New Criticals

The Wire and Philosophy: Part Three

Sovereign-Criminal, Criminal-Sovereign: Avon, Stringer, Omar

The triumvirate of Avon, Stringer, and Omar provide require a slightly different analysis. If we are too look at the "lower-level" criminals, the pawns of the game, we can clearly see how their individuality is bound to the community of the street, the hood, the ghetto. But if we turn to those "leaders" and rogues, the paradox of the criminal becomes more evident, and it these figures that straddle the various "worlds" of The Wire that both defy simple classification but also reveal the paradoxes and contradictions that define the "worlds" themselves.

Political philosopher Georgio Agamben and his work on the "state of exception" and the "homo sacer" might help us to understand these three fascinating criminals. At first blush, Avon, Stringer, and Omar seem to fit precisely into the paradigmatic notion of the criminal as radical irrational, immoral individual. They seem to act without norms, without boundaries, and in ways that can only be understood as self-aggrandizing and "criminal." All three revel in and profit from their exclusion, not only from society proper but also how they are "excluded" from parts of the street—they are veritably gods. Avon and Stringer, as sovereigns of the street, occupy that "state of exception," which Agamben describes as "being outside, and yet belonging," or more succinctly as an "ecstasy-belonging."  In this way, they are bound to the norms of the "inside," both the laws they create for the Barksdale organization but also to the rules of "The Game" as such. The violence they decree cannot simply be understood as violence that violates a law, but as a type of, to use the famous and difficult term from Walter Benjamin, "divine violence" that is necessary for law to exist and subsist as such. Thus, their transgressions are not really transgressions but foundations and parameters that make possible and circumscribe not only "The Game," but the other "legal" institutions as well—the police, the courthouse, the local government. The story of "law" and "out-law" is flipped in its head: law is not a response to transgression, as it is told in most mythologies of the "birth" of the social contract, but the very mechanism whereby transgressions are created. The radical individual does not necessitate the need for the Sovereign—Hobbes assumption—but the Sovereign defines, through an act of "divine violence" and decree what constitutes in-law and out-law, citizen and criminal in the first place. In this way, the very symbol of a society's norms and laws, the "King," is also unavoidably a "criminal" the moment he becomes Sovereign. Avon and Stringer are in-law in that they are "criminals" in relation to society's law as well as "players" in "The Game." But as criminal-sovereigns or sovereign-criminals, they are also "out-law" precisely because they are "criminals" in relation to society and sovereigns in relation to street. They occupy that "anomic" space that is necessary for law (nomos) to exist at all. Avon and Stringer, then are less threats to society's foundations, but the very architects that make society and its laws possible in the first place.

Omar is perhaps the most interesting "criminal." Every one wants a piece of Omar. Chased by both police and gangsters, he has four large Scarlet "O"s proudly emblazoned on his sleeve: black, poor, gay, criminal. Yet, he is also deeply respected and feared, a demigod, seemingly invincible and sacred. We are confused and repulsed by Omar, while at the same time seduced and admiring. Who is this paradox "Omar?"

Just because Omar is excluded four times over does not mean leave him wholly outside. Omar's exclusion is precisely the mechanism whereby he is included. He moves between worlds like a phantasm: between the various street crews, between the street and the courthouse, between law and out-law. Agamben famously writes about the Homo Sacer, the "sacred man," a figure in Roman Law who is "set apart" from society for violating an oath. The sacer became the property of the gods, a being both sacred and accursed. He could be killed by anyone, yet he was not allowed to be sacrificed. Though the law no longer applied to him, the sacer remained "under the spell" of law. Agamben emphasizes that the major function of law is to define what constitutes "bare life" and what constitutes "good life." "Bare life" (zoe) is mere existence, something that we share with all plants and animals, whereas the "good life" is only possible inside community, which in modernity means law and the State. The State demarcates "bare life" from "good life," but also has the task of transforming the bare into the good, and, consequently, choosing which bare life is to become possibly good and which is not. Interestingly, "bare life" is not merely the marginal and excluded Other, but the very keystone that constitutes "the hidden foundation on which the entire political system rests."

The figure of the homo sacer is analogous to the mythological wargus, or wolf-man. Agamben writes:

The life of the bandit, like that of the sacred man, is not a piece of animal nature without any relation to law and the city. It I, rather, a threshold of indistinction and of passage between anima an man, physic and nomos, exclusion and inclusion: the life of the bandit is the life of the loup garou, the werewolf, who is precisely neither man nor beast, and who dwells paradoxically within both while belonging to neither.

The figure of the "monster" in various cultures has always been fascinating, and the most important monsters are always these hybrid creatures that are both Other and Us at the same time. The terror and curiosity they inspire cannot be explained in terms of pure externality—the "monster" is terrifying precisely because he is made possible by "us" and is often completely indistinguishable from "us." The monster is always a mirror. The werewolf moves among us during the day, Dracula seduces us by his eternal youth and immortality, Frankenstein is the consequence of our own reason gone mad—the "monsters" of society never emerge ex nihilo from elsewhere, but expose precisely those "monstrosities" that are at the heart of society itself, the, to riff on Benjamin's phrase, "divine monstrosities" that make society possible at all.

This "monster" Omar is both repulsive and attractive at once. He is this hybrid that not only exposes the divisions and contradictions of society, but also those divisions and contradictions that are at the heart of our own individual psyches, where sex, violence, justice, beauty, ugliness, and love collide. Omar is the "hidden foundation" upon which all other institutions and identities rest, the homo sacer, an out-law that is also in-law. He can be killed by anyone—police, gangsters—yet he becomes god-like precisely because he is not bound by the laws of any community or "political life." His life is both sacred and cursed. He is the key to understanding the way that power operates throughout the various institutions interrogated in the series, and how that power demarcates inside from outside, law from out-law. Omar is perhaps the most interesting character because he is so deliciously ambiguous—he resists inclusion and categorization, thus resisting being controlled by any of the Sovereigns that might turn his bare life into something "good" or "political", including those Sovereigns of his own game, the streets. This is why his opposition to Avon and Stringer cannot be seen as a simple opposition, but more as a mirror—the Sovereign and the Homo Sacer are structurally similar. Who is the "king" of the streets? Who or what is the sovereign of society? Whatever the answer to this question may be, it must include an understanding not only of the sovereigns but the homo sacers, the "monsters," the criminals as well. Omar's shout to Wee-Bey after he wounds him is also a shout to us: "Come at the king, you best not miss."

But even this analysis of the great sovereign-criminal triumvirate is incomplete, for we see Avon, Stringer, and Omar "bound" by other moral considerations. For Avon, it is the family—while the Barksdale name may not ultimately supersede Avon's individual interests, we do see him countless times, though the figure of his sister Brianna and her son D'Angelo, coming up against the interests of his family. Stringer, through his attempts at become a real-estate developer, yearns to be a part of the legitimate economic order. But this "legitimacy" is only possible by the various "illegitimate" means that must be deployed, not only using the drug money for his investments but also the various bribes and backdoor measures he must use to play this new "game." Stringer is distended between the worlds of law and crime, inside and outside, sovereign and criminal.

To add to the layers of the paradox that is Omar, even he cannot simply understood in the paradigm of "criminal as amoral, irrational individual." We see a deep sense of love and devotion, especially through his tears after the death of Brandon and his loyalty to Butch as well as members of his stick up crew. In many ways, Omar is perhaps the most moral, something articulated by Bunk in a conversation he has with Omar: "Man's gotta have a code." Omar's rigid adherence to this code makes him look more like a Kantian deontologist than a self-serving relativist. Though his actions may seem sadistic and insane, they nonetheless are highly rational and internally consistent with his moral code, a fact that might reveal the madness at the heart of the reason of Kantian ethics itself.

In a short "prequel" that is included in the DVD box set, a young Omar (1985) is part of small stick-up crew made up of his older brother and his brother's friend. After they rob an innocent man of sixteen dollars, Omar holds a gun to the kid's face and makes him give the money back after he realizes the man is simply waiting for the bus home. Omar targets only those playing the game, and his rigid fidelity to those rules is both rational and mad at once.