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Open Access Publications from the University of California

The Knower and the Known: Problems of Epistemology and Social Science in Popular Detective and Modernist Fiction

  • Author(s): Hart, Kevin Andrew
  • Advisor(s): Glaser, Amelia
  • Lerer, Seth
  • et al.

This dissertation examines the relationship of modernist literary experimentalism to popular detective fiction from 1890-1945 in Britain and Ireland. The project argues that both literary forms grow out of an emerging challenge to questions of knowledge – how it is generated, rhetorically packaged, and socially applied – in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In particular, classic detective and modernist fiction challenge claims to objective empiricism in the physical and social sciences. Both literary forms suggest that the sciences are enmeshed in cultural methods of analysis, are prone to fall under the influence of presumptions and biases, and tend to work in the service of dominant social groups at the expense of the less powerful.

In both literary forms, human populations are too dynamic to classify with accuracy, and demography is influenced by biases against the lower classes. The biological sciences are misused to support theories of criminal determinism which incriminate individuals based on looks and lineage. Theories of natural selection are misapplied to our understanding of human society and socioeconomics. Lexicography is wrongly employed as a tool for linguistic nationalism. And the rhetorical strategies of modernist architecture, sport, and health culture evoke and reinforce martial values. In all, both forms of literature regard scientific positivism with irony and ground its discursive elaborations in social satire. Arguing for a deeper understanding of modernist experimentalism in its engagements both with mass culture and with theoretical discourses in the sciences, the project reads modernist writers like James Joyce, Samuel Beckett, Joseph Conrad, and Graham Greene beside popular writers like Conan Doyle, Stephen Leacock, G. K. Chesterton, and obscurer contributors to popular detective fiction.

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