Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Response to ""The Wire" is part of the problem"

From my great literature colleague, Professor Marcy Dinius, who has written a fabulous book on the relationship between daguerreotypes and American literature, the unity of visual and print culture:

Hey, Johanna--

It's a really insightful, thought-provoking, compelling post! It was fun to think through some of this with you in between classes yesterday, and I'm glad to have been able to contribute a bit.

I find the following right on: "However, the show never defines socialism (though it would be neither the stagnant welfare state nor the crime economy) or neoliberalism and never suggests any pathway to either, rather we are stuck in the cynical world of both the stagnant welfare state and the innovative crime economy." For me, the show's insistence on stuckness (which excuses, in its commitment to realism, its failure to define socialism) is highly problematic.

I'm somewhat less compelled by this claim, though: "The show performs an ideological function because it reflects the perspective, in an very intelligent and highly entertaining way, of the gentrifiers, the primary viewers of the show. It repeats the narrative that the city was destroyed, but now it is finally recovered and vibrant." I think the show has a much more pedagogical tone, or at least proceeds from a much more pedagogical position: it has a hard lesson to teach its viewers, and it assumes that they've had the chance to learn it before and chosen not to, but through this engagement, they won't be able to deny it anymore. I think it thinks its viewers still believe in the institutions Keynesian welfare state, and that if we just gave more money to schools, or to cops, then test scores would go up and crime would go down and our social problems would be better. Which is to say I think it thinks its assumedly-liberal viewers think of the institutions of the "welfare state" (it's hard for me to call them that, even if it's a technical term) are something like charities--if we all just dropped a few more dimes in the bucket (like during an NPR pledge drive), then we've done our job. And it wants to insist, against that way of thinking, that all of these institutions are interrelated (so that the idea of improving one and that improving social problems as a result will finally die) and have been neglected for so long (nostalgically implying that at some point in the past they may have been salvageable, but that ship has long since sailed) that they're beyond salvation. But again, I think the show works from the idea that its viewers haven't figured these two main points (interrelation and it's too late) out yet, or that they have and are in a state of denial that daily punishes those most affected by this collapse. [I also think it's interested in hammering home, repeatedly, Walter Benn Michaels's mantra: that it's not just race, but also class; (see also Michaels's The Trouble With Diversity.)]

All of the above paragraph said, I don't think "The Wire" wants to represent either The Post-Industrial American City or Baltimore as "recovered and vibrant." (Sometimes Baltimore is the representative post-industrial American city in the show; sometimes it's specifically unique, it's own fucked up place--a specific kind of late-capitalism mid-Atlantic pride that I find both appalling and charming.) I think the way that the whole series ends, with a montage of scenes showing McNulty returning to the city from DC (with a homeless man he's kidnapped--many problems/liberal liberties in that storyline!) and showing parts of the city (many of the characters in the show that we've met over the course of the seasons) living out yet another day, suggest more specifically that the city is just alive, continuing to get by. To put it another way, I think the show leaves The City (or maybe just Baltimore) as the one institution that isn't beyond saving, but that may only persist on its own mysterious terms--much like the ecosystem of Walden that Thoreau observes working without human interference. Both get awfully close to implying a reversion to laissez-faire naturalism as the solution to all of these complex man-made problems (Thoreau outright declares this; The Wire, I think is much more cagey, again, in irresponsible ways).

At the very least, then, I appreciate the show--even with all of its problems--for how much it makes me think. This is a fair bit of intellectual work that we're doing even to figure out that it's wrong and potentially dangerous, and that's more than I'm asked to do by most aspect of late-capitalist American culture (my job included).

Thanks so much again for the exchange!

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