The Wire, Big Data, and the Specter of Naturalism

Laura Bieger

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    The Wire (2002-2008) is a work of fiction that carries the concern with collecting data in its very title. And if data are, in a most basic sense, individual bits and pieces of information, the rationale behind The Wire’s data-gathering mania—manifesting itself, beyond the title giving wire-tap, in the widespread use of surveillance cameras, undercover informants, secretly taken photographs, rummages through housing registers, real estate files, etc.—is to fight the Octopus-like operations of organized crime that has been rampaging American cities on a mind-boggling scale. The epic sweep of The Wire is also strikingly Octopus-like, covering Baltimore’s urban ghettos, the post-industrial devaluation of wage labor, the corrosion of institutions as well as relationships, and the systemic reproduction of poverty, drug-addiction, violence and injustice. The Wire’s creators may even have aimed at reviving The Octopus’s missionary zeal—to produce a work of fiction that not only tells and shows but also proves something, and that would thus take Zola’s positivistic notion of the ‘experimental novel’ to a crucial next level (Norris, “Purpose”).
    In fact, The Wire’s data mania cannot be untangled from the desire to ‘prove something’—a desire that becomes especially vexed in an age in which the distinction between information (data) and knowledge (the result of interpreting, for instance, data) is declaredly a thing of the past. Yet if the rise of Big Data thrives on precisely this leveling, contemporary data fiction has a pivotal role to play in staging and exploring some of its messier implications. Assuming that The Wire revives the naturalist tradition, this essay sets out to argue that gathering, deciphering, and connecting individual pieces of information to a meaningful and narratively compelling whole is, indeed, its neo-naturalistic modus operandi and its critical fault line.
    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)127-139
    Number of pages13
    JournalStudies in American Naturalism
    Issue number2
    Publication statusPublished - 2017

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