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APRIL 15, 2012 11:19AM

The Privileged White Men of Treme, and Their Hard Working Others

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While I found it useful to read Adolph Reed’s very biting answer to the question of why The Wire is so much better than Treme, I also didn’t find it very satisfactory. Mainly the problem is that Reed wants Treme to be a different kind of show than it ever seems to have tried to be, not only demanding that it “help us make sense of the social forces that have produced New Orleans and its patterns of social relations and that will shape its and its residents’ future” but demanding a kind of cultural politics that seems quite foreign to the aesthetic that has defined David Simon’s work. I’ll say more about what I think Treme actually is, in a moment. For the moment, I will just say that I suspect Reed didn’t watch Treme to learn something new about New Orleans, but watched the show to confirm what he already knew, to see a show that would sway America to share his own vision, and is upset that he didn‘t find it. But the reason he didn’t find it is two-fold: while he misunderstands what it actually is, he also finds it lacking when set next to the impossible standard of the show he imagines The Wire to have been.

This is a criticism I would make of almost every example of the “why Treme is not as good as The Wire” article, a genre which has amassed quite a substantial archive. Like Reed, for example, Nicholas Lemann complained in the NYRoB that

“As good as it is at effects, Treme isn’t so good at causes—of the immediate disaster, and of its seemingly never-ending aftermath. To explain that, Simon will have to move outside the appealing and tight cultural frame in which the action thus far has taken place.”

Yet remind me of where exactly The Wire ever explored the causes of the USA’s institutional collapse. I’ll save you the trouble: it didn’t. Like the Greek tragedies to which David Simon likes to compare his work, collapse was immanent and unknowable, and while The Wire was occasionally nostalgic for a past era of working class prosperity – and marked both its passage and its absence with incredible ethnographic detail and complexity – the show had precisely the level of insight into historical processes as its characters, and no more. Which is why I scratch my head on reading Lemann’s complaint that Treme has inadequately tracked the cause of Hurricane Katrina: like Reed, Lemann seems to be demanding a show it never tried to be, and one which, frankly, I can’t imagine myself actually watching.

From the beginning, Treme was pitched as a show about “culture.” And while it’s interesting to note how many people have complained about how “boring” the show is – how poorly a show about entertainment turns out, ironically, to succeed as entertainment – I suspect that here, too, most of the show’s critics have faithfully registered their own dissatisfaction with the show they expected it to be by failing to seriously engage with the show that it is. It seems to me no more than stating the obvious to observe that Treme doesn’t want to be entertainment, doesn‘t want to be the kind of television that Simon calls “juvenile”; in precisely the way The Wire did, it wants to be Art.

I’m not going to claim that Treme is as successful as The Wire, of course, and not only because it’s trying to do something significantly different, and I want to avoid measuring them by the same metric (which is usually as unfaithful to the show that The Wire is supposed to be as it is unfair to the show that Treme actually is). But the comparison is still unavoidable and useful. And so here, my starting point will be an observation made by Nemo, over at PhD Octopus:

Due to its relentless focus on the drug war, viewers might easily come to the conclusion that urban Baltimore contains no music scene, no culture, and no communal organizations except gangs. Families seem utterly broken. Mothers threaten to disown their sons unless they step-up their hustle in the drug game. The black church plays a very small role on the show, mostly unsympathetically, for its support of the drug war. The Wire’s only treatment of the Nation of Islam involves a bookish assassin who’s supposed to be a devoted reader of the New Republic. Besides an annual inner-city basketball game, a bar attended by dockworkers, and a mourning celebration for fallen police officers, there’s virtually no sense of urban life outside the reality of drugs, corruption, and poverty.

This was, of course, exactly the point, the absence that signified as the tragedy of Baltimore: as often as not, words like “family” or “profession” had not only been evacuated of their original meaning, but they had become the very means by which a variety of alienated subjectivities were incorporated and governed into the devouring maw of American capitalism. Every interaction became a prisoner’s dilemma, in which trust was not only betrayed, but became the very mechanism of betrayal.

In any case, as Nemo observes, Treme seems to represent a sort of perfect inversion of The Wire. Where The Wire is almost literally nothing but an exploration of the political economy of neoliberal institutions — a dystopia in which the system-wide imperative to “do more with less” has transformed all associative bonds into commodities to be capitalized on — Treme is just as specifically focused on the varieties of cultural association in New Orleans, to the almost total exclusion of the broader structurating force-effects on which The Wire so obsessively focuses (and whose absence Reed naturally complains about). There are little moments in which “politics” briefly steps into the frame, of course, but when they do, they do so in the same way as when “culture” rears its head in The Wire, as when Stringer Bell’s associate from DC simultaneously suggests that Stringer could do with some DC go-go and, also, by the way, having your partner’s nephew secretly murdered is probably a terrible idea. You Baltimorians, he is saying, have forgotten the reason you’re even playing this game… a recurring theme that has special resonance by contrast with Treme, whose focus is so intensely fixed on the things that make life worth living as to lose a sense for why it became so hard, so suddenly, to do so.

II.

Adolph Reed’ argument is that the otherwise well-meaning David Simon has been bamboozled by what he calls the “myth of neighborhoods,” the set of tourist-board mythologies by which New Orleans becomes a place to visit and spend money, rther than a place to live. It’s definitely a useful lens for thinking about what the show is doing. But it’s also facile and not very well supported by the show’s very much more heterogeneous set of perspectives and prominent counter-narratives. It certainly is true that characters like Sonny, Davis, and Creighton quite prominently ventriloquize the tourist board vision of New Orleans, to such an extent that an angry John McWhorter begged the show to get over itself, complaining that it

“leaves you beaten over the head every week about just how vibrantly real New Orleans is. Realer than where you live. Realer, really, than you.”

But how on earth would you make a show about New Orleans culture without registering the earth-shaping force of the tourism economy in which that culture is embedded? Baltimore and New Orleans are diametric opposites in this respect: while Baltimore was such a dark corner of the American experiment that the rest of the world could be completely and totally ignorant of its existence, New Orleans is one of the most famous cities in the world, and to a significant extent, a city whose economic existence is tourism.

The first thing to point out, then — which neither Reed or McWhorter do — is that the show both contradicts, complicates, and in some cases, comprehensively rebukes the New Orleans-as-authenticity narrative. After all, let us regard the almost perfect correlation between white male douche-baggery in the show’s cast and tourist-nostalgia mystification of place. Sonny, Creighton, and Davis are the show’s primary white males, they are each deeply blinded by the home-owner/tourism vision of place that Reed talks about, and they are collectively represented as somewhere between forgivably flawed at best (Davis) and almost completely without redemptive qualities at worst (Creighton and Sonny). Which is simply to say: the most conspicuously flawed and conspicuously privileged characters in the show are the ones who just happen to have an almost perfect monopoly on the perspective which Reed attacks Simon for being blinded by. And all three are directly and explicitly rebuked by their (much more sympathetic) female counterparts, on points very closely related to that tourist vision, and in ways that cut to the core of their ability to benefit from exactly the mystifications they traffic in. As Adam Kotsko pointed out, Creighton’s suicide is a direct result of the failure of Mardi Gras to obtain:

He had previously been sustained by what he believed to be the indestructible core of New Orleans — the fact that it has “more culture in one block” than other cities have as a whole — but all that collapses when Mardi Gras, the very core of the New Orleans experience, rings hollow to him, seems like a dream rather than a reality. At that point, he has no hope left and his book project, already a burden, becomes a joyless exercise in documenting the storm that, from his perspective, really has destroyed New Orleans.

As his wife Toni points out, with magnificently devastating simplicity, he quit. There is nothing to be redeemed in this man, she says, nothing in him that can be remembered without shame. But then — in the usual careless stereotype of English professors — Creighton has been an essentially useless drone for the entirety of the season, a man whose only profession seems to be the delivery of pleasing platitudes while he grows fatter on the labor of others. It is no coincidence that he approves of nothing done by anyone else and then does nothing himself as a result. This is a damning portrayal of a character who turns out to be little more than a social parasite, and who kills himself when, on some level, he internalizes the loathing the show has for what he represents.

I make this point not because this is all there is to the character, but to register the extent to which everything that Reed and McWhorter complain about is part of the show’s own much more intense and lethal critique. It is precisely Creighton’s dependence on New Orleans being more authentic than you that kills him. And because his wife understands in a much more nuanced way what New Orleans also is – she knows what masked night riders parades really are, for instance, and spends her days in the bowels of its legal system – she has a much more ambivalent attachment to the place. But it is precisely because Creighton is not from there that his vision cannot endure ambivalence. When the dream becomes unsustainable, he dies for lack of its sustenance.

Like Creighton, Sonny’s is the voice of tourist nostalgia delivered from the mouth of a permanent tourist, and like him, Sonny is both artistically sterile and rendered very unsympathetic by his choice to leave a woman who is much too good for him, without ever seeming to understand what he’s throwing away. Just as Creighton has nothing to say but empty platitudes and does little in the show but retreat to a self-satisfied contemplation of what he already knows, Sonny is not both the inferior musician in his duo and doomed to remain that, precisely because he won’t grow or expand, because he’s locked in the cave of what New Orleans meant to him when it was just a name on the records he listened to in Amsterdam (another great tourist city which he has fled in search of authenticity). His partner’s promiscuous musical voice not only stands in sharp contrast to his desire to both stay locked in a tradition and objectifies the manner in which he prevents her – and what she represents – from expanding outwards.

These characters are somewhat more interesting than I make them out to be, of course – Simon is too universally sympathetic with character to not do more with them than that – but the point I want to make is simply that, in the aggregate, these white drones not only monopolize the perspective that Reed wants to hang around Simon’s neck, but they do so as a way of dramatizing its essential shallowness.

Davis is, in some ways, the most interesting of the trio, remaining the most conspicuously irritating for precisely the reason he is also the most harmless: he doesn’t take himself nearly as mortifyingly seriously as the other two do. He is a goof at best, conspicuously unsuccessful at convincing his redemptive angel to remain in New Orleans — Janette makes the same point to him, that New Orleans might be unique, but other places are too — and I would say, for this reason, the show judges him so much less harshly for his failure to ruin her life along with his. When he manages to acquire another redemptive angel — and his astonished “what did I do right?” is exactly spot-on — the New York-bound Janette delivers the very pointed retort “Is your check from the tourist board in the mail?” and the show never puts any energy into suggesting that she’s anything but right.

III.

Now, however much the show might occasionally be tempted by the jouissance that Davis celebrates and represents — the overriding imperative to work as little as possible — the show’s much more powerful rebuke to that perspective comes from the incredible labor that goes into hand-stitching the feathered Indian costumes worn to great effect by Albert Lambreaux and his men. And I want to really stress and emphasize the extent to which the show stresses and emphasizes that culture-work as work, because the prominence given to that onscreen labor is maybe the thing that saves the show for me: while it only tacitly and implicitly counters Davis’ much more vocal assertions of New Orleans’ cultural heritage, there is no question that theirs is granted a kind of nobility and meaning and depth that his productions wouldn’t never even pretend to aspire to. He turns a substantial amount of cultural and political capital into nothing more meaningful than a get out of jail-free card (which a good white boy like him not only doesn’t need, but practically defines by not needing), but he manages to very personally benefit from a society level tragedy, the very cheaply acquired labor of various musicians, and a cultural tradition to which he adds nothing more than some funny lyrics. The show doesn’t punish him for this, because it’s not what he set out to do; his lack of ambition is his saving grace, in very pointed contrast to Creighton and Sonny’s efforts to seize and personalize New Orleans’ narratives. But the show does make very clear that none of what he gets is particularly deserved: along with immunity from arrest — which is, importantly, a gun that will not go off, because he is a privileged white male Davis is a well-meaning white boy at the center of privilege-accumulating machine that works on his behalf, and of which he is almost totally unconscious of. “What did I do right?” should be his character’s epitaph, and perhaps it is.

The Indian narrative isn’t very closely integrated into the rest of the show, to put it mildly. It is, in fact, conspicuously segregated: if Moretti’s lit lab were to make a map of the character relations in the show — a la this map of Hamlet — you would find that the storyline around the Indians never intersects with the Daymo story that unites everyone else. As far as I can make out, there is only one point of contact: the “nice” cop, who keeps the other cops from beating up Albert during the Indian event also provides the crucial bureaucratic breakthrough in Toni’s quest to find out what happened to Daymo, and who allows Toni to remove evidence of suicide from Creighton’s car. Otherwise – and I think this is as important as it is easy to overlook – the laborious labor of the most deeply authentic, private, and meaningful form of cultural production in the show has no connection at all to the various white drones who usck up so very irritatingly much of the show’s narrative oxygen.

Think about this for a second. The Wire built a direct relationship between narrative machinery and institutional form, rather marvellously causing the story itself to always follow the chains of causation, influence, and association that were produced by the institutions to which the characters belonged. You can refer to the season about the police or the season about the schools, in other words, because the narrative arc of the season mapped so perfectly onto the sociological shape of its subject. But Treme’s narrative is not built this way, not formed out of an institution that cleaves together social opposites, the way “the wire” of the title (and the broad relationship of policing that it represented) brought together drug dealer and murder police into the very intimate narrative relation that made the show possible. Treme’s is a spatial map regulated by the patterns of disconnection and a radical imbalance in narrative privilege. It is about, I would even suggest, the geo-social distinctions of class and race that make it possible for none of the white characters I’ve talked about to ever meet, see, or think about the existence of Albert Lambreaux and his Indians. And that’s the other gun that, very meaningfully, never goes off: while The Wire was obsessed with showing you the way seemingly disparate characters were organically related and connected, whether they ever knew it or not, Treme makes its point about culture by showing how organically insulated the most vocal voices for New Orleans culture actually are from their “authentic” opposite number. They consume that culture, proudly and happily, but they never know what drives it.

It’s at this point that the contrast between Davis and Albert is the sharpest. When Davis decides to release a record, he can call on all kinds of free musical help to produce what is ultimately nothing more than a cover-version of an old classic. But compare his labor-free accumulation of grace to the manner in which Albert and his Indians will get literally nothing but police harassment for their labor, not only fighting battles they know they will lose, but acquiring a virtual get-into-jail-free card for their trouble. For Davis, “culture” is an unearned grace; for Albert, it’s a life of toil with no material reward, and an identity whose fundamental opposition and antagonism to the state is as well understood by the state as by the chanters themselves. His “culture” brings with it — is stitched and woven out of — a fundamental identity of alienation that Davis will never need to understand, and never will. And so, while Davis means well, sort of, he’s not an Indian, not black, and his little campaign against the status quo lasts only as long as it amuses him to continue it: his is the privilege to possess an uncomplicated correlation between place and identity that will be neither extended to nor sought by Albert and his men. And they will work hard for what he will never even know enough about to truly want, and never need to work to possess anyway.

 

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