‘All the pieces matter’ – a few introductory notes on The Wire

The Thugs were bored. Episode 7 failed to move them.

“Too slow,” griped Shine.

“They’re making us wait,” said Orlando. “See, that’s when this stuff gets unreal. When they start making you feel like you could actually get somewhere in the ghetto.”

“What do you mean, ‘get somewhere?’” I asked.

“In the ‘hood, everything changes. Nothing happens the right way,” he replied.

“Give me an example,” I said.

“Well, like what’s happening with Marlo and Omar,” he replied right away. “In the ghetto, you never have this kind of thing last so long. People kill each other right away, or not at all.”

“Ever heard the term, ‘3-day work week?’” Tony-T interrupted. I shook my head. “Well, it means that, in the hood, nothing lasts. I mean nothing! People are so poor that they can’t even afford a 7-day work week.”

“So, one of the two — Omar or Orlando — would have killed the other?” I asked.

“Yup,” said Shine. “And my bet is that Omar is getting a little stupid. Looks like he’s hurting. But my bet is that both will be done with by the time this is over.”

Then he asked if we could go over some of the comments that Freakonomics readers had made a few weeks ago, after episode 4, when the Thugs asked readers to assess what would happen between Omar and Marlo. I printed out the 100+ responses, and here’s a quick-and-dirty evaluation by the Thugs:

1. No Future

“These people are crazy!” Orlando began, referring to the commenters. “Bloggers, they think they can predict what’s happening in the ghetto. Rule number 1: there is no future.” When I asked Orlando what he meant, he said that most of the responses thought too far in advance. “The one thing I don’t like about this show is you never make plans when you’re hustling. Not for more than a few days, anyway.”

2. Insurance for Whom?

The Thugs liked the comment from “d” about insurance. Apparently, what separates the Greeks (and everyone else outside the ghetto) from people on the streets is that the former can obtain insurance policies.

“Marlo tried to get his own supply line, you know, just in case. But that kind of thing never happens if you’re on the streets,” Shine said. “Of course, you always want a second option. You always want another source for product, somebody else who can get you a gun, but you can’t get so easily.”

“That’s right,” said Kool J. “For those Greeks, they can move around because they’re not from anywhere. But around here, everyone is spoken for by somebody. If people see that you’re trying to get security by lining up with more than one group at a time, they see you as vulnerable.”

“Why vulnerable?” I asked.

“You always align yourself with somebody, rise and fall with them. If people see you trying to making friends all over, then they think you have something to hide. That’s when they come in and take over.”

“See, that’s what makes the game the game,” Shine jumped in. “You live and die with those around you. You just have to be real careful when you’re juggling a lot of balls at once. People want to know where you stand. They could get nervous if they see you trying to get that kind of insurance policy.”

3. “The Look”

“I think Wiregirl is wrong about ‘the Look,’” Kool J blurted. “That only works when you [are] talking about killers. Where I hang out, everyone knows that there are only a few people who really can kill somebody. The rest of these fools don’t even put bullets in their guns. But any fool can stand on the corner and make a sale. That don’t take no brains. Just a little desperation.”

4. Will the Real Black Man Stand Up?

“Yo, Blue Moe!” Tony-T shouted, referring to comment 84. “Yeah, we believe you when you say you’re a Negro. Because no self-respecting black man would feel good about reading the New York Times. I got something for you: its called the Amsterdam News. Take a look at it, my brother. Its for the real Negroes.”

5. Need a Job, Alex?

“My brother, I like the way you think,” cried Orlando, referring to comment 96. “We’re rooting for Michael, too. And, by the way, do you need a job? If so, call me!”

6. Watching with the Police

“We asked Sudhir to watch it with the police, too, but he’s too scared,” said Shine, referring to comment 109. “We also told him to get a real job, but he wouldn’t do that, either.”

I didn’t disagree.

Overall, the Thugs were impressed. They had one question for the readers:

If the gangs were white, what would be different about the show? ((Sudhir Venkatesh, Columbia University sociologist and author of Gang Leader for a Day, watches The Wire with a group of gangland acquaintances, ‘What Do Real Thugs Think of The Wire? Part Seven ‘Freakonomics’ blog, New York Times 22/2/2008 http://freakonomics.blogs.nytimes.com/2008/02/22/what-do-real-thugs-think-of-the-wire-part-seven/))

There is something quite uncanny about this scene. For followers of The Wire the intense and protracted debates about the veracity of the plotlines and characters will be very familiar. The unfolding of a complex urban reality has been central to the series attracting such a passionate ‘underground’ audience and producing an interminable discussion. What seems slightly surreal is the image of a number of New York ‘gangsters’ sitting with a sociologist around a television watching and discussing a cop show. The scene takes a further unreal twist with the ‘gangsters’ commenting on the blog comments made by readers of the New York Times!

An immediate thought I had after imagining the above scenario was – do gangsters watch television, and if they do, what do they watch?

If we take The Wire itself, as evidence for the reality of the ‘thug life’, then television is not an important medium in the gangsters’ everyday consumption habits. A cursory examination of the series suggests that the criminal fraternity, unlike the urban working class in general, is not shown in general to spend too much time in domestic family spaces, and only have fleeting exposure to television, usually in the background in public spaces such as bars. The law enforcers do seem to watch some TV, but they largely see television as a cynical form of public information management – recall the numerous scenes that McNulty and colleagues are usually watching with distain the news reports about crime in the city. For example, the presentation of captured drugs for the news media in Season 3 exemplifies the critical and maybe cynical attitude of the series to contemporary media. Although there is little positive reference to television The Wire does spend Season 5 examining the workings of the newspaper industry. Here we get a more detailed critique of the media, where again it is seen as a tool for information management, corrupt journalism and cynical exploitation by corporate organizations.

So while for The Wire television, and contemporary public media generally, are part of the problem of neoliberal culture, the TV series has been particularly valorized as an exception to the everyday banalities of the televisual culture – one that even ‘real gangsters’ will watch and discuss in terms of realism and ‘ghetto authenticity’. It is these discourses of authenticity, and exceptionally, that is key to the increasing academic, as well popular interest in the show. From even anecdotal evidence on the web, as well as from personal conversations, a significant proportion of the show’s fan-base do not watch much television – in fact are critical of it and see The Wire, with one or two other recent US series such as The Sopranos and Babylon as being far superior than the rest of television. ‘It is maybe just TV but not as we know it’.

David Simon’s references to Balzac and 19th century realist novel fiction, as well as the show’s serial structure, length and narrative complexity justify to the followers that the series is a challenging and serious piece of culture. Part of the pleasures of the series is the requirement to sustain an unfaltering drive to grasping the various interweaving plotlines and social issues being presented. Against the supposed banality and triviality of ordinary TV, with its easily consumable diet of reality shows and celebrity pop culture, the difficulty of The Wire demands commitment – a heroic and masochistic duty.

A key element in enabling the elevation of the series to its critical cult status is the ability to view the show outside of its original real-time broadcasting schedule. The vast majority of viewers watch the show on either time-displaced recordings, downloads and/or commercial DVDs. It is this ‘post – TV’ networked media environment that The Wire has been able to utilize and exploit to create an emergent form of televisual viewing experience. My own practice of watching the show on my laptop with headphones in bed, two to three episodes at time exemplifies a form of consumption that greatly differs from the presumed classical family TV audience of the weekly serial.

The series on DVD is being viewed more in terms of a fictional novel; something, which suits very, well the ambitious and complex structure of The Wire. These individuated temporal disjuncture’s in the general consumption of the series has extended infinitely the ‘screening time’ of the series. There is no normative screening form or moment of transmission for the series. At best, the first screening of the series on HBO in the US (2002-8) is like a ‘pre-history’ to the post-TV Wire and its multiple audiences and viewing experiences. This multimedia rhizomatic network of viewing has been producing variable and ever expanding set of fetishised discourses about the mode and temporality of consumption. As much as the content of the series is the focus, the more fundamental questions one asks are: Have you seen The Wire? How far have you got in the series? How long has it been taking? How many episodes have you viewed in one go? The circulation of this discursive interrogation itself is an important fetish of the show.

It is worth thinking about in what ways is this viewing experience different from other cult, usually US TV series, that have increasing being made available as DVD box sets – E.G. The Sopranos, ER, CSI, 24, Sex and the City, Star Trek, Babylon Five, X-files, Six Feet Under etc A key argument would be that The Wire demands one to view the total 66 hours of TV to fully appreciate the expansive world presented. Its serial form marks it out as special and different to other recent TV series. The other component is the intellectual demands of the series, especially its sociologically driven analysis of contemporary urban society. In this respect the show is of interest not just to television studies scholars, but academics from a much wider field of study. ((See for example the call for paper http://www.cresc.ac.uk/events/Wireconference.html for a conference in Leeds, England. The Wire as Social Science Fiction? It is located within the ESRC Centre for Research on Socio-Cultural Change.))

One could argue that The Wire is an ‘open text’ – it allows for a range and variable levels of analysis that enable different approaches and issues to be addressed. The Wire presents an environment that one at once inhabits and critiques. It is more ‘real than reality’, partly because the show presents an analysis itself of the social milieu. Further, the series has an explicit political agenda and offers a set of critiques of neoliberal institutions and capitalism that resonates with much analysis in left-liberal academic circles. ((See for example the call for papers for an edited book study of The Wire.))

In the life of the field of ‘The Wire studies’ these are early times in terms of mapping out the different conceptual approaches being mobilised in analyzing the series; but we can briefly identify a number of distinctive tendencies in the emergent critical writing:

The first, and expected one, is in one form or another of understanding The Wire as representing and critiquing neoliberal capitalism and its social effects. ( (See John Kraniauskas, ‘Elasticity of Demand: Reflections on The Wire’, Radical Philosophy 154 (2009): 25–34;  Alberto Toscano and Jeff Kinkle (2009) ‘Baltimore as World and Representation: Cognitive Mapping and Capitalism in The Wire, Dossier http://dossierjournal.com/read/theory/baltimore-as-world-and-representation-cognitive-mapping-and-capitalism-in-the-wire/  ))

The second and related critique focuses more centrally on the failures of the institutions and organisations, such as the police, legal, unions, city hall, education and media. This is linked in the show with examining the representations of the city and its failures. As many have commented Baltimore itself is the main star of the show. The series builds up an incredibly detailed topology of the city in terms of space and power. ((See the Linda Spiedel piece))

While the focus on the economic requires a totalizing perspective that other more discourse orientated television analysis focus on the characters and their representations. ((see the nuanced pieces by Marshall, Kahn Harris, Robbie, in darkmatter.))

An interesting dimension is the strange ‘absence presence’ of the race in the critical dialogues. What seems predominant, especially with (white) writers is how race is either assumed as given and not commented upon, or that it is not race but class that is the important dynamic in the series.  The unusual numerically significant presence of African-American characters through the series, across institutional and class lines, makes blackness the norm. This is borne out with the way Series 2, with its focus on the docks and deindustrialization is marked out as being particularly about whiteness, as well as class. The normalization of blackness, and ‘making whiteness strange’ may seem as progressive goal in cultural representations, but the effect in this series seems to be is too make race either marginal or invisible to the representational politics of the show. While the show presents a nuanced and multi-dimensional discourse of  urban life, the commentary on the racial logic of the series misses the changing modalities of race in the contemporary west. The suggestion here to consider is that race does not disappear but is significant while still be signified but conversely that race is inscribed even more centrally into the workings of political and social power and control now. To understand the immanence of race in the all aspects of society requires one histories the shifts in racial and multicultural politics.

The Wire effectively recognises that anti-racism is hegemonic now. Even if racism continues in neo-liberal governmentality, anti-racism is the dominant force for its functioning. This is no mere superstructural or ideological rhetoric, but present, if unevenly, in the discourses and practices of institutions and society more generally. If in the analysis of race one focused on the representations of the black characters in the series we would very quickly get caught in a undecidable bind where one would argue that they series shows a diverse range of African American characters, which is good, but could also assert that the depictions are racial stereotypes – positive or negative. The limitations  with this form of analysis of the politics of representation are that it remains locked into only a struggle over media representation. It treats the TV series as a text that can be intrepretated politically in isolation of the matrix of media power and desire.

What could be productively explored further is the idea that The Wire presents a complex network of ‘micropower’ relations that transverse the institutions, subjects and technologies of the urban racial milieu.  This does not negate racial signification, but similarly with Arun Sadana argues race is best understood as a machine assemblage:

‘Race is a shifting amalgamation of human bodies and their appearance, genetic material, artefacts, landscapes, music, money, language, and states of mind. Racial difference emerges when bodies with certain characteristics become viscous through the ways they connect to their physical and social environment. Race is a machinic assemblage, to use a concept of Deleuze and Guattari.6 Machinic assemblage is an ontological concept and therefore apt for tackling the question ‘What is race?’ Basically, the concept presents constellations, especially biological and sociological constellations, as fully material, machinelike interlockings of multiple varied components, which do not cease to be different from each other while assembled’.

This formulation of race as machinic assemblage needs to be more fully examined but would enable one to consider the significance,  for instance, of communication technology to the series and its articulation with the social critique. Surprising there is little critical focus, so far, on technology – what is maybe the kernel to the logic of the series. The wiretaps and surveillance technologies that connect together the different social actors. The communications technologies act as an object that draws in the viewer to the narrative drive of the show. It is the trails and tribulations of the police, especially Freeman and ‘Prez’ that is the key narrative thread though the series. The technology process is an (Lacanian) object a – an object desire that is the cause and solution to the lack in the symbolic order. Race instead of being limited to the symbolic order, it is worth thinking about it being distributed in an networked assemblage across the post-TV media networks in the form of racial information and materiality.

What maybe needs to be examined further here is that while this analysis of the aesthetic politics opens up the signifying regime of the show, it limits the racial logic of the power.   This focus on the molar level of the show needs to understood in relation to what can be called the molecular race politics. It is in the networks of power, communication and control that we are presented with the working logics of molecular or possibly cybernetic racial formation.

This microstructures of affect and information potentially could enable a focus on race that does not delimit the analysis to a moralistic discourses of anti-racist piety or the dominant tendency of a certain disavowal of race that is prevalent in much critical discourses – I know that race is a fact but lets carry on as if it is not…this fetishistic disavowal is arguably the form in which much of the engagement with The Wire is taking place. It allows one to fetish the presence of black American and empathize with its struggle, but to allow one to ‘enjoy’ the show as if race is insignificant.

This darkmatter issue is partly an (initial) attempt to examine the place of race in the complex formation of the show. The various pieces collected here highlight, through a productive range of methods and approaches, how race is located within the structures of the show. ((The original darkmatter call for papers tried to navigate between making Race the focus on the issue given the concerns of the journal but at the same time recognized that race was at once everywhere and only one aspect of the series: darkmatter – special  issue ‘Way down in the hole’- The Wire files

call for contributions

The critically acclaimed US television drama The Wire has recently ended its fifth and final series. The Baltimore set HBO show has been celebrated for its gritty realism and complex representation of urban crime, policing and American city politics. Through the TV cop genre The Wire has weaved together issues of drugs, poverty, policing, inner-city murder, surveillance, political corruption, institutions, labour, schooling, print media, youth, sexuality and gender, with an ensemble cast of African-American and white characters and intricate plot-lines, providing one of the most compelling accounts of race, class and the city in contemporary media.

To mark this event the online journal darkmatter [www.darkmatter101.org] is putting together a special ‘dialogue’ issue exploring the aesthetics and politics of The Wire. If you are interested in making a contribution send a 300 words abstract outlining your proposed piece by 30 June 2008. If accepted, final pieces between 1500 to 4000 words to be submitted by 1 September 2008. We welcome contributions in the form of essays, reviews, interviews or creative media pieces on any aspect of the show – from detailed analysis of specific characters and episodes to the examination of The Wire in relation to the history of television, film and literary genre fiction, or as a mapping of the crisis of race, politics and the neoliberal capitalist economy in Baltimore, America and globally.))

Effectively the pieces attempt to address the implications raised by the New York ‘gangsters’ by the question ’ If the gangs were white, what would be different about the show?’ By marking race within the show one begins to understand the racial logics of neoliberalism and contemporary institutions of power and control. A form of racialization that is immanent to the hegemonic discourses of anti-racism and multiculturalism now.

I suggested that the initial scene was uncanny in that while it presents an extraordinary rich and complex picture of power, its does so within the ubiquitous and familiar genre of cop show. The Wire’s aesthetic politics are in the way it deconstructs and reworks the conventions of the televisual genre in a post-TV context. A key TV genre and context to track the changing contours of race, class masculinity and technocultural transformations in post-civil rights US.

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