The rebirth of tragedy

Prospect Magazine

The rebirth of tragedy

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The television show The Wire resurrects the classical Greek vision: some conflicts are beyond resolution

The Wire is unsettling because it presents “doomed and fated protagonists who confront a rigged game and their own mortality”


When asked earlier this year which of the characters in The Wire was his favourite, President Obama chose Omar Little, a shotgun-wielding gay man who makes a living by robbing drug dealers. Holding to a code that bars any assault on people not directly involved in crime, Omar testifies to the persistence of a kind of honour in the struggle for urban survival. A politician whose career has been founded on projecting an inspirational image, it is not surprising that Obama is drawn to an authentically inspiring fictional creation.

But among many high-placed fans of The Wire, it may be the current US attorney general who deserves special note. Speaking in May 2011, Eric Holder made a personal plea to the writers David Simon and Ed Burns to do another season of the series, or better yet a movie. Created by Simon using his experience as a police reporter and Burns’ work as a homicide detective, and first shown ten years ago on June 2nd, 2002, The Wire gained a following—never very large, but passionately loyal—for its unsparing depiction of life in the city of Baltimore, primarily seen through the eyes of its police, drug dealers and politicians. Holder’s plea may have been a jokey public relations exercise designed to display his media awareness. Simon’s response was in deadly earnest. He and Burns were ready to go to work on a sixth season, he replied, “if the department of justice is equally ready to reconsider and address its continuing prosecution of our misguided, destructive and dehumanising drug prohibition.”

That the president and attorney general are so familiar with the series underlines its enormous resonance. But while much of the debate surrounding The Wire has focused on the concrete political issues it addresses (such as America’s drugs policy), one of the show’s greatest achievements has been widely overlooked. The Wire presents a damning portrait of inner-city life in America without the prospect of redemption. It has none of the faith in the ultimate triumph of justice and the saving power of goodness that shows through many of the most hard-boiled thrillers. Taken seriously—as the series was undoubtedly meant to be, though it contains many scenes of black comedy—The Wire plants a compelling question mark over the creed of nearly all of those today who insist they have no religion: the belief that the intractable conflicts that are the stuff of tragedy are slowly being left behind.

Simon has acknowledged the influence on the series of ancient tragedians such as Euripides, Sophocles and Aeschylus. Like the Greek dramatists he shows humans enacting fates they cannot escape. As Simon put it in a 2007 interview with Nick Hornby, he lifted his thematic stance “wholesale” from the Greeks, aiming “to create doomed and fated protagonists who confront a rigged game and their own mortality. The idea that… we’re still fated by indifferent gods, feels to us antiquated and superstitious… But instead of the old gods, The Wire is a Greek tragedy in which the postmodern institutions are the Olympian forces. It’s the police department, or the drug economy, or the political structures, or the school administration, or the macroeconomic forces that are throwing the lightning bolts… In much of television, and in a good deal of our stage drama, individuals are often portrayed as rising above institutions to achieve catharsis. In this drama, the institutions always prove larger, and those characters with hubris enough to challenge the postmodern construct of American empire are invariably mocked, marginalised, or crushed. Greek tragedy for the new millennium, so to speak.”

In ancient Greek tragedy the protagonists were shown as the playthings of the gods. Human actions were scripted by powers beyond human control or comprehension. In The Wire, human beings go to their ruin because of what they and others have unknowingly done. In some interpretations, this is the true meaning of Greek tragedy: the arbitrary meddling of capricious deities in human affairs is a metaphor for the fact that human beings neither understand nor truly determine their own actions. Whether or not the classical Greek dramatists understood tragedy in this fashion, it is hard to imagine a world view more subversive of 21st-century pieties and hopes.

For most of The Wire’s audience in America and Britain, the idea that human beings are—or may someday become—authors of their lives is an article of faith. To be human, it is believed, is to be—at least ideally—autonomous, shaping your life according to your choices and plans. In this view the tragedies that are shown in Greek drama can only be relics of a primitive past. No doubt human beings will always suffer pain and disappointment; but the fatal undoing of their lives that comes from being caught in a web of destiny, which is the central theme of Greek tragedy, reflects a magical mode of thinking. Empowered by advancing knowledge, so the argument goes, we need not submit blindly to fate. While it will never achieve the perfection of which some may dream, the human world can become ever more transparent and open to understanding. Even if it will always be bordered by chaos, human life can be increasingly governed by reason and morality. Arising from errors that can be rectified over time, tragic conflict need not be a permanent condition.

There can be little doubt that most of those who admire The Wire subscribe to some version of this comforting catechism. Meliorism—the belief that humanity is gradually ascending to a higher level of civilisation—is, after all, the most commonplace of contemporary faiths. One of its tenets is the belief that civilised life is the normal condition of modern societies; the practical task is to extend this condition to those sections of the species that have yet to enjoy its benefits. But a chronic condition of violence and entrapment is not an outlier on the fringes of civilised existence. As The Wire shows, it is the ongoing experience of large parts of the population in one of the world’s largest democracies.

***

Re-envisioned in a de-industrialised American city, in The Wire the elements of tragedy are played out in an urban wasteland. In the course of 60 episodes broadcast over five seasons between 2002 and 2008, the interwoven strands in which the protagonists are entangled were shown reaching beyond the drug gangs into industry, education, politics and the media. In the second series labour unionists are making deals with organised crime in an attempt to revive the city’s port, while the third shows a police officer’s Dutch-style attempt to decriminalise drug use in a restricted zone being thwarted by politicians, the media and senior echelons of the police. The fourth series dwells on the struggles of the city’s school system, while the fifth focuses on how the media (in the shape of The Baltimore Sun, where Simon worked for a time) retreats from reporting conditions in the schools and instead prints stories that are torn out of context or fabricated. The police are morally flawed, with the pivotal character of detective Jimmy McNulty acting impulsively and self-destructively. But however flawed these characters may be, they are not monsters. If some seem to be amoral, it is because in the environment in which they operate moral behaviour has been proved to be dangerously dysfunctional. The journalist who confects his reports of life in the city is rewarded with a Pulitzer prize, while colleagues who question his methods are demoted. A lack of moral sense is the price of a humanly tolerable life, while for those on the street holding to a code of honour can be the fast track to death.

The wiretap—which the police use to listen in to the phone calls of the drug dealers—is like the oracle in Greek drama, whose cryptic utterances are clues to an unfolding order in events. The messages that are intercepted may be hard to interpret. Even when the meaning is clear, acting on them may not prevent ruin. The dealers whose phones are tapped and the cops who do the tapping are not characters in a morality play in which good and evil contend for victory. Above all, both are in a situation they cannot change. It is this unalterable necessity that makes their condition tragic.

But it would be wrong to think of The Wire as a straight translation of Greek tragedy into a 21st-century setting. Simon has said that “Omar and [kingpin drug dealer] Stringer had to die.” But they do not die because they challenge the gods. It is the society in which these characters must act that ordains their ends. In challenging the institutions that shape their lives they may be displaying a type of hubris—the inordinate human pride that the Greek tragedians mocked; but the projects that bring about their ruin are mostly attempts to realise normal human needs and desires. The protagonists want to live, and enjoy a life that is not shaped by fear; they need a degree of respect from others, while wanting to be able to live on good terms with themselves. If they serve the institutions that police the city, it is not because they are necessarily callous or venal. They are looking for a modicum of security and success, without which their lives would hardly differ from those of the underclass.

Moved by similar needs and seeking much the same goals, the underclass and those who serve the ruling institutions are both powerless. Stringer Bell—a capable, ambitious (and also highly amoral) dealer who wants to use the proceeds of the drug trade to set up legitimate real estate businesses—comes to grief by giving bribes to a corrupt senator, while alienating his own corrupt lawyer by cutting him out of the deal. It is Stringer’s strengths that undo him: aiming to make his way as legitimate businessman, he exhibits the enterprise and strategic forethought that is required for success in the economy of capitalism. He even keeps a copy of Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations on his bookshelf. But he cannot escape the fate to which he was consigned by the accident of his birth—any more than can Omar, who kills him at the end of the third series. When Stringer is killed by Omar and an enforcer from New York, it is because Omar’s grandmother has been fired on by Stringer’s men while going to church. When Omar is himself killed, it is because he acted independently in hijacking a heroin shipment and incurred the wrath of the drug gangs. Omar is shot by a young gang member, who at the end of the series is shown being led away in handcuffs in the custody of the police. In the world of The Wire, no display of intelligence and will-power can break the fatal chain of events.

From one point of view, The Wire is an exercise in realism. The reality it depicts is violent and profane. In “Old Cases,” an episode in the first series, McNulty and a colleague visit the site of the murder of a black college student. For nearly five minutes, while examining the crime scene and looking at photographs of the dead woman, the two detectives communicate with one another using only the word “fuck” and variations on it. The scene may have been a response by Simon and his co-writer to those who objected to the liberal use of expletives in the series: this is how detectives talk, the writers were saying. Repeating “fuck” while looking at photographs of the murdered woman testifies to the loss of affect that comes from too much contact with death and violence. The detectives are hard-pressed professionals, who are able to do the job only on condition that their normal human responses are in some degree suspended. Falling back on the profanity testifies to the difficulty of articulating any response to a situation in which random murder has become a normal part of life. At another level the repeated use of “fuck” and its derivatives composes a litany to meaninglessness, a succession of expletives that is as devoid of sense as the deaths that are being investigated. At this point the series plumbs deeper than Greek tragedy to approach the crueller genre of absurdist comedy. If the exchange between the detectives has dramatic precedents, it is in the stoically playful banter that is rehearsed in the plays of Ionesco and Beckett.

Moving from realism to the theatre of cruelty, The Wire mounts a bitter assault on the ideology that has reduced to absurdity the lives that are chronicled. Simon has described the series as “a political tract masquerading as a cop show,” and it can readily be seen as a workerist critique of finance-capitalism.  Many classicists, including Daniel Mendelsohn, have argued that the Greeks too saw tragedy not just as a form of popular entertainment in which myths were re-enacted but also “as a form of political dialogue” in which power and the nature of freedom were explored and contested. Continuing this tradition, The Wire is an exercise in de-mystification, unveiling the forces that configure everyday experience. The lives that unfold in the series are markers for a hidden reality, which is the flow of capital between the criminal economy and the capitalist market. The ultimate object of the series is not then any kind of moral conflict, not even of the kind that is represented in tragedy. The true subject matter of The Wire is the flow of money. As one of the detectives puts it: “This is the thing that everyone knows and no one says. You follow the drugs, you get a drug case. You start following the money, you don’t know where you’re going..”

In its role as a political tract, The Wire is a polemic against the idea that the unrestrained market is the embodiment of individual liberty. Simon has used the series to expose the contradictions of this atavistic ideology: supposedly aiming to enhance choice, the reinvention of the free market has left the majority of people more exposed to random events and arbitrary power than before. Like the dim remnant on the left that insists communism has yet to be tried, neoliberals will say that the free market still does not yet truly exist. Against this fantasy of market freedom, The Wire is saying: Look, this is how capitalism works.

But another interpretation of the detective’s observation about money is possible and plausible: in the political economy of The Wire, the origins and destinations of money are ultimately unknowable. Behind the bribes and the pay-offs, the buying and selling of influence, there is no hegemonic power controlling the action in the way a master-puppeteer might shift marionettes around on a stage. With all their political clout and their massive though volatile wealth, the financial elites are themselves contending with a chaos they cannot understand or control. Far more able to deal with market shocks than the underclass, America’s elites are also exposed to the entropy of history. With much of America’s financial system effectively nationalised as a result of the crisis that began some years ago, the version of capitalism that is the target of The Wire belongs in the past. Operating in a globalised world containing powerful rival capitalisms, America cannot return to the free market even if that is what its ruling elites most want. Whatever type of economy eventually emerges, there is nothing to say it will be a significant improvement.

If The Wire is interpreted along these lines, its subject matter is not capitalism but a postmodern condition in which humans can no longer grasp the world they have made. The Wire’s protagonists are defeated by chaos. The disorder that brings them to ruin is a densely structured kind in which disparities of power are being constantly renewed; but since none of those who struggle with it can understand or control its workings, it is still chaos.

At this point a question arises: Can these vain struggles be described as tragic? Even if the ancient Greek tragedians did not believe in the gods, they assumed a kind of order in the world; it was against this order that tragic heroes rebelled. But can there be tragedy in a world that is at bottom chaotic? This was the question posed by George Steiner in his seminal book The Death of Tragedy, first published in 1961.

In his intensely controversial study of Greek drama The Birth of Tragedy (1872), Nietzsche—a classical philologist—argued that the tragic sense of life was undermined by the rise of Socratic rationalism, which provided a universal framework for human action. Greek tragedy accepted that life is meaningless, Nietzsche argued, but overcame the lack of meaning by presenting a spectacle in which destruction and ruin acquired life-affirming beauty. In his no less controversial study, Steiner agreed that tragedy was undermined by rationalism, but it was modern rationalism—the rejection of metaphysics and the rise of science rather than the Socratic faith in reason—that subverted belief in moral order. Interestingly, Steiner argued that tragedy was also compromised through the influence of Christianity, which promises the rectification of wrongs and final redemption. His claim that theism and tragedy are diametrically opposed may be overdrawn—faith in justice is profoundly questioned in the book of Job, even if Job ends by accepting the divine will—but it is true that Christianity has no place for final tragedy. If Homer’s Iliad is the canonical expression of the tragic sense of life, Dante’s Divine Comedy articulates a vision in which no tragedy can ever be absolute.

Steiner’s analysis helps clarify why The Wire is so challenging. In rejecting theism, modern meliorists have not renounced the hope of redemption. Instead they have transposed a Christian narrative into a succession of political projects. Whether it is a fantasy of market freedom or one in which the market is abolished, modern politics is haunted by myths of redemption. In the prevailing anti-tragic world view, human institutions are the result of human action and can therefore be altered by human decision.

The lives that are shown in The Wire confound this seemingly obvious inference. What is done cannot be undone; history cannot be repealed by human will. The workings of necessity that have shaped the past will also shape the future. Serious politics accepts this fact. Redemptive politics only magnifies the waste of life: the drug war, which is supposed to deliver society from the evil of addiction, exposes millions to violence and chronic insecurity. Failing or refusing to accept tragedy, politics has become a theatre of the absurd.

In denying us the comfort of redemption, The Wire re-connects us with reality. When it shows human lives ending in a lack of meaning, the series confronts us with the absurd in its most pitiful form. When it shows human beings joking, cursing and carrying on despite this absurdity, it achieves something like the liberating catharsis that Nietzsche imagined being produced by ancient Greek drama. The struggles we share with the protagonists are not deviations from some ideal version of humanity that will someday come into being. Intractable conflict goes with being human. In one way or another, practically everything in current media culture is escapist in intention or effect. In astonishing contrast, The Wire returns us to ourselves.

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  1. The rebirth of tragedy | Athens BiennaleAthens Biennale10-18-13




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