by Tova Kardonne
To do pretty much anything in music you start out learning songs. Lots and lots of songs. The process becomes quite familiar. It has stages; it has features. First, a new song seems more like a collection of sounds that happened to get thrown together, none of which connect to each other. Then, if you’re into this kind of thing, you look at why those sounds do connect, and you begin to see how the song hangs together as a structure. (Some people skip this part, or do it without realizing it.) Last, a song is really a part of my repertoire when it feels, from the moment it proclaims itself in its opening notes, like it’s drawn onwards inexorably to its end; like it always existed, like the composer could never have made any other choice, like it’s a living creature whose parts are all as much a part of it as my body parts are a part of me.
Then it loops in my head for days, sometimes weeks. Should so much as a single note wander through my consciousness, however tangentially provoked, there it goes: the whole thing, from beginning to end, because now the damn thing draws me onwards inexorably to its end, like it always existed, like I have no choice, like it’s a living thing whose parts can’t be severed from each other.
Sometimes that’s wonderful. Every time I repeat the song, its beauties are a little clearer, more poignant. The way the sounds interlock reveals more, to more parts of my mind. It reaches me more deeply; it teaches me how it has changed the world. Alternately, it can be frickin’ annoying.
So here’s the thing; this process is not confined to music. Take, for example, writing a feminist article. How does it go again?
PHASE 1) A collection of sounds:
Something strikes you as peculiar. You brush it off. It strikes you again. On the same spot—you begin to get a bit bruised on that spot. You begin to notice it happening a lot. You wonder why it keeps happening. You come up with a reason; it’s contradicted by experience. You come up with different reason; it’s contradicted again. You let it go. The peculiar thing happens again. You think; is this peculiar thing all that peculiar? You ask someone about it. They’ve noticed it, too. They came up with a reason of their own. It may or may not convince you; but it adds an angle you hadn’t thought of before. You ask someone else; they don’t think it’s peculiar at all; you wonder why you thought it was. You ask someone else; they’ve never noticed it. Then the peculiar thing happens twelve more times in rapid succession. It’s now downright weird that some people don’t notice it. You wonder, why do I see it when that person doesn’t? And then, why does another person see it, but find it normal? And what about the other person, who both sees it and thinks it’s peculiar, like me? What’s the deal here? Because it’s no fun. Somewhere in the process, you figure out you don’t like it, this peculiar thing. It’s not just weird, it’s unpleasant. And it keeps happening. It’s not logical for it to keep happening, when the people you’ve asked about it regard it with feelings ranging from indifference to dislike. Well, then, there should be no trouble changing it. Possibly, it’s no big deal. So, you start pointing it out, and telling people you don’t like it. Suddenly, you’re getting yelled at. The people who think it doesn’t exist are mad at you for persisting in saying it does. The people who think it isn’t peculiar think you’re putting them down for not thinking it’s peculiar. The people who think it’s peculiar are behaving very strangely indeed. Sometimes they say, “oh, what a good idea! I should let people know I don’t like it either.” Sometimes, however, they say, “If I can put up with it, you should put up with it. See all those people getting mad? I don’t want you to make me their target.” Then, you are in a pickle.
PHASE 2: It kind of hangs together.
There is now an Issue. There is now a Political Stand to make, an Activist Position to take. You now have a label. That label has a definition, not the one in the dictionary, but one that everyone seems to know anyway, which means they believe they know more about you than you ever told them. The things they believe about you aren’t nice. You must now defend yourself. Most of the time, that means Formulating a Theory. You can’t just say, look, there’s this peculiar thing, it happens a lot, I don’t like it, and no one knows why it has to happen. Your Theory must be airtight. Because if it isn’t, then none of your experiences of the peculiar thing are believed. You are told that you wanted to see this peculiar thing where no peculiar thing existed. Above all, your Theory must justify your dislike of the peculiar thing. You must be prepared to call it an Absolute Wrong, even an Expression of Evil, to be taken seriously as a problem, but then you get accused of calling perfectly well-meaning people Wrong and Evil. You remember your first theory, that first reason you came up with; how naïve it seems, now. You remember your second theory; how it didn’t quite fit the facts as you’d encountered them. You remember asking people about your peculiar experiences; you remember who understood, who didn’t, and who denied you’d had those experiences at all. You begin to notice that the identity of the people you asked seems to have a relationship with what they see. It now seems clear that, whether other people see it or not, this peculiar thing is very much their problem, too.
PHASE 3: Build it into your world.
If you were me before this site, then you would come to a solitary conclusion, and implement it in your daily interactions. I prefer direct communication, but I understand indirect communication; I cannot endure bad-faith interactions. If given the choice, I’ll be as direct as I can, and if my interlocutor refuses to meet me open-heartedly to communicate, I’ll find a way to never communicate with that person again. Case closed.
But if you’re me these days, you write an article about it. You nail it right to the wall: what seems peculiar, what is unpleasant about it, whether it’s merely unpleasant or actually wrong, and, if it’s wrong, why the wrongness is anybody’s concern. On ambitious days, you’ll include what can be done about it. And it’s this last phase that leads almost inevitably to:
PHASE 4: It plays in your head all the time:
This is my problem today. In writing these articles, I’ve learned this peculiar song so well, I can sing it by heart at the drop of a hat. I once believed that it was all a misunderstanding, that could be corrected with a little clear discussion. But there has been name-calling, since then, there have been insults. My rationality has been dismissed, my professional skills have been maligned, my integrity has been called into question and simultaneously taken advantage of. I can tell you all the whys and wherefores of my Theories, I can answer all the accusations. I am ready for the gig; the public awaits. But in the meantime, I need to keep all the facts at the ready. I can’t ever be without the evidence. Just in learning what the real, objective, feet-on-the-ground problem is, in formulating my Theory, in writing it all out and making it lucid and explicit and figuring out what I have to say about it, I have made it my constant companion.
Oh, I’m no more angry than I was before. I was probably more angry when it was all an unexplored body of evidence, rather than the corpse on the table, dissected and understood. That sense of not being able to take time out of my daily grind to communicate, to find another option besides walking away, that was intensely frustrating. So I’m not frustrated; I have made it a part of my life: to discuss, to formulate, to take apart and examine the peculiarities that make life strange in our special form of patriarchy. Also to think of solutions, to figure out where to go from here. But should a single note play, however tangentially related to my feminist siren song, then the whole problem, in all its ugly intractability, with all the insults and betrayals, from within my communities and without, come rushing back.
But having gotten this far in, there’s no way out but through.