Brow Beat

Slavoj Žižek and Fredric Jameson on The Wire

Wendell Pierce and Dominic West in a still from The Wire.


Last week, Slavoj Žižek—the clown prince of contemporary Marxist philosophy, star of The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema, scene-stealer of Examined Life, and subject of the celebrated documentary Žižek!—spoke at the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities on a subject he was born to tackle: The Wire. The audio of the lecture is now online, and if, like me, you enjoy not only discussion of The Wire but listening to Žižek ramble grandiloquently in his wonderful Slovenian accent, it makes for an amusing and occasionally provocative hour and a half of intellectual entertainment.

Žižek takes David Simon’s comparison of The Wire to Greek tragedy seriously, seeing the show as an expression of its polis, Baltimore, in a manner not unlike the works of the classical tragedians. The show may even be “more tragic” than Greek tragedy, he says, since the fate of its characters is dictated not by supernatural figures, but by the institutions that actually shape our lives.

But Žižek also has reservations about the series. Here he distinguishes his position from that of Fredric Jameson, another titan of contemporary Marxist theory, who published an essay on the show in 2010 called “Realism and Utopia in The Wire.”* (You can download it here.) Jameson argued that one of the show’s distinctive features is that “Utopian elements are introduced, without fantasy or wish fulfillment, into the construction of the fictive, yet utterly realistic events.” The show thus hints at the possibility of breaking out of the contemporary political and economic system. 

For Žižek, on the other hand, The Wire is ultimately not utopian or revolutionary enough. (It may be worth noting that Žižek considers Jimmy McNulty’s crazy fake-serial-killer scheme in Season 5 “totally ethical and brilliant.”) He argues that the series is too wedded to psychological realism, which, in his view, takes the modern individual’s relationship to the world around him essentially for granted. To successfully critique the capitalist status quo, Žižek argues, you must step outside of realist representations. He cites Charlie Chaplin and Bertolt Brecht as storytellers who did so—and even suggests that Simon and company could have learned something from his “great enemy,” Ayn Rand, who, in Atlas Shrugged, insisted on the destruction of the status quo, albeit with aims entirely opposite to Žižek’s own. (I kept waiting for Žižek to bring up Obama’s recently reiterated love for The Wire in support of his argument, but somehow he never did.)

Finally, Žižek compares The Wire’s series-ending montage to the “Circle of Life” sequence in The Lion King, which, well… I’m just going to post the show’s beautiful conclusion below as rebuttal. But I do recommend you listen to Žižek’s whole lecture if you enjoy this sort of thing. (Via The Millions.)

* This post originally misspelled Fredric Jameson’s first name.