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The Valve - Closed For Renovation

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Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

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Feynmann, John von Neumann, and Mental Models

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Nazi Rules for Regulating Funk ‘n Freedom

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Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

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

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Tuesday, May 20, 2008

You Know Who I Blame? The System!: The Wire, Barack Obama, and Omar for President

Posted by Aaron Bady on 05/20/08 at 12:11 PM

Richard Slotkin’s Gunfighter Nation opens with the figure of John F. Kennedy being nominated to run for president and invoking the “New Frontier” as his vision for the country. As Slotkin observes, it might seem odd for a candidate so heavily identified with the Eastern seaboard to invoke the Wild West, but then, of course, this is exactly why Kennedy did it: by tapping into what Slotkin calls “a vein of latent ideological power,” Kennedy managed to be “intelligible to the widest possible audience--to Brooklyn and Cambridge as well as Abilene and Los Angeles,” by employing a set of symbols that were also an “appropriate language for explaining and justifying political power.” In Slotkin’s words, “The ‘frontier’ was for them a complexly resonant symbol, a vivid and memorable set of hero-tales--each a model of successful and morally justifying action on the stage of historical conflict.”

There’s a lot going on here, but I want to flag two things. First of all, the “cowboy” as national cultural form allowed Kennedy to transcend the regionally particular image he was otherwise saddled with, getting away from the idea that he was “merely” a North-Eastern Liberal Irish-Catholic. This was well worn piece of cold war politicking: to use the Soviet threat to reconcile the bellicose and militaristic traditions of American nationalism (regionally strong in the South and the West) with an Eastern establishment traditionally oriented towards Europe. But perhaps more importantly, the cowboy metaphor also isn’t just an empty signifier; as Slotkin puts it, Kennedy’s frontier rhetoric:

“entailed more than simple affiliation with the campaign or administration”; it summoned the nation as a whole “to undertake (or at least support) a heroic engagement in the ‘long twilight struggle’ against Communism and the social and economic injustices that foster it…thereby set[ting] the terms in which the administration would seek public consent to an participation in its counterinsurgency ’mission’ in Southeast Asia and the Caribbean. And it shaped the language through which the resultant wars would be understood by those who commanded and fought them. Seven years after Kennedy’s nomination, American troops would be describing Vietnam as ‘Indian country’ and search-and-destroy missions as a game of ‘Cowboys and Indians’; and Kennedy’s ambassador to Vietnam would justify a massive military escalation by citing the necessity of moving the ‘Indians’ away from the ‘fort’ so that the ‘settlers’ could plant ‘corn.’”

To understand the American mission through reference to frontier mythology, in other words, is to call upon a very specific set of symbolic tropes and to imply not merely a specifically racialized manifest destiny, but also a particular kind of self-legitimating use of violence. In the cowboy Western, not only is the only good Indian a dead Indian, but the killing of an Indian is also a precisely a productive act: as in Ambassador Taylor‘s quote, violently relocating native peoples is the same thing as creating space for “corn” to grow, a self-evidently good thing. 

All this, then, is to ask the following question: what should we make of the fact that Barrack Obama, the now presumptive democratic nominee for president, who both explicitly identifies with Kennedy and faces the same type of problem as Kennedy did (the problem of being identified as “merely” a minority and elitist candidate), said that Omar was his favorite character on The Wire? What kind of latent ideological power is he tapping?

I ask this question, of course, not to try to answer it (as these folks have) but because I have a thesis that sets it up: Omar is a cowboy. This should be obvious even if you didn’t know that the show’s creators looted old cowboy movies in blocking, shooting, and editing Omar’s various train-robberies and high-noon gun battles in the street (and you know this because Michael Kenneth Williams, who plays Omar, said so on the DVD commentary in season two). After Brokeback Mountain, it even seems fairly normal for him to be a gay cowboy. But in some ways his sexuality is a red herring: Omar is a cowboy not because he’s gay; he’s gay because he’s a cowboy. He’s the only character on The Wire who lives free on the range, who doesn’t cow-tow to society, who lives according to his own code. And most importantly, he makes his own law by a self-justifying use of force: he violently robs drug-dealers.

In a key conversation between Omar and Bunk (one of the show’s many symbolic doubles), Omar acknowledges that “I do some dirt, too, but I never put my gun on nobody who wasn’t in the game.” Bunk replies, with a certain bitterness, “A man must have a code,” but not only is Bunk’s irony lost on Omar, it’s lost on us as well: it is precisely to the point that Omar doesn’t bother citizens, only other players in the game. While the show’s own morality places an incredibly high premium on the distinction between drug crime and homicide (condemning resources spent on the former that should be spent on the latter both in the show and out), Omar manages to be a killer and the show’s most popular character the same way so many of John Wayne’s characters did: by killing only those who are “naked life” in Arendt’s terms or “bare life” in Agamben’s, acts of killing which thereby integrate the killer into the work of the state. After all, Omar’s immediate alliance with McNulty and the detail would be completely implausible were it not for this convergence between his code and theirs: as with the “savages” of cowboy legend, drug dealers in The Wire make it impossible for “citizens” to live and produce in peace, so the only good drug dealer, also, is a dead drug dealer. And Omar’s war against the Barksdale crew is ultimately reducible to a revenge that is carefully staged as the justice no police could give him: they torture his lover and they shoot off his grandmother’s hat on the way to church. 

Omar is not exactly The Virginian, of course, but there is a great deal of precedent for the gangster-cowboy figure, as Slotkin (and many others) have noted: the underlying narrative, the good man who must use violence to survive in an amoral world, is present in everything from My Darling Clementine to Scarface to The Big Sleep and their more contemporary equivalents. And just as the cowboy had to kill or be killed, surviving and opening space for civilization only by becoming increasingly more savage (exactly as Frederick Jackson Turner “theorized”), so too can Vito Corleone create space for his family, and the family’s business, only by turning to the kinds of violence that society condemns in theory but condones in practice. It was this kind of hypocrisy that the classic era of Hollywood thrived by exploiting, turning the failure of the state (and of social institutions more generally) to use their monopoly on violence correctly into an argument for individualism: since American society has become corrupt and oppressive, in other words, a true American is someone who makes his own justice.

In this sense, Indians are never the real villains of cowboy movies (and The Wire is not innovative in encouraging us to sympathize with the state‘s enemies): exactly because of the inevitability of their deaths, Indians could even become a figure of romantic attachment, valued almost precisely because every death seems to signify a step forward for progress. No, the real villain in Westerns, gangster movies, noir, and Mafia films is the same villain as in The Wire: “institutions“ or an even more amorphous “the system.” And you don’t have to dig very deep into The Wire’s dvd commentaries or interviews with the creators to discover a very basic and overriding cynicism about the possibility of positive reform; as David Simon put it (in a quote I got here), The Wire “overtly suggests that our political and economic and social constructs are no longer viable, that our leadership has failed us relentlessly, and that no, we are not going to be all right.” These failures are, again and again and again, attributed to “institutions.”

But what the heck--and this is the point--is an “institution?” You’ve got to give the show credit for being incredibly savvy about tracing out the dynamic power relationships between low level employees, middle management, and upper corporate leadership, and I think Marc Bousquet is right on when he notes:

“What the show grasps is that private corporate and public institutional managers both employ “quality” in an Orwellian register in which a “quality process” is one of continuously increasing workload and continuously eroding salary and benefits, with a single, doltish mantra employed everywhere—in police departments, in social services, and school systems, just as on college campuses: the perpetual command to “Do More With Less.”

But there’s also a certain danger in imprecise hyperbole, and this kind of insight can be pushed too far. For example--and I’m stealing from Bousquet’s post again--James Poniewozik claims that, “All The Wire’s characters face the same forces in a bottom-line, low-margin society, whether they work for a city department, a corporation, or a drug cartel. A pusher, a homicide cop, a teacher, a union steward: they’re all, in the world of The Wire, middlemen getting squeezed for every drop of value by the systems they work for.”

So I ask, again, “are they really all the same? Are these really all exactly the same forces?” I don’t think they are, but--to put it another way--I would suggest that the particular mystification by which a particular kind of difference is elided is not incidental. 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.”

(Video of the standoff)

This is exhibit A for the prosecution, and my case is that The Wire is very good at thinking about one particular kind of capitalist formation, the profit driven corporate structure that Bousquet is talking about, and is especially good at understanding the ways that ostensibly non-profit driven structures, like the police, can become restructured by a bottom-line logic of statistics and political benchmarks. But at the same time, 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. The Wire therefore becomes an attack on a particular type of violent institution, but it interpellates all forms of social organization under that rubric, and concludes with an incredibly pessimistic vision of society as a result. This, in fact, is what makes it so curious that Obama would gesture towards The Wire when he did, as a few people have noted: the most basic premise of the show, that institutional reform is impossible, would seem to run directly contrary to Obama’s proposal to do exactly that. 

In any case, the quote I gave from Ed White is in a book specifically interested in what he calls “feelings of structure” in colonial America--the ways that our modern day disinclination to think about social groupings blinds us to what was really going on in those days--and there’s something specifically post-industrial about this wholesale rejection of “institutional systems.” More specifically, it seems to me that the kinds of tropes that Omar channels are the kinds of “feelings of structure” that developed out of the widespread crisis in faith in public institutions and the American system during the great depression. Slotkin talks about the ways the Western and Noir dovetailed in their valorization of rugged individualists who could work outside the system, but it’s Lawrence Levine’s essay “Hollywood’s Washington: Film Images of National Politics During the Great Depression” that, for me, particularly brought out the connection between the failure of public institutions and a political faith in the extralegal. For Levine, for example, Frank Capra’s “Little Man” trilogy of 1939-1941 (Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and Meet John Doe) is a paradigmatic example: in each film, a single “little man”--thereby representative of the nameless masses, as Meet John Doe makes particularly clear--goes forward to do battle with the dark forces that bedevil America’s heartland, pitting the values of small town America against the systemic and institutional corruption of the press, the plutocracy, and the political establishment. And as Michael Rogin notes, these quixotic quests always seem to end in pointedly unrealistic endings, martyrdoms that either magically (or Christologically) convert the unbelievers but which seem to offer no real grounds for practical reform. This kind of pessimism may, in fact, run deeper than the superficiality of the happy endings. After all, Capra could never have ended his films without a happy ending; one possible conclusion to Meet John Doe, he later said, would have sent Gary Cooper plunging to his death on Christmas Eve, but as he put it in 1973, he didn’t dare to film it. “It’s a hell of a powerful ending,” he said, “but you just can’t kill Gary Cooper.” Instead, Capra went with the Hollywood ending every time: after staging unsolvable problems, he closed them down by changing the subject and foregrounding a romance plot. 

The Wire can and does “kill Gary Cooper,” so to speak; the standards for what can and cannot be said in popular culture have changed to that extent. But the underlying frame of reference is not so different, the same dialectic of alternating faith and cynicism that asks whether a Quixote like McNulty or Major Colvin can make headway against the entrenched corruption of Baltimore’s powers that be, but finds itself capable of asking only that question. Within that dialectic, it is possible to imagine the cowboy against the system, the law and the outlawyer, but it pointedly isn’t possible to imagine anything in between. Instead, we are limited to a frame of reference that tracks from outsider to insider while pointedly unthinking the question of what the structural referent is. Omar’s homosexuality therefore makes him the ultimate outsider on the streets--he could never fit into a crew like Barksdale’s without giving himself up--and as such he becomes one of the show’s only possible sources of justice, the primary vehicle for the audience’s wish fulfillment. And on the other end of the spectrum, you have Rawls, the closeted Deputy Commissioner, who serves as an example of what self-denial does to those who chose to conform and fit in: they become the world’s biggest prick, a source of pain and suffering for everyone around them, arbitrarily uniform in their production of suffering. It is hardly surprising, then, that Jimmie McNulty, the show’s annoyingly central crusading cowboy (come from outside to impose justice on the natives), is from the beginning partnered up with Omar and engaged on a vendetta against Rawls. Unlike them, though, he at least has the option of the Capra false ending, even if The Wire is a world in which marriage is structurally equivalent to a drug cartel. 

(crossposted to zunguzungu)


Bravo.  Great piece.

It’s interesting that you choose to apply old ideological idioms to the Wire as the Wire has always struck me as an astonishingly mechanistic series.

If you grow up in the projects, chances are you WILL become a drug dealer.  If you want to make a career out of being a cop you WILL be morally compromised.  The characters motivations are always so clearly linked to their histories that there seems little room for free will or even something as abstract as an ideal.  The Wire is noir as in noir literature, things just happen without sense or justice.

At the moment I’m putting the final touches on an existentialist reinterpretation of a piece of SF and I was struck by how ‘of their time’ a lot of existentialism’s concerns seemed to be.  With all the talk of bad faith, being for others and existence preceeding essence, it’s easy to understand Existentialism as a reaction to the horrors of collaboration during World War II and the resulting championing of an ideal of individualism stripped of external influences.

One of the reasons why existentialism strikes me as of its time is because now when people talk about the mind, they talk in exclusively scientific and reductivist terms; cognitive psychology through evolutionary psychology to neurology.  An arm chair description of what goes on in the mind with no scientific basis feels rather like pre-scientific metaphysical descriptions of the world in terms of monads or properties.

So when I watch the Wire, I see economic models.  I see cognitive psychology.  I see mechanism and explanation.  I see people trapped in essences that entirely define their existences.  Characters locked into beautifully ornate and utterly believable arcs.

Not sure where I’m going with this particular train of thought but that was my reaction to your piece so I thought I’d share :-)

By Jonathan M on 05/20/08 at 02:22 PM | Permanent link to this comment

About institutions ("Voyelles"):

A young person goes into the manager’s office to talk about a raise. There is a copy of Psychology Today on his desk. The manager listens for a while, and then takes two magic markers off his desk. He gives one to the somewhat alarmed young person and says, “Just do something for me. As quick as you can, write an ‘A’ on your forehead.”

The young person does so.

The manager says, “Now look at my ‘A.’ You see how it’s turned inward, for me to read? That’s because I’m focused on my self above others. That’s what power means. Your ‘A’ is pointing outward for everyone to read. You’re trying too hard to please people. That’s not what management is.”

The young person furrows a brow.

By Jonathan Goodwin on 05/20/08 at 03:51 PM | Permanent link to this comment

What about “Omar as outsider” = “sacrificial scapegoat”?

By Bill Benzon on 05/20/08 at 04:26 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"the standards for what can and cannot be said in popular culture have changed to that extent”

As in much of dominant politics, it’s as likely if not more to be corporate culture setting the standards for what can be shown on TV in this regard, not popular culture.

According to the polls, the populace, the majority, was against invading Iraq in the first place, is for Canadian style universal health care, etc and so on. That is, opposed to corporate(-state) dictates and strictures throughout society (and many of its institutions) generally.

Barack Obama is largely a corporate creation, right down to most all of his rhetorical flourishes, and is on track to be the American Corporate Idol. That he would jibe with any particular corporate entertainment creation is elementary.

The big drug killers are the tobacco and alcohol corporations, slaying far and away more than all illegal drug vendors combined. Other mass murderers by drugs of a sort include the white flour and sugar and corn syrup corporations, the food additives corps, the fat merchants (meat and dairy corps and so on), etc. Sure, plenty of shows go after plenty of Corpse Rats Inc., but obviously doing so in such a way that shows and implies they are ultimately unstoppable and immortal well serves corporate interests too.

The miniseries Roots and the TV series M*A*S*H, flawed though they were (and of course also subject to corporate strictures), are easily among the most popular and acclaimed TV productions in history and would make for some interesting comparisons to many of these recent or current productions that either do or do not rise out of a sort of liberal/conservative/reactionary cesspool.

Long since by now “the system” and “institutions” are easy and corporate-approved targets for all sorts of tremendous blasting, as long as significant insight, let alone dramatization, of actual liberatory revolution in significant parts (historical or otherwise), let alone wholesale revolution, is off the table/screen/election dais - utterly out of the corporate approved views of “the institutions, the systems,” whether social, political, cultural, etc.

But that’s the corporate realm. The popular realm is quite different, in many ways.

Obomba and McPain competing in the Master Servant of Corporate America Beauty Pageant: http://apragmaticpolicy.wordpress.com/2008/04/16/master-servant-of-corporate-america-beauty-pageant/

By Tony Christini on 05/21/08 at 12:33 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Difficult is not impossible, and there are some small victories. Cutty neither falls back into crime, nor fails to save anyone from the corners: although Michael ends up as a soldier, Namond looks like he should be alright because of his and Colvin’s interventions. The Wire doesn’t present institutions as quite as monolithic as you’re claiming here, I think. And whilst what you say about Omar is right, remember that meeting with Bunk involves Bunk invoking various now-disappeared community institutions as a way of guilting Omar into helping him, which Omar does.

By rob on 05/21/08 at 09:08 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I think you’re right to see the show’s “mechanistic” logic, and I think that logic is a product of the way the show frames the relevant issues; the question it always asks is: can the individual determine his fate for himself or is the individual determined by the social context in which he is situated? So the problem of social disorder and dysfunction always comes back to the question of how we can exert control over our systems. One answer is the crusading cowboy option (McNulty, Omar, Colvin), but that seems to be perpetually repudiated as a viable option, except insofar as someone like Omar can stay *outside* of the system. But the other answer is only implicit in the show’s own discourse: if we understand the mechanisms that drive society (the invisible hands that determine what people do), we can produce rational responses to those problems. So the show itself becomes a project like Jacob Riis’ “How the Other Half Live” and models for *us* the problems of the inner city, so that we can (having viewed them) step in an rationalize the situation. This is why, I think, the show so valorizes people like Stringer and Colvin, people who take unilateral action to regulate and control mechanistic process.

Per your comment on “of it’s time,” I do think it’s suggestive that so many of the strategies and formal solutions of the early twentieth century are coming back; it speaks to the sense of being badly served by our government and public institutions that was much more plausible then and is now than in the intervening period of American prosperity.

I don’t disagree with you, exactly, but I do think the distinction between “corporate” and “popular” culture can be (and often is) very overdrawn. While it’s certainly true that what MGM wanted and believed and what the movie going population wanted and believed tended to be significantly different, there is also a tremendous range of agreement: if a film was “popular,” it meant that both sides were happy, the latter because they voted with their ticket stub and the latter because they made money off those stubs. It’s much more a dialectic than a stark opposition: Lawrence Levine’s essay “The Folklore of Industrial Society,” for example, explores this problem, which I think is a lot stickier than it is usually treated as. AS you put it, MASH and Roots were very popular, but I would say those shows were popular precisely because they managed to mediate between opposing positions (not in spite of their complicity in corporate culture).

What about it? It’s an interesting suggestion, though I’d like to hear you draw out what you mean. But it reminds me of a great play by Wole Soyinka, “The Strong Breed”, in which (like in Shirley Jackson) a community cleanses itself by piling all their sins for the year onto a single person, who has to bear the burden for everyone. But unlike Jackson (who can only imagine such pagan rituals as being wholly negative), Soyinka uses the play to counterpose two different variations on this social ritual: in one, the “carrier” is driven out of the village (and the village therefore picks someone who doesn’t know any better, in this case a mentally handicapped begger), but in the other, the village places that burden only on someone strong enough to bear it, giving that person a privileged position in the community. Christological metaphors abound, of course.

By on 05/21/08 at 11:05 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I actually don’t think the show is as reifying as all that either, but the difference is much more a function of the ways the narrative form resists being reducible to a single idea. I say this because David Simon just will not shut up about how the Wire says “all institutions are always bad always and forever,” which (as you point out in your valve comment) is not something that the show bears out as much as he seems to want it to. It’s really frustrating when a writer turns out not to understand their own creation as well as they should , but I still do find it significant that so many people (like Simon) want to turn the show into an unqualified condemnation of all institutions (without stopping to think very clearly about what an “institution” actually is).

By on 05/21/08 at 11:56 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Aaron, I didn’t have anything in particular in mind with that suggestion. Just thought I’d toss it out there.

By Bill Benzon on 05/21/08 at 01:43 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Aaron, I pointed that out, the “dialectic”. Corporate productions often have huge popular elements - “all sorts of tremendous blasting” against corporations themselves.

I also said there is a great actual divide between fundamental corporate interests and fundamental popular values, and you haven’t challenged that in the slightest. And, as I pointed out, the evidence would be against you, if you did try.

Of course it’s uncontroversial, as far as I’m aware, that corporate culture has to have some popular aspects, even significant and major ones, if it is to exist and function. The point is, it cannot have popular aspects that would readily or foreseeably facilitate the overthrow of corporate control for some liberatory revolutionary replacement. And in vast and tremendous ways, it doesn’t, as has been documented in non-corporate circles. Corporate forces want to exist, they don’t want to and don’t function to overthrow themselves obviously. Thus, David Simon in saying repeatedly that “all institutions are always bad always and forever” is a perfect writer for corporate power. Corporations not only value writers who believe that, they must have them, or at least have writers who are willing to toe that line (consciously or not) for a paycheck. He is articulating a classic fall back propaganda point for any dominant force: nothing can be fundamentally changed. Does he not skillfully help create (relatively popular, though partially popular) shows that bear out that message? He’s wrong, as history demonstrates, but he’s channeling a classic code of propaganda that functions well for corporate power. As long as that code is not violated, or codes like it, then, like I said, you can show a tremendous amount of popular rage against corporations and their mendacious and malicious effects - utterly popular views. Because if you also emphasize that horrible as it is nothing can be done about it, then it doesn’t fundamentally threaten corporate power. Thus, a corporate show can be extremely popular and in large ways anticorporate, as many are, and yet function quite well for the maintenance, even the growth, of corporate power.

Actually, “the distinction between ‘corporate’ and ‘popular’ culture” is typically underdrawn, not “overdrawn,” as you underdraw it yourself. A hell of a lot more can be said and valued and emphasized, shown, in popular culture than in corporate culture, and is. Far more than a question of whether or not a corporate and popular compatible figure like Gary Cooper gets to live or die, is the fact that liberatory revolutionary figures and their related organizations get scant, or less, air time than all the mildly reformist or status quo, or worse, figures and organizations. Why? Because people just happen to share the same corporate proclivity for essentially no change? The evidence indicates otherwise. Obvious corporate solutions to the popular-corporate opposition 1) show that no basic change is possible or 2) the Obama et al phenomenon, falsify or radically limit the meaning of “change”. That’s what you can see on your TV. It’s radically not in the public, popular interest, and as such is very difficult to “overdraw.” There is the “dialectic” of the sort I (and you) noted, and there is also the “stark opposition” that it’s not clear you even acknowledge. You seem to deny it in explanation after claming to “not disagree…exactly.” Yes, of course, there is a dialectic, as there has to be. There is also a crucial and fundamental stark opposition, as the evidence bears out.

MASH and Roots may have been so popular compared to today’s shows because there were simply fewer TV channel options, I don’t know. My point there is that for those trying to evaluate quality TV shows, it makes sense to evaluate them in comparison to some of the, at least perceived, standard setters for quality and popularity.

By Tony Christini on 05/21/08 at 02:25 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Aaron, Shirley Jackson was a witch who hexed her publisher,* so matters are not as simple as they seem.

I haven’t finished watching the fifth season yet, so I am not fully prepared to respond to your post, though I’m thinking about rejecting it utterly. (It’s not at all impossible that David Simon might show up here as he did at the Free Darko/Wire blog, so be careful.)

*See Alison Lurie in the NYR, 44.16.

By Jonathan Goodwin on 05/22/08 at 03:31 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Well, matters are never as simple as they seem, when critics try to talk about them, right? As for rejecting my post, please do! I’m not as invested critiquing The Wire as it might seem; it does, though, feel to me like admiration for the show’s virtues sometimes make people reluctant to critique it as rigorously as we are accustomed to with long dead authors. I mean, I love the show (and I’m not just saying because it’s marginally more likely that David Simon would show up on the thread than Frank Capra), but the “greatest show in the history of television” meme sometimes seems to replace the kind of substantive criticism the show deserves. Critique is not condemnation, after all.

My sense of the show’s virtues, actually, are precisely the ways it resists being reducible to a single theme or moral. Which is why I get frustrated when people (including the show’s own creators) try to reduce it to a single moral, especially a moral as incoherant as “institutions are teh bad.” But then, I guess my post is somewhat reductive too, right? Perhaps it’s as much a function of the critical form as it is a function of the “DVD commentary” form to over-simplify what’s going on. It’s much more interesting (but much more difficult) to talk about how a show’s use of a particular theme (like the cowboy as “outlawyer” or bringer of justice by virtue of outsider status) both reproduces and challenges the meaning of that trope. Which is why I’d hesitate to differentiate between corporate and popular culture as sharply as Tony wants to: literature isn’t reducible to a single position (such that a corporate literature could be differentiable from a popular one), and the fact that corporate produced literatures like The Wire (or “Mr Smith Goes to Washington") can be incredibly popular in ways which both challenge and reproduce the corporate order speaks to the dialogism of the literary, to wax Bakhtinian for a moment. As well as the limitations, I think, to literature (in whatever form) as force for social change.

By on 05/22/08 at 11:30 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Sorry, satire warranted: It’s clear - literature is reducible to a single position; a corporate literature cannot be differentiated from a popular one; and “dialogism” is necessarily a force for the status quo, Socrates would be pleased to know.

Whatever happened to that guy, Socrates? Wasn’t he executed by the state for the threat of his...dialogic method? His was a limited threat, I suppose, so no need to torture him first; his death was enough.

It’s so radical it’s classic. And vice-versa?

By Tony Christini on 05/22/08 at 02:03 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Hi Aaron,

It’s good to see you critiquing The Wire--not because I wholly agree, but because it’s always heartening to see someone tack against the critical consensus, and even if we do think The Wire is the greatest show ever, that certainly doesn’t preclude critique. It necessitates it.

My response here, though, is something like: yeah, so? It’s true that Simon and his writers demonstrate a deeply pessimistic streak; he’s certainly not a liberal reformer of the sort Obama pretends to be (Obama’s admiration of Omar is in a way admitting that he has fooled people all along, or let them fool themselves). But Simon may be a radical, or at least have the makings of one. Leaving aside the institution of marriage (I also haven’t seen season 5), in what way is the show’s critique of existing institutions not salient, or not relevant to American society circa 2008?  I don’t think the point is that all institutions are the same (however much this is one of Simon’s talking points), but that they (currently) operate according to a shared set of capitalist logics. There is a family resemblance among them, a series of homologies that course through them (and, in this way, the show seems like an example of realism that Jameson has been calling for since the 70s). Still, the show presents many “styles” of institution: Stringer’s version is not the same as Avon’s, nor the same as Rawls’s or Carcetti’s or the School District’s.

Perhaps there is a bit of heroic individualism here, but you yourself point out the ways in which that thematic is thwarted by the show’s own insights. I think you underestimate the value of its inability to deliver a Capra-like resolution. Whatever Simon says, it’s clear that the disease that affects a city like Baltimore requires, because it is untreatable either by reformers or outlaws, a far more radical solution than that proposed by its do-gooders and reformers. That it can’t present a vision of what that radical solution would look like doesn’t mean that I want it to present us with a vision of effective institutions. This shouldn’t be seen as endorsing further diminshed support for, say, social services, schools, single-payer health care, all that good etc. stuff. Only indicating that, in the emulsion of a system based upon production for profit, all of these institutions will be, ultimately, inadequate. When were they ever adequate for the poor of Baltimore? [As I write this, the fact that you and I and the students we teach are currently being screwed over by the institution that employs us, the ______, and not well-represented by the institutions that are supposed to speak for our interests, the ____ and the ___, is not lost on me].

Maybe it would help if you gave an example of a work that you felt was more hard-headed about institutions.

By Jasper on 05/22/08 at 09:13 PM | Permanent link to this comment

FWIW, just around the corner we’ve been having a discussion of The Sopranos that shares a concern with this discussion (in the comments). While Tony’s in therapy throughout the series, the therapy seems to change him only in superficial ways. He remains a sociopathic gangster to the end. Nor does his wife leave him, though she tries.

So, Simon present an interlocking set of institutions that seems locked in a stasis that grinds up people - though some individual do manage to change their lives and themselves for the better. Chase presents us with a man who undertakes a regime whose purpose is personal change and transformation, and remains unchanged.

By Bill Benzon on 05/22/08 at 11:43 PM | Permanent link to this comment

A young person goes into the manager’s office to talk about a raise. There is a copy of Psychology Today on his desk. The manager listens for a while, and then takes two magic markers off his desk. He gives one to the somewhat alarmed young person and says, “Just do something for me. As quick as you can, write an ‘A’ on your forehead.”

The young person does so.

The manager says, “Now look at my ‘A.’ You see how it’s turned inward, for me to read? That’s because I’m focused on my self above others. That’s what power means. Your ‘A’ is pointing outward for everyone to read. You’re trying too hard to please people. That’s not what management is.”

The letter A is symmetrical, so it would be impossible for the manager to tell whether it was facing inwards or outwards.

By on 05/23/08 at 10:17 AM | Permanent link to this comment

"That it can’t present a vision of what that radical solution would look like doesn’t mean that I want it to present us with a vision of effective institutions.”


“This shouldn’t be seen as endorsing further diminshed support for, say, social services, schools, single-payer health care, all that good etc. stuff.”


“Only indicating that, in the emulsion of a system based upon production for profit, all of these institutions will be, ultimately, inadequate.”

In other words, it would change the show. And, apparently, you value the show too much as it is to see it changed. If that’s ultimately your preference, fine, but the show is fiction not documentary, and so even if it has to resort to fancy, there’s no reason effective institutions could not be integrated into such a show, though it would simultaneously change it. Effective institutions? Even something mild like dropping a fanciful Euro/Canada zone, into actual Baltimore, of free health care and free university level schooling, you know, across the tracks from the “barbarians” of US Baltimore, or whatever lingo such a (re)new(ed) show might come up with. It seems to me the implications are potentially profound and vital, and interesting to explore.

Corporate TV shows can and do some things in such directions, but ultimately in very proscribed ways. It’s important for scholars to assess the variety and limits of such proscription. Some such work is going on at the moment in relation to John Cusack’s new movie, War, Inc, and to Iraq War films in general.

By Tony Christini on 05/23/08 at 10:25 AM | Permanent link to this comment


Dude, I keep wondering if you’ve actually seen The Wire. I don’t know what you mean about changing the show. My claim is that it presents, as it is, one of the most powerful realistic portrayals of the brutality of the capitalist axiomatic in the U.S., and that institutions are, really, beside the point, since the target is protocols, ideologies, system in the sense of process. Seriously, have you watched it? It’s all there: racism, the decimation of the welfare state, the systole-diastole of white flight-urban immiseration-gentrification (the projects fall, the condos rise), the gargantuan American prison system that has % of the world’s incarcerated people (mostly Black and Latino, as we know) everything that makes cities like Baltimore the genocidal engines that they are. It has an incredible amount of political negativity.  A portrayal of “effective” institutions would make it science fiction, or pure ideology. Utopian science fiction is valuable, but it’s certainly not the only game in town. In any case, your distinction between corporate and popular is right well useless. . . I’m not sure what you mean by popular culture. Where’s this great outdoors, this place that isn’t infected by the ideas of the ruling class? Indeed, you seem as susceptible to the idea of an outside as Aaron claims The Wire is.

And. . . it’s a crime show (more or less), not a documentary, or an academic panel.

By Jasper on 05/23/08 at 11:46 AM | Permanent link to this comment

And also, Tony, please name one widely-available movie or television show in the last decade that has given African-American (or Afro-British) actors so many complex roles.

Casting can’t be ignored when talking about The Wire. It’s one of its most important features.

By on 05/23/08 at 11:53 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Hey Jasper,
I sometimes wonder what our enterprise would like if “criticism” didn’t mean both “explication and elaboration” and “corrective condemnation.”

For my money, the Wire is pretty much the best thing we’ve got going, but that’s not to say it doesn’t still participate in some troubling tendencies within American liberalism, which I was trying to articulate; in this case, a visceral discomfort with the idea that institutional affiliation can be a source of positive change. This, quite frankly, is what I find most promising about the Obama-folks: his forthright assertion that we *can* reform our institutions and our public system has the very real potential to undo a lot of the damage done by eight years of George Bush. And, the Iraq war aside, I see a big part of that damage as being the way the Bush people have degraded our public institutions almost beyond recognition: over the last eight years, they’ve driven anyone who wasn’t a corrupt political hack out of public service and done their absolute best to convince everyone that it is impossible for the system to actually do any good for the citizenry. Making the system fail is a (very conscious) strategy for convincing citizens that the system necessarily *will* fail, thereby undermining support for the kinds of public institutions that are failing because they’re being systematically starved to death, the schools and social services that make so many conservatives wake up at night screaming. The fact that our institutions are dysfunctional is a fact, of course (and The Wire is not wrong about that), but the Republican strategy for undoing the new deal is to claim that there is something inherently dysfunctional about the institution per se, and to then offer cowboy intervention as the only possible option. Liberalisms like The Wire often come too close, for my comfort, to acceding to this narrative, to agreeing with the GOP that government and regulation is *itself* the source of problems, and of offering only the examples of cowboy crusaders (who buck the system and provide justice from outside of it) as options. But my grandfather has a better life because the state of Wisconsin puts resources into an amazing public system of out-patient alzheimers health care, and that’s the sort of thing that the GOP has been doing its best to render inconceivable. To the extent that the wire thinks the same thing, I think it should be called out on it.

To wit, you write that “the show presents many “styles” of institution: Stringer’s version is not the same as Avon’s, nor the same as Rawls’s or Carcetti’s or the School District’s“ but I‘m not sure I agree, or rather, I don’t think the difference in styles that we see, as a matter of necessity, is as significant as the show’s efforts to argue their essential similarity. How many times does the show cut from a scene in which a middle manager in Avon’s outfit is mediating between his employees and his bosses to a scene in which we see the same dynamic in the BPD? This seems to me to be the show’s structural form, which the large cast allows it to perform with marvelous skill: to illustrate broad sweeping comparisons between institutions we might otherwise see as qualitatively different and argue that they are not. As Marc Bousquet illustrated some weeks ago, this is an extremely insightful gesture; as I’ve tried to make sense of the inner dynamics of our current departmental crisis, it’s hard not to agree that we are, on some level, living in the Wire. The budget has been cut, and at each level in the institutional hierarchy, people are pushing back against those above them and pushing down on those beneath them as resources become more and more scarce. But one of the hopeful signs is some people’s ability to turn their institutional positions into sources of strength (to *use* those social networks to *enable* them to push back), and if it were up to me, I’d like to see a version of the Wire that better articulated that possibility. The Civil Rights movement, after all, happened because MLK and others used the institutions of the black church to leverage against the institutions of white supremacy, and they won a lot of battles exactly because institutions like that have a great deal of power. But my sense of the Wire is that it tends to blame the institution as such, rather than engage with the particularly corporate logic that transforms public service into profit driven “do more with less” ism.

On the other hand, all that said, I don’t fully get what “The Wealth of Nations” is doing in Stringer Bell’s apartment, nor do I think it’s a function that can be boiled down to a single message or theme. After all, the Adam Smith that found capitalism a frightening and scary thing is not the same Adam Smith that fiscal conservatives use to push a laissez faire agenda. Part of what the Wire does so well and so usefully is ask questions so vividly and so powerfully that the answer given by the show is ultimately not as important as the fact that the question was asked (which is, if you ask me, why Capra is a lot more interesting than his happy endings would seem to suggest).

By on 05/23/08 at 01:30 PM | Permanent link to this comment

The letter A is symmetrical, so it would be impossible for the manager to tell whether it was facing inwards or outwards.

It wouldn’t have been much of a story otherwise, now would it?

By Jonathan Goodwin on 05/23/08 at 01:41 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Haven’t watched The Wire, haven’t reviewed it. 70 plus cable channels but no HBO (too pricey). Haven’t said a word about utopia. Aaron’s thoughtful comment above goes a good ways toward addressing the other concerns and fallacies you state.

By Tony Christini on 05/24/08 at 06:41 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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