Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Mediocrity Rules: Notes from TV Land

Just when I was losing all patience with Battlestar Galactica, the show springs a plot with a general strike. There is nothing like the promise of a general strike to reignite my interest in a television show (Do you hear that Gilmore Girls?). However, I have to say that the actual episode did not live up to the promise, clearly an example of what Sorel would call a political and not a proletarian general strike. Worse than that is making Baltar the author of a radical manifesto. This seemed completely out of character, not to mention ideological, the radical intellectual as self-serving effete. What I enjoy about the character of Baltar is that he is pure opportunism, his evil is simply an effect of weakness. Like Spinoza’s devil he is a being to be pitied. (A more favorable discussion of the show can be found here).

I have become hooked on The Wire as of late, and have watched the whole first season over the last few weeks. I was incredibly reluctant to start watching this show, despite its praise by critics and friends. This is mainly I really do not like cop shows, I have no patience for the various “CSI: Texarkana” and “Law and Order: Traffic Court” that populate television. However, I found myself getting interested in The Wire because it is, as the creators of the show argue, really a show about the decline of the American city and the futility of the war on drugs. More than that I find the most compelling thing about the show to be its representation of the modern relation between the state, which is to say bureaucracy, and capital.

On the surface the first season of the show deals with the Baltimore police’s attempt to break a drug cartel in a housing project. The police are not the pure representatives of good, found in usual shows, but a collection of individuals driven by motivations of career, prejudice, petty revenge, and macho brutality. The series also foregrounds the institutional structure of the police, and not just in the sense of the usual “lone cop against a bureaucracy.” One of the phrases heard throughout the series is “chain of command,” meaning a respect for the structures of institutional hierarchy. The series reveals that as one goes up the chain, dealing with judges, city council, etc., the motivations become more unclear, more political, in the pejorative sense. Case in point: important leads and convictions are squandered when the higher ups decide, after the shooting of a police officer, that they need “drugs on the table,” one of those photo-ops where piles of drugs, money, and guns are displayed as some kind of trophy from the war on drugs. The demand to appear effective outweighs the need to be effective.

It is hard not to think of every theory of bureaucracy that I have ever read while watching the show, from Marx (“the materialism of passive obedience, of faith in authority, of the mechanism of fixed and formalistic behavior…”) to Claude Lefort, as well as my own experience within a state institution. In fact what it reminds me of most of all is a discussion I had with an anthropology professor years ago. It was when I was involved in some political struggle over curriculum reform. The professor explained, in the calm and detached way that one would expect from an anthropologist, how the university functions. The explanation went a little like this: The dedicated members of the faculty are too busy with research, writing, and teaching to really bother with committees, seeking the service appointments that distract the least. Thus, the mediocre professors, the ones with their best years behind them, gravitate to the really important committees, the ones that determine curriculum, tenure, etc. Of course he explained all of this as if he was discussing the rituals of the Yanomamö of Central Brazil, ultimately concluding that the university bureaucracy rewards mediocrity.

Back to The Wire: If the police are the state, then the drug dealers are capital. The latter are brutally inefficient, free of the conflicted motivations of the police/state. In the beginning of the series one cop says to a dealer something to the effect of, “Why is that everything else can be bought and sold without people being killed?” For the conflicted dealer at the center of the show, D’Angelo Barksdale, this becomes something of a utopian dream, the idea of pure business without violence. Over the course of the first season this ideal become increasingly impossible, not only with respect to the drug business, but with respect to capital itself. [Spoilers ahead] It is eventually revealed that the economy of drugs is not the outside, the dark underbelly, of the legitimate economy, but is internal to it, as the money trail leads to connections between the drug trade and real estate speculation, connections that lead to politics etc. Thus, there is no opposition between the state and capital.

Best "Get Your War On" Cartoon ever.


Eric said...

Gilmore Girls may not have general strikes, but it does have Yo La Tengo and (half of) Sonic Youth playing on street corners. Which is almost as cool as a general strike.

unemployed negativity said...

I am not saying anything bad about the show, I was just trying to imagine the TV show least likely to have a general strike.