THE BLOG
04/26/2016 09:21 am ET Updated Apr 27, 2017

Teaching and Intimacy in the The Wire: What Teaching HBO's The Wire Taught Me

The social fact of race has long challenged efforts at readings that seek to distance image from reality, and it has also challenged attempts to analyze visual texts as if they were historical documents of record.

David Simon has claimed that the stories in The Wire are or could be true; they derive from journalistic reportage. And The Wire has been adopted as a teaching text in many college classrooms, as a show that engages closely with problems of contemporary U.S. society.

But it is first and foremost, something designed to make audiences watch, and to keep them watching. Hence we can't treat The Wire as a history lesson where it is judged for its accuracy and comprehensiveness. For me, the question rather is how to think about its politics and aesthetics together and in relation to history. This is my question today. As someone whose disciplinary training is in sociology, I am interested in how "the social" is constituted (and reproduced) - and The Wire presents compelling questions in this regard.

We can understand The Wire as one of two things. It can be seen as an artful portrayal of how things are, and what it portrays is a sorry state of affairs; in fact it is tragic. Simon has often described The Wire as Greek tragedy. This is a point often repeated in commentary on the show, but without specifying whether what Simon means is the Aristotelian or Nietzschean view of tragedy, that is, whether he would see it as catharsis or as an expression of a strong society that would only be emboldened by reckoning with its own failings - I would call this homoeopathic as opposed to cathartic. I think it is clear that Simon is an advocate for the Nietzschean view of tragedy, and that he wants to stimulate the will to confront the problems he presents. This is certainly the message that Simon urges in the numerous interviews he has given, although it is important to note that such messages are absent in the show as such.

Alternatively, we maybe seeing here something like a cannibalization of the social, a dismantling and destruction of the possibility of a functioning society, arranged and presented perhaps to edify the audience, perhaps to arouse it to respond, but certainly to entertain it meanwhile. This would be a reading unintended by Simon, but the conditions under which it arises are much broader; it corresponds to the breakdown of the social as we know it, to psychic investments that inhibit the possibility of repair, and cognitive failure indicative of trauma, stemming from the violence of race. The cognitive silence of this trauma is reflected in The Wire itself, in its own negotiations with the constraints of the culture industry and its need to entertain rather than shock and appall. This is the conclusion I came to upon encountering my students' responses when teaching The Wire.

So let me speak about teaching The Wire.

Student Intransigence
Being identified as a professor of media studies means that even colleagues with whom you might share intellectual interests, can sidle up to confess to you their secret addictions, which they divulge without qualms. "I love Buffy the Vampire Slayer," an eminent historian once told me solemnly. I had never heard of the show until then, but she did not notice that I had been taken unawares. She could not imagine that someone teaching in Media Studies was not abreast with popular TV shows - like a TV Guide come to life.

As it happens, the first time I eventually taught the kind of class my colleagues in the older disciplines might have expected me to to teach was only a couple of years ago, - and it was of course, on The Wire. All but two of the 20 students in the class had never seen the show before, and I was not sure what to expect.

In class discussions around segments of the show, students professed enthusiasm for The Wire, but in every attempt I made to contextualize social relations whether in terms of the Civil Rights era, or Reconstruction, or any other relevant period, I found myself drawing a blank.

The show might be the first major television serial which engages so extensively with African American society while trying to avoid being identified as being about race as such. The racial identity of protagonists provides no necessary clue about who is right and who is wrong; the viewer is meant to identify with diversely racialized characters, and on different sides of the law. In a sense the serial is about how "urban futures" indicate the deep interlocking of race and space, as part of its diagnostic about American failure. If the serial predicates "the social" on the fact of race, it also enframes race through an ethics attentive to racial difference. In the absence of a politicized reading however, such ethical behavior can appear to be purely contingent, even random, rather than presenting a key to the problems it manifests.

While I raised the possibility of contextual reading, the students had their own politically correct approach. Their idea of of being anti-racist was to fall back on practices of civility: racism was not only not polite, but to speak about race entailed risky speech, and one thing they had all learned was to be risk-averse. Therefore having a conversation about any aspect of race proved to be difficult.

My response to such intransigence was to introduce extra readings for the class - from DuBois on Black Reconstruction, to Michelle Alexander on the new Jim Crow - to discuss those texts in detail, and to offer connections with the show. What I overlooked was that even though they read these texts on histories of racial formation, they continued to resist articulating a race-sensitive reading of The Wire.

Not until about 9 or 10 weeks into the semester did a chance remark by a student - of Asian origin as it happened - alert me to something I had missed until then. "We don't like to say the word black," she said, and no one contradicted her. "What about the term African American"? That too was not a word they wanted to use. What word did they prefer then, to designate this population? Their silence gave me the answer. They did not speak about African Americans. Their discomfort at using any of these terms presumed an attitude of political correctness - no explanation was required when she reported this discomfort; the reason was self-evident. If they were sensitive about political correctness, the underside was inarticulateness about the continued persistence of racism.

To my mind, one of the remarkable successes of The Wire is its ability to embed a longer-term history of race as social fact, so much so that the forms of segregation that it depicts - which are themselves virtually invisible in most television shows - can be seen and taken for granted. They neither require explanation nor do they necessarily provoke indignation. But what I was encountering, in retrospect, was then one predictable kind of outcome

There were no African Americans in the seminar, and as in most universities, and certainly in elite universities, they are underrepresented at mine. Students could see racial difference at work, but were not prepared to speak about, whether it was reacting to the sense of collective guilt and trauma, or because a culture of civility obfuscated the possibility of dialogue, or their own prudence in terms of their careers meant being blind about race.

The Worlding of The Wire

The show's move from rarefied critical circles to popular acclaim took several years, as the organizers of this conference have noted - with its high point probably represented by Obama's TV interview of David Simon in March last year, in the wake of numerous reports that suggested, essentially, that the killing of African-Americans, was a judicially protected activity in the United States. This interview occurred just a few days ahead of Freddie Gray's murder at the hands of police, and subsequent riots in Baltimore, in April 2015. Obama's public identification with The Wire affirmed a status he had always sought, as political but also cultural avant-garde and thus above the fray of partisan politics. It certainly showed that whatever it was that shaped his policy initiatives on the policing of racial minorities, it was not lack of awareness.

Events have led to placing the text in the larger world, not of the culture industry and its genres and formulas, but - much as David Simon proposed in his pitch for the show - "for making statements about the American city and even about the American experiment" - and although the pitch made no reference to racial difference - that has proven to be absolutely central.

As for the state of racial violence in the U.S., the prestigious German newspaper Die Zeit recently wrote: "[T]he situation of African-Americans has barely improved since MLK" - the 48th anniversary of whose assassination was on Monday this week, incidentally. And one periodical, after Ferguson, stated that riots are "a necessary part of the evolution of society." This was in Time magazine, of all places.

If for Jean-Paul Sartre, Marxism was the unsurpassable philosophy of our time, recent events have confirmed that the question of race remains the unsurpassable problem for the United States, to be confronted in any statement of the American experiment. In 1837 Alexis de Tocqueville wrote that American society was organized with blacks at the bottom and whites at the top. Other racial groups seek to distance themselves from blacks and identify with the whites, he wrote. The copious accommodation of ethnic non-whites following the 1965 Immigration Act has only layered over that older question, and made it indistinct. But its explosiveness has only increased in the process.

The forefronting by Obama of The Wire at a highly charged racial moment in national politics, several years after the show ended, is usually read as endorsement of the sustained critical approval of the show. But the way in which The Wire deals questions of race is both empirically rich and theoretically evasive. If the show itself avoids editorial comment, Simon's interviews form a para-text where his opinions are spelt out quite unambivalently, for the most part. The relationship between the story itself and the opinions on it is suggested by the device of surveillance, which provides the title of the show.

Surveillance

Surveillance arises in a warzone - the corner crews and drug runners smash cameras and abandon cellphones while the police keep finding new ways to stay on the trail. The title of the show suggests both the partial visibility and the necessary obfuscation that the act of surveillance involves - the wiretap is the material edifice around which what we can call police knowledge is built, and strangely, this police knowledge is often superior to the information that the Baltimore police actually operate with. The data is born in the heat of the battle but the signal to noise ratio is astonishingly high, for the most part.

In his pitch to HBO for the show, Simon described surveillance as guaranteeing a unique framing for his police procedural. He also states that the knowledge produced through this surveillance was a double-edged sword, unsettling the authorities who tried to make it useful.

If that was the intent of the show, the result is not quite that, in my view. The knowledge produced by the wiretaps is for the most part, still-born. It does not lead to discomfort in the corridors of power - in fact it seldom reaches those corridors, nor does it lead to apprehension of suspects involved all the way up the supply and distribution chain. What it offers is its ethnographic observation and institutional analyses made on the go, by one or other actor - which are of course, narratives without resolution. The perspective of the surveiller is seldom subject to critique; rather it is endorsed.

This surprisingly undertheorized view on surveillance was recently emphasized in an exchange between Edward Snowden and David Simon, on social media, where Simon dismisses Snowden's concern about mass surveillance by saying there was no evidence that the massive data of surveillance has been misused. To which Snowden replies, "with all respect, I think this is not a considered view," words to that effect.

And indeed it is not. If we take Simon's avoidance of "using the race card" - some have applauded it, others see it as the fatal flaw in his work, together with his relatively benign view of surveillance, we are justified in asking if there is a problem of racial perspective in The Wire. This is not the usual problem, of pitting whites against African Americans, or showing the latter to be trapped in problems of their own making. Rather, we see a richly delineated black spatial imaginary - but with the participants' own thoughts about racial antagonism, whether to bemoan its existence or to try and overcome it - almost entirely edited out - except in fleeting sequences where they were likely to merely entertain or provide comic relief rather than build up to an argument and an education. The show thus permits viewers to go away as they came, relatively unchanged.

To change us is not the goal of tv entertainment, nor of The Wire specifically, Simon might argue. But the moral worlds of black and white lives have become separate and disconnected to such an extent, and African Americans have become so structurally marginalized, that even when they are made visually intimate with others in society, and narratively woven together, they continue to be treated as if in a parallel ethical universe; and the unresolved stories indicate no easy solution is at hand.

There is a catch 22 here. Playing the race card can polarize the American audience; depicting black lives while avoiding the race card wins critical acclaim and a safe berth for endorsements by a US President.

We can recall that, at the end of his Artwork essay, Walter Benjamin wrote --
"Mankind, which in Homer's time was an object of contemplation for the Olympian gods, is now one for itself. Its self-alienation has reached "such a degree that it can experience its own destruction as aesthetic pleasure of the first order."

Without the redemptive possibilities of communist politics, technologies of reproduction would be likely to stage only theself-cannibalization of the social, he argued.

Here let me step back from this discussion of the world's most powerful democracy, to draw on my own historical knowledge of the world's largest democracy, where we have an older form of hierarchy, which at the same time offers parallels to this discussion of The Wire.

Paradoxes Elsewhere
We can after all draw lessons from how hierarchy is maintained in one society, to pose questions about its forms elsewhere, and sometimes even illuminate the workings of these other forms.

The radical democratic thinker and leader of the former Untouchable castes, B. R. Ambedkar observed that the Hindu religion with its caste system is a hierarchy of rules without an ethical justification. Caste hierarchy is a just-so story - here is how the world was created, and this is how it will be maintained, with upper castes at the top and outcastes outside; it is a hierarchy invested with ritual sanction and customary belief, lacking any moral reciprocity between these groups. Rather we have a negative sociality with caste Hindus stigmatizing and marginalizing the so-called Untouchables - and it is precisely this sight that is pleasing to the Hindu gods. Positive sociality is prohibited.

This system of exclusion has persisted and survived despite nearly 70 years of universal franchise and representative institutions, although perhaps democracy has added a new wrinkle with Muslims as the new outcastes of Hindu India, while the former Untouchables may win a place within it by becoming warriors on behalf of caste Hindus and against Muslims.

Now, modern institutions presume a shared ethics by virtue of being society-wide, the increasingly technological and bureaucratized character of these institutions can result in outcomes that appear either purely contingent or purely coercive, lacking either rationality or morality. The intimacy of television can also heighten our awareness of the impossibility of the social. Perhaps Simon's and The Wire's greatest gift has been to remind us of this painful fact.

Let me end with a quote from James Baldwin, a letter to his nephew:

Try to imagine how you would feel if you woke up one morning to find the sun shining and all the stars aflame. You would be frightened because it is out of the order of nature. Any upheaval in the universe is terrifying because it so profoundly attacks one's sense of one's own reality. Well, the black man has functioned in the white man's world as a fixed star, as an immovable pillar: and as he moves out of his place, heaven and earth are shaken to their foundations. You, don't be afraid. I said that it was intended that you should perish in the ghetto, perish by never being allowed to go behind the white man's definitions, by never being allowed to spell your proper name. You have, and many of us have, defeated this intention; and, by a terrible law, a terrible paradox, those innocents who believed that your imprisonment made them safe are losing their grasp of reality. But these men are your brothers--your lost, younger brothers. And if the word integration means anything, this is what it means: that we, with love, shall force our brothers to see themselves as they are, to cease fleeing from reality and begin to change it.

Text of a talk presented at a conference on The Wire at the Heyman Center, Columbia University, April 8, 2016. http://heymancenter.org/events/the-wire-conference/