It’s Greek to me: banditry, security and The Wire
‘It’s Baltimore, gentlemen. The gods will not save you.’
This series of observations contains no cold-hearted spoilers about The Wire. It’s an informal examination of thoughts about the television series—which I’ve been watching compulsively, but not conclusively—the poetics of security regimes and the theme of my dissertation research, mediated bandit anti/heroes.
When The Wire first introduced Omar Little* to television, he eluded audiences who were used to seeing hardcore, lawless black gangstas soldiering U.S. media. Omar combined an exquisitely rare combination of character traits and even sexual preferences: after all, how many gay gangstas (real or mediated) have cropped up in American popular culture?
Omar iconically made his living by cashing in on illicit earnings of drug lords, a mathematically sound moral code in which two negatives make a positive. Yet he always took care not to molest the average person: ‘I ain’t never put my gun on nobody that wasn’t in the game,’ he tells Detective Bunk. Bunk replies, ‘A man must have a code.’ In one episode McNulty is incredulous at false accusations made against Little: ‘Have you ever known Omar to do a citizen?’ Omar is simultaneously a bandit and a hero because he lives as an outlier to citizenship while preventing the killing of citizens.
If The Wire is about The Game—not only in the sense of illegal drug trafficking or City Hall electioneering but dealings within a shrewd, mostly twisted moral universe in which mortals are either players or get played, either securing or getting secured—Omar confounded the cops-and-robbers genre, even as his character mostly strayed within classic outlines of bandit heroes. (Eric Hobsbawm’s study Bandits is still the definitive account of rural banditry, though the major similarities to Omar’s city model still hold.)
It’s how he mystified the (capitalist) security regimes of both the drug dealers and the Major Crimes unit assigned to police them that is fascinating and gets him the bandit-hero label, a Robin Hood of the ‘hood. These initial thoughts are a beginning toward describing, and then analyzing, Omar’s code of security.
What better place to begin than in Greek poetics? In interviews about the show, creator David Simon has constantly referred to heavy readings of ancient Greek literature while working on the series. A Google search for ‘The Wire as Greek tragedy’ serves up 41,000 results. I’ve found particular inspiration in one source: Costas Constantinou’s article ‘Poetics of Security’ in the journal Alternatives.**
Constantinou’s (brilliant) analysis takes up narratives of security that resist securitization through poetry, i.e. ‘narratives that do not offer rhetorical legitimation to different regimes of power or justify the intervention of security experts and practitioners.’ I’m particularly drawn to his reading of fragmentary seventh century BCE verse by Archilochus:
My soul, my soul, overwhelmed by many cares,
rise up, and cast a chest against them,
and near your foes be secure:
neither in victory boast out open
nor beaten fall in weeping at home,
take joy in joys,
and give in not too much to evils:
knowing what rhythm holds humanity.
Archilochus was himself a fighter, a self-described ‘servant to the god of fighting,’ and naturally hated by his enemies. In so much as the poem is about fighting or violent struggle, Constantinou reads it as ‘a fight of thumos (soul) against kedesin (cares).’ In other words, the struggle for security is not so much military as it is psychological (though I don’t know if even this word quite gets at it): the poet challenges himself to command, then rise above, his anguish as he faces toward his foes.
Constantinou’s etymological grounding for security is asphaleia, a rising up or standing as a way of securing (Archilochus uses the verb anadu for ‘rising up). The standing/seated metaphor is a crucial one: when Omar battled a foe, he harmed them in the arse:
OMAR: I shot the boy Mike-Mike in his hind parts, that all.
OMAR: Fixed it up so he couldn’t sit right.
And curiously enough, the proudly strutting Omar was rarely seen sitting himself. There’s one important exception in which he ‘secures’ himself from care to hilarious effect. After giving his testimony in the court seat the drug pins’ lawyer Maury Levy tries to pressure him: ‘Why should we believe your testimony? Why believe anything you say?’ Omar shrugs, ‘That’s up to y’all, really.’ Even when seated, Omar is ‘rising up’ and securing from care and authority.
What is noteworthy about Archilochean verse is that security or release from care is ‘an act of withdrawal from military service that is also a spiritual reemergence from the sea.’ (Substitute the streets of Baltimore for the sea trope and the analogy holds.)
This staging of a psychological or spiritual battle for security shuffles it under the rule of Poseidon, considered the most unstable god of Olympus:
In ancient Greek mythology, Poseidon had the cult title of Asphaleios. Whereas many deities were given the epithet for Savior (Soter, Sotera; e.g., Zeus, Athena, Artemis) only Poseidon was literally ‘The Securer.’
The surface similarities between Poseidon and Omar are striking: Omar is temperamental and his actions benefit from the element of surprise. Like Poseidon (‘the cause of earthquakes, floods, and tempests’) people flee the streets and sound citizen alarms when he arrives. As an ‘insecure securer’ he is a perennial conflicting presence for mere mortals (dealers, cops, ordinary people) who regard him with fear, ambivalence and measurable respect.
On a deeper ontological level though, Omar is feared as an outlaw not because he is ‘predatory’—a charge rattled by Bunk, perhaps the show’s other moral compass, whose words sting Omar because they hail from the same neighborhood—but because he is the embodiment of disobeying the security regime. His psychological orientation toward the world is of a man at once submerged but free from ‘obsessive mental care’ (etymology of the word securitas: sine cura, or without care). With the streets as his embattled sea, Omar Little (outfitted with the requisite Badass Longcoat, the sartorial choice of bandit heroes of genres like the western and film noir) carries himself like Poseidon who must
…cast an airy chest, learn to live with fluctuidity and instability, ascend and descend with the sea’s tempo, sail its dangerous rhythm and successive waves, come to terms with the sea’s dark unkowns that are beyond one’s control…
But where Greek gods and televisual urban bandit-heroes diverge is in their agency within the polis. The Wire amplifies the meaning of security regimes as securing the city—Baltimore is ‘cared for’ by the police, the politicians, the drug dealers, and so on—but no one character is so ultimately powerful as to change the city alone, as Poseidon did when he ruled over and then totally submerged the polis Atlantis.
Depicting this unvarnished reality and refusing to make true good hero/evil bandit clichés out of anyone is what distinguishes The Wire as a genre-bending narrative about the poetics of security in the city.
* Simon partially founded Omar’s character on the real-life Donnie Andrews.
** Issue 25, No. 3 (2000): 287–306.
(Top art by Deanna Staffo, Baltimore City Paper)