JANUARY 28, 2016
THE BACK OF Ian F. Svenonius’s Censorship Now!! states, “Instructions: read one word at a time.” Fifty years from now, the humor here may be lost, absurdity aging into an earnest explanation of how to use this thing called a book. Such pranksterism sets the tone for the 15 essays and a lone one-act play that make up Censorship Now!!, where serious political theorizing meets all things occult, Marxist, and pop. In it, Svenonius sets out to deconstruct the blind worship of free-market capitalism and the sacred cow of creative expression in the arts, which he sees as carrots the Ruling Clique dangles before us as they map our minds to sell us new shavers. The book itself is a double-edged cultural artifact, splicing formal information, such as the publisher or author in the front matter, with fugitive information, like “The backward messages contained in this volume do not necessarily reflect the views of this book or its author” or “Compiled with the assistance of the Committee for Ending Freedom.” A black-and-white author photo has Svenonius reaching into his jacket. The shtick, inscrutable to the uninitiated, is gonzo ecstasy for those who have come to know Svenonius’s self-aware political meditations.
There is a lost counterculture in Svenonius’s essays, which invite hip and lame alike to partake in his conspiratorial revelations and joyful shit-talking. His writing often fixates on the ’60s and ’70s, as much for the music as the Cold War and civil unrest. Paul Krassner and his seriocomedic newspaper The Realist (1958–1974) is in there, so is Jerry Rubin, the agitator/heckler who wrote a manifesto-history of The Movement, DO IT! (1970), and Abbie Hoffman, who wanted you to “Steal This Book.” Riffing on the past, keeping his secrets well revealed, Svenonius has written an alternative history: what happened happened, but not for the reasons you thought.
If one were to describe Svenonius, one might say he is America’s sassiest Marshall McLuhan with a pissed-off monkey on his back named Chomsky who listens to Sonic Youth. His essays channel political songs from his many musical projects (e.g., “Deathbed Confession,” “Reparations,” “I Am Pentagon”). Either Svenonius is a bona fide ally of the underbelly or a police agitator, embedded in the DC punk scene to put out feelers on the street, loafers on the ground, monitoring who’s nodding along to a Drone Papers ballad. One wonders not so much what books are on his shelf (Rock/Music Writings by Dan Graham), but what books he falls asleep with in his hands (Soledad Brother by George Jackson).
Svenonius has been writing nonfiction since he fronted for The Nation of Ulysses (1988–1992), inserting bizarro fortune cookies into albums like 13-Point Program to Destroy America from 1991. It’s possible he lifted this liner note habit from Poalo Hewitt, the so-called “Cappuccino Kid” of The Style Council fame who Svenonius describes in “The Stilyagi” as, “a mysterious manifesto writer […] who issued wry beat polemics on the Council’s record sleeves about the group’s ‘effervescent nature’ and their sympathies toward socialism.” (Not far off from Svenonius’s own zine Ulysses Speaks, the party organ and visual accompaniment to the soundtrack to the revolution.) The current King Khan single “Hurtin’ Class (Feat. Ian Svenonius),” includes a folded note titled Who Are “The Invaders”? Svenonius wrote this to introduce the documentary The Invaders, for which King Khan wrote an original soundtrack. In the essay, Svenonius rails against the “reduction of historical events to simplistic binaries and the erasure of all nuance, depth, and what–ifs,” plumbing the baby boomer folklore like a punk Howard Zinn. Unabashedly anti-capitalist, profoundly antagonistic to the power structure, Svenonius lays out the origin of our current globalized mythology, racked by post-soviet depression (PSD), as a series of hostile takeovers by corporate villains — Apple, Ikea, NPR — which hoover vibrant human culture into a quantified, economically viable vacuum. “These essays, though apparently demolishing one another in contradictory eruptions, attempt to subvert the official narrative and shine a light on its fantastical intent,” wrote Svenonius. And the same could be said of the essays in Censorship Now!!, which rehash much of the same material while also managing to wow with some new essays.
Legend has it that back when Svenonius was playing with his gospel-garage-mod group, The Make Up (1995–2000), a man in a luchador mask named El Vortex would show up in Baltimore, DC, and Philadelphia venues with a sign that read, “Break Up the Make Up.” And he would shout this, loudly. He was Svenonius’s personal troll. Because Svenonius thinks in terms of zeitgeist, not statistics, and cosmic connections, not scholarship, this trolling deeply wounded his psyche. Years later, he has exorcized these demons. In a stunning repudiation of America’s reflex to defend “freedom of creative expression,” the title essay Censorship Now!! is a direct call for censorship of all the arts — music, movies, paintings, the free press, technological progress, and perhaps trolling. This should strike a nerve for average free-world rockers, whom Svenonius properly fits with antiauthoritarian goggles to prepare for reeducation. It’s a contrarian viewpoint to support censorship in a time of Charlie Hebdo killings and James Franco movies. “These ideas are controversial, not chic, and even, perhaps, upsetting to hear,” Svenonius intones. In our neoliberal feedback media loop, freedom of expression is a foundational civil liberty so ingrained it seems insane to speak against it. Svenonius takes control of an idea, censorship, and reframes it. He states: “If art can ‘change the world’—which of course it can and does—isn’t the ‘freedom of expression’ doctrine really just a way to demote it to a theoretical gulag of absolute impotence and irrelevance?” It is easy to conflate free speech with freedom of expression; they are arguably the same thing. But a difference has emerged since the end of World War II in that “freedom of expression” implies the moral superiority in being “creative.”
Svenonius wants us to look at the way creativity “informs” advertising careers, publicity campaigns, and think-tank spin. Social media apps capture what the Young Creative class doesn’t surrender to their careers. The vestigial urge to “express yourself,” as the song goes, is a kind of Pandora’s box. In 1936, Walter Benjamin foretold the numbing effects of Instagram and Facebook when he wrote, “fascism sees its salvation in giving [the] masses not their right, but instead a chance to express themselves.” A German cultural critic, Benjamin writes at the emergence of mass media as propaganda. Svenonius writes in an era when “propaganda” has turned into “marketing.” Svenonius jokes, rather seriously, about censoring popular music — which he argues, the elite use to control us — as well as about the jingoistic Navy SEAL porn in Hollywood and video games. Svenonius writes: “the market teaches us (that apart from the possibility of fame and money) there is no meaning or consequence to art, music, or expression, except that it leads to more art and expression. Under their capitalist model, after all, everything is equivocal.” Bruce Springsteen tests this logic when he rejects New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s wish to license “Born to Run” to promote a conservative agenda. Art is often caught doing the dirty laundry for the military-industrial complex. Back in 1974, Eva Cockcroft wrote a landmark investigative Artforum article, “Abstract Expressionism, Weapon of the Cold War” in which she paints a sober picture of cultural cold war politics: MOMA board members and CIA foreign front groups flaunted Abstract Expressionism throughout the international art scene. The plan was to convince the world that free and crazy American artists were where it’s at — and it worked. New York City is still the center of the art market and art schools are a large contributor to staggering student loan debt. It’s easy to melt into a docile Netflix-and-chill holding pattern as we dream of winning the insta-star lottery.
What Svenonius doesn’t mention in his call for censorship is the full extent of censorship’s dark side, in which brutal dictatorships implement state-sponsored terror to silence intellectuals and artists who challenge their authority. In an often misquoted 1984 interview with American novelist Philip Roth in the Paris Review, he speaks about his trips to Czechoslovakia in the 1970s:
[I]t occurred to me that I work in a society where as a writer everything goes and nothing matters, while for the Czech writers I met in Prague, nothing goes and everything matters. This isn’t to say I wished to change places. I didn’t envy them their persecution and the way in which it heightens their social importance. I didn’t even envy them their seemingly more valuable and serious themes.
Roth didn’t go so far as to imply that writing in United States, one was subject to a different oppressive strategy: the free market eventually absorbs you, or spits you out. Svenonius does go so far: “If the ‘art’ or music, book, newspaper, etc., can’t hit the charts, then it wasn’t really very good […] the market has spoken.” Svenonius maintains that the market is a de facto censorship of exclusion that “ensures a racist, militarized, idiotic, imperialist, paternalistic message permeates art and society.”
The reader undergoes a sort of ritual hazing while poring over Svenonius’s lists of musicians and assassinated historical figures. He coins phrases and portmanteau couplings like an ad man limning a lexicon of irreverence: Ikea creates bivouac living, iTunes is defined as “puffs of free digital smeg-phemera,” a brand is “something that’s digestible to the fully detached.” In “The Legacy Machine,” an essay on how documentary films are overrun by desperate legacy-shopping rock bands, Svenonius climaxes with this: “The obvious answer [as to why such documentaries suck] seems to be that videos are produced to explain ourselves and our current situation to some future alien race.”
The collection is split into three sections: PART I) CENSORSHIP UNTIL REEDUCATION – BAN BURN ABOLISH, PART II) FACT-FINDING MISSION – DESTROY ALL FACTS, and PART III) TRUTH IS NOT INVITED TO THE ORGY – SUPPRESSION AS EXPRESSION. Sex, drugs, and exploitation cross-pollinate into subversive socio-genital rants. The table of contents reads with meditative clarity. He doesn’t ramble; he roasts his intellectual opposition. The far-fetched essay “The Historic Role of Sugar in Empire Building,” emerges as a counter-history where Soviet sugar holdings in Cuba triggered America to synthesize something more potent: high fructose corn syrup. It concludes with the ghostwriting of Thomas Pynchon: “Mexican Coke became highly sought after, vestiges of an underground connoisseurship, a badge of esoteric knowledge.” Recovering hippies might be too jaded to care, and Svenonius can at times slip into airy speculation, but the dinosaurs don’t need to hear the truth; the Young, the Powerless, the Other do. He chronicles the “twist” as an alienating force in the tradition of testing out sexual partners in dance halls. The lead singer is the barking foreman on the factory floor, dictating dancers to reenact movements of industrial machines and shopping. This dance-of-the-week phenomenon was met with a loss of sexual tenderness, drug abuse, the birth-control pill, how-to sex manuals, and shaved genitals. Consider the spectacle of Drake’s “Hotline Bling” — dancing alone in front of a clone of a James Turrell installation. In “Gentrification of Punk,” Svenonius points out that NPR and DIY-obsessed yuppies destroyed the vibrant college rock stations at the bottom of the FM dial and replaced them with “indie” music. “The absolute success of these two movements is such that at this stage, ‘indie’ and ‘yuppie’ are meaningless designators.” The dots he connects can be light-years apart, but he bends space-time to fit them snugly in five- to 10-page essays. American gentrification becomes entwined with the fall of the Berlin Wall and funkadelic George Clinton. Ikea and Apple wage a war to liquidate possessions, relocating wealth to those who have nothing and poverty to those who hoard stuff. Of the few things Svenonius positively adores the obscure documentary agit-prop of Santiago Álvarez. Sven’s explanation of the world wide web: “What is the Internet but ESP, clairvoyance, astral travel, and linguistically engineered mind control for the masses?” His critique of the corporate nomad living off the Cloud is timely.
If we exist inside the Blob that swallowed the Free Speech Movement and the Black Panther Party, what will the Blob absorb next? Whistleblowers, Black Lives Matter, Occupy Wall Street, journalists, hackers, to name a few. Svenonius’s analysis is itself a product of the free market’s censorship, in that the free market regulates Svenonius to an esoteric, almost quaint existence. He is engaged in his own struggle against irrelevancy. The famous obscenity trials against James Joyce’s so-called dirty novel Ulysses (1922) are in our rearview mirror. Lawrence Ferlinghetti can freely disseminate Allen Ginsberg’s Howl (1955). Cinema proprietor Jonas Mekas can screen Jack Smith’s underground film Flaming Creatures (1963). Today, information distribution valves (torrents, Wikileaks, etc.) are directly under fire the way obscenity once was. So when Svenonius talks about his brand of censorship, he is talking about a People’s Censorship, a Grassroots Censorship. “The state can’t be the censor, the state must be censored,” Svenonius writes. He positions himself as the antithesis to Will H. Hays, Hollywood’s original censorship czar and namesake of the Hays Code, promoting morality and purity in the 1930s. The Svenonius Code would be more than a taste police, more than a sanctioning of FCC code breakers, and more than Twittersphere comment sections that devolve into looniness. You can’t tell if Svenonius actually means for his “guerilla censorship” to be implemented. But he does say anything is preferable “to the asinine free/not-free purgatory to which we are assigned.”
In all his writing, one of Svenonius’s main probes is the rise of youth-centric rock ’n’ roll music, where consumerism replaced Christian morality as the most efficient way to control the masses. Then, arguably, to aid consumerism, our freakish masters manufactured the War on Terror. Svenonius is useful in decoding a post-9/11 world as the West’s attempt to insert the free-market, free-expression model of corporate control into an area of the world still dominated by a religious morality, as twisted as capitalism, though not as easy to monetize. Svenonius refrains from heavy referencing or citing sources and instead relies on common-knowledge gossip, ripped from investigative history, churned through the computer in his head. “These are not to be confused with so-called ‘academia,’” he explains in the introduction to his first book of essays, The Psychic Soviet (2006, Drag City). All three of his books are dedicated to M-26-7, Fidel Castro’s rebel group that ousted the American-backed, Batista government in 1959. Although essays like “The Service Industry” delve into the social ritual of tipping, his second book, Supernatural Strategies for Making a Rock ’N’ Roll Group (2012), is a longform meditation and séance-filled guide on how to start a band. In his quest to defrock our square money-religion, he questions the front man, the hero, the messiah, and places importance on collaboration and collective spirit. Svenonius’s experience of touring and performing give these Marxist rock theories gravitas. It’s a book a cool uncle might send his teenage, bass-playing niece: a Frankfurt School of rock ’n’ roll spouting historical materialist examinations. After reading it, an impressionable mind might rethink life, run to the local record shop, talk to a human being about the secrets revealed.
The last hurrah of Censorship Now!! is a one-act play titled The Backward Message. Svenonius pokes fun at the hidden communication in spinning a vinyl in reverse by hand. After hearing satanic-stoner messages in The Beatles and Led Zeppelin, four “music enthusiasts” have a Platonic dialogue as they spin a Soviet record backward, revealing that rock ’n’ roll is the progeny of American imperialism and Muddy Waters. Svenonius doesn’t trust even himself. He lives in limbo between a rock star snarl and a Slavoj Žižek monologue. Like the Youth International Party (the Yippies) — divided by rumors that members were working for the FBI as The Movement turned sour — Svenonius is not immune to the historical moment in which he lives. With his active band Chain and the Gang, he and his mates must embody a self-critical reverse psychology (“Down With Liberty… Up With Chains!”) to stay sane. Of course, the band has an Instagram feed, showcasing Italian cafes, graphically pleasing album covers, and Sven’s hair. He refuses to defend rock ’n’ roll, to absolve it of its sins. Instead he accuses “the hook” in pop songs as being the most powerful weapon capitalism has ever wielded. Svenonius is unafraid of labeling the type of music he loves as a tool of the enemy but also believes that music paradoxically holds the potential to invert the paradigm; just as Fela Kuti said, “music is the weapon of the future.” In a way, Svenonius is pre-censoring his own fans who will one day carry the torch. As he says, “Chain & The Gang isn’t for everyone. It’s not designed for the victims of Ikea who rely on robots to choose their background muzak, but it can also prove to be addictive and has some disturbing side effects.” Perhaps by remaining on the edge of fame and obscurity, he avoids being sucked into the Blob.
As an inveterate member of rock ’n’ roll groups, his conceptual common denominator is the “rock group,” which thus extends into other fields like geopolitics. Svenonius is such an ardent Pussy Riot supporter, for example, because they fulfill his notion of a rock group as detached from the content the group creates. The group is a symbol of something that doesn’t exist. Since Pussy Riot doesn’t really make music, or have a record deal, it is ripe with all the revolutionary potentialities of the rock group because it “promise[s] nothing.” In “Artist as Nuclear Radiation,” a short examination of Pussy Riot and America’s sponsorship of them as “bloodsucking appropriation,” Svenonius reveals that being incomprehensible is an act of defiance. And though the essays Svenonius writes are not themselves unclear, the process of talking about what he’s written involves discussions that some might find uncomfortable. His books make more sense the more you dissect them. So keep them in your back pocket and read them, one word at a time.