B’More Epic: Cognitive Maps and Urban Space in The Wire
A paper presented to the Canadian Communication Association by Luke Arnott, May 30, 2014.
The blurb on The Wire’s DVD box set claims that “from the corruption of City Hall to the battered streets of Baltimore, The Wire: The Complete Series is an urban epic that critics have declared the greatest dramatic series ever.” Critics have argued that one of the features of epics, as far back as the age of heroic poetry, is that they aspire to represent a social totality. Today, as part of a larger project on how epics are constituted within the new media of postmodernity, I will outline some of the ways in which the series constructs and maps space. I will argue that The Wire operates within what Fredric Jameson calls an aesthetic of cognitive mapping, one that communicates a specific model of the postmodern world to a particular, spatially discontinuous community.
In The Condition of Postmodernity, David Harvey notes that “postmodernism” is a confusing term, as it has been used in a wide range of disciplinary contexts and with various levels of approval. Whether it represents simply an amorphous style or a periodizing concept, a fundamental rupture with modernism or a revolt within modernism itself, postmodernism is clearly felt to be important to contemporary life; it is, as Fredric Jameson argues, the “dominant cultural logic.” Some of its features include the rejection of theoretical meta-narratives, the embrace of endless plays of signification, the erosion of historicity; most importantly for a discussion of The Wire, however, is the postmodern understanding of space and its complicity with current capital flows. Harvey argues that postmodern aesthetics prioritize space over time, a shift in cultural practices that is informed by political-economic changes – the speeding-up of capital flows that has in effect annihilated space as an obstacle to exchange and appropriation. The Wire is very much caught up in contemporary urban spaces and architecture, which are seen by both Harvey and Jameson as the leading indicators of postmodernism; the changes wrought to the spaces in which people live have had the greatest material effects.
Harvey lived in Baltimore for many years, from the late 1960s through the 2000s, and wrote often about the decline of that city in the context of geography and political economy. His work, along with that of fellow Johns Hopkins professor Giovanni Arrighi, is a touchstone for political economic critiques of The Wire. Although he has not weighed in on the series, Harvey is familiar with The Wire and the applicability of its system of representation to other urban transformations (Schapira and Backer). Conversely, if published interviews and media appearances are any indication, The Wire’s creator, David Simon, and his collaborators do not seem directly aware of Harvey’s work, and yet The Wire echoes Harvey with uncanny precision. For instance, in more than one analysis, Harvey focuses on the coach lamp as a metonym and a signifier of Baltimore’s gentrification. Among the features of postmodern architecture, according to Harvey, is an ironic, non-parodic reuse of past architectural forms; the “standard coach lamp” harkens back to the colonial period in America, even as such signs of “rehabilitation” are stripped of all historical context and “often assume almost exactly the same serial monotony as the modernism they were supposed to replace.” Harvey provides photographs of renovated Baltimore townhouses with rows of such generic coach lamps in sharp perspective; many of these are in the newly gentrified area around “Federal Hill,” near the formerly working-class port and Inner Harbor.
In The Wire’s second season – which focuses on the decline and fall of the fictionalized International Brotherhood of Stevedores – Harvey’s coach lamps reappear. Nick Sobotka, nephew of the president of the stevedore’s union, has been trying to find a house for his young family. In one scene, Nick tours a house that his aunt had once owned; Nick points out to the realtor that the area, now being touted as Federal Hill, was then known as Locust Point. After the realtor tells him the asking price, he realizes that the neighborhood is no longer affordable. As Nick, his girlfriend, and their young daughter step out of the house and back onto the street (with the ironic remark that “Maybe we should rent”), the shot is framed just as Harvey’s photographs, with a row of identical coach lamps along the newly-renovated facades. A BMW, naturally, is also parked outside to accentuate the point.
The changes wrought to conceptual space are also important to postmodernism. Harvey discusses the importance of maps in constructing and, in turn, reflecting and reproducing Renaissance and Enlightenment thought (1987, 245–254), and he cites de Certeau and Bourdieu when describing the totalizing aspects of maps (252–253). We are confronted with the paradox of a media form which constantly tries to represent a totality that can never be complete – what the epic tries to do for literature and its narrative heirs, the map tries to do for geography. The Wire, as a totalizing narrative, also uses a kind of cartography and encourages its viewers to conceive of its cosmos in terms of maps. For one thing, the “objective” point of view of the series’ realism is an analogue of the detached perspectivism of Renaissance maps (246). It is no accident that the open-air drug markets of West Baltimore that David Simon and Ed Burns chronicle in their pre-Wire book The Corner are depicted not only in prose, but also with a detailed map of all the relevant sites described. The “corner” is therefore, as Harvey says of the Ptolemaic globe, possible to be represented as “a knowable totality.” (246)
The Wire may not come with a ready-made map tucked into its boxed DVD set, but maps figure prominently within the show’s diegesis, especially in the production of knowledge about Baltimore and the city’s inhabitants. For example, in season two, Detective McNulty uses tide charts to locate the spot at which a corpse first entered the water; he then uses this superior knowledge of interdepartmental politicking to change the jurisdiction of the murder and force the unwanted investigation back onto the City Homicide Unit. (2.1) Precise mapping techniques recur as a measure of McNulty and company’s power in their police investigations many times, such as when they use GPS technology on Vondas’s cell phone (2.10) or crack the clock code that Marlo Stanfield uses to arrange face-to-face meetings with his lieutenants. (5.9) Outside The Wire’s diegesis, it is ironic that the show’s fans use similar techniques to apprehend its narrative totality: for example, WikiVoyage.org features maps of seven sections of Baltimore as part of “The Wire Tour,” an itinerary of the show’s many local filming sites; these are collected on one overall map of Baltimore City. The quest to map Baltimore begins with one neighborhood in The Corner, and by the time of The Wire, the process has grown exponentially to include all sorts of maps that cover overlapping terrain; it thereby mirrors the increasingly dense, centrifugal plotting of The Wire’s narrative action and its addition of more and more social and geographical settings. This cartographic and dramatic expansiveness is perhaps indicative of both the endless striving to represent a complete whole and the very futility of that striving.
Thus The Wire is complicit in what is commonly understood as mapping; but what of mapping and the postmodern? The key here is that the series uses a multiplicity of maps for different purposes, each with its own end; it is a totality of maps. Indeed, The Wire itself can be read as a kind of “cognitive mapping,” a concept which Fredric Jameson develops in Postmodernism. For Jameson, as for Harvey, space is one of the fundamental categories that must be interrogated in any analysis of the postmodern; Jameson claims that spatial issues are the “fundamental organizing concern” of “a model of political culture appropriate to our own situation” (1991, 51). The aesthetic of this postmodern culture is one of cognitive mapping. Jameson refers to Kevin Lynch’s classic of urban geography, The Image of the City, as a discussion of the “alienated city”. Lynch posits that cities have a certain legibility or “imageability,” a property of all physical objects which leads them to evoke an image in the minds of individual observers. (9) From the perspective of urban planning, the clearer the image is, the more orderly and navigable an environment will be. Lynch then applies this theory to an analysis of central areas of Boston, Jersey City, and Los Angeles, comparing the urban spaces with descriptions of them from interviews with local residents. Lynch found that when interviewees were asked to describe their respective cities, the mental maps that resulted reflected each city’s imageability: a city’s image was therefore clearer when residents could all name many of the same physical features and relationships between such categories as landmarks, paths, edges, and nodes. When residents described different features with different spatial relationships, imageability was lower. The difference was most clear when Lynch schematized these descriptions in a series of maps, although Jameson points out that what Lynch’s subjects are doing is in fact “precartographic,” aligning more with the itinerary than with the map as such. Nevertheless, Jameson finds Lynch’s ideas useful precisely because his “images” are not quite mimetic in the older sense of ideologically-driven “representation,” and because the concept of imageability can be extrapolated into non-physical spaces such as social space. Cognitive mapping, then, not only outlines itineraries in the manner of Lynch’s subjects, but it also “comes to require the coordination of existential data (the empirical position of the subject) with unlived, abstract conceptions of the geographic totality.” (Jameson 1991, 52) At the same time, it recognizes “that there can be no true maps” because of the fundamental difference between representational codes and the outside world. For Jameson, if there is ever to be a political form of postmodernism, the practice of cognitive mapping on both spatial and social scales will be an important part of it. (54)
Whether or not such cognitive mapping as Jameson hopes for is even possible, it is clear that The Wire represents a step toward this, even though, as some critics have noted, it is far from perfect. The case board is one tool of mapping that goes beyond the more traditional mapping discussed earlier. In The Wire’s early seasons, the detail uses a bulletin board to “map out” the police’s knowledge of the various organizations under surveillance, and thereby to build the case. Under the curation of paper-chasing detectives such as Lester Freamon or Roland Pryzbylewski, the names and photographs of criminals and persons of interest are plotted and connected, along with geographical locations such as known meeting places or front businesses. Importantly, though, the case board is incomplete, and must rely on other abstract mapping techniques for its true meaning – the legal paperwork of affidavits, court records, and the like; public records such as property deeds, articles of incorporation, and so on; even the records of the wiretap itself, which log the times of calls and classify them as “pertinent” or “non-pertinent.” The case board is implicitly contrasted with other “debased” methods of abstract representation (Toscano and Kinkle): this includes, most famously, the whiteboard in the homicide division, which reduces crimes to the name of a corpse, written in black or red to signify whether the case has been closed or not. But the whiteboard is perhaps more valid than that: not only because it clearly represents actual practice, but also because the information it collects and represents is not false, only deficient. The danger, The Wire seems to suggest, is to interpret the whiteboard as the police “brass” does, as the only map that matters, a willfully reductive act from which comes all the misguided obsession with “juking the stats.” Instead, knowledge, and hence the power to employ or to resist various social structures, comes from the use of a variety of mapping techniques in concert, the epistemological blind spots of each compensated for by the others in a kind of postmodern triangulation. Likewise, viewers of The Wire are aided in their understanding of the show’s dense plotting when they interpret it through this particular lens.
Toscano and Kinkle wonder whether The Wire’s additive technique of cognitive mapping would ever improve its (or its audience’s) understanding of postmodern totality. If the series could, like some Borgesian thought-experiment, continue indefinitely, chronicling a new institutional construct in each season, would it ever get closer to representing “reality” and making it comprehendible? This is of course the paradoxical desire behind the epic as a narrative form: the epic must include everything, and keeps trying, despite the representational limits of its medium. For Toscano and Kinkle, the gaps in the police detectives’ knowledge “between the street gang and the world of international finance is an epistemological limit shared by [The Wire] itself,” and those gaps are of particular importance because of the role of international finance capital in the development of Baltimore and other cities like it. However, though the failure to make the connection “could obviously be seen as a failure of The Wire’s aesthetic of cognitive mapping, it can also be seen as an inevitable aesthetic and epistemological barrier.” (Toscano and Kinkle) At this point, a return to Kevin Lynch’s concept of the city image is instructive, for just as “imageability” underpins Jameson’s discussion of cognitive mapping, it also anticipates some of these very problems. The “images” described by Lynch’s urban subjects were never complete in themselves: instead, “rather than a single comprehensive image for the entire environment, there seemed to be sets of images, which more or less overlapped and interrelated.” (85) The “shifting image” – or the meta-image – consisted of different levels conceived at difference scales, and also fluctuated depending on cyclical changes from day to night, or between seasons. The image of the city also changed over time, to reflect physical changes in the environment.
Change – in a sense the very definition of the passage of time – is where The Wire’s fault lines as a totalizing project become apparent. The more the series “works over” the same conceptual space, layering one map over another in an attempt at something like cognitive mapping, the greater the danger of its becoming detached from current experience. Thus there is a curious “temporal lag” to many of The Wire’s details and preoccupations: while critics have noted the series’ nostalgia for a Fordist compact between labour and capital that might never have existed as The Wire idealizes it, they have been less attentive to how the “present” of this supposedly realistic series is caught up in the past as well. For example, a viewer could be forgiven for thinking that the Barksdale gang’s use of pagers in The Wire’s first season felt rather archaic even during its original broadcast in 2002. The reason for this is that the details of the case were taken from Ed Burns’ wiretap case from the early 1980s. It is fitting that, even as The Wire is felt by many academics to mirror their hopes for a process of cognitive mapping, it must make the same trade-offs that any researchers make: the depth of factual detail comes at the necessary cost of timeliness, notwithstanding the extra considerations of the lag between the conception of television episodes and their production and broadcast or distribution.
Such problems are necessarily glossed in The Wire, and this accounts at least in part for the slight ahistoricism of the show. The fact that nothing seems to change in the world of The Wire has been cited as evidence of the “fatalism” of Simon and his collaborators, although I would side with critics who stress the cyclicality of the series instead. (Kinder 81; Kelleter 50) The most striking example of this trait appears in the last episode of the series. McNulty and Freamon’s fraud with the fake serial killer has been exposed, partially compromising the evidence from the wiretap. McNulty and Freamon are forced into retirement, but avoid criminal charges; Mayor Carcetti becomes governor of Maryland; Marlo Stanfield avoids prison, but is banished from “the game”; and so on. The cyclicality comes from the way in which character archetypes are replaced: Detective Sydnor becomes the new McNulty, Dookie becomes the new Bubbles, Michael becomes the new Omar, Marlo becomes the new Stringer Bell, and so on. (Kinder 81; Kelleter 50) Thus while the roles in The Wire’s polity are reproduced in a way that seems to suggest an inexorable fate – there will always be junkies, there will always be violent gangsters, crooked politicians, ad infinitum – the particular characters prosper or suffer without any regard for what they might “deserve.” Indeed, many commentators have noted the fact that Bubbles and McNulty “go home” in the end. This makes the finale seem “highly satisfying and life affirming” to these viewers (Kelleter 50), perhaps all the more so because Bubbles and McNulty had been perhaps the most long-suffering and self-destructive characters over The Wire’s five seasons. If one were inclined, they might even be interpreted as prefiguring possible outcomes for the characters that replace them. In any event, the technique of “systemic closure” (Kinder 81) is even prefigured in previous season finales, ending as they do with musical montages and the sense that rewards and punishments are doled out with little regard for personal merit, even as “life goes on.” Here is the escape hatch for The Wire’s realism: the fates of characters remain plausible even as they are displaced into an ahistorical future.
The Wire’s spatial logic of cognitive mapping and its modeling of liberal and academic desire both situate the series within a contemporary, postmodern cosmos. It presents itself as an ever-expanding representation of Baltimore, a totalizing narrative of the social world of a contemporary American city; the fact that its viewers have not only deemed The Wire a success in that regard, but have also used the series as a template to map and communicate their understanding of urban environments in general, suggests that The Wire is an “urban epic” in a far more profound way than any marketing claims printed on the back of a DVD set might lead us to believe.