In a standout scene of the HBO television series The Wire, a recently paroled felon, Dennis "Cutty" Wise, struggles to come to terms with the changes to the "the game" that have occurred since his imprisonment. Upon struggling to find legitimate employment after his release, Wise finds work as a hitman in the Barksdale drug syndicate only to discover that the characters, mores, and logic of Baltimore's drug trade have lapsed into even more brutal forms during his lockup. Slim Charles, Wise's new coworker and the Barksdale gang's head enforcer, puts these changes in perspective in a mode of address as blunt and cautious as the series itself: "The thing about the old days is that they the old days."
This statement, as delivered, measures no ambivalence. But much later, in the final episode of the series, Slim Charles fails to heed his own caution against nostalgia. Charles shoots the treacherous Cheese, who'd orchestrated the death of the sagacious and avuncular druglord Proposition Joe, just as Cheese was himself speechifying on the value and necessity of moving on, keeping the past in the past. "There ain't no nostalgia to this shit," Cheese declares, "there's just the street and the game and what happened here today." Shortly thereafter, as Cheese retraces his betrayal of Joe, his uncle and mentor, and begins to boast of the benefits the betrayal has sown, Charles puts a bullet into Cheese's brain. Standing over the man's convulsing body, Charles announces, "That was for Joe," repudiating his earlier injunction at the grotesque sight of a friend's murderer announcing a form of the same idea. Cheese's demise was a singular, visceral, cathartic moment in the series; many viewers report vocally cheering when Cheese went down. One critic lamented not being able to watch the series finale in a crowded theater, if only to have collectively experienced the scene and subsequently enlisted in a round of applause.
Both the original injunction and its subsequent reversal embolden a challenge the series sets for us as we look back at The Wire. In the series' aftermath, we are faced with dueling proclivities: Either to disavow nostalgia for the moment of The Wire—after all, the moment of The Wire, the moments that The Wire portrayed and critiqued, are characterized by a darkness from which looking away sometimes feels natural, healthy, prudent—and to let the past be the past; or, conversely, to arm that very nostalgia for the sake of viewing the series and its critical dispositions against a changed and charged lifescape, so as to seek some kind of vengeance on the inherited past. It's this latter tack that we feel would best reflect and respond to The Wire's particular cultural valence. The series is an unprecedented achievement in television production, narrative, and scope partially because of its nuanced and detailed second-look portrayal of progress. The series' dramatic sophistication, lucid portrayal of municipal institutions in the wake of the War on Drugs (and, eventually, the War on Terror), and critical mission offered a rare moment in our public culture to interrogate "progress," "truth," and "power," and the very idea of the past. The Wire, both as a critical model and as an object of criticism, matters precisely because of the emerging present and the constantly expanding footprint of its reflexive vantage point. This special issue of Criticism comprises its contributors' commitment to bring The Wire forward while looking backward.
This issue first grew out of an interdisciplinary symposium at the University of Michigan (U-M) called "Heart of the City: Black Urban Life on The Wire," held 29-30 January 2009. U-M's Black Humanities Collective (BHC), a group focused on study of the African Diaspora, planned the two-day event. The success of the event was due to the diligence and creative vision of BHC's graduate student organizing team, and the support of U-M's Center for Afroamerican and African Studies (CAS), as well as the eighteen other cosponsoring units. At "Heart of the City," we sought critical considerations of The Wire that looked to the series as both an object and a...