Some Notes on Ambivalence

These are just notes. I haven’t proofread them for exact clarity. I want to return to them later.

I’ve been thinking a lot about how trans people manage the fact that crisis-affects saturate ordinary life. Ambivalence plays an important role here. (Even more so in political contexts.) The definition of ambivalence I have in mind consists of the agonism contained in its lived form: the co-presence of two moods or feelings that are in diametric opposition to one another. It seems so closely related to being aloof. But it’s not. It might be easy to think that ambivalence is a function of privilege, of aloofness or unchallenged distance, of individual sovereignty and personhood. But I tend to think otherwise. Ambivalence is more closely a function of non-sovereign relations with the world, among non-dominant groups with other non-dominant and dominant groups. In this sense, ambivalence offers non-sovereign subjects some psychic (and physical) space from everyday scenes of dissipating negativity. “Not again,” or “Why me,” or “Of course, great,” all these expressions capture what is at the heart of ambivalence: streetwise criticism of the present. And we all might agree that such criticisms do not usually emerge from the sovereignty that privilege protects. Being critical of present scene(s) in ordinary life, of constantly thinking about how its moments could have been and could be otherwise, extends from what is anxious in the experience of the non-dominant reality.

Anxiety is certainly as close to a universal “feeling” among humans that I am willing to hazard calling “universal.” And under conditions of non-sovereignty in scenes of the ordinary, the ambivalent subject must make snap decisions about how much energy to preserve or express; about whether a given action is worth the possible consequences. This is partly because the non-sovereign has more to lose in material and emotional terms. This is partly because the non-sovereign has many more objects of worry at any given time. It is a condition that some call minority stress, and others have called John Henryism when associated with anti-black racism. Thus, ambivalence is a way of fragmenting the scene into moments that can be metabolized there or later. One might consider Claudia Rankine’s work in Citizen (2014) as exemplum of ambivalent ordinariness. Here are a few phrases from that text. All of which extend from scenes in which racism is confronted (is both the aesthetic gloss and canvas). “…your memory, vessel of your feelings. Do you feel hurt….” (7); “What did he just say? Did she really just say that? Did I hear what I think I heard?“ (9); “You think maybe this is an experiment and you are being tested…” (10); “You hope by sitting in silence you are bucking the trend” (11); “Instantaneously your attachment seems fragile, tenuous, subject to any transgression….” (14); “Yes, of course, (15); “There I go? You ask, feeling irritation begin to rain down. Yes, and something about hearing yourself repeating this stranger’s accusation in a voice usually reserved for your partner makes you smile,” (16). These are scenes where the narrator’s affective knowledge engages her style of affective management. The former is what one knows about ordinary life because it has been inscribed, in a certain psychoanalytic sense, in the terrain of feelings. One can feel that something is wrong with a scene and adjust. This is knowledge of the affective sort. Affective management is a genre of how the narrator handles affects, of letting them swell or shrink. It all depends. Ambivalence is a style, then, within this genre.

Why is this affective style so important for the ordinariness of political life? Because it might spare someone the costs of having to engage. It spares those reserves so that one might preserve. This is because the marginalized self has been the object of Historical abjection, of narrative dislocation, and of pathologized will. Ambivalent subjects practice a moment of lateral agency, an extension into the ordinary that moves beyond what popular notions of linear experiences of time might allow. In psychoanalysis these are so many scenes of projection (attachments that relate hopes or fears to present objects into the future) or introjection (attaching certain feelings to present objects that make sense of the uncanny feelings that something was already there, waiting). Where racism is concerned (and in most instances it is a concern), theorist Patricia J. Williams writes that “these non-body-bound, uncompartmentalized ideas recognize the power of spirit, or what we in our secularized society might describe as they dynamism of self-as-reinterpreted-by-the-perceptions-of-others” (Alchemy of Race and Rights, 72-73). These ideas bear a resemblance to Hegel’s dialectic of recognition in Phenomenology of Spirit–if Hegel cared to make such scenes between Lord and Bondsman about racial domination. (Thankfully many intervening theorists like Williams have done so.) Ambivalent subjects must deal with the fact of their images and narratives being objects of supremacist discourse. What I mean by “deal” is reaction to a givenness of pressure that laminates the scene of sociality. This scene is predicated the symbolic economy that prefigures the scene; the non-dominant subject does not experience control over the flow of this kind of economy, only its effects. This is the heart of ambivalent styles of management, of dealing, of extending laterally into a world that seems to forbid growing vertically above it.

Ambivalence as I have described it here cannot be a non-knowing, a state of abjection in which all knowledge of conditions have been arrogated somehow. I am dealing with damage not defeat, here. Intead, ambivalence is the style that reflects upon Rankine’s notion that “you take in things you don’t want all the time” (2014, 55). Such a way of framing things puts an illuminating gloss on Williams’s mood where “this is the sort of morning when I hate being a lawyer, a teach, and just about everything else in my life. It’s all I can do to feed the cats” (1991, 4). Also on Susan Stryker’s words in “My Words to Victor Frankenstein” (2006) where she meditates on “the possibility of meaningful agency and action exists, even within field of domination that bring about the universal cultural rape of all flesh” (254). The world is brought in and out of focus because the threshold of the body is not a sovereign border. It is porous. It requires more from the non-dominant (intersecting selves of gender, race, sex, sexuality, and class). Because History is both a material and unconscious terrain both lived and having been lived (the books one reads in History Courses are textualizations of History, a story of certain accounts that accumulate to represent the ideal scenes in ordinary life). The material relationship this History imposes on the non-dominant subject conditions the need for ambivalence. It turns the hurt of History into something that can be metabolized as something other than painful non-control.


Claudia Rankine, 2014, Citizen: An American Lyric, (Minneapolis: Greywolf Press).

Susan Stryker, 2006, “My Words to Victor Frankenstein,” in The Transgender Studies Reader, edited by Susan Stryker and Stephen Whittle, 244-256, (New York: Routledge).

Patricia J. Williams, 1991, The Alchemy of Race and Rights, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press).

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