New Criticals

The Wire and Philosophy: Part Two

The Individual and Society

"You got to keep the devil, way down in the hole." The refrain from the opening theme is an interesting mantra considering that The Wire is precisely about calling these "devils" out of their dark holes so that we may see and start to understand them, not only as individuals, but as products of a certain type of world. Who are these devils? Are they wholly evil and depraved? Or, once we start to see the "holes" from which they emerge, might we start to have some sympathy for these devils? What do Avon, Stringer, Omar, Bubbles, Sobotka, The Greek, Marlo have to say, not only about themselves, but about us and the social conditions that makes possible such "devils"? Let these devils come out their holes to speak—let us listen fully attuned.

There are two ways that we must "listen" and "understand" the devil: 1) as an individual, 2) as a product of the social, economic, political, and historical environment that preceded them and surround them. Though all individuals must be understood as being dual-sided in this way, the criminal is perhaps more interesting and important because he represents most explicitly the ways in which the many "sides" of a person—individual and social, independent and dependent, past, present, and future—collide, fissure, break down entirely. Crime does not only reveal a psychology but a sociology, and the criminal is a refraction whereby we best "see" the spectrum of influences that constitute an "individual" as such.

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.

How do these tensions and transgressions become manifest through the tragedy of The Wire? How does society speak through the criminals? What social logic is revealed in and through, say, the Barksdale crew? Were we to understand Avon, Stringer Bell, Wee-Bey and D'Angelo as merely individuals, we might see them just as we do all other abstract notions of "the criminal": animalistic, solipsistic, nihilistic, selfish, dark, evil. But they do not act as "pure" individuals, but as members of a whole, as members of the Barksdale "team." Who each of these individuals are is not defined simply as a relation to themselves but a relation to the whole, the role they play in "the Game": dealer, lieutenant, enforcer, a structure that exactly mirrors the structure of the institutions that oppose them—the police, the corporation, the "legal" bureaucracy. In fact, for these "criminals," if there is a clash between individual and whole, the individual more readily denies their own interests so that the whole may continue to exist, not only the "whole" of the particular crew of which they are a part, but the "whole" that is "the Game" itself. This happens many times as various members of the Barksdale crew willingly do time rather than snitch on their comrades. Whether this fact is motivated by a genuine sense of community, fear, or a calculated action of self-interest is not important here, only the point that these "individuals" always act with one eye to the whole, perhaps both eyes. In fact, internal to the organization at least, members of the criminal organizations act more like "citizens" than do the "citizens" of the legal, bourgeois, "inside" world. In this way, the Barksdale organization looks almost utopic, resembling moreso Plato's ideal polis or Hobbes' commonwealth than a chaotic war of all against all or a cacophonous babble of egomaniacal Randean agents.

"…boats against the current…"

The individual, in this case the criminal, rarely, if ever, acts from a "point from nowhere." Even what seems to be a sadistic, amoral, wholly selfish act is, in fact, something that is highly moral, communal, and, even in cases of violence, possibly benevolent. But the individual's actions are not only presently informed by social and moral factors, they are pressed upon by those various historical facts that led up to this moment that is the individual's action. Just as the individual action never occurs in a vacuum, so too is an "individual" impossible without cultivation, a history, a past. The possible horizon of actions, the sets of values, the notions of what constitute dignity, success, and recognition are always already pressed upon by the social, economic, political, and historical antecedents that have led up to the moment of will, decision, and action, the "moment" of individuality.

It would be erroneous to simply reduce the individual to a mere token of class, race, or gender, but it is just as grave an error to pretend that the histories that have led to the construction and development of these aspects of an individual are irrelevant. We cannot think of individual organism apart from the environment in which their habits and values were formed. Organisms shape their environment to ensure survival. But the environment also shapes the organisms that inhabit it. An organism cannot simply "decide" to get up and leave the habitat and history inside which it grew and lives. To do so would require a whole new set of adaptations and habits, something that is extremely difficult, if not impossible, and may ultimately lead to the organism's death. This is not only the case for biological environments, but for moral environments as well. We see this explicitly with several characters—D'Angelo, Wallace, even McNulty—who try to "change" through a heroic act of will without a corresponding change in environment. In the case of D' and Wallace, we see the bloody death that awaited them both.

Precisely on this issue of the deep interpenetration of habit and habitat, organism and environment, John Dewey, in Human Nature and Conduct, turns to the image of the criminal as an example. He writes:

Our entire tradition regarding punitive justice tends to prevent recognition of social partnership in producing crime; it falls in with a belief in metaphysical free will. By killing an evil-doer or shutting him up behind stone walls, we are enabled to forget both him and our part in creating him. Society excuses itself by laying the blame on the criminal…

These criminals are constantly pressed upon by social and historical facts, and to bracket these facts in developing our theories of punishment and our responses to crime is not only inadequate and irresponsible, but irrational and immoral as well.

D'Angelo most explicitly emphasizes this point. We see all of his reservations and hesitations about the various unavoidable facts of "the Game": betrayal, suffering, senseless violence. He tries to "buck" at various points, even encouraging Wallace to go back to school and get out before it's too late. But he always finds himself dragged back into the game. Before he is sentenced to prison, while being interrogated by McNulty and Bunk, D' articulates this perfectly: "Ya'll don't' get it. You grow up in this shit. My grandfather was Butch Danford. All my people man: my father, my uncle, my cousins. It's just what we do. You just live with this shit, until you can't breathe no more" He then looks down to a picture of Wallace's bloody body and continues: "I was courtside for eight months, and I was freer in jail than I was at home." ("Sentencing," Season 1, Episode 13).

This is the irony of incarceration. For many criminals, the experience of freedom and autonomy sometimes only becomes possible precisely in an actual prison, when they are finally forced to extract themselves from an environment inside which the horizon of "choices" are rigidly predetermined. Very rarely can one simply "decide," through a heroic effort of "metaphysical free will," to change who they are without a corresponding change in where they are: habits are always interpenetrated by habitats. The ghetto and the "street" are not simply geographical places, but identities, moralities, cultures. Just like any other sense of local or national pride, there is an irrevocable identification and loyalty to one's terra firma, one's "land," one's turf, one's home. The organism and its environment, the individual and her community, exist in a diaphanous and dialectical relationship—to think one is necessarily to think the other. In matters of culinary taste—wine, coffee, tea—the term terroir is used to describe the taste of the soil, the season, the history that made possible the final fruit. So too do "individuals" retain these traces of their terroir. "Who" they are cannot be separate from "how" they came to be. Hyper-individualistic, liberal notions of the individual—a paradigm that dominates American politics, economics, and culture, and, subsequently, the responses to crime and justice—assume that the fruit that is the "individual" somehow grows in a vacuum—sans  soil, sans sun, sans water. It is a notion of individuality—most certainly influenced by religious notions of creation—where we somehow emerge ex nihilo, ahistorically, over and above earth upon which we tread. But this view reduces the individual to a creature that is effectively dead. To have no terroir is to have no distinguishable qualities, no refinement, no "taste," no life at all.

Just before his death, it seems that D' starts to find a different kind of "freedom," finally able to develop new habits precisely because there is a change in habitat. Through his engagement with literature, turning to, of all possible novels, the pseudo-aristocratic world of Fitzgerald and his Gatsby, D' starts to open new horizons of possibility as to what it means to be "free." What does the West Egg of the 1920s have to say to the Baltimore of the 21st Century?  How does Gatsby speak to the D'Angelo?

He's saying' that the past is always with us, that where we come from, what we go through, how we go through it. All this shit matters…Like at the end of the book, boats and tides and all, it's like you can change up, right, you can say you somebody new, you can give yourself a whole new story, but what came first is who you really are and what happened before is what really happened and it don't matter that some fool say he different, what makes you different is what you really do, or what you really go through. like, you know, all them books in his library. Now, he frontin' with all them books, but if we pull one of the shelf, ain't none of the pages ever been open. He got all them books, and he ain't read ne'er one of 'em. Gatbsy, he was who he was. and he did what he did. and cuz he wasn't ready to get real with the story, that shit caught up to him ("All Prologue", Season 2, Ep. 6).

In other words, "Thin line 'tween heaven and here."

D's penetrating analysis of Gatsby is hardly an argument against human freedom, nor is it an excuse for taking responsibility for one's actions. If anything, it is call to responsibility, a mature acknowledgement that the "I" is moreso a, to use philosopher Simon Critichley's term, "dividual" than "individual," split between who they are and the "infinite demand" of who they want to be. It is in this space that the "I" becomes moral. The "frontin" that D points to is the same critique Socrates levels against the Sophists and the "unexamined life," Heidegger against inauthenticity, and Sartre against "bad faith." In his willingness to take responsibility, to "do the time," in his courage to heed the "demand" of ethics, D, like Camus' Sisyphus, takes on the insescapable burden, this heavy stone of his past, and makes it his own, and in doing so, becomes dignified, noble, free.