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Short Circuiting the Power Grid: The Wire as Critique of Institutional Power

by Sophie Fuggle
29 May 2009 • Comment (0) • Print
Posted: The Wire Files [4] | Article

At the beginning of each episode of The Wire, we are presented with a quotation, a statement which will be made by one of the characters at some point in the episode. Detached from its context, these quotations seem to offer some philosophical insight into the show, its story and characters. However, when they reappear in their specific context, in the middle of a conversation or in response to a certain situation, there is no hidden message or deeper meaning and our hope that there might be is unceremoniously undermined time and again. The montage of the opening credits which immediately precedes the quotation offers up a similar form of false hope. Composed of scenes from throughout the series, the montage gives viewers the task of spotting the various scenes as they appear throughout the series. Yet, as we gradually come to realise, these scenes do not function like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle which suddenly, as we arrive at the final episode, fit neatly together to form a ‘bigger’ picture. There is no complete picture, no ultimate truth, no tidy conclusion in The Wire.

And it is precisely this lack of a unified vision and its refusal to grant closure, or even to suggest what form such closure might take, which not only differentiates The Wire from other popular crime dramas but, more importantly, provides a direct attack on such shows. Where successful US television series like CSI and Law and Order continue to present the criminal justice system as a slick and efficient machine which upholds absolute values such as ‘truth’ and ‘justice’ and in doing so fully subscribe to such discourses, The Wire offers its viewers a critique of institutional power and the discourses of truth associated with such power. Reading The Wire in terms of a Foucauldian critique of institutional or disciplinary power, this article will deal with three key features of this critique namely; the precise ways in which The Wire’s depiction of various social institutions differs from that of other television series, its presentation of both dominant and minority groups and the way in which specific characters define themselves, their identity and position within society according to different discourses of power.

I. In Discipline and Punish, Michel Foucault identifies a shift taking place during the 18th century from a society founded upon the absolute law of its sovereign over his or her subjects to one composed of a network of institutions functioning according to a logic of disciplinary power. More precisely, as the position of the sovereign power became increasingly unstable, no longer evoking the divine right it once enjoyed along with the unquestioning obedience of its subjects, a new form of legal system was required, one that did not depend on the individual persona and whims of the King but, rather, took society as a whole as its aim, focusing on the individual needs and rights of its members in a way that could be objectively measured and regulated. The criminal justice system which emerged was, consequently, divided up into a whole series of methods and procedures, all aimed at not only proving the guilt of a criminal but also discerning motive, personal pathology and the most effective method of reintegration into society. The idea behind this fragmentation of the judicial system was that ‘truth’ – proving an individual guilty not only of committing a certain act but, at the same time, in possession of specific personality traits which rendered him or her capable of committing such an act – should not be left to a single, fallible individual, the figure of the judge but rather should be backed up, rendered indisputable by a whole plethora of ‘scientific’ knowledge produced about the criminal by a series of expert witnesses: forensic scientists, criminal psychologists, statisticians and so on.

Henceforth, penal practice was to be subject to a common rule of truth, or rather to a complex rule in which heterogeneous elements of scientific demonstration, the evidence of the sense and common sense come together to form the judge’s ‘deep-seated conviction’. Although penal justice preserves the forms that guarantee its equity, it may now be opened up to all manner of truths, providing they are evident, well founded, acceptable to all. The legal ritual in itself no longer generates a divided truth. It is resituated in the field of reference to common proofs.[1]

Television crime drama typified by programmes such as Crime Scene Investigation and Law and Order continue to present viewers with this very concept of ‘truth’ founded upon a multiplicity of scientific and pseudo-scientific discourses. Moreover, these dramas can be seen to operate in the same way as the discourses they evoke, each presenting their own specialised brand of legal ‘truth’ and ‘justice’ which can only function as a result of their difference to and relationship with other series and their chosen field of jurisprudence. This has become all too apparent in the way in which a television series will spawn several other shows all carrying the name of the original series; CSI: Miami, CSI: New York, Law & Order: Criminal Intent, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit and so on.

This fragmentation also occurs within the shows themselves, with different characters possessing different skills and specialist training. The Crime Scene Investigation lab, for example, is made up of coroners, ballistic specialists, photographers, entomologists, field agents making arrests and conducting interviews and lab technicians running DNA tests. The authenticity of the truths produced by various branches of criminal investigation lies in the fact, according to Foucault, that these branches produced a series of ‘objective’, scientifically informed truths about the crime and the criminal which combined to make a watertight case for the prosecution. Yet, the emphasis on the ‘truth-value’ of a television show’s chosen field, has led, unsurprisingly, to this field assuming a metonymic function and standing in for the justice system as a whole. Hence, in Law and Order: Criminal Intent, we see a gifted criminal psychologist, Robert Goren (played by Vincent D’Onofrio) interfering with forensic evidence, issuing instructions to the coroner and lab technicians. This is reversed in CSI where it is the lab geeks themselves who get to make the arrest and exact the confession.

With its equally metonymic title and theme of surveillance, The Wire might at first glance appear to be just another replication of this highly successful formula. However, in The Wire we are shown a panoramic view of the City of Baltimore’s fragmented justice system. Individual departments such as homicide, narcotics and major crimes are not depicted in isolation from one another but rather combine along with local police precincts, forensics, the district attorney’s office and the courthouse to form a grid or matrix of disciplinary power. With each additional series another institution is added to the mix: the port, local government, the school system and the local newspaper. It is not only criminals but all members of society who are targeted by and implicated in what Foucault terms, ‘strategies and relations of power’. Disciplinary power determines the existence of everyone, the ‘docile’ bodies of the media, education system, workplace and political administration as well as those ‘criminal’ bodies caught up in the penal system. As the show’s creator, David Simon has pointed out, The Wire is:

really about the American city, and about how we live together. It’s about how institutions have an effect on individuals, and how … whether you’re a cop, a longshoreman, a drug dealer, a politician, a judge [or] lawyer, you are ultimately compromised and must contend with whatever institution you’ve committed to.[2]

In its depiction of multiple institutions and their relationship to one another, The Wire does not present us with a coherent social machine with shared values and ideologies. What emerges is the exact opposite, a tangled web of bureaucracy and confusion with personal rivalries and hierarchies, budgetary issues and questions of protocol preventing different departments from working together effectively. Thus, in series four and five we are shown the irreparable consequences of Herc not passing on a message to Bunk. As a result it is already too late when Bunk finally learns that Randy Wagstaff is a potential witness to the Stanfield murders and Randy’s own welfare has, by then, been compromised and his trust in the police lost forever.

Where the forensic detectives of CSI are given an unlimited budget, an arsenal of flashy gadgets and databases and the ability to issue subpoenas and search warrants within minutes, The Wire, takes the inverse approach. Like Terry Gilliam’s dystopic film Brazil, The Wire shows us institutional power taken to its logical extreme. Values like truth and justice are lost under piles of reports, as budget cuts call investigations to a halt and legal regulations prevent warrants from being issued and surveillance being set up. Frequently, those running an investigation are caught up in a vicious circle where they cannot get the evidence required to authorise further investigation (most notably in the form of wire taps) without conducting such investigations in the first place. It is their frustration with this seemingly unbreakable cycle that leads McNulty and Freamon to instigate their own ‘unofficial’ methods in the final series, using McNulty’s fake homicide case as a smoke screen for Freamon’s wire taps on Marlo Stanfield and his crew. Foucault’s power/knowledge cycle is inverted becoming a lack-of-power/lack-of-knowledge cycle.

With the multiplicity of scientific discourses, a difficult, infinite relation was then forged that penal justice is still unable to control. The master of justice is no longer the master of its truth.[3]

In The Wire there is never just one truth, but multiple and conflicting truths. As a consequence, boundaries between right and wrong become blurred as does the division, so clearly maintained in other crime dramas, between those who break the law and those who maintain it. Throughout the show, characters are faced with decisions not between right and wrong but, instead, whether to do the wrong thing for the right reasons or the right thing for the wrong reasons. One of the most notable examples of this comes from the use of statistics by the police department. While imbued with a certain truth-value, statistics are the political tool, par excellence, for proving anything and everything. Moreover, it is not just a question of reading statistical data in a certain way but also of the way in which the data is, itself, produced in the first place. So, for example, reducing the number of violent crimes occurring in a city over a given period of time does not necessarily require the actual reduction of specific crimes deemed violent but, instead, their classification as violent. This process, affectionately termed ‘juking the stats’ in The Wire has been a genuine problem in real-life Baltimore where the police department came under fire in 2006 for manipulating crime rate statistics.[4]

II. In crime dramas like CSI and Law and Order, a direct association is frequently formed between notions of truth and criminal justice and key characters and signifies a return to a discourse of sovereign power. Most notable amongst such truth-bearers is Lieutenant Horatio Caine of CSI: Miami (played by David Caruso) whose trademark platitudes and ‘shades of justice’ frequently verge on the parodic. Such characters become synonymous with the values they are upholding, and as a result are often targeted by those affected by their decisions. Almost every episode, Horatio Caine is the subject of a personal vendetta. Of course, this is partly a narrative device since it enables the audience to identify with the central characters more closely, learn about their fears and desires in a way not possible if they were simply conducting interviews and processing evidence. Law and Order makes particularly effective use of this need for identification, opening with the statement that:

In the criminal justice system, the people are represented by two separate yet equally important groups: the police, who investigate crime, and the district attorneys, who prosecute the offenders. These are their stories.

Where Law and Order frequently problematizes the contradictions and paradoxes of the legal system in a way which is largely absent from the CSI franchise, highlighting the complex process from arrest to conviction of a criminal, what remains at stake, nevertheless, is the quest for justice. Moreover, as Steven Zirnkilton’s opening voiceover makes clear, the story belongs to those charged with carrying out justice, viewers are not encouraged to identify with suspects and, in the case of Special Victims Unit, where conflicts often arise between arresting and convicting offenders and protecting victims, the victims are themselves often presented as obstacles to truth as a result of their refusal or inability to identify their aggressors.

In The Wire, the story belongs to all the characters and our sympathies are not directed in any one direction. As such it embodies Bakhtin’s notion of ‘heteroglossia’, offering us a multiplicity of different voices, perspectives and discourses. In ‘Discourse in the Novel’, Mikhail Bakhtin describes this multiplicity as follows:

[A]t any given moment of its historical existence, language is heteroglot from top to bottom: it represents the coexistence of socio-ideological contradictions between the present and the past, between different epochs of the past, between different socio-ideological groups in the present, between tendencies, schools, circles and so forth, all given a bodily form. These “languages” of heteroglossia intersect each other in a variety of ways, forming new socially typifying “languages.” [...] It might even seem that the very word “language” loses all meaning in this process – for apparently there is no single plane on which all these “languages” might be juxtaposed to one another.[5]

The Wire does not show us Baltimore through the eyes of one group of characters but, rather, constantly shifts the lens through which we see the city and its inhabitants. There is no one single protagonist in The Wire just as, equally, there is no ‘other’. Also, the different voices and discourses of different social groups are not presented to us in isolation but intersect and combine with cops and corner boys using the same terminology and nicknames. When Bunny Colvin visits Wee-Bey Brice in prison to ask about fostering Namond, they share their experiences of the street, using a common language despite being on opposing sides of the law.

What is perhaps more interesting, however, is the way in which the series depicts different racial and social groups. In other crime series, race often serves a specific yet minor plot function. For example, in CSI: Miami a Hispanic cop, Eric Delko, might be called upon to deal with the Latin community. Similarly, Ice-T’s character, Fin Tutuola, in Law and Order: Special Victims Unit frequently goes undercover posing as a pimp or drug dealer. Beyond such narrative devices, however, these series present us with a carefully selected team of investigators ensuring a politically correct representation of race and gender.

Where racial stereotypes are evoked, such as the assumption that a black former drug dealer committed a murder, it is usually so they can be dismissed.((see for example, Frank Prinzi, Director, ‘Grow’, Law and Order: Criminal Intent, Season 5, Episode 1, 2005.)) On the one hand, such stereotypes seem to exist to warn viewers about the potential dangers of their own prejudices and assumptions. Yet, on the other hand, what really happens is that these prejudices are actually legitimised by shows like Law and Order since they render it acceptable to make such assumptions in the first place even when these assumptions turn out to be ill-founded.

As Stephanie M. Wildman has suggested, one of the fundamental problems of criticising racism or, indeed, sexism is that it tends to blame certain individuals rather than analyse the power structures which enable racist discourses to exist and proliferate in the first place. ((Stephanie M. Wildman with Adrienne David, ‘Language and Silence: Making Systems of Privilege Visible,‘ in Critical Race Theory: The Cutting Edge, ed. Richard Delgado (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1995), 573.)) The Wire does not address the question of racism but, instead, attempts to expose institutional power and its discourses. In doing so The Wire demonstrates precisely how colour functions as a discourse which bears very little reference to any inherent truth about one’s individual identity. Somewhat ironically pre-empting the 2008 U.S. presidential elections, both white and black mayoral candidates accuse the other of ‘playing the race card’ in order to win voters.

One of the dangerous consequences of terms like racism and sexism is that they imply that those who are victims of racial or sexual discrimination are victims, per se, and that a straightforward opposition can be made between oppressor and oppressed. In his critique of Marxism, Foucault warns against such straightforward oppositions which always place one group in subordination to another. A dominant ideology which presents one group as superior to another does not exist in contradistinction to truth but, itself, constitutes one form or discourse of truth alongside other competing discourses. Truth does not exist independently as something absolute or transcendental but operates as a discourse of what counts as true at any given moment in time. ((Michel Foucault, ‘Truth and Power’ in Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings, 1972-1977, ed. Colin Gordon (New York and London: Prentice Hall, 1980),118.))

The problem of understanding race in terms of a straightforward opposition between majority and minority ethnic groups, most notably between white and black is two-fold. Firstly, in always presenting one group as victim of another’s oppression it fails to take account of the multiplicity of identities within the group itself assuming that a group is automatically united by their victimisation. Secondly, it abdicates ethical responsibility from the group presented as ‘oppressed’ since the notion of victim implies a degree of helplessness and, similarly, innocence on the part of those who are discriminated against. Yet, discourses of race can also be legitimated and reinforced by those who suffer as a result of such discourses. Furthermore, one’s position as either oppressor or oppressed is never absolute; individuals are caught up in a series of complex relationships which mean that they are never speaking or acting from a fixed position or perspective but multiple perspectives.

In it’s depictions of different social groups, The Wire dispenses with the notion of the ‘victim’. In particular, it dispels the mythical notion of a unified ‘black community.’ The black politicians and police officers are just as guilty of forming the same prejudices and reinforcing the same stereotypes towards black youths as their white colleagues.  Individuals are defined in terms of a series of complex, multiple relationships both with other individuals and the social institutions which shape and structure their everyday existences. Central to the development of each character is the tension between individual responsibility and the suffocating ubiquity of disciplinary or institutional power.

In Discipline and Power, Foucault describes how individuals are both subjects of and subjected to the power relations, strategies and forces operating in society. Our identity, beliefs and actions are all determined by our position within the power grid. Whether we obey or break the law, we are part of the same system and defined by this system. As such, there is no escape or resistance. Thus, one of the main criticisms of Foucault is the lack of agency such a view of power seems to imply. Individuals appear to have no choice regarding how they act or what they believe.

Adopting the term ‘race fabrication’ in place of the more commonly used ‘race formation’, Iain F. Haney López suggests a means of reconciling this tension. According to Haney López:

Race must be viewed as a social construction. That is, human interaction rather than natural differentiation must be seen as the source and continued basis for racial categorization. The process by which racial meanings arise has been labeled racial formation. In this formulation, race is not a determinant of some other social phenomenon, but rather stands on its own as an amalgamation of competing societal forces. Racial formation includes both the rise of racial groups and their constant reification in social thought. I draw upon this theory, but use the term “racial fabrication” [...] Fabrication implies the workings of human hands, and suggests the possible intention to deceive. More than the industrial term “formation,” which carries connotations of neutral constructions and processes indifferent to individual intervention, referring to the fabrication of races emphasizes the human element and evokes the plastic and inconstant character of race. ((Iain F. Haney López, ‘The Social Construction of Race’ in Critical Race Theory, 96.))

Consequently, we do not return to the perilous ground of a transcendental notion of humanity since who we are depends on the various social forces at work on and through us. Yet at the same time, this does not deny us our autonomy as social agents. We are responsible for our actions and we have a choice as to which discourses of truth we buy into and which we question. And it is precisely this questioning which Foucault terms ‘resistances’. ((Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality Volume 1: The Will to Knowledge (New York: Vintage Books, 1978), 95-6.))While we our identity will always remain the product of social forces rather than attesting to a transcendental part of our existence, it is precisely because this identity is not transcendental, absolute or fixed that it can be subverted, challenged and reconstructed. Thus, while each character in The Wire seems to be the inevitable product of their specific circumstances, this does not mean they are without a choice as to how they can and could act.

III. Caught up in a series of different institutions and relationships, each character in The Wire is involved in a series of negotiations and compromises. More precisely, how an individual chooses to compromise depends upon his or her understanding of power. The sophistication of The Wire lies not simply in its analysis of institutional power but in how various characters perceive power and identify themselves in relation to it.

Regardless of their skin colour there are certain characters who buy into what, for want of a better term, we might call a ‘white’ discourse of sovereign power – they believe they can ‘possess’ power and change things for the better using this power; Tommy Carcetti, Jimmy McNulty and Russell ‘Stringer’ Bell would be key examples. For these characters, the power or ability to change things is invested with some higher moral value. This attitude is similar to the way in which privilege (social and financial) is frequently presented as merit by those in receipt of it. ((See Wildman’s discussion of privilege in ‘Language and Silence’, 575.)) Carcetti, McNulty and Bell all believe they have a ‘right’ to a certain form of power. For Carcetti this right manifests itself as unfailing confidence and charisma whereas for Bell it comes from his ability to see beyond the street. McNulty’s failure to identify with direct authority makes it possible for him to challenge the system, going over the heads of his superiors while at the same time asserting his innocence, exclaiming ‘What did I do?’ whenever faced with recriminations. For these characters, it is the end (more power) which always justifies the means. Bell is prepared to go to any length, including betraying his childhood friend and business partner, Avon Barksdale, to achieve his property investor dream which he believes will get him the respect and recognition he feels he deserves. Likewise, Carcetti convinces his friend and fellow councilman, Tony Gray, to run for mayor since it will ‘split the black vote’ and increase his own chances of election. Once elected, he refuses financial aid from the State of Maryland as he is already focusing on his next goal, running for State governor. McNulty’s belief that he is the only one that can solve the problems in the police department drives him to break multiple laws and fake the murders of several deceased homeless men. Finally, those that buy into a discourse of sovereign power also depend on the notion of spectacle to assert their power. Like the medieval monarch who used public torture and execution to affirm his power over his subjects, Bell and Barksdale have Omar Little’s boyfriend Brandon tortured and murdered, leaving him on public display as a warning to Omar and others. For Carcetti, the spectacle of power takes the form of grandiose speeches in which he proclaims his unfailing commitment to the city of Baltimore.

Then there are those characters such as Marlo Stanfield and his lieutenants Snoop and Chris who recognise that power is something transitory and illusory which one never possesses absolutely and which must be negotiated carefully since the strategies used to get to the top will also be used by others against you. When Michael thwarts Snoop’s plan to kill him, shooting her instead, Snoop appreciates that she was the one who taught him how to prepare for a job. Her own methods have been used against her and there’s nothing unfair about this. As Snoop puts it herself earlier in the same episode: ‘Deserve got nuthin’ to do with it.’ Thus, in contradistinction to a ‘white’ discourse of sovereign power there is a ‘black’ discourse which views power as a game which has to be played and involves an ethics of survival rather than belief in moral values. It is the discourse of those for whom power and authority have always been used against them. Marlo recognises when it’s time to quit his dealing empire and sells the exchange. Unlike Bell and Barksdale who made a public display of their executions, Marlo’s lieutenants Snoop and Chris hide bodies in condemned buildings aware that drawing attention to their activity will lead to their downfall.

Lastly, there are those characters who carve a middle ground between these two positions, for example, Cedric Daniels, Bodie Broadus and Bunny Colvin. While they reject the moral values which others assume to be inherent to power – they nevertheless call for a rethinking of these values. In his refusal to ‘duke the stats’ and his willingness to take full responsibility for McNulty and Freeman’s activities, Daniels gracefully abandons his ambitions to become Head of the Baltimore Police Department. While recognising the laws of the street and the inevitable consequences of informing on Stanfield and his crew, Bodie is nevertheless prepared to provide evidence about the murder of Little Kevin. Without fully being able to explain why (‘that shit ain’t right’), Bodie acknowledges a greater ethical responsibility than simply one of personal survival. Through his implementation of a free zone for drug trade (known as Hamsterdam) and his work with disruptive high school kids, Colvin attempts to dissolve the lines drawn between different social groups and individuals, recognising the need for the compromise and negotiation both between different groups and the different discourses of truth being presented by these groups. In this sense, he understands perhaps more fully than any other character, the possibility of transforming power through small resistances to its codes and structures. It is in these characters that we are offered a small glimmer of hope; that it is possible to do the right thing even as the two competing discourses of power are making it impossible to determine what the right thing is.


In any country, prison is where society sends its failures
But in this country, society itself is failing.
(Ice Cube, ‘What Can I Do?’)

The depiction of the criminal justice system in shows like CSI and Law and Order endorses notions of truth and justice without questioning what these notions really mean. In its response to shows like this, The Wire seems to be answering the call made by bell hooks for a ‘counterhegemonic art’ yet at the same time recognises the unrealistic goal of such a call. ((See Margaret M. Russell, ‘Race and the Dominant Gaze: Narratives of Law and Inequality in Popular Film’ in Critical Race Theory, 63.)) The Wire shows us everything which is wrong with the system rather than offering us an alternative or a way out. In this sense, The Wire embodies that which Richard Delgado has referred to as ‘counterstorytelling’, meaning the destructive rather than affirmative dimension of creativity:

Most who write about storytelling focus on its community-building functions: stories build consensus, a common culture of shared understandings, and a deeper, more vital ethics. But stories and counterstories can serve an equally important destructive function. They can show that what we believe is ridiculous, self-serving, or cruel. They can show us the way out of the trap of unjustified exclusion. They can help us understand when it is time to reallocate power. They are the other half – the destructive half – of the creative dialectic.  ((Richard Delgado, ‘Legal Storytelling: Storytelling for Oppositionists and Others: A Plea for Narrative’ in Critical Race Theory, 65.))

Yet what is most terrifying about The Wire’s depiction of social institutions is not their malfunctioning but, rather, that it is precisely through the various processes which fragment and dislocate the units, departments and organisations all supposedly striving for the same goals according to the same sets of values, which maintains the social system as a whole. The Wire’s critique of discourses of power and race demonstrates that there is no definitive or absolute truth behind such discourses but rather that disciplinary power is maintained by this absence. Moreover, in its analysis of institutional power, The Wire demonstrates not so much the failure of the system but, rather, its success.


1. Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (New York: Vintage Books, 1977), 98. [↑]

2. Commentary track to Clark Johnson, Director, ‘The Target’, The Wire (Series 1, Episode 1), DVD release date: April 2004. [↑]

3. Foucault, Discipline and Punish, 98. [↑]

4. WBALTV, ‘Homicide Rate, Police Procedures Questions’, 14 February 2006, (accessed 11 October 2008). [↑]

5. Mikhail Bakhtin, ‘Discourse in the Novel.’ Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays, ed. Michael Holquist, trans. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1981), 291. [↑]

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Sophie Fuggle is a PhD student at Kings college, University of London.
All posts by: Sophie Fuggle | Email

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