he owe his allegiance to Judge Phelan (with whom he goes “way back”) or to his Deputy-Ops, Rawls? Having seen the entirety of the series, I’m actually struck by how inadvertent his initial faux pas appears to be (telling the truth to the judge’s questions); though the last four seasons condition you to expect McNulty to be in full on maverick mode from the start, he plays his initial apology to the deputy ops quite sincerely, and seems genuinely relieved when Landsman engineers his return to the fold (in fact, not for nothing does Landsman tell McNulty he can come home only after McNulty gives the right answer to the question “Who do you serve?”). McNulty’s “what did I do?” isn’t bullshit; he seems genuinely confused about what he’s done, and genuinely believes it when he tells Rawls that the judge “fucked me too.”

In this sense, McNulty’s education in the inner workings of patronage obligations is our own. Initially, we think Judge Phelan is the good guy, and that Rawls is a total prick, but we’re only half right: because Phelan has no obligation to McNulty — because his gifts are private and therefore without social signification — he is actually more dangerous than Rawls. He is under no obligation to return any favors, and can withdraw himself from McNulty at any time (as he essentially does). But, as we see with Daniels and Prez, even the world’s greatest fuckup can’t really alienate his superior in this system; it is built into the logic of it that a superior would much rather put a bad client on the shelf (as with Freaman first, and eventually McNulty) than actually cut them loose. This is, of course, the big difference between the police and the gangsters (who cut people loose left and right), but I’ll get to that in the next post (the difference between the police logic of “suction” and the way the term “bitch” gets used to naturalize the logic of the crime syndicate).

For now, I just want to note that in season one, then, the problem is not systemic, it’s McNulty’s clumsiness: while we see a variety of different characters rubbing different social networks against each other to get what they want, McNulty gets himself into trouble because he doesn’t seem to have a clue what he’s doing. Because he hates the system, he cannot respect its power. But by season five, we see something dramatically different, a system which has simply broken down. But it doesn’t just break down because the money faucet gets turned off: it breaks down because the result of turning off the tap reveals that the policemen need their job more than the job needs them. And for the first time, we see the asymmetrical reciprocity arrangements get abused: not only are the police stripped of the bare minimum they need (and the only concession allowed them is that they are allowed to take work elsewhere) but — for the first time perhaps? — we see a police patron completely disavow his obligation to his client, when Carver cuts Collichio loose. Season one is all about gravity; season five is all about decaying orbits.

The Wire: Printing the Legend of the Western, Part 1

Basically, from now until I finish this paper, this blog is going to be mighty heavy on The Wire and the “Postcolonial Western.” For those of you who aren’t into that, je regrets sana mucho. For the other two of you — and you know who you are — enjoy.

At the beginning of season five, almost the very beginning, there’s a moment where McNulty and some new guy who I never got interested in are on the roof, surveying Marlo. They can see him clearly. They watch every step he takes, and they know where he’s going to go. If, like me, you’re re-watching seasons one and five at the same time, you’ll notice a sharp contrast: while the major problem with Barksdale’s crew was the fact that they were essentially in unserveillable space (eschewing cell phones and so forth), Marlo manages to do his business right out in the open. Avon Barksdale beings season one in a heart of darkness; Marlo begins season five in the open, watching his watchers. That seems like a good way to characterize the difference in how the two seasons conceptualize the problem of space and surveillance: while Avon Barksdale exists in a “traditional” conceptualization of the inner city (an off-the-reservation space defined by the difficulty the central authority has in penetrating or incorporating it), Marlo makes himself seen because there’s nothing to be seen. Season one begins with the work that McNulty and Bunk can do to peel D off from the Barksdales, but season five attacks a different kind of problem: what can they do with someone for whom knowledge gives you no advantage? About whom there is nothing to know? Thus, both his quasi-aesceticism and his amoral approach to corporate entities: more than any other character, he succeeds because he comes closest to the capitalist ideal of existing within institutional frameworks whose limitations only affect others, ruling structures whose rules only he can ignore.

It’s interesting to think about how much has changed in the interim between seasons one and five; for one thing, season five is a narrative that exists within a history. Not only does the title sequence flip us through a series of “dead soldiers” before showing a vial get crushed under someone’s heel, the characters themselves are freighted with a certain amount of baggage. We see Bubbles spend a lot of time alone, and it’s a powerful thing to do with the character because of all the people who are absent from his life (and an interesting contrast with someone like Omar, whose lovers are essentially faceless and replaceable, more on that later). The story of Michael, Dook, and Bug, too, can only work because of where they’ve been, and how they’ve gotten here. Much is unsaid. And in some ways, it shows season one for the prologue that it couldn’t help but be: McNulty, our trickster figure, can only drive the story along because there isn’t much of a story going on already.

By season five, however, McNulty, too, has a history, and the uninteresting guy on the roof with him has even heard some of it. And in this exchange, we learn something of how McNulty’s history in “the Western,” Baltimore’s Western police district (corresponding with but definitely not identical to Baltimore’s “West Side”) has become legend:

Uninteresting Guy: Hey, I heard a story about you when I was back in the Western.

McNulty: It’s not true.

Uninteresting Guy: You haven’t heard it, yet.

McNulty: Whatever it is, it’s not true.

Uninteresting Guy: [story about McNulty with a prostitute from season two which, interestingly, atually is true]

McNulty: You believe everything you read?

This sets up the entire season, naturally, but it’s also, as I’ve bludgeoned you over the head in indicating, a riff on John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, one of those movies that’s such an ur-Western that a great many movie critics have forgotten it came pretty much at the retrospective end (rather than the beginning) of the genre:

Ransom Stoddard: “You’re not going to use the story?”

Reporter: “No, sir. As our late and great editor, Dutton Peabody, used to say: “It ain’t news. This is the West! When the legend becomes a fact, print the legend.”

The Wire isn’t about culture

I had not wondered what The Wire looked like through the eyes of a conservative. But — thanks to Ta-Nehisi Coates — Jonah Goldberg shows us:

…look at it through the eyes of a conservative. This is a Democratic city, run almost uniformly by liberals. While many of the problems most prominently on display can certainly be traced back to racism, racism itself is not a central issue in The Wire (nor is racism an inherently or historically conservative phenomena). These drug gangs and the poor souls in their orbit, are not trapped by racism so much as by a dysfunctional culture.

Here’s where the train goes off the rails. The point of The Wire isn’t that the city is run by the liberals but that the liberals are run by the city. Carcetti, after all, is largely sincere in trying to change the system, but the moral of the show is simply that “the system” will always win. And this is why Goldberg goes on to say wildly inaccurate things in his next few sallies: he wants to place people at the center of the narrative, people boldly making their own destiny, for good or ill, when the very point of The Wire is that intentions matter less than institutional and social context. That’s why he says “culture” when he should be saying “society.”

That’s certainly the lesson of much of season four. The stoop kids do okay. The Corner Boys are destined for a life of misery. For every main character who is a murderer or dope dealer (but I repeat myself), there’s a representative of the black middle class who rejects the criminal culture of the street. For every Marlo, there’s a Bunk. Race relations between the actual characters are remarkably healthy, and nearly every mention of race as a salient issue is in the context of the political nonsense inherent to Baltimore, or rather urban, Democratic politics. To the extent many liberals try to explain all of the problems of poor blacks on racism, the show was a powerful rebuttal.

His claims that liberals try to “try to explain all of the problems of poor blacks on racism” is, of course, laughable; the show’s lack of interest in “racism” as a key to all mythologies is a pretty mainstream liberal approach, and hardly daring. But the culture/society blunder is the interesting thing, because it lets him toss out the completely wrong statement that the stoop kids do okay while the corner boys are destined for a life of misery. They don’t, actually. There’s absolutely no correlation; in fact, the only one of the four who gets called a “corner kid” is the one who survives and is seen succeeding at the end of season five. But so wedded is the conservative brain to a Moynihan narrative of “street culture,” the idea that people get into trouble because they choose to (albeit because their brains are controlled by the culture hive mind), that he can’t even remember what actually happens in the show.

I’m still addicted; one last re-up

Season Five is out. So, um, hold my calls.

In the meantime, my provisional thesis is that The Wire has to be contextualized as a 21st century engagement with New Deal liberalism, which then both addresses the problem of its failures through a patina of nostalgic anger at disappointed idealism (Why aren’t things better! They should be better!) and a gloss of cynically arrogant disinclination to care, contemptuously dismissing idealism as naive (Society will never change! Why bother?). It is therefore deeply invested in the mythology of industrial US society, taking cowboy stories seriously and (to steal something Scrimshander said) “attributing the seemingly occult causality of capitalism to a nearly omniscient” character like Omar or his evil doppleganger, Marlo. And, at the same time, and without apparent cognitive dissonance, it wants to tear down every idealism, every myth, every ideology it can, in service of an awesome and cynical faith in realism.

How does it manage to think both of these things at the same time, you ask? What are the show’s real politics? Does it behoove us to use Freud’s interpretation of dreams as the key to all mythologies? Perhaps. Or perhaps we should also consider that the problem of how “the system” (whatever that is) mediates between all manner of antagonistic agents, thereby making sure that everybody gets screwed but nobody goes hungry/unexploited, is the pumping heart of the show, and that (especially in the context of the final season’s emphasis on the creation of stories) the problem of how it can think two contradictory things at the same time is not so much a problem for the show, but the very point of it all. After all, the show’s central metaphor, the wire, is a performance of the fact that opposites are connected, that their very contradictions is what necessitates their interaction.

Bonus Discussion Question #1: Does the theme music get worse every season?

Bonus Discussion Question #2: If the show continued for more seasons, at what point would the size of the cast grow so large that its gravitational mass would cause it to collapse in on itself and become a black hole?

Blocking Out The Wire

One of the things that makes The Wire what it is, I think, is that it combines an incredible level of detail in portraying the local with a radical disinclination to address the larger context in which the “local” is located. This, of course, would hardly be a criticism if the show’s accomplishment in one kind of realism didn’t draw attention to its failings in another; after all, can you name a television show that does a better job in displaying the functioning of international capitalism than The Wire? In any case, “better” and “worse” are precisely not the right way to adjudicate this question. Instead, I would suggest that The Wire can’t see anything outside of Baltimore for the very simple reason that it carefully (and strategically) avoids looking.

Think of season two, for example, where the global criminal underworld stretching out from Baltimore’s port is not so much portrayed as obscured, where we don’t so much see the connections as we become aware that our sight of them has become closed off. The season begins with the Barksdale crew’s main supplier, who we never see, cutting them off, for reasons not fully explained, due to events that have happened off screen. The crime that pushes the season’s plotline happens on a ship crewed by foreign nationals who obstinately and successfully pretend not to speak English, thereby flummoxing the helpless Freeman and Bunk, who, confronted with a Swahili speaking crewmember lose their composure (“English Motherfucker!” and “Negro, you cannot travel halfway around the world and not speak a word of English!”). After all, what could be more existentially troubling to West-side Baltimore po-lice than a black man who so exists outside that frame of reference as to be completely illegible? Yet the show also shares this perspective, failing to subtitle his words and allowing the boat to sail right out of the narrative. The other main embodiment of global criminal capitalism (and the most important one) turns out to be a man whose name, “The Greek,” is more a sign of what he isn’t than of what he is. While the name intentionally harks back to what we think we know about the criminal underworld–the ways that familial gangs are structured by ethnicity in movies like The Godfather,The Departed, Eastern Promises, and The Wire itself (Italian, Irish, Russian, and African-American gangs, respectively)–it turns out that “the Greek” is a false clue deployed only to mislead Baltimore’s locally bound police. “After all,” he smirks “I’m not even Greek” He can therefore disappear into nowhere in the final episode precisely because the local knowledges that would suffice to track a locally-based hoodlum like Omar and Avon (who have local roots and histories) is useless against a crime boss whose locality is a trail of bread crumbs leading in the wrong direction.

As Joseph Kugelmass noted, one of the conceits of The Wire is that it melds the show’s own hermeneutics with the technologies of detection being used by its protagonists; we often see the action, especially in the first season, through camera angles that mimic the very public surveillance apparatus that the show’s detectives are using to track their counterparts. But in this case, the show does exactly the inverse: it weaves our heroes’ dis-inclination to look outside of Baltimore into the fabric of the show’s narrative, carefully framing the drama so that everything outside of Baltimore appears off-screen.

The fact that the show is about locality, however, doesn’t take from the fact that it is also, itself, bound by this local perspective. After all, while we are privy to anything that happens in any corner of Baltimore, from the darkest street corner or boarded-up row house to the inner sanctum of the Mayor’s office, the experience of anything outside Baltimore is inevitably one of disorientation and confusion for both characters and for their audience. Brody’s dismay at discovering that other cities have their own radio stations, Stringer Bell’s ignorance of go-go music, the comic scene in which west-side players are dumped in the woods and we pan across the looks of shock on their faces, McNulty’s alienation within the Washington DC party he stakes out, even the show’s own inability to explain why Herc has a Bronx accent, all speak to the ways the outside world is constituted as a blind spot within the show’s Baltimore narrative, and the show’s viewers share in that blind spot as inevitably as we share in it’s insights. When Wallace retreats to PG county, after all, he drops off of everyone’s radar, gangsters and police alike, and even off of ours: we see him only in the moments when he’s calling the Towers from a pay phone and the question of whether or not he’s turned remains in suspense. We never find out who the New York crew are that move into Baltimore in season four, or why they’ve come; they can be negatively identified through their lack of local knowledge, but they are never placed in a positive sense, nor does the show try to do so. And Brother Mouzone–Omar’s analogue and opposite–remains a cipher or an empty cliché set next to the kind of visceral history-in-place that Omar represents, in details like the scar on his face that signifies the past he carries with him.

In terms of the political landscape, Baltimore and Washington are close enough to each other to share Baltimore Washington International airport, but the absence of Washington DC in the show is a particular source of distress to me, a former resident. Yet this, too, is programmatic: even in episodes dealing with politics, when the federal government shows up, it never does so legibly. The FBI, for example, is often present but their obsession with international terrorism almost always renders them irrelevant, except insofar as McNulty’s personal relationship with an agent can transcend the agency’s built in apathy to local issues (as in the fictional “Ahmed Bell”). The feds show up out of nowhere to quash the Hamsterdam project, and the specter of “No Child” haunts season four like a disembodied spectre–always present but located nowhere in particular–but the show works to characterize the relationship between outside and local as mutual ignorance and blindness: if Baltimore can’t see out, then at least Washington can’t see in. To this effect, the entire narrative purpose of McNulty’s dalliance with D’Agostino seems to be to spotlight the fact that although the two are connected by multiple plotlines, they absolutely fail to see into each others’ worlds, even when they want to: he cannot comprehend politics on the national level, yet he jealously (and successfully) guards his knowledge of the local scene from her when she briefly puts her withering contempt for beat-cop level reality aside.

What does all this mean? I have some speculations–in particular, about the ways The Wire‘s narrative strategies respond both to the neo-liberal governance it takes as its subject and to the post-modern fantasies of infinite transparency that it takes as its medium–but I’m inching my way towards some kind of a hypothesis about how the show’s modes of looking at its subject tend to shape and condition what it becomes possible for it to see and show. After all, what seemed to come across in my last post on The Wire as criticism or finger-wagging was intended (if I can be pardoned for saying so) in a non-evaluative sense. I wrote that:

The Wire is strikingly bad at understanding or even imagining any other form of social organization. And this myopia–the inability to see the fallacy of comparing the Baltimore Sun with marriage–is a blindness that produces a particular kind of insight. Simon and company are incapable of seeing any possible good coming out of structural forms because they’ve already closed their eyes to the possibility.”

This style of analysis is, of course, vintage De Man, for it tries to make “blindness” into a prerequisite for seeing rather than a sign of failure to see. But I came to it by thinking about the ways that filmmakers create visual narrative not merely by what they show but by what they block out of the camera frame. A propos of the Bordwell thread a few weeks back, D.W. Griffith is a “great” director in a historical sense less because The Birth of a Nation still holds up as a great film (I find it hard to sustain that argument) than because he was perhaps the first director to understand and exploit the potential of framing and perspective in the ways that now characterize almost all narrative filmmaking. Before Griffith, the standard practice was a “full shot” in which nothing of significance was off screen, and his innovations in perspective were produced as much by strategically blocking our view of important elements in the scene as by highlighting whatever is that was being highlighted. Studio executives used to demand the “full shot” because, they reasoned, the public would not pay full price to see half of an actor, but Griffith was primarily responsible for the idea that selective framing could, in fact, produce more with less. And this innovation went beyond the technical details of shot composition: the famous homecoming scene in The Birth of a Nation, for example, where the mother’s arm reaches out of a doorway to embrace her son as he returns from the civil war, produces a kind of pathos by the same principle, but it uses physical props to obscure the mother’s face instead of the line dividing off-camera from on-camera.

In The Wire, I would suggest, the show’s macro-structure — the manner in which its plotlines select what is and what isn’t knowable by its characters and by its viewers — fulfills a similar function to the way a single shot’s micro-structural composition produces its mise-en-scene. But instead of creating a single scene, The Wire’s careful and strategic narrative myopias create a particular sense of place and location on a grand scale, a Baltimore whose visceral micro-texture can come into focus only at the cost of placing global macro-structures firmly off screen. It does the local so well, in other words, precisely because it doesn’t do the global at all. And this, maybe, is a way of addressing the show’s dedicated and omnipresent cynicism: if an incredible emphasis on producing the local means that one can only imagine local action, then how could one ever imagine dealing with a global structural crisis? One rarely cures a disease by exclusively treating its symptoms, but the obsessively local framing of The Wire doesn’t merely block out the larger world, it produces its insights about local reform by this very process.

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