IN PRAISE OF THE PHASE
I contain all these multitudes.
OUR LAST SUMMER
ILLUSTRATION BY ERIKA RIER
Mod. Steampunk. Riot Grrrl. An amalgamation of all three. The struggle to identify with a subculture took up almost a year of my time at university. I had hoped that if I could just make up my mind, I would be sorted for life. That is what I wanted most: a uniform, a set of values, an aesthetic that could inform everything I did, allowing me to run on autopilot. Years of adolescent experimentation and uncertainty had left me panicking about what I thought was a weak sense of self. I was sick of going through phases.
I yearned for minimalism and simplicity. Instead I seemed to travel through life jumping from one obsession to the other, becoming intensely preoccupied with a band, a subculture, a way of seeing, only for my interest to wane after a few months. With time it would seem like I had never gone through that phase at all. Except I saw the residue, and I hated it. I looked at the clothes stuffed at the back of the wardrobe, and the records played less frequently, as signs of failure, visual reminders of an ever-growing list of “Things Aida Tried Out”. I wanted to shed all those failures and move forward with one phase that would last a lifetime. I was convinced I would find satisfaction from this sense of cohesion. It was the desire for permanence that made me look to subculture as a method of autoethnography. I envied the middle-aged men in Camden who had been punk since ‘79. I envied the greying Mods in their immaculate suits. I saw them as dignified stoics made indifferent to the tidal wave of new trends and fads, sub- and countercultures that had washed over society, by their commitment to a phase that had become a way of life. I on the other hand, seemed to surrender to almost every influence in the hope that I would find myself somewhere.
Anyone who had forged a way of life, or made a career out of a phase was my hero. In my eyes, they had fought against society’s narrative that conveyed the phases as a fleeting time for whims and frivolities that others are supposed to tolerate because ultimately they will be over. Phases provide a name for the time and space we are allowed to experiment, where it seems the only reason we’re given the impunity to do so is on the promise that it will end, and soon.
Each time I picked up a new hobby, there was always in the back of my mind the phrase ‘Just going through a phase’. It echoed with a slightly dismissive tone; I imagined a shrug, a condescending smile and shake of the head. Just going through a phase. Just meaning ‘merely’, ‘only’, ‘simply’. Because certainty, permanence, and authenticity are the things we are supposed to move towards. And that phrase is like a trigger, prompting the response often spat out in indignation: ‘No, it’s not just a phase!’. We feel the need to make a phase seem like a drastic and enduring change to justify it, and ourselves, to seem responsible, to be taken seriously and to have our experience validated.
And so we succumb to the idea that self-fashioning is teleological, that there’s a “final you”. A sculptor cannot carve a block of marble forever. There is a goal, the intention is for a finished piece. Were the sculptor to chip away indefinitely, eventually there would be nothing to work with. I feared this most. I could not help but wonder if in my quest to find myself through all these phases I was actually suppressing whatever sense of selfhood I had. Guilt, panic, and confusion marred every new phase, from the first moments of intrigue to the last dregs of interest. I felt that the desire for a stable identity I could label and present to the world clashed with a burning curiosity and love of regeneration and newness. How could I reconcile that?
I am now twenty two years old, and neither Mod nor Steampunk. I have shed the need for labels. While I sometimes imagine what life would be like if one of my phases had greater longevity, I have come to see the phase as something I do not have to carry with me forever in order for the experience to be valid. But this clarity came after going through one of my most intense, and expensive, phases yet. I was about to enter my last year of university when I became obsessed with late night talk shows and comedy writing. I spent hours watching these shows, reading up on their hosts, and after meeting Conan O’Brien, I enrolled in Second City’s online sketch writing classes seeking to emulate my heroes. It was during this phase more than any other that I heard so clearly the oppressive whisper of ‘Just going through a phase’. I felt eyes on me: those of my then boyfriend who had seen my preoccupation with comedy seemingly explode out of nowhere, as well as those of my long-suffering mother who had seen me spend ridiculous amounts of pocket money on a phase which involved my need to buy every piece of Doctor Who-related merchandise. No voice, or set of eyes, however, made me more anxious about this new obsession than my own. I couldn’t help but feel disappointed that I was going through yet another phase.
I paid hundreds of pounds to do Second City, and I absolutely loved it. I was writing every single day, learning how to mine my surroundings for inspiration, and getting feedback for the first time. But the pressure to justify myself persisted. Now I absolutely had to become a comedy writer, right? And I was enthusiastic, relentlessly dedicated even, to becoming better. But in that year I wrote perhaps one thing of any real substance. Despite the passion, it was clear I lacked the skill. And as the year anniversary of the obsession came, I started to feel the wane. Not again. I thought I really had it this time. Would I ever get it right?
As I waited for graduation day, I took the customary look back at the time I’d spent at university. I had been through quite a few phases in those three years, but lingering in limbo between one phase of my life and the next, I was confronted with the truth that permanence is an illusion. I couldn’t bring myself to deem those phases a waste of time when I had learned so much. Just as my time at university had been one of academic development, I began to see my phases also as heuristic experiences. In a way, three years of undergraduate studies had been a phase too, but one that I was happy to accept was ending because I accepted the inevitability of its end. The knowledge of this is supposed to make you appreciate that time, savour it, extract valuable experiences from it while you can, while knowing that you also have the rest of your life to build upon, and evaluate those lessons. I could also apply this to phases, and when I did, they looked less threatening, oppressive, and disappointing, Instead they conveyed unending potential.
Before, I had subscribed to the teleological idea of identity that claimed there was one “true you” everyone is supposed to work towards. I had even projected that philosophy onto my Mod and Punk heroes. If I suddenly came across them in the street and they said they’d left those lifestyles behind, would I look down on them? Of course not. But I had struggled to extend that courtesy to myself. Not anymore. Constant change is our reality, and now I’m grateful for the existence of the phase and the inevitability of its passing. I am grateful for the space to experiment, and indefinitely build myself with all my different interests and hobbies, like an infinity-piece puzzle, where each piece is from a different infinity-piece puzzle.
I was twenty-one when I read Keith Haring’s Journals, a few months older than he was when he wrote: ‘Something that affects me today will not necessarily affect me tomorrow [...] Every day I think differently, re-evaluate old ideas, and express my ideas in different terms.’ Haring knew that permanence is an illusion but didn’t seem to baulk at that or lament it. He accepted it. And now that I’ve come to accept this too, I am now excited by the prospect of a life full of phases. I am excited that I will discover new things, and maybe change my mind or contradict myself. I am excited by the idea that I contain all these multitudes and through phases I have the potential to explore many more.
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