Put Svenonius on the Syllabus
Everybody in the dorm at my big state university kept telling me I had to meet this dude. You know him: the famous townie with a vague but allegedly unique backstory who can spin a pro piece of extemporaneous ranting on basically any subject you give him at the drop of a hat. A little older than we were, perhaps no wiser, but at least having read more Semiotext(e) books than we had, this dude could stack adjectives and flatten facts in a way that never disappointed. Ian F. Svenonius is that guy.
It’s totally fine if you haven’t heard of him before and you think his name is weird. Everybody with an ounce of cool eventually does get around to reading one of his books. Censorship Now!! is my first go around, and I’ll likely dig back into his older stuff when I get a chance, because Svenonius’ is a refreshing voice amidst the irony-addled sad-sack defeatism of postmodernity. He is working on a type of aggressive, hilarious theorizing that reassures us there is at least one hard-charging punk left in this town, and bless Akashic Books for preserving him.
On the back of this book, which is mostly a vast emptiness of lime green blank space, there are four sentences. Up top, it says, “instructions: read one word at a time.” This is in the upper left corner where one would normally find the marketing label for the book, as in, “essay / criticism” or maybe “rant / that guy”. On the bottom, above the barcode (because let’s be sensible and not go crazy, a book needs to have a barcode on the back, right?), it says, “Capitalist advertising conventions of sensationalism and hyperbole have created a world of unremitting terror and psychosis. This book declines to be a part of this. Therefore, it will feature no blurbs on its back cover.”
Every inch of the back of this book tells you exactly what you will find inside of it. The spacious minimalism of that back cover foreshadows Svenonius’s glossy streamline of rhetorical pile-on, his clean-cut arrow of attitude possessed of an aim that’s true and direct. It confronts by pointing at an absence of fluffy generalities and conventional expectations. It defeats you by the obvious and quick surprise of its nature.
Then you have “capitalist advertising conventions”. This is a giant, monolithic thing. Svenonius is good at building those, often taking one corporate entity such as Apple and carefully breaking out the ways in which this one corporation displays enough features to stand in for all corporations. From there, he can easily segue into long lists of generic evils. These are evils all readers know and most will slide smoothly into agreement, bemoaning various current cultural predicaments in a way that locks you into ultimately high-fiving Svenonius when he makes the insane and self-evidently dumb recommendation of censorship.
You don’t support censorship; you know that and so does he. He doesn’t support it, either, and that’s part of the reason this book is so funny—the intentionality with which Svenonius goes about proving his point by successfully performing its opposite. This entire text is dripping with the “sensationalism and hyperbole” decried on the back cover. If you’re not careful, you might accidentally agree with the surface logic, finding traction in the brute opinions professed by the text, rather than the heart of Svenonius’ performance—the ugly and selfish language of extremism turned against the very perpetrators and purveyors of culture who invented it.
This book knocks on the door of the corporation and asks for precisely what capitalist ideology it says it has, that it actually could have. It’s a difficult, funny performance demonstrating that capitalism is actually not really prepared to give us whatever utopia it promised. Taking an institution up on its offer as Svenonius has done is a strategy torn straight out of Slavoj Zizek’s Did Somebody Say Totalitarianism?, which is another great book to shoot the breeze about in your dorm room. It, too, examines this “world of unremitting terror and psychosis”.
“This book declines to be a part of this.” This… what exactly? Svenonius is king of the dangling and misplaced modifier, which you cannot judge as an erring of his grammatical sensibility, but should understand instead as a deliberate construction of fat, empty signifiers. These are placeholders, the glue that holds his network of delightfully tenuous extrapolations together through a reader’s inevitable filling up of these placeholders, a space for us to drop all our own baggage into the neat little slots of his arguments.
This is how he ensures we end up agreeing with his conclusions, and thereby forces us into responsibility for our shared dilemmas of capitalism, corporatism, and censorship. “Therefore,” the back cover says, because Svenonius wants you to know when he’s about to drop his conclusions on you. A reader needs signposts, easy transition words like thereby and therefore, so your arms are wide open when it’s time to suggest our collective course of action and respond to these dilemmas.
The book “will feature no blurbs on its back cover” because this is a bold act of censorship. Isn’t it? Can you market a book without blurbs? The absence of blurbs becomes the thing that is marketed. A blurb is what you would tell somebody about why they ought to get to know Svenonius, and in this case, you can just say the back cover of his recent book has no blurbs. How interesting that is; how marketable in its own right. Svenonius is actually participating thoroughly in manufacturing the problem he criticizes, because that’s the essential dilemma of capitalism: can’t live with out, and… well, guess we just can’t live without it.
These are ideas that would make Hardt and Negri proud. Hey, if you haven’t flipped through their best book, Empire, that’s a good bunch of theory to float around the dorm, too. But it’s much thicker than Censorship Now!! and much less fun. In the fun department, Svenonius more closely resembles Deleuze and Guattari. If you don’t know these guys or a lot of critical theory goes over your head, that’s not a reason not to pick up what Svenonius is laying down; in fact, it means you probably need a dose of Censorship Now!! more than most.
Svenonius is accessible. He is slick. He will take you out in the yard and run you around until you are properly tired. You will feel good that you are on his level, and you will feel bad about not enough people being on that level with you. You will recommend his book to others as proof of the fact that you’re still with it. It’s a badge of cool with just the right mix of haughty, distant intellectual pursuit and genuinely hot-blooded, human concern for our collective fate on this planet.
I’m giving a copy to my niece for Hanukkah. She’s a freshman in the experimental animation BFA program at CalArts. She’ll want to introduce Svenonius to her whole dorm.
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