From Genre to Form: A Response to Jason Mittell on The Wire

From Genre to Form: A Response to Jason Mittell on The Wire

Caroline Levine

Caroline Levine argues that Jason Mittell’s attempts to classify The Wire by genre results in “some slippery logic, some fruitful and provocative but not altogether persuasive argumentative moves in Mittell’s own game.” She suggests that examining the show through the lens of form - not genre - clarifies why it warrants comparisons with texts like Bleak House: both works attempt to represent the distinctly networked quality of urban social life.

Jason Mittell’s provocative essay is exactly the kind of argument that is good to think with - it prompts a new alertness to facile and wooly assumptions. Mittell charges that we critics begin too often by asking how the The Wire shares characteristics with the novel without pausing to wonder why we are assuming that the novel is the best, or only, model for a television series in the first place. He compels us to stop and ask crucial, basic questions: why and how do we compare a work in one medium to a work in another? What does this analytic movement across media allow us to see, and what does it foreclose?

Implicitly, Mittell suggests three different routes to addressing these questions. The first is social. He worries that what is motivating the comparison between television and fiction is a matter of status: we want the new work to acquire the cachet of the older, more respected one. In a shameful bid for social distinction, we push for The Wire to be ranked among high-class works of art. The second route involves genre, and in particular the tracking of generic associations: does The Wire borrow its styles, codes, and conventions of representation from the massive nineteenth-century novel (War and Peace, Bleak House, Moby Dick), or does it more often depart from these to embrace stylistic and thematic patterns associated with a more surprising, emerging genre - the video game? The third path Mittell suggests is one traced through questions of form: the kinds of narrative, character, plotting, repetition, and serialization that allow us to compare works across different media.

For many critics, form and genre are more or less indistinguishable, but Mittell’s essay shows why it might be useful to disaggregate them. Genre involves acts of classifying texts. An ensemble of characteristics, including styles, themes, and marketing conventions, allow both producers and audiences to classify texts into certain kinds. This process is historically specific and interpretive: I might flip through movie show times looking for a romantic comedy, or struggle at first to figure out whether or not I should take Stephen Colbert as a parody. Form, as Frances Ferguson argues, is more stable over time, more of “a given” than genre. Forms such as syntax, free indirect speech, and the sonnet are ways of organizing words that, once we see the ways they work, are no longer matters of interpretive debate. She writes: “Even if you failed to notice that the sonnet that Romeo and Juliet speak between them was a sonnet the first time you read Shakespeare’s play, you would be able to recognize it as such from the moment that someone pointed it out to you…. It could be regularly found, pointed out, or returned to, and the sense of its availability would not rest on agreements about its meaning” (160). Forms also work on different scales and across media: one can find first-person narration in epic, romance, documentary, sermons, and gossip; rhythm organizes both poetry and music; symbols can take shape in sculpture, fiction, and photography. Even forms that seem to belong to a single medium - such as the octave and sestet that make up the written sonnet - can be appropriated by other media, invoked in drama, quoted by characters on television, and used as paratexts in visual art exhibits. Some genres do this too: there are parodic television shows as well as poems, police procedurals in television, fiction, and film. But it will be useful for thinking about Mittell’s argument, I hope, to see what in particular becomes clear when we distinguish between the two terms: genres can best be defined as customary constellations of elements, including themes, styles, and situations of reception, while forms are specific and defined principles of organization. I have proposed an unusually broad definition of form in an article called “Strategic Formalism: Towards a New Method in Cultural Studies,” Victorian Studies 48 (summer 2006): 625-57.This distinction will bring us back, by a circuitous route, to the problem of social inequality - which is what really concerns Mittell and which should most likely concern us, too.

Mittell’s piece moves fluidly between formal and generic categories. When discussing The Wire’s likeness to the novel, for example, he writes:

Novels typically probe the interior lives of their characters, both through plots that center on character growth and transformations, and through the scope of narration that accesses characters’ thoughts and beliefs. Even novels about a broad range of people and institutions often ground their vision of the world through the experiences of one or two central characters who transform through the narrative drive….

Here, Mittell suggests that certain formal elements of texts - characters with interior lives, plots organized around one or two central characters - are usually, though not always, associated with the novel as a genre. Using “often” and “typically” to qualify his claims, he acknowledges that novels can and sometimes do exist without these formal features. And of course, other genres sometimes incorporate these same forms: we certainly find rounded central characters in film, television, and drama. It cannot be the formal qualities of the novel that distinguish it from television, since TV shares many of its forms. Nor are all of the formal qualities of video games found in The Wire: interactivity, perhaps the most characteristic form of the video game is, as Mittell recognizes, crucially missing from The Wire. I want to suggest, then, that in the end Mittell cares little about the specificities of form and a great deal about genre as a set of associations. By this logic, novels are traditional and highbrow, and they usually ask us to think about individual characters with interior lives, while video games are hip and lowbrow, and they call our attention to large systems and game play, as The Wire does - though not in exactly the same forms.

The result of this attention to genre, I would argue, is some slippery logic, some fruitful and provocative but not altogether persuasive argumentative moves in Mittell’s own game. After all, the ludic shows up in other media long before the video game, from ancient sports and Oedipus’s riddle to game theory in international relations: why are video games the only models of the ludic here? Systems thinking has been around a long while in economics and environmental studies. Even replayability might be said to be a phenomenon of long standing. Outside of games proper, we might think of how characters in the Bildungsroman make choices that teach them lessons about what works and what does not, often prompting them to try a different solution the next time around. Jane Eyre offers us a sequence of playable scenarios in its first ten chapters. What happens if you fight back against tyrants? You get punished. What happens if you submit? You suffer. What happens if you use persuasive, well-told stories to make your case to authorities? You win friends and respect. I am referring, here, to a sequence of scenes: Jane locked in the Red Room for throwing a book at John Reed; Helen Burns is publicly shamed and eventually dies a kind of martyr’s death; and Jane wins the friendship and trust of Miss Temple after she tells her story well: “having reflected a few minutes in order to arrange coherently what I had to say; I told her all the story of my sad childhood. Exhausted by emotion, my language was more subdued than it generally was when I developed that sad theme; and mindful of Helen’s warnings against the indulgence of resentment, I infused into the narrative far less of gall and wormwood than ordinary. Thus restrained and simplified, it sounded more credible; I felt as I went on that Miss Temple fully believed me” (Bronte 60). Middlemarch, too, could be said to work this way: Dorothea Brooke, idealizing a life of service, chooses to marry a dry, self-absorbed curmudgeon of a scholar the first time around, but when she gets a second chance she chooses a playful, lively person of her own age who treats her as an equal, if not a superior. Replayability may in fact turn out to be a wonderfully useful term for reading the novel, despite the fact that it is borrowed from work on video games - a conclusion that urges us to bring an analysis of lowbrow, popular media together with traditional literature, rather than trying to separate them.

A sharper take on form enables a more rigorous intermedia analysis, I would argue, than a focus on genre, and this sharpness allows us to grasp the specific ways that texts in different genres and media actually mediate our relations to social inequality. I will concentrate here on the nineteenth-century novel - my own area of expertise and the kind of novel most often invoked as a point of comparison for The Wire. Mittell singles out one in particular: “Even novels about a broad range of people and institutions often ground their vision of the world through the experiences of one or two central characters who transform through the narrative drive - for instance, a Charles Dickens novel like Bleak House examines institutions like the legal system, but does so primarily through the experiences and perspective of a central character.” But a closer analysis of the forms of Bleak House and The Wire suggests some surprising similarities in their experiments with representing social class and agency. Both texts use unusual formal strategies to try to shift us away from conventional accounts of status and power. Thus it is my hypothesis that on political and social grounds it is more important to set two particular examples side by side than to invite broad genre and media comparisons. Generic connections remain on the most general associative level, while specific formal comparisons get us to the heart of what makes cultural productions work as compelling images of our social world. We learn most about both The Wire and the world it represents when we see that it shares more formal features with Bleak House than it does with other novels, from Robbe-Grillet’s La Jalousie to Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express; that it has more in common, formally, with this novel than it does with such television serials as Dallas or Friends; and that it is organized more like a Dickens novel than it is like a number of influential video games, from Pac-Man to World of Warcraft and from Guitar Hero to Grand Theft Auto.

To start with, Mittell makes an odd mistake about character in Bleak House. Famously, this is a novel that does not in fact focalize its experience through a first-person perspective: it switches back and forth between sections spoken by an impersonal, detached, ironic, mobile and knowledgeable narrator who speaks in the present tense, and sections spoken from Esther Summerson’s situated, immersed, naïve, past-tense perspective. Critics have interpreted this famously alternating perspective in different ways; Joseph I. Fradin’s claims that it works as an expression of “the divided modern consciousness” (95-109), while Lisa Sternlieb and Alison Case stress Dickens’s gendering of the two narrators. In this way, it is not so different from The Wire, which mixes subjective camera and first-person accounts - such as the nightmarish walk through Hamsterdam’s horrors, the numerous police attempts to capture drug dealers on film, and D’Angelo’s comparison of “the game” to the chessboard - with the more distanced perspective of each episode’s director. This movement back and forth between omniscient and first-person vantage points raises a perennial epistemological problem for realist representation: is it possible to give an overarching view of the world, to capture the totality of lived experience, or should we instead be skeptical about such totalizing perspectives, and adopt instead the more uncertain and limited perspective of the first-person narrator who cannot see beyond her own embodied experience? That both Bleak House and The Wire opt for a movement back and forth between these perspectives suggests that these texts seek to mediate our relation to the social world from a double epistemological vantage point, bringing together both the sweeping bird’s-eye view and the more lifelike individual struggle to make sense of experience on the ground, with only partial knowledge to go by. Both therefore call into question our knowledge of social relationships: from what perspective might we best grasp the problems of social status that worry Mittell? Might the first-person view associated with the novel offer an important corrective to sweeping claims about social reality drawn from, say, social science?

The struggle to capture a large view of the social prompts the two texts to experiment with the conventional form of character and to suggest some unusual conclusions about who has power over events in the world. While it is true that Bleak House has a single protagonist, unlike The Wire, both expand their sheer number of characters beyond the conventional hero or small ensemble. There are between 50 and 70 characters in both texts. Traditionally, a narrative conveys a society by way of representative individuals: heroes typify the community; outcasts and foreigners mark the boundaries. A handful of characters therefore typify whole social groups. But both Bleak House and The Wire strive for a different kind of representation. I have argued elsewhere that Bleak House is an unusual nineteenth-century novel in that it represents all of England as a set of overlapping and various networks: the legal system, kinship, smallpox, philanthropy, rumor, and the interlocking streets of the city itself (Levine “Narrative” 517-23). The Wire depends on a similar structure of superimposed networks: the bureaucratic organizations of police and drug dealers, kinship, economics, the city, the unions, the press, city politics, educational institutions, reform projects, and the church. In both narratives, almost every character acts as a node in at least one network, whether that is the city, the family, economics, philanthropy, or the law; and the vast majority of characters in these texts act as nodes in two or more different networks. Graham Alexander Sack argues that Bleak House is innovative in its moment in that it puts its stress on “weak social ties based on acquaintanceship and indirect chains of causality rather than strong social ties based on frequent, face-to-face interaction.” This means that it presents “a socially interconnected world in which an event originating in a seemingly distant segment of society may ripple outward through the social network and abruptly sweep through the lives of unaffiliated characters, who cannot be blamed for their misfortune” (Sack). Mittell, argues, similarly, that The Wire trains our attention on the ways that a minor event can trigger distant effects. Thus their shared reliance on multiple networks allows both texts to put forward theories of social causality: what and who makes things happen in the world?

The answer is more complex, and more similar, than one might expect. Both Bleak House and The Wire rethink the traditional narrative reliance on intentional human agency and in so doing, also change the conventions of character. First of all, although many of the characters are certainly recognizable types in both texts and do stand for social groups marked by such characteristics as race, class, gender, and profession, both texts go to some trouble to stress that characters are less important because they are exemplary or synecdochal than because they play crucial roles in institutional networks. For example, the novel introduces us to Jo for the first time at the inquest into Nemo’s death, and he is called to testify because a witness claims that he is the only person Nemo has been seen talking to. Thus he first appears in Bleak House not because he is an abandoned urban child forced to work on the streets, but rather because he is a point of contact between a dead man and the law. Jo then reappears in the text, over and over, not because he represents poverty or childhood or social marginality, but because his literal location in the city at specific times and places makes him relevant to a murder investigation, efforts at urban reform, the contagion of disease, and even the Snagsby marriage. Similarly, D’Angelo Barksdale does not merely epitomize the life of a mid-level drug dealer: his value and fate follow from his role in at least three overlapping social networks. His position in a kinship system - the fact that he is the nephew of drug kingpin Avon Barksdale - means that he reaps special rewards as well as special penalties. Just as Avon arranges for D’Angelo’s acquittal by threatening a witness on his behalf, he also requires that his nephew accept a fifteen-year jail term for the sake of the family. And as soon as D’Angelo goes to jail, he is replaced by Bodie, the next in line, who is not a member of the family but takes on D’Angelo’s position in the pecking order of the drug dealing hierarchy. Thus it turns out that D’Angelo has been acting not only as a pawn in a family structure, but also as a replaceable node in a management system. And of course, his potential to turn on his uncle makes him a node in another system as well: for the police and the courts, he is the best point of contact between the drug dealers and the operations of criminal justice.

In short, unlike characters in many other narratives that explore social injustice and oppression, Jo and D’Angelo operate not so much as synecdoches for social groups than as nodes where social institutions cross and intersect. Many classic narratives about social injustice follow a single person through struggles to win social status and material independence, such as Zola’s Nana or Frederick Douglass’s autobiography. Many other social problem texts are national allegories, such as Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South, where Margaret Hale stands for the agricultural and aristocratic South of England and John Thornton for the industrial, bourgeois North; alternatively, socially-conscious narratives can focus on characters who explore the experience of being marked as a member of a racial, ethnic, or other social group, such as Nella Larsen’s Passing or Esmeralda Santiago’s Almost a Woman. And indeed, both go a step farther to decenter character altogether. Take the case of Jimmy McNulty. For the bulk of the first season of The Wire, McNulty might have seemed like the consummate hero - a renegade passionately engaged in the search for truth at the expense of self-interest and bureaucratic pettiness. But if both we and McNulty have thought of him as the protagonist of the plot’s action, The Wire gradually encourages us to understand that we have been misreading. After Kima Greggs has been shot in the line of duty, McNulty understands himself as culpable - the agent uniquely responsible for her injury, having insisted on pursuing the investigation despite the warnings of his superiors. But this is a mistake. As Rawls says to McNulty:

[F]uck if I’m gonna stand here and say you did a single fucking thing to get a police shot. You did not do this, you fucking hear me? This is not on you. No, it isn’t, asshole. Believe it or not, everything isn’t about you. And the motherfucker saying this, he hates your guts, McNulty. So you know if it was on you, I’d be the sonofabitch to say so. Shit went bad. She took two for the company. That’s the only lesson here. (“The Hunt.”)

To think of oneself as pivotal, as exerting powerful agency, is to miss the ways that the self and its choices are always located at the crossing of other forces. One might argue that the broader arc of McNulty’s character is all about learning this lesson: both his demotion to marine duty and later return to the reconstituted special investigative detail, for example, depend on McNulty’s social network, not on his own efforts or mistakes. Bleak House makes the same point from the opposite direction: by offering up a protagonist whose selfhood is strenuously organized around self-denial, the novel makes painfully clear that it cannot be the affirmation of personhood or will that makes characters matter.

This unsettling of conventional character has implications for thinking about who wields power in social groups. Network theorists argue that in most networks, there are some nodes that are more highly linked than others. While most nodes cluster together around shared functions and purposes, a few important nodes are simultaneously part of many large clusters. These are called hubs (Barabasi 55-64). Some provide links between otherwise disconnected worlds. These are called hinges. It is not hard to identify the hubs and hinges in Bleak House: Jo, Esther, Woodcourt, Tulkinghorn, Bucket, and Miss Flite all appear in multiple clusters and provide links between clusters. And yet, this seems again a surprising and strangely incoherent list: it does not name only the most central or the most powerful figures. Similarly, in The Wire the hubs and hinges are not only major characters like D’Angelo and Stringer Bell but socially marginal and narratively subsidiary figures like Bubbles, Omar, and Wallace. Indeed, the police take the weakest members of the drug dealing hierarchy and try to turn them for their own purposes, thereby transforming socially weak figures into hinges, points of interface between the justice system and the drug dealers’ network. What this means, then, is that those who are the sites of the most substantial traffic are not necessarily sources of either agency or authority.

Jo, Wallace and Bubbles are all socially insignificant, comparatively powerless people whose sheer positioning in multiple networks of social interconnection lend them a crucial importance. This strange combination of centrality and powerlessness allows us to rethink conventional accounts of social inequality and marginalization. Not only Jo and Bubbles but also McNulty and Esther are all characters who are deeply confused about how much they are accountable for events. On the one hand, they are minor players, compared to Parliament and Chancery, the mayor’s office and the FBI. On the other hand, nothing happens without them. Both texts therefore go to some serious formal lengths to represent a social world organized by multiple crisscrossing networks where one might well be a hub without ever being an agent.

If both Bleak House and The Wire experiment with characters, networking structures, and narrative perspectives in order rethink personhood and social power, both do so relying on a common, all too mundane, formal feature: sheer length. Length, as Catherine Gallagher has argued, is on the one hand one of “the most prominent” elements of the novel, and on the other hand, a formal feature that has “received very little systematic attention in our criticism” (230). Recently scholars have begun to pay attention to the voluminousness of many contemporary media forms, from the million-word Harry Potter to online multiplayer games. These “vast narratives” draw on traditions of the novel, but also on the new computational potential of digital media, to imagine universes larger than those afforded by the conventional paperback or two-hour feature film.See the volume in which Mittell’s essay was originally published: Harrigan, Pat and Noah Wardrip-Fruin. Third Person: Authoring and Exploring Vast Narratives. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2009. And it is precisely their exceptionally roomy length that allows both Bleak House and The Wire to capture 60-odd characters, at least seven overlapping networks, and multiple plots that encounter and shape one another. The standard book format for Victorian novels was the “triple-decker,” or three-volume novel, which could incorporate long processes of development, complex multi-plot narratives, philosophical digressions, and large social systems, networks, or webs - as in Middlemarch. Other traditional forms - sonnets, short stories, tragedy - simply cannot capture such complexity in their comparatively straitened sizes. Feature-length film, which is a much shorter form, offers a particularly useful formal comparison to the two texts under discussion here: recent films that struggle to capture networks, such as Babel, Traffic, or Syriana, rely on what theorists call chain networks, where one event prompts another in a sequence of effects - more like dominoes than like the internet. Bleak House and The Wire, by contrast, rely on the more complex model of distributed networks, where the links between nodes arise in any kind of order - anyone can run into almost anyone else on the streets of London or Baltimore - and this complicates and multiplies not only the possibilities for causal relationships but for social relationships altogether, including unlikely ties among members of apparently far-flung social groups. After all, any number of distributed networks, from gossip to the drug trade to urban space, can end up linking someone like McNulty or Bubbles to the Mayor of Baltimore. Moreover, the feature films rely on a single principle of interconnection, like the drug trade or the oil industry, to undergird their plots, whereas Bleak House and The Wire layer on multiple principles of interconnection, linking the same individuals and families over and over again through different channels.

This multiplying of opportunities for connectedness might seem to lend itself to Mittell’s stimulating thoughts about replayability - there are so many chances for encounters with strangers that McNulty even runs into Stringer Bell grocery shopping and tries to follow him with his own sons in tow. But I would contend that most other narratives are actually better suited to replayability than Bleak House and The Wire, which share a sense that the social world is so densely tangled, so tortuously convoluted, that it is impossible to know and isolate clear causes for events. It is not only that small players like Dee and Randy cannot dictate their own fates: no individual character - including the Mayor and the Police Commissioner - can predict or command what will happen next. Everyone, from the highest to the lowest on the social ladder, seems buffeted by colliding forces that exceed intention and control. More conventional Bildungsroman narratives, such as Jane Eyre and David Copperfield, actually lend themselves better to the model of the video gamer’s range of choices, as the character’s development involves revisiting earlier decisions to make better choices the next time around. Replayability, in other words, depends on social power and agency, and it is precisely these factors that Bleak House and The Wire most experimentally rethink.

There is a lot to say about the differences between forms in Bleak House and The Wire, such as The Wire’s visual dimension, its structure by seasons, and its slow addition of new institutions. There is a lot, too, to say, about what they share in terms of style and scope: the single city as a way to understand national and even global currents, humor mixed with pathos and tragic loss, and a grim political outlook with little hope of change. But instead of dwelling on the details, I want to end by suggesting that form need not be limited to aesthetic organizing principles: it can also describe patterns of distribution and consumption. In this respect, the nineteenth-century novel actually has an enormous amount in common with The Wire. Just as The Wire appeared first in regular installments on television and then became available on DVDs for purchase or rental, Bleak House first appeared in nineteen monthly periodical parts, later to be available in bound volumes that could be bought or borrowed from circulating libraries. (The Victorian circulating library was uncannily like Netflix: having paid a membership fee, you submitted a list of preferences, and the library sent you what was available, suggesting books you might also like, and sending you the next books on your list as soon as you had returned the ones you had finished.) This form of distribution enables the specific kind of narrative arc traced by The Wire, which was impossible on television before the form of the DVD. Conventional police dramas on television, as Mittell notes, allow the audience to dip in and out, watching as few or as many episodes as they like, and picking up a series mid-season, after hearing about it from others, while each season of The Wire is almost completely unintelligible unless one watches every episode, and in order. But it is not just that The Wire evokes or imitates novelistic experience when it demands our attention to its overarching narrative structure; that structure is itself enabled by a serialized-episode-into-volume form that has a precise corollary in the Victorian novel.

The novel was famous in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries for being so capacious a form that it could actually swallow up other forms: poetry could be quoted by characters and used as epigraphs; short stories could be woven into the telling of the larger story; and writers could borrow plots of tragic peripeteia and anagnorisis. And to be sure, the novel is not the only “impure” form like this: video games, after all, borrow from a huge range of other forms, including fantasy role-playing games like Dungeons & Dragons, narrative epic, playground games like chase and tag, and systems theory. The Wire, similarly expansive and capacious, borrows formal features from tragedy, from the vast multi-plot novel, from detective fiction, from serialized television, from twelve-step narratives and sociological studies and journalism and games and even, for God’s sake, Robert’s Rules of Order. It is a lavishly mixed text that points beyond itself to traditions of representation that span media and disciplines of knowledge. For this reason, if for no other, it resists analogy to any other single genre, whether hip and lowbrow video games or literary multiplot fictions, and instead invites us to consider the many complex and contending forms that make up its richly textured fabric. And it pays to compare its extraordinary formal operations to those of a novel like Bleak House not to enshrine The Wire in the canon of high art, so that it can acquire the elite social status of the novel as a genre, but rather to show how both of these formally complex and dense narratives invite us to rethink what social status is, and how it operates, in the first place.

Works Cited

Barabasi, Albert-Lazlo. “Hubs and Connectors.” Linked. New York and London: Plume, 2003. 55-64.

Bronte, Charlotte. Jane Eyre. New York: Norton, 2001.

Case, Alison. “Gender and History in Narrative Theory: The Problem of Retrospective Distance in David Copperfield and Bleak House.” A Companion to Narrative Theory, eds. James Phelan and Peter J. Rabinowitz. Malden and Oxford: Blackwell, 2005.

Ferguson, Frances. “Emma and the Impact of Form.” MLQ 61 (March 2000): 160.

Fradin, Joseph I. “Will and Society in Bleak House.” PMLA 81 (March 1966): 95-109.

Gallagher, Catherine. “Formalism and Time.” MLQ 61 (March 2000): 230.

Harrigan, Pat and Noah Wardrip-Fruin. Third Person: Authoring and Exploring Vast Narratives. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2009.

“The Hunt.” The Wire: Season One. Dir. Steve Shill. Writ. David Simon and Ed Burns.

Levine, Caroline. “Narrative Networks: Bleak House and the Affordances of Form,” Novel 42:3 (fall 2009): 517-23.

—. “Strategic Formalism: Towards a New Method in Cultural Studies,” Victorian Studies 48 (summer 2006): 625-57

Sack, Graham Alexander. “Bleak House and Weak Social Networks.” unpublished paper presented to the Stanford LitLab (2011).

Sternlieb, Lisa. The Female Narrator in the British Novel: Hidden Agendas. Houndmills: Palgrave, 2002.