By the Book

Ian F. Svenonius’s Against the Written Word may be a provocation, but it’s also something more.

against the written word, ian f svenonius, nonfiction
Alexandra Cabral

Im not sure I’ve ever read anything that is so much about loving written language as Ian F. Svenonius’s Against the Written Word: Toward a Universal Illiteracy. The whole book, all 300 pages of it, is essentially infatuated with words.

“The paucity of [the alphabet’s] letter forms means the sounds we are able to emit are constrained, as are the words we can build, and the things we can do, dream, and imagine,” Svenonius writes. “The alphabet as we know it has annihilated what could be words, sounds, expression, communication. Our emaciated vocabulary has not only starved our speech but also our imagination; our ability to transcend ancient models of tribalism, authoritarianism, social roles, and bogus moralities.”

I read these sentences and immediately thought: Yes. The idea of putting into writing the feelings he evokes here, the sensory experiences that fill our days, doesn’t feel like a sufficient way to honor them. Quite frankly, it seems insulting to the emotions, the states of being we’re attempting to describe. That is why I feel such an overwhelming love for language when I read an author who has figured out a way to use it well.

The 19 chapters in Against the Written Word pay homage to different forms of writing: Some appear as manifestos; others, as scripts. There is a lecture about using songwriting as a form of mind control, two author’s notes, a conversation transcript, and two pieces of short fiction. Many are satirical. Svenonius is a provocateur, after all. He’s made films and (with a variety of bands) more than 20 albums; his previous books include The Psychic Soviet and Censorship Now!! In 2020, he was briefly the subject of a contretemps after he published and then deleted an Instagram post supporting those “speaking out for the eradication of abusive predatory modes.” He, too, he acknowledged, had “acted the creep.”

In Against the Written Word, however, Svenonius is after more than merely provocation; he has an argument to make. His book posits that the printing press and the Renaissance were, among other things, the start of everything going wrong for humanity. These chapters are serious and fascinating. My favorite, written as a brochure for “The Museum of Sex Acts”—which imagines a future in which sex has been banned—is the most exaggerated and amusing. “Once—” Svenonius begins, “before sex was abolished—people engaged in disgusting, lascivious, and perverted acts with one another.… This museum is dedicated to the preservation of the memory of these acts so as to educate the public about these horrors in order to ensure that they will never happen again.”

I’ve worked in a museum, and I’ve seen firsthand the tenderness with which we preserve artifacts. But I also know what it’s like to stand next to a piece of art deemed to be worth more than my own human life. These objects are insured for millions of dollars, while I am insured for nothing.

Svenonius, I think, understands a similar danger in regard to books and other written material: we are allowed to love them, but we are also required to recognize the ways humans have long used certain forms as markers of morality or as a means to exclude rather than include. People have been taught to be ashamed if they are illiterate or have difficulty reading, as though this makes them unworthy in some way. Words are twisted in marketing campaigns to trick us into buying things we don’t want or need. Comment sections and internet forums are mostly inane echo chambers of ignorance and hate. The written word—and the book, in particular—is often regarded as the highest, most noble form of communication, but Svenonius is asking us to imagine what would happen if we forgot about that for a second and channeled a different world. In such a reality, Against the Written Word argues, “the tactile will be made paramount again; messages will no longer consist of letters, texts, or graffiti, but smudges, scuffs, and smells, which people will leave as markings to one another.”

A sensory, primal form of language, in other words, that makes sense to everyone, not just those of us who claim to have read Infinite Jest.

Svenonius focuses on one sensory experience more than others: that of music. And he is specific that his focus is not on making but on listening, an active process in which we, the audience, must be in receiver mode. “The space between the songs is your turn to shine,” he enthuses. “You can clap or stamp your feet or you can boo or just smile. You can yell out a suggestion if you like; you can sing; you don’t need a mic. It’s time for the audience to shout out their line.”

When it comes to structure, he addresses the way many rock songs (as well as other forms of art) adhere to the Hegelian dialectic, which is a three-phase problem-solving discursive method that proposes a thesis, antithesis, and synthesis. He builds this book using such a format. Thesis: do away with the written word. Antithesis: humans will probably never be able to do away with it because we have an innate urge to record what is happening to us, to leave some sort of mark behind.

And the synthesis? There are a few clues in the design of Against the Written Word. After the closing pages, Svenonius leaves a few blank pages labeled “Notes.” At the beginning, on the other hand, he offers a blank line on which his readers can write their names. All of Svenonius’s books, including this one, are small and portable, meant to be carried around and dog-eared and interacted with, as opposed to passively read. I crossed out the “Notes” and made two new titles of my own on those pages, so that I could be in conversation with him as I was reading. On one page, I wrote “For”; on the other, “Against.”

For: written words, spoken words, language, rock ’n’ roll, repetition, Frankenstein, erotica, author’s notes, musicians, the word scarecrow, calls to action, museums, Jane Austen quotes, bodies as language, sounds as words.

Against: written words, spoken words, language, corporations, bots, paradigms (he uses the word 13 times throughout the book, almost never positively), smartphones, the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, ad copy, top 40 pop music, the performance of guilt, performance on social media, performance.

I also circled the first sentence of chapter 1: “This is the last book you will ever read.” I believe it. Read is a passive term. Those of us who are for the written word know that the name for our experience with this type of language has to be more active than that.•

Akashic Books


Akashic Books

Jackie DesForges is a writer and artist in Los Angeles.
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