Thursday, November 19, 2009

Evolution of a Gag

The meritocratic feminist society which allows Keaton's character to rise to her proper place in the corporate workplace has left the traditional woman's work of childcare to defectives. Social progress toward equality has evidently eliminated Mammy as well, while Bubbie belongs to an alternative New York. Baby Boom did not invent but greatly popularised this gimmick of the parade of caricatures presented to the audience positioned in the point of view of the protagonist. Spike Lee's first film She's Gotta Have It made famous use of this with a parade of "dawgs". Below, a later example which developed, in a critical way, the implications of the "series" as form in which a crowd, community, or population is presented.

Usually, however, as in Baby Boom, the gag is reactionary:

The Wire- "Kunta Kinte, yabba dabba dabba do"
envoyé par Ridwan_Osman. - Regardez plus de vidéos comiques.

The writer/director aiming at pleasing a white middle class audience who thinks of itself as enlightened and cosmopolitan cannot in his own voice pour contempt on people just because they don't speak English. In his own voice, directly, he cannot just find Chinese and Indian speech ridiculous. But The Wire finds a way to deliver that forbidden pleasure to the audience (and to teach a new generation the imperialist, white supremacist codes and topoi) complete with a license. The white anglophone audience's shameful desires which the white writer/director seeks to stimulate are systematically gratified by this programme with the same alibi: the white writer/director and audience are merely innocent witnesses to the truth of black behaviour (violence, criminality, vulgarity, homophobia, corruption, misogyny, and of course above all, racism).

In this scene above, as is typical of the series, the white writer/director and the audience do not seem to be responsible for the idiotic parochialism, contemptuousness and sneering of which the scene is wholly composed. The frustration of Americans (and British) with inferiors who do not speak their language is a familiar comic routine whose ideology has been exposed for some time now, but this favourite old exchange between white author and the white audience specifically addressed appears to be imposed on both by some reality beyond their control. The ridiculous Orientals themselves are responsible for this familiar scene and the recognisable types of ridiculous Orientals they are, pretending not to speak English, inventing themselves as ridiculous Orientals but as a ruse to further the genuinely nefarious global Oriental purposes of their truly fiendishly wicked and ruthless Oriental masters which include the importation of the harem of "white slaves" who arrive by sea draculesquely as corpses in a container, to dramatically announce the landing in Baltimore of the Swarthy Oriental Conspiracy of Villainy that is Simon's vision of "raw unencumbered" (uncivilised) global capital.

As the depiction or revelation of the nature of Oriental childish buffonishness, murderous patriarchal misogyny, and snarling evil is attributed to the Orientals themselves rather than to the white author who provides these visions for a white audience directly addressed as white, the contemptuous enjoyment of the ridiculous comical Oriental servants of the mysterious, sinister Oriental villains is also displaced. Surrogates for the white creator and consumer of this thousandth (and most vacuous and simpleminded) replay of an ancient gag are provided in the racist black cops whose point of view on the ridiculous incomprehensible Orientals is adopted. These Orientals are not ridiculous because David Simon wishes them to be in the assumption his principally anglophone white audience enjoys seeing such figures demeaned and debased, the scene suggests, but because the clownish black cops enjoy demeaning and debasing them. And the black cops appear as ridiculous foul-mouthed xenophobe hicks, the audience is to understand, because David Simon is constrained to tell the truth (morally, professionally and aesthetically obliged to verisimilitude) even in the face of political correctness terrorists.

The black cops act as blinds behind which the writer/director and audience may conceal themselves, but - comical, typed and raced themselves - they are simultaneously offered to the audience as additional objects of the white creatives' and the white audience's contempt and scorn (it is their mugging reaction to the sound of Chinese and Arabic, not the sound of Chinese and Arabic directly, at which the audience is invited to laugh or to believe it is laughing) even while the effects of their contemptible and unenlightened minstrel-act conduct toward the incomprehensible and risible Orientals are enjoyed with impunity. The black cops take responsibility for the old racist joke the white writer director is telling his anglophone white audience and which they may desire and enjoy. But the black cops are not only the ideological factotums for the writer/director and audience's disavowed supremacist pleasure, staring and cussing in David Simon-and-fans' other-loathing, other-ridiculing stead; their taking on this role gives the white audience the additional thrill of a sense of superiority to the black proxies of their contempt, (see who are the real racists!* still racists, incorrigibly backward, not caught up with the advanced tolerant white folks) and the yet further delight of unchallenged mastery, of seeing the black cops used with such authorial entitlement as representations and figures of Simon's own (and his targeted audience's own) 'dark side' and unenlightened barbarism even while these black characters are deployed as spectral slaves carrying out the sadistic wishes of audience and creator.

The form is a kind of narrative false flag operation. Again and again, black cops and black criminals - about whom he is obliged as an artist for HBO to be brutally truthful and pull no punches however it hurts him -are the disguise the white writer director adopts to gratify his own and his audience's fantasies of humiliating, torturing, maiming, terrorising and murdering black people, while the genuine agency behind this spectacle - creators and consumers - comfortably adopt the pose of bystanders and concerned witnesses who are present out of a sense of duty. The pleasure of being able to blame the black cops for the imbecile Orientalism of the scene rather than having to be grateful to them for their carrying out of the writer/director and audience's abusive impulses is the most refined enjoyment of cultural and ideological white supremacy. The writer/director's infantile cliché racism, which can produce nothing more clever than the rehashing of a decades old gag scene the content of which is confined to "discovering" the supposedly hilarious sound of Asian and African languages and the modern "dialect" minstrelism "English muthafucka!" (as elsewhere "be civilised muthafucka!" and "mind yo language muthafucka!"), is displaced onto black surrogates whom the audience is invited to scorn even while enjoying the spectacle of their racist abuse which confirms the abjection of others.

As throughout the series, the feel of the scene is less of a television drama than a videogame simulation. The actors seem less to be playing characters who might say these lines or behave this way than avatars through whom the game player Simon and the imaginary game player proxy for the audience, are saying and doing, re-creating and repeating familiar scenes and stock moments.

In their apparently side-splittingly "ironic" display of scorn for those who cannot speak a civilised language, the black cop avatars are made to perform for the audience another familiar, favorite cliché: black men's absurd attempts to behave properly in roles more appropriate for white men - to wield authority and embody mature adulthood. Filling these roles with dignity and competence is so beyond the black cops' capacities, they can produce only a risible inarticulate parody even of the racism of their character-ancestor figures and types. "Kunta Kinte yabba dabba dabba do", spoken hesitantly (clearly Wendell Pierce did not like this scene), is a pitiable imitation of the creative verbality of a long line of racist cops and other characters of that class in cinema and television. It is noticeably a Buffy-style snip of dialogue, a television character's mechanical quotation of other television shows he is presumed to have seen (though he has probably not seen earlier episodes of The Wire) passing for "realistic" human speech. There is no convincing illusion that "Bunk" is a "character" in the standard mimetic sense who might say such a thing to another character, a Swahili-speaking African merchant seaman (the celebrated verisimilitude of the show is left behind often for these formula comic intermezzi); rather "Bunk" appears barely disguised as a game avatar through whom Simon delivers this line indirectly to the audience, confidentially, (the sailor to whom the remark is directed is presumed not to get the references to Roots, Coming to America and The Flintstones, the audience does) as d'Angelo is an avatar through whom Simon delivers remarks about chess which evidently the speaker's on-screen companions do not understand while the audience is presumed to comprehened and to enjoy the "secret" communication, the simply coded communion with the white author speaking from behind the black thug mask, from behind the blackface, a code incredibly simple but still too complicated for the black thugs to catch on to, out in the open. "Kunta Kinte, yabba dabba dabba do"... The white writer even displaces his own talent-less-ness, his lack of wit, his crassness and unoriginality, onto his black surrogate(s).

*In another scene in the series, Bunk, the Wendell Pierce character, makes a prejudiced remark disparaging Greeks. His white partner, enlightened cosmopolitan, scolds him: "Lay off the Greeks, they invented civilisation," to which he, black parochial xenophobe and homophobe, replies " - and ass fucking."

Rona Barrett's show, 1981:


  1. Anonymous7:32 AM

    You missed the point of the Wire scene, bending as you were toward a racialist argument.

    What we come to understand is that the frustration of the detectives comes from the fact that we know that many of the seaman on that ship ARE bilingual. In a subsequent scene, when one is called in English by Det. Moreland, he turns around without thinking. They are fronting that they don't know enough English because they do not wish to cooperate in the murder investigation. You conveniently avoided that precise context to pursue your mischaracterization of the Wire, its intentions and its writers.

    Secondly, have you ever heard of the phrase "unreliable narrator"? It is a fundamental of much modern narrative to have a POV reside with a character who is definitively flawed at points, ergo their POV is flawed.

    These are two African-Americans with experience only policing an American city. For the first time in their professional lives, they find themselves thwarted by an international context, and they react with typically centric and jingoistic frustration. Is that not a more accurate read of what two Baltimore detectives might do? Or should literature not serve as a description of reality, but as validation for political and cultural points of view that you happen to hold dear. Nothing in the scene -- nothing -- suggests that the writers were unaware of the self-centered, xenophonic tone of the characters. But it was real. It would have happened that way. If you know anything about big-city American policing, you'd certainly know it was an accurate depiction -- moreso than two detectives responding without frustration, and with culturally sensitive overtones.

    In other words, your essay is, frankly, ridiculously unsupported by anything other than your desire that wrong-headed behavior on the part of fictional characters never exist. Which is not the point or art or literature or narrative.

  2. Anonymous9:27 AM

    "What we come to understand is that the frustration of the detectives comes from the fact that we know that many of the seaman on that ship ARE bilingual. "

    what you have missed evidently is the first point in the post which is that the Orientals are playing stupid Orientals, they have concocted these types, pretending not to speak English, and in this way they are made to seem responsible for the scene which david simon offers to his audience for their delight.

    perhaps you should read the post, and then perhaps reply if you still have something to say. and if there's anything you still don't understand, do ask.

  3. "moreso than two detectives responding without frustration, and with culturally sensitive overtones."

    and no doubt even more accurate than two detectives transforming into giant beetles and dancing a polka. Which is what usually happens in interrogation scenes on television. Just for breaking with the standard police detectives into giant beetles metamorphosis, the show deserves applause.

  4. Anonymous3:12 PM

    " mischaracterization of the Wire, its intentions and its writers."

    Re: the intentions of the writers. These are writers whose intentions are not disguised – among the many white supremacist myths they affirm with their “realistic” shootemup dramedy soap, they depict a black male child of 13 as a cold blooded killer, committing first degree murder in broad daylight in a convenience store. This is as "real" as would be a depiction of Maurice Levy and his hook nosed wife drinking the blood of Christian babies at Passover. Not all of the show is as extreme as that; it is generally more Moynihanist in outlook. But Simon has not been reticent about his worldview, and his theory of genuine white superiority accounting for existing hierarchies of wealth:

    To state our case, The Wire began as a story wedged between two American myths. The first tells us that in this country, if you are smarter than the next man, if you are shrewd or frugal or visionary, if you build a better mousetrap, if you get there first with the best idea, you will succeed beyond your wildest imaginations. And by virtue of free-market processes, it is entirely fair to say that this myth, more than ever, happens to be true. Not only is this accurate in America, but throughout the West and in many emerging nations as well. Every day, a new millionaire or three is surely christened. Or ten. Or twenty.

    But a supporting myth has also presided, and it serves as ballast against the unencumbered capitalism that has emerged triumphant, asserting as it does for individual achievement to the exclusion of all societal responsibility, and declaring for the amassed fortune of the wise and fortunate among us. In America, we once liked to tell ourselves, those who are not clever or visionary, who do not build better mousetraps, have a place held for them nonetheless.

    Poverty, Simon explains - the poverty his show depicts afflicting black people exclusively - is the lot of the intellectually inferior. Alas, once upon a time - in the antebellum paradise one supposes - even these simpleminded people who are not fit to compete with those “smarter than than next man” (like Simon) were cared for and give "a place" (this is not a word without connotations for the history of black America). Today, the poverty of the inferiors is more painful than in those days when everyone had a place, and was in it, since the superiors have been stripped of their power to be caretakers by the uppity inferiors who do not accept the “place” the American meritocracy assigns them, and keep striving for higher places then they merit, causing the decline of a great empire and civilisation. Naturally, Simon and his fans like to express this reversion to barbarism by labelling a majority black American city a “dark corner of the American experiment”, a phrase all the fans seem to relish and treat as requiring no (or supporting no) explicit explanation.


  5. Anonymous3:13 PM

    The show’s many right wing fans have little trouble understanding it’s vision, noting that “the writers do occasionally skewer politically correct attitudes- almost all allegations of racism are baseless for example, in fact Carcetti the mayor is forced to keep an incompetent black police chief in place because the only competent suitably qualified alternative is white.” Another commenter agreed: “RWF - good point about Carcetti and the black police chief. In fact one contribution The Wire makes is that "white racism" is never depicted as the cause of black dysfunction, it's shown as just one fact of life and usually irrelevant to black life on a daily basis. Black politicians and church leaders are shown clearly benefiting from the dysfunction in the ghetto. Clay Davis is as honest a depiction of a race hustler as you'll ever see on TV. A guy like "Herc", a white cop who clearly holds some "racist" views, would be depicted on most cop shows as a stereotypical racist redneck, but the show gives him some depth and a sympathetic side, and most importantly does so with Herc ever "learning a valuable lesson". Herc's friendship with his black partner doesn't seem to alter his outlook on ghetto inhabitants the way it would on a network show. Criticize if you must, but we've come a long way from the PC outlook of Hill Street Blues.” Lots of resentful white people like this programme because it dramatises the sentiment those resentful white men who consider themselves “of the left” are delighting in from Slavoj Zizek: “We white leftist men and women are free to leave behind the politically correct process of endless self-torturing guilt.” Others note Simon’s brave rejection of the constraints on political correctness which might have discouraged meeker others from the explicit condemnation of the inhuman, subhuman, nonhuman character of the inhabitants of “the ghetto”, praising him for writing: “But in one rowhouse on Newington Avenue, two dozen human beings have learned to leave food where it falls, to pile soiled clothes and diapers in a corner of the room, to lie strangely still when parasites crawl across the sheets, to empty a bottle of Mad Dog or T-Bird and then piss its contents into a plastic bag at the edge of the bed, to regard a bathroom cleaning product and a plastic bag as an evening's entertainment. Historians note that when the victims of the Nazi holocaust heard that the Allied armies were within a few miles of liberating the camps, some returned to scrub and sweep the barracks and show the world that human beings lived there. But on Newington Avenue the rubicons of human existence have all been crossed. The struggle itself has been mocked, and the unconditional surrender of one generation presses hard upon the next.” (from Homocide) And the New Republic is blunt about the anti-black racism the show provokes and promotes, associating blackness with scariness so that President Obama must be seen by white Americans as associated, through his blackness, with the scariness of the Wire’s ‘characters’; “Where racially nervous whites might look at Obama and think of some scary African American they saw on "The Wire," they'd look at Jindal and think of that nice young internist who took care of them while the family doctor was on vacation in Boca.”

    It is instructive to compare The Wire to the sources from which it derives (it is a patchwork of rip-offs really), which are principally Greg Donaldson's 1994 book The Ville, (promoted in Baltimore's press with this interview) and the film Fresh. These basically progressive works, one journalism, one fiction, are stripped for parts which are reassembled by David Simon with sincerity and comprehension eliminated and replaced by cheap gimmicks and larded with a cheesy minstrel show sensibility and varnished with a general fraudulence.

    1. Anonymous12:52 PM

      Molly, why did you make a sockpuppet to comment on a post you yourself wrote

  6. Anonymous3:18 PM

    The Ville

  7. Christo5:02 PM

    Have you seen this Qlipoth?

    I thought of your posts when I saw it.

  8. Anonymous5:28 AM

    thanks Christo - was very funny.