Slavoj Zizek warns us against the ‘withdrawal into wisdom’, a position he characterises, quoting the great Ben Elton, as the Circle of Life thesis. This, he argues, is the ultimate and problematic tendency of David Simon’s TV series The Wire. David Simon has explicitly compared The Wire to Greek tragedy; however, we are in Baltimore not Athens. The Gods have been replaced by a new resignation to an equally irrational fate, the citizens of Baltimore espouse a metaphysics of the marketplace which is dressed up with the ludic appeal of a casino.
Zizek shows us the opening scene of the first episode of The Wire, McNulty questions a witness on a murder scene. We learn that Snot, the victim, had snatched the stakes from a weekly game of craps, he always used to do this but for some reason this was one time too many. McNulty asks why they let him play in the first place and gets the epigrammatic reply: ‘You got to. This is America man.’
Is it game-over from the very first scene? It’s hard to resist the hard-boiled, gritty, pithy wisdom of the Man On The Street. This is where, Zizek argues, despite the many virtues of The Wire, it finally reaches its limits. This species of Realism (as an aesthetic genre, as a political philosophy) can only get us so far.
The question, of course, is what else to do. The conversation turns once again to Athens, a member of the audience poses the merits of several possible solutions to the Greek crisis: Zizek looks bored. He is re-animated by an accusation from another audience member that all he is advocating is a different kind of inaction, resigning himself to another bastion of detached wisdom: Marxist materialism. ‘Fuck Marxism’, Zizek shouts, giving us the finger, ‘what does this mean?’. This is followed by a deviation in which we are also advised to ‘fuck Belarus’. Zizek is a thoroughly antagonistic thinker, and apparent contradictions in his thought are revealed as opportunities rather than defeats. Occasionally this often confusing but always entertaining to-ing and fro-ing crystallises into something that might be described as lucid: ‘I am not saying sit down and await communist revolution. I am saying don’t get caught up in the wrong panic’. Then we’re off again.
The final scene of The Wire: McNulty is returning to Baltimore having possibly won a small and ambiguous victory over The System at a high cost to himself. He stops his car on a bridge, gets out and looks wistfully into the middle distance. We are shown a montage of Business As Usual. Resistance is futile? This is the central problem. Capitalism, Zizek suggests, would have collapsed long ago if it weren’t for the humanitarian movement. The conundrum: doing something can also be the same as doing nothing if you take a long-term perspective. When pushed, however, Zizek refuses to advocate doing nothing as an adequate response to the world’s problems. In yet another combative manoeuvre, he positions himself against post modernist thinkers such as Jameson: he refuses to empty the political of the ethical.
For all his various and boisterous rebuffs, the main focus of the lecture was the denunciation of Ben Eltonists with a circular motion of his hand. Nevertheless, it still remains hard to see how Zizek has broken the circle himself, or if he even really thinks that he has. Amongst the confusion, Zizek’s hand gestures draw an unspoken parallel. Beyond references to The Lion King, the only other topic which elicits the circular hand gesture is that of revolution.