From the mind of Dr. Michael Arntfield


True Detective, Nietzsche & Evidence-Based Policing


The acclaimed HBO crime series True Detective marks a number of firsts for the otherwise well-established and frequently hackneyed police procedural genre. It is the first network series of this caliber to merge the genre with what is known as the Southern Gothic, or the use of Gothic themes (the unexplained, the grotesque, the anti-hero, the use of isolated and decaying settings) in the context of the U.S. Deep South. The fact that the series serves as an allusion to the works of both Ambrose Pierce and Robert W. Chambers, the first of whom coined the term “Carcosa” and the second of whom invented the idea of the “Yellow King,” and that both were writing during the Victorian Gothic period, only serves to accentuate this link. Both Carcosa and the Yellow King of course figure heavily in the plot twists of the series, and also help cement Louisiana as the definitive Southern Gothic state given its bayou-meets-voodoo background, one already mythologized in shows like True Blood.  Second, the series marks new territory by accurately exploring topics like criminal paraphilia, serial signatures, ritual murder and iconography, and the fact most homicide investigations are advanced by confidential informers within the drug subculture rather than by crack sleuthing or even forensics. The series also—and quite unapologetically—raises questions of fact and integrity regarding unsolved cold cases and the systemic reluctance of police management to remedy or even revisit what seem to be glaring omissions and oversights revealed years later, especially with respect to linking cases. These are oversights that Rust Cohle (Matthew McConaughey) candidly suggests amount to either “a cover-up or just garden variety incompetence.” Maybe it’s a matter both.

What’s more interesting is that Rust Cohle is not the burned-out cynic he seems to be on the surface, but is what’s known as a nihilist. In many ways the series actually pays homage to the works of German philosopher Frederich Nietzsche, generally regarded as the poster boy for nihilism, or the idea that life is inherently meaningless, control is an illusion, and that people opiate themselves with fairy tales and delusions only because they, like Cohle, “lack the constitution for suicide.” Series creator and writer Nic Pizzolatto later admitted that nihilist philosophers and authors like Ray Brassier and David Benatar influenced the script and the creation of McConaughey’s character, but in actuality the entire first season is remarkably similar to Nietzsche’s novel Thus Spoke Zarathustra, composed in four parts between 1883 and 1885. Even the tagline for the series, “touch darkness and darkness touches you back” marks an almost literal reinterpretation of Nietzsche’s quote, “when you look long into the abyss, the abyss also looks into you” first published in Beyond Good and Evil in 1886.

As a cop, Rust Cohle was not only a nihilist, but was also too good at his job and too smart for his own good. Resigning in haste after being railroaded by corrupt bureaucrats intent on keeping the secrets of a murderous cult connected to a dirty local sheriff under wraps (this is putting it simply), Cohle knows that the police mythology of catching bad guys and fighting for justice is one of many fairy tales that keep society from imploding. When he says, “you people will eat your young as long as you have something to salute,” he is really summing up 150+ years of traditional, Machiavellian police micro-management practices that keep the “true” detectives like Cohle on ice as they are simply bad for business. Ironically, Cohle believes in nothing, yet is far more effective than his peers who spew ideological maxims and define themselves by their jobs, but which of course they all perform poorly. Yet, even in retirement and in the throes of degenerate alcoholism, Cohle is compelled to act—to carry on and work the unsolved slayings of his earlier career with the knowledge that no one else will. Although life to him is pointless, time is a flat circle, everyone is no one, and nothing really matters, he carries on with remarkable obsession. This is because Cohle is the Übermensch, or what Nietzsche saw as the “Beyond-man” or “Overman” (often wrongfully cited as the “Superman”) who believes God to be dead and life pointless, but who acts morally and heroically of his own free will and innate design. It is in this inevitable pointlessness of life that the Übermensch as a self-mastered individual makes his own meaning, doing so with no expectations of anything in return, least of all reward in an afterlife. The Übermensch, like Cohle, thus truly knows himself, and knows that only in meaninglessness can one find—and make—real meaning through the will to act.

The Übermensch was first introduced in substantial form in Thus Spoke Zarathustra and is most frequently associated with this text. Other themes explored in the same book—denial of universal truths, renouncement of the afterlife, and the eternal recurrence of the same (ie: the Groundhog Day phenomenon)—are all cornerstones of nihilist philosophy. Over the years, Nietzsche’s brand of nihilism, especially the idea of the Übermensch, has been grossly misinterpreted and twisted to suit various political and genocidal agendas. Cited as inspiration by mass shooters, the Eugenics movement in the United States and Europe, and most infamously as part of Hitler’s “final solution,” Nietzsche’s writings have been among the most manipulated of academic texts on record.

Today, at long last, True Detective marks what is perhaps the most faithful depiction and ingratiating interpretation of the Übermensch for the lay public in recent history. With Cohle as the Übermensch and serving as a modern chain-smoking incarnation of Nietzsche’s title character Zarathustra, his disavowal of all of the things that society takes for granted as “fact” enables him to see what others don’t. As he intimates at several points in the series, denial is perhaps the greatest barrier that holds people back from their true potential and from summoning the will to act. While his partner laments the “detective’s curse” and the inability to see the forest through the trees and the clues that present themselves immediately in front of him, Cohle sees the world through a different lens altogether. He is afraid of nothing and no one, and is therefore truly in control when most people only have the illusion of control. Most importantly, because he defaults to logic and reason in every circumstance and does not have his judgment clouded by tradition, superstition, or sentimentality, he is in some sense superior in everything he does. In terms of policing—a vocation that Cohle admits was the only one in the world tailored to his personality—he serves as a broader symbol for a coming sea change in law enforcement today.

True Detective takes a number of shots at the inefficacy of public policing across three decades, and as part of nihilism’s “eternal recurrence of the same,” reminds us that between the early 1990s and today, not much has evolved in terms of police procedure. There have of course been remarkable advances in crime scene sciences but, generally speaking, Western policing represents the oldest unchanged institutional model in the developed world, having gone largely unreformed since 1829. While healthcare, education, and finance—professions that policing will often try to imitate in terms of semantics and risk management practices—have all evolved and reinvented themselves to parallel contemporaneous changes in culture and society,  law enforcement as the eternal recurrence of the same is inherently nihilistic by design; this in part explains why Cohle acknowledges he and the job were made for each other. Today, in the wake of True Detective as a massively influential narrative that shines a light on how secular reason and rationality supersede ideology when it comes to effective criminal investigations, the series additionally establishes a nexus between the Übermensch as an entity liberated from society’s collective groupthink, and what is known as evidence-based policing.

Police work has always been concerned with the collection of evidence, but the irony is that the profession itself has never been guided by the same rules of empirical exactitude. Evidence-based policing, a model being advocated primarily by a handful of criminologists in Canada and the United Kingdom, as well as experts at the Center for Evidence-Based Crime Policy in Virginia, serves to do for policing what the Scientific Revolution did for business, industry, and exploration. Contrary to other models of policing—most either discredited or simply not sustainable in the current age—evidence-based policing describes a system of investigative efficacy and accountability that centralizes knowledge and awareness of “what works” in practice rather than adhering to often antiquated policies or traditions that have no longer have any demonstrable value. Evidence-based policing requires that police managers produce clear and cogent evidence for how established procedures enable crime prevention, ensure officer safety, and allow for the timely completion of investigations and apprehension of offenders rather than, as Cohle says, just giving people “something to salute” by default. Moreover, evidence-based policing requires that, like evidence-based medicine, officers be aware of police-related research and literature and be allowed to actively participate and contribute to research and innovation. Much like how Cohle’s partner in True Detective, Marty Hart (Woody Harrelson), remarks that Cohle has amassed a remarkable amount of knowledge on how to interpret crime scene behaviors from “reading one of [those] books,” evidence-based policing marks a shift toward integrating original academic research in law enforcement training curricula, and then making it both accessible and applicable in the field. If nothing else, evidence-based policing means real accountability and accuracy through peer-review. This is a process that is now centuries old and taken for granted in other accredited professions, but which remains the proverbial the boogeyman in modern policing for reasons that should make everyone—especially “true” police officers—rather concerned.

At the remains of the day, evidence-based policing is not really a radical concept, though it obviously stands to create upheaval within the odd institutional culture of law enforcement. In the United Kingdom, for instance, police agencies have been using original peer-reviewed research to improve investigative, human resource, and deployment tactics for years, with the results speaking for themselves. The use of privately subcontracted crime scene labs in the UK as a matter of efficiency and expediency is just one example of how such research has focused on “what works” as opposed to clinging to the edifice of old policies that use “tradition,” heritage,” and other ideological maxims as smokescreens, and that espouse the status quo by default—even when the status quo is blighted by abysmal failure. First published as a research paper by criminologist Lawrence W. Sherman in 1998 as part of the Ideas in American Policing Series, evidence-based policing is about building on the British model and the type of outsourced officer safety and offender recidivism research conducted by the FBI, and making it both accessible and interesting to front-line officers. That said, just as Sherman noted back in 1998 (the same historical period covered in True Detective), “just doing research is not enough,” as operational officers need to see themselves as part of a larger continuum of knowledge acquisition and recirculation, and with police administrators having to justify their practices based on the results of those collaborations, rather than their own career interests or managerial agendas. The Society of Evidence-Based Policing (SEBP) that is currently leading the charge on this issue, has summed up the idea of an experiment-led policing model as being rooted in three guiding principles:

  1. The need to make the best use of the best available research in every circumstance, including the establishment of a forum for professional police researchers.
  2. The need to develop new methods of research and by extension new best practices by enabling collaboration between police practitioners and researchers, including the police allowing full access to facilities and data.
  3. The need to communicate the results of all research related activities to the police community and the wider public.

In terms of how a television series can at once be a meditation on nihilism and a vehicle for advancing debate on how to reform criminal investigative procedure and bring it closer in line with the rigors of a post-industrial and knowledge-based society, we see the hidden value of cop shows lies in their being what are known as “didactic narratives.” Put simply, didactic narratives are stories, usually fictional, that offer tangible factual or moral lessons, and that impart some (usually subtle) learning or professional development objective. Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment (1866), for example, is more than just an exposition on profit-motivated murder; it is a parable that foreshadowed and prefigured the requirement to weigh mitigating and aggravating circumstances during sentencing as part of judicial procedure today, as well as a cautionary tale about utilitarianism, rationalism, and idealism as the guiding principles of the law. Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982) is not just a tech-noir action film, it is a cerebral and existentialist meditation on what it means to be human, as well as an essay on the moral, legal, and environmental consequences of what known as Moore’s Law and technological progress generally—not to mention the current police-industrial complex.

Could it be that True Detective, as a crime-oriented iteration of Thus Spoke Zarathustra, and also as a didactic narrative might similarly advance the discourse on evidence-based policing? Stranger things have happened. Consider the iconic police series Dragnet that debuted on NBC in 1951 and which depicted LAPD Detective-Sergeant Joe Friday as both protagonist and narrator. Friday, played by native Los Angelian Jack Webb, initially managed to cause high anxiety for local police brass who feared the series and its fictive treatment of the LAPD might make them look foolish. That worry subsided later that same year when, following the series premiere, LAPD Chief William (Bill) Parker attended a national convention of American chiefs of police in Dallas. Once there, his colleagues from across the country chose not to address him as they normally did—as Chief Parker, Mr. Parker, or even as Bill. They instead chose to call him “Friday,” in reference to show’s lead character. It turned out that every top cop in America other than Parker had been watching—and loving—the new show. From that point forward, the LAPD reactively aligned itself with Jack Webb’s Mark VII production company while senior officers consulted on scripts and provided information on real cases for telegenic replication, eventually using episodes of the series as official instructional videos—didactic narratives—covering everything from proper handcuffing procedure to effective suspect interviewing methods at the LAPD training academy. With the series being single-handedly credited with sanitizing the public image of Parker and the LAPD, and generally elevating status and respect for the whole of the American police fraternity, that same LAPD training academy later renamed its flagship building and graduation auditorium in honor of Webb following his death from heart failure in 1982.

As a similarly didactic narrative that might first lead to some trepidation among the natural born bureaucrats endemic to contemporary policing, True Detective’s lessons are not as straightforward as those in Dragnet, and the series is unlikely to end up being screened in any police academy any time soon. With that said, its teaching points are inarguable, and the series uses 19th century continental philosophy as vehicle for positing a case—even if unintentionally—for the merits of evidence-based policing. While likely not finding its way into police academy auditoriums anytime soon, the series will nonetheless end up being screened in countless classrooms committed to higher learning, including mine. Another reason for this is that the series is also a great example of what’s known as second order forensic semiotics (FS2), or the way that forensic techniques and investigative methods are often mutually developed between real and fictional entities both simultaneously and circuitously. More on this idea of FS2 and the role of the didactic narratives in modernizing police work will follow in one of my forthcoming books, Gothic Forensics: Criminal Investigative Procedure in Victorian Horror & Mystery (2015). In the meantime, to learn more about the merits of evidence-based policing, try the links below—after you watch True Detective.