Baltimore as World and Representation: Cognitive Mapping and Capitalism in The Wire


If the Gods are fucking you, you find a way to fuck them back.

- Commissioner Burrell

Academics? What, they gonna study your study?

- Howard ‘Bunny’ Colvin to Dr. David Parenti, U. of Maryland sociologist studying young violent offenders in Baltimore

They gonna tear this building down and they’re gonna build some new shit – but people? They don’t give a fuck about people.

- Preston ‘Bodie’ Broadus

Baltimore all I know. Man gotta live what he know.

- Omar Little

The capitalist city is the arena of the most intense social and political confusions at the same time as it is a monumental testimony to and a moving force within the dialectics of capitalism’s uneven development. How to penetrate the mystery, unravel the confusions, and grasp the contradictions?

- David Harvey, The Urban Experience

Are there cultural or aesthetic forms adequate to analysing, evoking or mapping the dynamics of the contemporary uneven and combined geographical development of capitalism? Is ‘representation’ a suitable concept to grasp the critical and clinical acumen, so to speak, of such forms? This paper seeks to broach these questions by taking as its object the HBO TV series The Wire (2002-8). Despite a lack of recognition in terms of awards and ratings, The Wire has been the recipient of considerable critical acclaim, as well as scholarly and journalistic scrutiny. Set in inner-city Baltimore, that ‘dark corner of the American experiment’ (Simon) – the 20th largest city in the States with the second highest homicide rate in 2006 – The Wire is most superficially classifiable as a police procedural or crime drama. The show’s five seasons depict the city in remarkable breadth and depth. While the first season largely revolves around the drug trade, subsequent seasons expand the scope of the show to cover de-industrialisation, city hall, the school system, and the media. Each of these ‘worlds’ is mapped both vertically (making explicit internal hierarchies) and horizontally (tracking their interaction with the other ‘worlds’ spread throughout the city). For example, within the world of the drug dealers the show goes from the look out kids all the way up to the heads of each drug gang and then even to the suppliers. Within the police force we go from the snitch, the police on the beat, all the way up to the chief of police. This is repeated with in each world. Then we are also able to see how each world affects the ones around it. How the evaporation of working class jobs leads young men into the drug trade, how the kids of addicts and dealers cope at school, how city hall leans on the police force to employ meaningless policies (in terms of actual crime reduction) in order to ‘cook the books’, etc. The show descends into the hidden abode of street-level drug distribution, not to merely depict the violence and hopelessness that exist in these neighbourhoods, but to expose their complex organisation and their hostile yet symbiotic relationship with the state and neoliberal institutions.

While for a show like CSI technology is the real protagonist, in The Wire it is the urban fabric itself: the city is the critical prism through which to explore the vicissitudes of what The Wire’s creator, David Simon, has called ‘raw, unencumbered capitalism’. The themes of relentless devaluation, dispossession and decline are writ large. As Simon confessed to The New Yorker: ‘Every single moment on the planet, from here on out, human beings are worth less. We are in a post-industrial age. We don’t need as many of us as we once did. So, if the first season was about devaluing the cops who knew their beats and the corner boys slinging drugs, then the second was about devaluing the longshoremen and their labour, the third about people who wanted to make changes in the city, and the fourth was about kids who were being prepared, badly, for an economy that no longer really needs them. And the fifth? It’s about the people who are supposed to be monitoring all this and sounding the alarm—the journalists.’ Simon himself, ironically tipping his hat to Chomsky and Toynbee, has portrayed the show as a study of ‘the decline of the American empire’. In his words, The Wire ‘is perhaps the only storytelling on television that overtly suggests that our political and economic and social constructs are no longer viable, that our leadership has failed us relentlessly, and that no, we are not going to be all right’.

Critics have compared the series to the great Victorian novel in its attention to detail, realism, sophisticated character development, and focus on urban depravation (‘Dickensian’ is a common adjective and one which the show appears to mock in season 5). Dickens and works like Balzac’s La Comédie Humaine or Zola’s Les Rougon-Macquart can certainly be seen as influences on a show where the term ‘novel television’ is appropriate. Stylistically The Wire has much in common with Italian neo-realism. For example, its so-called ‘style-less’ style: lack of non-diegetic sound, unobtrusive camera, etc. And also its utilisation of non-professionals for many roles and overall lack of recognisable actors, its use of conventional speech, the loose, episodic structure rather than a tight, neatly plotted narrative, and use of actual locations. For American television, and detective series in particular, The Wire has an extraordinarily open narrative structure. Not only are many scenes superfluous to the main narrative, it is difficult to ascertain what the main narrative actually is. The various plot lines have only mild resolution and the fate of many characters is unascertainable. While traditional narrative locates causal agency at the level of individual characters, in The Wire the weight of the system, which we could perhaps cursorily define as late capitalism and its institutions, assumes causal agency as an antagonist. The show’s characters are not only constantly constrained by the system, but are constantly interacting with it. When individual characters do show blatant disregard for the system, for example McNulty in season five, the immensity of their task and the weight on their shoulders is palpable (perhaps the reason why McNulty is the closest thing the show has to a protagonist is because of this aspect of his personality: we are constantly reminded how his persistent attempt to wrench agency from the system makes it impossible for him to maintain a family, drives him to alcoholism, etc.).


While the show is as polemical and instructive as we have so far made it sound, it is also addictively absorbing over its five seasons and as well acted and written as anything on television. The hype surrounding the show is immense with Obama announcing it as his favourite show (and the homosexual drug-dealer-robbing [so-called homo-thug] Omar as his favourite character). Meanwhile the New York Post has called it ‘the single finest piece of work every produced for American TV’ and Charlie Brooker of The Guardian claims, ‘it’s the best TV show since the invention of radio.’ But in what sense is the passionate praise garnered by The Wire a testament to its capacity to map capitalist reality with potency and precision and what precisely is meant by terms like devaluation and decline? The difficulty in approaching the show with these questions in mind is that it demands a certain degree of disaggregation, allowing us to consider at one and the same time the ideological parameters of a show which is openly didactic (in the best sense of the term), but whose formal contribution might not be entirely flush with its aims. In other words, we want to hold together, and if need be in tension, the ‘picture’ of the urbanisation of capital wilfully projected by The Wire with a broader reflection on the aesthetic and epistemic challenges of ‘mapping’ or ‘representing’ the contemporary capitalist world.

In a text from 1988, Fredric Jameson argues for the necessary emergence of what he calls ‘an aesthetics of cognitive mapping’: an aesthetic adequate to the highly ambitious – and he suggests ultimately impossible – task of depicting both social space in our historical moment – then described as late capitalism or postmodernity – and the totality of class relations on a global scale: what Jameson calls ‘a cartography of the absolute’. This notion of cognitive mapping builds on Kevin Lynch’s book from 1960, The Image of the City, and Jameson argues that an inability to cognitively map the contours of the world system is as debilitating politically as being unable to mentally map a city would be for a city dweller. The works that would emerge under the banner of this aesthetic would allow individual subjects and collectivities to understand their local situation in a globalised world: ‘to enable a situational representation on part of the individual subject to that vaster and properly unrepresentable totality which is the ensemble of society’s structures as a whole.’ While the works emerging under the aesthetic of cognitive mapping would not merely be didactic or pedagogical, they would necessarily also be didactic or pedagogical. While Jameson’s text remained speculative, as he claimed that no such works had yet been produced and that he could not even imagine what their formal characteristics might be, The Wire can be understood as one the most cogent attempts at producing a work classifiable under such an aesthetic.

Brian Holmes has written that ‘the major intellectual project of the worldwide Left in the 1990s was to map out the political economy of neoliberal capitalism, which had literally produced a new geography’. In recent years culture seems to have caught up and a number of works have emerged that map the contours of the contemporary world. In the fine arts everything from the arcs of Mark Lombardi’s diagrams of the ‘overworld’ (for example George W Bush, Harken Energy and Jackson Stephens, 1999)to Steve McQueen’s Gravesend (2007),velez12-14-07-5 which traces the production and use of coltan in manufacturing, can be seen as exemplary. In the cinema, Hollywood productions like Syriana, Traffic, and Lord of War track specific commodities (oil, cocaine, and weapons respectively) on their journeys through various networks and locations throughout the world system. All of these works are thoroughly international (Lombardi’s graphs show the relations between Texas oil men, DC lobbyists, and the Saudi royal family, for example; Gravesend extends from a high-tech factory on the banks of the Thames to miners in the Congo; and these Hollywood films each feature scenes and plot lines on different continents) and focus on the links – both symbiotic and parasitic – between culturally and geographically distant locations and hierarchies.


In The Wire, on the other hand, the action takes place almost completely in greater Baltimore (primarily West Baltimore). A tremendous amount of attention is paid to the regional dialects, slang, and music subcultures like Baltimore Club and local hip hop (all diegetic, for example playing in an SUV, while two characters are driving and talking. Knowledge of the local music scene is even at one point used as criteria by one of the drug gangs to identify dealers from New York). There are very few scenes that take place outside of Baltimore, and almost all of these depict the Baltimorean out of their element. The scene where the drug dealer Bodie is travelling to pick up a ‘package’ in Philadelphia and doesn’t understand why the Baltimore hip hop station he is listening to is fading out as he has never been out of its range (ends up listening to Garrison Keiller’s A Prairie Home Companion, Ebb Tide, Season 2, episode 1), is one of many that demonstrate for most of the characters involved the city-limits of Baltimore represent the boundaries of their world. This also extends to the elites as we see the inability of Baltimore’s mayor to get a meeting with Maryland’s governor in Annapolis.


With its attachment to a single location The Wire is perhaps most comparable to Hubert Sauper’s harrowing documentary Darwin’s Nightmare (2004), which takes the Nile perch industry on the coast of Lake Victoria in Tanzania as its starting point to depict a broad cross-section of the coastal region’s inhabitants via the network surrounding Nile perch: from fisherman to street kids who smoke the fish’s packaging, from a woman who picks through the rotting fish carcasses at the dump trying to find some suitable for frying and sale at the local market to the Ukrainian pilots who fly the fish to the EU in their beat-up cargo plains all the way to the EU bureaucrats who give the fish processing plant a stamp of approval. The Wire similarly starts with a murder case, which turns into a larger narcotics investigation, and eventually expands to include different concentric and overlapping circles of Baltimore and its institutions.

Simon himself has referred to the series as a single sixty-six hour movie (There is definitely a sense in which The Wire is barely a television series. While it may have been produced an originally aired as such, an argument could probably be made that its liminal status in terms of both genre and platform coincides with changes in the broadcast mode of television. We literally know of no one, and we both know many people who have seen the show in its entirety, who watched it on television when broadcast.). Single episodes have zero autonomy and the show is much better suited to being watched intensely over several days rather than an hour a week for several months. The sheer length of the show allows for a depth that other ‘cognitive mapping’ films cannot possibly approach and it allows it to move away from an anthropomorphic narrative centred upon the trials and tribulations of a single character. Instead of plot gimmicks that allow the show to investigate certain relationships (Drug Czar’s daughter becomes a crack whore in Traffic, an economic pundit is able to gain access to oil elites only after his son is electrocuted in a Saudi Prince’s swimming pool in Syriana), the serial format allows The Wire to both map the city space to an extent unimaginable in other tele-visual formats (despite being ‘always already incomplete’ as John Kraniauskas puts it [27]).

Before delving into the show’s treatment of the contemporary capitalist city, and the problems it raises for a consideration of the aesthetic challenges posed by the accumulation and reproduction of capital, it is worth considering the kind of city that The Wire is preoccupied with. Loïc Wacquant’s recent Urban Outcasts provides a useful starting point. Wacquant, taking Chicago as his object, tries to look behind the ‘lunar landscape’ of deindustrialised and deproletarianised US black ‘inner cities’, those ‘districts of dereliction’ that have been plagued by drugs, violence, and poverty ever since the riots of the 1960s. He writes of the shift in the 1970s from the colour line of the ‘communal ghetto’ to the class-race line of the ‘hyperghetto’, ‘a novel, decentred, territorial and organizational configuration characterized by conjugated segregation on the basis of race and class in the context of the double retrenchment of the labour market and the welfare state from the urban core, necessitating and eliciting the corresponding deployment of an intrusive and omnipresent police and penal apparatus’ (Wacquant 2008: 3). This is the landscape of ‘advanced marginality’, which Simon and his writing partner Ed Burns had already dramatised, from the standpoint of drug use and the ‘petty entrepreneurialism’ which orbits around it, in the book and TV mini-series The Corner. Wacquant’s thesis about the sources of advanced marginality is interesting, and worth considering in light of the question of The Wire’s depiction and critique of capitalism and its attention to the specifically political dimension of the city in Series 3: ‘The implosion of America’s dark ghetto and its flooding by extreme marginality turn out to be economically underdetermined and politically overdetermined: properly diagnosed, hyperghettoization is primarily a chapter in political sociology, not postindustrial economics, racial demography or urban geography’ (4). In other words, key for Wacquant is the ‘triage’ and ‘planned shrinkage’ undergone by US cities at the hands of political operators, not simply a systemic process (and certainly not the psychological propensities of a putative ‘underclass’). The post-1960 ‘brutal implosion’ of the Black American ghetto is propelled from outside ‘by the confluence of the decentring of the national political system, the crumbling of the caste regime, the restructuring of urban capitalism, and the policy of social regression of the federal government set against the backdrop of the continued ostracization of African Americans’ (9). Where Wacquant’s take dovetails with Simon is in viewing a racialised deproletarianisation as crucial. In one of the episodes in Series 1 some of the young dealers discuss the possibilities of entrepreneurship and betterment in the ‘normal’ economy in a comical conversation about the brilliance of the McNugget, and the huge profits it must have generated. One of them retorts that the guy who invented the McNugget is still working in the basement of McDonald’s, ‘nigga still working a minimum wage’.

As Simon’s quote above about the rationale behind the five series suggests, the ideological positioning of the show is not hard to glean, and could be encapsulated as a kind of labourist social critique, infused by a dose of nostalgia for the Fordist compact. From this vantage point, it is not so difficult to read The Wire, in Simon’s words, as ‘a political tract masquerading as a cop show’ (talk at UCSC). As he remarks about the second season, a multi-dimensional study of the grinding downsizing of the Baltimore docks and their articulation with global flows of criminal capital, the show is concerned with ‘what happened in this country when we stopped making shit and building shit, what happened to all the people who were doing that’. As David Harvey, Marxist geographer and long-time resident of Baltimore indicates, the city lost two-thirds of its manufacturing employment after 1960 (whence his judgment on the city’s predicament in Spaces of Hope: ‘Baltimore is, for the most part, a mess. Not the kind of enchanting mess that makes cities such interesting places to explore, but an awful mess’). This is a development wistfully noted in the show when McNulty, the maverick detective who is the closest the show comes to a protagonist, having been demoted to work on the harbour police, reminisces with his partner as they cross the bay about how both their fathers were laid off from their jobs in factories in the mid-seventies. The Wire in this sense has a lot in common with a nostalgic valorisation of the moral economy of work and craft (present, for instance, in the influential works of Richard Sennett), and bears a kinship – albeit in the mode of bitter mourning – with the ‘labouring of American culture’ studied by Michael Denning with regards to Popular Front art in the US of the 1930s and 1940s. This theme of the end of ‘real’ labour, and its substitution by the vicious entrepreneurialism of neoliberal work (the drug trade) and informal economies of survival and expediency, is intimately linked to that of ‘unencumbered’ capitalism.


Despite the suggestion that Simon might be, in the words of Entertainment Weekly’s TV critic ‘the most brilliant Marxist to run a TV show’ (Simon himself often disavows any such allegiances: ‘You’re not looking at a Marxist here’ he quips at a talk), the show’s Weltanschauung far more closely approximates Karl Polanyi’s seminal critique of the devastating effects of ‘disembedding’ at the hands of so-called self-regulated markets. In The Great Transformation, Polanyi argues that ‘the control of the economic system by the market is of overwhelming consequence to the whole organization of society: it means no less than the running of society as an adjunct to the market. Instead of economy being embedded in social relations, social relations are embedded in the economic system’. Accordingly, in Fred Block’s gloss, ‘a fully self-regulating market economy requires that human beings and the natural environment be turned into pure commodities, which assures the destruction of both society and the natural environment’. The echoes with Simon’s declaration that ‘pure capitalism is not a social policy’ are strong. Note also the symptomatic definition of capitalism as oligarchic, as when Simon speaks of ‘This money-obsessed oligarchy that we call the United States of America’. At the same time there is a ‘workerist’ sense in which the class struggle remains, even in its putative absence, an epistemic lens which allows one to understand the transformations of the American city. As he remarked in a talk at UCSC: ‘When capitalism triumphs labour is inherently worth less. … It would seem that the battle has been finally won by capital’. The lack of any proletarian revolutionary subject and the depiction of the working class that continues to exist after its supposed disappearance is the frame through which the series, particularly in season 2, approaches the dynamics of the world system. Indeed, as Jameson writes, ‘successful spatial representation today need not be some uplifting socialist-realist drama of revolutionary triumph but may be equally inscribed in a narrative of defeat, which sometimes, even more effectively, causes the whole architectonic of postmodern global space to rise up in ghostly profile behind itself, as some ultimate dialectical barrier or invisible limit’ (352-3).


While the logic of capital is constantly pullulating under the surface of the show’s narrative, The Wire also adroitly portrays the really existing neoliberal city in a manner that shows how often capitalist efficiency is encumbered by everything from election cycles and black ministers associations to nepotism, palace politics, and the conservatism of the silent majority. In the words of Harvey (borrowing from Arrighi), it dramatises on the city-level the dialectical relation between the territorial and capitalist logics of power. Given the meticulous manner in which The Wire uses the dramatic and technical conceit of ‘the wire’ to detect and track the functioning of what Simon calls ‘postmodern institutions’ (the Barksdale operation, the dying unions, the police department, City Hall, the school system), it is perhaps not surprising that some have regarded the show as a critique of bureaucracies, rather than of capitalism as such, and indeed even as providing an unintended argument for the superiority of ‘pure’ markets over institutions in terms of distribution and fairness. As one commentator notes: ‘it seems irrefutable that Mr. Simon never uses The Wire to argue that capitalism is in fact the problem, whether or not that’s his presupposition … Milton Friedman could hardly object to The Wire‘s searing portrayals of drug policy, government bureaucracies, political corruption, unions, black markets and failing schools’. The claim that The Wire isn’t a critique of capitalism poses an interesting challenge, which we hope to answer on a number of levels.

An initial question might be: What does it mean to ‘represent’ capitalism – or perhaps more precisely capital – in such a way that it can be critiqued? Several recent films have tried to rend the veil of contemporary capitalism. What is symptomatic is that in so many of them the passage from the social relations between things to the relations between people takes the guise of fantasies of conspiracy. In films like Michael Clayton (2007, emblematic in this genre) it is as if the incapacity to tackle the role of abstract domination and systemic violence in capitalism, its structural ‘evil’ as it were, leads to positing real scenes of violence and sinister plots, i.e. a kind of diabolical evil, to quote Kant, at its core. Fetishism is thus countered by fantasy, as though the absence of malicious agency in a machine that wreaks such violence (in Michael Clayton in the guise of environmental crime) were itself too disturbing to contemplate. More broadly, we could argue that capital is so signally absent from the American political imaginary because it is so often represented, in the guise of the corporation (which is invariably shadowed by the legal firm). This individualisation of malign personifications or bearers (Träger in Marx’s term) always allows for the possibility that the whole might be immune to reproach or open to reform. Despite a great deal of similarities, in a film like The International (2009, ‘The International’ in question is of course not anything like the International Workers of the World but an international bank modelled on the corrupt Pakistani Bank of Credit and Commerce International) the opposite is the case. In this film it is essentially the capitalist system that is the problem and the evil banker is just a cog in the machine, and admits as much when arguing for his life at the end of the film. The protagonist is ultimately convinced by this and only an act of personal vengeance against this particular banker/capitalist to fleetingly satisfy one’s need for justice is framed as the only possible solution as reworking the world capitalist system is depicted as hopelessly impossible. internationalcaseboardThis tendency to replace a conspiratorial narrative for the logic of capital was already remarked upon by Jameson: ‘Conspiracy, one is tempted to say, is the poor person’s cognitive mapping in the postmodern age; it is a degraded figure of the total logic of late capital, a desperate attempt to represent the latter’s system, whose failure is marked by its slippage into sheer theme and content’ (356). In a sense The Wire, with its refrain that ‘it’s just business’, is the reverse of the depiction of American capital which finds some kind of diabolical, criminal evil at its core. Instead, we get the harsh complexities and unavoidable compulsions of the economic system and its related institutions. The economy of crime is never hygienically sundered from the crimes of the economy. Or, to borrow Vincenzo Ruggiero’s lapidary formulation: ‘the economic order contains, ab initio, the criminal order’ (208). This connection is made explicit by Simon when in an interview he claims that the Greek, probably the show’s highest-ranking criminal, ‘represented capitalism in its purest form.’

The Wire responds to this critical and aesthetic conundrum of how to depict capital in a number of ways. By mediating the impact of urbanised neoliberal or post-Fordist capitalism via domains of dispossessions and the institutions that convey or vainly try to resist such dispossession – in other words, by tracking the mutations of American capitalism through its effects on organisations in a locale, Baltimore, distant from the centres of power and accumulation – it arguably provides a much ‘truer’ composite ID of contemporary capitalism. Moreover, by revoking moral judgment on individuals for the sake of systemic dissection and denunciation (‘The Wire is really not interested in Good and Evil; it’s interested in economics, sociology and politics’, Simon, DVD commentary) it circumvents the ultimately comforting tactic of finding ‘the’ culprit. The epistemic choice not to engage in a strategy of ‘unveiling’ is echoed in a statement by co-producer Ed Burns: ‘we only allude to the real, the real is too powerful’. It has also been perspicuously analysed in a recent piece by John Kraniauskas who, in a close analysis of the first scene of the first series (McNulty’s tragicomic conversation on the steps of a row house with a local youth regarding the shooting of a small-time thief by the name of ‘Snot Boogie’) notes how it registers ‘an important, although banal, truth that is significant for the relation the series establishes between narrative form and its own historical material: the excess of history over form. The Wire thus signals, on the one hand, its own partiality and, on the other, its consequent status as a work of narrative totalisation which is always already incomplete. In this sense, the programme emerges not only from a realist desire to accumulate social content … but also from a modernist acknowledgment of its own narrative limits (imposed by narrative form) and thus not so much as a representation as an invention’ (27).

There are a number of interesting formal aspects to detaching the ‘truth’ of the show, its capacity to anatomise ‘a metropolitan world of chronically uneven geographical development’ (Harvey, 2000: 148), from the ideological choice to ‘reveal’ what lies ‘behind the scenes’. By contrast with the absolute forensic epistemology of the ‘genetic’ policing of shows like CSI (a particular nemesis for Simon, as one can gather from various statements), The Wire explores the constraints and potentialities of a lo-fi form of detection, carried out for the most part with visibly outdated technology: the wire-tap (the influence of Coppola’s The Conversation [1974] is evident). Partiality and segmentarity, rather than omniscience, determine both the specificities of the wiretap and the manner in which it can be regarded as an internal model of the show’s own epistemology. The activity of surveillance does not provide some kind of untrammelled vision but requires an elaborate and inevitably partial search – partly because, as Simon himself has suggested, one of the effects of the ‘surveillance society’ is a surfeit of information that, without principles of selection, generates indifference. Aside from the technicalities and the tedium that dominate the wiretap, the show does dramatise the ways in which tracking the vicissitudes of criminal activity can morph – with often painful consequences – into tracking the circulation of capital. As Lieutenant Daniels remarks in Series 1, Episode 8: ‘This is the thing that everyone knows and no one says. You follow the drugs you get a drug case. You follow the money, you don’t know where you’re going.’ ‘Following the money’, which takes the wire detail from the project towers and low-rises to the proverbial corridors of power, brings the show closer to a confrontation with the challenge of registering the effects of capital accumulation. It is this aesthetics of circulation, and of the latter’s opacity, which gives the lie to the simple (and, from a neoliberal vantage point comforting) assertion that the show is not ‘about’ capitalism. On the contrary, what the fate of detectives doggedly ‘following the money’ tells us is that the opacity of accumulation and circulation is constantly enforced, so that it is possible to capture that we are tragically enmeshed in the urbanised accumulation and reproduction of capitalism through its territorially specific institutions but it is exceedingly difficult to define how this takes place. This problem is acutely underscored by David Harvey with reference to Marx: ‘Marx’s method of descent from the surface appearance of particular events to the ruling abstractions underneath … entails viewing any particular event set as an internalization of fundamental guiding forces’ (Harvey 2006: 86). The counter-intuitive vision of ruling abstractions underneath is crucial, suggesting as it does, for an inquiry into the aesthetic correlates of such a method, what something like a ‘realism of abstraction’ might be. The Wire is not an answer to this conundrum, but it does allow us to explore it.


Attention to visual and material mediations also shows The Wire to be a very reflexive study on what modalities of mapping and representation are bearers of effective knowledge. Hence the key role of the case board as an epistemic tool – one that has interesting resonances with the artwork of the likes of the aforementioned Mark Lombardi in trying to trace networks of corruption and exploitation between government and business in the US. The case board is of course over-determined by segmentarity and is never a truly ‘totalising’ tool, nor can it simply ‘reveal’ the routes of money. First of all, it must be closely articulated not just with the wiretap (most of which is incidentally focused, because of the caution of the drug dealers, on who talks to whom when, and not on what they say) but with seemingly ubiquitous paperwork, both the paperwork (affidavits, etc.) that must constantly be filled in with the city courts, but the business and real-estate paperwork that contains the traces of those monetary ‘routes’. One of the most ‘political’ moments in the show comes when Freamon persuades his fellow Detective Sydnor as they sit in the ‘offsite’ (in itself an interesting locus of knowledge processing and production, a kind of hidden abode of information) that following bank accounts is a much more powerful tactic than street work. The case board and its attendant paperwork are also instructively and negatively contrasted with debased modes of presenting information: the power-point, which, linked to the idea of mindless targets divorced from realities on the ground, features in a memorable montage between a spurious presentation of teaching practices in a beleaguered Baltimore school and the COMSTAT meeting of the Baltimore police department; the homicide whiteboard, an object of constant anxiety for the detectives who must fill and clear targets. Indeed, throughout the show the statistic imperative (meeting targets, or doctoring the stats) combines with the concerted attempt to keep politicians and their networks of corruption and patronage immune to hamper any form of politically-effective knowledge. The impossibility of ‘reform’, the theme of Season 3 but arguably of the whole show as a lament for the closure of Fordist and Keynesian compromises, is thus also dramatised as a matter of knowledge and representation.

This particular strategy of mapping is not without its limitations however. Kraniauskas argues, ‘The paradox of The Wire’s accumulative compositional strategy – and the aesthetic problem it poses – is that the more of the social it reconstructs, shows and incorporates into its narrative so as to explain the present, the less socially explanatory its vision becomes.’ (26). But couldn’t this verdict be reversed? One could imagine the show going on endlessly, each season focusing on a different facet of the contemporary American city (the growing Hispanic population and informal workforce, prostitutes, cleaners, pizza delivery guys, etc.) without it offering an explanation that is any more satisfactory than the one(s) provided by the five seasons. Kraniauskas’ perspicuous reading of the scene in which two homicide detectives search the home of Stringer Bell (a leader of a drug gang studying economics at a local college, The Wealth of Nations is pulled off of his bookshelf by one of the detectives who exclaims, ‘Who the fuck [am] I chasing?’)… Here the inability of the officers to wrap their head around this relation between the street gang and the world of international finance is an epistemological limit shared by the show itself.baltimore_skyline This is perhaps more of a hindrance in understanding what is happening in Baltimore than in other US cities because as Harvey has noted, the banking industry has long had an inordinate impact on the city’s development (2001: 147-50). While this inability could obviously be seen as a failure of The Wire’s aesthetic of cognitive mapping, it can also be seen as an inevitable aesthetic and epistemological barrier. It is this double sense of blockage that we would like to emphasize: not only does The Wire dramatize and use as a backdrop the failure of the worker’s movement and of reformers to dull the blade of neoliberalism hacking up contemporary American cities, it also stages the failure of individuals caught within this situation – police, drug dealers, mayors, and directors – to adequately understand and master the forces at play. In other words, rather than thinking it as a successful mapping of the uneven urban development of capitalist accumulation and its social effects, The Wire could be seen as dramatising the struggles of any critical or political ‘will to know’ in the current ideological and institutional dispensation.

Detective Lester Freamon talks in Season 5, Episode 2 of: ‘A case like this, where you show who gets paid, behind all the tragedy and the fraud, where you show how the money routes itself, how we’re all, all of us vested, all of us complicit’. It is interesting to think here of the interesting tension in spatial metaphors – arguably dramatised by the show as a whole – between the idea of what lies ‘behind all the tragedy and the fraud’ and the idea of money’s routes, which are both obscured by institutional structures but do not necessarily promise knowledge as a revelation or representation or truth (in other words, what do we come to know when we follow the routes?). The show’s epistemic reflexivity also translates into a kind of formal austerity – for instance the prohibition of flashbacks (only broken once, in Season 1, at HBO’s request), and the relegation of montage scenes (themselves fragmentary and evocative, rather than complacently totalising) to the last scene of each episode. The credits of the show themselves can also be considered in this respect, a sequence of partial objects of detection that the ‘wire’ – and the narrative – might or might not connect (there is a distant echo here of Bresson’s ‘fragmentations which link up or relink fragments of space each of which is closed on its own account’, Deleuze, 244).


The opacity of domination and exploitation also transpires from the sympathetic concern of the show with ‘the hell of middle management’, to use Simon’s expression. ‘Middle management’ – in each of the world’s depicted, mid level dealers, police lieutenants, head of a stevedore local, sub-editors – can be seen, in terms of the power/knowledge couple as that domain which is both complicit with the corrupting reproduction of an iniquitous system, meaning that middle management has enough power to compromise itself, but not enough to effect any meaningful transformations, and is only allowed as much knowledge as will allow it to function without calling higher echelons into question. Hence The Wire’s potent portrayal of institutional life in urbanized capitalism as a form of tragedy. As Simon notes: ‘What we were trying to do was take the notion of Greek tragedy, of fated and doomed people, and instead of these Olympian gods, indifferent, venal, selfish, hurling lightning bolts and hitting people in the ass for no reason—instead of those guys whipping it on Oedipus or Achilles, it’s the postmodern institutions . . . those are the indifferent gods’. This tragic impotence before the ‘Gods’ of late capitalism is reflected in the frustrations, betrayals, neuroses and humour of almost all the characters, but perhaps receives no better summary than the line voiced by the young ‘middle manager’ of the corner, Bodie who, having in an earlier episode been taught chess by a slightly senior D’Angelo Barksdale by analogy with the organizational structure of their drug operation, says to McNulty, during a melancholic and contemplative meeting at a Baltimore garden: ‘This game is rigged, we’re like them little bitches [pawns] on the chessboard’. (It could be remarked that in light of comments such as these, the ‘postmodern institutions’ 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.)

Not conspiracy but tragedy, not contingency but compulsion, dominate The Wire. Hence the tragic-existentialist view of the possibilities of political action voiced by Simon where he affirms: ‘my faith in individuals to rebel against rigged systems and exert for dignity, while at the same time doubtful that the institutions of a capital-obsessed oligarchy will reform themselves short of outright economic depression (New Deal, the rise of collective bargaining) or systemic moral failure that actually threatens middle-class lives (Vietnam and the resulting, though brief commitment to rethinking our brutal foreign-policy footprints around the world)’ (Simon in the comment thread to Yglesias 2008). But in the context of tragic necessity, Simon states, ‘maybe the only hope is anger’ (Simon at UCSC).

By Alberto Toscano and Jeff Kinkle

Alberto Toscano is a lecturer in Sociology at Goldsmiths, University of London.  Jeff Kinkle is a PhD student at the Centre for Cultural Studies at Goldsmiths. This paper is a work in progress and we would really appreciate any feedback.


Andrew Devereaux, ‘”What Chew Know About Down the Hill?”: Baltimore Club Music, Subgenre Crossover, and the New Subcultural Capital of Race and Space’, Journal of Popular Music Studies, Vol. 19, Issue 4, pp. 311-41.

Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 2: The Time-Image, trans. H. Tomlinson and R. Galeta, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1989.

Conor Friedersdorf, ‘The Wire Isn’t a Critique of Capitalism’, The Huffington Post, 18 January 2008

David Harvey, The Urban Experience, Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1989

David Harvey, Spaces of Hope, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2000

David Harvey, Spaces of Capital, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2001

David Harvey, Spaces of Global Capitalism: Towards a Theory of Uneven Geographical Development, London: Verso, 2006

Brian Holmes, ‘Imaginary Maps, Global Solidarities’

Fredric Jameson, ‘Cognitive Mapping’, Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture, ed. Cary Nelson and Lawrence Grossberg, USA: University of Illinois Press, 1988, pp. 347-57

Fredric Jameson The Geopolitical Aesthetic, USA: University of Indiana Press, 1992

Marsha Kinder, ‘Re-Wiring Baltimore: The Emotive Power of Systemics, Seriality, and the City’, Film

Quarterly 62.2 (Winter 2008-9)

John Kraniauskas, ‘Elasticity of Demand: Reflections on The Wire’, Radical Philosophy 154 (2009): 25–34

Peter Greenaway: Interviews, eds. Gras and Gras, USA: University Press of Mississippi, 2000

Steve Rose, ‘Great Town for a Shootout’, The Guardian, 16 July 2008

Vincenzo Ruggiero, Economie sporche, Turin: Bollati Boringhieri, 1996

Michael J. Shapiro, Cinematic Geopolitics, UK: Routledge, 2009.

Margaret Talbot, ‘Stealing Life: The Crusader Behind “The Wire”’, The New Yorker, 22 October 2007

Loïc Wacquant, Urban Outcasts: A Comparative Sociology of Advanced Marginality, London: Polity, 2008

Matthew Yglesias, ‘David Simon and the Audacity of Despair’, The Atlantic, 2 January 2008, available at: <>

One Comment

  1. Posted July 29, 2009 at 12:05 am | Permalink

    Excellent article. And in case you haven’t seen it, this discussion on City of Sound should be helpful:

    The ‘Believer’ interview it links to looks interesting as well.

7 Trackbacks

  1. [...] since then he has appeared in a handful of gritty movies and television shows, none grittier than The Wire. His gallery work, while tailored for a cosmopolitan audience, evinces the same sort of resolute [...]

  2. [...] Radical Philosophy 154 (2009): 25-34; and  Alberto Toscano and Jeff Kinkle (2009) ‘Baltimore as World and Representation: Cognitive Mapping and Capitalism in The Wire,’ Dossier [↩]See the Linda Speidel and Georgia Christgau pieces in this darkmatter issue. [↩]See [...]

  3. By Dossier Journal » Open Access on July 22, 2009 at 5:40 pm

    [...] of Networks on the French actor-network theorist Bruno Latour; The Italian Difference, edited by Alberto Toscano and Lorenzo Chiesa and featuring essays by Antonio Negri, Paolo Virno and more; and Walter Benjamin [...]

  4. [...] on the Sundance Channel at 10pm. Previews make it look excellent – like a documentary version of The Wire.  For more info visit the Sundance Channel’s website. This entry was written by Jeff [...]

  5. By Dossier Journal » The David Simon Vice Interview on December 23, 2009 at 8:49 pm

    [...] wrought on inner city America by the vicissitudes of late capitalism (see Kinkle and Toscano in Read), and who regularly employs an articulate critique of this very same post-modern capitalism, assert [...]

  6. [...] and its influence on various local settings (previous articles and presentations have covered The Wire, contemporary conspiracy films, and works that deal with containerization).  It will focus on the [...]

  7. [...] (Alberto Toscano, 2009) [...]

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