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cover of the book Theory's Empire

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The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Happy Trails to You

What’s an Encyclopedia These Days?

Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Intimate Enemies: What’s Opera, Doc?

Alphonso Lingis talks of various things, cameras and photos among them

Feynmann, John von Neumann, and Mental Models

Support Michael Sporn’s Film about Edgar Allen Poe

Philosophy, Ontics or Toothpaste for the Mind

Nazi Rules for Regulating Funk ‘n Freedom

The Early History of Modern Computing: A Brief Chronology

Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

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

Symposium on Graeber’s Debt

The Nightmare of Digital Film Preservation

Richard Petti on Occupy Wall Street: America HAS a Ruling Class

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Nick J. on The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Bill Benzon on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Norma on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Bill Benzon on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

john balwit on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on That Shakespeare Thing

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

JoseAngel on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on Objects and Graeber's Debt

Bill Benzon on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

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Friday, June 20, 2008

Blocking Out The Wire

Posted by Aaron Bady on 06/20/08 at 01:22 PM

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.

(crossposted at zunguzungu)


I’ve got a problem with the rhetorical structure of your post, Aaron. I was getting more and more irritated until after the quote, and then I thought you had a VERY interesting argument.

Why was I getting irritated? Because you seemed to be writing the kind of critique that’s more about what you want The Wire to be than what it is. And you didn’t really have any particularly good reason for wanting the show to be that other thing except that that other thing is what you believe to be the case. Now if you’d put the DW Griffith riff up front and said “the show’s like that, and here’s why” you’d have had me with you from the beginning.

The argument you ended up with is rather nice. It seems to me that you could link your point even more closely to the nature of the medium. Prose is well suited to presenting the kind of global picture implied by The Wire because it can do so through abstraction. But TV can’t do that. It always has to show us particular individuals, in particular places, doing particular acts. Any attempt to show the global picture by amassing a greater variety of particulars would risk failure though the impossibility of comprehending all the particulars needed to do the job.

By Bill Benzon on 06/20/08 at 04:07 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Could it also be that Baltimore is experienced as an inherently claustrophobic environment by the characters we see?  For someone like you, eventually bound for grad school, maybe it was much different, but for ghetto drug dealers, the police who have to deal with them every day, and a doomed dock workers’ union, Baltimore might really seem to be all there is. 

One major omission from your list: obviously Carcetti can see beyond Baltimore!  In fact, there are more characters who can see beyond—even Omar is able to start a new life before being drawn back in season 5 by the death of his blind friend (name?)—but if you’ll excuse my language, the basic attitude of those who are aware of the outside in a real way is, “I’ve got to get the fuck out of Baltimore!”

In Carcetti’s case, I guess he does promise he can help more from the state level, but who knows if he follows through?

On another note, I think I might share Bill’s criticism—more broadly, I’m really tired of commentary on The Wire that seems to dismiss Simon’s worldview out of hand.  It’s not like he’s just a negative, cynical guy—there’s some serious thought and long experience behind it.  Yet all the good liberals/leftists have to tut-tut his hopelessness.  Why not tarry with it at least a little bit?  Why not really open yourself up to the possibility that he’s right, that our institutions are fundamentally broken and illegitimate in a way that is not fixable anymore? 

To me, that’s what makes The Wire so radical in the American context—and in this sense, in terms of its worldview, The Wire is not simply about local Baltimore problems, but about postmodern America as a whole.  Baltimore is one of the places where the cancer is at its most advanced, perhaps, but what he’s doing can and must be read in the braoder American context.  (What if we read Obama in terms of Carcetti, for example?)

By Adam Kotsko on 06/20/08 at 04:46 PM | Permanent link to this comment

All else aside:

Yet the show also shares this perspective, failing to subtitle his words and allowing the boat to sail right out of the narrative.

‘Failing’? Please, please. You don’t think that was a deliberate choice in the scene, indeed part of its point? And…

the show’s own inability to explain why Herc has a Bronx accent

They hired an actor from NYC on the merits, and didn’t rewrite the character to make room for such exposition.

Little oversights like these point to a certain wish-fulfillment in here, yeah? And more on Simon’s journalistic background - with that profession’s strict rules about what kind of global context is worth including or even allowed - along with his oft-restated point about specificity being the show’s primary goal (beyond even its polemical fervor about the ‘war on the American underclass’), would cut against such willful misreadings.

I’m with Bill and Kotsko re: accusations of cynicism on Simon’s part. As he’s pointed out - if I remember correctly - Baltimore is one of the few major cities in which the murder rate hasn’t declined in the last 15 or 20 years - as such it’s a very particular subject, though one meant to illuminate larger questions about cities and institutions, and if Simon is making an implicit argument that showing the world beyond Baltimore isn’t central to a narrative analysis of that city’s woes, then I’m inclined to say the burden of proof is on critics who’d claim otherwise.

But then I’m cranky because I haven’t had enough fatty food this week. So: grain of salt, etc. But only a grain.

By waxbanks on 06/20/08 at 05:08 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I’m on a little bit of a kick with this, but instead of a “spectre haunting” what you mean to say is a “frightful hobgoblin stalks.”

The reason that it doesn’t deal with issues on a larger or global scale, as I think you’re trying to say, is that HBO’s subscriber base understands that those issues are important enough to be left to hedge fund managers and other experts. I’m also concerned about your use of the word “medium.”

By Jonathan Goodwin on 06/20/08 at 05:22 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Wow. Before I address what I see as the more substantive points, let me clarify something: it is exactly my point that “failing to subtitle his words” and “allowing the boat to sail right out of the narrative” are “a deliberate choice in the scene.” The “wish-fulfillment” narrative that both waxbanks and Bill (initially) slotted me into (perhaps stalked by the hobgoblin of non-fatty foods) misses the point I thought I was making in the post, which is that the show is crafty, strategic, canny, planned, thought-through, careful, and thoroughly not-dumb about what it chooses to exclude, and that the claustrophobic perspective it produces is both masterfully dramatized and a choice of subject that forecloses other dramatic possibilities. I reject and denounce all allegations that I view such things as oversights; my point was that they were not oversights! Thus, what Bill called the “DW Griffith Riff.”

As for the hiring of a bronx actor “on merits,” half the cast was hired for their “true Balmore” vibe (the nine or so Jay Landsmen’s in the cast, for example), so when they chose to add and not explain an audibly non-Baltimore character, you can’t say that they didn’t *choose* to do that; the fact that they never come up with a backstory indicates to me that it’s a problematic issue for the show’s storytelling engine, and that’s why it gets buried (I wish they hadn’t; my bet is that the solution to the problem that they would have come up with would have been totally fascinating).

More in a second.

By on 06/20/08 at 05:42 PM | Permanent link to this comment

It seems like one could take your argument and flip it around and it’d be just as true, based more or less on the same arguments employed here.  I.e., that The Wire‘s myopic view of Baltimore actually pulls the global into better perspective, due to the absence of distractions

There also seems an unwarranted assumption (not just by you, but by most who write about the show) that focusing so tightly & single-mindedly on Baltimore automatically results in a comprehensive view of the city.  If, as Simon has stated numerous times, Baltimore is to be regarded as an actor in the show, why is it then accurate to assume it is an accurate, “realistic” depiction.  (The final season, I think, should completely dispel the idea that their ultimate aim was verisimilitude.)

As such, if Simon’s & Burns’ Baltimore is indeed broken, it’s not because Baltimore itself, the one on our map today, is also broken.  This can be argued, but I don’t think it is the most significant point.  Rather, it is that the systems in place that transcend geography, and thus cannot be finally located, are broken.  (It’s interesting to juxtapose The Wire to Deadwood here.  The latter hinges on season three, where there is a moment of “speaking truth to power.” There is something momentarily liberating about that moment, but not ultimately effective.  In the The Wire, the vision of late-stage capitalism (versus its 19th-century rise in America), power is too spread out to address.  You’re left only with only glimpses of alternatives that may or may not be ultimately viable.)

By Brad on 06/20/08 at 05:42 PM | Permanent link to this comment

The caveat I should have added is that, having missed The Wire on HBO, I’m limited to the seasons available on DVD (no season five until August).

Regarding Carcetti and Omar, I think Adam is right that they make the problem more complex, but I’m not sure that Carcetti ever really troubles the local vs. outside distinction; after all, as he puts it, those who can see outside do not (as in the hoary cliché) think globally and act locally, but simply try to escape. There is, in short, no integration between local and outside; there is an either/or choice. My point therefore wasn’t that the outside doesn’t exist within Baltimore, but to try to think about the ways its presence within Baltimore gets plotted into the narrative. The show’s opening conversation, the “we had to let snotboogie play because this is America” exchange, references an extra-Baltimorian space in a conversation between uber-Baltimore characters, and there are lots of moments like that. To put it another way, the show might recognize that the outside exists inside Baltimore (that Baltimore’s problems are part of larger structural forces), but the ways it tracks and charts that interplay are, I think, interestingly less sophisticated than the ways it tracks smaller institutional micro-dynamics (the squeeze felt by middle-management, for example, but more rarely the pushback that people on the bottom of the ladder are able to apply to those above them).

That’s why I want to distance myself from the “he’s [Simon] just a negative, cynical guy” line that Adam is putting in my mouth, or the claim that I’ve denied that “there’s some serious thought and long experience behind it.” I think David Simon and co have produced the most sophisticated piece of sociological drama I’ve ever seen on TV or on film, but the point of my post was not to “tut-tut his hopelessness” like “all the good liberals/leftists” but to think about how the form of storytelling he adopts informs the kind of story he tells. My argument is that the close attention to micro-dynamics comes at the cost of making macro-dynamics become a blind spot, a blind spot that the show carefully dramatizes by showing its characters’ inability to deal with the outside world (the swahili interrogation, for example). 

So, to the question “Why not really open yourself up to the possibility that he’s right, that our institutions are fundamentally broken and illegitimate in a way that is not fixable anymore?” I would respond by rejecting the analogy of “institutions” with something that can be either broken/illegitimate or functional/legitimate. A “school,” for example, is not a platonic ideal with a single function, but a complex and overdetermined site where numerous different forces are interacting with each other. The question we should ask, I think, isn’t whether it’s succeeding or failing (whether it’s legitimate or illegitimate) but what exactly is it actually doing: how are the different actors and social forces managing to adapt and manipulate the structures in place towards their own needs, and—with that in mind—whose needs is the institution tending to favor? At the risk of going on a tangent, the work I’m doing makes me read a lot about development in Africa, and one of the mistakes that people keep making over and over again with regard to that question is point out how development initiatives “fail” (which means they don’t accomplish what the development types say they will) but to pay almost no attention to the ways this “failure” gets instrumentalized by each involved actor: some peasants learn to game the system, the smarter African politicians learn to use development money to enhance their patronage chains, development experts get job security out of a condition of permanent poverty, and well-off Americans get to save the world and salve their consciences by buying products. And so on.

So with regard to Baltimore and The Wire, this is why I find David Simon’s much ballyhooed claims that our institutions are “broken” is so much less interesting than the kind of sociological modelling the show itself does; just as “development” tends to benefit despots and donor countries much more than the people it’s supposed to help, The Wire is actually quite smart (at times) about showing how the “brokenness” of the system benefits some parties far more than others, how it is the “brokenness” of the system in one sense actually allows it to function quite well in another sense-- it is, after all, in the Drug dealers’ interest no less than the scare-mongering politician’s interest that inner city schools fail. Part of Carcetti’s narrative arc (as far as I can tell) is the story of an idealist learning that the ways the system actually works have nothing to do with the idealism that he brought in the door with him. My sense of Carcetti is that his problem is the belief that there’s something positive or radical about conceding defeat and vowing to fight another day: in discovering that he can’t reform the system to make it do what it’s supposed to do, he gives up and puts his faith in the outside (state level governance). This is certainly what he does in season four, where he doesn’t take money for schools from the governor because this will cause him political problems down the road, at a later date when he’ll really be able to enact change. That seems to me to be a cop-out; the more reasonable response to a problem like that is to put what strategic pressure you can on the various institutions to get them to do the things you want them to do. Carver bends the rules to try to help the various kids that fall under his care, Cutty takes money from a drug dealerto set up a boxing ring, McNulty steps out of the chain of command, and so on and so forth; positive results come from people who try to make a broken system work for them. You take suction where you can get it, in short.

By on 06/20/08 at 06:40 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Its odd that you’d reference the second season and not talk about the motive of the dockworkers, which is precisely oriented towards keeping the port open rather than surrendering to the global impetus of creating value added residential seaside properties. The paradox is that the old forms of globalization - which would involve Baltimore as a port - are dissolving before the new form - the concentration on a few megaports, and the move towards a credit-bubble shaped assets economy. Globalization, here, operates against an older form of globalization, a port form in which traditionally, peoples mixed - now the ports are closed off, segregated spaces, and the sailor and dock culture is dying.

By roger on 06/21/08 at 03:13 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Good point. I like the way you frame the issue, though I’m not sure I would describe the difference between “new” and “old” forms of globalizations exactly the same way (maybe because I don’t fully get the distinction you’re drawing). I’m fascinated by season two, actually, though I don’t really have a handle on it yet; it feels to me like all the things that make it stick out from the rest of the series like a sore thumb also make it a fascinating counterpoint to the Barksdale/Marlo plots, like getting a view of the stitching of a garment that looks (from the outside) like it doesn’t have any seams. 

More to the point, while I do agree it’s important to recognize different forms of globalization (as opposed to seeing “global” and “local” as mutually exclusive in an empirical sense), the main narrative of season two seems to me to be about the tragic decline and fall of a white working class that defines itself in stark opposition to the forces of globalization (I admit I don’t see where the old working class was traditionally mixed in the Wire; what are you thinking of?). For the dockworkers, Polishness seems to signify a different kind of whiteness than than the [url="http://www.stuffwhitepeoplelike.com/"]
“Stuff White People Like"[/url] kind of whiteness: instead of an affiliation with an international bourgeoisie, being a “pollack” means being a member of a community with a very specific place and history, a rootedness in the culture of the stevedores union (literally “the local") that makes them unable to adapt to economic changes that render the port unnecessary. Thus Frank is (as he sees it) beset by non-Polish union members on one side and the forces of global change on the other, the very narrative of “local” and “non-local” also informs the show’s own narrative about what is possible and what isn’t. In other words, it seems to me to be exactly the same kind of claustrophobia that someone like Wallace in season one has (which is why, I think, it was such an interestingly counterintuitive move by Simon and co to follow up season one with season two).

By on 06/21/08 at 08:05 PM | Permanent link to this comment

The new ports - Long Beach is the model - are compartmentalized from the rest of the community. They are solid state entities, and don’t overflow into or kickstart any community around them.  They are meant to be nodal points in the global flow of goods, with a minimum of workers, a maximum of transport connections, and all of it broken off from the old seaport communities that used to grow up around port activities. There are no sailors anymore. The Baltimore port - at least as it is portrayed - is an old line, messy port. Its boundaries are porous, its encroached upon by neighborhoods, its unions are traditional - it is marked for extinction while at the same time, its value as a site has gone up tremendously. Now, I liked the way one has to find this out indirectly - because it shows the reality of information flow, which, contra the network groupies and the confident economists, is not so much about information asymmetries as about myths, moral panics, fear, and - more than anything else - a sort of collapse of community understanding about the total shape of what is happening to the community. There is no image or conceptual scheme to explain why one is going extinct. There are the traditional explanations, like greed, but greed implies another obsolete financial universe, one in which one accumulated money and saved and all that shit. Money doesn’t run through that system anymore.  The show is very smart in showing that money is one of those things that has changed, it is one thing on the street, in the housing project, on the dock, and a whole other thing at higher economic levels. 

So, the drivers in place are overwhelming and within the circle of Baltimorians portrayed in the series, there are few who grasp those drivers.  Which, to me, represents the popular reception of globalization perfectly. I respect the way that the series did not try to go beyond that reception, but worked with it, inside it, in its vocabulary, with the information it had, outward to the framing changes that were happening. I thought that was brilliant. Could have been Birmingham, Alabama, Pittsburgh, New Orleans, Cleveland. Or Nantes, or Genoa, etc., etc.

By roger on 06/21/08 at 10:19 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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