“This is America:” Fiction v. Ethnography In Our Ascertaining Of The Wire’s “Truth”

8 Nov

From the end of the first scene of the first episode of The Wire it becomes clear that this is no ordinary cop show. McNulty looks on bemused yet entertained as his eyewitness notes that even an illegal crap-game has rules of inclusion, that “This is America” and you can’t just kick someone out. The Wire demonstrates an ongoing self-consciousness rarely seen in any entertainment, much less television. Charlottle Brunsdon commented that foreign audiences repeatedly interpreted this self-consciousness as a searing commentary on the inherent problems in America, perhaps precisely because cutting moments such as the one from above are easily mistaken for vicious satire. Brunsdon further reports that David Simon himself took issue with this perspective as perhaps too easy and rather inaccurate. Now at first the concept of the show’s deep “American”-ness seemed just right to me. In my own cynical opinion America has generally seemed to be a place ruled by self-interest corruption and general helplessness. But as I was reading Linda Williams’ “Ethnographic Imaginary: The Genesis and Genius of The Wire,” it occurred to me why Mr. Simon was put off by these arguments. His precise response was that he felt more comfortable with those kinds of criticism coming from inside America than from outside, and I think this makes sense in the context of Williams’ explanation of the genesis of Simon’s project as a search for the individual human element underlying the larger context of the world.

According to Williams The Wire is a work informed by ethnography, “an engaged, contextually rich and nuanced type of qualitative social research, in which fine grained daily interactions constitute the lifeblood of the data produced.” She specifically describes it as an “imaginary multi-sited ethnography” that creates webs of interactions and then through the power of fiction contextualizes those interactions in an even larger systemic net. Simon creates his Baltimore as a complex web of social hierarchy, a constant theme being that in his Baltimore the ability of an individual to make change seems perpetually limited. One’s social status never seems to correlate with one’s values or morality, and minor missteps are often viciously punished. At the same time his characters move through this trap of a world with a surprising amount of dexterity. What arises out of Simon’s world is a series of portraits of figures fighting to find themselves a living and some basic security while those around them variously shirk their duties or backstab each other.

I would assume that it is this environment of craven corruption and myopic selfishness that people find distinctly American. If the series was just as ethnographic as other more journalistic works perhaps that would be a fair assessment. But as she notes the world that is generated, by nature of Simon’s cravenchoice to make his presentation fictional, is too personal to be simple social commentary. There is realism to the narrative beyond just the squalid facts of a geographically specific poverty and bureaucracy. What arises out of the often frighteningly constricting world of Baltimore is moments of genuine hope and connection between people that exist outside of a normal sociological understanding of motivations and societal causes. Simon’s project is to find the mediating ground where the explanatory variables of institution and structure are themselves humanized by the actions of fully-formed people.

I think what is then troubling to Simon about a foreign judgmental gaze setting in upon his work is his personal knowledge that his show is in fact fiction. As Williams correctly notes characters like Bubbles exist in a noble space removed just enough from reality so that their individual story can carry Simon’s intended pathos. The barrier between reality and fiction that allows The Wire to so effectively touch our hearts also means that even if we can identify certain patterns and structures of behavior from The Wire it is meant as a cautionary literary tale, reflecting but also distanced from the reality it holds. Like many great stories the elements of fiction are at times hard to parse out but are also integral to the presentation. It would take a discerning knowing eye to know precisely how unthinkable areas like Hamsterdam are in our America, and a foreign perspective might too easily assign labels of perpetrator and victim to a narrative that is clearly seeking out an objective constitutively different than judgment. As our study of The Wire moves forward I am interested by how we can understand Simon’s method of fictionalizing the real and how this method problematizes our revelatory experiences where it seems Simon has removed the veil and given us a stark look at the “truth” of our social situation. 

One Response to ““This is America:” Fiction v. Ethnography In Our Ascertaining Of The Wire’s “Truth””

  1. Keegan November 9, 2012 at 12:07 pm #


    This article about The Wire in academic contexts provides some interesting insights about some of the questions you raise — particularly about fictionalization. It spends a good deal of time with Jason Mittel, who’ve we’ve read a significant amount from. However, the most relevant bit comes from David Simon:

    There are issues that arise from the ways that the show is fictionalized, he concedes; they’re just not the ones that interest him. “You want to talk about it being fiction, call it fiction,” he says, “but it shows incredible imagination and understanding about the way the world works, and for me that’s enough.”

    For me, it problematizes Simon’s concern about criticism coming from outside of the US. It seems that if he believes his show understands and depicts the way THE WORLD works so completely, criticism from outside would be no concern. I think it’s fair to claim that he believes the problems that he has taken up are not only deeply American (see the opening conversation with McNulty and a witness about Snot Boogie’s death), but not exclusively American. It could merely an issue of protectiveness towards an American problem — the difference between getting criticized by a friend as opposed to someone you’ve never met before. Simon seems to believe that The Wire captures these Baltimore institutions in a way that is deeply true to the point of transcending the fiction that mediates them. It is a genre complicating claim that I personally think he is right to make.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: