melodrama, pathos

Linda Williams in her book on the "Wire" makes a concerted argument that the Wire--she concurs in praising it--should not be considered as a tragedy (which she thinks rarely applies to modern conditions) but as a melodrama. For Williams, melodrama is the modern genre par excellence. Her book is an attempt to ennoble it as it were. The key ingredient might be called Utopian imagination that something else is possible (a la Jameson), or hope. The brilliance of the Wire is to keep hope alive as it were but not to instantiate it. The hope is an awareness that things could be different but without resolving these terrible situations.

That being said, her anthropological and sociological analysis of Baltimore is very thin.
Further, if not "tragedy", then the Wire resolves frequently into a form of the comedic. There are one or two references to Shakespeare but it is not pursued.
For us, we would add Pathos. It screams out for more attention. However, her thesis--repeated at least fifty times--that the Wire is melodrama and not tragedy gets in her way.

Reminder: pathos first appeared as a breach of the tragic in Corneille.

1 comment

kevinkarpiak wrote 2 years 21 weeks ago

The first time as tragedy...

Thanks for this. I wasn't aware of Linda Williams' book. I sometimes teach a Criminology MA course on "Ethnographic representations of police" that has evolved into mainly a course on The Wire, and this will find a place in the next iteration.

David Simon himself has repeatedly claimed that he intended The Wire to be an updated version of Greek tragedy, in which post-Fordist institutions take the role of the Ancient Gods.

On one hand, I think I understand what he means by this: that institutions (the Police, the Gang, the Union, the Party, the Company, The Educational System etc.) are incomparably larger and more powerful than the lowly individual, utterly determining their fate despite any protestations or resistances, while at the same time acting out of an amoral indifference to those fates. The Institutions, like the Gods, are beyond the power and morals of mere men.

However, something about this framing doesn't seem quite right.

For one, we are at times clearly meant to condemn the "moral midgetry" and cowardice of these institutions in a way one never would condemn the Delphic Oracle or the Fates--whence the pathos in tragedy. This very tendency has a kind of (dare I say, Protestant?) American "flattening" of the metaphysical terrain: that the Gods can and should be judged through the tools of mortals. While pointing to this necessity, Simon is usually (except, I would argue, when the story moves to journalism) smart enough to know that we don't actually have such tools--whence the farce. So perhaps Corneille's tragicomedy is a good place to start thinking about this.

But even more, there's something about his representation of bureaucratic institutions that doesn't quite match up with my own field experience. For sure I saw cowardice, and ethical deflection, and hubris, and disregard... but I also found, sometimes in some places in more or less circumscribed kinds of ways, not only genuine ethical reflection but the opportunity to transcribe those reflections into a broader institutional praxis.

I don't think my fieldsite was unique in that sense, nor do I think I'm alone in noticing such moments, but I do think this insight runs counter to how we normally talk about institutions; and that Simon is caught up in those conventions.

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