Culture: Slavoj Žižek – ‘The Wire or the Clash of Civilizations in One Country’ at Birkbeck University

Guest post by Nadia Ramoul

Few modern day thinkers can pack a lecture hall to the rafters like Slavoj Žižek. Every time I’ve seen the great man speak the events have been sold out – with free tickets – way in advance, with students and wizened academics alike jostling each other so as to not clog the aisles or stand for hours, prone at the back of the room, legs and brain craving relief.

Although I am guilty of a certain sycophantic lapping up of everything he has to say about Marxism, the work of David Lynch and the nuances of The Land Before Time (seriously) I’ll try to rein it in here. Many people, I have to say, feel the same – Žižek is a fairly divisive character. His work is either hailed as absolute genius or absolute rubbish with no real middle ground. Undergraduate essays are peppered with his pithy quotes on the most diverse of subjects, and being a prolific, current writer his opinion on subjects from reality TV to the Arab Spring consistently add radical yet insightful thought into the dialogue.

His usual method when composing philosophical works and discussions is to take examples from both lowbrow and fairly highbrow culture and literature to illustrate more weighty issues – disaster movies and pornography intertwined with Jameson and Gramsci, that sort of thing. Some deride this as deliberately provocative, but even so, his analyses are always entertaining and force the listener to reevaluate perspectives. Imagine, then, my excitement when I happened upon an upcoming lecture featuring a good two hours discussion on the finest of cop dramas, The Wire. A bit late I’ll admit, given that the series ended a good while ago, but the five seasons of experimental, difficult yet compellingly watchable investigations into Baltimore drug gangs are still very much appreciated today and birthed a legacy of similarly involving shows.

To even attempt to go into any depth into Žižek’s meandering analysis would not do you or I any favours, so my paraphrasing will be more of an invitation to go hunt down some of his work and see for yourself.

As anyone familiar with The Wire will know, both creators and fans alike take it super duper seriously. Really seriously. The lecture can be described as Marxist in essence, hinging on creator David Simon’s notion that the overarching narrative of the five seasons – the rise and fall of detective Jimmy McNulty’s drug investgations – is akin to Greek tragedy. However crucially, while the tragedy in the ancient plays is always the result of cruel, coincidental fate, the tragedy of The Wire rests on the institutions and systems our lives are intertwined with, therefore for Žižek the tragedy is far greater.

The Wire

While he decried the ‘over-use’ of psychological realism in the programme’s narrative, suggesting that to fully investigate the effects of a dominating culture, characters must be allowed to immerse themselves in fantasy, Žižek repeatedly identified possible utopian ideals hidden in the shady and violent characters. The dock workers long for their American Dream of building something from nothing, so they support crime to do so. Even drug lord Stringer Bell can be viewed with some poignancy through the perspective of this lecture, the crux being that Simon could have learned something from the ‘great enemy’ of the left, Ayn Rand, who in Atlas Shrugged, proposed a demolition of the accepted institutions that govern life in order to start again – though of course not in the bleak way she intended. Of course, through these key points the lecture would shift wildly in tone and topic – the EU and Greece appeared frequently throughout as examples of capitalist selfishness and the work of Jameson would pop up and recede frequently.

To round things up however, Žižek rested on a less taxing conclusion – that the end of The Wire is more akin to The Lion King than Sophocles, the final credits of the fifth season being comparable to the ‘circle of life’ sequence. McNulty ’sees’ that his efforts, while noble, have been fruitless, the individual’s actions are meaningless when compared to the overarching system.

If you haven’t yet set aside a large chunk of your life to sit in front of The Wire (why not?) it really is a challenging and oddly beautiful series, Dickensian in scope and unmatched by others of it’s ilk. There are countless essays and opinion pieces online also and several published books.

For more on Slavoj Žižek, he presents The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema, starred in the documentaries Žižek! And The Examined Life, frequently contributes to the London Review of Books and has written a multitude of books which can be found in the Philosophy section of Waterstone’s, Borders and friends. This year he is expected to have two new volumes published including a big ol’ hefty work on Hegel. Theory geeks unite!

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