The Wire at Ten: Joe Spillane, “I’ve Never Watched The Wire”

Editor’s Note: This week we begin a new series marking the tenth anniversary of The Wire, arguably the most important television program about drugs in the history of…well, of the whole world. Points co-founder Joe Spillane kicks us off today– in a post I had to twist his arm to write– with his meditations on NOT watching The Wire despite its incontrovertible relevance to his own work.  In the weeks to come, we will hear from scholars working in a variety of fields about the show’s relevance to their work: Carlo Rotella (Boston College) will talk about its place in the history of police genres, and  Sergio Campos (U. Miami) will weigh in on the way the show foregrounds the dynamics of subordination. Stan Corkin (U. Cincinnati) will map the human ecology of the Baltimore ghetto and Judith Jack Halberstam (U. Southern California) will discuss the power of queer queens within those dynamics.  Finally Jonathan Simon (Cal Berkeley) will examine the way that academic interest in the show mirrors trends in legal and criminology scholarship. Drugs and drug history, broadly described, inform all of these posts even if they are not at their centers, and the ways in which these guest bloggers work within and against the traditional histories of drug prohibition, regulation, and policy suggest the richness of contemporary “alcohol and drugs history” research. -t.t.

Ten Years After

David Simon’s drama series The Wire debuted on HBO a decade ago, and spent the next six years (60 episodes over 5 seasons) winning critical praise and an enormously loyal fan base.  Loyal to a fault, perhaps– it has been reckoned that The Wire produced one of the most annoying groups of fans in television history.  Exhibit A for annoying fandom is Points Managing Editor Trysh Travis.  Long before Trysh and I cooked up the idea for Points, she embarked on a lengthy quest to turn me into a viewer of The Wire.  Lengthy, and relentless.  In- person conversations inevitably turned to the question of whether I had yet begun watching the series, emails generally were tagged with a quick admonition to get busy with Season One.  All because, despite my dual interest in the drug wars and in quality television entertainment, I had never seen a minute of the show.  I hadn’t then, I still haven’t today, and chances are reasonably good that I may never.  And I’m OK with that.

But I’m delighted that Points in launching a series on The Wire, because I really do believe that we don’t know nearly as much about the fields upon which the drug wars are waged, about the conditions of battle, or the many adverse consequences of the fight, as we should.  I’ve said this often, but it bears repeating: historians, in particular, have shown far less interest than they ought in the front lines of the drug wars.  Here’s part of what I wrote for the recent LSE IDEAS publication, Governing the Global Drug Wars:

To date, historians’ affinity for harm reduction policies has produced relatively few systematic efforts at documenting the history of harm. If the war on drugs were an actual war (indeed, one might consider it to be so), historians have, to date, produced many fine monographs on the origins of the war, and taken us into the war-rooms of the generals to consider grand strategy, but have produced few details on the combatants themselves, and the many who have fallen on the fields of combat.  This is not simply a gap in documentation; a failure to erect the appropriate monuments commemorating “the human cost of war.” Rather, the comparative inattention of historians has left us with an inadequate sense of the historicity of drug war-related harm. Far from being a static and predictable consequence of drug prohibition, harm just may be the most dynamic aspect of drugs history. Harm is always contingent, the product of the complex interplay between law, policy, economics, and culture.

To the extent that The Wire gives us lives, in context, touched by the drug wars, then it is a dramatization of the front lines.  I would imagine that there are moments of humor and absurdity, intense violence, and complex negotiations between all of the relevant actors–everything I hope historians will one day give us as well.  Who knows?  There may even be some sense of contingency in Simon’s work as well.

So this, then was my call to action for historians:

The objects of drug control remain today as they have ever been, as marginal within the field of history as they were socially marginal within their own lifetimes. Our sympathy cannot substitute for understanding.  Historians must give a richer and more empirically detailed account of lived experience. Above all, we must produce a more robust account of harm, not only to build battlefield memorials to the fallen, but to deepen our own understanding of the conduct and cost of war. When these accounts begin to emerge, we may well find what contemporary military historians have found – stories more deeply troubling and disturbing than we ever fully imagined.

Spillane: a Proud Non-Viewer

Maybe that’s what we get from The Wire, a spark to the imagination, a chance to see what is too often invisible or even unimaginable.  I don’t know.  I never watched it.  And I’m still OK with that.  Critics have said that it offered something otherwise neglected in television drama, and perhaps that’s close to the same thing.  Other critical champions of the series have argued that the merit of The Wire is not that it did something for television drama that otherwise hadn’t or couldn’t be done, but that has done something for social inquiry that otherwise hasn’t or can’t be done.  That this “something” isn’t being done, at least by historians, I agree with–that it can’t, I strongly object to.  Simon Parker observed: “the televisual novel can be a more effective medium than mainstream social science for revealing the spaces and people that capitalism has left behind.”  So long as we emphasize the can part, I’m OK with the sentiment, one echoed in a number of other critical commentaries on contemporary social science and The Wire, like this one by Ruth Penfold-Mounce, David Beer and Roger Burrows. In this sense, David Simon’s show, and our seemingly limitless capacity to analyze it, might yet help us all.

One thought on “The Wire at Ten: Joe Spillane, “I’ve Never Watched The Wire”

  1. I had my last shot of heroin in 1967. In 1979 I met Ed Preble at an ethnography conference convened by NIDA in Chicago a few years after I got my MA in Sociology. I conducted my first ethnographic study as part of a NIDA funded team a few years later, mainly because of the interest instilled in me by Ed and later by Mike Agar, George Beschner, and some others, and did my last study in the late 1990s. Fast forward to now. I have just finished watching the first year’s episodes of The Wire. As a New York junkie, who mainly used in and about Harlem and East Harlem when I was in the city, I was surprised at the extent to which the program captured my interest — and my feelings. Watching the shooting-up scenes actually had me feeling nauseous — something that had not happened before, watching many TV shows and movies that portrayed The Life as best they could. As an ethnographer who spent many long hours in dope and crack scenes, I was critical of many small errors in the Wire’s portrayal. Yet at the same time, I was impressed by the realism — tempered by showmanship, but that is alright. Every ethnographer I have known is a showman. It’s the nature of the beast — and it is reflected in the work we have all produced. So as much as anything, I look on The Wire as a flawed ethnography (but all are). How flawed? Street level heroin dealing has never been as well-organized as in The Wire, in my experience covering many years and many cities, But it is certainly as brutal. I won’t comment further at this time. I look forward to watching the rest of the shows.

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