Review of Ian F. Svenonius’s “Against the Written Word” by David N. Gottlieb

Akashic Books, 336 pp.

Ian F. Svenonius hasn’t met you yet, which is good, because if he did, he probably wouldn’t like you. 

But don’t feel bad – he wouldn’t like me, either. After all, I’m an overeducated, elitist Boomer. I, and the faceless, bejowled masses in which I’m ensconced, can be held responsible for initiating or fortifying everything against which the author inveighs. And I’m reviewing his book, about which, I hasten to add, there is much to grasp, to gape and gasp at, to laugh at – and to grieve over. 

Perhaps it isn’t that Svenonius wouldn’t like us. Maybe it’s just that he has taken an oppositional stance against a grab bag of targets both easy and imaginative, including tourism, Instagram, the Church, the “military-industrial-guilt complex” (but also the “military-therapy-industrial complex” and the “hospital-industrial complex”), “rock ‘n’ roll, science fiction, drone warfare, condominiums, and even personal computers themselves.” He’s right to do so: you and I have been willing accomplices in the creation of an unsustainable world. The only possible response is art. After all, as he rightly notes in a riff on songwriting technique, “art is, at its root, a complaint . . . you need to determine what your complaint is. After this, you can spread your complaint to the world.” 

Against the Written Word takes heaping helpings of alienation and disillusionment and shoves the mixture through a grinder of sarcasm and satire. What comes out is a serialized, Hunter-Thompson-esque, hysterical howl at the bunch of hollowed-out hypocrites we’ve allowed ourselves to become. 

Worse than hypocrites, we’re the zombies of late capitalism. Obsessed with branding, coopted by corporations, enslaved to our devices, we’ve lost the ability to sort fact from fiction because we have allowed and participated in the erosion of knowledge and the flattening of experience. We no longer understand what it means to have responsibility or agency. 

Also, we have bad taste in music. 

The author is a veteran and founder of several D.C.-based punk bands, including Nation of Ulysses, The Make-Up, Weird War, and Chain and the Gang. In a 2012 interview Svenonius says that successful native D.C. musicians, like Duke Ellington, Marvin Gaye, and Joan Jett only made it when they left town. “If you stay [in D.C.],” he says, “you’re kind of a bitter and analytical person.” He proves it in Against the Written Word, and in his other written work, including Supernatural Strategies for Making a Rock ‘n’ Roll Group, The Psychic Soviet, and Censorship Now!! 

Against the Written Word consists of nineteen essays (preceded by disclaimers, prefatory notes, and a photo of the author on horseback) that intersperse satirical takes on authoritarianism (and rebellion against same) with piercing observations on the hidden currents of history. Svenonius comes off as the pedant at the frat party, the guy who’s too angry to pick up girls but has a crowd of stoned admirers around him: if you hang around long enough, you’ll hear him reprise some of his favorite themes. The title piece epitomizes the book’s angry irony: by turning language against itself, he demonstrates the absurdity of our situation, and the supercilious hypocrisy we try to resolve it with.

The problem is that, as in much of his music, the author hits the same few notes, angrily and repeatedly, as if he’s trying to bash in your skull. Have a listen, for example, to Chain and the Gang’s “Reparations” or Escape-ism’s “Nothing Personal,” two of the best headaches you’ll ever have. Likewise in his writing it soon becomes clear that Svenonius sees life as an arc bending toward bullshit: history is a series of lies told by the powerful elite who pump sedatives into the cultural bloodstream. He knows this isn’t original, and he doesn’t care – he’s trying to wake you up. 

Against the Written Word should be read in bites while hiding from bots. As with his albums, you might rather drop the needle than listen to the whole A side – the essays are tracks, the words are lyrics, and the ideas play out in bursts of furious verse-and-refrain vitriol. There’s nothing wrong with lifting the needle and coming back to it later (I know, I’m dating myself with this metaphor); the tracks toward the end are briefer, more experimental, not so tied into the themes established in the early “songs.” The shock of hearing one track is a better high than the whole album.

Against the Written Word is for the stoking of righteous fury and the development of Spartan discipline. Like any manifesto worth its salt, the book is small enough to fit in your back pocket. And if it falls out at a rave or the burning of a Burger King, perhaps someone else will find it, read it, and lead the revolution that you’re too cool – and I’m too old – to lead. There’s space for notes in the back, just after the author’s biography (“ABOUT THE AUTHOR: There is no information about the author”), and just before the shelving instructions on the back cover (“File under: Antiliteracy/De-Education”). The author knows we can Google him – he doesn’t care: his online persona, like the narrative voice of his essays, is not there to share or reveal, but to direct your attention to what little is left that retains even a shred of authenticity or meaning. 

As much as the author advocates dismantling the structures of patriarchal authority and corporate control, his style – his authoritative tone, his snark – seem utterly white and male. These qualities of privilege, which he either takes for granted or hopes we’ll overlook, reveal the author abob in a sea of overwhelmingly white, mostly male fellow iconoclasts. (See, for example, his website, where the women have a certain look, and the men look however they want.) The essays focus on the plight of the alienated and politically powerless, but the author portrays these people as a monolithic group, and the perspectives of ethnic minorities, women, immigrants, and LGBTQIA+ individuals are absent. The author knows his political history, but he doesn’t seem to have any neighbors. I’m a white man, and it seems to me as if every observation Svenonius makes is by, for, and about white men. Women do not appear in this body of work as original thinkers or towering historical figures.

This may be because they have no power. And it’s on power and its abuses that the author must declaim. In the bitingly satirical “Declaration of the Rights of the Audience,” the author complains that the onlooker, in his vanity and self-absorption, has, through the power of social media, coopted the creativity and agency of the performer. The audience, not the performer, infuses the performance with power and meaning. The audience member assigns worth, captures stimuli, and shares them with the world. As such, the audience becomes aware of its capacity for control, and declares itself a “revolutionary consortium” with inalienable rights: hence, “we the onlooker.” The observer usurps the position of the creator (about which, more later). This deconstructionist take, and Foucauldian discourse-analysis, layered mostly into the longer pieces, indicate that the author is not a dilettante with a backup band. He’s a keen and serious critic of contemporary culture, albeit one who seems to have benefited from at least some of the privileges he denigrates. 

In the essay “Me, Inc.,” Svenonius notes that a “bot’s judgment isn’t clouded with nuance, education, intellect, empathy, or life experience,” making clear that these are attributes he values: after all, with the advent of Wikipedia and Google,

[E]ducation was suddenly irrelevant. Scholarship was for the birds. Lore, learnedness, and expertise were a sign of idiocy. Being smart was dumb. The world was upside-down, and anyone who had studied a subject at length was now considered a fool.

Similarly, “wisdom has been made obsolete, learning is for chumps, and a book is an idiot’s chore.” If you read more than one essay at a sitting, you soon see that the generalizations that undergird the rich satire and original cultural criticism also allow the author to detour into pseudo-academic lectures: on the origins of the alphabet (in “Against the Written Word”), capitalism’s cooptation of music (“I Survived Reeducation Camp: A Workshop on Brainwashing, Mind Control, and Songwriting”), and humankind’s alienation from Nature (“The Military-Industrial-Guilt Complex”). There’s nothing wrong with this approach, except that, after a while, it begins to seem as though the author wants to impress you with the depth and breadth of his knowledge more than he wants you to change your life. 

The book lunges at you with original insights and Swiftian proposals whose apparent reasonableness reveals how far our reason has fallen. In “Toward a Christian Pornography,” for example, Svenonius says that since Christianity has already cheerfully exploited rock ‘n’ roll, it’s only logical that it should do the same with pornography. And in “The Urgent Need for Cloud Reform,” the author rails against the messy unpredictability of clouds: they, like everything else, should be squared off, regimented, and outfitted with sound and light systems suitable for broadcasting ads.

The longest meditation, “I Remember Frankenstein,” reconceives the monster of Frankenstein as the most apt metaphor for late-capitalist popular culture: “Frankenstein, the electrified id – an extension of the science-based bourgeoisie playing God – was prophetic in its depiction of the modern rock ‘n’ roll group” as a bigger cultural phenomenon than “Brando, James Dean, or Elvis Presley,” because he was “modern, electrified, and incoherent.” He was a “rebuttal to Romanticism,” but more than that, he was “[t]he collusion of science and technology and the capitalist class’s image of itself as gods.” While vampires and werewolves had long symbolized the masses’ hatred of feudal gentry, Frankenstein came to teach humankind to fear and loathe its capacity to invent its way out of its own humanity. Alive but not living, conscious but with no conscience, famous and feared beyond all reason, “the monster’s notoriety was such that a record deal was inevitable.” The monster represents the primal energy, the unbridled id of real creativity, a kind of Christ figure who had to be martyred in order for his brilliance to be appreciated (and appropriated, and marketed).  

Svenonius is drawn to Frankenstein because the monster epitomizes the technology that has already turned on us. This in itself is not an original insight, but the way it’s delivered is unforgettable. The connections drawn between the Golem of Prague and The Wizard of Oz ought to awaken you to a whole new level of appreciation for both stories. In Frank Baum’s parable and in the eponymous movie, and the urgent messages that lurk behind the surface images of our favorite stories and collective myths, the common theme is the ruthless victory of mechanical automation over human autonomy, which produces an irresistible pressure to innovate, mass-produce, and monetize. Technology stamps out cheap but efficient imitations of human attributes – and we happily allow these counterfeits to swap out human authenticity for mechanical legerdemain.   

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Sadly, but deliberately, the book is devoid of all humanity, all compassion, all direct human care and concern. The author hides behind his own originality; his rhetorical flourishes categorize and typecast everyone, leaving himself above the fray. The first-person singular pronoun never appears. The plural “we,” however, demands to be the center of the universe, whether campaigning for the rights of the audience or claiming that “We live in the age of ____.” Svenonius cannot help lecturing. He is angry because injustice (mostly about capitalism’s exploitation of the artist) and inauthenticity (due to the commodification of creativity) are rampant. Beyond this, or perhaps underneath it, Svenonius seems angry because he is underappreciated and misunderstood. His Hell consists of having talents that must be marketed, truths to tell but also sell, even though they will inevitably fall on uncomprehending ears. His fate is to impart knowledge that They don’t want you to know. Drop the needle enough times, and you realize that the author isn’t just an egotistical crybaby with a pen – he’s a prophet. He’s not here to make friends, he’s here because the burning coal has touched his lips and he must warn you – not only that you are about to die, but that you may already, essentially, be dead. 

In such a world, the audience and the critic hold too much sway. Books, music, and works of art must be reviewed, so that people can decide whether to expend hard-earned money and scarce attention on them. In “The Reviewers Reviewed: A Play in One Act,” we are shown that all reviewers really do is attach themselves like parasites to the creative host, sucking its creative energy and lonely brilliance into their own tiny, soulless bodies, living on energy that is not rightly theirs. “Conservatism, lack of content, absence of personality” are the required and necessary result of cultural criticism. By “enforcement of banality, by our sadistic and whimsical denunciations, and by our cruel public court of numerical ratings,” true creativity “is no longer the hieroglyph of revolution or thumb ride to a fantasy of freedom as it once was, but a bunny rabbit in a kindergarten.” (I guess we know, then, why Svenonius doesn’t like me.) The problem with contemporary criticism is that everyone is a critic. The supposedly democratizing influence of social media monetizes negativity and degrades expertise. When everyone is a critic, the loudest and most strident voices are the most influential. Thus language, the critic’s sharpest blade, must be melted down. Then, both critic and indoctrinator will be as angry and alienated, and as free to create, as the rest of us. 

Against the Written Word immolates itself in its own irony and throws itself, along with all that we know and think we know, on the smoldering trash heap of our expiring civilization. Everything is disposable, including the language through which the route to salvation can be communicated. 

One might think that this all has been said before, that another angry monologue from the frat-house basement adds nothing, teaches nothing, models nothing. If the author sounds like the clever stoner at the frat party, it’s because he has to be at the party, but he stays at the margins with the other outcasts. He needs to talk to us but not be one of us. He doesn’t like what we’ve allowed ourselves to become. If we were living an authentic life, the first-person singular pronoun would again be relevant. We wouldn’t need his books or his music, and we sure as hell wouldn’t be reviewing them. In Against the Written Word, I.F. Svenonius admonishes us not to meekly accept being deconstructed, repackaged, bought, sold, and discarded en masse, like Frankenstein’s monster or a rock group that starts out with guts and vision. If we want authentic experience, if we yearn to reclaim identity and reject status, if we still contain an atom of conscience and consciousness, we should understand how power is aggregated and allocated. We should know our history, know who is writing it, and smash its accepted narratives to pieces. And we should put down our phones and fucking live.

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David N. Gottlieb served as founding executive director of Full Circle Communities, Inc., a philanthropic developer and manager of affordable housing and provider of social services. He later earned a PhD in the history of Judaism from the University of Chicago Divinity School and now serves as director of Jewish Studies at the Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership in Chicago.

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