New Criticals

The characters of The Wire are not only the individual actors—criminals, cops, citizens, politicians, journalists—but the institutions of which these individuals are part—the street, law, government, the school, the media. If we only view The Wire as a drama between individual actors then we reduce it to a mere soap opera. As the various institutional protagonists and antagonists are introduced throughout the series, we not only understand the many elements that make up each individual, we come to understand the complex organism that is "Baltimore." But just as each individual is a microcosm for the macrocosm that is Baltimore, so too is Baltimore a microcosm that points to the larger whole that is 21st century America—post-industrial, post-9/11, post-empire. The "wire" is not only the actual wiretap that is necessary for the various investigations, but the metaphorical wire that leads us through these layers of society, where individual, society, and history are necessarily intertwined. Like Greek tragedy, in uncovering the tensions and contradictions of the present and the local, The Wire reveals also reveals a truth that is eternal and universal.

The drama of tragedy moves through acts of transgression, and it is the actions of the transgressor, the criminal, through which we understand the "truth" uncovered by tragedy. Whether it is Tantalus transgressing the gods thus dooming his family for generations, or Antigone transgressing Creon's decree against burying her brother's body, it is only through these acts of criminality that "truth" is uncovered. The criminal is a complex contradiction, a cipher that does not point to a simple identifiable "individual will" but reveals a nexus of collisions histories, social forces, and psychological factors. The criminal is a contradiction because he represents that figure of society who is both inside and outside, a being who is somewhere between a friend and an enemy, in-law and out-law at once. The way that we "understand" the criminal all too often falls into ready-made and oversimplified dichotomies of good vs. bad, legal vs. illegal, individual vs. society. In the case of crime, this "black and white" distinction poignantly takes on another meaning entirely. The criminal is rarely, if ever, the radical individual that simply stands against society and community. Rather, the criminal, as are all subjectivities, is something that is produced precisely by the various social, economic, and political forces that he purportedly stands against. In this way, the criminal is both society's anomaly and logic. Just as certain types of societies produce certain types of citizens, it necessarily produces certain types of criminals.