Denah Johnston’s book, No Future Now, shares part of its title with a song by proto-punks The MC5 (“Future Now” from their High Time album from 1970); punk avatars The Sex Pistols’ (“No Future” from their 1976 Never Mind the Bollocks album); Lee Edelman’s polarizing 2004 study, No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive as well as sharing the “No Future” sentiment on thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of stenciled and/or silk-screened “punk” T-shirts. Indeed, the phrase “No Future” has become a catch-all slogan for virtually any manifestation of negative attitude.
Contrary to what many in the mainstream of pop culture might still think of punk, it is not anti-life or exclusively nihilistic. Rather it is about the stripping away of all but the essentials in regards to what makes life worth living. It is about, as writer Colin Wilson might put it, dispelling “beauty starvation.” Even if that means mining the often terrifying spiritual terrain of modern life, the emotional landscape around us and inside us for all its attendant cultural, political and biological ugliness, all in service to a revolt against the mainstream. At the risk of melodramatic hyperbole, it must be asserted that the idea of punk, of the individual rejecting “the norm,” of the struggle against the constant barrage of images, slogans, platitudes and political ideas that threaten us with homogenization at every turn, can often times be described as heroic. Or anti-heroic as the individual case (i.e. artist, band, film, book, etc.) may be.
“Punk” is not, except in the minds and imaginations of certain music industry A&R consultants and certain follow-the-crowd fanboys/girls, a homogenized brand, a one-size-fits-all. Ms. Johnston reflects this diversity in a complex, intellectual, but never boring, never hard-to-read, always enjoyable study that jumps from transgressive writers such as Dostoyevsky to William Burroughs to Paddy Chayefsky to artists such as Andy Warhol to filmmakers (a diverse bunch, including Kenneth Anger, Amos Poe Vivienne Dick, Derek Jarman et. al.), to musicians (The Sex Pistols, The Avengers, The Mutants, et. al.).
Chapter headings and sub-sections are signposts for the damned: “Notes from Underground”, “Nomadology”, “Irony”, “Guilt, Narcissism, Boredom”, “A Recipe for Disaster”, “Decadence, Resistance & Decay”, “Constellations of Otherness.” Directions for looking for a way out, or better yet, a way to “stay in” but nevertheless transcend so one does not either implode or otherwise self-destruct in the process. For some, transgression is necessary to survive, to sustain one’s self-respect, to retain one’s compromised humanity, to retain even one’s spiritual immunity, a resistance which has been dreadfully compromised by the constant commercial media barrage that engulfs one daily, an onslaught sounding the trumpets of the apocalypse, all heralding the next big sale – and the merchandise slashed to discount price? Your immortal soul.
No Future Now offers a panorama of semiotics, in every sense of the word. Not only are subversive punk “signs and symbols”, their relation to themselves and each other and the world at large looked at, Ms. Johnston also examines the core of artistic rebellion, its antecedents and descendents, to paraphrase the Encarta World English Dictionary, “identifying the ways that various symptoms indicate the diseases that underlie them.” As William Burroughs famously said in The Ticket That Exploded, “From symbiosis to parasitism is a short step. The word is now a virus.” Not only are the words that swarm all over her pages like the most contagious viruses (as she describes and catalogs famous and infamous personalities, the subjects of her study), but so, too, the music, films and art these personalities make and have made. These referenced works remain dangerous contaminants. All this despite the co-opting and neutering by mass media of so much that was once called punk (e.g. the recent Metropolitan Museum of Art’s punk fashion exhibit in New York City and the upcoming, no doubt appalling CBGB’s movie). Ms. Johnston makes it quite clear that these word viruses/art toxins – the real thing, that is – threaten and corrupt the status quo, interrupt the politics of boredom, disrupt the politics of conformity that conventional, establishment-critic-sanctioned art, that dead, soulless creativity perpetrates and perpetuates to keep inquiring minds docile, unquestioning and empty. Ms. Johnston’s No Future Now clarifies, reassures and carries the torch.
Denah Johnston. No Future Now: A Nomadology of Resistance and Subversion. New York: Atropos Press, 2012.
Chris D. is the author of the novels Mother’s Worry, Shallow Water, No Evil Star and the collection Dragon Wheel Splendor and Other Love Stories of Violence and Dread – all from New Texture Books. His most recent book, the long-in-the-works non-fiction GUN AND SWORD: An Encyclopedia of Japanese Gangster Films 1955-1980, is available on the Poison Fang Books imprint. Chris D. is also the singer/songwriter of the bands, The Flesh Eaters, Divine Horsemen and Stone by Stone.