@elgringospeaks You Can Take The Hood Out Of The ‘Hood….
June 7, 2009 by lecolonelchabert | Edit
One of the more emphatic, and uncommon, reactionary features of The Wire, as a gangster fiction, is its manner of preserving with finical Victorian moral melodramatic machinations the quarantine of the “legitimate business” sphere from the “criminal underworld”, involving the laborious maintenance of the separation of legal and illegal money flows. This separation requires glaring violations of its boasted verisimilitude and involves hokey devices justified by their doubling as postmodern jokes (Marlo’s money laundering vig is literally a tithe to a vicarage).
The theme of criminal or immoral/villainous origins of great respectable capitalist fortunes is an old one, popular in the 19th century novel as in 20th and 21st century films, and an audience for “left cycle” gangster fictions expects it. The Wire, however, avoids this core element of popular gangster fiction’s social critique; there will be no proud old Barksdales, Stansfields and Bells shedding a tear as the next generation accepts its diplomas at Johns Hopkins’ graduation ceremonies. Instead, The Wire deploys race as abjection, barbarism and insuperable defect to pass off on its audience as plausible a narrative which reaffirms the functional purity of “legitimate business” (most visible as real estate development, but clearly including the entertainment industry of which the product is a part) by preventing the absorption of the “criminal” accumulation the gangster genre usually involves.
The critique of capitalism of which this particular form (gangster and crime genres) is capable, highly developed in its “left” strain, involves establishing the antagonism of lawless and lawful in order to collapse the distinction and reveal not only the similarity but the complicity (sometimes to indistinguishability, as in Chinatown) between the criminal and legitimate enterprises. This is typified by the unforgettable development of Michael Corleone’s relations with the bigoted Nevada senator. (Mass culture product rarely fails to re-establish the distinction between lawless and legit, and at the same time often offers fantasy upward mobility, suitably punished, as in Wall Street or Goodfellahs.) The Wire rather does the opposite – it establishes narcotraffic as a metaphor for lawful commerce but insists on its exaggeration of “the dark side” and simultaneously operates a strict distinction on the “realistic” plane to produce the narrative, which is traditional law and order propaganda (compare to the relations of cops and drug dealers in say Lumet’s Q and A), rendered intense and sensational (the role of the fourteen dead beauties is important in underscoring the horror of the illegal economy for an audience undisturbed by, and indeed enjoying, the carnage of the “game” participants); playing out this contest, the programme then proceeds to reaffirm the difference and incompatibility of lawless and lawful in manichean sequence after sequence. The virtue of the legitimate system (appearing as lost utopia, mourned nostalgically, whose remnants only remain) is reaffirmed by its contrast to what infects it and imitates it in a degenerate way: the black drug kingpin is not really a capitalist but presented as a mockery of a capitalist, a degenerate form of employer, at once terrifyingly violent and pitiably, absurdly childlike. This ancient stereotype of savage king appears in The Wire as motif presented in endless permutations whose obviousness and cartoonishness escalates:
Marlo has too much money…cue the palm trees, corrupt larcenous clergyman (he, this money laundering minister from Baltimore, is apparently responsible for the shortage of hospitals and schools in the Francophone Caribbean), a fundamentally criminal Caribbean country. The deeply traditional imperial supremacist sensibility of the show becomes progressively more explicit, above all in that gag line “ain’t easy civilising this motherfucker”, a line in a long tradition of the brute instructing the other brute to mind his manners, the audience’s amusement enhanced with flattery. The familiarity of the joke is an asset not a flaw, as the Wire exploits a post-post-modern fashion which encourages audiences to enjoy revivals and (re)affirmations of clichés and stereotypes which decades of progressive politics and taste had discarded as tired as well as obnoxious. This pleasure is offered as at once naughty/daring and reassuring/conservative. Stereotypes and clichés (whether in the form of ersatz ethnography or less charged postmodern allusions which congratulate the viewer on his recognition of cocaculture) create a false sensation of knowledge and the instant intellectual mastery of a complex reality (again Zizek is a glaring example, with the popularity he achieved recycling an old old witticism about toilets as revealing of “national character”; an ignorant audience is given a false sensation of worldliness by these kinds of jokes and the stereotypes of which they’re made.) But for teenage viewers of the Wire, many of these clichés will be unfamiliar, the beginnings of their indoctrination into, for example, the knowledge of the unfitness of black men for positions of authority and power, a knowledge which the Wire works against the mainstream grain (boldly flouting the tyranny of political correctness) now to rehabilitate.
The attempted (pointless) “education” and “civilisation” of the black entrepreneur appears explicitly in the Wire and repeatedly -
and the failure is predestined, never in doubt. Here we have a travesty of enterprise, because enterprise and hard work are foreign to “this culture” which thrives on violence and empty appearance, which is parasitic not productive, which can only mimic (and exaggerate) the gestures and not produce the substance of virtuous capitalism and accumulation.
David Simon (DVD “extras”): Every season the first scene is in fact the metaphor for the entire season, as was this. We were using the idea of a housing project being demolished presumably for a new and more vibrant Baltimore as being a metaphor for reform and we were taking a glancing blow as well at the idea of the um, postmodern world. There is also in this season a drug war that occurs between the established Barksdale family – the Barksdale gang and the new insurgency run by Marlo Stanfield. That was a metaphor again for Iraq. So, there was a lot going on and you basically need to take very careful notes and voluminous notes and maybe a couple of postgraduate courses or you just got to watch carefully. One of the two.
Rather than (as is typical of the genre) reveal the hidden (or not so hidden) unity of the criminal and the legitimate systems of appropriation and exploitation, and (as is typical of the “left” variant) discover the greater violence (and injustice, and ruthlessness) of the legitimate system of exploitation, the Wire repeatedly dramatises the monopoly the illegitimate realm has on barbarity and the impossibility of the interpenetration of the separate realms, in a way rendered satisfying to the audience because involving the convenient killing of one loveable, disposable “underworld” character after another. If this bloodbath of the “game” participants is supposed to represent the frustration of aspirants to “the American dream” and upward mobility, it is also vividly raced and clearly panders to implied audience desires with its protection of the “mainstream” and the “society in general” from the violence (and consequent judgements) depicted (as the condition of an “underclass”). The programme does not even entertain the possibility that violence is inflicted by the legal ruling class on the working class or the participants in the illegal economy. This is most powerfully evident in the wholly disapproving posture taken toward the – heavily stereotyped – lawyer who represents the criminal population – and it is a criminal population that is depicted – as defendants, as if there is something truly despicable about these game participants even having a right to a zealous defence, and something positively depraved about actually giving it, the innocence of a defendant in a drug case being an option not even imagined or imaginable. In the extended “metaphor for Iraq”, Maurice Levy is the exaggeratedly depraved criminal image of all the – typed, raced and othered as Jewish – lawyers for the “unlawful combatants” held at Guantanamo, Bagram and throughout the secret prison system. For good measure, David Simon and HBO emphasise that America-run prisons are exceedingly comfortable places where criminal populations are lucky to be.
As for the sins of the legitimate culture or world, there is only the vague sense of abandonment of duty, desertion of post, decadence, the civilised imperialists neglecting their charges. State law enforcement institutions are weakened and infiltrated by (raced) villainy, but no connection is drawn or imagined between the container of dead beauties and any publicly traded company. All such violence is tucked neatly over the border in the netherworld of illegitimacy which – happily – can be relished as a wild frontier or jungle within the city itself, for the setting of this kind of entertainment. The Western genre (among other adventure genres) serves as an avenue of escape from the politics of the left gangster genre which seem to be required but are overturned by this programme. The overarching form of soap allows the programme to shuttle between the exploited genres in search of the most reactionary vision, so that it can exploit the glamour and compact signifying shorthand of all without having to grapple with the discourse of liberalism as it has been established by these genres or the critiques which have persuasively established their politics over decades. The civilising mission is thus refreshed. The mix of genres also allows the programme to shift from the quasi-allegorical and comic book to the gritty, pseudo-documentary mode, raising and dropping its alibi of verisimilitude as required, to evade interpretation, to refuse responsibility for its content. In true postmodern fashion, flattering and gratifying the audience is paramount. The constant reassurance and affirmation of the audience’s penchants is achieved by a sustained duality of textual status – each event, image, plot fragment is available for function as articulated content with implied extratextual and intertextual referent and simultaneously self-referential ironic commentary, (the programme presents Marlo as the savage king of imperialist propaganda and cocaculture in a multi-toned discursive illusory reality which associates democracy, weakened Empire and multiculturalism with violence, alienation, and societal decline, but can, for a viewer preferring to consider himself “critical”, be treated as some kind of repudiating or “subversive” play with this topos and is heavily ornamented enough with “recognised” elements of verisimilitude to be available for projection of any analysis whatsoever regarding the actual relations between the associated themes, motifs, and observed phenomena). The choice between the available degrees of fictionality and “direction” of signification is left completely to the viewer’s taste and convenience to the consumer’s self congratulation and self justification. All postures however equally emphasise the distinction between the fictional/fantastic and criminal (illegitimate, unwholesome, doomed and degenerate) world constituting the culture commodity and the world in which the consumer consumes and enjoys it (legitimately, wholesomely, progressively, constructively).
The integrity of legitimate business (such as tv production and distribution), and the legitimacy of the dominant or mainstream culture from within which the programme addresses its audience, is sustained through the use of the discourse of race and the traditions of mass and popular culture genres which allow for the creation of the illusion of “two worlds”, two separate societies and cultures, immediately intelligible because of the paradigm made familiar by the Western and in particular what Pauline Kael identified as “the street Westerns”, whose image of the city with an interior jungle or frontier can be traced back to the 19th century French and English novels’ adaptation of James Fenimore Cooper’s tales to urban settings. The propagandistic “two worlds” vision is additionally charged with the energies and impact of the war on terror discourse – the audience is familiar with the “two worlds” superimposed by the Afghanistan, Iraq and Palestine occupations – and the show exploits a vocabulary of images and topoi from headline news which designate a (local) criminal society/population and a (global/international) civilising imperial society attempting to administer it, with all the liberal admissions of “nuances” and caveats – there are decent individuals in the criminal savage society, the civilised superior society is “corrupt” and incompetent, cynical and decrepit – which do not at all undermine, but rather bolster, the strength of the distinction insisted on and the hierarchy of legitimacy portrayed and which additionally explain and justify the nature of the relations between the separate “worlds”. These realms, though presented as distinct, are of course shown in contact, clashing, and engaging in exchange, with a well defined border territory with a distinctive population, but they are repeatedly affirmed by the show to be truly separate and antagonistic, mutually alien, even to embody distinct essences, one universal and one particular, one national and one local, one normal, if flawed, and one pathological, if possessed of merits and loveable features, one threatening the other thrillingly, the other defended from this threat by the “fate” of the teleplay.
“You can’t put a price on a water view.”
Marlo Stansfield is implausibly naïve about finance, and his final flight from the scene of his elevation/absorption into the “legitimate” business world presents a familiar vision of the fierce “primitive” dazzled and bewildered by the developed world, (or of Jane Austen’s Mr. Darcy in modern London in Lost in Austen). This “spawn of the devil” who becomes undisputed King of the wild failed state of Western Baltimore is intimidated in the presence of the rich white real estate developers, is exposed as frightened and aware that he is now among his superiors to whom he can never be equal no matter how much money he has. His personal (and “self made”) fortune has not made him a rentier capitalist or “investor” somehow, but only allowed him to be a travesty of one. In one of many scenes which depict the comical and frightening failed efforts of “game” participants to be actually civilised, (not merely to behave in a superficially – and histrionically – civilised way as Omar Little and Brother Mouzone do), Marlo can’t wait to take the suit off, and escapes the party, already unbuttoning before he has even exited the building, rushing off to engage in some physical violence to release his pent up violent nature after the clearly trying time “playing” civilised investor. He may have tens of millions of dollars but he is fundamentally, bodily unfit for a position in the class to which that sum of money would allow him elevation, as Laetitia is unfit for sitting in a chair in school with a someone sharp witted and possessed of something so advanced as a watch. So far from feeling relief and comfort in his new situation as man of means and leisure, Marlo is sweating and uneasy, desperate to return to his native clime the urban jungle.
Instead of the “critique of capitalism” which is usually found in contemporary ironic gangster genres, and in legible contrast to it, the Wire offers a reactionary vision of advanced capitalist technology having “fallen into the wrong hands” as “the American empire” goes into “decline”. Stringer Bell’s business classes are offered in part as comedy, a comic juxtaposition (his particular retail area inspires him to emphasise the “desire” of the clientele in class) ; that this is intended contemptuously and to emphasise existing themes of the civilising mission is confirmed by the fact that these techniques and knowledges, which serve “legitimate” businessmen well, amount to nothing for him. The protocol imposed on meetings is for no purpose other than squeezing a simulacrum of humour out of a nearly defunct sense of incongruity (in the vein of “movie mafioso in psychoanalysis”). Stringer Bell can’t master management strategies or put them profitably into practise any more than Marlo Stansfield can master the wearing of a suit or Bodie can learn chess or Snoop can behave inconspicuously in Home Depot. Again and again the Wire shows retail narcotraffic as an “underclass” mimickry of the upper class, a failed emulation. The reflection in a funhouse mirror. The Wire reminds the viewer that it represents a degenerate capitalism and a degenerate “America”, in contrast to the nostalgically recalled days of wholesome industrial production before the worthy ruling class deserted its dependents and left them to their own devices, their education and civilisation unfinished. The Wire universe and its Victorian moralising (crime does not and cannot pay) dispenses with Stringer Bell, who is made to acknowledge his unfitness for the achievement of his aspirations: you can take the hood out of the ‘hood but you can’t take the ‘hood out of the hood.
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