The Panopticon in “The Wire”

by

The HBO series “The Wire” is one of my all time favorites.  Set in Baltimore, the show expertly portrays the legal system of the city and captures its relationship with urban crime.  One of the most significant and interesting aspects of this relationship is the almost constant theme of surveillance.  Director, David Simon, seems to obsess over the theory of the panopticon, with its methods of surveillance as well as efforts to battle against it from its subjects.

The panopticon is an architectural structure designed, ideally for prisons, to constantly surveil its tenants.  It consists of a surveillance room, surrounded on all sides by cells with one-way windows.  Using this central room, a watchman would have the ability to watch any cell at any given time.  Although this watchman could not physically observe all rooms at once, the prisoners’ knowledge that they might be under surveillance forces them to exhibit good behavior at all times.  In Discipline and Punish Foucault uses this building as a very effective metaphor for the structure of modern governments.  With the advancement in technology, we see our society becoming increasingly surveilled by the government. Streets being monitored by cameras, wiretaps on phones, and monitoring of peoples activity on the internet.  These are just a few techniques of many exercised by governments to invade the lives of citizens.  What is most important about these techniques of surveillance, and what Simon emphasizes in “The Wire”, is that all these forms of surveillance could be occurring in complete secrecy.  What results from this is an incredibly obedient society, following laws, which we otherwise would ignore, for the fear of being caught and punished.  When writing “The Wire”, Simon was certainly aware of this increasingly apparent aspect in our society.

In the first season of “The Wire” Simon uses the Low Rises to give us a good look at the complex systems the drug crews of Baltimore use to shroud their illegal activity.  The cash transaction is always handled by a separately than the “package.”  The dealers use pagers and pay phones, going far out of the way of convenience.  They use encoded phone numbers and language. They refuse to explicitly mention anything regarding their business except in secure, trusted locations.  When these lines of defense fall through, they manipulate the legal system in order to win court cases. Similar to the panopticon, the likelihood that a given moment is actually being surveilled is low, but the prospect alone is enough to encourage the constant vigilance which is required to evade the law. All these precautions are meant to safeguard in the event that they are being watched. This idea is so engrained in the urban culture that there seems to be an unbreakable rule among the community to never take part in the panopticon.  The “snitch” seems to be among the most dishonorable titles one can acquire.  Regardless of what is most beneficial for the individual, assisting the police in their investigation is by all means unacceptable.  “The Wire” shows this when a testifying witness against a murder is assassinated by a drug crew.

Simon also incorporates symbolism of the panopticon in various shots.  For instance, in the first shot following the credits of the first episode, the camera is angled at a security television surveying the two primary characters as they walk into a courthouse. This is an appropriate way to begin the series, as it immediately gives the viewer a feeling that the characters, even on the side of the law, are already under the influence of the panopticon.  Another significant symbol Simon uses is in the opening theme. In each of the 5 seasons, the series of shots and music that begin the episode changes.  However, each respective opening shares an identical shot of a boy throwing a rock at a surveillance camera, breaking its lens.  This reoccurring shot is clearly meant to stand out among the others and is a representation of the struggle to fight against the panopticon.  Here is a link to the video of the entire opening credits.  Pay attention to 1:15, where the previously said shot occurs. As you will see, the entire sequence is littered with symbolism referring to methods of surveillance.

The last connection I wanted to make is regarding a recent theme we talked about in class.  In “The Wire” we see constant advancement in the techniques used both by the panopticon and by those resisting it.  This progression is related to the notion that these two opposing forces actually support each other.  As the surveillance methods evolve, the drug crews become more efficient in evading the law.  As a result, both parties are continuously progressing in order to keep up with each other.

In “The Wire” David Simon creates an extremely curious relationship.  Viewers shift between supporting both sides.  Simon creates a dynamic causing you switch your support between both sides of the battle:  Between the ever-present  panoptic surveillance of the law and the evasive methods put out by the drug crews.

Advertisements

%d bloggers like this: