Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Autumn 2011


Volume 38 Issue 1
    • 17R. John Williams
    • The publication in 1974 of Robert Pirsig's philosophical novel Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance coincided with—and seemed to speak to—a number of transformative global crises. Amidst the ongoing US military invasion of Vietnam, the collapse of the Bretton Woods gold standard, the 1973–74 oil crisis, the stock market crash, and the ensuing 1973–75 recession, Pirsig's novel was immediately hailed as a trenchant diagnosis of contemporary failures to realize the aesthetic and therapeutic potential of modern technological systems.1 [...]

      As I intend to illustrate, the discourse of technê-zen picked up on and accelerated by Pirsig continues to exercise enormous power in our current era, when technological innovation (computational, organizational, pharmacological, and so on) is offered by multinational corporations as yet another path toward enlightenment—provided, that is, that these innovations are mediated by the supposedly more organic thinking of “Eastern” philosophy.7


      1. A number of scholars have identified 1973–74 as a pivotal moment in a worldwide transition to more network-saturated and informational modes of capitalism. See, for example, Manuel Castells, The Rise of Network Society (Malden, Mass., 2010), p. 18; Fredric Jameson, Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (Durham, N.C., 1991), p. xx; David Harvey, The Condition of Postmodernity (Malden, Mass., 1990), p. 189; Edward W. Soja, Postmodern Geographies: The Reassertion of Space in Critical Social Theory (New York, 1989), p. 160; and Luc Boltanski and Ève Chiapello, The New Spirit of Capitalism, trans. Gregory Elliott (New York, 2005), pp. 184–85.

      7. For the sake of readability, I will refrain in the rest of this essay from continuing to place terms like Eastern and Western in quotation marks, with the understanding that I am using these terms as discursive constructs rather than as social or cultural essences.

      R. John Williams is assistant professor of English at Yale University. His current book manuscript, Technology and the Meeting of East and West, examines the role of technological discourse in representations of Asian/American aesthetics in late-nineteenth and twentieth-century literature and film.

      See also: Caroline A. Jones on John Cage  ·  David Nirenberg, The Politics of Love and Its Enemies  ·  Bernard Faure, The Buddhist Icon and the Modern Gaze

    • 71Evan Kindley
    • In order for the defense of literary culture in the age of late capitalism to appear more than merely sentimental and protectionist—for it to assume the character of ironclad rationality that Weber argues is an essential feature of modern bureaucratic organization—it needed the alibi of reason that only criticism could provide. One could say, then, that big philanthropy went from treating literary culture itself as a public good that needed to be protected to treating criticism—the rational explanation, regulation, and justification of that culture—as the good that needed to be protected. Big Criticism thus fulfills a cynical instrumentalist, as well as a disinterested humanist, function: it not only reassures us that our timeworn aesthetic standards are being upheld it also allows us to make practical and economic decisions with some degree of rationality.

      Evan Kindley, a PhD candidate at Princeton University, is completing a dissertation entitled “Critics and Connoisseurs: Poet-Critics and the Administration of Culture.” He works at Claremont McKenna College and is managing editor of the Los Angeles Review of Books.

      See also: Tony Bennett, The Multiplication of Culture's Utility  ·  Ian Hunter, The History of Theory  ·  Bruno Latour, Why Has Critique Run out of Steam?

    • 96Bernard Dionysius Geoghegan
    • How is it that the father of French structuralism came to celebrate the instruments and techniques of digital media as agents of a grand reconciliation between Western and primitive cultures?

      The answer to this question involves an investigation into the history of media, technology, global science, and the assembly of what I term the cybernetic apparatus. With the term apparatus I have two interrelated phenomena in mind. First, from the 1940s through the early 1960s, Lévi-Strauss and his collaborator, the Russian linguist Roman Jakobson, hailed the potential of recently developed media instruments and techniques to validate structural research and modernize the human sciences.


      4. I am using the more Continental term human sciences (French: les sciences humaines; German: Geisteswissenschaften) rather than humanities and social sciences to more precisely designate the historically specific epistemological formation that interested Roman Jakobson, Lévi-Strauss, and their patrons at the Rockefeller Foundation and MIT. The term human sciences and its French and German equivalents also provides a useful reminder of how humane, spiritual, and scientific aspects of research are interwoven.

      Bernard Dionysius Geoghegan is a researcher at the Institute for cultural studies at Humboldt Universität zu Berlin and a double PhD candidate in the Screen Cultures program of Northwestern University and the Fakultät Medien of Bauhaus-Universität Weimar. His dissertation recounts efforts to reform the human sciences through new media research. He has coedited two collections of essays on Gilbert Simondon.

      See also: Peter Galison, The Ontology of the Enemy  ·  Marshall Sahlins, Infrastructuralism  ·  Lydia H. Liu, The Cybernetic Unconscious

    • 164Anmol Chaddha and William Julius Wilson
    • In providing a sophisticated depiction of systemic urban inequality, The Wire investigates how key aspects of inequality are interrelated. It offers an in-depth examination of the decline of urban labor markets, crime and incarceration, the failure of the education system in low-income communities, and the inability of political institutions to serve the interests of the urban poor. A central theme of The Wire and a fundamental principle of scholarship on urban inequality is that political, social, and economic factors reinforce each other to produce profound disadvantage for the urban poor. By highlighting these connections, The Wire sheds light on the persistence and durability of concentrated disadvantage, which is reproduced across generations.2


      2. See Robert J. Sampson, “Racial Stratification and the Durable Tangle of Neighborhood Inequality,” The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 621 (Jan. 2009): 260–80, and Patrick Sharkey, “The Intergenerational Transmission of Context,” American Journal of Sociology 113 (Jan. 2008): 931–69.

      Anmol Chaddha is a doctoral student of sociology and social policy at Harvard University. His research interests include urban political economy and racial inequality. William Julius Wilson is the Lewis P. and Linda L. Geyser University Professor at Harvard University. His most recent book is More Than Just Race: Being Black and Poor in the Inner City (2009).

      See also: Patricia Ticineto Clough, The Case of Sociology  ·  Elizabeth Abel, Jim Crow's Racial Symbolic  ·  Hazel V. Carby, Policing the Black Woman's Body

    • 189Patrick Jagoda
    • Through its network aesthetics, The Wire poignantly attends to the systemic nature of human suffering in early twenty-first-century America. The show does so not only by foregrounding social systems but also by reconfiguring a host of other cultural forms, including the distributed causality of the social network, the threaded subplots of the Victorian multiplot novel, the aporetic cyclicality of the Greek tragedy, the singular-though-generalizable case of the police drama, the self-contained episode of the TV sitcom, and the cumulative seriality of the modern, long-form narrative television show. All of these cultural forms invoke different aesthetic imperatives and different historical temporalities. They exist on varied, though by no means incommensurable, scales. The concept of the network is, simultaneously, one of these orders of thought and a material metaphor for organizing the relationships among these distinct levels. In this way, The Wire is less a map of a social totality than a means of modulating the relations between narrative forms within a dynamic and changing social sphere.

      Patrick Jagoda is a Mellon postdoctoral fellow of new media and soon to be assistant professor of English at the University of Chicago. His ongoing research examines how the formal features of contemporary American novels, films, television shows, digital games, and virtual worlds construct a sense experience of global networks.

      See also: Anmol Chaddha and William Julius Wilson, “Way Down in the Hole”: Systemic Urban Inequality and The Wire

    • 200Kenneth W. Warren
    • That Chaddha and Wilson praise The Wire for its portrayal of concentration effects might seem somewhat self-congratulatory given that the work they cite most prominently for having established this analytic perspective is Wilson's own The Truly Disadvantaged: The Inner City, the Underclass, and Public Policy (1987). In truth, however, Simon himself has cited another of Wilson's texts, When Work Disappears: The World of the New Urban Poor (1996), as an important source for the series' second season.1 Even more importantly, Wilson's work has anchored sociological inquiry on poverty since its publication in 1987. Surveying research on urban poverty over the 1990s, Katherine Newman and Mario Small observe that despite differences in the way scholars have assessed both the cause and the significance of the phenomenon, “most sociologists agree that (a) urban poverty changed over the 1970s and 1980s and that (b) it became more concentrated.”2 Taking this consensus for granted, Wilson and Chaddha insist that an adequate representation of the effects of urban deindustrialization will demonstrate that black poverty, while part of the general systemic failure of institutions depicted in The Wire, is also different from other forms of impoverishment.

      Their insistence on this point, however, causes Chaddha and Wilson to misread The Wire in at least one important way, while also leading them to produce a depoliticized account of poverty that is also at least somewhat collusive with the very forces they wish to criticize. In fact, one could say that as Chaddha and Wilson bring poverty and its depiction in The Wire under the regime of sociology they remove both from the realm of politics.


      1. See Carly Carioli, “The Wire's David Simon at Harvard,” The Pholg, thephoenix.com/BLOGS/phlog/archive/2008/04/08/video-the-wire-s-david-simon-at-harvard.aspx

      2. Mario Luis Small and Katherine Newman, “Urban Poverty after the Truly Disadvantaged: The Rediscovery of the Family, the Neighborhood, and Culture,” Annual Review of Sociology 27 (2001): 24.

      Kenneth W. Warren is the Fairfax M. Cone Distinguished Service Professor of English at the University of Chicago. He is the author of What Was African American Literature? (2011), So Black and Blue: Ralph Ellison and the Occasion of Criticism (2003), and Black and White Strangers: Race and American Literary Realism (1993). He is also coeditor with Adolph Reed, Jr. of Renewing Black Intellectual History: The Ideological and Material Foundations of African American Thought (2009).

      See also: Anmol Chaddha and William Julius Wilson, “Way Down in the Hole”: Systemic Urban Inequality and The Wire

    • 208Linda Williams
    • If the first thing everyone notes about The Wire is its authentic way of revealing broad social and economic arrangements through its grounding in a realist observation of daily lives in each of the institutions portrayed—police, unions, drug trade, city government, schools, media—then it is not surprising that what usually follows is the adjective novelistic. The series has the ability—like Dickens, Wright, Zola, and Dreiser—to give dramatic resonance to a wide range of interconnected social strata, their different behaviors, and their speech over long swathes of time. But how do authenticity and the freedom of artistic expression to which Chaddha and Wilson allude combine in this work? For it doesn't quite do to describe The Wire as our greatest novel or as the best nonacademic proof of sociology's arguments about inequality before we understand what it is in itself. In a larger study I tackle what Jeffrey Sconce has called “ever more complex narrative universes” and how they have evolved from soaps through cop series and narratively cumulative serials that have learned to utilize television's resource of abundant time.3 In what follows I only want to understand what enabled the leap from journalistic fact to serial televisual melodrama by searching for the creative origins of the series.


      3. Jeffrey Sconce, “What If? Charting Television's New Textual Boundaries,” in Television after TV: Essays on a Medium in Transition, ed. Lynn Spigel and Jan Olsson (Durham, N.C., 2004), p. 95. See my forthcoming volume On “The Wire.”

      Linda Williams, professor of film studies and rhetoric at the University of California, Berkeley, is the author of Screening Sex (2008), Porn Studies (2004), “Playing the Race Card:” Melodramas of Black and White from Uncle Tom to O.J. Simpson (2001), and Hard Core: Power, Pleasure, and the Frenzy of the Visible (1989). She is completing a book on The Wire.

      See also: Anmol Chaddha and William Julius Wilson, “Way Down in the Hole”: Systemic Urban Inequality and The Wire

    • 227Anmol Chaddha and William Julius Wilson
    • Linda Williams's and Patrick Jagoda's essays clearly reveal the ways in which The Wire stimulates responses and reflections among scholars of diverse academic backgrounds. We welcome these thoughtful essays as supplements to our essay, but given space constraints we devote our attention in this response to Kenneth W. Warren's critical comments on our piece. Warren contends that we have produced a “depoliticized account of poverty.” He recognizes that such an unlikely criticism will “require some explanation chiefly because Chaddha and Wilson devote one section of their article to politics and policy” (p. 201). Nevertheless, his attempt to substantiate such an overstatement is unconvincing.

      Anmol Chaddha is a doctoral student of sociology and social policy at Harvard University. His research interests include urban political economy and racial inequality.

      William Julius Wilson is the Lewis P. and Linda L. Geyser University Professor at Harvard University. His most recent book is More Than Just Race: Being Black and Poor in the Inner City (2009).

      See also: Anmol Chaddha and William Julius Wilson, “Way Down in the Hole”: Systemic Urban Inequality and The Wire