Antony and the Johnsons

THE ECOLOGICAL ETHIC OF ANTONY AND THE JOHNSONS

Sarah Giragosian

Since the release of “The Crying Light“, which has been followed by his most recent album “Cut the World,” Antony Hegarty’s music has been rooted in the ecological.   “Cut the World,” a live symphonic performance that reinterprets and reprises songs from Antony and the Johnsons’ four albums, “I am a Bird Now,” “Swanlights,” “The Crying Light” and “S/T,” introduces Hegarty’s radical ecological and feminist ethic, which is explicitly addressed in his track “Future Feminism.”  The collection contextualizes his political vision and argues for “feminist systems of governance” that would sanction a sustainable relationship with the earth.

Disavowing institutional and epistemological forms of patriarchal oppression, Hegarty is invested in the interrelatedness of processes of domination that configure our relationship to the earth and one another.  His work stresses the interrelation between ecological destruction and forms of sexism, which patriarchal systems condone. He also maps interrelations between organic processes and our own corporeal realities, dissolving artificial boundaries that patriarchal religions impose between us and the world:

I’ve been searching and searching for that little bit of my constitution that isn’t of this place and I still haven’t found it. Every atom of me, every element of me seems to resonate, seems to reflect the great world around me. So, I’ve come to the conclusion that this is God’s best idea — that this manifest world is the frontier of his dream, or her dream in my opinion. So, that’s just my point of view from where I can start to establish a new way to value the world that I’m a part of.

While ecofeminism and the feminization of nature are often charged as being essentialist, Hegarty’s vision for a future politics is not naïve or reductive.  Women have long been associated with the natural realm, and as Hegarty discusses, the domination of women and nature are historically interlinked.  However, he does not uncritically feminize nature or argue that women have a more privileged epistemological or ontological vantage into the natural world.  Moreover, as a transgendered and queer individual, Hegarty identifies the transness of the natural world or the ways that life cuts across categorical boundaries.  Queerness, as a challenge to normative ways of sense-making, instead can offer a point of resistance, disrupting the categorical logic of identity, which can impose strictures on not only on sexuality, but also humanness itself.

Hegarty’s ethic, both posthumanist and queer, challenges the ontological stability of the category of human and posits an essential intersectionality among all beings.  In the same collection, he reprises “Another World” a song that mourns the loss of our ecosystem in tones wistful and wounded:

I need another place

Will there be peace

I need another world

This one’s nearly gone

Still have too many dreams

Never seen the light

I need another world

A place where I can go

I’m gonna miss the sea

I’m gonna miss the snow

I’m gonna miss the bees

I miss the things that grow

I’m gonna miss the trees

I’m gonna miss the sun

I miss the animals

I’m gonna miss you all

I need another place

Will there be peace

I need another world

This one’s nearly gone

I’m gonna miss the birds

Singing all their songs

I’m gonna miss the wind

Been kissing me so long

Another world

Another world

Another world

Another world

When I listen to this song, I am struck by the emotive power of abstraction in what is essentially an elegy for place, or the eco-, the origin of which exists in the Greek word oikos, meaning home or dwelling place.   In a poem that avoids particularity, Hegarty’s lyric recounts an ongoing search for home, not just a metaphysical or metaphorical dwelling, but also a literal home in a world facing the imminence of ecological catastrophe.  Rather than privatize his experience of the natural world and potentially foreclose the common, sensual encounters we all have with the world around us, he privileges the general.  While the desire to be at home with one’s environment may be said to underlie the lyrical impulse, this desire is strained, tested, and reconstituted by the fact that the possibility of being at home in our ecosystem is under threat.

With his staggering ardor, Hegarty mourns the loss of the common: the birds, the wind, the animals.   Accompanied by sounds suggestive of whale song, his voice, at times operatic, vulnerable, and plaintive, is intensely somatic, evoking the corporeal ordeals of pain and ravishment.  With his quavering falsetto and accent on the somatic dimension of language, he reminds us of the vulnerability that all bodies share. “Another World” evokes the commonality shared by all bodies that are face-to-face with their finitude.  The birds, the wind, and the body are all sensually, vitally related.

As an ecopoetics, the song is an appeal to the recognition of our own vulnerability in a fragile world and an expression of grief for the beings and forces around us.  Hegarty’s language of the general and the common produces vibrations of meanings that are not transcendentalized, but rather remain physical, corporeal: “I’m gonna miss the wind/ Been kissing me so long.”  The song solicits us to imagine an asylum from our own world, even while our own beings are constituted by the natural world that surrounds us.  The unstable status of the ecology threatens the empirical world, as well as the sensuous material that contributes to the speaker’s auto-affection.  Feeling, as a sensual, affective, and aesthetic zone, is under threat.  For Hegarty, the ecological is deeply connected to feeling—feeling not only the dynamic and organic processes of life, but being in tune with the consciousness-heightening, life-affirming experience of feeling oneself feel.

However, even as an elegy for our world, “Another World,” does not end with an ontological impasse.  In our ongoing, mutual states of becoming, a theme and ethos that pervades other songs, such as his “Cripple and the Starfish” (a song about regeneration and transformation), “Another World” acknowledges the possibility of our own reconstitution. Such songs unsettle the violent ramifications of conceptualizations of discrete identity, which have contributed to a climate of hostility towards those in the margins throughout history. To conceive of a future habitation in another world is also to affirm the possibility of our own transformation.

Watch “Another World”