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The literary critic, the nineteenth century novel and the wire.

In the two years since The Wire concluded, a pitched battle of ongoing praise has upped the comparative ante. If likening Simon repeatedly to Dickens and Dreiser, Balzac and Tolstoy and Shakespeare hasn't proved adequately exalting, Bill Moyers lately freshened things up by calling Simon "our Edward Gibbon," while the literary critic Walter Benn Michaels went so far as to suggest that the beauty and difficulty of watching The Wire in English--the multifarious 21st-century English of Baltimore detectives and drug dealers--compares with that of reading Dante in 14th-century Italian.

--Wyatt Mason (1)

How good is The Wire? Can it really be that good? Given the kind of praise it has already received, it might seem that the duty of the critic is now to lower the ante, to speak more soberly, to make more modest claims. But my own feeling is that the excitement it has generated is entirely justified So what I personally think we need is a willingness first to explain as clearly as we can the nature of our excitement; then to make precisely the claim it seems appropriate to make on the show's behalf (regardless as to how modest or extravagant it might seem); and finally to make a more detailed and convincing argument for its overall achievement than has so far been forthcoming. (2) However, considering the extraordinary length of The Wire, all I can hope to do here is lay the groundwork for that necessarily detailed argument, which I will have to make elsewhere.


I think I can best describe the excitement I myself started to experience at some point during my first viewing of the first season by saying that it reminded me of what I had felt in the mid-1960s when eagerly waiting for and then watching the films of Jean Luc Godard. But I also have in mind in this connection the importance of D.H.Lawrence and of the early T.S.Eliot (the Eliot of "The Wasteland") to the literary critic, F.R.Leavis. Something new had arrived, expectations about what could realistically be attempted had been changed, and it was no longer possible to go on thinking and writing in the old way. Not, at least, if one understood the happening in question as I think Leavis understood it, which is to say as the kind of "truth--event" the philosopher Alan Badiou has recently theorized. To take Badiou's example: "Berg and Webern, faithful to the musical event known by the name of 'Schoenberg,' cannot continue with fin-de-siecle neo-Romanticism as if nothing had happened." (3) If Berg and Webern had continued in the old ways "as if nothing had happened," then for them since they had not been faithful to it--"Schoenberg" would not have constituted a truth-event. And I would say that for Leavis much the same applied to those writers who came after T.S.Eliot and D.H.Lawrence.


Of course many writers (many good writers) did come after T.S.Eliot and D.H.Lawrence, just as many films (some of them outstanding) continued (and continue) to be made after Godard's Weekend proclaimed the End of Cinema in 1967. I am not saying that just because most of those writers and film-makers were not obviously indebted to the breakthroughs we associate with Eliot, Lawrence and Godard, their work is without value. What I am saying is that I do believe it makes sense to see these three as belonging to a select band of artists whose work changes one's sense of what is possible--and possible, incidentally, not just (or even mainly) in art: after full exposure to the work of artists like these, the world looks and in some sense is different. That's how I feel after watching The Wire. And the fact that its audience was much larger than the number of readers or viewers who greeted the poems, novels and films of T.S.Eliot, Lawrence and Godard respectively strikes me as an encouraging sign in the first decade of a new century, at a moment when one had long given up expecting anything of this magnitude.

I trust this already goes some way towards explaining why an essay on the significance of The Wire seemed an appropriate choice for this special issue. But for the benefit of any readers who may be unaware of the fact, I am of course thinking here of the great importance Robin Wood attached to the example set by the literary criticism of F.R.Leavis. As admirers of Wood's work know well, his own unique form of criticism (as it evolved over the last few decades) was characterized by the heroic manner in which it attempted to combine a Leavisian emphasis on close reading and evaluation with a kind of political radicalism that bears some resemblance to what can be found at work in The Wire (the kind, in Wood's case, that drew on Marxism, Feminism and his experience as a gay man). (4)

Now before going any further, I need to say something about the kind of thing we are talking about here. My epigraph comes from a recent article, whose title, "The HBO Auteur," refers to David Simon. It seems to me right to think of Simon as the series' auteur, even though he didn't direct any of The Wire's sixty episodes. But that said, the first thing I think we have to reflect on is Simon's insistence that The Wire came out of an "impulse" that was "either journalistic or literary." (5) Or to be more exact, the impulse in question was both journalistic and literary. It was journalistic in the sense that it draws heavily on the research or field-work that went into the "long, multi-POV nonaction narratives, Homicide (1991) and The Corner (1997)" ("An Interview" 383), the latter co-written with Ed Burns. (6) And as for the literary component of the impulse, we can note the obvious pride Simon takes in explaining (in The Wire: Truth etc.) why it was appropriate to have the novelist Richard Price as one of his writers:
  Anyone who has read Clockers--which is to the cocaine
  epidemic of the early 1990s as The Grapes of Wrath
  is to the Dust Bowl--understands the debt owed to
  that remarkable book by The Wire. Indeed the split
  point-of-view that powers The Wire is a form
  mastered first in the modern novel, and Price, in
  his first Dempsey book, proved beyond all doubt how
  much nuance, truth, and story could exist between
  the world of the police and the world of their
  targets. ("Introduction" 26)

However, when Simon invites us to think of The Wire in literary terms, he isn't only thinking of the novel:
  We're stealing ... from ... the Greeks-lifting
  our thematic stance wholesale from Aeschylus,
  Sophocles, Euripides to create doomed and fated
  protagonists who confront a rigged game and
   their own mortality. ("An Interview" 384)

This too, I take, as I have no doubt Simon intends it to be taken, with the utmost seriousness.

But is the fact that Simon is an author and also that he had a hand in the writing of all the episodes in Seasons One, Two, Three and Five, and in four of the episodes in Season Four of The Wire, (7) enough to make him also an auteur? It seems to me that the answer to this is Yes, on two counts. Yes, first, if we accept (as I think we should) Simon's contention that "In episodic television, by virtue of the continuing storylines, it's the writer with the suction" ("Introduction" 26). Or, in other words: "Beginning with Oz and culminating in The Sopranos, the best work on HBO expresses nothing less than the vision of individual writers, as expressed through the talents of directors, actors, and film crews" (2). And Yes, secondly, if (as I take to be the case here) the writer in question gets to do what no-one else gets to do, which is to oversee every single episode and ensure that from beginning to end The Wire looks as if it is the work of one single director.


As it happens, Robert Colesberry, the man to whom Simon gives most credit for the look of The Wire, only directed one episode (2.12.25) but he is the one who apparently did more than anyone else to create "the template" (29) that remained the same after he died in 2004 from heart surgery complications. But in this connection the point that I think needs stressing is that it isn't possible to tell one director's contribution from another's. Nor, I would wager, for that matter, is it possible to tell one writer's contribution from another writer's. Since I particularly admire some of the films made by Agnieszka Holland and some of Richard Price's novels, I have paid special attention to their contributions (including the episode [3.8.33] they worked on together), but in my view the episodes in question are neither better nor worse than any of the others. And while some may be inclined to take this as a put-down of Price and Holland, I myself see it, rather, as further confirmation of the uniformly high standard maintained throughout.

Here I want to draw on Chris Marker, even though when he offered the following judgment he was speaking of two other TV series (Deadwood and Firefly) as well as The Wire (and even though he could, at that point, have seen very little of the latter):
  There is a knowledge in them, a sense
  of story and economy, of ellipsis, a science
  of framing and of cutting, a dramaturgy, and
  an acting style that has no equal anywhere,
  and certainly not in Hollywood. (8)

So yes, while it is convenient (and as fair, I imagine, as these things ever are) to think of David Simon as the auteur, it is clear that the "knowledge" Marker refers to here belongs jointly to both him and the collectivity (the group of professionals) that works under him. What, I suggest, this particular experiment in film may force us to realize is that (over and above their other more obvious contributions) writers may also deserve more credit than they are usually given (sometimes perhaps as much credit as editors) for such things as, for example, "a science of framing and of cutting," which is crucial in The Wire. And in addition to this, what there ought to be no doubt about at all is the absolutely major contribution made by the actors.

In short, while it is certainly important to register the fact that The Wire exists as a new kind of film, it is at least equally important to recognize that this series clearly sees itself as being primarily inspired by and indebted to literature. (9)

This brings me to the twofold claim I now wish to make on its behalf: first, that the great achievement of The Wire should be primarily understood in terms of how powerfully it challenges us to rethink our ethics; second, that we will be better able to appreciate its ethical teaching--and respond to its challenge--if we see some of the things it has in common with, and also some of the ways in which it differs from, a certain tradition of the novel. Though the second part of this claim is likely to seem unsurprising at first (both in the light of what I have just been saying and particularly since the most frequently made comparisons are probably to the nineteenth century novel), the novels I mainly have in mind are decidedly not the ones usually thought of in this context. But I'll return to this in a moment. First, I need to acknowledge some of the reasons why it might well seem a mistake to argue for The Wire in terms of what it can teach us about ethics. As I see it, there are three main ones: (i) some of Simon's own remarks, (ii) the Marxist reason and (iii) the Greek.

The first reason it might seem a mistake to see The Wire in terms of a radical, and radically challenging, ethical enquiry is that David Simon has sometimes given the impression that he, at least, would find this a somewhat naive misrepresentation of what The Wire has to offer. I'm thinking here, for example, of his pointing out that in contrast to "so much of television" which "is about providing catharsis and redemption and the triumph of character," The Wire is "a drama in which postmodern institutions trump individuality and morality and justice" ("An Interview" 385). But while there is indeed a sense in which it can be said that The Wire does show "postmodern institutions trump[ing] individuality and morality and justice," this only means that many (but not all) of the efforts to do the right thing that we see being made by individuals and groups throughout the series end in failure. This certainly doesn't invalidate those efforts: it simply means that The Wire inclines towards a tragic view of the world it depicts.

But let's look at another of the comments Simon has made in a similar vein. Explaining how he pitched the idea of the show to HBO executives, he offers this summary:
  Instead of the usual good-guys-chasing-bad-guys
  framework, questions would be raised about the
  very labels of good and bad, and, indeed, whether
  such distinctly moral notions were really the
  point. The show would instead be about untethered
  capitalism run amok, about how power and money
  actually root themselves in a postmodern American
  city, and, ultimately, about why we as an urban
  people are no longer able to solve our problems
  or heal our wounds. ("An Interview" 386)

How should we take this? I agree, on the one hand, that The Wire does present a vitally important argument; it argues that capitalism is running amok and it shows us some of the consequences, in the workplace and elsewhere. And I can certainly see why Simon would want to stress this aspect, especially since I find Season Five's "depiction of what remains of our media culture, a critique that makes plain why hardly anyone is left to do the hard work of explaining the precise nature of our national problems" ("Introduction" 12), so difficult to refute. Especially too since what that means is that it is certainly possible "we as an urban people" may be "no longer able to solve our problems or heal our wounds." A genuinely scary prospect. But, on the other hand, while I also agree both that The Wire raises "questions ... about the very labels of good and bad," I would insist that it shows "such distinctly moral notions" to still be very much to "the point"; indeed, that it shows them to be absolutely indispensable.

The second reason it might seem a mistake to see The Wire as ethical enquiry is the presence of a kind of Marxism at work in it. On the one hand, I am thinking here of such statements, by Simon, as the following:
  The Wire depicts a world in which capital has triumphed
  completely, labor has been marginalized and monied
  interests have purchased enough political infrastructure
  to prevent reform. It is a world in which the rules and
  values of the free market and maximized profit have
  been mistaken for a social frame-work, a world where
  institutions themselves are paramount and every day
  human beings matter less. ("introduction" 30)

On the other, I think too of the relevance to The Wire of the last sentence of Norman Mailer's (problematic but still, in places, challenging) 1957 essay, "The White Negro"; in particular, of Mailer's characterization of Marxism as a form of thought that "approaches] the mystery of social cruelty so simply and practically as to say that we are a collective body of humans whose life-energy is wasted, displaced, and procedurally stolen as it passes from one of us to another)" (my italics). But why do I think this might be taken to argue against the idea that The Wire should be primarily seen as a work of ethical teaching and enquiry? Because there has always been a tendency in Marxism--one among others, admittedly, but particularly noticeable, I would say, in many of its proponents in the universities in the 1970s--to argue that ethical questions should be postponed until after the revolution; in other words, to replace ethics by politics. (10)

The third reason is the presence within The Wire of the kind of vision we associate with Greek tragedy. Thus, after making the remark we have already noted ("we're still fated by indifferent gods"), Simon adds this:
  But instead of the old gods, The Wire is a Greek
  tragedy in which the postmodern institutions are
  the Olympian forces. It's the police department,
  or the drug economy, or the political structures,
  or the school administration, or the macroeconomic
  forces that are throwing the lightning bolts and
  hitting people in the ass for no decent reason.
  ("An Interview" 384)

Why should one try to do the right thing if the outcome is "fated" anyhow? On the face of it, it would seem that here too we have a perspective that casts doubt on the feasibility of any meaningful ethical intervention. And yet, perhaps not. After all, this reflection hardly applies to a tragedy like Antigone, a work that seems to me especially relevant to The Wire.

I come now to the second part of my claim, which is that we can begin to qet into clearer focus the tradition The Wire recovers by recalling two of the ways in which, in his book The Great Tradition, F.R.Leavis characterized the achievement of the great English novelists; Jane Austen, George Eliot, Henry James and Joseph Conrad. Why is this bound, at first glance, to seem so improbable? Isn't it mainly because of the great differences between the worlds of Simon's West Baltimore and (to restrict ourselves just to Austen and Eliot) those of Highbury, say, or of Middlemarch? But of course it is also true that the Westside of Baltimore is vastly different to the Lake Woebegone of Garrison Keillor's Prairie Home Companion, which we hear on a car radio at the beginning of Season Two, as Bodie (the young drug-slinger, played by J.D.Williams) finds himself leaving Baltimore for the first time in his life (and being obliged to listen to a new radio station). And my point is that the world of The Wire turns out to have one thing--something crucially important--in common with the worlds of Highbury and Middlemarch that outweighs the real and obvious differences.

Before moving to a conclusion, I think I had better offer a few more clarifications. First, I am not denying the possibility that Balzac, Dante and certain Russian novelists could all be used to help us better understand The Wire too. It isn't difficult to see why Richard Price refers to "the Russian novel of an HBO series, The Wire." (11)

Second, though I am not forgetting that The Wire is a profoundly American work, I am suggesting that George Eliot and Leavis can probably help us with The Wire more than someone like Dreiser because, while not unimportant, the naturalism that The Wire shares with him (or with Zola, say) is finally less significant than the ethical concern it shares with the two English writers (ethical concern, as distinct, for example, from their significantly different ethical commitments). Without wishing to deny certain obvious similarities, I think, incidentally, it would be a serious mistake to see The Wire as a work of naturalism. (There is a great deal that needs to be said about this but I will limit myself here to pointing out that much of what gives The Wire its great distinction is attributable to how stylized and un-naturalistic it often is, as in the miraculous-seeming escape from death of Omar Little [the gay, Robin-Hood-like outlaw figure played by Michael K. Williams] after he has been forced to jump from a balcony high-up on an apartment building. As drug lord, Mario Stanfield [played by Jamie Hector] comments: "Some spiderman shit there" [5.6.56].)

We can now say a little more about the one thing (its intense ethical concern) that I am claiming The Wire has in common with the novels of writers like Austen, George Eliot and Dickens. To begin with, let's look at a couple of the key points Leavis made in his book The Great Tradition and consider their bearing on The Wire. First, there is his claim that Jane Austen, George Eliot and Joseph Conrad (and he was later to add D.H.Lawrence and Dickens to the list) ''are significant in terms of the human awareness they promote; awareness of the possibilities of life." And secondly, what he says about the connection between their interest in "form" and questions concerning morality (or ethics):
  The great novelists in that tradition are all very
  much concerned with "form" ... But the peculiar
  quality of their preoccupation with "form" may be
  brought out by a contrasting reference to Flaubert.
  Reviewing Thomas Mann's Der Tod in Venedig, D.H,
  Lawrence adduces Flaubert as figuring to the world
  the "will of the writer to be greater than and
  undisputed lord over the stuff he writes." This
  attitude in art, as Lawrence points out, is indicative
  of an attitude in life--or towards life. Flaubert, he
  comments, "stood away from life as from a leprosy" ...

  As a matter of fact, when we examine the formal
  perfection of Emma, we find that it can be appreciated
  only in terms of the moral preoccupations that
  characterize the novelist's peculiar interest
  in life ... far from having anything of Flaubert's
  disgust or disdain or boredom, they [the great
  English novelists] are all distinguished by a vital
  capacity for experience, a kind of reverent openness
  before life, and a marked moral intensity. (12)

One easy and understandable reaction to this would be to say that if it were possible for either Leavis or the novelists he is celebrating here to have been confronted with some of what The Wire has to show us they also would have probably stood away from it "as from a leprosy." Perhaps. Indeed, that may even seem likely but of course in the nature of the case it is not possible to know. In any case, the claim I wish to make is that in The Wire too "form" needs to be appreciated in terms of its "moral preoccupations" since The Wire also exhibits a comparable "moral intensity."

First and foremost, there is the fact that The Wire takes us much more deeply than most of us are likely to have ever gone (or wanted to go) before into the kind of territory that the narrator of E.M.Forster's Howard's End refers to as "the abyss where nothing counts":
  The boy, Leonard Bast, stood at the extreme verge
  of gentility. He was not in the abyss, but he could
  see it, and at times people whom he knew had dropped
  in, and counted no more. (13)

It seems natural to be reminded of this by, among other things, something one reporter (Fletcher) says to another (Alma) in the final season of The Wire when the latter's story about three murders gets rejected because they occurred in "the wrong zip code": "They're dead where it doesn't count" (5.3.53). And while there are many works to which one can point in the century that followed on from the publication of Howard's End (in 1910) that feature occasional characters who wouldn't have counted for Forster's narrator, it would be difficult to think of any work that has as many such characters in it as The Wire. Not that quantity is everything here. One might recall, for example. the symbolic importance given to the convict Abel Magwitch in Dickens' Great Expectations; of the way in which Pip stands away from Abel when the convict turns up in London at the end of the novel's second part ("The abhorrence in which I held the man ... the repugnance with which I shrank from him" (14)), as if--to use Lawrence's word--Pip is recoiling from a "leprosy"; and of the significance of Pip's finally being able to embrace him (which is to say of Dickens' bringing these polar opposites, the gentleman and convict, together).


But the point that realty needs emphasizing here is how well we get to know (and to care deeply about) a whole range of such hitherto socially insignificant characters (as, for example, D'Angelo [Larry Gilliard Jr], Wallace [Michael B. Jordan], Bodie, Michael [Tristan Wilds], Duquan [Jermaine Crawford], Randy [Maestro Harrell], Naymond [Julito McCullum]--to name just a few of them) in The Wire. This is partially explicable in terms of the fact that if, as the narrator of Middlemarch maintains, it is true that "any one watching keenly the stealthy convergence of human lots, sees a slow preparation of effects from one life on another," (15) then it has to be said that the extraordinary length of The Wire enables it to make us aware of an even "slow[er] preparation of effects from one life on another." But in addition to this, we should also take note of something George Eliot's narrator says about "character," while reflecting on the doctor Lydgate soon after his arrival in Middlemarch:
  He was certainly a happy fellow at this time: to
  be seven-and-twenty, without any fixed vices, with
  a generous resolution that his action should be
  beneficent, and with ideas in his brain that made
  life interesting ... He was at a starting-point which
  makes many a man's career a fine subject for betting,
  if there were any gentlemen given to that amusement
  who could appreciate the complicated probabilities
  of an arduous purpose, with all the possible thwarting
  and furthering of circumstance, all the niceties of
  inward balance, by which a man swims and makes his
  point or else is carried headlong. The risk would remain,
  even with close knowledge of Lydgate's character; for
  character too is a process and an unfolding. The man was
  still in the making, as much as the Middlemarch doctor
  and immortal discoverer, and there were both virtues and
  faults capable of shrinking or expanding. The faults
  will not, I hope, be a reason for the withdrawal of your
  interest in him. (157)

To the best of my knowledge, if we want to arrive at a deep understanding of what it means to speak of "character" as "a process and an unfolding"--or of its being made up (at least initially) of "virtues and faults capable of shrinking or expanding"-- there is no better place to go than to novels of the length and complexity of Middlemarch. Only now, with the appearance of The Wire, is there somewhere else to point to--not as an alternative but rather as a carrying forward of a tradition.

I would say, furthermore, that when it is understood in this essentially ethical way--as "a process and an unfolding" with both "virtues and faults capable of shrinking or expanding"--"character" can be seen as another way of talking about "human nature." I realize that this will seem to some a hopelessly outdated concept at best but here again (as on many other points) I am happy to find myself in agreement with Robin Wood. "Certainly," as he said, "bourgeois ideology has attempted to impose its view of human nature as the only one, naturalizing itself and its institutions, passing them off as 'real.' hence unchangeable; this is one of Marxism's great, radical, seminal perceptions" ("Introduction (1989)" 33). But it would be terrible mistake to jump from this to the conclusion that "there is no such thing as human nature." On the contrary, in fact, "We must repudiate above all the notion that 'human nature' is a construction of bourgeois ideology." But why? Why do we need the kind of understanding of human nature that we find shared by works as different as Middlemarch and The Wire but also in King Lear and in works produced in much earlier periods? Partly, I would say, because, as F.R.Leavis once put it, it is easy to lose sight of the "needs and latent potentialities" that this culturally transmitted understanding makes us aware of, especially easy in view of the fact that "Technological change has ... an implicit logic that will impose, if not met by creative intelligence and corrective purpose, simplifying and reductive criteria of human need and human good ..." (16) To put it another way, also because if we are "blank about" this "intrinsic human nature, with [its] needs and latent potentialities," then we will be less likely to recognize such things as a state of alienation, (17) or as injustice.

I am thinking specifically here of some of the very old ethical teachings that The Wire may be said to rediscover or revitalize for us, teachings that reveal a side of human nature we might prefer to forget. Recall, for example, just how easy it is to find instances of ways in which The Wire brings home to us the continuing relevance of Christ's whited-sepulcher speech (Matthew 23:27) or of Shakespeare's King Lear on justice and authority:
  Through tattered clothes small vices do appear;
  Robes and furred gowns hide all. Plate sin with
  gold, And the strong lance of justice hurtles
  breaks; Arm it in rags, a pigmy's straw does pierce
  it. (IV, vi, 1 66-69)

In other words, respectability and legality, on the one side, and criminality, on the other, are no guarantee of where the good and bad (or the evil) are to be found. This isn't a new insight but The Wire revivifies it so that it becomes again a deeply troubling one. And even if there is always a risk of its resulting in cynicism, it still gives us, I would argue, an absolutely necessary perspective on things.

I will finish by making three separate points, the first of which I offer as a reflection on a claim Leavis once made to the effect that a "study of human nature is a study of social human nature." (18)

(i) Institutions and independence

If the characters in both Middlemarch and The Wire are caught up in vast webs, they are also (many but significantly not all of them) caught up in institutions or professions. And for the benefit of those who have not yet read George Eliot's great novel, I should explain that it resembles The Wire not only in its ethical concern but also insofar as it too is multi-layered and committed to showing us the impact made by a number of institutions--the local gentry, the emerging middle-class, the medical profession, politics and journalism--on the life of one town, Middlemarch.


Let's look again at Lydgate who soon after his arrival in Middlemarch finds himself getting into problems with the doctors already there. He is, for example, soon approached by Mr Bulstrode, the town banker, who wants ("should a maturer knowledge favour that issue") to confide in him "the superintendence of [his] new hospital" (ch.13 129). There is a problem, however. Lydgate can only hope to secure that position if he is prepared to vote for Mr Tyke, Bulstrode's candidate for salaried chaplain to the hospital, and against the Reverend Camden Farebrother. This means that the problem can be formulated in terms of something that is perhaps the major, recurring headache for a number of the key characters in The Wire: the problem as to how to "keep yourself independent." And as Farebrother says, "Very few men can do that. Either you slip out of service altogether, and become good for nothing, or you wear the harness and draw a good deal where your yoke-fellows pull you" (ch.1 7 184). At this early point in his career, Lydgate still has a lot to learn and it doesn't take too long before he finds himself wearing harness.

At the same time, Eliot also shows us that it is possible to encounter obstacles outside a profession (or institution) as well as inside one. Part of her point is how much greater an impact someone with Dorothea Brooke's abilities could have made if there had been socially-recognized channels for her to work in. In other words, while institutions can often be frustrating (and sometimes much worse than that), it is by no means obvious that we would be better off if we could somehow do without them. So there is real cause to be concerned when Simon tells us that it seemed to him and his principal collaborator "back in 2002, that there was something hollow and ugly at our institutional core, and from what Ed Burns understood of the Baltimore police department and school system, and from what I had witnessed at the heart of that city's newspaper, the institutional and systemic corruptions of our national life seemed near universal" ("Introduction" 5).

(ii) The erotic

Yet even if it is true that there may be something in human nature that is likely to make life in institutions frequently difficult and sometimes unbearable, this is not to say that progress is impossible. For one of the ways in which The Wire can be said to demonstrate that some progress has taken place, all we need do is think of how it celebrates homosexuality--tenderly, eroti-cally, beautifully and with so little fuss; both with Omar and his boyfriends and with Detective Shakima ("Kima") Greggs (Sonja Sohn) and her girlfriends--and also celebrates an inter-racial partnership with Cedric Daniels (Lance Reddick) and Rhonda Pearlman (Deidre Lovejoy)--again, tenderly, erotically etc..

(iii) All complicit, all responsible (Eliot, Dostoevsky, Levinas)

Sydnor: I don't know man, I like street work more.

Lester: [in a tone of incredulity] You'd rather sit in a surveillance van days on end waiting to catch Tater handing Pee Wee a vial? This, detective, is what you're telling me? A case like this here [involving Senator Clay Davis], where you show who gets paid behind all the tragedy and fraud, where you show how the money routes itself, how we are all, all of us vested, all of us complicit ... [Lester breaks off here, with the clear implication that such a case is his ideal]

Sydnor [Corey Parker Robinson]: Career case, huh?

Lester: [lookinq dreamily at the details of the case up on the bulletin board] Baby, I could die happy. (5.2.52)

It seems to me that in this exchange Lester Freamon (Clarke Peters) effectively summarizes the way in which all the investigative work we see being carried out throughout all five seasons of The Wire has come into clearer focus in this particular case, a case that can (if we let it) bring home to us the nature of our own complicity. I think it is appropriate, therefore, to be reminded of the sentence in Dostoevsky's novel The Brothers Karamazov that the French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas made central to his own attempt at elaborating a form of ethics that could make sense after Auschwitz: "We are all responsible for everyone else--but I am more responsible than all the others." And I will simply note here that, as I have argued elsewhere, (19) I think George Eliot (and Leavis too, incidentally) would have agreed with the first half of that sentence, if not necessarily with the second. I would have loved to know Robin Wood's thoughts on the subject.


(1) Wyatt Mason, "The HBO Auteur." New York Times March 17 2010.

(2) This is not to deny that fine and important essays on various aspects of The Wire have been written. See, for example, Tiffany Potter and C.W.Marshall eds., The Wire: Urban Decay and American Television (New York: Continuum, 2009) and James S. Williams, "The Lost Boys of Baltimore: Beauty and Desire in the Hood," Film Quarterly, Winter 2008/2009. 62:2.

(3) Alain Badiou, Ethics: An Essay on the Understanding of Evil, tr. Peter Hallyward. London: Verso, 2001. 42.

(4) See especially the marvelous (and classic) "introduction (1988)" to Hitchcock's Films Revisited. New York: Columbia UP, 1989.

(5) "An Interview with David Simon by Nick Hornby," in Rafael Alvarez, The Wire: Truth Be Told, New York, London etc.: Canongate, 2009. 386.

(6) It seems fitting, therefore, that they should conclude the "Author's Note" they placed at the end of The Corner by implicitly claiming kinship with the great James Agee.

(7) These are the episodes based on a "story" for which Simon is credited, sometimes along with someone else (most often Ed Burns). In addition to this, Simon is also credited with the "teleplay" for episodes 1-4, 6, 8, 10 and 13 in Season One; 1-3, 6, 9 and 12 Season Two; 1,9 and 12 Season Three; 1-2 and 1 3 Season Four; 1 and 12 Season Five.

(8) See "Rare Marker: An interview," by Samuel Douhaire and Annick Rivoire, in the booklet entitled La jetee/Sans Soleil (p. 37) that can be found in the dvd version of these two films. The interview first appeared in Liberation in 2003.

(9) Nor, incidentally, is it afraid to make this clear during the show itself. One thinks especially, for example, of D'Angelo's participation during the Second season in the in-prison reading group discussion of The Great Gatsby that is actually led by Richard Price in person (2.6.19) and of the Kafka citation that Walon, Bubs's sponsor in NA, hands to him in the series' final episode (Walon [who is played by the singer Steve Earle (Bubs, many viewers' favourite character, by Andre Royo)J is not a reader of Kafka himself but says he was given it by someone called Flubber "the night he had me start leading up the Saint Martin meeting"): You can hold back from the suffering of the world. You have free permission to do so and it is in accordance with your nature. But perhaps this very holding back is the one suffering you could have avoided. (5.10.60)

(10) See, for example, the persistent hostility to ethics in the work of the formidable Marxist critic, Fredric Jameson.

(11) He says this in the "Ante Mortem" foreword he wrote for the 2006 edition of Homicide, xv.

(12) F.R.Leavis, The Great Tradition: George Eliot, Henry James, Joseph Conrad (1948). New York: New York UP, 1967. 2, 7-9.

(13) E.M.Forster, Howard's End (1910). Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1983. Ch. 5. 58.

(14) Charles Dickens, Great Expectations (1861). Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1979. Ch.39. 337.

(15) George Eliot, Middlemarch: A Study of Provincial Life (1871-2).World's Classics. London: Oxford UP, 1961. Ch.15. 97.

(16) F.R.Leavis, Nor Shall My Sword: Discourses on Pluralism, Compassion and Social Hope. London: Chatto & Windus, 1972. 94.

(17) I recommend here Norman Geras's book on Marx and Human Nature: Refutation of a Legend. London: Verso, 1983.

(18) F.R.Leavis, "Anna Karenina: Thought and Significance in a Great Creative Work," in "Anna Karenina" and Other Essays, London: Chatto & Windus, 1967. 25. The full sentence reads: "A study of human nature is a study of social human nature, and the psychologist, sociologist, and social historian aren't in it compared with the great novelists."

(19) See Garry Watson, Opening Doors: Thought From (And Of) ) The Outside. Aurora, Colorado: The Davies Group, 2008. 181-83.

Garry Watson teaches Literature, Film and Rethinking Religion at the University of Alberta; most recent publications: Opening Doors: Thought From (And Of) The Outside (2008); "On Benny's Video: What's it like, the real?" (in The Films of Michael Haneke, ed. William Beard, 2009); "Doors to Life" (in special Margarethe Von Trotta issue of Salmagundi, Winter 2010).
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Date:Mar 22, 2011
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