What a summer of achievements it's been for me. Submitted my PhD, wrote a report for Demos (published next week) and have so far ploughed through about 37 hours of The Wire. My 2010 new years resolutions will include Life: Get One.
A great deal of ink has been spilled on the topic of The Wire, and I may be rehashing what someone has written far better elsewhere. Have a look at this great piece some colleagues of mine at Goldsmiths have written, which I believe will eventually feature in an edited collection dedicated to The Wire. There is also a conference coming up in November on the topic. But here, for what it's worth, is a Weberian thought.
Others have already highlighted the Marxian undertones of the drama, the sense that there are urban political-economic forces driving the narrative that are deeper and more autonomous than the agency of any individuals or institutions. Season Two is clearly Marxian in this respect, focusing on deindustrialisation and globalisation as ghostlike historical factors that condition choices and overwhelm individual lives.
But it strikes me that a Weberian interpretation captures even more, especially outside of Season Two. The central problematic that The Wire examines is surely this: that there is not only a discrepancy but a conflict between governance through knowledge and justification through ethics.
The central theme running through the drama, which its title aludes to, is the political challenge of collecting and mobilising evidence. The wiretaps used by the police are the most prominent example of this (which leads to various counter-surveillance strategies by criminals) but there are also examples of data being mobilised and manipulated by politicians. Then there are the frequent courtroom scenarios, in which empirical evidence is (or isn't) mobilised in the form of witness statements.
The implication running through all of this is strictly Weberian: modern society involves relationships of domination based on the capacity to know, test and prove. None of the above is a classic example of instrumental rationality, as would be found in the ideal of the modern bureaucracy, though paperwork plays its role. But policing and surveillance is a more graspable way of highlighting the empiricism - the need to record experience - of modern power. One can envisage a bleaker, less exciting version of The Wire, in which its cops'n'robbers aspect was reduced to a banal level of everyday bureaucratic rule-following. Think of the famous, scarcely empiricist first line: "Someone must have been telling lies about Joseph K". I guess what elevates the world of The Wire above that of The Trial is that law is, in Weber's much misunderstood phrase, a marginally greater 'respecter of persons' than pure bureaucracy.
What gives the series its gravitas is the fact that its characters are not entirely consumed by this, though nor can they escape it. They retain (what Weber called) their own individual substantive rationalities - sources of meaning, value systems and ethical goals. These substantive rationalities are not necessarily compatible, and may - as with Omar - be entirely private to the individual concerned. Read Weber's Science as a Vocation and you encounter this bleak sense that we moderns must each develop our own individual sources of meaning, comfort and justification, in amongst an over-arching technological apparatus that is entirely devoid of such things. At best we can build miniature lifeworlds of ethics, potentially moving between rival spheres of value. As Weber put it "we are placed in various life orders, each of which is subject to different laws". The Wire is a tour through a single city's multiple life orders, each of which makes sense to those inhabiting it, but fails to translate beyond its own code and language.
Some higher order 'life orders' exist, dragging individuals and groups into them, constantly referred to by drug-dealers as 'the game'. I guess markets provide some binding logos, which Stringer Bell appears to intuit with his dabbling in liberal economics. But there is no form of 'public sphere' or 'polis' in which all actors might achieve some shared goal or meaning. There is nothing like Arendt's vita activa in which a person becomes visible to an entire public. Season Three shows the formal realm of democratic 'politics' to be as devoid of any Aristotelian substance as any of the other social spheres.
It's the clash between empiricism and ethics that creates the show's mood, which is a mixture of sadness and absurdity. Good people become ensnared by facts, by things that have happened, that they have done (even if - mild spoiler - they didn't mean to or would never do again as with Ziggy). Bad people are expert at escaping the past at every juncture, leaving no trace, generating no facts about themselves. The most senior gangsters, encountered in Season Two, have no fixed identities at all. Police mess up their fact-gathering, and bad people escape, sometimes to their own surprise (as when Stringer Bell waits to be hand-cuffed in Season One, but is ignored). The courtroom, the sphere formally ring-fenced for 'justice', is no different in this regard (perhaps the only unambiguously loathesome character is Levy the lawyer, who single-handedly embodies everything that is unjust about justice). Our own sympathies and ethics are pulled to and fro, regardless of the guilt, innocence or even factual behaviour of the individuals. The rest is just an 'iron cage' within which these miniature lifeworlds are sustained, then sooner or later extinguished.
And if you dispute any of the above on the basis of events in Seasons Four and Five, ssssshhhhhhh!