Pox populi

Another painful antiporn piece from Robert Jensen, this time with Gail Dines. Even when he’s writing about sex, Jensen is pedantic, boring, and unfailingly correct.

I’ll leave the rebuttal of the article’s antiporn silliness to those better positioned than me, but I will note that it does contain a couple of (accidental) gems. After warning us that “[s]exual desire can constrain people’s capacity for critical reason” and that “[l]eftists–especially left men–need to get over the obsession with getting off,” the authors write:

Critiques of the power of commercial corporate media are ubiquitous on the left. Leftists with vastly different political projects can come together to decry conglomerates’ control over news and entertainment programming. Because of the structure of the system, it’s a given that these corporations create programming that meets the needs of advertisers and elites, not ordinary people.

Jensen and Dines think applying this mode of critique would illuminate how pornography exploits. I think it nicely illuminates why leftist media criticism sucks. Such criticism performs its routines always employing the same motifs: the obligatory recitation of the three evil C’s, commercial, corporate, and consolidation (the latter is not stated by Jensen and Dines, but it’s always implied); the lamentation, in Jensen and Dines’s words, that “profit-hungry corporative [sic] executives construct our culture” (as opposed to all those charity-hungry execs?); the banal assertion that media companies pursue their own interests above all else (I’m shocked, shocked); the conviction that corporate-media content is all about brainwashing and indoctrination; and the conclusion that the people are just unblinking recipients of such ideological overload. Media critics never countenance that “the ordinary people” it speaks for could actually enjoy corporate entertainment, or that they could use it for their own purposes, or that they could both see and disregard the ideology it contains.

What’s more troubling about this style of political critique is that, despite making gestures toward being a structural analysis, it nonetheless posits an outsider (the corporate conglomerate) that transcends the natural social order and is ruining “our” (the people’s) social yearnings. In a word, it’s an analysis that is populist. Populist criticism of course rests on two fundamental tenets: (1) what’s needed is not social transformation but regime change, new, less-corrupt personnel that will leave the social institutions intact; and (2) “the people” is an empowered group and should be the source of power, but the people is also an act of exclusion, a way of drawing lines between groups; sometimes the line is drawn between rulers and the ruled, but often it is drawn between one people and another. In short, the antipolitics of populism makes it amenable to nationalism, militarism, and capitalism.

Aside: Populism has been a much-debated topic in blogville lately. Check out posts at Archive, Posthegemonic Musings, Le Colonel Chabert, K-Punk, and Ghost in the Wire.


7 thoughts on “Pox populi

  1. hi Eric,
    I’m afraid I don’t quite get the use of the term ‘populism’ that’s going around in some of these arguments and I, frankly, feel a bit thick as a result. Can you explain to me how you understand the term? I’ve always thought of it vaguely as meaning something like “up with people”.
    Your (1) above is a pretty good definition of how I use the terms ‘liberalism’ and ‘reformism’, and I quite like it in that sense, but it doesn’t help me understand the term populism, except as a synonym for those other terms.
    I’m not sure I follow (2). It seems to me that any claim that any group is an empowered group, and that any group is or should be the source of power is also potentially a claim that could be bound up with a process (deliberate or accidental) of of exclusion, a way of drawing lines between groups. I think I’d want to say that that’s just always the risk, and that I’d be doubly suspicious of any claim about a group that posited itself as being in no way – and not even imaginably, possibly – bound up with prospects for exclusion and the drawing of lines.
    I hope all’s well w/ you.
    take care,

    ps- before I forget, I really like your point about lefty media criticism. Well put. It’s distressing how common (and, to be honest, how easy to fall into) is the assumption that people are just dumb and duped. It’s precisely the lack of (and attack on) this assumption that’s gotten me really jazzed on this Ranciere guy lately.

  2. Nate,

    Populism is being used in a broader sense than we are used to it in the US, where it usually refers to political movements, usually agrarian-based, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and, today, is advocated by people like Jim Hightower and Thomas Frank. Yeah, populism can be “liberal” (though right-wing populism is pretty common; cf Pat Buchanan and Le Pen) and nationalist (though not necessarily comprising the whole nation; eg, excluding immigrants or certain races). So it’s more flexible. It’s not really liberalism as, I think, you are thinking of it, because that term implies a more or less stable political philosophy, while populism usually is devoid of political conviction, in that it wants new corprate execs, new politicians,etc–the old throw-the-bums-out mentality. Also, populism tends to need (create) transcendent evil forces; the bad things come from without, never from within. Concomitantly, it appeals to we, the people, attempting to erase class, race, and national differences–but only selectively, depending on the situation. I suppose a classic populist positing is the rich vs. the not-rich. Whereas Marxists see class, populists see only wealth. And yes, this creation of “the people” is exclusionary, but populism is utterly unreflective about who is excluded, and of course why. Marxism, or at least my version of it, seeks to destroy capital the social relation not capitalists the people. Populism is endlessly drawing and erasing lines between individuals and groups of individuals, destroying individuals and groups of individuals while ignoring the social relations.

    It is really hard to not fall into the trap that people are just dupes. Of course, if that job would be a lot easier if they just thought they way I do ;-). I just read your post on Ranciere, who I have never read. I really like the quotes and your post. It’s especially nice to read as I type these words at 1:30 in the morning. And yeah, I like what you say about sick days. That’s always been my philosophy.

    Take care,


  3. hi Eric,

    Thanks for clarifying. I’ve been reading some Carl Schmitt lately, so maybe that’s coloring my mind, but I’m not sure what do with the “social relations not people” thing. I mean, yes, definitely, I completely agree, but at the same time those social relations are occupied and powerfully enforced by people. Bakunin says somewhere something about how ours is a fight against relations and things, not people (so, for instance, we don’t murder the czar’s children). But all that said, ex-bosses of mine who crushed union drives I was part of – I really hate those fuckers, it’s not just anti-capitalism in principle, it’s personal, I’ve had moments of seriously wishing they’d get terrible illnesses and stuff. But maybe that’s a danger to avoid, I’m not sure.

    This Ranciere guy is rocking my world. I’ve been joking with friends that I’m going start a group called Campus Crusade For Ranciere. Some of his stuff goes over my head, but every time he talks about history it’s wonderful.

    take care,

  4. Good points, That article was wretched. I also really like the critique of populism.
    But I’m kind of ambivalent with regards to your critique of lefty media criticism. The assertion, however banal it may be, that media corporations act in their own interests as corporations, is not something that is readily obvious, considering that the media companies themselves furiously deny such obvious truisms. Isn’t capitalist media about indoctrination? Why is it a bad thing to say that? Of course people might enjoy corporate entertainment, but isn’t that precisely what is bad, that people willingly immerse themselves in capitalist spectacle? I do not see how the shit that’s on TV can be used “for their own purposes.” But you are right that it’s foolish to think that people are unable to disregard the ideology contained in it. Still, I think that capitalist media is largely succesful in its ideological indoctrination, that’s precisely the problem.

  5. Nate, I don’t know if personal anger is really a danger to avoid. I think I sometimes am too placid about people’s ignorance or responsibility, too forgiving. Adorno talks somewhere about the stupidity (and impossibility) of trying to detach emotion from thought. Absence of love, hate, anger, sorrow, etc., does not mean the clarity of thought but rather its death, I think is how he phrased it. That seems right to me.

    Quinlan, thanks. I would say capitalist media is mainly about profits. I suppose indoctrination is a nice side benefit, but corps wouldn’t sacrifice profits to achieve it (small and perhaps trivial example: in the US, networks are not willing to offer extended coverage of the quadrennial presidential-nomination conventions, even though they are the ultimate propoganda arenas [this is participatory democracy in action–isn’t it great?!], because they’d rather run programming that garners ad revenue). Yes, undoubtedly, propoganda and indoctrination are parts of it. But I’m not sure that ultimately they explain very much about the ways in which capitalism and the state work. I’m still trying to work this out, but here’s what I’ve got so far: Focusing on the ideological aspects both of media content and its place in the entire system is, in a sense, a form of idealism. Capitalism works primarily by the physical, bodily arrangement of its subjects, and I think focusing too much on ideology is a retreat from one of Marx’s fundamental insights, the materialist way of looking at history and society. Not that I’m a vulgar materialist, and neither do I think that the intellectual always follows the material, but I do think that in the case of ideology/propaganda/indoctrination, they are more often a justification for capitalism rather than one of its enforcement mechanisms, a retrospective rewriting of capitalism’s secrets rather than one of its founding, productive moments.

    Anyway, this is all kind of jumbled and off the cuff. Hopefully some of it is clear.

  6. Yeah, that makes it clearer to me what you were getting at, I agree basically, for me it’s all about materialism too. But I don’t necessarily think that there is a contradiction between profits AND indoctrination. By acting in the manner most likely to increase their profits, media corps naturally indoctrinate, it’s just how it functions. The manner most profitable for them to function is also the manner which indoctrinates people who consume their product, which is immaterial though, their product is ideas. But it is true that all of the lefty media critiques are probably more than just a little obfuscatory in terms of avoiding disclosing the real way in which capitalism functions.

  7. I don’t see a contradiction either. And I do think that the indoctrination angle is real. I just don’t think it’s all that significant.

    Take care,


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