Here Comes the Judge

Andrew Hultkrans on Ian Svenonius at the Whitney Biennial

Two panels adapted from publicity for l'Internationale situationniste #11, October 1967.

“THERE’S NOTHING THEY WON’T DO to raise the standard of BOREDOM.” When I was living in San Francisco during the 1990s, this sentence caught my eye as I passed a flyer stapled to a telephone pole. Printed on yellow paper, the flyer contained two rectangular comic panels. In the first, a short-haired woman in mod ’60s attire walks through a boutique, grimacing as she says the line. A sidebar to the panel read “In our spectacular society where all you can see is things and their price . . . ,” leading one’s eye to the second panel, where a bar at top continued, “Ideology tries to integrate even the most radical acts.” On the right side of the second panel, two straight-looking adults dance what appears to be the twist. The man says, “How right you are to steal books! Culture is everybody’s birthright.” His partner, triumphant, declares, “Maybe you can get the hippies, baby. But you can’t get us.” The short-haired woman, now in facial close-up at left, responds indignantly: “CULTURE? UGH! The ideal commodity—the one which helps sell all the others! No wonder you want us all to go for it!”

This, of course, was a Situationist detournement—a subversive, deadpan repurposing of pop-cultural detritus to radical political ends. At the time, its message seemed both dated (the decade of the early ’80s to the early ’90s was the last era when strains of American pop culture—hardcore punk, political rap, Riot Grrrl—seemed genuinely oppositional to mainstream consumer culture) and prescient (one could already see these underground styles being co-opted by corporations and sold back to us as “rebellion”—MTV’s Alternative Nation, Urban Outfitters, Subaru Impreza = punk rock, etc.). By the late ’90s, this recuperation process was complete, to the point where the tribally tattooed, heavily pierced dude sitting next to you on the train might be as rapacious a capitalist as Peter Thiel. At that point, it became unfashionable, even within ostensibly underground precincts, to fault anyone for their market ambitions. “Selling out,” once an unpardonable countercultural sin, became “cashing in,” resulting in, among other jarring tableaux, former Riot Grrrl Carrie Brownstein starring in an American Express ad. Maybe you can get the hippies, baby . . .

After roughly twenty years of this, during which the economy crashed to its lowest depths since the Great Depression and a vain, idiotic real-estate developer–cum–reality-TV star was elected president, it appears the time is right yet again for what paranoid right-wingers call “cultural Marxism,” a long-dormant tradition that includes, among other efforts, the Frankfurt School’s postwar critique of the “culture industry”; the Situationist International’s campaign against the spectacular nature of modern life in the form of Guy Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle (1967), and various disruptive activities (including detournement); critical theory generally; Stewart Home’s The Assault on Culture (1988) and Greil Marcus’s Lipstick Traces (1989), both histories of counterculture; Joe Carducci’s puritanical, peerlessly intolerant anti-Pop rant Rock and the Pop Narcotic (1991); the original late ’80s to early ’90s run of The Baffler and its editor Thomas Frank’s The Conquest of Cool (1997); and most recently, Ian Svenonius’s Censorship Now!! (2015), a scattershot screed of quasi-communist scolding, delivered with tongue firmly in cheek, that makes this aging Gen-Xer weep with joy (even as I find much of it ridiculous, even dangerous).

Svenonius, the other Ian of Washington, DC’s ’80s punk scene who has fronted numerous bands (Nation of Ulysses, The Make-Up, Weird War, Chain and the Gang), written various essays and books, and hosted Soft Focus, an online talk show, has walked a very fine line for a very long time. On one level, he’s a zero-tolerance high priest of anticommercialism (much like his DC counterpart, Fugazi’s Ian MacKaye); on another, he’s a louche, ironic thrift-store fashion plate, inspired as much by ’60s bubblegum (particularly French yé-yé) as ’60s radicalism. Imagine if radical separatist feminists such as Mary Daly and Andrea Dworkin were half kidding, or if Serge Gainsbourg were a critical theorist, and you might begin to grok the rarefied row Svenonius has hoed for nearly thirty years.

Ian Svenonius performs at the Whitney Museum of American Art, April 14, 2017. Photo: Filip Wolak.

For this year’s Whitney Biennial, the artist Frances Stark painted eight spreads from Censorship Now!! (rendered as giant pages of text) and recommended that the museum host a performative lecture by Svenonius as a supplementary event. Called “On Re-Education,” and structured like a rock set list, the lecture involved Svenonius—in a black vinyl suit with black rubber nubbins, white shirt, and skinny black tie—playing quiet, ironic electric guitar solos over rudimentary drum loops while testifying on topics from the book in a mannered, talk-singing style. He was introduced with the line, “Either you’ve never heard of him, or you regard him with messianic fervor,” and the full-house audience seemed to agree; it was a very friendly room. Svenonius has a slight lisp and was simultaneously abject and charming, resembling the Kinks’ Ray Davies with dyed black hair.

As he semi-rapped passages from Censorship Now!! over self-generated, purposely dinky music, Svenonius exhorted the crowd to “turn the radio and TV off,” to accept “re-education to get rid of false consciousness, which is caused by the homicidal condition called capitalism,” and to vote for him so he can “have his finger on the button (I need a button).” He had helpers distribute an absurd nondisclosure agreement to audience members, as well as lapel buttons reading “I Survived Re-Education Camp.” Despite working a shtick that owes much to the ’60s and ’70s, Svenonius ranted extensively about the dire sociopolitical effects of marijuana (apparently to blame for the “nonsense logic we live in today”), claiming that the legalization trend was responsible for the 2016 election result: “Trump voters pulled the lever in a psychotic pique of resentment on their way to Ben & Jerry’s.” “Pot was okay for ‘all you need is love’ hippies; it was weaker then.” he concluded. “But not for today’s paranoid, Alex Jones–watching libertarians. It seems irresponsible for Bob Dylan to continue to insist that ‘everybody must get stoned.’” In his (consciously?) awkward, amateurish delivery and crackpot theorizing, Svenonius recalled the diversionary weirdos populating Richard Linklater’s Slacker (1991); linking Smurfs to Hindu deities in the service of some grand, if daft, conspiracy theory is closely analogous to the completely baked (though not stoned) theses Svenonius regularly puts forward without warning or explanation.

Among many other deliciously unsupportable allegations, Censorship Now!! includes the following observations: “The music on the radio . . . is the thrown voice of Wall Street”; “The twist was a revolutionary force in breaking apart social units and enforcing individualist ideology”; “All this shaving [of facial and body hair] had another function[:] to enforce insensitivity, militarism, and a brutal machinist ideology”; “The yuppie aesthetic of connoisseurship has infiltrated everywhere and now there is only—for many of us—either luxury gelato or food made of chemical waste. IKEA, Martha Stewart, and Whole Foods make yuppiedom no longer a chic and extravagant choice but an enforced mode”; and “Just as the aristocracy had employed priests to explain their own divine right, the bourgeoisie invented their own magical imp, called ‘the artist,’ to explain and celebrate their own rise to power. It’s not a coincidence that ‘artist’ sounds very much like ‘atheist.’ The artist was invented as a gladiator to kill the old god for his paymaster.”

Addressing the book’s titular imperative, Svenonius writes, “We need a guerrilla censorship which uses all the cruel tools of a revolution. Pain, terror, absolute mercilessness; not to placate some hypocrite Christian morality or idiotic social code but to stomp out the grotesque subliminal mind control and hate speech of modern culture, media, news, politics, and art.” Despite its ominous Stalinist resonance, Svenonius’s plea for censorship essentially boils down to “corporations aren’t people / money isn’t speech.” His Adorno by way of Maximumrocknroll stance also means “censor all commercial crap and the cultural institutions that rationalize and abet it,” which puts him at odds with prevailing modes of pop-cultural reception. If contemporary pop is finally revealed to be a mass mind-control operation, as Svenonius believes it is, a great deal of pop criticism from the past decade will be instantly vacated, dismissed as the automatic writing of unwitting corporate stooges, intended to kill the old god for their paymaster.

So, not exactly the Unabomber Manifesto, but then, what is? Svenonius means it, man, even as he’s willing to allow a magical imp to appropriate his textual work and hang it in a group show sponsored by Tiffany & Co., J.P. Morgan, and Sotheby’s. He is simply carrying on the punk tradition, which he characterizes as a “psychotic, sci-fi-cartoon, cul-de-sac version of leftism” developed in response to the “ex-hippies’ reminiscences of sixties street fighting, narcotic bravado, and bohemian politics.” He doesn’t urge us to steal his book but to buy it (and his other books) and hide them in public libraries. After all, culture is everybody’s birthright.