What is the Value of Political Theory?

Before we look at the benefits that the general public gets from experiencing  Political Theory in Science Fiction, we must first understand how Political Theory itself is experienced, or more pointedly not experienced, by the general public outside the realm of Science Fiction.  As Thomas Brooks[1] points out, Political Theory can be divided into two distinct phases, historical and current, the historical phase includes what the public likely identifies as Political Theory, Plato and his works through John Stuart Mill would be an approximate conception.  This is not meant to imply that the modern phase has not included important works, certainly Robert Dahl’s Who Governs?,  Rawls A Theory of Justice, and Walzer’s Spheres of Justice are just a few examples; but in the eyes of the public, how well known and read are these modern works?  Further, as Giles and Garand[2] say, the vast bulk of Political Theory done today is accomplished through journal articles, which by their nature include high barriers to entry that discourages consumption by the public.

Political Theory in the University

Regarding the modern era, at a base level, Political Theory is an academic discipline composed of various university departments (with various names that might include “Political Theory,” “Political Philosophy,” “Moral Philosophy” etc.) which are composed of researchers, teachers, and students all working diligently at their various jobs. Virtually every college and university has a Department of Political Science or something similar, virtually every one of these teaches at least a few survey courses at the undergrad and graduate level in Political Theory. Also, a significant fraction of these provides complete programs at both the undergraduate and graduate levels in Political Theory. Conferences are regularly held throughout the world to examine the latest ideas and trends in excruciating detail. To a great extent, universities, and those who work in them, have become the locus and the focus of almost all of the work done today in modern Political Theory. However, the knowledge produced in Universities tends to stay in Universities and with those associated with Universities. For example, the website of San Francisco State University’s Political Science department tells us that “The department offers undergraduate and graduate programs designed to help students develop knowledge, analytical skills and critical insights into the nature of politics, political systems, and political activism.”[3]That makes perfect sense, it is the point of having a Department of Political Science, but it is indicative of where the knowledge resides. The question is, where will the knowledge travel, and how will it do so? Even in the case of “political activism” from the quote above, the knowledge resides in an academic setting; the imperative of the activist to educate the general population is at best informal and diffuse.

 

Political Theory in the Wild

Does Political Theory exist beyond the university setting? It is by no means impossible to find Political Theory at the local bookstore (if you can find a local bookstore) or for purchase at an online bookstore such as Amazon, from which you can buy the great works of the ancients such as Plato or modern works from theorists such as Robert Nozick. It will, however, take a concerted effort to dig beneath the layer of “popular tittles” and “best sellers” to find these. The politics section of our bookstores are overflowing, but these works tend very strongly to be either partisan in nature (such as Ben Shapiro’s How to Destroy America in Three Easy Steps, which includes the tagline “A growing number of Americans want to tear down what it’s taken us 250 years to build—and they’ll start by canceling our shared history, ideals, and culture.”) or are political memoirs. Are these Political Theory?

To determine that, and to illuminate what Political Theory is and how the average person experiences it, we must determine the questions that Political Theory seeks to answer and how these questions are asked? For this, we can turn to Isiah Berlin’s 1962 essay “Does Political Theory Still Exist” in which he says

“Among the problems which form the core of traditional political theory are those, for instance, of the nature of equality, of rights, law, authority, rules. We demand the analysis of these concepts, or ask how these expressions function in our language, or what forms of behavior they prescribe or forbid and why, or into what system of value or outlook they fit, and in what way. When we ask, what is perhaps the most fundamental of all political questions, ‘Why should anyone obey anyone else?’, we ask not ‘Why do men obey?’ – something that empirical psychology, anthropology and sociology might be able to answer- nor yet ‘Who obeys whom, when and where, and determined by what causes?’, which could perhaps be answered on the basis of evidence drawn from these and similar fields. When we ask why a man should obey, we are asking for the explanation of what is normative in such notions as authority, sovereignty, liberty, and the justification of their validity in political arguments. These are words in the name of which orders are issued, men are coerced, wars are fought, new societies are created and old ones destroyed – expressions which play as great a part as any in our lives today.”[4]

Isaiah Berlin’s conception of Political Theory has two parts, what is normative (or to phrase it in more conventional terms, what is fair) combined with the ability to justify the “fairness” of the matter in political terms, that is to say, what is appropriate without undue recourse to theology or history. This conception of Political Theory implies a certain vitality to Political Theory; it is, or at least should be, composed of ideas that speak to the here and now. Political Theory should be an active endeavor that molds itself to the time and circumstances people find themselves in. The assumptions and motivations of people’s political lives are affected by their life circumstances and technology; therefore, it is only natural that the conception of what is fair (the conception of Political Theory) of someone from the past would be different from people of today. The corollary of this question of fairness is, therefore, to also determine what is not fair. In this way, we may view Political Theory’s works as a critique of the societies in which they are written. Political Theory, we may say then, is (among other things) the process of asking questions about both what is right and what is wrong with society.

Other issues that stand in the way of the public’s understanding of Political Theory are the tensions that theorists themselves grapple with over the field’s aims and methodologies. For example, is the goal of Political Theory pure knowledge accumulation, or is it social change? Since Thomas Kuhn’s 1962 book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, the view of science as pure epistemology has been a matter of great debate. One of the arguments Kuhn forwards is that accepted scientific facts (and their underlying truthfulness) must be viewed in the context of new observations (and their underlying truthfulness), where the two diverge is the space where progress is achieved. In other words, a model is helpful until its underlying facts are contravened by observations that do not support the facts of which it is composed; when this happens, a new model is needed. The old model is then discarded as not an accurate representation of the new observations. Alexander Bird has called this the “semantic approach,” which he argues is flawed, or at least not a helpful paradigm because it is more concerned with modeling knowledge rather than the purpose of the knowledge.  Bird says that Kuhn, and by extension those who are primarily concerned with epistemology are “neutral over questions of truth and knowledge.[5]”  For Bird, the old system should be discarded only if the initial observations were in error. If the initial observations were correct, but just interpreted differently, this would be an error of methodology.

For Bird, truth follows true knowledge, not verisimilitude. Therefore, we can say that if two different and independent models could be drawn from the same observations, both can be honestly defended until one no longer fits the facts. Issues arise however when independent observers cannot agree on the facts (“true knowledge”) or the facts’ consequences. As Bird says, “The semantic and epistemic accounts diverge when it comes to considering beliefs with insufficient epistemic support to count as knowledge.”[6] In Bird’s conception, if two theorists cannot agree on a basic principle, such as when Nozick disagrees with Rawls’s assertion that society should be structured so that it tends toward a relatively balanced distribution of resources, neither should be able to claim that they have discovered the truth. Nevertheless, of course, they do! So we are left in the same position where we started, with the public grappling over various theorists’ claims of truth.

This method of casting Political Theory as a model, or we might say as a system, is common today.  For example, John Rawls opens his A Theory of Justice by saying

“My aim is to present a conception of justice which generalizes and carries to a higher level of abstraction the familiar theory of the social contract as found, say, in Locke, Rousseau, and Kant.  In order to do this we are not to think of the original contract as one to enter a particular society or to set up a particular form of government.  Rather, the guiding idea is that the principles of justice for the basic structure of society are the object of the original agreement.  They are the principles that free and rational persons concerned to further their own interests would accept in an initial position of equality as defining the fundamental terms of association.  These principles are to regulate all further agreements; they specify the kinds of social cooperation that can be entered into and the forms of government that can be established.  This way of regulating the principles of justice I shall call justice as fairness.[7]

Presenting Political Theory in this way places a premium on understanding the model in context; to appreciate the model, the reader must have both a vocabulary and background knowledge that the public is unlikely to possess. Indeed, it is difficult enough for Political Theorists that over the last 50 years, there has been something of a cottage industry in books explaining it and replying to it, or in some cases outright challenging it. Among those who have challenged Rawls is Robert Nozick with his 1974 book, Anarchy, State, and Utopia, which laid the groundwork for the surge in libertarian thinking in America in the years after its publication. Together, these works are a kind of conversation between theorists who have set the boundaries of the most critical debates in modern American politics. These books have had an enormous impact on every American’s life, but they remain opaque to the public. Despite their importance, they are not nearly as prominent with the public as Ayn Rand’s 1957 work Atlas Shrugged, which examines many of the same ideas, and interestingly is a Science Fiction oriented novel.

Why Ask Questions

Why do Political Theorists ask questions? What seems like a simple question on the surface deserves some consideration. The reason is that it has a considerable impact on how Political Theory is conducted, and on the field’s ultimate direction. In particular, the answers to this question will impact some essential topics for us, the questions of who can contribute to the field, what the field will have to offer to society, and from where it will draw its inspiration.  The mid-20th Century was a crisis point for Political Theory with several prominent thinkers predicting the demise of the field based on a lack of progress, for example, Isiah Berlin bemoaned the lack of development of any new conceptual paradigms[8] in the field within his lifetime, and David Easton had severely criticized the credibility of the field based on what he considered to be systematic mistakes in methodology.[9] Perhaps the most substantial criticism came from John Plamenatz, who in his essay “The Use of Political Theory[10]” argued that Political Theory had devolved into little more than “linguistic analysis.” As he says, “Political philosophy is dead, I have heard men say, killed by the logical positivists and their successors who have shown that many of the problems which exercised the great political thinkers of the past were spurious, resting on confusions of thought and the misuse of language.”[11] As a result of these criticisms the currents of thought of those who would work in Political Theory moved away from “moral philosophy” and towards something else, perhaps more appropriately called Analytic Philosophy. Drawing on Max Weber’s work (and to a lesser extent Thomas Kuhn and others), the result was the rise of behaviorism, which favored empiricism over historicism and other forms of theory. Weber refers to this as the “bitter conflict about the apparently most elementary problems of our discipline, its methods.”[12] Thus began an era in which those who thought about political problems would talk primarily to others who thought about political problems and would do so in the language of science rather than the plain language of stories and narration as Plato and Machiavelli had.

Weber began his criticism of the social sciences by evidencing a deep distrust of the ability of academics to dispassionately examine the world around them, believing that no matter how fervently they wish to understand the true nature of a problem, they will have issues separating the causes of social ills from societal (and personal) values.  As he said

“It is true that in our sciences, personal value-judgments have tended to influence scientific arguments without being explicitly admitted. They have brought about continual confusion and have caused various interpretations to be placed on scientific arguments even in the sphere of the determination of simple casual interconnections among facts according to whether the results increased or decreased the chances of realizing one’s personal ideals, i.e., the possibility of desiring a certain thing.[13]

Weber realized that all researchers have personal biases and that it is all but impossible for a researcher to keep their bias from interfering with their project, if even unconsciously, unless their project is structured in such a way as to make this impossible.  This is the key to Weber’s empiricism: observe your subject, understand it without interjecting your own biases and values, then report your observations.  Critical to the methodology of empiricism is the concept that “a systematically correct scientific proof in the social sciences, if it is to achieve its purpose,[14]” must separate empirical truth from value judgments; further, the observations must be valid in the absence of any personal or societal values.  The conclusions should be understandable by any person who has sufficient prior knowledge to understand the system regardless of their cultural biases.  Also, any resulting axioms will only be valid if they can be understood by a person who does not accept the same “ethical imperative”[15] as the observer.  When these conditions are met, the research will be “completely free of the prejudice which asserts that reflections on culture which go beyond the analysis of empirical data in order to interpret the world metaphysically can, because of their metaphysical character fulfill no useful tasks of understanding.[16]” We are therefore left with a methodology that strips down a system to its essential components, simplifying it and making it more understandable.  This methodology divorces the theorist from his or her values.  This does not mean that Max Weber had no room for values, but that is a point we will come to later.

David Easton continued this line of reasoning by emphasizing the importance of transparency in data collection.

“Failure to realize the function that value-creation plays in empirical research means that the choices of political scientists, like other social scientists, will be molded not by the conscious adoption of a set of values, but by the implicit and intuitive acceptance of a value framework which they have accidentally acquired. Clearly this conflicts with our first principles as social scientists, that is, to be strictly aware of our operations so that the validity of the results can be known in terms of the way they were derived.[17]

For Easton, the most important aspect of research is that the subject of observation is understood within its own framework, separate from the values of the observer.  The lack of understanding on the part of the theorist of their layering their personal values on the society they observe leads to “social blindness”[18] according to Easton, this, in turn, inhibits, or even wholly negates, the usefulness of the observations.  In the end, ironically, the theorist is reduced to simply stating their views of how they believe society should be arranged.[19]  Because the theorist does not understand the place that their accepted values hold in their theory, Political Theory ends up living “parasitically”[20] on the ideas of the past.  Easton refers to this as the “double burden of guilt” because Political Theory

“traditionally, although this is seldom recognized or acknowledged, it deals with two major orders of knowledge, facts and values. Although it has always shown a primary concern for values, we would be seriously misled about the nature of a political theory if we did not recognize that in practice it does depend upon factual statements about political relations.[21]

Given how these arguments have divided the field for the last 50+ years, is it any wonder that when the public pays any attention to Political Theory they are confused by the goals (or lack of goals) of the field and its applicability to building a just and fair society?

These arguments over methodology and goals are not the only guiding forces in the type of work that is being done in the social sciences, however.  Political Scientists tend to work in Universities, and their livelihood is bound to a system that values quantification of results (as in the number of papers published) as a means of advancement.  Michael Giles and James Garand put it bluntly when they said

“Academic journals play a key role in the dissemination of scholarly knowledge in the social sciences. Hence, publication in journals is critical evidence of scholarly performance for both individuals and the departments that they populate. While in the best of worlds each scholar’s performance would be evaluated based on a close reading of his or her published journal articles, in the actual practices of hiring, tenure and promotion review, and departmental evaluations this ideal is often honored only in the breach. Instead, evaluators commonly base their judgments of the importance and quality of published articles, at least in part, on the journals in which they appear. The higher the status accorded a journal, the greater the weight attached to publications appearing in it.”[22]

For our purposes, this is not a criticism of the work being done as much as it explains where the work is being directed.  Serious work in Political Theory tends to be done in journal articles which by their very nature are more suited to consumption by other theorists rather than by the public.  Context, jargon, and methodology make these works unsuitable for the public.

Should Social Science be Value Neutral?

It would be unfair to claim that all aspects of empiricism are value-neutral, however.  Even Max Weber went to great pains to point out that the value of Political Theory is best expressed not within the system being examined but within the context of people’s lived experiences.  The point of empiricism is to structure a process so that a question can be asked and answered under impartial circumstances.  The structure of the process should be clear and open to examination; following the process should prevent anyone from unintentionally (or intentionally) affecting the outcome.  The question and results should be internally consistent and logical.  Within an experiment or study, the work should be value neutral.  However, if all our attention is limited to just answering the question being asked, the work is virtually useless.  Any value the answer provides lies outside of the work being done. As Weber says,

“The distinctive characteristic of a problem of social policy is indeed the fact that it cannot be resolved merely on the basis of purely technical considerations which assume already settled ends. Normative standards of value can and must be the objects of dispute in a discussion of a problem of social policy because the problem lies in the domain of general cultural values.”[23]

Isaiah Berlin’s conception of Political Theory implies one aspect of the field that has only been looked at here tangentially, for whom does Political Theory exist?  (Or if one does not believe that Political Theory has an intrinsic meaning, who and what do Political Theorists value?)  Political Theory justifies why “orders are issued, men are coerced, wars are fought, new societies are created and old ones destroyed.”  Wars are not limited to only the military and the benefits of society should not be limited to just those who make the decisions.  All the people who make-up a society have a stake in how society justifies itself.  Those people who are treated least fairly are those who have the most to gain from an understanding of Political Theory. Ironically, it is these people who likely will have the least exposure to Political Theory given that modern Political Theory exists primarily in the University setting, an environment difficult for those with limited resources to enter.  Political theory is written by theorists for others in the field; it is published in books and journals which are inaccessible to most.  When an article does fall into the public consciousness, it is all too easy for its subtleties to be lost behind a wall of jargon and a lack of background knowledge.  Political Theory illuminates power structures, those who do not understand Political Theory are in danger of having those power structures used against them since resources tend to accumulate with those who have power.

If the public could be exposed to the ideas inherent in Political Theory, they would be more likely to understand the concepts of liberty, democracy, and power irrespective of how these concepts are situated in the field.  A public empowered by this knowledge would be better suited to compete for economic and political resources.  We have examined some of the barriers to this that exist within the field of Political Theory; below we will begin to examine how science fiction can remedy this deficient situation.

What is Science Fiction?

Science Fiction is marked by an odd ability to defy a strict definition, a characteristic evident from the many lengthy and strained attempts at definition by those who write about it.[24]  Many texts about Science Fiction spend considerable time and energy in an attempt only to make the definition so general that it is less than ideal.  Paul Kincaid defines it as “a form of the literary fantastic employing any of a wide variety of commonly recognized themes, techniques and approaches that have tended to braid together over time into something to which we now give the name science fiction.[25]”  As Kincaid implies even the name of the genre is controversial with many variants such as “scientification” and “scientific romance” being used in the past.  Definitions have tended to emphasis the technological aspects of Science Fiction stories making the improvement in technology a central feature, though that has changed somewhat since the advent of “social science fiction” in the 1970’s.[26]   This very problem of definition can tell us something important about the field; it is dynamic, descriptive, interpretive, and interactive while being old fashioned and modern all at once. In this sense, it mirrors the society that it participates in.  While most definitions of Science Fiction concentrate on literary characteristics, modern multi-media aspects of the genre should also be considered. Science Fiction is in fact made up of many different facets which have many different possible avenues of delivery to its audience.  Further, these facets are not static; they are in fact supremely malleable, interacting, changing places, and taking on new roles in different situations.  Fans can read Science Fiction in a book, watch Science Fiction in a television show or movie, then later publish their own story via the web or produce a video critique hosted on YouTube, play a Science Fiction oriented video game and later attend a Science Fiction convention.

Still though, some attempt at a definition must be made.  Science Fiction is a genre that exists in the broader category of Speculative Fiction which also includes Fantasy, Horror and Gothic Tales, stories of the occult, and more.  Most formal definitions include terms and ideas such as “future technology,” “impact of science,” “utopia,” “dystopia,” “encountering change,” and such.  What these definitions all have in common is a method that Science Fiction uses to radically change the audiences’ frame of reference.  A person’s frame of reference grounds his or her identity and their place in society, these frames of reference are so fundamental that in some ways they are invisible to most of us, despite the power they hold over us.  For example, we believe because we are Americans we must be “rugged individuals,” we must be either a Democrat or a Republican, we must follow the law, believe in God and do hundreds of other things-just because.   But how does this make Science Fiction different from Fantasy which might transform the protagonist into a unicorn?  The primary differences between Science Fiction and other forms of Speculative Fiction such as Fantasy that are important to us are a particular method of “world building” that results in certain expectations on the part of the audience in terms of how the story works.  Unlike Fantasy, Science Fiction must maintain a sense of realism and internal consistency.   So, for us, Science Fiction is a genre that radically changes the audience’s frame of reference, which often challenges the audiences identity at a fundamental level while still keeping the audience in a realistic, internally consistent world.  Through this process Science Fiction encourages questions about how the world works, particularly in regard to power relationships between society and individuals.  This is often accomplished through the introduction of new technology or by envisioning people in a future or significantly different world.

Science Fiction as Genre Fiction

Science fiction has a few other fundamental characteristics of which we must take note.  Unlike other genres, it consciously strives not to have limits.  But to say that an area of literature is a genre is to set limits; Westerns are set in the West, Romances have romance, detective stories have detectives, etc.  But a Science Fiction story can be placed in any time past, present, or future; it can use Western tropes or include romance elements.  Of course, Science Fiction has its own tropes. Where would Star Trek be without spaceships or Star Wars without lightsabers?  However, we should not over emphasize the importance of these tropes to Science Fiction; they are more important as plot elements than they are in their own right.  Science Fiction and Westerns have many tropes in common, for example the use of strongly drawn evil characters, gunfights, the lone hero fighting a lonely battle for good, among many others.  Westerns however are limited in the tropes that they can use; a sheriff cannot have a transporter and an old time country doctor cannot have a computer.  To do so would fundamentally change the work into a different genre.  Compared to Science Fiction this limits other genre’s ability to engage in social commentary in at least two respects.  First, practically speaking, the use of Science Fiction allows a plot to move in ways that stories in other genres cannot.   For example, a recurring trope in Star Trek has been the use of “replicators” (devices that turn energy into almost any type of matter needed, such as food or other consumer goods) to examine issues around economics and to examine the effects of a post-scarcity economy on the common person.  This has been used to great effect to examine issues in colonialism, racism and capitalism for example.  It’s difficult to envision how the examination of a post-scarcity economy, or many other issues, could be done within the confines of a Romance or a Detective Story for example.

Secondly, Science Fiction provides a means for authors to evade censorship, to tell stories that would be difficult or impossible to tell in any other way.  As Gene Roddenberry said,

 “I was tired of writing for shows where there was always a shoot-out in the last act and somebody was killed. “Star Trek” was formulated to change that. I had been a freelance writer for about a dozen years and was chafing at the commercial censorship on television. You really couldn’t talk about anything you cared to talk about. It seemed to me that perhaps if I wanted to talk about sex, religion, politics, make some comments against Vietnam, and so on, that if I had similar situations involving these subjects happening on other planets to little green people, indeed it might get by, and it did.[27]

Censorship occurs most often when gatekeepers feel threatened by the dissemination of ideas because of commercial, political, or social reasons.  For example, a television network is a gatekeeper in that they control the funding and distribution of television programs.  Television networks are generally for-profit corporations which do not wish to alienate the viewing public and so may be unwilling to broadcast shows which they deem have objectionable material, such as plots that involve LGBTQ characters.  As Roddenberry said, commercial censorship made it difficult to tell stories such as these, particularly before recent times.  But if the characters and relationships were disguised in some way, the impact of the message would be more subtle, less likely to be objected to by the network.  In 1992 Star Trek: The Next Generation (TNG) aired “The Outcast.”  In this episode the Star Trek crew are helping an alien race rescue a lost ship, while helping Commander Riker finds himself attracted to one of the aliens.

 

Soren, the J’naii pilot, is androgynous, while Commander Riker is the most overtly masculine character in the Star Trek crew.  Their relationship is an allegory for the situation that Gay Americans find themselves in.  The relationship is first hidden, then when it is discovered, it is terminated by Soren’s society.  By the end Soren is even put through a medical procedure which renders her “normal” to her society, that is to say she was made androgynous. While many LGBTQ fans have criticized this episode as being out of touch[28] or for not going far enough in making its intentions clear[29], it was at least aired on a very popular show in America in 1992.

Beyond the obvious, that is set in the future and deals with aliens, why is this an example Science Fiction?  More particularly, why is this VSF which embodies elements of Political Theory?  After all it could be thought of as just another forbidden love story, not so different from Romeo and Juliette.  It is because of the way that this episode treats the audience.  The audience identifies Commander Riker as the classic leading man, within the show he has a well-documented romantic relationship with one of the shows female leading characters.  Despite being a member of the Federation, in spirit, he is the All-American hero who defeats the bad guys and wins the day.  His pairing with Soren is no accident; the use of another less masculine character would not have had the same impact.  Further, at times it is Soren who initiates the relationship, placing Riker in an unusual situation.  Especially for those who identify with Riker (straight White males) this is shocking.  It violates the role that Riker the character is portraying, in universe, as the first officer in charge of a star ship and also in the real world as Jonathan Frakes, since the stars of a popular television shows do not normally take a role that would challenge their masculinity.  The audiences frame of reference is being challenged; Riker is no longer who we thought he was.  On a fundamental level his, and those who identify with him, identities are being challenged.  Without the use of what is clearly a Science Fiction oriented plot device it is doubtful that this story could have been told on prime-time television in 1992.

The Believable and the Unbelievable

Science Fiction draws it strength through embodying a tension between what is believable and what is unbelievable.  How can we expect a genre such a Science Fiction to comment on important questions such as “Are people fundamentally free,” or “Is Democracy better suited to America than Fascism” if Science Fiction is literally unbelievable?  Fundamental to Science Fiction is the concept of “the suspension of disbelief.”  Science Fiction own a debt to Gothic Literature, from which it flows naturally, in this way Science Fiction has incorporated many unique traits from the Gothic, particularly its use of metaphor, terror v horror, the fantastic, and its expectation of the consumer’s willing suspension of disbelief.

Unlike other genres whose origins can be debated, we can trace the birth of Gothic literature to the publication of Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto on Christmas day 1764.[30]  Written during, and likely as a response to, the Enlightenment, The Castle of Otranto is filled with all the elements that we have come to associate the Gothic Tale with today; the supernatural, ghosts, skeletons, dark moody forests, strong villains, emotional distress, and romance.  Although somewhat forgotten today it is impossible to underestimate the effect this work had on 18th Century European and American culture.  As Clive Bloom says:

“The gothic is a ‘feeling’ expressed by certain formulas which have been readily expanded upon ever since the publication of Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto.  These gothic feelings took shape in architecture, poetry, novels, short stories, pornography, romance and painting; they had political and ecclesiastical ramifications and formed a coherent philosophy of living.”[31]

Referring to the Gothic as a “feeling” is an indication of the relationship it has to the Romantic period, and as such how it stands in (partial) opposition to the ideas of the Enlightenment.[32]  Walpole started a process in which fantastic ideas migrated from the realm of the mythic into our everyday world.  Fantastic ideas and circumstances were no longer dictated by the Gods but were placed in our everyday world.  Yet these fantastic ideas (such as “living skeletons” and animated suits of armor) were incredible.  They required the audience to negotiate between elements of fantasy and reality in ways that they can draw out meaning despite the implausible story elements of Gothic (and later Science Fiction) stories.

This tension between belief and non-belief places a burden on the audience to determine what aspects of a story can contribute to a greater understanding of what the story is commenting on, and which should be discarded.  This process is vital to our understanding of the social commentary embodied in the work in question, Stuart Hall has called this the “active audience” theory.  It describes a process in which the person consuming the media actively accepts elements of the story which they find pertinent, those story elements then become a filter through which reality is viewed.  Through this process a living skeleton in The Castle of Otranto is no longer an unbelievable story element but is changed into the guilt a father feels for the death of his son.  This conception of what a story is has continued in Science Fiction so that now audiences have no issue with accepting elements of, for example, Star Trek as commentary on today’s political themes.  Further, it legitimizes how two people may draw different meanings from the same source material through subjectively accepting or disregarding various story elements.

David Easton said

“The task of the social scientist has been too sharply and artificially divorced from that of the politician. The function of the latter, it is said, is to sense human purposes and to reconcile them into a viable political order, whereas the task of the social scientist is to accumulate data about the relation of facts.” But this distinction is only partly true. Between these two tasks there lies yet a third which by oversight has been assigned to no one. This is the function of sensitively responding to the urgent problems of society and to the emerging social needs so that it becomes possible to articulate a sophisticated system of values that will help both the citizen and the statesman to define their situation.[33]

While some may argue with Easton’s conception of the role of a “social scientist,” this does highlight a role in which Science Fiction provides significant value to both the public and the field of Political Theory.  Easton believed that theorists had “shirked” their role of being political advisors because they conflated emotions with values.  Because of this, he said, “we do need some serious political guidance, in the broadest and most sophisticated terms; and by “we,” I mean the politician as well as the humble citizen.”[34]  To remedy this Easton proposed a three step process which, when a Political Scientist was examining a problem, would constitute proper Political Theory; these three steps are 1) statement of the actual situation, 2) a statement of the goals that should be sought, and 3) a means to achieve the goals.[35]  So we must ask, do we see these elements in Science Fiction?

Is The Comet Political Theory?

Can these same elements be found in Science Fiction?  In 1920 W.E.B. Dubois published The Comet, later hailed as an early example of Afrofuturism, the story tackled the issue of racism as it existed in early 20th Century America.   The main character, Jim, an African American, works in a menial job in a bank in New York City.  The bank’s vault has been flooded and Jim is asked (though for all practical purposes he is told) to retrieve a few valuable ledgers. Retrieving the ledgers is a dangerous disagreeable job which would not be given to a White employee.  The bank President asks ““Well, Jim, are you scared?”  Although he answers no he thinks to himself “they wanted him to go down to the lower vaults. It was too dangerous for more valuable men.”  So, Jim must endure the ensuing danger and discomfort because he is a Black man.  While he is in the vault a catastrophe befalls the city as it is subjected to the poison gases from a passing comet; in a turn of fortune Jim is protected by the very vault which he was forced to enter.  Upon emerging he finds that all the people around him are dead.  He then experiences the city as he could not before, realizing that it took a tragedy for him to enter a fancy restaurant to find food.  So the first element is established, racism is real, and Jim suffers it’s effects for no other reason than the color of his skin.

After a while Jim does find one other survivor, a financially well-off White women who is overjoyed to find another.  In fact, she is so happy at first, she “had not noticed before that he was a Negro.”  For his part, Jim had not “thought of her as white. She was a woman of perhaps twenty-five—rarely beautiful and richly gowned, with darkly-golden hair, and jewels. Yesterday, he thought with bitterness, she would scarcely have looked at him twice. He would have been dirt beneath her silken feet. She stared at him. Of all the sorts of men she had pictured as coming to her rescue she had not dreamed of one like him. Not that he was not human, but he dwelt in a world so far from hers, so infinitely far, that he seldom even entered her thought.”  Because these circumstances are presented as a story it may not at first be apparent that this is a way of stating a goal.  The audience is required to put themselves in the place of Jim to understand the implications; that it was wrong before the catastrophe to treat people unfairly because of their race and it should not take the deaths of so many for two people from different social backgrounds to see each other as human.  It is unfortunate that we can imagine African Americans would be more likely to understand this than White Americans would, but this does satisfy the requirement that a goal should be stated, namely that racism is evil and should be eliminated.

     The Comet presents two survivors of a catastrophe as a new Adam and Eve, “She was neither high nor low, white nor black, rich nor poor. She was primal woman; mighty mother of all men to come and Bride of Life. She looked upon the man beside her and forgot all else but his manhood, his strong, vigorous manhood—his sorrow and sacrifice. She saw him glorified. He was no longer a thing apart, a creature below, a strange outcast of another clime and blood, but her Brother Humanity incarnate, Son of God and great All-Father of the race to be.”  This satisfies the last step, a means to achieve the goal previously stated.

     W.E. B. Dubois did not of course think of this in any way as a reasonable course of action, it is a story meant to illuminate themes that were difficult to talk about.  As a story it might reach an audience that would not be responsive to these issues in any other way.  It is a thought experiment which explained the difficulties that so many people at the time experienced, and it pointed out just how hard it might be to overcome these issues.

[1] Brooks, Thom. “In Defence of Political Theory: Impact and Opportunities.” Political Studies Review, vol. 11, no. 2, May 2013, pp. 209–215, doi:10.1111/1478-9302.12007.

[2] Giles, Micheal W., and James C. Garand. “Ranking Political Science Journals: Reputational and Citational Approaches.” PS: Political Science & Politics, vol. 40, no. 04, 2007, pp. 741–751., doi:10.1017/s1049096507071181.

[3] Department of Political Science, San Francisco State University, 17 Sept. 2020, politicalscience.sfsu.edu/.

[4] Berlin, Isaiah. Does Political Theory Still Exist? berlin.wolf.ox.ac.uk/published_works/cc/polthe.pdf.  p.148

[5] What Is Scientific Progress? Author(s): Alexander Bird Source: Noûs , Mar., 2007, Vol. 41, No. 1 (Mar., 2007), pp. 64-89

[6] Ibid. p.65

[7] Rawls, John. “Chapter 1.” A Theory of Justice, Belknap Press, 1971, p. 11

[8] Berlin, Isaiah.  Does Political Theory Still Exist? berlin.wolf.ox.ac.uk/published_works/cc/polthe.pdf.

[9] Easton, David. The Decline of Modern Political Theory, Southern Political Science Association, www.jstor.org/stable/2126121.

[10] Plamenatz, John. Political Studies. No. 1 ed., VIII, 1960.

[11] Ibid.

[12] While it is true that Weber is mainly  thought of as a Sociologist, he often refers to himself as a Social Scientist, while in “Science as a Vocation,” he declares that Political Science is one of the topics that is “close to me.”   Further, David Easton refers to him liberally in his essay, “The Decline of Modern Political Theory.”

[13] Weber, M. (n.d.). 1Objectivity of Social Science and Social Policy. Retrieved April 16, 2021, from http://jthomasniu.org/class/Stuff/PDF/weber-objectivity.pdf

[14] Ibid. P.11

[15] Ibid. P.10

[16] Ibid. P. 12

[17] Easton, David. “The Decline of Modern Political Theory.” The Journal of Politics, vol. 13, no. 1, 1951, pp. 36–58. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/2126121. Accessed 16 Apr. 2021. P. 49

[18] Easton, David. “The Decline of Modern Political Theory.” The Journal of Politics, vol. 13, no. 1, 1951, pp. 36–58. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/2126121. Accessed 16 Apr. 2021.

[19] This is a common complaint and one not limited to those who criticize theorists.  Plamenatz for example, levels the same type of criticism against empiricists who choose the parameters of their investigations to arrive at their desired outcomes.

[20] Easton, David. “The Decline of Modern Political Theory.” The Journal of Politics, vol. 13, no. 1, 1951, pp. 36–58. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/2126121. Accessed 16 Apr. 2021. P.36

[21] Ibid. P.37

[22] Giles, Micheal W., and James C. Garand. “Ranking Political Science Journals: Reputational and Citational Approaches.” PS: Political Science & Politics, vol. 40, no. 04, 2007, pp. 741–751., doi:10.1017/s1049096507071181.

[23] Weber, M. (n.d.). 1Objectivity of Social Science and Social Policy. Retrieved April 16, 2021, from http://jthomasniu.org/class/Stuff/PDF/weber-objectivity.pdf p.37

[24] Asimov, Isaac, and Roger Zimmerman. Asimov on Science Fiction. Doubleday, 1981.

[25] “Through Time and Space.” Teaching Science Fiction, by Andy Sawyer and Peter Wright, Basingstoke Hampshire, 2011, p. 22.

[26] Asimov, Isaac, and Roger Zimmerman. Asimov on Science Fiction. Doubleday, 1981.

27] Edward Gross and Mark A. Altman. An Oral History of “Star Trek”. 1 May 2016, www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/oral-history-star-trek-180958779/.

[28] Sandifer, Elizabeth. “Born This Way”: The Outcast. 2015, www.eruditorumpress.com/blog/born-this-way-the-outcast/.

[29] Kay, Jonathan. “Gay ‘Trek.’” Salon, Salon.com, 25 Sept. 2011, www.salon.com/2001/06/30/gay_trek/.

[30] In fact, the genre takes its name from Horace Walpole’s subtitle, “A Gothic Tale”.

[31] Bloom, Clive. Gothic Histories: The Taste for Terror, 1764 to the Present. London: Continuum, 2010. P. 2

[32] It’s important to note that like many literary genres historical periods do not necessarily have precise definitions or timeframes.  Various experts have different viewpoints and different societies often date the start and end of historical periods based on local events.  For example, the English speaking world often uses 1687, the publication date of Isaac Newtons’ Principia Mathematica as the beginning of the Enlightenment while the French speaking world often uses 1637, the publication date of Rene Descartes’ Discourse on the Method.  Given this lack of definition historical periods, like literary periods, can often overlap.

[33] Easton, David. “The Decline of Modern Political Theory.” The Journal of Politics, vol. 13, no. 1, 1951, pp. 36–58. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/2126121. Accessed 16 Apr. 2021. P. 48

[34] Ibid. p.47

[35] Ibid. p.48