What I learned about Stuart Hall by watching The Wire

or, What I learned about The Wire by reading Stuart Hall

About a month ago I submitted final papers, forevermore (one hopes) completing graduate coursework. In the months prior (Sept 2009 – Apr 2010) graduate courses had me fairly occupied. In an effort to keep myself on track, I was not allowed to begin watching any “new” television series until all courses were completed (unfortunately for my work this rule did not extend to those television series I had already been watching). During this time I was constantly taunted by rave (RAVE!) reviews of the 2002-2008 HBO series The Wire. What were people saying? It was compelling. It was complex. It was gritty. It was REAL.

I love TV. LOVE TV. In 1997, Buffy the Vampire Slayer changed my life. To this day I am a rabid Whedonite who quotes Firefly/Serenity (actually a film) in regular conversation and sings Dr. Horrible (actually a three-act webisode) in the shower. And my television watching/loving/appropriating habits don’t end there. I watch/have watched the critically acclaimed (Six Feet Under, Mad Men, Weeds), the woefully cut short (Veronica Mars, Pushing Daisies, Arrested Development), the guilty pleasures (Gossip Girl, House, Lost) and, of course, “reality TV” (at least 8 seasons of Survivor and 5 of American Idol, every show that involves dancing and my favourite seasons of Big Brother were 2 and 7 with “Dr. Will”). [I disagree with so much of that categorization but I love how angry it will make some readers.] I’ve seen almost every episode of The Waltons. I spent two summers obsessing over General Hospital. And when I was a kid I wanted nothing more than to be April from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. The list could go on (and on…and on). I provide this information, I suppose, to establish myself as, if nothing more, a well-watched television viewer. As you can probably tell, I take my television-watching pretty seriously. So when I was repeatedly told that I had not seen “the greatest television show ever made” (i.e. The Wire), I recognized this as a problem in need of redress. A few weeks ago I rented the first season from my local (superb) video store. Last night I finished season three. And having read Stuart Hall’s “The Emergence of Cultural Studies and the Crisis of the Humanities” somewhere between the end of season one and the middle of season two, I couldn’t help but hear the two texts speaking to each other in a way that has helped me identify what exactly Hall is up to in his essay, and what exactly is off with the majority of reviews I encounter for this critically acclaimed show.

For those of you who have not seen it, The Wire is an intricate cop drama that tackles issues of race, class, politics, etc. in (primarily West) Baltimore, Maryland, most notably in and around the illegal drug trade. (Each season adopts a different focus, i.e. the drug trade, the port, the (corrupt) politics/politicians, the school system, the media. As the series itself is nowhere near my comps list – and out of respect for those who would be harmed by extensive spoilers – I will not be spending much time summarizing the show’s content. You can read more here and here.)

I could quote any number of reviews of the series to demonstrate the consistent manner in which it’s described, but perhaps it’s easiest to turn to the commentary offered by the cast and creators in the special features included on the season four DVDs (yes, in the time since I started typing this post I began – and completed – the fourth season). From the first three minutes of “The Wire: It’s All Connected:”

“The show does not back away from the truth.” – Frankie Faison (Ervin Burrell)

“This is fiction, but this is how it is in life.” – Clarke Peters (Lester Freamon)

“The integrity of The Wire comes from the integrity of the creators.” – Lance Reddick (Cedric Daniels)

“The stories are based on real stories. The creators lived through these stories in their previous jobs, Dave [Simon] being a Baltimore Sun reporter and Ed Burns being a Baltimore detective…. I can’t tell you how many police officers, FBI agents, lawyers come up to me and introduce themselves and tell me how wonderful the show is and how real the show is and how do we get it so right?” – John Doman (William Rawls)

“That’s the element that brings the realness to the show, that makes it genuine.” – Domenick Lombardozzi (Herc)

“Our show is a very real show…” – Wendell Pierce (Bunk)

“…all the cops in Baltimore love the show, and they say it has a realism to it and I think that’s what makes it very special” – Dominic West (Jimmy McNulty)

“That’s the authenticity that we bring to the show.” – Nina K. Noble, Executive Producer

I could continue in this vein for a while, but I think I’ve proved my point. Of course, holding up a piece of art to the “real world” and assessing its value based on the degree to which they are the same is nothing new. Realism has woven its way in and out of literary and artistic trends for as long as literary and artistic trends have been observed and recorded. We even have a special brand of it: “literary realism,” a brief description of which is conveniently outlined on Wikipedia (yes, I use Wikipedia for quick reference and I know you do, too).

The problem I have with using this term/concept to describe The Wire is that, far from being “real” (whatever the hell that means anyways), I happen to find The Wire to be constituted most notably by carefully planned, elaborately structured, intricately orchestrated narrative. The Wire is good ol’ five-act Shakespearean drama; or, as co-creator David Simon suggests (amidst numerous flourishes of the show’s authenticity), “The underpinnings of The Wire are in Greek tragedy.”

I recognize the shovel I’m holding by indirectly proposing that narrative and reality are mutually exclusive (it is not my intention to definitively claim such a thing), but the debate over fact v. fiction is not the only problem with calling The Wire “real.” Conveniently for me the elaboration of my POV has already been neatly summarized by the blog Stuff White People Like (henceforth to be referred to as “SWPL”). Addressing why “white people” “like” The Wire, SWPL provides the following explanation:

So why do they love it so much? It all comes down to authenticity. A long time ago, someone started a rumor that when The Wire is on TV, actual police wires go quiet because all the dealers are watching the show. Though this is not true, it seems plausible enough to white people and has imbued the show with the needed authenticity to be deemed acceptable…If you need to impress a white person, tell them you are from Baltimore. They will immediately ask you about The Wire and how accurate it is. You should confirm that it is “like a documentary of the streets,” the white person will then slowly shake their head and say “man” or “wow.” You will be seen in an entirely new light.

When I first started watching The Wire, I immediately joked that it must have been included on SWPL (my suspicion, obviously, was soon confirmed). Though I enjoyed and continue to enjoy the show as entertainment (don’t get me wrong, I’m really enjoying watching it), from the very first episode I had an uneasy feeling thinking back to all those people who had championed it in conversation with me. At the risk of offending some of them (I sincerely hope they won’t be offended and hope, too, that they recognize I include myself in the category I’m about to describe), it seems to me The Wire is positioned to allow privileged, middle-upper class, TV-watching folk to feel tough…and informed…and aware…and slightly better than those who have not seen the show, those unaware of the reality of what goes down in the “streets.” In short, The Wire is SWPL porn. “White people” (a problematic representative category, certainly, but used here in a humorous way) can feel absorbed by an underclass drug culture of which they would not, in the majority of cases, ever be a part. They can peer into the ghettos, be privy to the slang (maybe even use it around the house when no one is listening?) and learn how one works a package, runs a corner and avoids the “five-o.” The people in my life most in love with The Wire? Academics. Humanities academics, no less, gleefully quoting explicit lines on their Facebook pages. I’m assuming this uneasy feeling I’m describing they’re feeling, too. Part of my uneasiness, though, is the possibility that they’re not.

Before I lose every friend I have (it’s okay to watch and love The Wire! I watch it and enjoy it, too!) I think it’s (finally!) time to redirect the focus of this post to the matter at hand. In other words, what the frak does all of this have to do with the Stuart Hall essay I read for my comps list?

Surprisingly, a lot.

While some dictionaries don’t agree that “to narrativize” is a verb, fortunately the OED (i.e. the English department standard) does: “To impose the structure of a narrative on; to present or interpret (events, experience, etc.) as or in the form of a narrative.” In English departments, we read stories. As critics, we are then required to tell stories about those stories. This cannot be helped or avoided, it’s just what we do. But there are risks to storytelling, concerns about what gets included and what gets left out, and a story, as such, implies a finished product, the like criticism should never hope to be.

In “The Emergence of Cultural Studies and the Crisis of the Humanities,” Stuart Hall engages in a form of storytelling, relaying a creation myth of sorts and his own version of the slow-burning rebellion – the “long revolution,” if you will – of how “Cultural Studies” came to be. I can confidently say this because, like a nervous, unskilled poker player, he anxiously denounces such a possibility within the first few sentences:

…this is neither a search for origins nor a suggestion that Birmingham was the only way to do cultural studies. Cultural studies was then, and has been ever since, an adaptation to its terrain; it has been a conjunctural practice….indeed, there is no such thing as the Birmingham school….in that sense, cultural studies is not one thing; it has never been one thing. (11)

So what, then, in Hall’s terms, is cultural studies, at least as it was approached by that early work of the (non-)Birmingham School? Hall goes on to tell us: “serious work” (11); “entirely marginal to the centers of English academic life” (12); “questions of cultural change…first reckoned within the dirty outside world” (12); “politics by other means” (12); “real work, important work” (12); “clearly far from any center” (13); “marginal” (13); “serious interdisciplinary work” (16); “traditions that had had no real presence in English intellectual life” (16); “not…clear-cut” (17); “out there in the dirty world” (17); “engaged” (17); “committed” (17); “extremely marginal” (18); “a tiny piece of a hegemonic struggle” (18). From these descriptions, one might conclude, say, that cultural studies is compelling. It’s complex. It’s gritty. It’s REAL.

Don’t get me wrong; I love this story. And we can all certainly agree, to a degree, that it is “real” or accurate. The emergence of cultural studies was certainly in response to a (perceived) crisis in the humanities. And cultural studies as a discipline was certainly not welcomed with open arms. I truly feel that “cultural studies” offers something that pre-cultural studies humanities lacks- obviously I do, I’ve decided to house my own research in its bounds. But what are the risks of such a story? What happens when Hoggart, Williams, Thompson, Hall et al become the caped crusaders of knowledge, out there doing “real,” “important,” “serious” work in the “dirty” world? Or at the very least, what happens when they – and those that follow them – conceive of themselves (and their work) as such?

Hall is anxious about this, too, and practically falls into my Wire comparison when he writes:

We never flattered ourselves that because we were studying postwar youth cultures we were nothing but street boys [!!!]. The remorseless march of the division of knowledge and the gap between theory and practice is not to be overcome by wishing to do so or by declaring that it has just happened. The gap between theory and practice is only overcome in developing a practice in its own right. It is a practice to bring together theory and practice…And the vocation of intellectuals is not simply to turn up at the right demonstrations at the right moment, but also to alienate that advantage which they have had out of the system, to take the whole system of knowledge itself and, in Benjamin’s sense, attempt to put it at the service of some other project. (18)

I don’t fault Hall for his story, and I’m – mostly – willing to let Wire creators David Simon and Ed Burns off for their stories, too. If I had helped shape Cultural Studies or worked the streets of Baltimore I can imagine the stories I would want to tell about my own work: epic, damn-the-man tales of struggle and grit and hard (and rarely) won redemption.

But such tales are not innocuous; they edit, reshape in the telling. Given the descriptors quoted above, “real” quickly becomes “right.” And any criticism unhesitantly accepted as “right criticism” is dangerous, ultimately useless and in this case fairly counter to the criticism’s intended purpose. I couldn’t agree with Hall more that “[i]t is a practice to bring together theory and practice” and that to do so is of the greatest import. I guess my suggestion is for such a practice to be perpetually (and paradoxically) resistant to establishment as practice. Impossible? Probably, but nevertheless imperative.

On a final, entirely undeveloped note, while I spent most of the time reading Hall’s essay thinking about The Wire, I did also take a moment to note that, in addition to his attempts to depict cultural studies as “real” in the way I’ve been describing, his cultural studies could also be described as quite queer (i.e. a slanted approach to the linear, straightforward work of the humanities). Queerness operates in interesting ways in The Wire as well (second only to the celebrations of its authenticity are the bravas! regarding its most beloved character, queer Robin Hood-esque hitman Omar Little), and if I ever have the time, I’d love to explore this comparison in greater detail. Odds are I won’t have the time, however, so I encourage anyone willing to take up the question to do so in the comments section.


~ by pamelaingleton on 11 June 2010.

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