12.27.2020

Watching "The Wire" Again and Again and Again, or The Many Modes of Repetition

I've seen "The Wire" at least two dozen times. Why? I'll let Søren Kierkegaard answer: "Just as [the Greeks] taught that all knowing is a recollecting, modern philosophy will teach that all life is repetition."

I'm watching "The Wire" these days. I've watched it many, many times before; I wouldn't be surprised to learn I've seen it 25 or more times. People sometimes make fun of me for it. But what, precisely, are they making fun of? And why do I watch it over and over? Well, for that matter, why do I — why do we, why does anyone — do anything again? 

There are many reasons, of course. But, for now, I'll try to focus on TV shows in general and "The Wire" in particular. 

I believe some people find it odd that I watch something over and over because, whether they know it or not, they somehow believe TV shows are primarily for the dispensation of information. Once you know if Ross and Rachel get together or if John McClane gets out this pickle, the show is done. Used up. This is our culture's obsession with "spoiler alerts": we believe that the show — or movie or novel — is telling us something and, once we know, its job is over. So why watch it again? 

But that's obviously absurd. Art is not the dispensation of information. Sure, some stories might turn on revelation. But the best stories are concerned with how events affect people and their relationships, not what happens. This doesn't mean there's no suspense. It means that revelation per se is not the reason we engage. Personally, I never care how something turns out; you can't spoil anything for me. The art is in the going. I think of John Cassavetes' achingly beautiful, "The Killing of a Chinese Bookie." The title tells us what happens. The film lives in the how — and what a how it is!

The title of the film, "The Killing of a Chinese Bookie," is a "spoiler alert." The film is not the what of the plot but the how of an experience — for both characters and viewers. I mean, c'mon, look at that shot! 

Now consider sports for a moment. Is each game the same thing over and over? Or is each game different, a reckoning of life, each game something new? Why play or watch a game again? Because life seethes in this again. In fact, if there were only one baseball game ever, it would be absurd — not to mention boring af, as the kids say. Sports get their power, especially baseball, in that again — and again and again. It gets more interesting the more it's repeated. Sure, you say, but each baseball game is actually different — unlike "The Wire" which stays the same. Fair enough. But sports nevertheless reveal one mode of repetition, namely, the emergence of patterns — such as consistency as signs of mastery, intelligence, skill, suckiness.

So let's take a painting, instead. You don't see a painting once and assume it's "done," do you? No doubt, we wish some art could be done after we've seen it. But not art we love. It's there to be seen over and over; we even seek out this repetition, hanging it on our walls. We want the experience of beholding that art, the way it works us over (to borrow a phrase from Marshall McLuhan), not the information it provides. So why isn't a TV show the same? "The Wire" is an experience, not a series of facts to be known. I watch "The Wire" over and over for the same reason people look at the same painting over and over — or, for that matter, have sex over and over: it feels good. It's an expression of love. 

 I love looking Francis Bacon's paintings more than once, more than twice, more than a dozen times. And yet I don't want to have this hanging above my bed. It's too intense for my everyday living. Every will to "again" is different and depends on the bodies involved. It's not a matter of again or not. It's a matter of how this happens again.

And yet that's not always as simple as it seems. For instance, I love many paintings by Francis Bacon. But I don't always want to see them; I certainly don't want to live with them hanging over my bed, down my hallways, in my living room. They're too intense for how I live day to day, for my affective metabolism, that is, for the affect I — as this person here — desire, consume, and distribute; I don't have the affective intestinal fortitude to look at a Bacon every day in my living room as I have snack or as I, say, lounge on my couch to watch "The Wire" for the 29th time. I look at these paintings again and again and linger with them each time so that I can experience, know, feel everything they offer — their affect, their feelings, their knowledge. And then I don't again for some time. 

But I do return to them — to feel and know things that can only come by experiencing those paintings again and again. If I knew I had only one viewing, my experience would be impossible to imagine. For that matter, art wouldn't even exist. Art only exists in repetition, in the fact that we know it will endure and be viewed multiple times. Sure, some works disrupt this reductive claim. Andy Goldsworthy, for instance, makes works that disappear with the elements, the tides or rains or river carrying his creations away. But he makes work that disappears with the elements again and again; indeed, his art emerges and lives in precisely this repetition. If he only made one work that vanished with the tides, it wouldn't be art (even if it might be artistic, beautiful, engaging). Style, which is to say life, only lives in repetition.

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Each thing — whether it's art, food, exercise, medicine, sex, or the gods — has its time. And that time may very well be one and done. Or it may happen over and over at a regular clip like a (healthy) heartbeat. Or it may be punctuated across time like a rock skipped across a pond. You may eat oatmeal every morning for years and only have chocolate mousse once every 27 months. But whatever its rhythm, repetition is built into the very structure of a thing's existence. Take us human beings before they've painted anything or played any games. We breathe — in, out, in, out. Our hearts beat their rhythms until they don't. We sleep and wake in cycles that accord with the day. Repetition is the very modus operandi of life. 

But, as Gilles Deleuze writes in the opening line of his devastatingly brilliant "Difference and Repetition": "Repetition is not generality." (That's a line I didn't understand when I first read it 25 years ago; it's a line that I keep understanding differently every time I consider it.) There are as many modes of repetition as there are lives of people, rocks, insects, suns, smells, leaves, gins, experiences. It's not just that life lives in repetition; it's that living, in its many forms, is different articulations of repetition with different reasons we might do something again. 

We repeat to learn. I play guitar scales over and over to work on my precision, touch, finger strength. In fact, it's the only way to learn an instrument or, for that matter, to learn any new physical task. In this case, repetition is accumulation, a training of the body to be other than it is now. That is quite different than looking at a painting over and over again because it affords pleasure. In this case, repetition inaugurates a new mode of operation (which deftly debunks the understanding of repetition as a will to the same). 

I usually watch "The Wire" simply, or not so simply, for the pleasure. The dialogue is so good that, at such moments, it's like taking a shot of booze, a line of cocaine, smoking a cigarette, or doing a whippit: an explosive pleasure that has no goal other than its endurance here and now (until I do it again — and why wouldn't I? It feels good.)

But I watch "The Wire" again in other ways, too. A few weeks ago, I was dealing with some intense family mayhem which left me sad, anxious, unsettled. I lay on the couch and just wanted something to settle me, calm me. And as my doctor refuses to write me a script for Xanax, I turned to TV. I wanted some experience to wash over me, take me in its warm embrace, something I knew I loved that would love me back. And so I turned to "The Wire" which has afforded me extraordinary and unhesitant pleasure for years. Repetition, then, can be the allure of familiarity amid a world that is relentless and difficult. 

This time watching "The Wire," however, I took another approach. This time I was curious about things I might have missed over the years. So I turned on closed captioning which shed light on so much of the background language, all the names of the drugs (I got the icicles! I got that WMD! I got that Pandemic!) and little turns of phrase I'd missed (and learned that Bunk's name is William; I only know that as Freamon says it once at the bar and I read it in the caption; I still rewound several times to confirm). In this case, repetition served to expand my appreciation of the show. This wasn't repetition as pleasure (even if pleasant) or as balm but as a mode of learning more. After all, the show is complex with elaborate language so there's a lot to miss the first 20-odd times. Once doesn't suffice.

And then there's the fact that once the show is so familiar to me, I can assess it on other terms. That is, rather than just watching it for what I've missed or for its familiarity, I use this familiarity as a foundation that lets me analyze different aspects of the show I've not paid as much attention to. It's a compelling show; it's easy to get swept up and enjoy its mechanics, language, and intelligence without critical viewing. But this time, because I know it so well, I've been able to step back and take note of two aspects of the show that I've not tended to in any concerted way — its structure and its politics.

After seeing it so many times, knowing it so well, this time I noticed some things about its structure and tone. It is much more theatrical than I'd ever realized (it's still hilarious to me that it gets described as "gritty" and "realistic" when it is so conspicuously mythological and unabashedly contrived). Each scene is a set piece that could just as easily be on stage as on TV. There's a rhythm to the delivery of information, affect, character, and message in each scene that is distinctly theatrical. Which is to say, scenes rarely proffer information solely propelling plot. No, each scene is crafted in such a way to tell us something about these characters and their relations or, as it's David Simon, to preach. My first two dozen times, I was enthralled. This time, I noticed how carefully constructed each scene is — like a comedian's joke, punchline and all. Just watch. 


And I noted its politics which are more ambivalent than I'd thought. This will be a topic of a different essay — the politics of David Simon and "The Wire" and, perhaps, "The Deuce." But, for now, I want to note that after watching it so many times, this time I was suddenly troubled that I found myself rooting for the cops to come up with more clever ways to spy electronically on the drug dealers. I was rooting for the surveillance state! 

I finally saw how what the show really offers is not an empire that's broken due to bad actors and their bad policies but an empire in a time of change and collapse: the institutions of the past, with all the supposed dignity Simon loves so much  simply don't work in the mass age. I realize this is reductive; there is a deep ambivalence at the heart of "The Wire" — an understanding that it's all a game while, at the same time, taking a hard a moral stance. I look forward to fleshing this out — a fleshing out only possible (for me) because I've seen it so many times. 

That may seem obvious but Simon seems to criticize these institutions — police, politics, schools, newspapers — for becoming too obsessed with numbers, with quantity over the quality of life (juking the stats). But such is what happens when there are so many people: we lose the local school house in which everyone knows everyone — and we can't go back. This is what happens when technology changes: we don't keep offloading ships by hand and nor should we, even if we do end up dredging the canal. What Simon never seems to suggest is that these institutions aren't broken; they're anachronistic. He seems to suggest reform is needed when it's all too clear that we need new kinds of institutions with new technological age for a world with an ever increasing population — not schools simply without testing but maybe, just maybe, no schools at all. Or schools of a form we've yet to consider. 

But that's for another essay. My point here is that after watching "The Wire" so many times, I was able to be more critical, to not be so utterly seduced by its characters and dialogue but to be able to see its political logic at work. Repetition, then, as a vehicle for critique. Sometimes, it's only when we know something so well that we can be critical. Rather than blinding us, repetition can sometimes be the only way to see something clearly. 

As the great Danish philosopher, Søren Kierkegaard argues, repetition is life and nothing less than a miracle: to do the same thing again and anew! Such is life and its daily miracle: we repeat ourselves to create ourselves. We repeat to reckon life — to learn, enjoy, create as every day we wake up ourselves and not ourselves. We make dinner, listen to music, tell our sweeties we love them, shower, hug our kids, have sex, go for walks, do yoga, watch "The Wire." In repetition, we live the manifold experiences of life — comfort, education, health, pleasure, and in the same gesture, the inauguration of the new. In repetition, we live — even if it looks like I'm just lazily watching "The Wire" for the 27th time. 

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