Searching for truth in the post-truth era: an examination of detective fiction from Poe to present

UNCG Author/Contributor (non-UNCG co-authors, if there are any, appear on document)
David Riddle Watson (Creator)
The University of North Carolina at Greensboro (UNCG )
Web Site:
Christian Moraru

Abstract: During the 2016 election, terms such as “fake news” and “post-truth” became commonplace as well as talks of “two Americas,” suggesting that truth and reality were relative to one’s perspective. Trust in foundational institutions like church, school, and government has become shaky at best, leading many scholars to believe we have entered a post-truth age. In my dissertation, I attempt to tackle the question of truth by examining people whose job it is to uncover the truth: detectives. I trace a philosophical history of detective novels through three different time periods described as modern, postmodern, and contemporary in order to argue that truth is located in intersubjectivity, explaining that successful detectives, through their ability to identify another’s perspectives, can discover motive and belief in order to bring cases to closure, where others cannot. In the modern period, I examine ways in which Edgar Allan Poe’s detective August C. Dupin and Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes solve mysteries by assuming a rational world where everything is neatly ordered. This allows truth to be a function of rationality and solvable by applying logic. Following this analysis, I turn to the hard-boiled novels of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett to examine the way order and meaning became increasingly elusive after two world wars and the atomic bomb, leading to an existential crisis and the postmodern era. The postmodern era is characterized by the endless deferral of meaning, making it impossible for the detectives in this section to reach closure. I begin with Jorge Louis Borges and Samuel Beckett, transitional authors associated with late modernism, who laid the groundwork for an upheaval of traditional Cartesian rationality by pushing its boundaries to the limits. Following these late modernist examples, I turn to the postmodern novels Libra by Don DeLillo and The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon to exemplify the problem of knowledge construction in a world that has become increasingly paranoid. The rise of paranoia has been caused by both philosophical and historical reasons. From modernist critiques of transcendental meaning to the rising distrust in the state after the Vietnam war, there became a lack of faith in a common background from which to build knowledge. In both cases, the lack of agreement on the nature of reality renders the detectives unable to discover truth and achieve closure. In the contemporary era, I explore the ways in which globalization and the rise of digital technology have increased the speed and density of information networks, further complicating the idea of discovering the truth regarding any complex event. In this chapter, I examine Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves as a representative case of the problem of closure in a hypermodern world that is connected by a blending of physical and digital networks. I do find a hopeful example in HBO’s drama The Wire where detectives are able to stabilize a network by limiting their environment and narrowing their scope, albeit temporarily. In so doing, the detectives show that it is possible to discover the truth, if one can “triangulate” in Donald Davidson’s sense. Finally, I conclude by showing the dangers of believing that these critiques of truth and closure have resulted in a “post-truth” era, where people live in diverse worlds based on preexisting categories such as culture, or language. Through the works of philosophers Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Martin Heidegger, and Donald Davidson, I argue for a way out of the problems of relativism through a phenomenological perspective grounded in being-in-the-world. This approach results in the conclusion that objectivity is intersubjective.

Additional Information

Language: English
Date: 2019
2016, Detective, Poe, Post-Truth, Trump
Detective and mystery stories $x History and criticism
Detectives in literature
Truth in literature

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