Ethnographillic

8 Nov

“We must ask of reality: how important is it, really? And how unimportant, really, is the Factual? Of course, we can’t disregard the factual; it has normative power. But it can never give us the kind of illumination, the ecstatic flash, from which Truth emerges.”

Werner Herzog
“On the Absolute, the Sublime, and Ecstatic Truth”

Williams’ attention to the ethnographic value of “The Wire” (despite it being restricted to a space outside ethnography) endorses a paradoxical posture of the the real. (I would say representations of the real, but that would reveal the paradox too simply and redundantly.) And while paradoxes are academically sexy, Williams’ argument seems to be: the thing that’s so great about “The Wire” as an ethnography is that it isn’t one. I expected some skepticism about the biases of ethnographical studies or of the dynamics of observation and immersion/invasion. This doesn’t happen. Instead, the show’s ethnographic qualities are not only complemented, but reified, in its artistic liberties, and its artistic merit is given credence because of its ethnographic origins. This paradox appears more of a self-affirming loop than a useful analytical tool.

Bubbles is identified as the conduit between ethnography and ethnographic imaginary (which is also just ethnographically motivated melodrama? which asks to what degree does an auteur need to be In The Trenches until the show is Genius?), but his portrayal—evident in Williams’ descriptions—is that of an audience. Get rid of Bubbles, and the show lacks its conduit only in character form. What “The Wire” avoids in visual clichés and redundancy it makes up for with Bubbles’ narrative mobility. By “[allowing] Simon to develop and expand the ethnographic observation of his two initial sites into a multisited system,” Bubbles is also a tool for audience separation (and thus a source of the viewer’s driven gaze). This is ostensibly a helpful feature for the show’s ethnographic pursuits, since it allows System 1 and System 2 to morph into the more holistic System A, but Williams is assuming that this systematic or procedural coherence has definitive bearing on the show’s realism.

Simon’s techniques are not in dispute, neither is Williams’ coverage of the creative strategies. The ethnographic form, though, despite the fact that it is here undermined by virtue of Simon’s dramatic violations, is seemingly founded in an unexamined understanding of the different types of real, which is especially problematic given the essentially implicated Other(s) in any ethnographic study.

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