Alan N. Shapiro, Visiting Professor in Transdisciplinary Design, Folkwang University of the Arts, Essen, Germany

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“The Wire” and Luhmann’s Systems Theory, by Yara Scholtis

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King of the Crowds: Looking at The Wire’s Omar Little and Luhmann’s Systems Theory

by Yara Scholtis

This essay will examine the television series The Wire from a sociological point of view – that this is a possible thing to do has been proven several times. There have not only been entire university seminars taught on sociological themes in The Wire, but there have also been plenty of books, essays, articles etc., published which focus on various topics of the TV show that are of sociological nature. The University of York even put together a literary resource list of mainly sociological texts dealing with or connected to The Wire (“The Wire: A comprehensive list of resources”). In the introduction to this list, William Julius Wilson, a Professor at Harvard University who held a seminar on The Wire in 2008, is quoted as follows:

The Wire’s exploration of sociological themes is truly exceptional. Indeed I do not hesitate to say that it has done more to enhance our understandings of the challenges of urban life and urban inequality than any other media event or scholarly publication, including studies by social scientists… The Wire develops morally complex characters on each side of the law, and with its scrupulous exploration of the inner workings of various institutions, including drug-dealing gangs, the police, politicians, unions, public schools, and the print media, viewers become aware that individuals’ decisions and behaviour are often shaped by – and indeed limited by – social, political, and economic forces beyond their control.”

This quote and all the different academic works suggest that it is definitely possible to study The Wire from a sociological point of view and that in general it is possible to examine TV Shows from an academic perspective since they are part of today’s popular culture and society. Additionally, The Wire is a television series intended to reflect certain aspects of life in an urban environment and different institutions. In an interview with The Telegraph, David Simon (creator of the TV series) said: “All the things that have been depicted in The Wire over the past five years – the crime, the corruption – actually happened in Baltimore. The storylines were stolen from real life.” He also stated in the same interview that “the show is structured like a visual novel”, thus adding to the statement of Wilson and the possibility of examining the show in an academic way.

I would like to take up the idea of a visual novel and quickly take a look at a short story written by Edgar Allen Poe: “The Man of the Crowd.” This short story very much appears to be a visual novel (or story) as well. It follows a narrator sitting in a café in London, observing and categorizing different individuals and groups of people in a very visual style. When his attention is drawn to an old man who does not really fit into any of the groups he previously categorized, the narrator starts following him through the city. Apparently, the old man can move through the busy thoroughfares unnoticed by his environment. This, the old man’s appearance (his clothes are ragged but of rich texture) and the way he moves through the city confuses the narrator and eventually leaves him with only one explanation: The old man must be a criminal. Only a criminal could have the skills and the cleverness to move through a busy metropolis without getting noticed. Similarly, in Joseph Conrad’s novel The Secret Agent, different individuals with criminal intentions are equally able to move through the very busy metropolis of London – even through governmental institutions – without drawing attention to them. Both in Poe’s “The Man of the Crowd” as well as in Conrad’s The Secret Agent, the described individuals have a way of moving in and among crowds in a way that lets them either switch between systems or pass by unnoticed.

In the next paragraphs, I will take a closer look at the systems theory of Niklas Luhman and take it as a basis to examine how an individual can move among, in and between systems in an urban environment. Here, the focus will lie on the depiction of apparently criminal characters such as described in Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Man of the Crowd” (and similarly The Secret Agent by Joseph Conrad) as well as the depiction of the character Omar Little in the television series The Wire.

Luhmann uses the systems theory to explain interactions and communication within and among different groups or systems of society. He calls this constant interaction Autopoiesis. Luhmann defines a system by the boundary between itself and its environment, which is always more complex than the system itself. Each system uses a different “code” to filter information from the environment, taking in only a small amount of the information available and processing it. This code is based on whether the information taken in is meaningful to the system or not. A system always creates itself and needs continuous operations to survive. In society, according to Luhmann, the systems exist because of, and are connected by, communication. Communication includes many things: writing or physical presence etc. What is important is that each system can only function and communicate with other system in its own code. Economy for example uses “money” as a code and filters information from the environment according to this code. It cannot include other aspects such as morals.

The Wire focuses on different organizations and institutions in the city of Baltimore: the police, organizations of drug dealers, the union of dock-workers, political institutions, the educational system and the media. Throughout the series, there is an ongoing exchange among these different groups or systems. In every season it is shown how one organization supports or tries to obstruct another. A simple example for the use of a system’s code: The Police wants to bust the drug trade organization of Avon Barksdale because their code is “legal/illegal.” The communication among the systems can be seen nicely when looking at the political themes addressed in the show. The Barksdale organization gives money to politicians to gain advantages; politicians try to secretly negotiate with the drug dealers to gain more influence; the police has to cooperate with politicians to realize their interests and vice versa. Each of the different institutions has its own goal (or, as Luhmann would say, code) which determines their operations.

But Luhmann’s systems theory excludes individuals. For him, a system can never be made up by an individual and also conversations or other interactions among two individuals as well as actions by individuals do not influence the systems they are in. But why do systems seem react to individuals – or show no reaction at all? How is it possible for an individual to infiltrate and even manipulate a system? Story-telling is usually based on the tales of individuals, so how can a visual novel depict different systems while the main focus lies on individuals? These questions are especially interesting when looking at both the short story “The Man of the Crowd” by Poe and The Wire.

In Poe’s story, there is a man who seems to be unnoticed by the different systems of London’s society. He blends in perfectly which left me guessing if he might be able to be consumed by the systems because he seems to adapt their unique codes within seconds. While the narrator identifies the different systems as such, as something on the outside, the flâneur he watches appears to be able to understand the systems, become part of them and in this way stay unnoticed. For the narrator, this quality identifies the man he’s watching as the perfect criminal.

In The Wire, there is a similar character, who is at the same time the very opposite: Omar Little. He does not solely belong to any of the systems portrayed in the TV show. He robs drug dealers, works with the police, but also with drug traders and other criminals. He is a homosexual, works with men and women, and negotiates with both of the warring drug trade organizations in Baltimore. Little is feared by both sides of the law and seems to always act on his own account, rules and morals – his own code. His strong and very individual sense of justice might have been the result of the fact that it was his grandmother who raised him in a very strict and old-fashioned way (even as a criminal he accompanies her to church once a month and he does not allow his boyfriends to use profanity when he is around). In the series, he states several times that he would never rob or menace somebody who is not part of “the game” (i.e. drug dealing, criminality). Throughout the five seasons of the TV series, Little shows strong awareness of the different systems in his environment (for example when he testifies against Bird, cooperates with McNulty/Bunk, negotiates with Proposition Joe, lets Brother Mouzone live etc.).

Having this in mind and looking at Luhmann’s systems theory, it appears that Omar Little found a way of creating his own system which can infiltrate other systems. Little uses his own code in order to decide how to interact with the other systems. Also, like Luhmann states in his theory, Omar Little’s own system does not seem to include the codes of the other systems to decide upon action and he definitely does not adapt to the codes of the other systems or becomes part of them like the old in “The Man of the Crowd.” Little has a very different way of moving among the crowds because he definitely gets notices by every single system in his environment, while the old man in Poe’s short story found a way of blending in to the systems.

Both ways of portraying an individual’s interaction with the different systems in his environment, show that it is possible to switch systems or even infiltrating them with one’s own code. As a conclusion, I would argue that in the depiction of these two characters, it becomes apparent that Luhmann’s systems theory is indeed not about individuals – but not in the way that they do not affect the systems but rather in the way that they are not bound to the systems and their codes. Whether one can switch them easily by adapting to their codes and not influencing them or by infiltrating them using one’s own code and manipulating their actions: The boundaries, codes, separation etc. of the system’s described by Luhmann do not seem to be as impenetrable as suggested – at least (and maybe even especially) not for individuals.


Primary Literature

Poe, Edgar Allan. The Man of the Crowd. [North Charleston, SC]: urge LLC, 2004. Print.

Conrad, Joseph. The Secret Agent: A Simple Tale. New edition. London: Everyman’s Library, 1992. Print.

Luhmann, Niklas. Soziale Systeme: Grundriß einer allgemeinen Theorie. Suhrkamp, 1994. Print.

Secondary Literature

The Wire: A Comprehensive List of Resources. Centre for Urban Research, University of York, n.d. Web. 03 Jan. 2013. <>.

“The Wire: Arguably the Greatest Television Programme Ever Made.” The Telegraph. N.p., 02 Apr. 2009. Web. 12 Jan. 2013.

Martin, Ray. “The Landscape of The Secret Agent.” Conrad’s Cities, ed. Gene M. Moore. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1992. Print

“General Systems Theory.” General Systems Theory. Robert O. Keel., 18 Jan. 2013. Web. 20 Jan. 2013. <>.

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