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Joseph Kugelmass
Lawrence LaRiviere White
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Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

On the Origin of Objects (towards a philosophy of computation)

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Thursday, March 20, 2008

A Little Something You Can Touch: HBO’s Wire and the Politics of Visual Media

Posted by Joseph Kugelmass on 03/20/08 at 06:48 PM

(x-posted to The Kugelmass Episodes)

Spend some on a little something you can touch. A new car, a new coat...it’s why we get up in the morning.
-The Greek

You want it to be one way, but it’s the other way.
-
Marlo

Talking about The Wire, which most of the people I know do twice per day, is like repeating a mantra: Season 1 is the police station. Season 2 is the docks. Season 3 is the streets (or, more inaccurately, “politics"). Season 4 is public schools. Season 5 is the press—I haven’t even seen Season 5, but I must’ve heard that six times already. People talk about each season as though they were separate reports from the President’s Council: “Have you started Season 5 yet? Wait, you didn’t see Season 2?” The show’s schematic design encourages people to talk about it in ways usually reserved for non-fiction, with an emphasis on its structural critiques of one poorer-than-average city (Baltimore), and maybe a comment in passing about the show’s brilliant detective/fuck-up in residence, McNulty.

Yes, McNulty’s no angel, but the terms of the discussion are themselves interesting and relevant to the perspective of the show’s writers. The Wire, unlike (for example) The Sopranos and Six Feet Under, is a show written almost entirely from outside the consciousness of its characters. Whereas, in the case of Tony Soprano or Claire Fisher, we felt their highs and lows, inhabited their dreams, and saw how their psychic lives bled into reality, The Wire keeps its distance from the cast, and does a good job of representing the systems that contain them. This (not the pseudo-philosophy of Ayn Rand) ought properly to be called the new objectivism, and it is a sign of the increasing dominance of visual representation (e.g. the television serial) as well as of a certain form of functionalist liberalism. I’d expect nothing less of a show with a title that substitutes media for persons, and I’m not critical of The Wire per se—rather, I think of the show as one of the best versions of a paradigm that should not be allowed to foreclose other ways of seeing.

First of all, The Wire did not exactly invent the drama of the insubordinate detective who bucks the front office to catch crooks. I’m reminded of the brilliant Dirty Harry parody in The Simpsons:

Chief: You busted up that crack house pretty bad, McGonigle. Did you really have to break so much furniture?
McGonigle: You tell me, Chief. You had a pretty good view from behind your desk.
Homer: Ah, McGonigle: eases the pain.
Chief: You’re off the case, McGonigle!
McGonigle: You’re off your case, Chief!
Chief: What does that mean exactly?
Homer:  (yelling) It means he gets results, you stupid chief!
Lisa: Dad, sit down.
Homer: Oh, I’m sorry.

The dynamic goes all the way back to the formative years of noir, which has two particularly interesting features as a genre. First of all, from pretty early on, it had a very cozy relationship with film and television. Works by James M. Cain, Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Carver, and Mickey Spillane (among others) were adapted brilliantly for the screen. Film noir directors like Alfred Hitchcock worked with both film and television, and characters like Mike Hammer were used for both. Noir writing was heavily influenced by Ernest Hemingway’s journalistic prose, and emphasized action and things in precise, staccato sentences. It came of age during Hollywood’s Golden Age, and in fact in noir novels one can watch two things begin to fuse: the vicarious gaze of visual media, and a journalistic insistence on unvarnished facts.

Noir was also a genre filled with sins and dark lusts: crime, drugs, deviant sexuality, and whole ensembles of morally gray Machiavellis. It indulged our appetites but retained an antiseptic distance, suggesting more than it showed. The noir hero makes sense of this purgatorial darkness by accepting man’s sinful nature for what it is, and also by martyring himself through a pantomime of corruption. He drinks without getting drunk, kisses almost without changing his expression. He sinks to the depths, and yet the depths do not claim him; he is not aloof, but he does not succumb. He is, in fact, the personification of the camera, and a familiarly American notion of original sin grounds all the “facts” the narrating eye fearlessly reveals.

The best example of how the noir genre then transforms into a politics comes during the third season, when The Wire broaches the subject of legalizing drugs. A renegade major establishes “free zones” in three places in Western Baltimore, enabling drug addicts to purchase and use drugs without interference. The show’s perspective on this is pretty much in line with all the sound arguments for legalizing drugs: violent crime goes down, and some public health outreach becomes possible that would have been impossible before. While the mayor is debating whether he can sell the free zones to the public and the Feds, an aspiring candidate for mayor gets hold of the news and blows the whistle.

So far, so good. Somewhere, in the back of it all, you can hear David Simon saying “If you’d seen what I’ve seen, you’d favor legalization too,” and I agree with him. That said, after watching the show for three seasons, it begins to dawn on you that you have no idea what’s drawing people to the free zones. You’ve seen the character Bubbles getting high maybe a dozen times, then nodding off—cut. You see McNulty and Bunk drinking Jameson until they fall down on the train tracks, and cut. You see the newly hired soldier in Barksdale’s army walking into the room with a prostitute, and cut.

It is critical to see how up-to-the-minute this strange marriage of invasiveness and incuriosity really is. On the one hand, we know everything the characters are doing—my point is certainly not that the show ought to be more vicarious. The show is called The Wire, after all, and despite being filmed during the heyday of the Patriot Act, the show never has the slightest twinge of guilt about any form of surveillance, including wiretaps obtained specifically by manipulating anti-terrorist statutes to aid an ongoing drug investigation. On the other hand, we only rarely understand why a character indulges in the vices that drive the show, just as it is presently fashionable to be frustrated and impatient with other causal theories of human behavior, such as psychoanalysis.

The synchronicity of journalistic objectivity, visual representation, and the privileging of plot (representation of action) over representations of consciousness ultimately produces functionalism: people are what they do, and they do what they do. If that sounds like circular reasoning, well, it is, just like Avon’s “No Marlo, no game.” “If people are going to do drugs, they might as well be able to do it safely without spreading disease or swamping the criminal justice system.” That’s true, but it’s possibly not as trenchant as Trainspotting, which begins and ends with a snarling (and famous) indictment of the alternative:

Choose life. Choose a job. Choose a career. Choose a family. Choose a fucking big television, Choose washing machines, cars, compact disc players, and electrical tin openers. Choose good health, low cholesterol and dental insurance. Choose fixed- interest mortgage repayments. Choose a starter home. Choose your friends. Choose leisure wear and matching luggage. Choose a three piece suite on hire purchase in a range of fucking fabrics. Choose DIY and wondering who you are on a Sunday morning. Choose sitting on that couch watching mind-numbing sprit- crushing game shows, stuffing fucking junk food into your mouth. Choose rotting away at the end of it all, pishing you last in a miserable home, nothing more than an embarrassment to the selfish, fucked-up brats you have spawned to replace yourself. Choose your future. Choose life… But why would I want to do a thing like that? I chose not to choose life: I chose something else.

At many points, The Wire can’t improve on a paternalistic version of laissez-faire: why can’t the drug trade exist in harmony with the world, like other trades? The pushers sell, the users indulge, and McNulty’s there listening in case things get out of hand. Whereas in The Sopranos, it was understood that the Jersey gangsters were a microcosm for capitalism, and the toll, the proverbial “cut” taken out of every life, was very heavy.

Arguably, The Wire is better as a narrative than The Sopranos, and it is much better than Six Feet Under. The plotting in Six Feet Under was horrible: a subplot about a missing woman that dragged on forever, pointlessly complicated medical drama, multiple drug-induced revelations, and petty (and ultimately boring) villainy. Furthermore, the show indulged a kind of histrionic American WASP self-concern in which nothing beyond the personal appeared to have any existence at all. That said, Claire Fisher’s gradual development into an artist was a credible version of a wayward and often invisible process of individuation. In her case, at least, something came of all that chaotic and destructive desire, in a process that involved both her and us in wrestling with interiority. When visual media have to do this, it tends to jam the narrative machine. Transpotting resorts to the voice-over. Both The Sopranos and Six Feet Under employed talky dream sequences and quoted extensively from Yeats, Wordsworth, and the Bhagavad Gita. It was often insufferable, though other directors like David Lynch can make the awkwardness charming. I’m ready to admit that The Wire may be more perfect for its medium simply because it doesn’t play around nervously and ironically with sermons taken from religious and literary texts.

I’ll end with two characters from The Wire‘s second season: Frank Sobotka and Ziggy. If McNulty symbolically martyrs himself on his debauches, Frank literally martyrs himself. He works himself to the bone, up to and including getting involved with every sort of illegal trading, in order to keep the docks he represents alive. He processes a huge amount of dirty cash but sees none of it, passing everything along to his men. He is a creature of such integrity that he actually worries his associate, a criminal boss known as The Greek. Meanwhile, every thing Frank tries to do is undone by Ziggy, his son, who goes even further into crime and then spends the money on fancy jackets and a duck with a diamond-studded collar. When Frank confronts Ziggy about his risky behavior, Ziggy gives a rather pathetic response about the decline of Baltimore’s industries. He’s sad that things aren’t how they used to be, and that’s why he goes into the union bar and sets fire to a hundred dollars. It’s a joke of a causal explanation, and yet Ziggy sees the hopelessness of the situation feelingly, in a way Frank cannot. Instead Frank just keeps going, trying to make it all cohere, until he winds up dead.

We have had a great deal of mysterious badness lately, within and without: Sheriff Ed Tom Bell describes Anton Chigurh as a “ghost” in No Country for Old Men. In the same film, another character says, “Whatcha got ain’t nothin new. This country’s hard on people, you can’t stop what’s coming.” Whether it’s the dry Texas plains or the Baltimore projects, the people who move across these places are ghosts to us: we see them, but we don’t know who they are. What makes Avon Barksdale turn out so differently from Stringer Bell? Why is Greggs driven down the same path as McNulty? What makes an Omar, a Landsman, a Royce?

I won’t ever know the answer. I’ll have to talk about bureaucracies, and I’ll have to ask people which seasons they’ve seen. But Ziggy? Alas, poor Ziggy! I knew him, readers.


Comments

Joseph,

Interesting post. I think your connection between The Wire and the externalized prose of hard-boiled writers such as Hemingway and Hammett works well, but I don’t think film noir per se is the best framework for The Wire. Really, the policier or police procedural seems more appropriate (some of which were also noirs). The problem with the film noir comparison is that many films noirs weren’t objective at all; instead they were highly subjective both in visual style and narration. Think the impressionist visuals that occur in Murder, My Sweet to express Marlowe’s drugged-out mental state, noirs frequent use of POV shots and sequences, or the countless examples of flash-back narration.

I’m not indicating that your claims are wrong, just that noir is a much more diverse and complex phenomenon than you’ve outlined.

Finally, I think The Wire’s externalized, quasi-objective narrational stance is what I love about it. And while it might not give us direct access to the consciousness of the characters, I do think we get insight; perhaps in a manner similar to Hemingway’s “iceburg theory”. Frankly, I felt a greater emotional connection with the characters on The Wire than any other show I’ve seen. So it must have been doing something right in it’s visual and narrative approach.

-James

By on 03/21/08 at 12:20 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Really? I don’t get your foregrounding of Ziggy. If it’s a personal resonance, that’s fine. But that has nothing to do with Simon’s show. And your account of Ziggy doesn’t really give me any sense of what that resonance is other than the merely personal. Simon doesn’t tell us any more of the “why” about Ziggy than he does of any other featured character.

By Bill Benzon on 03/21/08 at 01:13 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I’m watching The Wire backwards, really having begun with this season, and watching the rest. So I don’t pretend to expertise. But I’m captured by your description of the quest for objectivity and representation of system: it squares with my feeling about the final season, certainly.

My own take on that was naturalism and proletarian fiction--connected of course to noir, in interesting ways that a few folks around this joint have discussed.  And the writers of the final episodes--Lehane, Pelicanos, Price--especially the latter two, navigate extensively in their novels between naturalism and hard-boiled. Price’s most recent, Lush Life, reads like a transcript of his ride-alongs on my old stomping grounds, the Lower East Side.

And I agree with James about the strength of the emotional connection I felt--I think this is part of the power of writing that captures the structure of feeling, engaging what we feel as a social, shared, process rather than a private subjectivity. 

The narrative arc is kind of Upton-Sinclairish, Norris-like, really, or Zola-esque, in the dedication of each season to a different milieu: “Police!” “The Docks!” “Schools!”

By Marc Bousquet on 03/21/08 at 02:46 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I’ve been reading some fan chatter—mostly at Salon’s Table Talk—and there is a strong sense of emotional attachment. These folks love them some Bunk, or Omar, or are heartbroken over Dukie. I agree about the lack of interiority, but that doesn’t get in the way of powerful identification.

And there’s some interesting character development as well. Consider the rather different trajectories of Carver and Herk. They started out as the screw-up twins, but took very different courses.

As for “representation of system.” That’s what I find really interesting about this show, that it’s attempting that. It’s one thing to represent system as global conspiracy, as Pynchon does, but what Simon’s doing is different. And I think that what he’s doing is necessary.

By Bill Benzon on 03/21/08 at 02:53 PM | Permanent link to this comment

James writes:

The problem with the film noir comparison is that many films noirs weren’t objective at all; instead they were highly subjective both in visual style and narration.

That’s very true, as is your point about the rise of the police procedural (after all, Simon cut his teeth doing Homicide). It would be interesting to trace the gradual separation of noir from somewhat psychoanalytic accounts of subjectivity.

(I’ll address the point about emotional connection in a follow-up comment.)

By Joseph Kugelmass on 03/21/08 at 05:05 PM | Permanent link to this comment

My own take on that was naturalism and proletarian fiction--connected of course to noir, in interesting ways that a few folks around this joint have discussed.

It’s a great point. What I like about your account is that you’re identifying a mixed approach, rather than conflating styles. As much as I enjoy and value the show, I do get concerned when a show that has a spaghetti Western gunslinger stand-off between Omar and the New York assassin gets treated as non-fiction, or at least as pure naturalism.

You’re right (and funny) about Sinclair—“Oil!” has become “Drugs!”

By Joseph Kugelmass on 03/21/08 at 05:10 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Bill,

It looks as though Season 4, which I’m only halfway through, might begin to give the African-American kids some real history and context, redressing the oversight of the earlier seasons.

In essence, the problem with a lot of the show is that while we do get some background for white characters like Carcetti and Ziggy, we get very little for truly weird players like Omar, or even for “products of the streets” like Marlo.

Compare Ziggy with D’Angelo Barksdale. In Ziggy’s case, the whole arc of his story leads up to an act of murder that we, as viewers, find completely understandable (though not sympathetic, obviously). In D’Angelo’s case, on the other hand, the murder happens before the show ever begins—it’s just there, and actually very little about D’Angelo’s subsequent actions makes him seem capable of it.

While it’s true that Carver develops, most of the other charcters, Herk included, do not. I am a fan of the intense focus on character development in shows like Battlestar Galactica, but I accept that Simon and the show’s writers do not actually believe people change often or very much.

By Joseph Kugelmass on 03/21/08 at 05:19 PM | Permanent link to this comment

On the question of emotional connection:

Like each of you, I’ve been affected by the show. Omar is intensely likable, Stringer is an interesting portrait of a conflicted man, and McNulty gets results. (Ah, McNulty: eases the pain.)

My only point is that these are frequently sympathies formed despite limited information. The show brings us up to date on what’s happening, and on the personalities of the characters involved, and we grow attached to them because they have compelling interests at stake, and because they have style. I don’t know how Omar turned into the black gay Clint Eastwood, but it’s cool when he says “A man must have a code.”

Our sympathies are frequently situational, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Just as I’m sympathetic to Cillian Murphy in 28 Days Later, despite knowing virtually nothing about him, I’m sympathetic to D’Angelo when he gets caught between Stringer and Avon, and I’m sympathetic to Prez given the difficult situation in the Baltimore public schools.

By Joseph Kugelmass on 03/21/08 at 05:29 PM | Permanent link to this comment

That said, after watching the show for three seasons, it begins to dawn on you that you have no idea what’s drawing people to the free zones. You’ve seen the character Bubbles getting high maybe a dozen times, then nodding off—cut.

The Wire is in many ways the sequel to The Corner, the book Simon cowrote with Ed Burns, later turned into an award-winning miniseries on HBO (written by Simon and David Mills). That series was Simon’s Big Statement about junkies and dealers, the place of the addict in community/family, etc. Homicide, Simon’s first book, serves in many ways as the police-station equivalent to The Corner, a closer look at the life of the homicide cops within their complex, fucked up institution. The Wire is an attempt to pull back from those harrowing up-close narratives.

Simon’s choice to widen focus isn’t just a political one; he’s already done the other thing, with striking artistic and journalistic success.

That’s the only comment for now; time to play pool in Boston somewhere.

By Wally on 03/21/08 at 08:44 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Interesting and legitimate point of view--but I wonder if Joseph Kugelmass wouldn’t admire the so-called “objectivism” of the narrative more if he had the whole five-season picture. Certainly he praises the quality of The Wire’s narrative above that of other series he admires for their “inwardness” and emotionality. I wonder if he sees the connection between The Wire’s close attention to external details and the strong and large understanding it provides of Baltimore’s (and the USA’s) predicament.

To quote Oscar Wilde, “People who do not judge by the surface of things are, generally speaking, quite shallow.”

The Wire is all the more involving for the opportunities it gives us to recognize the situations and motivations we see all around us, and the (classically tragic) role played by the conflict between individuals and the institutions in which they are embedded. For this level of talk-to-the-screen passionate audience involvement, you need top-flight journalism more than self-indulgent therapist-couch yap. 

We might end up caring more about the feelings of Tony Soprano and his family, but we end up knowing more about the interwoven realms of Bunk, McNulty, Prez, Prop Joe, Michael, Bubbles, Carcetti, Namond, and some 40 other memorable people. The Wire is the anti-narcissism drama. It’s a whole world: 

http://www.hbo.com/thewire/cast/

By on 03/22/08 at 04:04 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I think you’re under-recognizing how political noir was, and how political The Wire is.  Noir was often nearly always explicitly Left - go read Horace McCoy for instance.  McCoy, Hammett, Thompson, Fearing, William Lindsay Gresham and Himes were all Communist Party members or fellow travelers, for instance. Fearing wrote a novel (Clark Gifford’s Body)which predicts a failed “leftish” revolution in a failed “neoliberalesque” future America.  The fact that the vast majority of curren European (and Europe is where noir went after it fled America) noir authors are explicitly Left: Hans Werner Kettenbach, Jean-Claude Izzo, Massimo Carlotto, Saskia Noort and on and on.

By on 03/22/08 at 06:34 PM | Permanent link to this comment

So you honestly don’t think we get to see any “interiority” with Stringer Bell?  And you weren’t devestated when it became clear that he couldn’t get out of the corner he had painted himself into?

By Adam Kotsko on 03/23/08 at 12:36 PM | Permanent link to this comment

It is indeed the fourth season which gives us the closest thing to a psychological explanation for why the gangsters are the way they are: their lives are deathly hard from childhood on, their horizons are narrow and cramped, they don’t trust adults (justifiably, since most of the adults they know are neglectful or abusive), and they don’t really have any alternative. As Wee Bey says, “Who the fuck would want to be that if they could be anything else?” But these kids don’t believe they can be anything else, and neither do any of the adults they encounter—and those who do believe they can get beyond the corners are constrained by the systems already in place, which are deeply entrenched and resistant to change, largely because of the huge number of vested interests involved. (Some of which, being at a state or national level, are beyond the scope of the series and can only appear as potential menaces or allies from Outside—see, for instance, the crooked FBI agent who tips off the Greek in season 2, or the never-seen Republican governor of Maryland whom Carcetti asks for money for the school system in season 4.)

The Wire is a Marxist’s dream of a series, actually, precisely because of the emphasis on exteriority you identify here: it’s not that the characters don’t have psychologies, but that that’s not what Simon is currently interested in. He wants us to pay attention to the systems of the city, and so he shifts attention away from the individual psychologies of the people involved, so that we can see the forest without being distracted by the trees.

And yet, it really is just a matter of emphasis. It’s clear that if Herc were a little more conscientious and a little less cowardly, if McNulty cared less about proving his own superiority and more about pleasing others, if Michael hadn’t suffered the trauma he suffered that left him incapable of trusting adults… if any number of characters were just slightly different in their psychological make-up, their stories wouldn’t go the way they went. But that’s not what The Wire is about, and that in itself is praiseworthy, in my view, because it is what just about every other TV drama is about. “The psychology of the individual”, as Jeeves would put it. We’ve heard that story; David Simon is telling us another.

By Katherine F. on 03/24/08 at 01:00 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I’m with Adam: Stringer Bell’s demise was intensely moving despite what we knew about him.  His relationships with women were of the disposable sort; he betrayed Avon by murdering his nephew; &c.

The Wire revels in the lived quality of judging a person by dint of social interaction.  We don’t live in any head but our own, so we can only impute interiority via fictions actual or social.  The expectation with any created product is that we’ll be receiving genuine fiction with all its attendant interiority.  It’s not that every novel/film/series will be “Penelope,” mind you, only that we expect the voyeuristic thrill of being privy to someone else’s thoughts. 

I remember a decade or so ago when Law & Order broke formula and showed you the principle’s reaction to the first execution in the state of New York in thirty years.  The move worked—despite some unnecessary melodrama—precisely because the characters responded as expected.  They weren’t genuinely different than we thought they were.  Now, you could say that’s because the writers are predictable—not a bad argument—but I think their predictability is itself the result of having observed “their” characters respond socially for the better part of ten years.  This is how they would react.  How do we know?  We’ve seen them at work.  We’ve judged them by their actions.  Are they more complicated than that?  Everyone is.

But at day’s end Molly either stays with Bloom or runs off with Boylan.  In the one case she’s the repressed, domesticated woman; in the other, a selfish tart; but in both she plays to turn-of-the-century Irish type, no?

By SEK on 03/24/08 at 01:54 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I thought it was totally great when Adam posted a little note to the Weblog about how much he felt for the characters on The Wire, especially those (assuming I’m remembering this correctly) who were “irredeemably evil.” It’s the kind of thing that makes a blog intimate and approachable.

I felt tremendous sympathy for Stringer at the end of Season 3. I never wanted that for him. I thought when it was his time that he would be the one to hold the strings. Senator Bell. Governor Corleone...I mean, Governor Bell.

Whether or not I sympathized with Stringer and his situation still has little to do with understanding his origins. My sympathies were a little dampened by the familiarity of his story (the crook who fails to become a respectable businessman, a promotion he somehow believes he deserves), but I did feel a pang. Honestly, my post wasn’t about emotional attachment or detachment; it was about different ways of knowing characters.

By Joseph Kugelmass on 03/24/08 at 05:32 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I wonder if he sees the connection between The Wire’s close attention to external details and the strong and large understanding it provides of Baltimore’s (and the USA’s) predicament.

Steve, go ahead and use the second person here. Also, I’d agree with you that The Wire helps us understand how a city like Baltimore works, and I’d agree with Bill that it’s in a sense “necessary.”

By Joseph Kugelmass on 03/24/08 at 05:37 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Burritoboy and Katherine F write in about the political issues at stake.

Burritoboy, not all noir is progressive. Mickey Spillane was very right-wing, and so, in my opinion, is Frank Miller, a big influence on neo-noir. The politics of The Wire are complex.

Katherine F writes that the show is a “Marxist’s dream.” Up to a point, I agree, since it’s often focused on structural problems rather than problems of individual choice or morality.

That said, the drug business is not admirable from a Marxist point of view. It’s bloody and exploitative like the rest of capitalism. The show’s interest in “the game” goes way beyond what the materialist dialectic requires. Furthermore, the show’s interest in competence, in doing the job right, while not exactly anti-Marxist, is at best a waste of time from the standpoint of radical politics.

By Joseph Kugelmass on 03/24/08 at 05:43 PM | Permanent link to this comment

SEK (with nods back to Adam and Katherine):

Why would you bring up Ulysses here? It’s almost the worst example in the world, which is why it’s so famously difficult to film. (Finnegans Wake, which can barely even be read aloud, would not be filmable at all.)

The whole point of Joyce’s decision to write in a multiplicity of voices, and to make an entire novel out of the events of a single day, is to de-emphasize plotting and the binary of questions like “Will she return to Bloom or not? Will he return to her or not?” We see dozens of scenes from Molly’s life in “Penelope,” understand a great deal about her ambivalence towards her husband, get a sense of her “style” and the rhythm of her thoughts, learn about her family, and so on. Every sentence in that chapter makes her more irreducible, and you couldn’t get anywhere as a critic writing a paper on whether she’s a tart or a housepet.

There’s an old saying that stereotypes exist because they work as descriptions of other people. We find stereotypes pretty useful, and there’s no reason why a given show can’t skew towards commedia dell’arte presentations of types.

But there’s a reason why Shakespeare worked so hard to build up other models of character and characterization: you do rob people of agency by understanding them as types.  Sobotka is a sympathetic but one-dimensional martyr, and Bell is a sympathetic but one-dimensional capitalist. When characters on The Wire surprise us, as the soldier does when he becomes a boxing coach, we just don’t know much about what they’re thinking.

By Joseph Kugelmass on 03/24/08 at 06:10 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Ah, the politics of The Wire. Simon has certainly availed himself of every opportunity to assert that the series is about the nasty consequences of allowing capitalism to run rampant. But I wouldn’t want to undertake the job of explicating Simon’s assertion in a detailed way. It’s not clear to me that Simon’s invocation of “capitalism” is much more than a convenient term for “whatever it is that’s running things now.”

But he also takes every opportunity to say that the show’s not about good and evil. I’m not sure where you’d get explicating that one either, but it seems a little more interesting. It’s quite clear that Simon is not “arguing” that those who more or less obey the law are good while those who more or less break it are evil. Nothing so simple.

But that much in itself is not new. After all, The Sopranos - which I’ve never seen - is all about people on the wrong side of the law. And so is The Godfather series, and I’m reasonably familiar with that series (I own the DVD for the first film and have seen the others at one time or another). The “gravity” in The Godfather is entirely with those on the wrong side of the law; and there certainly does seem to be a moral distinction being made there, between those faithful to the family and those who betray it.

What’s interesting about The Wire is that the center of narrative gravity is not tipped toward either side of the law. We’ve got plenty of action on both sides of that divide, and plenty of “good” and “bad” characters on each side. That seems newish.

But what it has to do with untrammeled capitalism . . . .

* * * * *

And what do you do with the fact that a number of the secondary characters are played by folks who are not merely Real Baltimoreans, but were even criminals (and did time) at one point? This is part of the PR aura. I’m thinking particularly of the deacon - who was a drug lord and did time for it - and Snoop, who was born a crack baby and has done time for 2nd degree murder.

It seems to me that this is beside the point aesthetically, but is certainly part of the deal for The Wire as a cultural phenomenon.

By Bill Benzon on 03/24/08 at 06:26 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Hey Joseph,

Why do you see the focus on ‘competence’ as beside the point from a Marxist perspective? This preoccupation was one of the main things that, for me, pegged the show _as_ Marxish: the distortion of useful social labour by the alienated ends of the bosses.

Though I suppose most Marxian criticism is not really about whether we approve or disapprove of the message of a work, but what it shows about the conditions of its own production, esepcially the wider society in which it is produced and which it represents. Thus M&Es’ admiration for Balzac.

(I’m clearly no literary scholar, but for what it’s worth my take is here: http://scandalum.wordpress.com/2008/01/13/balzac-of-baltimore/)

By Mike Beggs on 03/25/08 at 03:06 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Mike,

Now that I think about it, having read your interesting and valuable post, I would describe the show’s major theme as “the problematic substitution of the fake for the real.” You have con artists like Clay Davis. You have test scores privileged over real learning. You have “street rips” instead of good police work, “numbers games” in the police department instead of actual safety.

That seems very Marxist to me, since it generally accords with his theories of the way commodity value replaces use value.

Nonetheless, at times the show seems to merely be arguing that the wrong people are in power. If Daniels and Bunny Colvin were allowed to run the Baltimore police department together, wouldn’t everything be copacetic? From a Marxist standpoint, not really, since they would still be prosecuting a set of laws specifically designed to protect class privilege. In order to keep its momentum, the show has to have recourse to daydreams of that kind: what if McNulty got his own unit to run? What if Prez could go completely off-curriculum? Etc.

By Joseph Kugelmass on 03/25/08 at 05:26 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Cheers Joseph. You may be right about the wrong people being in power. But on the other hand, I think the show often shows how the system is innoculated against the right people, unless they act like the wrong people. I don’t want to spoil Season 5 for you, but a couple of your hypotheticals come to pass, in a way.

By Mike Beggs on 03/25/08 at 06:57 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Joseph - re. your last point: Season 5 makes it abundantly clear that your interpretation is on the money. Whoever told you it was about “the media” is only half-right; it’s about lies and mistruths, in all their various forms.

By on 03/25/08 at 08:25 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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