Voyou Désœuvré

marlo_snoop1 A while back, I was flipping through the channels and came across a cop show with the now de rigeur shaky camerawork, which I assumed to be Law and Order or CSI (though I realized it wasn’t CSI from the lack of unwatchably saturated colors). But it turned out to be a repeat of Homicide: Life on the Streets. It was an interesting illustration of the way in which the signifiers of “realism” can so easily be appropriated by content that is anything but realistic.

Which is why, “realistic” though it may be, The Wire‘s brilliance doesn’t lie in a realism of form.Quite the contrary; The Wire frequently adopts self-consciously stagey or filmic tropes (the most obvious of these, of course, would be the Western elements that run throughout the portrayal of Omar). But the show is realist in another sense: as opposed to moralist. The show’s few missteps have occoured when an applied moral evaluation slipped in, such as the horrible screeching of gears in the fourth season when they attempted to shift Carcetti from a personally venal politician to a decent guy whose personal decency is politically irrelevant.

The other instance that has troubled me is the shift from the Barksdale organization to Marlo’s organization that is the underlying narrative of the later three seasons; Marlo’s strange emotional blankness, particularly when compared to the portrayal of Stringer Bell, always seemed to have a moralizing psychopathologization to it. But an aside in this paper on The Wire at Infinite Thought has me thinking of another possible explanation of this arc. Alberto and his co-author remark that:

The “postmodern institutions” [of the drug trade] are remarkably, well, Fordist, in the sense that, following Vincenzo Ruggiero’s suggestion, this “crime as work” depends on the classic capitalist division of labour between programming and execution – dramatised in the show by the seemingly infinite distance between leader of the gang, Avon Barksdale, and the ‘hoppers’ on the street.

Bodie's crew Now, this is true of the Barksdale organization, but I don’t think it is exactly true of Marlo’s operation. When the Barksdale organization disintegrates, the street level dealers who used to be part of the organization don’t end up working for Marlo, but as formally independent dealers who transfer money to Marlo in a variety of ways: as rent for the corners they work on, or, later, because they have to buy their drugs from him. Marlo’s organization is neoliberal in all kinds of ways, including the way in which, as with the neoliberal state, a decrease in size is accompanied by an increase in violence.


  1. Jonathan M, 12:05 am, April 22, 2009

    An interesting take on this switch of narratives can be found in Venkatesh’s Gang-Leader For a Day.

    In that you can see the generational distinction between the dealers who saw themselves as political activists and the younger gang leaders who saw themselves as entrepreneurs. Both groups claimed to be helping out the community but in truth it was always about shaping the community into a useful form (eg, getting the vote out practically by force in order to buy political capital for community leaders and then keeping the peace so as to ensure the steady flow of goods).

    You’re quite right that Marlo represents a next step. He imposes a post-modern and post-historical narrative upon the drug trade. He doesn’t talk about business in the way Bell did or about warfare as Barksdale did or even in terms of community and politics as previous generations might have, he talks about individuals. He has rivalries and obsessions with individual players in the game rather than systemic issues he needs to address.

    This reminds me quite a bit of In The Loop, the political comedy currently doing the rounds, as that presents a vision of politics that is entirely stripped of fact, of value or of ideology. It is all about individuals.

  2. aaron, 7:00 am, April 23, 2009

    This is interesting. I would mildly dissent from the claim that the show goes astray when it moralizes — I think it moralizes constantly, but we only notice its missteps — and maybe I’ll write something about that.

    I like the reading of Marlo as neoliberal, but I’m not sure you’re not setting up the Barksdale organization as a straw man here; in the same way that theorists of the “postmodern” always seem to have to invent a “modernism” stripped of all its constitutive complexity to make the contrast with the post- all the more clear, it seems to me that Marlo only builds on techniques and tendencies that were already part of the Barksdale organization. Marlo makes no pretenses about having any responsibility of the drug dealers beneath him, but when the Barksdale crew pretended to take responsibility for *their* people, it was ultimately just that, a pretense. This is why the D’Angelo narrative runs through the entire first three seasons: a reminder that employees of the Barksdale crew are ultimately disposable labor, and that the system ultimately runs on violence first and foremost.

    As for the amazing blankness of Marlo, I go back and forth on it. I think it partially reflects a certain pessimistism of the show’s creators, but part of the point, I think, it that he’s fundamentally a character without desires, except the desire for constant expansion (and, as such, represents the perfect capitalist: consuming nothing, capitalizing everything).

  3. The Trap, The Wire and The Loop : Individualism as a Political Force | Ruthless Culture, 5:47 am, October 20, 2013

    […] Model but also by the deconstructionist idea that viewpoints are never what they appear to be.  In an interesting post,  Voyou  references this paper by Kinkle and Toscano and presents Marlo Stansfield not as someone […]

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