Monday, 31 August 2009

That Wire Analogy (Yet Again)

So I get back from whatever it is I've been doing to find the long shadow of my favourite TV show still bugging the blogosphere - and indeed mainstream journalism. Chris Grayling's comparison of inner city Britain to the version of Baltimore peddled in the Wire is the gift which just keeps on giving.

He's been given such a hell of a kicking on all this that I thought it might be fun to try to sketch out some ways he might, inadvertently, have stumbled on something. Not, obviously, in terms of crime. The local Manc paper dealt with that :
"[Baltimore], home to about 600,000, was blighted by 234 murders last year. That compares to 35 in Greater Manchester, which has a population of around 2.5m."
No, the real comparison is about how our lives - like the lives of The Wire's drug dealers, police, dockers, politicians, schoolkids and journos - are haunted by an imbalance between agency and structure. Or just by structure, actually.

The whole series could have been written by Talcott Parsons or Louis Althusser: no one, or almost no one, escapes their circumstances for any length of time. Structures call forth successions of individuals - Avon, Stringer, Marlo - to fulfill essentially the same roles. People change in all-to-predictable ways: just as Daniels, who makes Commissioner, has a guilty secret from his time on Narcotics, so Carver, originally a kind of joke, puts his days of petty corruption behind him and rises up the ranks as a reliable officer. But you just know he won't leave his past behind, any more than Daniels manages too. Individual initiative is, ultimately, crushed, be it Bunny's Hamsterdam or Carcetti's new broom in City Hall. Even the great symbol of individualism - Omar - loses, and I reckon we see in Michael's trajectory a proto Omar in the making, so even the individualism at the heart of the American Dream is structurally produced.

Yeah, that strikes me as being quite like Britain today - even before one gets into in business of 'public service reform', performance targets and the near universal 'gaming' of these things. There is no real social mobility, no real opportunity for individualism. Chris Grayling is right, inadvertently.


  1. Hi Charlie,
    I'm approaching the end of the second series of The Wire - watched on your recommendation and I haven't been disappointed. I think your analysis of it is pretty damn sharp. It's funny, having spoken to a number of people about it I'm interested in how they have interpreted it. Of course, it's a cop show, but most seem to talk in their own way about the structures that the characters find themselves caught in, so much so that I suspect that what accounts for the series' cult success is the way in which it has tapped into a set of middle class/professional anxieties about their own relative powerlessness in the face of bigger and corrupting forces. I confess this is one of the attractions of the show for myself. I've never been to Baltimore, I've never hug in 'the hood' but the environment is eerily familiar.

  2. It ain't just a cop show, though, is it? Wait till you see series 4 and its' take on the school system...

    There are days when I think that there is nothing relative about my personal powerlessness.

  3. Oh well, that's me intellectually out-gunned. Merrily toss around the names of Parsons and Althusser I might, but then Will, a bloody real sociologist, turns up and comes over all Weberian

    What's even scarier is that he's got two mates who manage to weave Jameson, Harvey and even Polanyi into the mix. I can feel a Goldsmith's undergraduate course on The Wire coming on, I really can.& What better way to accumulate thousands of pounds worth of student debt might there be I ask you?

    But, hey, never mind. I did the Facebook 'What Wire Character Are You?' Test - and came out as Lester Freamon. Now there's a true organic intellectual if you as me...