Elasticity of demand

Can’t reason with the pusherman. Finance is all that he understands.

Curtis Mayfield, ‘Little Child Runnin’ Wild’

David Simon and Edward Burns’s TV series The Wire (HBO, 2002–08) opens with a killing and builds from there, over five seasons and sixty hours of television.

What it narrates is the present life of a neoliberalized postindustrial city, from the perspective of the bloody ‘corners’ of West Baltimore, USA. [1] The Wire is a continuation of Simon and Burns’s earlier series The Corner (HBO, 2000), a quasi-anthropological reconstruction of real lives, directed by Charles S. Dutton. In fact, in many ways it is a combination and development of two previous TV series: NBC’s cop show Homicide (based on Simon’s book Homicide: A Year on the Kil ing Streets, 1991) and The Corner (based on Simon and Burns’ book The Corner: A Year in the Life of an Inner-City Neighborhood, 1997).

Corners are where everyday drugs business is carried out. They are violently fought over and defended as what remains of the local economy is bled dry and addiction extends. They are the places, in other words, where the stories of the ‘invisible hand’ of the market and/or ‘originary’ capital accumulation are played out.

This is the local, street experience of (illegal) capitalist globalization. It provides the pathetic script for the character Bubbles, for example – drug addict and police informant – which is literally written into his body. These are places of labour too, including child labour: the ‘corner boys’. Finally, they are places of intense state scrutiny and surveillance. The ‘wire’ that gives the programme its name is a bugging or wire-tapping device, fundamental to the narrative structure of each one of The Wire’s seasons.

It is the main technological means of secret intelligence gathering, sought and deployed by the police to listen to, identify and decode the telephone messages circulating between the drug dealers. In this respect, The Wire presents itself as a police procedural, centred on the detective work involved in juridically justifying and then deploying the bugging technology required.

Unlike the police-procedural pedagogic norm, however, The Wire critically foregrounds technological underdevelopment and uneven distribution, educating its viewers into a culture of everyday police bricolage and ingenuity, very different from the hyperbolic scientific know-how of CSI and its many imitators.

The activities of pushing and policing in The Wire mark out a territory that is divided, crisscrossed and sutured (constituted in antagonism); in other words, wired. Crime at one end, joined to the law at the other, it constitutes ‘a whole way of life’. [3] In this respect a work of urban anthropology, The Wire nonetheless turns its corners so as to accumulate characters, stories and ‘adventures’. It expands and opens out onto the world, charting encounters, much like the novel in its chivalric, educational and realist historical modes.

Although here it is a TV camera-eye that travels, explores and frames the city, emplotting its sociocultural environments (in particular, their racialized, gendered and class divisions), activating, in Franco Moretti’s words, their ‘narrative potential’; which is to say, their relations of power, their ‘plots’. [4] But only so as to return, repeatedly, to illuminate its point of departure, the streets, and its principal object of attraction, the everyday experience and effects of the trade in drugs and its policing. Like other works of detective and/or crime fiction, The Wire relays and establishes the political and cultural contours of the contemporary, at speed. Indeed, in this sense, it fulfils one of the prime historical functions of the genre. [5]

As The Wire voyages out from the lowand highrise housing projects whose corners it films, accumulating and weaving together its stories, it accretes social content as part of its overall moving picture.

This is conceived primarily in terms of a set of overlapping institutions and their hierarchized personnel: the police (both local and federal), the port authority and trade-union organization (in Season 2), the city administration, its juridical apparatus and its shifting political elites (especially from Season 3 onwards), the local educational state apparatus (Season 4), and the local city newspaper (in Season 5). It is important to note that these are all places of work. Work is a structuring ideologeme of the series, as it was previously of The Corner – with its dealers – and more recently of Simon and Burns’s disappointing subsequent series about US soldiers in Iraq, Generation Kil (2008), with its ‘grunts’. [6] They are also sites of political power-play, concerned, like The Wire’s ‘auteurs’ themselves, with establishing their own standpoint with respect to the dramas played out and filmed in the streets. Thus The Wire’s own TV camera-consciousness produces itself, as it were, in counterpoint to the multiplicity of institutional perspectives it reconstructs, taking the side of the dominated, that is, of the ‘workers’ portrayed in each case. The Wire’s populist images are, to use Sartre’s words, ‘act(s) and not … thing(s)’. [7]

Season after season, over years of programming, The Wire’s looping narrative methodology transforms and enriches its own story and perspective. There is, however, a tension here that drives its realist compositional logic – and which its long-running television format invites – that is both formal and analytic. The Wire attempts to resolve the enigmatic character of the social that grounds the crime and/or detective fiction form through an accretive looping logic that incorporates more and more of the social (through its institutions), but that thereby simultaneously threatens to overload and diffuse its televisual focus on what is most compelling: the dramatization of the political economy of crime as the key to the understanding of contemporary neoliberal capitalist society (in Baltimore) and its policing. Inverting the procedure of classic police-procedural film The Naked City (Jules Dassin, 1947), instead of zooming in on one of ‘8 million stories’, the series zooms out, arguably too far, attempting to show them all. The paradox of The Wire’s accumulative compositional strategy – and the epistemological and aesthetic problem it poses – is that the more of the social it reconstructs, shows and incorporates into its narrative so as to explain the present, the less socially explanatory its vision becomes. [8]

Crime scenes

It is as if The Wire had been produced in response to questions initially posed by Walter Benjamin in his ‘A Small History of Photography’ (1931) regarding the photographic mediation of the experience of the modern city. Noting how the journalistic – and quasi-cinematic – work of photographers like Atget was increasingly able ‘to capture fleeting and secret moments’ that thus demanded explanation (he refers specifically to the emergence of the use of captions in this regard), Benjamin asks ‘is not every square inch of our cities the scene of a crime? Every passerby a culprit?’ And further, ‘is it not the task of the photographer … to reveal guilt and to point out the guilty in his pictures?’ [9] Three-quarters of a century (of technology) later this is where the first episode of The Wire begins, with a crime scene in a Baltimore city street, one of many.

The opening scene of The Wire is both generically conventional and narratively surprising. It is also intensely televisual. A crime has taken place, and The Wire takes us to it immediately, opening directly onto a bloodstained street in close-up, bathed in the flashing red and blue lights of police vehicles, and to the sound of their sirens – images familiar to TV viewers from reality cop shows and local news programmes. But if The Wire begins TV-like, it soon becomes cinematic: the camera scans and tracks, revealing the dead body of a young man. It then pulls back, encircling and framing the scene (thereby producing it) in which the key elements of its juridical and cultural coding – that is, the wired (bloody) territory of the series’ diagetic space – are crystallized: from a dead black Afro-American young man, the victim of a ridiculous and arbitrary crime, we pass on to a Afro-American witness, who tells its story, and then to a white IrishAmerican police officer, who listens and chuckles at its utter banality. [10]

The streets of The Wire’s crime scenes thus constitute a central social space of encounter where, to put it in Althusserian terms, social power is transformed and normalized by the state apparatus qua machine, institutionalized as law, and actualized as force. [11] The police are the main agents of this process, of course, and homicide detective McNulty, the main star of the show, is at his post asking questions and making his presence felt. Most importantly, thanks to the invisible presence of the camera, audiences magically become privileged viewers of the crime scene too, positioned alongside the police at work for the local city state, and given immediate access to look upon and accompany the process of crime interpretation. So far, so generically conventional: The Wire is a traditional work of detective fiction, adopting a critical (that is, a ‘workerist’) police perspective that McNulty embodies.

What is narratively surprising about The Wire’s first scene, however, is that the crime that opens the series has no particular significance for it, except in its generality, and will be neither reconstructed nor emplotted into its interlocking narratives. The death of the young man holds no mystery for the police and will not be interpreted and tracked. (This is to be expected in this part of town; it has been socially and culturally coded that way.) It does, however, register an important, although banal, truth that is significant for the relation the series establishes between narrative form and its own historical material: the excess of history over form. The Wire thus signals, on the one hand, its own partiality and, on the other, its consequent status as a work of narrative totalization which is always already incomplete.

In this sense, the programme emerges not only from a realist desire to accumulate social content, as noted above, but also from a modernist acknowledgement of its own narrative limits (imposed by narrative form) and thus not so much as a representation as an invention. The first killing functions as just one of a continuous, repetitive series that compositionally divides The Wire’s overarching narratives off from the history that determines and contextualizes it. It stands in for all the victims associated with the commercialization of drugs who precede the stories told across the five seasons, for all those who will follow them, as well as for the collateral damage, those victims who accompany the telling of the stories dramatized in The Wire, episode after episode.

It is possible to identify other such series too, although these are built into the narratives that make up The Wire over time, season after season, imposing, for their appreciation, a discipline on its viewers that is specifically televisual: they have to stick with it, for years (or for countless hours of DVD watching). For example, there is a series of insider witnesses, many of them doomed by their contact with the police, especially with McNulty; and a series of wakes for members of the force who pass away, which ends with McNulty’s own symbolic one, when he leaves the profession at the conclusion of the final, fifth Season. He will be replaced. So, if one series – of killings – opens The Wire, another – of deaths – brings it to conclusion. McNulty’s institutional death, meanwhile, finally reveals The Wire’s central articulating narrative: from the beginning, its first crime scene, it tells the story of McNulty’s way out, the ‘death’ of a policeman.‘Like detectives’, writes John Ellis in Seeing Things: Television in the Age of Uncertainty, ‘we are rushed to the scene of the crime hoping to make sense of what happened from the physical traces that it has left.’ Ellis is not describing The Wire here, or a programme like it, but deploying the conventional hermeneutic of detective fiction to account for a general effect of contemporary televisuality – which also, it so happens, describes the TV experience of tuning in to a programme like The Wire and being ‘rushed to the scene of [a] crime’. [12]

Ellis’s description of television form connects with Benjamin’s account of photography. As is well known, the revelatory potential of photographic technology, in which once hidden historical determinations are brought into the light of day by the camera demanding explanation, underpins Benjamin’s notion of the ‘optical unconscious’. In this way, the camera’s ability to capture reality in photographs is associated with a modern hermeneutic – one that Carlo Ginzburg links to art criticism (the discovery of forgeries), psychoanalysis (listening out for signs of the unconscious) and detection (revealing criminal intent) – in which captured scenes may be read as ‘symptoms’ of something else (a criminal capitalist economy, for example) and thus demand close scrutiny and interpretation. [13]

Such technological developments are deployed and advanced by the state too, in surveillance operations, like those portrayed in The Wire.

These involve not only new visual technology, but devices geared specifically for sound. For it turns out that there is also a ‘sonic’ unconscious, made available for scrutiny today by mobile phones. This is what McNulty and his colleagues seek to access by ‘wiring’ and grabbing the messages exchanged between corner boys and drug dealers. Ellis, meanwhile, is interested in camera work, but more than just with its recording function: combining aspects of both the cinema and radio, with television the camera has become a broadcasting and transmitting device too. In the words of Rudolf Arnheim, ‘television turns out to be related to the motor car and the aeroplane as a means of transport of the mind’. [14] This is how ‘we are rushed’ to other places, such as West Baltimore’s corners, or how other places are tele-transported to viewers, as scenes, as they relax in living rooms and bedrooms. Television, in other words, appears to overcome both the distance between its subjects and objects and their different times, making them co-present in viewing; and not just mentally, as Arnheim suggests, but sensually too – sounds and images tugging at the body through eyes and ears. Ellis refers to the new social form of looking produced by contemporary television as ‘witnessing’, and to television form itself as a kind of dramatic ‘working through’ of the materials thus broadcast in an era of information overload: they are managed and formatted into genres (from the news, to sports programmes and soaps), dramatized and put into narrative, serialized and scheduled. [15] Again, Ellis might also have been describing The Wire and its first scene, whose last shot is a close-up of the dead victim, his blank wide-open eyes staring out from the TV screen at the tele-transported viewers; and in the background, the witness and the detective, working through.

There is another crime scene in the first season of The Wire that is destined no doubt to become a classic of its type. In contrast to the first scene, however, this one, although approaching abstraction in its sparseness, is full of significance for the articulation and unravelling of its narratives and dramas. It involves McNulty and his partner ‘Bunk’, and a disenchanted middle-level drugs dealer D’Angelo Barksdale (known as ‘D’), the nephew of West Baltimore kingpin Avon Barksdale.

The latter is the prime target of McNulty and his associates’ police investigation, the object of the wire, and remains so across three of The Wire’s five seasons.

Despite all the surveillance, however, informationand evidence-gathering is difficult, since Barksdale and his crew are deadly, ruthlessly shoring up any possible weakness or leakage in their organization. Like so many subaltern outlaw groups, the Barksdale crew have internalized and replicated state-like repressive structures that are ferociously hierarchical, and, within their own terms, strategically meritocratic.

Even before McNulty and Bunk arrive at the murder scene, viewers know that D’Angelo has killed one of Avon’s girlfriends (who had threatened to give him away and talk). We know this not because it is a crime that is shown and witnessed, but because in a previous scene he tells the corner boys he organizes.

As noted above, The Wire is made up of a number of proliferating narratives, and moves between and through them transversally. As it jumps from scene to scene, it travels between different characters, the social spheres they inhabit and work in (institutions), as well as their locations (streets, offices). Thus all narratives are interrupted and crossed by others, looping back and forth, such that at and through each level – episode, season and series – The Wire resembles a collage or a montage of segments. This is the relation established between the scene of D’s ‘confession’ and the scene in which McNulty and Bunk reconstruct his crime. However, what happens before, at the level of narrative emplotment, happens simultaneously at the level of its story. These scenes, like others, are part of a constellation of mutually dependent segments with a shared temporality, but distributed across different spaces. This means that viewers know ‘D’ is guilty before McNulty and Bunk do, but they then – in their decoding of the crime scene – work it out and catch up, such that by its conclusion characters and viewers become co-present again at the level of knowledge as well as that of action. But if The Wire’s polydiegetic and segmentary character may be described as either novelistic or cinematic, its televisual character should not for that reason be ignored. Indeed, it has been suggested that the segmentary quality of the television moving image is definitive of its form: originally anchored in domesticity, distraction, and the predominance of the glance over the cinematic gaze. Interrupted viewing (by adverts, for example) is constitutively inscribed into both the medium and television form itself, most obviously in news programmes and soaps. Being an HBO production, however, whose broadcasting is advert-free, The Wire is able both to put such segmentarity to use as a compositional strategy and simultaneously to subvert the temporality of its viewing. This is because, for the most part, its compositional segmentarity works to extend the action and narrative continuity beyond the fixed temporality of the episode, undermining the latter’s semi-autonomy within the series (as maintained even by The Sopranos), slowing down and spreading the action and stories it portrays beyond episodic television time (and its scheduling), giving the impression, at times, that ‘nothing happens’. At this level, The Wire de-dramatizes the serial form from within. This experience of ‘slowness’ – which contrasts markedly, for example, with the hectic deployment of segmented scenes in 2416– may be one of the reasons why The Wire has attracted so few viewers on television, although it is a growing success on DVD and ‘on demand’ platforms.

This other crime scene may be only a short segment, but its significance flows through Season 1 and into Season 2. It knots their narratives. This is underlined by the inclusion of another brief segment within this constellation of scenes in which Lester – McNulty’s partner on the wire detail – identifies a phone number he has picked up off the wall at another crime scene (where the romantic character Omar Little, a kind of urban cowboy, has stolen one of Avon’s stashes), which he identifies as linked to a corner phone used by ‘D’ at work. [18] Through composition and editing, all of these discrete segments feed the central narrative: they become part of the story in which, first, the wiretap is justified and put to use and, second, ‘D’ is persuaded to give up his uncle-boss Avon (and is then murdered in jail).

The scene is a kitchen in a house that has been stripped bare and wiped clean. It has become a white box. And in such a space, the detectives’ reconstruction of the crime is almost a work of performance art. Bereft of forensic technology, they use their bodies, their pens and a tape measure like bricoleurs to re-imagine the crime, the trajectory of the bullet, the position of the shooter (‘D’) as he taps the window (‘tap, tap, tap’, as ‘D’ has already described it) and shoots the young naked woman as she turns to see who is there. This is the work of the imagination, and in its eccentric performance both Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes and Poe’s Dupin are parodically evoked. Most important for this reconstruction, however, are the photographs of the barely clothed dead victim that McNulty and Bunk scrutinize for clues and place about the room so as to visualize the event – for this work of detection is also the work of fantasy. McNulty and Bunk perform the scopic drive. Whilst scrutinizing they only enunciate one word and its derivatives – ‘fuck!’ – over and over again as they realize how the murder was committed, reaching a climax of discovery – ‘fucking A!’ – as they find the spent bullet in the fridge door and its casing in the garden outside. It is as if the discovery were a restaging of the primal (crime) scene.‘Fucking’ and detection intertwine. In a sense, this is just an extension of the sexualized homosociality that characterizes the office of the homicide division of the Baltimore Police Department run by Sgt Landsman, its principal promoter. But it also says something about McNulty’s and Bunk’s own addictive relationship to their work: they do not spend time together drinking so as to forget and obliterate their experiences as police; on the contrary, they do so to maintain and extend it, and in fact to obliterate everything else, the rest of their private, non-police lives.

Adam smith in baltimore

The main conflict within the police institution in The Wire is between its upper bureaucratic echelons with more or less direct access to the political elites (associated with city hall) and the working detectives from the homicide (McNulty) and narcotics (‘Kima’ Greggs, ‘Herc’ Hauk and Ellis Carter) divisions, joined to form a special detail in the pursuit, first, of Avon Barksdale (Seasons 1–3) and, then, of his ‘successor’ Marlo Stanfield (Seasons 3–5). Under the command of Cedric Daniels, they are joined by a variety of marginalized officers such as Lester and Prez. The ‘brass’ imposes targets and, therefore, arrests. In Lester’s version, they ‘follow the drugs’ and arrest low-level drug dealers and addicts. Keeping minor criminals off the streets helps the mayor. For their part, the detectives ‘who care’ (such as McNulty, Lester, Kima and Daniels) want to build cases against the kingpins inside and outside the state, and ‘follow the money’, exposing economic and political corruption. In this context, the struggle to justify the wiretap legally becomes a political one, requiring legal justification and the allocation of resources (and finally the goodwill of the mayor). It is hindered at every turn.However, The Wire’s principal interest lies in the way in which the conflicts inside the state apparatus are mirrored – across the wire – within the criminal, drug-dealing community it portrays and its political economy. This includes not only the influence of the police on the illegal, subalternized capitalist economy, but also the ways in which the latter, through bribery, loans and money-laundering underwrites upper echelons of the local state and economy through the circulation of its accumulated wealth – at which point it becomes finance capital. [20] The intra-crime conflict presents itself on the ground as a struggle between fractions for territory and corners (between the East and West Sides of Baltimore) and takes three main forms, each of which is associated with a particular economic logic and specific characters: ‘Proposition’ Joe, Avon Barksdale and Marlo Stanfield, and Omar Little, respectively.

The first form involves an attempt to overcome the struggle between competitors. In this context, the character of Proposition Joe (who comes increasingly to the fore in Seasons 4 and 5) is important since he represents a tendency towards the formation of a kind of Baltimore cartel, a co-operative of dealers, which can manage quality, prices and security. For some, however, this delegation of business administration undermines the pursuit of self-interest, self-reliance and, thereby, control. Avon and Marlo, who represent a second street-level, ‘competitive’ form of the drugs business, are suspicious of Proposition Joe’s corporate, conference-room style (he is finally assassinated by Marlo’s henchmen towards the end of the series), preferring instead to impose their own more neoliberal economy. The third form is a romantic version of the second, and is represented by Omar, the transgressive outlaw’s outlaw (McNulty’s criminal mirror-image and sometime ally). Taking advantage of the mistrust generated between the corporate and competitive styles, Omar uses guerrilla tactics to trick and rob all the local kingpins. On the one hand, Omar becomes a local myth in his own (albeit brief) lifetime; on the other, he violently debunks the myth of original accumulation. [21]

The tension between these regimes of accumulation is what drives the segmented narratives of The Wire as they loop across and through each other. The narrative loops connecting the different scenes may thus also be thought of as narrative cycles: from the cycle of capital accumulation as it passes through commodity exchange, which takes place on the streets (or in prison), to the cycles of finance and capital investment, which take place mainly in offices, restaurants or luxury yachts. This is why the policing that McNulty and Lester struggle against represents a racist disavowal on the part of the state. The imposition of a policy based on targets and the pursuit of street crime (that is, of corner boys and drug addicts), which ignores the circulation of money capital, involves, in the first place, the fabrication of the otherness of the criminal ‘other’ (a racist production of difference) and, second, the deployment of the resources to insist on it. The flow of money, however, tells us that the supposed ‘other’ is in fact constitutive of the state in the first place. This is why drugs money is ‘laundered’. [22] Lester and McNulty pursue the money – so much so that, in the end, they almost break the law23 – to reveal its origins and, particularly, its ends. In other words, they are involved in a radical act. Taking the side of the ‘working’ detective within the police institution, from scene to scene and location to location, The Wire follows the money too.

Nevertheless, the narrative pursuit of money through the cycle (or loop) of accumulation from the streets into finance only goes so far, and this narrative limit constitutes the generic limit of The Wire as a work of crime fiction. Crucial, here, is another important character in the series, ‘Stringer’ Bell, the key to McNulty and his colleagues’ surveillance operation, via ‘D’.

He is murdered at the end of Season 3 by Omar and Brother Mouzone (a hitman from New York) with the tacit agreement of Avon Barksdale.

Stringer Bell is Avon’s second in command, the manager of the business (he counts the money), a close associate and friend (he advises him to have ‘D’ killed) – indeed, he is the ‘brains’ of the outfit (much like Lester is for the wiretap detail). Avon is a more charismatic leader with a keen sense for the uses of violence as a strategy of power and drugs commerce.

Inside the partnership Barksdale and Bell (Stringer eventually dies under a sign for ‘B&B enterprises’) there coexist in increasing conflict two of the above logics of accumulation, associated with commodity exchange, on the one hand, and corporate finance and investment, on the other. The Wire traces this conflict, and Stringer’s attempts to consolidate the ‘co-operative’ with a reluctant Avon, following him right into the offices of Baltimore’s luxury-apartment redevelopment projects in which he invests (with the help of Senator ‘Clay’ Davis, among others). Until he is shot, when Avon decides against the world of finance capital. The Wire follows suit, abandoning the compositional strategy of looping in and between accumulation cycles linking the office scenes of finance with commodity exchange on the streets. Instead, it returns to foreground the battle for corners and corner-boy allegiances in the streets, where accumulation begins, and where The Wire’s story over Season 1 to 3 is replayed across Seasons 4 and 5 – this time between different crews and kingpins: Proposition Joe and his nemesis Marlo Stanfield.

The significance of Stringer Bell’s story as a limit for both the narrative of The Wire as a whole and its narration is given in a brief scene – again starring McNulty and Bunk – at the beginning of the last episode of Season 3. It repeats the conflict of accumulation regimes, as a problem of police interpretation.

Stringer has just been killed and the detectives find an address they did not know about in his wallet.

They go there and are uncharacteristically stunned into silence by what they (do not) find. They wander into Stringer’s open-plan designer apartment, and just stare, as if it had become stuck in their eyes (it refuses to open up and become an object for them). ‘This is Stringer?’ asks (states) McNulty; ‘Yeh!’, replies Bunk.

Their scopic prowess has clearly reached its limits: the more they scan the apartment, the more unreadable it becomes. Bunk stands in the middle of the living room as if there were nothing to be decoded, no clues, none of those traces on which his and McNulty’s subjectivization as detectives depends. McNulty and Bunk have reached the limits of their considerable interpretative powers and find no pleasure – no crime – in the scene. This is because Stringer has ‘laundered’ his lifestyle and wiped his apartment clean, so that it would seem to have nothing whatsoever to do with crime – that is, the drugs business, the murder that he administers, the violence of the exchange of commodities he coordinates, nor with the ‘culture’ associated with it. McNulty goes over to a bookshelf and looks at the books.

He takes one down and glances at it and asks: ‘Who the fuck was I chasing?’ (as if to the viewers, since they know more than he) and puts the book down again. At which point the frustrated detectives turn and leave.

The scene is never mentioned again, never returned to and ‘looped’ into the narrative. However, just as they turn away, the camera detaches itself from their perspective and becomes momentarily autonomous – this is The Wire’s TV camera consciousness at work again – to concentrate the viewers’ gaze momentarily on the title of the book McNulty has discarded. It is Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations.

The detectives don’t pick up on Stringer’s particular knowledge, even though McNulty had previously followed him to a college where he studies Business Administration, specifically the idea of ‘elasticity of demand’. It is clear in class that Stringer’s practical knowledge of the market in heroin has given him a head start on his peers since he already appreciates, as he tells the teacher, the importance of the creation of consumer demand, of feeding desire, so as to sell more and more commodities of a particular type. This feeding of consumer desire has its correlate in Stringer, an addict too, since the elasticity of demand also feeds his own desire: to accumulate.

Giovanni Arrighi teaches at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, although it is by no means certain that Stringer Bell attended his lectures. We might speculate, however, about what might have been the result if, like The Wire, rather than looking to China in his recent study of the contemporary world economy,

Arrighi had turned instead to the ‘wired’ territory of the local drugs trade, at Adam Smith in Baltimore, rather then Adam Smith in China (2007 – reviewed in RP 150) – a book probably composed over the same period as The Wire.

In his discussion of Smith’s account of the role of commodity exchange and competition in capitalist development, given in the formula C–M–Ć – in which commodities are exchanged for money in order to purchase commodities of greater utility (hardly what is going on in the territories The Wire maps) – he counterposes to it Marx’s general formula of capital, M–C–Ḿ, in which ‘for capitalist investors the purchase of commodities is strictly instrumental to an increase in the monetary value of their assets from M to M´.’ The formula M–C–Ḿ describes Avon Barksdale’s mercantilist street economy of commodity exchange, its accumulative logic (backed up by extreme violence).

But if Avon’s activities are M–C–Ḿ, Stringer’s are M–Ḿ. As Arrighi notes, in certain circumstances, ‘the transformation of money into commodities may be skipped altogether (as in Marx’s abridged formula of capital, M–Ḿ).’ In his previous work, The Long Twentieth Century (1994), Arrighi fleshed out this point further: if [i]n phases of material expansion money capital ‘sets in motion’ an increasing mass of commodities [for example, drugs] in phases of financial expansion an increasing mass of money capital ‘sets itself free’ from its commodity form, and accumulation proceeds through financial deals.… Together, the two epochs or phases constitute a full systemic cycle of accumulation (M–C–Ḿ).

Stringer’s ‘financial deals’ and ‘abridgement’ of the M–C–Ḿ formula to M–Ḿ threatens either to break away from the cycle of the commodity exchange of drugs – and set him free – leaving his friend and partner Avon behind, or to subordinate them both to its logic.

One of the most important contributions The Wire makes to crime fiction is the detail with which it dramatizes, on the one hand, the procedures and limits of detection and, on the other, crime as a complex practice which it conceives formally and compositionally, through its narrative loops and cycles of accumulation (which constitutes in turn the TV series’ polydiegetic, segmented architecture), not as crime against capitalism, but as crime that is thoroughly capitalized (a neoliberal utopia, in fact). The Wire uses the crime and detective fiction genre classically, but creatively, to unpack and unravel Marx’s formulae for capital accumulation. The abridged formula M–Ḿ provides the clue to Stringer Bell’s tendency towards ‘freeing’ capital from its commodity basis in drugs (and thus to his conflict with Avon), as well as for reading the unreadability of his abstract, apparently contentless existence in his designer apartment – it is, or pretends to be, pure money. Such unreadability constitutes a limit for The Wire too; however, a limit beyond which it cannot go. So it also returns to the streets, to Avon and Marlo, the corner boys, to M–C–Ḿ.

Repetition and reproduction

The context of the return to the mercantile accumulation of the corners, and to Stringer’s story, is told in Season 2, which focuses on the plight of the harbour workers’ union, whose members struggle to survive in a deindustrialized port in the process of being redeveloped for tourism and luxury homes (part of Stringer’s investment portfolio). They still refer to themselves as ‘stevedores’. The union turns a blind eye (for money) to the illegal importation of goods, including sex workers, by a Greek mafia-like outfit.

In The Wire deindustrialization feeds and drives the criminalization of the economic system. Indeed, it is the dominant form taken by the informal economy. [25]

McNulty and the police become involved because a container-load of sex workers are murdered.

The main story centres on the trade-union leader Frank Sobotka, his reaction to the murder as he turns against ‘the Greek’, as well as on his unhinged son Ziggy and his nephew Nick, who, increasingly desperate for work and money, also get involved with ‘the Greek’ and his gang – stealing container trucks of goods to sell on. Its principal object is to reflect on the idea of workers who have lost their work, as industry disappears. It is the dramatic background for The Wire’s own workerist sentiments (which pervade each of its seasons and each of the social institutions it represents), providing it with its critical standpoint throughout. In this respect, the harbour – like the corners, the police, the schools and the local newspaper – is also subject to the ‘abridging’ effects of the M–Ḿ formula of capital. More specifically, abridgement here means the loss of industry, for the formula M–C–Ḿ does not only refer to the buying and selling of retail goods, but to another cycle of accumulation, that of industrial capital – in which money is invested in special kinds of commodities (forces of production, including labour-power) that make other commodities, which can be sold for a profit. This is what has been lost, including in the form of its negation: the organizations of the working class. As Sobotka, ‘Gus’ Haynes (the city editor of the Baltimore Sun) and McNulty complain, ‘proper’ work – in which, as Sobotka says ‘you make something’ – has disappeared. This loss of good work is melancholically performed, daily, in the local bar at the port, where generations of workers meet to regenerate, and attempt to make good, an increasingly sentimental and nostalgic sense of community. (One question is the degree to which such ‘workerism’ feeds The Wire’s sense of radicalism.) However, all of their activities are financed by crime.

Needless to say, the mysterious Greek connection has Sobotka killed.

In ‘Prologue to Televison’ Adorno characteristically sets out the authoritarian and regressive character of television as it plugs ‘[t]he gap between private existence and the culture industry, which had remained as long as the latter did not dominate all dimensions of the visible’. With its new, digitized and mobilized delivery platforms, televisuality in a post-television age keeps on plugging. The Wire, for example, although televisual at the level of production, is almost re-novelized by its consumption in DVD format: episode after episode may be viewed outside the TV schedules, on demand.

Indeed, there is a sense in which it has reflexively incorporated this aspect into its composition. Despite his well-known cultural pessimism, Adorno did evoke future emancipatory possibilities, even for television (without them, critique would be pointless). He concludes his essay:

In order for television to keep the promise still resonating within the word [tele-vision], it must emancipate itself from everything with which it – reckless wish-fulfil ment – refutes its own principle and betrays the idea of Good Fortune for the smal er fortunes of the department store. [26]

The ‘dependent’ and ‘autonomous’ aspects of each artwork cannot be thought of as mutually exclusive, nor be simply read off from their social inscriptions, but need to be established through critical interpretation. The Wire’s dependency on HBO’s fortune can be conceived as providing one of the material conditions for its freedom – which takes the form of time, the time for Simon and Burns to pursue its realist compositional logic. [27]

Returning to the corners and their economy, in Season 4 a school is added to The Wire’s expanding world, as are the life and times of a number of potential ‘corner boys’. The business in drugs has been taken over by Marlo with extreme violence – and the dead bodies of countless ‘competitors’ hidden in the abandoned houses of the area (now, in the children’s minds, an eerie cemetery haunted by ghosts and zombies: typical of zones of continuous ‘primitive’ accumulation in the Americas) by the scary killers Chris and Snoop.

At the level of crime, Season 4 repeats the conflict between logics of accumulation, but refuses to return to the unreadable sphere of finance capital. At one level, Seasons 4 and 5 may thus be experienced as mere repetition. At another, however, the moving story of the corner boys, suggests that the addition of another institution has a strategic intention: systematicity. It shows the social reproduction of the logic of criminal accumulation. Its portrayal of the education system demonstrates the complete failure of hegemony, as a reproductive power of the state. Overall, the dangers of naturalistic containment notwithstanding, The Wire shows the constitutive, systematic and reproductive power of M–C–Ḿ in both its unabridged and abridged forms.


1. ^ There are few temporal markers of exactly when the action depicted in The Wire takes place, but it seems to begin some time in 2000 or 2001. This suggests an intention to understand and film the present, over several years, more or less as it happens.

2. ^ David Simon, Homicide: A Year on the Kil ing Streets, Holt Paperbacks, New York, 2006; David Simon and Edward Burns, The Corner: A Year in the Life of an Inner-City Neighborhood, Broadway Books, New York, 1998.

3. ^ As described by the luckless Gary McCul ough in The Corner: ‘There’s a corner everywhere… The corner dominates … I was loyal to the corner … it don’t care where you come from … it’s big enough to take us al .’ Addictions of al kinds are, of course, fundamental to such a culture.

4. ^ Franco Moret i, ‘The Novel: History and Theory’, New Left Review 52, July–August, 2008, p. 115.

5. ^ Michael Connol y’s recent series of thril ers starring his LAPD detective Hieronymous Bosch, is another example of this relaying: from post-Rodney King cultural sensitivity to Homeland Security.

6. ^ Responding to the question ‘Is this how true warriors feel?’, the resentful Sergeant Brad ‘Iceman’ Colbert of Generation Kil is very specific: ‘Don’t fool yourself.

We aren’t being warriors down here. They’re just using us as machine operators. Semi-skil ed labour.’ Both the soldiers in Generation Kil and the cops in The Wire make do – that is, proceed – with out-of-date technology.

7. ^ Jean Paul Sartre, L’Imagination (1936), PUF, Paris, 1981, p. 162.

8. ^ In contrast, Generation Kil has the inverse problem:

refusing to ‘loop’ its narrative through other spheres, it remains fixated on the field of military operations.

9. ^ Walter Benjamin, ‘A Smal History of Photography’, in One-Way Street and Other Writings, New Left Books,

London, 1979, p. 256. Benjamin also notes that with such developments ‘photography turns al life’s relationships into literature’. Before working on TV programmes,

David Simon was a journalist for the Baltimore Sun, whilst Edward Burns was a police officer and subsequently a schoolteacher (like the character Prez in the series).

10. ^ The dead kid had been given the unfortunate nickname ‘Snot Boogie’. Every Friday he at empted to ‘snatch and run’ with the proceeds from a local craps game. He was regularly caught and beaten up, almost as if in a ritual. This time, however, he was shot dead. Puzzled,

McNulty asks the young witness, ‘Why did you let him play?’ ‘Got to’, he answers, ‘it’s America man!’

11. ^ Louis Althusser, ‘Marx in His Limits’, in Philosophy of the Encounter: Late Writings, 1978–1987, ed. François Matheron and Oliver Corpet, trans. G.M. Goshgarian,

Verso, London and New York, 2006, pp. 95–126.

12. ^ John El is, Seeing Things: Television in the Age of Uncertainty, I.B. Tauris, New York and London, 2002, p. 10.

13. ^ See Carlo Ginzburg, ‘Morel i, Freud and Sherlock Holmes: Clues and Scientific Method’, History Workshop Journal 9, 1980, pp. 5–36. Ginzburg refers to the emergence of a ‘medical semiotics’.

14. ^ Quoted in Margaret Morse, ‘An Ontology of Everyday Distraction: The Freeway, the Mal and Television’, in Patricia Mel encamp, ed., Logics of Television: Essays in Cultural Criticism, Indiana University Press, Bloomington and Indianapolis, and BFI, London, 1990, p. 193.

15. ^ In Seeing Things, El is gives a periodization of televisual eras: a first ‘era of scarcity’ that lasted until the late 1970s (characterized by few channels broadcasting for part of the day only); a second ‘era of availability’ that lasted approximately until the end of the 1990s (characterized by ‘managed choice’ across a variety of channels – including satel ite – twenty-four hours a day); and a contemporary third ‘era of plenty’ (characterized by ‘television on demand’ and interactive platforms).

16. ^ 24’s impression of speed is further enhanced by the use of the split screen. See Michael Al en, ‘Divided Interests: Split-Screen Aesthetics in 24’, in Steven Peacock, ed., Reading 24: TV Against the Clock, I.B. Tauris, London and New York, 2007.

17. ^ For a discussion of the relation between ‘segment’ and ‘flow’ in television, a staple of Television Studies, see in particular Raymond Wil iams, Television: Technology and Cultural Form, Fontana/Collins, London, 1974; John El is, Visible Fictions: Cinema, Television, Video, Routledge, London and New York, 1992; Richard Dienst, Stil Life in Real Time: Theory after Television, Duke University Press, Durham NC and London, 1994. For an approach that links the discussion to recent technological developments, see Wil iam Uricchio, ‘Television’s Next Generation: Technology/Interface Culture/Flow’, in Lynn Spigel and Jan Olsson, eds, Television after TV: Essays on a Medium in Transition, Duke University Press, Durham NC and London, 2004, pp. 163–82. In ‘Is Television Studies History?’, Cinema Journal, vol. 47, no. 3, Spring, 2008, pp. 127–37, Charlot e Brunsdon notes a masculinizing shift in television discourse, away from feminized melodrama and its inscription into the living room, to masculinized quality cop shows, like The Wire and, especial y, The Sopranos, and their inscription into redesigned living spaces (and TVs) organized around a variety of new delivery systems.

18. ^ McNulty and Lester’s partnership is Kantian: without Lester, McNulty’s intuition is ‘blind’; without McNulty,

Lester’s reason is ‘empty’.

19. ^ For example, in Season 2 Major Valchek pressurizes Commissioner Burrel to reform the detail that pursued Barksdale in order to investigate Frank Sobotka, the leader of the stevedores’ union – out of religious jealousy – and thus pave the way for the eventual institutional rise of Daniels. In this context Daniels’s own shady past dealings are hinted at.

20. ^ Such entry into the sphere of the local ruling class is also mediated by lawyers, particularly Maurice ‘Maury’ Levy, who acts for and counsels the crime bosses (Avon and then Marlo).

21. ^ Omar is a transgressive character in a variety of ways – most annoyingly for the gangsters he robs in terms of his sexuality (a key theme for many of the back stories in The Wire).

22. ^ In this sense, the territory of The Wire may be read from the perspective provided by Homi Bhabha’s account of racism in his The Location of Culture, Routledge,

London and New York, 1994.

23. ^ Much to the annoyance of Bunk and Kima, McNulty and Lester transform dead bodies into the victims of a serial kil er so as to generate funds to pursue their bynow ‘private’ investigation of Stansfield.

24. ^ See Giovanni Arrighi, Adam Smith in Beijing: Lineages of the Twenty-First Century, Verso, London and New York, 2007, p. 75; and The Long Twentieth Century: Money, Power and the Origins of Our Times, Verso,

London and New York, 1994, p. 6.

25. ^ See David Harvey (a critic who has ‘lived in Baltimore City for most of [his] adult life’ and also taught at Johns Hopkins University), ‘The Spaces of Utopia’, in Spaces of Hope, Edinburgh University Press, Edinburgh, 2000, pp. 133–81: ‘Manufacturing jobs accelerated their movement out (mainly southwards and overseas) during the first severe post-war recession in 1973–5 and have not stopped since… Shipbuilding, for example, has al -but disappeared and the industries that stayed have “downsized”’ (p. 148). If Season 2 stands out in the series, locational y, this is because of the territorial significance of the phases of accumulation foregrounded by Arrighi. As Harvey makes clear, the predominance of the abridged formula of finance capital represented by Stringer changes the urban and social geography of Baltimore. 26 Theodor W. Adorno, ‘Prologue to Television’, in Critical Models: Interventions and Catchwords, trans. Henry W.

Pickford, Columbia University Press, New York, 1998, pp. 49–50, p. 57. 27 In its autonomy The Wire also contributes to ‘brand’ HBO, a subsidiary of TimeWarner.