Thursday, October 15, 2015

The Wired Election, Part 1: "This America, Man."

There are certain works of art in every medium-- literature, theater, photography, sculpture, film, painting, music, et al.-- that somehow manage, through an impossible-to-determinately-calculate alchemical combination of human creativity, the raw materials of Nature, and some other mysterious thing we might generically point toward and say "meaning" or "truth," to reach beyond the mere representation of some particular subject matter or to touch so deeply upon that representation's core presentation that the artwork ends up unveiling, unconcealing, and thereby disclosing in a way that gives us the sense of an encounter with something universal. Sophocles' tragedy Oedipus Rex does this dramatically. Coppola's film trilogy The Godfather does this.cinematically.  Leonardo da Vinci's "Mona Lisa" does this (or so it is said) graphically. Otis Redding's "A Change Is Gonna Come" does this sonically.

I think a very strong case could be made that the HBO television series The Wire (2002-08) ALMOST accomplishes the same via the (still unfortunately undertheorized, but getting there) medium of television.  I say "almost" because I suspect what The Wire really discloses is very likely not, properly speaking, "universal." What it does manage to unconceal is much of what is True about America-- our site-specific pathologies with regard to race relations, policing, education, labor, crime and punishment, politics and political theater, wealth and power disparities, surveillance, media, gender, and the continuously transmorphic rules governing how our communal obligations are coerced and enforced--  thus extending its reach beyond the particular mise en scene of "early-aughts Baltimore" and saying something about, if not all of us, at least more of us than Baltimoreans.


So, with the 2016 Presidential election still 389 days away, I've decided to adopt The Wire as my frame for political analysis in this coming year.  You can follow my thread here on this blog at TheWiredElection2016 or on Twitter at #ThePOTUSWire.  For my first installment, I offer the following, from Season 1, Episode 1 ("The Target") of The Wire:


In my view, there is no more succinctly and perfectly-framed articulation of the reality of what it means to participate in contemporary American politics than this scene. Why do you keep letting yourself get suckered, robbed, your trust exploited, your sense of obligation perverted?  You know the game is rigged in advance, you know who the thieves are, you know they're going to take you, again and again, for whatever you have.  Why do you let the thieves play?

Got to.  This America, man.

Such is what philosopher Jacques Derrida called the fundamentally autoimmune proclivity of democracy, its structural tendency to allow that "the alternative to democracy" can always be "represented as a democratic alternative." (See: Derrida's Rogues) American voters already know the game is rigged and we concede to as much, voluntarily and often enthusiastically.  ALL the games we engage in the public sphere-- elections, education, jobs and opportunities, criminal justice proceedings, wealth distribution, all the commercial and juridical determinations between who is made to live and who is let to die-- every one of them is shot through with America's (specific but not idiosyncratic; exemplary but not singular) structural deformities. Our particular "American" deformities are the consequence of 200+ years of both negligence and engineering, of unacknowledged de jure and unchecked de facto racism, sexism, heteronormativity, and every other order of social-architectonic ugliness.

What The Wire did so well, and my reason for choosing it as my frame for the upcoming Election year, was to re-present the tectonic ugliness and deformity of American politics in a manner that, to borrow an oft-used (though still under-practiced) trope, "speaks truth to power." Like Man on Stoop (which is how he is named in the official script for The Wire clip above), I'm also inclined to say, often in spite of myself, that democrats are obligated to take all comers, even and especially if that means we find ourself tangled in the vicissitudes of democracy's autoimmune tendencies or, as Peter Honig named it, "The Snotboogie Paradox." This America, man. Democrats (with a little-d, i.e., those speaking/acting "in the name of democracy") have a principled obligation to be hospitable, perhaps the riskiest and most dangerous moral obligation there is,

Welcoming all comers and endorsing all comers are dispositions of an entirely different sort, however.  Stay tuned to see how.

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