Praxis Makes Perfect: Eileen Jones
Film critic, podcaster, and former academic Eileen Jones on repairing the broken links between progressive politics and art.
I’m sad to announce that I might need to retire the joke I’ve made every week for a month. It was a fun (for me) way of introducing the aim of the Praxis Makes Perfect interviews every week as the series found its feet.
The aim being: speaking to activists in the media and elsewhere, in order to help other people who want to - do you know what, I’ll just screenshot it:
I’m so excited to introduce this interview because the work of this week’s Praxis interviewee, Eileen Jones, really crystallises the relationship between power and pop culture - which you might have noticed is fairly crucial to this newsletter.
Her film criticism for leftist magazine Jacobin, and her podcast Filmsuck, give a clear and bracing look at the “rotten politics” of the current mass entertainment industry in a way that’s exciting and easy to read without scrimping on depth. She demonstrates in her work, and in this interview, that culture can be a powerful way to persuade and create change - but that it’s crucial we do more to break through the current mass media ecosystem, not only in content but in style and form.
The point of praxis this week, that Eileen outlines so well in her response, is: building a mass movement. Let’s consider what we can do to focus more on this, and less on pwning people via Twitter.
Jacobin @jacobinKen Burns and Lynn Novick’s PBS docuseries Hemingway sheds new light on writer Ernest Hemingway's life. But it leaves out key details of his left-wing political convictions — including the FBI surveillance that haunted him until his suicide. https://t.co/EoYNiSejTY
(Interview edited for brevity and clarity.)
Introduce yourself however you wish!
I’m Eileen Jones, former lecturer in the Department of Film and Media at UC Berkeley, and current film critic for Jacobin magazine. My podcast is called Filmsuck, and my co-host Dolores McElroy and I consider the work of art in the age of crap cinema. Part of that involves calling out the generally rotten politics of most film and television.
Give a brief overview of your career trajectory up to now.
I ricocheted back and forth between academia and independent film production, finally arriving at a compromise—teaching film studies in a way that incorporated knowledge of film production. That hadn’t been allowed in my grad school days at UC Berkeley when psychoanalytic film theory ruled the department. I taught at several colleges and universities before getting invited back to teach at my old stomping grounds. By then I’d started writing film criticism on the side, as well as teaching courses in it, and then an editor at Jacobin contacted me. After several years I was able to retire from teaching so I could write and podcast full time.
Being a film critic, do you see criticism as a key cog in the leftist project?
I’d like to see it as key, and I think it needs to be, but it’s hard to see it that way right now. Film criticism has been so sidelined in recent decades after its peak years in the 1960s-‘70s, it can’t be seen as currently central to the leftist project any more than art and entertainment are. You read about older revolutionary movements like the Russian Revolution and way it led to Soviet montage as a way of building and maintaining radical subject or the Latin-American liberation movements that incorporated Third Cinema, and you can see how popular mass media forms, especially film, were once regarded as crucial to socialist endeavor. Right up through the 1970s there were filmmakers and film critics fiercely engaged in the struggle. Now it’s a thrill to see a film like Parasite or Bacurau, exciting films made by committed leftists, and be able to rave about them to your comrades and encourage everyone to see them. But we’re a long way from seriously incorporating film and other mass media into a socialist movement.
Do you consider yourself to be an activist? If so, are there any 'end goals' for your activism?
I went through an intense period of activism in California, as a member of the East Bay Democratic Socialists of America (EBDSA), in my last years of teaching at Berkeley. By that I mean I was a highly active member of the EBDSA, co-chairing the fundraising events committee and hosting many events, as well as attending meetings, marches, and rallies regularly, participating in strike support, recruiting new members, strategizing with fellow organizers, and so on. I don’t know how I did it, given how demanding the teaching job had gotten by then. I only know that it seemed so imperative, I just threw myself into it and pretty much never had a free hour for a few years.
There were plans to start a film series, but frankly, I burned out before that could happen—a common danger with activism. Then I retired from teaching and moved to Buffalo, NY, and joined the chapter here. A film series was already up and running and I began working on that; then the pandemic hit and shut that down. I think my “end goal” was to participate in building a socialist mass movement in America, which is obviously a very tall order, but it was shared by the organizers I was closest to, and that made for great solidarity. What’s discouraging is that I’m not sure most socialists have that as an end goal. I saw then, and see now, an awful lot of clubbiness and infighting and other nonsense we don’t have time for.
Do you do any form(s) of activism other than writing?
Right now, I’m not an activist, because I’m not doing anything beyond writing and podcasting. My husband died recently, my income was cut in half, and I began working at a frenzied pace to try to make up the income. Besides, the EBDSA set such a high standard for organizing, I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to think of myself as an activist or organizer again unless at some point I do nothing else—it’s very hard work, requires a tremendous amount of energy and dedication. Plus I suck at canvassing, which is a key skill!
Your Twitter bio says you 'survived' many years of teaching. Usually, people survive journalism for a while and then defect to teach - what led to your decision to make the leap in the other direction?
I found that teaching as a lecturer at Berkeley, which was once a great gig if you could get it, as good a teaching job as you were ever going to land anywhere, and an excellent way to make a living for a number of years while writing on the side, was getting harder and harder to do. Not just because I was getting older, but because class sizes were growing steadily while support was just as steadily withdrawn—the number of staff in our department was shrinking, teaching assistants became harder and harder to get, and so on. Same thing happening everywhere as academia got increasingly corporatized.
By the end, the burden on teachers was so colossal I didn’t see how I could carry it much longer. I was just lucky that, because my husband was older and had one of the last excellent pensions in America, I had the option to bail out. And that was before Covid hit and made the teaching job even more onerous. A friend of mine is essentially doing my old job, and it’s heartbreaking to hear stories of what a hell teaching is now.
There have been waves of layoffs in journalism not only in the last few decades, but particularly in the last few years. Do you have any predictions for the future of journalism?
It looks bleak, doesn’t it? It seems to me every profession that ever interested me has imploded. My prediction—just because I want to ward off despair—is that as national and global crises mount, the demand for serious journalism will also rise. That may be a fantasy, but I can’t afford NOT to have it. I see the effect all the time in family and friends who are not politically active or even politically serious at all, but somehow think they are because they parrot the often insanely stupid talking points of mainstream news outlets. Fox and MSNBC and CNN load people up with misleading minutia, factoids they can recite as if they had researched the situation themselves—it’s crazy the illusion of being informed that this creates. And this goes on while I have brilliant friends struggling to do real investigative journalism as freelancers, an all but impossible way to make a living.
Were there any specific moments that radicalised you?
Not so much moments as phases. The first phase was growing up in a blue-collar family hanging onto the lowest rung of the middle class by our fingernails and frequently dropping down into the lower class. Yet through a fluke we were living in the cheapest house in a very affluent town, so we were always among the poorest people in any local situation. That made class a big issue for me from childhood on, but I didn’t really know what to do with my resentment. And the 1980s and ‘90s were a terrible time for turning working-class rage into leftist politics, because the left had been completely routed by the conservative right-wing turn the country had taken under Reagan.
I didn’t even know anybody on the left who was an activist or organizer—to attend an anti-war march or a pro-choice rally was to feel like you were practically a radical. I can remember the very idea of “socialism” being openly mocked in grad school—it was regarded as a relic of the distant past. And while identity politics surged as an area of study, the old formulation of “race, class, and gender” had already shifted to leave out class, and add sexuality. But finally, the years of the George W. Bush presidency with its mad reality-defying ideology got so horrific, and was so welcomed at the very conservative school where I was teaching film, called Chapman University, I started writing criticism just to keep my own sanity.
Then I got approached to write for Jacobin, and eventually joined the DSA, which was just starting to gather a little momentum. But I became a serious activist when everybody else did, basically—the day after Trump got elected president. In the East Bay, seventy people—mostly young—showed up at the Niebyl-Proctor Marxist Library in Oakland, the meeting place of the EBDSA. At that time the organization had approximately a dozen members--average age seventy. They couldn’t believe their eyes at the mob standing outside when the doors opened. There weren’t nearly enough chairs, and we all had to drag chairs out of storage.
What are your thoughts on the 'problematic fave'?
I don’t mind the concept if it’s handled with tolerance and some humor and a sense that everybody is going to have a problematic fave—everybody who isn’t a bot of some kind. I’ll give an example that’ll be familiar to you in the UK—I love the shows Father Ted, Black Books, and The IT Crowd, all written by Graham Linehan, who’s been kicked off Twitter for his bizarre anti-transgender rants. He’s not the only comedy genius who’s got some egregiously terrible opinions and behaviors, but he’s made himself one of the most notorious, and I certainly wish he’d shut the hell up. But am I going to give up watching Father Ted? I am not. If you try engaging only with the books, movies, TV shows, artworks, and music made only by truly good people who’ve never committed a terrible deed or said a godawful thing, you’re not going to be reading or seeing or hearing much. Talent doesn’t make you nice.
Are there any pieces you've written that you're particularly proud of that you'd like to highlight?
I’m proud of a number of pieces, but here’s one: A long piece called “The Death of Revolutionary Film Form” for Jacobin, about the way film form—the use of cinematography, editing, mise-en-scene, and sound—had been considered crucial to earlier socialist and communist movements, from roughly 1920 – ’80. I’d been hesitant to write it in case the history was already too familiar to most socialists, but found to my astonishment that even my editors were unaware of how ambitious some of the theories were when it came to the revolutionary impact of form.
The clearest example is the Soviet montage artists—Lev Kuleshov, Sergei Eisenstein, Dziga Vertov, et al.—who were experimenting with the transformative potential of editing in fostering revolutionary subjects. Eisenstein felt he could practically embed the Marxist dialectic in the human brain and body through his “hammer-and-tongs” contrapuntal editing techniques.
The consciousness of the importance of form has all but disappeared in recent decades—content is all for most critics as well as viewers. It’s one of many reasons the left sucks at mass media persuasion. On the few occasions when we get any film or television produced, we’re almost always preaching to the choir. I think this situation might be starting to turn around, though. I was thrilled recently to read that Raoul Peck, director of I Am Not Your Negro, was highly aware of needing to break from conventional, mainstream documentary form when he directed the HBO docuseries Exterminate All the Brutes.
What are the most important changes you feel artists, writers, critics on 'The Left' make in society at this moment?
In my view the most crucial thing we all need to do on the left is think “mass movement,” like a mantra. How do we get it? How do we appeal to and persuade the huge majority of people who currently disagree with us politically, whose whole world view is different from ours? And from that frame of mind, go to work—on essays, books, films, paintings, music, criticism, everything. It’s strange, but that’s not the frame of mind for many socialists/communists. It’s easier and more enjoyable to feel superior and dismiss anyone who doesn’t agree with you even on minor points of theory and praxis. But most of us weren’t red-diaper babies, weaned on Marx and Engels. Somebody appealed to and persuaded us.
What film should all young activists absolutely watch this week (doesn't necessarily need to be recent!)?
Parasite and Bacarau were the two most politically exciting films of recent years, because both had strong leftist politics plus mass entertainment appeal. It’s not enough for small indie films with socialist politics to play to small niche audiences of socialists, though of course those have their place too. An example is a recent low-budget, independent documentary about Helen Keller I reviewed called Her Socialist Smile, which is quite experimental in its form. But who’s going to watch it? Socialists.
Even with Exterminate All the Brutes, just the title alone, just a brief description of the subject matter—the abominable history of white supremacy, imperialism, colonialism, genocide of indigenous peoples—is going to virtually guarantee nobody watches it but leftists who already know the broad strokes of that history. However difficult it is, we’ve got to reach huge numbers of people who currently don’t share our political beliefs.
And we’ve got to get into the ugly business of seeing what’s persuasive about entertainment that successfully functions as right-wing propaganda, such as cop movies and cop shows. Thousands of them over the course of decades have helped guarantee that the majority of Americans identify with the police as ever-brave, self-sacrificing, perpetually endangered heroes, no matter how much evidence to the contrary, and no matter how many innocent black citizens are murdered in the USA. How about if every young activist watches a current cop movie or series and analyzes it in order to figure out how to counteract it, through criticism, or by offering up another kind of popular movie or TV series?
Which organisations/other journalists do you think are doing the most important activism work currently?
Well, I gotta plug Jacobin here, of course. Jacobin and DSA take a lot of shit, but that’s because they’ve made themselves highly public targets by actually having some success in drawing large numbers of people to the left, toward socialism, in an era when everything’s been moving to the right for so long, we hardly know where we are. Before I joined Jacobin, I joined another socialist organization—since disbanded—with a very small membership and a very pure agenda, at least according to the rhetoric. I can still remember hearing it said repeatedly in meetings that it would be naïve to expect to gain any real political power anytime soon. We were just laying the early groundwork for results that would take, in all likelihood, thirty years to achieve. And I sat there looking around incredulously, thinking, “We don’t HAVE thirty years!”
If you could boil it down to three political changes that need to happen in the US, what would they be?
Just three? EVERYTHING needs to be done. That’s what’s so terrifying about our current state, you don’t even know where to start. Seriously addressing our disastrous climate policies, at the national and global level, before it’s too late— though it’s probably already too late. A federal jobs guarantee, so people can have a little security in a work-crazed society that ties health insurance to jobs. (Though we need single-payer healthcare NOT tied to jobs, obviously.) So much work that needs to be done staring us in the face—our collapsing infrastructure that makes driving over almost any bridge a high-risk venture, for one example—and so many people who need decent jobs, and yet we can’t manage to get the two things together. But how do we get any of this accomplished till we get some serious political power? And so we’re back to trying to build a mass movement again.
Thanks to Eileen for taking the time to answer my questions - for the organisers among us, how can we better create a mass movement? For the artists among us, how can we communicate that through our cultural work?
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