Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Stories Don't Matter

This is a response to Adam's excellent post. The idea that stories don't matter is a chilling concept, at least for someone who, like me and others on this blog, have invested much of our young lives as writers. There was an editorial in the NY Times yesterday by Stanley Fish, trying to defend the value of the humanties. I don't know how to link to it because I'm new at this, but basically after going through and dismissing the standard round of conventional wisdom to have humanities--critical thinking, galvanizing social movements, lessons for life etc.--Fish concludes that what is most valuable about the humanities is precisely their lack of exclusive, tangible utility. They simply enrich. Or, if you prefer a more utilitarian characterization of them, are simply useless and indulgent. The same can be said of stories, and indeed, all disciplines of the humanities are grounded in creating workable narratives to explain human motivation.
But back to Adam's point about the ultimate meaninglessness of stories, as it is expressed in The Wire. I want to flesh this out in the context of the show's previous four seasons and this season as well. For while I think Adam's insight about this scene in The Wire is a good one, it reveals only one side of storytelling, whereas The Wire actually treats the function of storytelling the same way it views the public school system: operating in a dynamic and fluid context.
What I am trying to say, I suppose, is that there are many times in The Wire where storytelling is not dismissed as recycled and useless. Where it instead has real and palpable consequences that affect the lives of many. Consider one of the very first scenes in the show. After D'Angelo Barksdale's acquittal, McNulty goes to his friend, the judge, and tells him a story of two men, Avon Barksdale and Stringer Bell, who have colonized the streets of West Baltimore, operate a cartel-like drug trade, and wield such force and intimidation in the community that no individual will testify against them, even when they are an eyewitness to a murder. McNulty is opening the judge's eyes to "the reality", but that does not negate the fact that does so through a verbal narrative. He does not, for example, drag the judge down to West Baltimore to see for himself. And this story has an impact. The judge hears it, puts pressure on the comissioner and the homicide department and a homicide detail is set up as a result.
Better yet is the case of Bunny Colvin and Hamsterdam. He simply re-writes the rules of law to make police work more effective. While the true story stays hidden, the story being told is of a 14% unexplained drop in crime rates.
In both examples, the stories being told, whether true or false, the consequences from their telling are quite real. In other words, if these stories are not told the Detail never gets formed. Hamsterdam is discovered and squashed out while Bunny is still trying to figure out how to get the corner boys to listen to him.
The major strain upon these stories is that their power is constantly atrophying under the force of real life events. In the first season the Barksdale case remains unifinished. In the third season Hamsterdam is quickly taken down when the media catches wind of what Colvin has done. So the feeling we are left with throughout much of the Wire is not that stories lack power, but that this power crumbles a little bit more with each moment after its telling so that eventually it shatters or just dissipates, like Carcetti's ideal vision of Baltimore, into the indistinguishable grime of life.
What Adam points out, however, is that the emphasis on storytelling this season is far more self-conscious. When the newspapermen are commenting on the "Dickensian" story about the public schools we see the simplification necessary for all storytelling, BUT it is the story we have grown to love over the last four seasons that is being reduced to a watery cliche. In this image stories really are useless, but this has much to do with self-consciousness of season five as it does with the actual uselessness of stories. The higher the self-consciousness, the greater the doubt.

1 comment:

Adam said...

Nice post. I think we'll find out more about this when we get to episode 56 - The Dickensian Aspect. I'm not kidding. That's its real name.