Here’s another segment of the HBO/David Simon chronicles from a “dark corner of the American experiment”.
Consider the phrase Simon has chosen to describe his sim city. The connotations of “dark corner” are obvious enough, even without Bush’s memorable promise to venture into every dark corner of the planet and bring the light of liberty and democracy: here we have a little bit of the dark continent tucked away in the American city, as you can see by the predominance of black faces. But what of the “American experiment”? What is experimental in “America” and what has the “dark corner” in it to say about the results?
If we understand the “American experiment” to be, for a patriotic libertarian like Simon, more or less the “experiment” in universal suffrage and civil liberties, then the latest phase in “the dark corner” of it is dramatised a few scenes into the segment above. Simon gives us the figure of democracy as the dynamic, scrappy, competent white candidate wasting his breath in a nursing home. Played as comedy, the scene conveys to the audience the absurdity of a situation in which one of the “smart guys” – born to manage and rule, obviously of the superior caste - should be obliged, by what seems to be no more than an irrational sentimental prejudice in favour of democratic process, to ask the electorate’s permission to govern them. The electorate to which the white man’s vital agency is absurdly and destructively subjected is imaged by Simon for his audience in the extreme of its impotence, as the inmates in a warehouse of the dying, dependents on the state or some other benevolent institution, senile and apathetic, vulnerable and without vitality, in obvious need of care and incapable of recognising or selecting proper caretakers. The comedic topsy-turvy state of the current condition of the “American experiment” in it’s “dark corner” is emphasised (fans would call it ornamented with a “grace note”) by what Simon deems an amusing irony – that an elderly black woman treats Carchetti, one of the smart guys fit to rule, as a waiter when she should be his maid. This reversal of the proper order of things is not reassuring and is associated with the wretched condition of the city and by extension of “civilisation”. As is typical of the series, its “sociology” manifests in the mere display of established stereotypes, their connotations exploited, unquestioned, and simultaneously reinforced (the show’s vision can not even entertain the possibility that an elderly black woman could be smarter, more knowledgeable and more politically astute than an educated petty bourgeois white man). The “comic” beat wherein the elderly black woman makes her inquiry inappropriately of the aspiring “leader” is another variation on the principle Carchetti theme and storyline, which concerns his efforts to overcome the race prejudice and hostility of the electorate which unfairly discriminates against him because he “happens to be” white. The downtrodden victims of injustice and a malfunctioning web of resources to which white men are reduced, and the decline of civilisation their fall from despotic power entails, is one of the series’ most emphatic themes presented in multiple versions and dramatised in endless permutations. As we are to understand there is a near perfect fit between McNulty’s personal ambition as a cop and the good of the whole society (perceived as excluding, and menaced by, a narcotrafficking “tribe”), we are made to understand that Carcetti’s self-interested quest to be elected is also in the best interests of the electorate, who do not know what is good for them, and who favour black candidates solely out of pernicious racist tribalism. Without such racist tribal loyalties on the part of the black electorate, there would be, Simon’s show suggests, no black politicians in prominent positions, because there can be no reason, other than this outrageous black privilege, for the electorate to choose them over white candidates, who are as a rule more competent, fit, and though of course not perfect angels of selflessness and superheroism, morally and intellectually superior to their black competition. Simon’s southern wisdom is not obscure: Good “Negros” know their place; it goes without saying that any Negro aspiring above it must be wicked and corrupt. In the “data” Simon provides himself – the authenticity, the “realism”, of the programmes depictions of daily life - that hypothesis is validated.
The sequence of “explanation” for the regrettable state of “the dark corner” of “America” repeats frequently in the programme. The foundation is always a display of the failed attempt at civilising the (black) brutes, which can be dominantly comical (Stringer’s product meeting) or only subordinately comical and dominantly designed to infuriate the audience into lust for vengeance and then satisfy it (Chiquan’s delicate sensibilities offended by Dukie’s body odor, avenged by Laetitia’s outburst) or sinister and wholly enraging, though simultaneously acidly contemptuously comical (black politicians Clarence Royce and Clay Davis, or the corrupt minister who launders money in Prop Joe’s comical “civilising this muthafucka” Marlo). In the sequence in the clip at the top of the post here, the associations are dealt out like cards:
a) farcical democracy, a social political dysfunction thwarting natural white rule
b) slick black hustler in power
c) Grand Guignol horror, the unwatchable barbaric murder
(Difficult as it is to endure for any but the most sadistic viewer, even (c) is laced with a whiff of Simon’s hackneyed and malicious wiseass ‘comedy’, so worthless is black life in this programme’s sensibility.)
The montage and sequence offers a flexible but legible logic of connections which allows for multiple significations regarding the Baltimore and Reality that is the supposed referent of the mimesis. B, following A, is understood as its consequence (slick black hustlers come to power because of the absurdity of universal suffrage in the dark corners and the decline of white male potency that results) but also its motivation and the ground of its “socio-political significance” as well as its narrative energy (Carchetti must persevere, and strive to restore white male potent authority, in order to overthrow the slick black hustler regime and save the city); C, following B, is an even more important elaboration, as its horror and terror serve as equally consequence of B (in a city ruled by the slick black hustler, such horrifying barbarism is common), gloss on the socio-political meaning of B (this horror is, by the always emphasised association of “race” “blackness” that unites diverse characters and behaviours, revealed as the true nature of the slick black hustler, the “underside” of his “race” and “community” and “culture”, whose outward appearance of civilisation and refinement is thus exposed as a fraud, a mere travesty, concealing this unspeakable savagery) and a comment on the morals and psychology of Royce as individual character and representative type of the black bourgeoisie in politics (his selfishness and depravity is exhibited in the juxtaposition which shows that he lives high on the hog while “his own people” dwell in the squalid barbarism of “the dark corner” of the “experiment” which he manipulates and from which aggrandises himself.) This last ubiquitous motif of the black bourgeoisie's opportunistic cynicism and willingness to exploit the suffering of "their own people" - a principle operation of the anticapitalism of fools - permits at once the seeming recognition of exploitation in social relations and its disavowal, the expulsion of it from the essence of the social order to assign it to the black surrogates of all social evil. Condemnable features of capitalist relations are thus, in the anticapitalism of fools, designated exceptional and regrettable for the "general society" but meaningfully defining characteristics of its constructed Other, deployed as at once opposite/antagonist, parodic exaggeration, and "metaphoric" "dark side".
Of course, the alibi of verisimiltude (like the equally frequent alibi of art's liberty and impenetrable mystery, only evoked to defend instances of reactionary advocacy) can be dragged out as always to justify a sequence of scenes such as this (a judgement the commenter to the post below seeks to insist applies to the scene of the interrogation of the merchant crew and which for him or her constitutes a complete interpretation of the scene as well). It is “real” – this is how things really are inside nursing homes and at the scenes of drug gang executions. People really beg for their lives futilely, and gangsters really find some of their unpleasant butchery boring. Old ladies really are like that, concerned about what is for lunch; voters are dazed and indifferent, and electoral politics really are a farce. (If Simon does not reveal how things really are in holding cells, or prison, or in the vicinity of racist white cops, that is chalked up to the other demands of "art" and drama unrelated to and when convenient trumping verisimilitude. It's after all "only a tv show" even though "it's not tv" at all but HBO.)
Nonetheless the presentation of these images, convincingly realistic as they appear to some viewers, to figure the electorate on the one hand (a mass of isolated helpless individuals in their dotage) and the individualised representative of the white managerial and political class on the other, is not neutral or meaningless, especially in a fiction which is with some success insisting on being taken for a kind of portraiture of a social order. The vision of Carcetti before the electorate - the sad sketch of democracy in the dark corner - serves as false front to allow for and justify the concealment of the real electorate, which includes activists and concerned citizens of course – Baltimoreans who are not represented by characters, typed or otherwise, in The Wire, people for example like these:
“The thread that ties anticommunism and racism at a conceptual level, I think, is the issue of "self-government", ie democracy. In American racial thinking, self-government is a cultural state attained by Anglo-Saxons and Teutons, a condition in which people are able - on account of god-chosenness, race experience, and fine blood lines - to control their primitive urges toward sin.”
Regarding primitive urges and self-government, marcb identified the familiar myth in the sequence below succinctly elsewhere:
the 'box cutter' episode. brilliantly written and cast. the whole doomed evolutionary trajectory of the American negro compressed into four minutes. the brooding, black ape of the dark continent inevitably bursting into conflct with the 'white' black girl, who, having squandered the gift of Western culture and infusion of caucasian blood, gets her due. we really have done everything we can for these people.
Laetitia and Dukie start in chairs and end up crouched on the floor, communicating with mute gestures. Both their cruel and gentle acts are depicted as uncontrolled and "atavistic". But there is more here than the simple defamation by characterisation; the way in which Laetitia is used as the agent of the audience's own vengeful desires and also the alibi for their gratification is crucial for the ideology promoted. The deployment of characters in narrative and image sequences, not simply the qualities attributed to each isolated figure as types, produces meaning and ideology. And the function of Laetitia in this sequence has to be seen clearly if one hopes to understand how audiences are engaged, titillated, provoked and pleased, and seduced and inveigled into irrational attachments to these kinds of culture commodities.
Laetitia functions as the virtual slave of the audience's hatred of Chiquan, a hatred provoked to set up a sadistic pleasure. (Both "characters" will vanish conveniently, like the kid Prez maimed and blinded earlier, when Simon is through titillating the audience with their spectacle; the programme has no use for or interest in them except as fauna in the urban jungle where Simon leads the Viewer on his James Fenimore Cooper by J. Peterman adventure, teaching him all the delicious little exotic details which give him a sense of mastery and expertise and which he can cherish afterwards like souvenirs of his journey.) But Simon knows his most avid audience (those who share his views and sensibility) well enough to know they want to feel moral and benevolent even as they enjoy the slashing of the face of a young girl, that it is the combination of self-righteousness and sadism that is truly irresistable for them. This sequence, along with many others in the series, offers not only a sadism without guilt or shame, but a sadism that presents itself as moral indignation and generous solidarity. Simon shares with his audience a story of his own and their activity that invites the consumers to feel they have made sacrifices for the commonweal watching all this simulated violence and suffering. It is his deftness in delivering this combination of moralistic self-congratulation and individualist consumer supremacism dressed up as aestheticism that probably accounts for the intensity of Simon's fans' delight and gratitude, and the strangely passionate desire so many feel to discuss the programme in seemingly dry social-scientific or abstract ways, implausibly attributing great depths and richness of meaning to every post-modern fragmentary reference, which ceremonial exegeses avoid not only such usually-deemed-necessary aspects as the mise en scène and montage, but avoid and even deny the question of their own pleasure. That the programme is "realistic" or vaguely described as "well written" or "funny" is usually taken to suffice as an explanation for the passionate fans' attachment and irrepressible desire to express and affirm it.
The audience's desire to see the uppity Chiquan mutilated - her punishment the most misogynist imaginable - is provoked by Simon, but it is produced already equipped with an alibi allowing the audience to congratulate itself on the benevolent paternalism expressed by those very violent desires. The viewer is invited to tell himself that it is only to avenge Dukie's humiliation, only out of concern for Dukie, the Dickensian waif, not out of its own loathing of the uppity black beauty, that the audience desires Chiquan's suffering and degradation. These sadistic wishes of which Chiquan is presented to the audience as appropriate object, "asking for" what the audience wants to watch done to her, are then satisfied by Simon who is however careful to provide an additional alibi for the audience's joy: the audience can enjoy Laetitia's extreme violence and deplore Laetita for it, denying that Laetitia's violence is its own wish fulfillment, that she is only an image and they are the genuine human beings delighting in this violent spectacle and fantasy of violent reality. And again the opportunity to revel in the audience and Simon's shared benevolence is offered, as the viewer is invited to lament Laetitia's savagery but nobly extend understanding and forgiveness to her, a creature "of the system". This is the elusive, protean and indestructible emotional pseudo-logic of white supremacism.
Joy. This is the word bourgeois white fans in the culture industry (journalism, academia) use frequently to describe their experience of consuming this entertainment product. Many are at a loss to capture their feelings of elation, of inexpressible delight, in words. Obsessive attachment is plentifully in evidence, with many viewers experiencing a compulsion to reaffirm their devotion and acquire signs of their love to wear and carry. The institution of the fan club - where those needing to express their love for something which is impervious to their affection, indifferent to them, which not only cannot reciprocate their intensity but cannot take account of their existence or make any answering commitment, find consolation – has even been adapted by academic fans of the Wire, re-appearing fused with the academic conference and culture studies course. While other tv series have been the object of academic cults (Star Trek, Battlestar Galactica, Twin Peaks, The Sopranos, , Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Babylon Five among them), fanatics of the Wire are unusual for displaying a kind of Pauline urgency in the task of promoting the show as a revelation of long denied truth. These white fans, whether identifying as "right wing" or "left wing" or centrist like The New Republic, express their gratitude for what they perceive as the unvarnished truth at long last. After an age of lies and error, darkness is penetrated by The Light. No more "liberal" “politically correct” dogma preaching that “everyone is the same”. No more black Rhodes scholar spies, Presidents and doctors, lacking Authenticity. No more pandering to racist black audiences who want to blame a non-existent “white racism” for “black dysfunction”. One ("conservative") Wire fan arguing with another of different political commitments notes: “I did not get the liberal message from the Wire at all. Themes I saw: people in slums work hard at living so badly. If there's any Hope of Change, it has to come from blacks. There is nothing at all whites, even well-meaning whites can do. They don't seem able to adopt white culture, and are hostile when our mores are imposed on them.”
This conception of politically incorrect truth in crime dramedy soap operas harmonises perfectly with the resurgence, in "political theory" and "political philosophy", of race as an imputed affiliation entailing group credit and blame, achievement and crime, advancement and backwardness, and of the confident imperialist white supremacist beliefs (the pseudo-universalism of European bourgeois parochialism) it serves and is indispensible to. After a period, not of disappearance, but of downgrade, the hoary old routines are resurgent and present themselves as if they are perfectably respectable and intelligible. Again the mainstream media discourse and in fact that of academics includes the assertions a) that “the West” brought civilisation to savages, b) that the descendents of those savages, incompletely educated, manipulate the West and its white legatees into feeling guilty for the savage's own failure to be fully Westernised and Civilised and Modernised, c) that racism is produced exclusively by people of colour, and especially by black Americans, as an instrument of reparations scams and a tool to manipulate and persecute white folks who are the creators and bearers of civilisation these race scam artists cannot themselves master and which they must then denigrate out of sour grapes and seek to destroy.
Naturally we find Zizek at the forefront of this fashion, recuperating all the nonsensical, vacuous puppets and the imbecile fables ("the West" and its backward Other, "Third World terrorist violence", "European self-flagellation"), on the self-identified “radical left” of the political spectrum :
…[W]e white Leftist men and women are free to leave behind the politically correct process of endless self-torturing guilt. Although Pascal Bruckner's critique of contemporary Left often approaches the absurd, this does not prevent him from occasionally generating pertinent insights--one cannot but agree with him when he detects in European politically correct self-flagellation an inverted form of clinging to one's superiority. Whenever the West is attacked, its first reaction is not aggressive defence but self-probing: what did we do to deserve it? We are ultimately to be blamed for the evils of the world; Third World catastrophes and terrorist violence are merely reactions to our crimes. The positive form of the White Man's Burden (his responsibility for civilizing the colonized barbarians) is thus merely replaced by its negative form (the burden of the white man's guilt): if we can no longer be the benevolent masters of the Third World, we can at least be the privileged source of evil, patronizingly depriving others of responsibility for their fate (when a Third World country engages in terrible crimes, it is never fully its own responsibility, but always an after-effect of colonization: they are merely imitating what their colonial masters used to do, and so on):We need our miserabilist clichés about Africa, Asia, Latin America, in order to confirm the cliché of a predatory, deadly West. Our noisy stigmatizations only serve to mask the wounded self-love: we no longer make the law. Other cultures know it, and they continue to culpabilize us only to escape our judgments on them.
Perhaps the joy so many white intellectuals who also are attracted to screeds like this experience is mainly due to the way David Simon’s programme delivers “our judgements” on “them” without the least uncertainty regarding who is who (indeed, the point of referring to these teams as assumed is to fashion that white solidarity and strengthen the international white population's loyalty to the white ruling class) or the least hesitation on Simon’s part in assuming the position of guiltless, bourgeois capitalist Authority. Simon and Zizek both propose to their white fan bases the pleasure of a "ruthless critique" of them (Muslims, poor black Americans, etc.) seemingly justified by this figment of the preceding ruthless autocritique for which (Simon and Zizek insist) "the West" is so well deservedly famous and which therefore every white guy (as defined by the context - as Simon and Zizek would almost certainly each consider himself, but decidedly not one another, entirely white and of the Western We) is entitled to consider himself to have personally and individually accomplished.
Zizek goes on making explicit what he has only been hinting equivocally for decades, and as with Simon, the feature grounding his “analysis” of the status quo’s ills, and his suggestions for a cure, is the valorisation of some vaunted intellectual and cultural superiority possessed by “Europe” and “Europeans”, “The West” and the white people who participate by birthrght as well as loyalty in the creativity of these collective subjects – producing an elite of “smart guys” who are especially fit for governing - in opposition to the passive, imitative black folks who can only attain a partial participation in the spiritual achievements of Aryan civilisation if lucky enough to be enslaved and tutored by white Herrenvolk:
The West is thus caught in the typical superego predicament best rendered by Dostoyevsky's famous phrase from The Brothers Karamazov: 'Each of us is guilty before everyone for everyone, and I more than the others.' So the more the West confesses its crimes, the more it is made to feel culpable. This insight allows us also to detect a symmetric duplicity in the way certain Third World countries criticize the West:"
(These "certain Third World countries" are the equivalent of the Wire's "race hustlers".)
"if the West's continuous self-excoriation functions as a desperate attempt to re-assert our superiority, the true reason why some in the Third World hate and reject the West lies not with the colonizing past and its continuing effects but with the self-critical spirit which the West has displayed in renouncing this past, with its implicit call to others to practise the same self-critical approach: 'The West is not detested for its real faults, but for its attempt to amend them, because it was one of the first to try to tear itself out of its own bestiality, inviting the rest of the world to follow it.' The Western legacy is effectively not just that of (post)colonial imperialist domination, but also that of the self-critical examination of the violence and exploitation of the West itself brought to the Third World. The French colonized Haiti, but the French Revolution also provided the ideological foundation for the rebellion which liberated the slaves and established an independent Haiti; the process of decolonization was set in motion when the colonized nations demanded for themselves the same rights that the West took for itself. In short, one should never forget that the West supplied the very standards by which it (and its critics) measures its own critical past. We are dealing here with the dialectic of form and content: when colonial countries demand independence and enact a 'return to roots,' the very form of this return (that of an independent nation-state) is Western. In its very defeat (losing the colonies), the West thus wins, by imposing its social form on the other.
It is easy to see how The Wire can become so popular in a milieu dominated by this kind of hackneyed old malicious imbecility tricked out as radical contrarian daring political incorrectness and insight. The programme could be a graphic companion to Zizekian accounts of contemporary social relations and politics, dramatising the justification of this newly invigorated Hegelian white supremacist imperial apology, offering itself as data and analysis fused, a fictional narrative and image sequence that insists on being taken as proof – as evidence, as a simulacrum of reality so perfect it can take its place as object of journalism, science, sociology - of the very propagandistic themes and bogus propositions that same image sequence and narrative constitute and express. Of course, much of the orgasmic praise of The Wire programme from journalists is hype for the advertisers, but a devoted white audience does seem to be transported into ecstasies by Simon’s simulation of the “truth”, as if finally released from what Zizek and Sarkozy have condemned as their neurotic self-hatred. The viewers are released not only into the braincandy shop of Simon's sociology-by-stereotype and cliché, but unleashed into the wonderland of Zizekian historical illiteracy; these two love the simplest, stupidest, most unabashedly self-flattering myths, those that work best in the loud, hustling, pushy, cretinous genres of entertainment they favour. The ecstasy of this long-forbidden Truth, this anticapitalism of fools, consists in the usual manoeuvres of pseudo-critique, depicting the (unfortunate! lamented) “decline of the American empire" as a reversion to barbarism manifesting principally as black savagery, white decadence due to mingling and inappropriate challenge from the only partially and imperfectly (and bow-tie wearin’, grandma-escorting-ta meetin’ buffoonishly) civilised, and Oriental menace. A paper at the recent Leeds U Wireconference suggested that the Wire is beloved of the participants at the conference not for its actual sociological insight but because it is "a beguiling projection of sociological desire" offering fantasies of simplified historical reality populated by ideal figures (Omar, the liberal progressive fantasy of a stick up man). The ersatz Baltimore of The Wire may be adored for offering a substitute simulation reality which is devised to validate the simplistic psychological formulas and infantile idealist "theories" enjoying current academic fashion. But the intensity of some attachments suggests it is the even less wholesome sadistic sensational affirmations of white bourgeois male domination and the accompanying confirmations of the depravity and unfitness for self government of those who suffer most under the current arrangements that really sells.
 The incoherence here is so extreme one can easily miss it, though it is in Zizek's routine pattern of the feint. To an unprepared reader, anticipating rational argument striving for clarity, Zizek first appears to be praising Bruckner for his denunciation of the "Western" left for seeking to puff up the West's waning confidence in its own superiority with self-flagellation - that is, Bruckner accuses the left of being "the real racists" when they denounce imperialism because he claims they (whom Bruckner does not identify any more specifically than Zizek does, just "the left" with caricatured traits attributed) deny the periphery any agency and responsibility for their own misfortunes and situation. But then - Zizek's prose is like a perpetual garden path sentence - the reader is made to return to the beginning and re-parse the support for Bruckner's position because with the very same sentences with which SZ initially seemed to be seconding Bruckner's accusation Zizek is also, in a secondary strain of signification, affirming that this purported "self-flagellation" of the West, carried out by "the left", is in fact after all proof of the West's genuine and enduring superiority, and not evidence, as Bruckner sees it, of the left's (racist and inaccurate) fantasies of superiority. This is an excellent example of the Zizekian style, the baroque prevarication and indirection, the shiftiness, sleazy evasions. The "Western" left is presented, upfront, as contemptible. This judgement will stick no matter what changes the reason for this judgement goes through. It is contemptible, we are told, because of its guilt-ridden displays, contemptible and hypocritical for these shows of public penance (no need to be specific, just trust him, they happen) which conceal the left's racist confidence in its superiority. That is the left's dirty secret which it hides behind its superficial (condescending, patronising) solidarity and anti-imperialism - that it is just as certain of the white man's monopoly on creative power as the imperialists, if not moreso.
But in fact, it turns out, as the paraghraph develops, that in Zizek's view this racist confidence is fully justified, because the West really is superior, and does have that monopoly on creativity and invention, and the only despicable feature of the left's behaviour is revealed to be that they conceal their knowledge of this guiltily, as if it were something to be ashamed of, rather than flaunting it. The "self-flagellation", which is to be repudiated, is, once mocked, transformed retroactively into virtuous European autocritique and self-improvement. What is so despicable in the West's loathesome left (only) is proof of the genuine superiority of the Western ruling class which created the very culture and civilisation of such refinement, and with such an engine of progressive perfectibility within, in which such wrong headedness on the part of the hypocritical and patronising left can flourish and be transformed (pseudo-dialectically) from leftist vice to reactionary ruling class virtue.