The Wire: Social Science Fiction
The Wire has been widely heralded by TV critics as one of the best television programs ever made. It has also gained much attention and praise from scholars across the humanities and social sciences for its powerful critique of inequality in urban America, the war on drugs, and the politics of race, gender and sexuality. This seminar suggests that the popularity of The Wire is related to the theoretical work that the program performs. Taking The Wire seriously as a work of theory, this seminar explores what “theory” is and what its function can and should be in the world.
We will use The Wire as our primary text for this course, but also put it in conversation with many other important texts in the social sciences and humanities. The goal of examining different kinds of theoretical work is to understand how art and scholarship help us understand the forces that shape our world(s), and also to understand why some art and some scholarship can be more helpful than others. That is to say, we will read all our texts with both soft-eyes (what has this text opened up?) and hard eyes (what does this text foreclose?)
We will conclude this course by reading another important text that comes from Baltimore but that has had an impact, like The Wire, that goes far beyond any single location: Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me. What kind of theoretical work does this book do? Why does Toni Morrison declare it “required reading” for us today? We will think about all these questions and more through lively discussion and written assignments.
- Showing Up (Otherwise known as participation). Although attendance is not part of your grade, participation is. As this is a seminar, the success of the course depends on you being present and being prepared to engage with our texts and with your peers. This will be worth 20 percent of your final grade.
- Leading Class. Working in teams of two, you will have an opportunity to facilitate one class session (working in consultation with the instructor). You will select video clips, discussion questions, and in-class exercises to work through the particular text on that day. This will be worth 10 percent of your final grade.
- Theory Journal. From Weeks 1-4, every Friday by midnight, you should post one 500- word essay on a specific theoretical idea from each week, for a total of four essays. Think of these as essays that fill in the blank of this question: “What did The Wire teach me about___________? These should be theoretical ideas, which is to say that they should be concepts or categories like race, space, gender, violence, sexuality, solidarity, normativity etc. This will be worth 40 percent of your final grade.
- Final Paper. Using theoretical ideas that come from course materials, write one 5-page paper (about 1250 words) that applies The Wire to any current social or political issues. Does The Wire help us understand the rise of Black Lives Matter or Trump? Globalization? The politics of inequality? “Law and order” political campaigns? More instruction will be given in class. This will be due on August 19. This will be worth 30 percent of your final grade.
By the end of this course all students will be able to:
- Define key terms in social theory like hegemony, discipline and bio-politics;
- Describe what theory is and why it matters;
- Explain how artistic work and popular culture do political work;
- Explain how artistic work and popular culture do theoretical work;
- Make a case for The Wire as a theoretical text.
The Wire has been widely heralded by critics as one of the best television programs ever made. It has also gained much attention and praise from scholars across the humanities and social sciences for its critique of inequality, the war on drugs, and the politics of race, gender and sexuality. This seminar suggests that the popularity of The Wire is related to the theoretical work that the program performs. Yet, as all works of theory, The Wire also has limitations. Viewing The Wire seriously and critically as a work of theory, this seminar explores what “theory” is and what its function can and should be in the world.