Siding with bugs is praxis

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L.I. Underhill is a media critic and historian specializing in pop culture, with a focus on science fiction (especially Star Trek) and video games. Their projects include a critical history of Star Trek told through the narrative of a war in time, a “heretical” history of The Legend of Zelda series and a literary postmodern reading of Jim Davis' Garfield.


  1. Joe Mangum
    May 17, 2013 @ 5:14 am

    This critique is right on. I only read the first Foundation book, but it seemed to me a hopelessly naive paean to the natural authority that science should hold in society. It doesn't regard Imperialism as a bad thing, just Empires not run by scientists.

    It sure doesn't help that I found it to be just a terrible book on fundamental levels as well. The writing is dull, the characters are all dreadfully boring old stodgy white males, and all conflict and tension is undercut by the fact that Harry Seldon is invariably right and Foundation's success is pretty much preordained. Asimov has definitely written better (as with most Sci-Fi, I prefer the short stories).

    Small note, unless I'm mistaken Pyschohistory does not work on an individual level. In fact it requires so many people in order to work that it should only work on a galactic civilizations scale, and can only make generalized predictions. Like I said I only read the first book and could be wrong.

    Anyways, this post was a great read!


  2. Josh Marsfelder
    May 17, 2013 @ 8:23 am

    Thanks for the comment!

    Yes, aside from being ethically irritating Foundation isn't a terribly fun read anyway. I love your analysis of the characters and the (lack of) central conflict. In this regard Arkady Darrel in Second Foundation is a breath of fresh air, but she's not written terribly differently from the other protagonists and as fun as she can be to root for the series is a bit too far gone at that point for this to make an enormous difference.


  3. Elizabeth Sandifer
    May 18, 2013 @ 7:17 am

    There's an interesting equivalence here, which I'm sure you'll eventually develop, between the material oppressive practices of empire and the broader notion of scientific teleology. Foundation strikes me as a utopian version of Blake's nightmare of "single vision and Newton's sleep." That this is inexorable from empire is interesting, but non-obvious – it seems more intuitively likely that both should be different versions of hegemony. But you seem to be suggesting they're actually equivalent. Which is fascinating. Go on, good sir. 🙂


  4. Josh Marsfelder
    May 18, 2013 @ 9:47 am

    Well I think Asimov certainly thinks it is, except for the fact he also thinks this is a Good Thing, hence why his vision of a utopian future is a grand, sprawling empire run by a Church of Science Priests. This is central to how Foundation works: "Good" empires are run by scientists, "Bad" empires are run by soldiers and bureaucrats.

    But furthermore I think this is a very Golden Age idea: If you posit a utopian future society that descends in some way from the western technoscientific structures of the present, this is sort of where you're going to end up.

    And of course, this is a concept Star Trek will endlessly struggle with…


  5. Jack Graham
    May 26, 2013 @ 10:37 pm

    Very interesting and insightful, but I'd expect nothing less.

    One issue… You use the word "neoliberal" to refer to the brand of imperialism lauded/practiced by the Foundation. This term, of course, is a very loaded one in present-day political talk. Generally, these days, it refers to a broad political/economic praxis to do with what privatization (might be called the 'semi-primitive re-accumulation of socialised capital'), the ostensible retreat of the state and the marketization of services, deregulation, etc., etc. Thing is, this 'capitalist perestroika' started in the early 70s, considerably later than Foundation was published. Of course, the term 'neoliberal' had existed from the 30s, when the… ahem… foundational academic work was done. The Chicago School et al followed in the post-WWII era.

    Now, I'm interested in the conflict between post-WWII 'optimism' (i.e. techno-utopianism, social liberalism, consumerism… all of which have their fingerprints all over Star Trek) and the then minority view that mixed-economies (the basis of the post-war boom, alongside military keynesianism) were actually a bad thing, and that extreme marketization (i.e. neoliberalism) was required. Where does 'Foundation' fit into this?

    The actual economics of the Foundation seem, if I recall correctly, quite fitted to their time (i.e. the early 50s). Trade is vital, but it is channelled by a strong state, with traders also Foundation agents, with trade aimed at expanding the power and reach of the Foundation itself. They come into contact with protectionist elders on other worlds and negotiate their way round them, etc.

    Of course, 'actually existing neoliberalism' couldn't exist without a strong state and heavy state investment, but it still marks a retreat from the highpoint of mixed economies. It seems that Foundation fits more with the older post-war model than with the neoliberal ideas that were only germinal when it was written.


  6. Josh Marsfelder
    May 27, 2013 @ 6:47 am

    Very good analysis, Jack, and you're right: My use of the term "neoliberal" here was probably inappropriate. Foundation's economics are certainly closer to the early post-war model than what we think of as neoliberalism today.

    As for your point about utopian techno futurism and social liberalism…I'd love to talk more about that in relation to Star Trek and Foundation but as I write this there really isn't anything to talk about yet. Trek under Roddenberry doesn't go anywhere near this: It's still some square-jawed, militaristic, crassly didactic set of phoned-in morality plays. Any utopianism comes across by association as a result of the diverse cast; it's not something that's really a major theme yet. The show will start to dip its toes in those waters shortly and the consequences of that will be interesting, but it's not quite there yet.


  7. Jack Graham
    May 27, 2013 @ 7:27 am

    It's fascinating and surprising to me that you say that the diverse cast were a network stipulation. I suppose I naively assumed the opposite. (Prejudice on MY part?)

    I get what you say about the show so far (as of The Enemy Within) showing so signs of liberalism or utopianism except as a byproduct of that casting decision… and yet, that decision comes from somewhere, doesn't it. It'd be depressing to think that it comes in solely via the cynical/pragmatic motives of a network!

    Great stuff.


  8. Josh Marsfelder
    May 27, 2013 @ 8:16 am

    You're right, Star Trek does deservedly have a reputation for utopianism and it does come from somewhere: I just haven't started talking about the person who that primarily stems from because he hasn't shown up yet-Check back in a week or so though 🙂

    And even already we've had the occasional sign of progress: Whatever his faults, William Shatner is a far, far better actor than anyone gives him credit for being and his camping up of the show is not to be taken lightly. And the presence of Nichelle Nichols, Grace Lee Whitney and George Takei count for a lot.

    Also, like I said in "The Cage" and have tried to argue elsewhere, Gene Roddenberry is not a completely retrograde cretin: Star Trek's support of women and attempts to be anti-racist do seem to at least in part stem from him (or maybe Majel Barrett). Roddenberry's big problem is that he's actually a really terrible writer and showrunner and his reach far surpasses his grasp. On the one hand I think he does want to craft an environment where women are equal to men, but on the other hand he's an insufferably laddish frat boy who only knows the hyper-masculine environments of the (1940s and 1950s) LAPD and US Air Force and that colours the way he sees things.


  9. Jack Graham
    May 27, 2013 @ 10:37 am

    I'm looking forward to reading about the newcomer who will reshape the show's liberalism! With the 'it must come from somewhere' comment, I was actually thinking of the changes in the wider culture which would lead a TV network to stipulate a diverse cast. I wonder if this was to do with advertising reach or something like that. Will you be covering the business model of the companies that made and/or bought the show?

    Re: Shatner. Yeah, he's very entertaining to watch. He's actually more like one of those RSC hams of yesteryear who overact wonderfully (no names). Even today, there are some hugely acclaimed actors who are actually just hams with posh voices (again, no names). As I think you said elsewhere, there's a contrast between Shatner's arch, theatrical style and the more 'naturalistic' (whatever that means this week) style of other American TV/film actors. The one time he completely fails, in my view, is his breakdown at Spock's funeral in Wrath of Khan. That just makes me want to craw my eardrums out.


  10. Josh Marsfelder
    May 27, 2013 @ 12:04 pm

    In regards to the diverse cast, I have a feeling it was mostly a response to the changes in the wider culture and something Desilu and NBC actively pursued to increase their demographic reach. They weren't stupid: Youth culture was still very much in vogue in the US in 1964-6, so it would make sense television networks would want to cater to it. And don't forget this was Desilu, a studio that was already known for taking more than a few risks (like having a sitcom starring an interracial couple).

    Also, there were several people involved in the creation of Star Trek who did in fact have a vested interest in leftist utopianism (yes, even probably Roddenberry at heart). Herb Solow is the guy who comes to mind right away as one of the more important creative figures very early on who pursued this thread, as his recollections in Inside Star Trek clearly reveal him to be. Once again, we'll meet the primary architect of the most obvious bits of Star Trek's utopianism next week, and Majel Barrett shouldn't be disregarded either.

    I've tried to look into advertisers, but there's actually pretty scant information on them, at least that I can dig up. If I were to hazard a guess, it was probably most likely, as I said above, a reaction to youth culture being fashionable and marketable in the mid-1960s. The counterculture doesn't collapse in on itself here until 1968, and Star Trek dutifully follows a year later (only to extend its rabid cult following in the 1970s, of course).


  11. BerserkRL
    June 2, 2013 @ 3:51 pm

    Massive government intervention on behalf of big business is not my idea of "marketization."


  12. Jack Graham
    June 3, 2013 @ 7:13 am

    No indeed, but then that double standard is inherent to neoliberalism as praxis. It's the public sphere – services, welfare, etc – which is always being privatised, marketised, reappropriated as capital. Big business gets the largesse and latitude of the big state… as indeed do the imperatives of imperialism. Neoliberal ideology is just that: an ideology, linked to a political project. It's under no obligation to be internally coherent or to correspond to practice. Indeed, its hegemony makes such things as coherence and facticity largely superfluous… much as they were superfluous to 'Marxism-Leninism' in Stalin's Russia.


  13. eumenidis
    August 7, 2013 @ 10:14 am

    "On the one hand I think he does want to craft an environment where women are equal to men, but on the other hand he's an insufferably laddish frat boy who only knows the hyper-masculine environments of the (1940s and 1950s) LAPD and US Air Force and that colours the way he sees things."

    I don't think we can attribute Roddenberry's attitude entirely to his experience in hyper-masculine '40s & '50s military & police environments. The rise of 2nd wave feminism was partially due to young women of the '60s experiencing the same attitude & abuse from young men who'd never spent a day in such environments. Roddenberry was just a man of his time & culture, well-meaning, but lacking the traits necessary to see beyond his cultural views…& self-interest.


  14. Kelwar Draip
    July 9, 2015 @ 4:34 pm

    Neoliberalism didn't spring from a vacuum; the rapid takeover in the 70s and 80s was the result of decades of groundwork. I would even go so far as to say that Foundation was itself part of that groundwork (it certainly profoundly influenced Paul Krugman Effectively I mean, I doubt any of the 'sages' of neoliberalism had direct contact with Asimov. Its ideas simply came from the same place as many of neoliberalisms, and in a broader sense neo-classical economics as a whole. In fact the false idea of homo economicus, of man as rational actor, stretches right back to Adam Smith. At one point Foundation explicitly champions free-trade policies, which are a neoliberal staple.

    The entire series is based on the idea that human action can be reduced to a series of equations, and this is the single biggest problem with pretty much all modern economics. The Grand Plan is able to predict events down to the year and day they happen, and problems only arise when an anomaly appears which the equations didn't take into account. So even when it falls apart the flaw is that something wasn't calculated, not that the entire arrogant concept is fundamentally total nonsense.


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