Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Something You Can Touch

In preparation for beginning on the fourth season, I've been re-watching the earlier seasons of The Wire. I'm about halfway through the second at the monent, which the first time round I liked the most: as this post at The Valve points out, the most obvious categorisation of the seasons is by the institutions they provide an account of, and the disenchanted old-school social democrat in me can't really resist the various tragedies of the dockers union and the Sobotkas in particular; the aristocracy of labour and all that. The Valve post claims - it's not quite a criticism, I think, since part of the point is that the institutional focus provides other goods: value pluralism a-go-go - that characters in The Wire lack interiority, in the sense that individual psychological explanations are never really provided for their behaviour: we never quite know why McNulty is McNulty, in the sense that there is no backstory which tells us how he got to have the in many ways quite familiar collection of vices and virtues he has. Now, I have good Kantian objections to the kind of reductionism those kind of explanations can suppose, but that's another post. What's more interesting is the sense in which it's not quite true, I think, of the Sobotkas, and particularly Frank and Ziggy.

Indeed, The Valve post says of Frank and Ziggy that Ziggy

sees the hopelessness of the situation feelingly, in a way Frank cannot. Instead Frank just keeps going, trying to make it all cohere, until he winds up dead.

but that's just not right. Frank knows how hopeless the situation is. He knows the way which he is trying to save what he cares about it destroys it. He does not want to be doing what he is doing: he repeatedly demands to see The Greek, and has to be bought off with more and more money to pour into the lobbying he cannot help but see is getting nowhere. The way he is satisfied with Ziggy's explanation for being such a publicly useless f*ck-up - they are walking down by the docks, and go back to the bar together after it's given - shows that he thinks it's a perfectly adequate explanation: invoking the virtues, the senses both of community and self-reliance, of working hard with your mates for a decent living, of world both of them can see disappearing makes sense as an excuse for Frank. If it didn't, he could hardly justify his part in smuggling hookers and drugs into his city to himself. Frank's motivations, at least in a generic sense, are pretty transparent to us, even in the absence of an individual psychological backstory: what he cares about, what animates him, is participation in a community of honest labour and the opportunity for others to carry on in that tradition. You don't need a psychological backstory to explain why that might matter, especially when you add Frank's sense of persecution.

Ziggy is different, because, unlike Frank, you can see his past written in his relations with people in the present. He's the union boss's son, and so he has always has a ticket into the formal institution, but everyone knows that's why he has a ticket into the formal institution, and so he never really penetrates any further than that formal acceptance: it's all on suffrance, particularly against a background of fewer and fewer opportunities as de-industrialisation bites. He can't f*ck up, but neither can he succeed, or not there at least. So he tries elsewhere, but because he lacks the skills to see where institutions deny him access or somehow slide past him - he's always had a free pass to the ones he knows best - he f*cks it up. This is why what The Greek says to Frank, urging him to

[s]pend some on a little something you can touch. A new car, a new coat...it’s why we get up in the morning

is so poignant. Frank, like Ziggy, isn't really interested in a little something you can touch. For all that Ziggy is a mess of outrageous conspicuous consumption, when Nicky keeps trying to sweeten him to having lost the dope distribution racket he'd nearly got killed over, he ostentaiously refuses, throwing thousands of dollars away in front of his would-be benefactor. Likewise Frank: he has a shoebox of money under his desk, and he works out the police are onto him because the phone company don't cut him off after three months of not having paid his bill. What both of them want is respect, Ziggy for himself, and Frank for the community he's a part of. Which of course returns me to what I like so much about that season in the first place: the social democratic vision, undeniably exclusionary - it's so very masculine, after all - but nonetheless with a kind of nobility to it, of an aristocracy of labour. What that vision provides, what Frank and Ziggy are worried about the loss of, is not money, not something you can touch: it's what Rawls called the social bases of self-respect, of being understood to be a fully participating member of society, with the powers to realise one's moral agency. That is a good as much as money is, and the Sobotkas illustrate just why.


Alex said...

What Do Real Thugs Think of The Wire?


Rob Jubb said...

Without reading all of that link - I want to avoid spoilers - it doesn't surprise me that they think it's a bit boring, a kind of ghetto tourism. But maybe that's exactly what's needed, and there's nothing wrong with a bit of voyeurism: all stories have a kind of voyeurism, a kind of fantasy of an Other, to them or else they'd be boring; just the same shit we live out anyway. It does tally, though, with what someone else once said to me about The Wire, that if you're familiar with the hideousness of poor American inner-cities, it's kind of 'meh'.