Realism and Utopia in The Wire by Fredric Jameson
But it is the genius of Lester Freamon (Clarke Peters) not only to solve these problems in ingenious ways, but also to displace some of the purely mystery and detective interest onto a fascination with construction and physical or engineering problem solving—that is to say,something much closer to handicraft than to abstract deduction. In fact, when first discovered and invited to join the special investigative unit, Freamon is a virtually unemployed officer who spends his spare time making miniature copies of antique furniture (which he sells): it is a parable of the waste of human and intelligence productivity and its displacement—fortunate in this case—onto more trivial activities that nonetheless absorb his energy and creative powers more productively than crossword puzzles, say. But Lester is also the type of the archivist-scholar capable of spending long hours on minutiae and in dusty files, which ultimately cracks open financial conspiracies all over the city; and he has deep, unostentatious, yet invaluable, roots in the community, as when he first uncovers an old photo of the youthful Barksdale in an old boxing hangout not many of his fellow officers would be likely to have any knowledge of: and to many of them he is also an inestimable mentor. This is then the sense in which The Wire not only offers a representation of collective dynamics (on both sides) but also one of work and productivity, of praxis. In both instances, then, there is at work a virtual Utopianism, a Utopian impulse, even though that somewhat different thing, the Utopian project or program, has yet to declare itself.
But Lester’s creativity may also be said to have a counterpart on the other side. We have not yet mentioned Barksdale’s sidekick, Stringer Bell (Idris Elba), who is something like his executive officer or prime minister in the classic political situation: the police themselves also have a degraded version of this dual structure, where the second in command is however by no means as disinterested or as efficient as Bell...
...This episode then adds something to The Wire that cannot be found in most other mass-cultural narratives: a plot in which Utopian elements are introduced, without fantasy or wish fulfillment, into the construction of the fictive, yet utterly realistic, events.
Yet Sobotka’s Utopianism would remain a mere fluke or idiosyncrasy if it did not have its equivalents in later seasons of The Wire. (We could write it off, for example, by observing that the creators of the show, in their local patriotism, had taken this occasion to add in some more purely local statement.) But in fact it does, and at this point I can only enumerate the later incidence of a Utopian dimension in succeeding seasons. In season 3, Utopianism is certainly present in Major Colvin’s “legalization” of drugs; that is, his creation of an enclave of drug use closed to police intervention. In season 4, on education, it is to be found in Pryzbylewski’s classroom experiments with computers and his repudiation of the exam evaluation system imposed by state and federal political entities. Finally, in season 5, the most problematical, it is to be located in Jimmy’s invention of a secret source for funding real and serious police operations outside the bureaucracy and its budget—and this, despite the artificial crime panic he deliberately fosters, and also somewhat on the margins of what was to have been a series dominated by the newspaper and the media (for each season of The Wire, like Zola’s great series, or like Sara Paretsky’s Chicago crime novels, is also organized around a specific industry).
The future and future history have broken open both high- and masscultural narratives in the form of dystopian Science Fiction and future catastrophe narratives. But in The Wire, exceptionally, it is the Utopian future that here and there breaks through, before reality and the present again close it down.