This special issue doesn't propose Ambivalent Criticism™. Instead, this issue forwards essays that reflect on a style in which we already do criticism a style we are calling ambivalent in order to invite a conversation about its political and hermeneutic affordances. We realize that the phrase "ambivalent criticism" is deceptively simple: neither ambivalence nor criticism is a straightforward affair. Ambivalence might inhere in our objects, ourselves, or our (inter)disciplines. Criticism might name any number of scholarly interventions, with any number of objects or scales of reform in mind. Therefore, we offer more provocation than fiat through the four central propositions we advance in this introduction: 1) that the so-called method wars are, at their core, about the dispositional differences through which critics approach their objects, 2) that naming this affective underpinning might provide a way out of their necessarily endless cycling, 3) that the increasing precarization of our profession has promoted ambivalence as a foundational disposition (even if evident, for some, only in its disavowal), especially for those of us in post-1945 cultural studies who are in the business of theorizing an ongoing historical situation we cannot step outside of, and 4) that a greater acceptance of the position of critical ambivalence might yield better fruits for our fields. In our afterword to this special issue, we lay out some of the central questions over which ambivalence has converged in the historical present, particularly around the necessarily ambivalent sites of "openness." 

We're All Ambivalent

Here's the strongest claim we're going to make in this introduction: we're all ambivalent. Part of what we'll end up saying is that ambivalence always belongs to a "we" a collective with contradictory members. But we are also saying that all individuals have contradictory affects, too, a contradiction that is palpable anytime we find ourselves hailed by a "we" the simultaneous thrill of belonging (it's not just me!) and annoyance of being lumped and categorized (I'm not like that!). Ambivalence means thrill and annoyance, to name one pair of affects that aren't just co-present, but co-constitutive.

When we say we loathe something, we aren't really announcing a rejection of the thing but naming the quality of its fascination, the way it captivates our attention: in this case, eliciting negative affect of such intensity that we could not simply look away and be indifferent, nonplussed. Yet there can be an energizing pleasure in hate, and so we may also love an object that lets us feel that way. When we say we love something, we are likewise specifying the kind of attachment we have to it, and when we find ourselves dependent on the object we love, we may find we detest it, too, for the way it confronts us with our own vulnerability and need. This is how love and hate do not so much feed each other, but contain each other.

Said differently, ambivalence may be felt as a temporal condition where things compete or substitute, so that we love one day and hate another. We might sometimes do that, but the foundational logic of ambivalence is actually more synchronic, its contradictory parts simultaneously and persistently embedded in one another. Or fractal, even: love contains both love and hate, which contains both hate and love, which contains both love and hate . . .

We are always ambivalent in our attachments to objects in part because, as psychoanalysts from Sigmund Freud to Melanie Klein explain, the objects we behold are not only in the world, but also inside us: what we analyze is our perception of an object, and not the object itself.1 Before we can interpret an object, we must ingest it and, in the process, fragment and modulate it as ingestion requires lest we choke. To endure in the world, we cut it up into things that are good and bad, and try to move as much of the good inside us as we can and keep the bad out only to then worry that the bad things out there may also be out to get us. From this perspective, what may seem a contradictory object may just be the projection of a contradictory subject. An ambivalent criticism takes seriously the ways in which the critic and object can become locked in this game of mimicry, so that ambivalence can look like the subjective correlate to a contradictory object, or a contradictory object the objective correlate to subjective ambivalence. It's a criticism that notices how the perception of contradiction in an object means the contradiction has already gotten inside us, how the perception of contradiction in something might also be the displaced ambivalence of, as we'll soon see, our historical position as critics today.

As critics, we are often trained to be attuned to the contradictions of aesthetic and social form alike. We may think of ourselves in a tradition of close reading that includes Cleanth Brooks's description of poetry as the "language of paradox"; or in a Marxist tradition that moves through Mao Zedong's On Contradiction and Louis Althusser's "Contradiction and Overdetermination" to detect the oppositional forces that animate a political situation; or a psychoanalytic tradition as we've described here that considers the subject as fundamentally split, whether by competing Freudian drives or by Jacques Lacan's paradoxical formulas of sexuation; or in a post-dialectical historicism that employs what Michel Foucault called an archeology of "spaces of dissension" or later a "logic of strategy" that aims to "establish the possible connections between disparate terms which remain disparate"; or in a postcolonial tradition including Homi Bhabha's original exploration of mimicry in the colonizer/colonized relationship in an article subtitled "The Ambivalence of Colonial Discourse."2

What the fractal logic of ambivalence brings out is a way of tracking how contradiction resonates across scales of analysis, from subject to aesthetic form, from the interpersonal to the structural, from the basic to the epiphenomenal. In Teresa Brennan's reading of Lacan, for instance, the mirror stage produces an ambivalent subject who recognizes themselves as both subject (the one looking at the mirror) and object (the image in the mirror). The subject's solution to this contradiction is to make it interpersonal, so that "one half of the ego's internal structure is projected onto another in the social world," and an individual then identifies with the dominant side.3 But this fantasy of purifying the ego of objecthood requires constant maintenance and entails ambivalence of a yet higher order. At the geopolitical level, according to Brennan, it means both an aggressive imperial will to expand and, when this aggression is projected onto the proxy object, a fear that the areas expanded into will retaliate. This neurotic colonial structure compounds ambivalence by iteratively performing and fearing aggression, from intrapsychic to interpersonal to international.

Ambivalence poses a contradiction that is both contagious (moving freely between object and critic) and compounding (repeating at larger scales instead of sublating).4 A criticism self-conscious of this logic recognizes the risks of disavowing ambivalence, lest the contradiction internal to criticism simply be moved up a scale, or lest the violence that is internal to a critic's wrestling with the world become a violence the critic reproduces in the world. We're all ambivalent; the parts of ambivalence just get moved around from one place to another, one scale to another, when we try to purify either ourselves or our objects of their Möbius nature.

We're all ambivalent but that doesn't mean there isn't something historically specific about the ambivalence in which criticism finds itself today, as well as something historically specific about the kind of criticism that can be generatively produced from sites of ambivalent intensity. We can, in other words, adopt a universalizing, psychoanalytic view of attachment we're all ambivalent while still distinguishing between what Mari Ruti calls "constitutive trauma" versus "context-based trauma." Ruti wrote to dispute a kind of heroic hystericism associated with a white gay male strand of queer theory from Leo Bersani to Lee Edelman. This strand took for granted that its subjects were essentially Enlightenment beings of rational self-sovereignty that needed to have their egos destroyed in order to subvert the established social order. In the self-shattering-as-politics offered up by this strand of theory, subjects in the thrall of sexual pleasure or the disoriented desire for that pleasure could get in touch with an irresolute, pre-interpellated subject constituted by a foundational wounding: a wounding understood not as physical trauma but as a symbolic repression that is the necessary condition of entering into language and social relations that were never and could never be of our independent making. But what this politics misses in its emphasis on the universal symbolic wounding that is the condition of becoming human is a "focus on more circumstantial and context-specific forms of negativity, wounding, decentering, and suffering"; Ruti sides with those who "challenge the idea that the subject's foundational lack-in-being is the only, or even the most important, form of alienation in human life, calling attention to the myriad ways in which the subject can be injured (even 'negated') by structural inequalities such as racism, sexism, homophobia, and global economic injustices."5 So, too, might ambivalence be "foundational" for all subjects, but it is intensified for the subject whose precarity is produced by structural harm.

Freud's Beyond the Pleasure Principle is often considered the turning point in his transition from a theory of the subject organized by decadent desire to one organized by ambivalence. Written in 1920, in a world reeling from a War (with a capital-W, in distinction from the method wars we'll get to in the next section) a coinage like the "death drive" (Todestrieb) could not help but resonate with a trauma less abstract and more "context-based."6 Freud himself rarely used the term "ambivalence," which he learned from the psychiatrist Eugen Bleuler, who had theorized ambivalence in relation to the coincidence of contradictory affects or ideas in schizophrenia (another term Bleuler himself coined) a genealogy that might complicate the method of Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, who criticized the "Freudian blackmail" of Oedipal psychoanalysis but went on to develop their own "schizoanalysis."

Other critics have tracked a longer historical genealogy of ambivalence that informs its contemporary critical resonance. For a liberal like Lionel Trilling, the prehistory of ambivalence is to be found in Jean-Jacques Rousseau. In addition to presenting a social contract theory that mediated between self and society by founding the legitimacy of authority in the freedom of man, thereby establishing revolutionary equality through the "logical beginning" of a paradox, Rousseau also "laid the ground for the understanding of emotional ambivalence" in his autobiographical ConfessionsConfessions narrates an "ambivalent love" and focalizes its central drama of attachment not as self versus the external world, but within the internal forces that show "the inability of the man to know the true tendency of his heart."7 Further to the left, a thinker like Louis Althusser discovered ambivalence first in Baruch Spinoza, but that part of Spinoza's political philosophy still closest to a social contract theory: Spinoza's man, declining to transfer his natural power to an arbitrary sovereign, nonetheless rediscovers his own sovereignty in the sovereignty of the state, which he therefore both hopes and fears passions that are, in Spinoza, identical.8 In Althusser's reading of Spinoza, this fusion is what secures man's participation in the state that captures him, for the opposite that would provide relief from attachment is already incorporated within it. Just as in Trilling's reading of Rousseau, the ultimate unknowability of the self both expresses its natural freedom and supports its restraint by a social contract that would paradoxically claim to preserve it. 

Few critics today, we think, would begin from the world-scale melodramas of ambivalence that animate Freud, Trilling, and Althusser, with their respective emphases on Civilization and Its Discontents, "the social contract," or "the state." This is in no small part because the homogenization of an antagonist like "civilization" has been the target of persuasive critiques of universal humanism from feminists, critical race theorists, and queer theorists, but it is also because the fantasy of a strong social contract or state, whether liberal or repressive, seems more an optimism than a nightmare in a period of rapid privatization, the bankrupting of a public safety net, and perennial updates to the software of political polarization. Ambivalence today is regulated less in relation to a totality and more in relation to its fragmentation: the decline of institutions including the institution of the University and the institutions of its disciplines rather than their being domineering; the simultaneous specialization and casualization of our labor, leaving many with lots to say but few to say it to, pushed out of classrooms by the instability and lottery of academic labor and finding, outside of the classroom, a depleted public sphere for the appearance of meaningful speech. 

The contemporary world, and contemporary academia especially, asks its subjects to be at once up for anything to be "open," as we'll explore at greater length in the Afterword to this special issue and also to be ready to defend against anything. Given the competing knowledge protocols implicated in the transdiscipline of cultural studies, practices and assumptions of genealogically entangled but distinct feeder fields inevitably come into tension or arrive at unresolved questions. And, also inevitably, the evisceration of our profession makes us prone both to exhaustion and radicalization either apathy or an aggressive defense of "humanities in crisis." Ambivalence informs both these positions, and it becomes more appealing, and riskier, as we worry about the legibility of our (in-)conclusions. At the same time theorizing methods as ambivalent, this special issue thus historicizes the ascent of ambivalence as disciplines intertwine and as the precarity of our profession has put increasing strain on adopting the "right attitude" amidst a loss of control over more direct forms of political action and institutional resistance. 

What makes this situation ambivalent is that the decline of institutions, states, disciplines, and humanisms is both good and bad. It has meant democratization, liberation, and a shuttering of knowledge protocols. It has meant experimentation in forms of writing in search of an audience. It has meant utopianism and apocalypticism. It has meant the stakes of writing are higher and that the fantasy that the stakes of writing are even higher than they are is itself more fantastic. The fractal logic of ambivalence in which each part of the contradiction contains also itself means that the good and bad are not simply in tension here, but that they miniaturize and dilate each other on every level: interpretation, writing, teaching, curriculum design, department organization, party organization, facing the public. 

A War Over Feeling, By Another Name

No wonder, then, the hyperbolic language of a Method War, which mis-labels what is probably better described as a passive aggressive domestic squabble.9 We suspect that the evocation of war might be a compensatory gesture on the part of critics who feel, in an increasingly privatized university that has casualized labor and decimated the humanities, that their work does not adequately challenge or speak to the larger wars raging in the world: geopolitical wars, but also the war on climate change, the war on inequality, the war on facts. The back-and-forth over method indexes a fluctuation in how we think of the status and role of our labor in the world, tracking the reactionary optimisms and critical utopianisms that have made it possible for us to endure within it.

In trying to figure out how to share an object in writing, or to hold one's partial view of an object alongside the partial views of others, critics have also tried to figure out how they should feel about an object, what the balance is between a kind of hope and a kind of hostility. Collectively, this is why the methods that are usually called modes of reading paranoid, surface, or reparative seem so often to really be modes of writing: not just the stance we take in relation to a text, but that we take intermediary to a text and a world.10 How we cut up and glue together, analyze and synthesize texts, captures our optimism for the world, as well as our aggression toward it, or fear of it. One reason that our "methods" seem to be under constant review, then, is because our own sense of the world and of our affective relation to it our optimisms, our aggressions, our fears are themselves constantly revising, updating, adapting. Along these lines, David Kurnick has argued essays about method "offer not new ways to interpret texts but new ways to feel about ourselves when we do."11 Paranoid and reparative reading, for instance, might name less the adopted method of a critic and more their attitude, whether they write from a position of aggression or from hope, of love or of hate. Method is what we have tended to name this attitude when it avows a practice that can be modeled and emulated. 

As we weigh the right way to read and write our objects, a position, or a disposition, also hangs in the balance. Re-casting method as disposition complicates the extent to which there can even be a "method war." For it is one thing to debate the merits (to use terms implied by our own critical binaries but perhaps a bit less loaded) of deductive and inductive reasoning, or of qualitative and quantitative research; it is another thing to debate the proper amount of optimism and aggression.  An "ethos," like its derivative, ethics, strives for universalization, stemming from the belief that what I see or do should be seen and done by all. But it is hard to get polemical about affect, or to go around asking people, "Why aren't you as happy as I am? Or as depressed?"  Tavia Nyong'o and Kyla Wazana Tomkins have shown that a larger public phenomenon of tone policing is all about making affect political, or rather making it apolitical: so that the impassioned voice of the marginalized is uncivil literally outside the citizenry.12 But this is not quite what seems to be at stake when we advocate for paranoid versus reparative reading. A focus on disposition makes it easier for different critical methods to coexist and to learn from one other, without having to simply become one another.

Foregrounding the affective and ethical investments that underwrite "method" also helps to liberate scholars from any pretense of critical constancy. Someone may bend toward a particular dispositional stance with regularity just as someone might have a melancholic or cheerful constitution. But for that someone to hold themselves to critical constancy is analogous to saying, "I'm happy this year, and I will be happy for the next 20."

As others before us have pointed out, the logical contrast in Kleinian psychoanalysis, on which Eve Kosofksy Sedgwick built her own intervention in reading and writing, is not between paranoia and reparation, but between paranoia and depression. In other words, it's only when we're depressed that we launch the mission to repair.  Moreover, to think these two positions can be discretely contraposed is, as Jackie Stacey puts it, to "wish away" the ambivalence that is at the heart of Kleinian, and really any psychoanalytic, thought.13 Leaving the ambivalence motoring our profession under-examined is also how the method wars have tended to obscure rather than illuminate "the way we do criticism now." At stake in the alignment of a method "war" with a resource war in the neoliberal university and the wars for humanism broadly understood beyond the university campus is the question of how optimistic we feel about whether cultural criticism can, or even should, effect political change. It's not a failure if a reading of Henry James did not bring about political transformation, unless political transformation was the only metric for critical success. But if we don't think criticism itself changes the world, then we would need to spend more time debating not the method of criticism, but rather how criticism is taken up, how it impacts the institutions and structures within which it is authored. We would need renewed attention to what comes after criticism: styles of action, theories on how to organize, how to turn insight into something collective and shared.

Attaching "method" to war can obscure these other sites of struggle, if it makes it feel like the urgent task is deciding whether or not Henry James can change the world, rather than, say, whether or not we as intellectual laborers should unionize. The institutional structure and diminished lifeworlds of contemporary academia situate critics in ambivalent positions, at the same time that ambivalence is a means of grasping the complexity of an object not just in its contradiction, but in its contagious contradictoriness.  

Contradictory Objects, Ambivalent Critics

Ambivalent criticism does not extract itself from such a contagious, compounding structure the fractal reiterations of ambivalence at the intrapsychic, interpersonal, institutional, global scales but tries to get a hold of its place within it. Consider as one object the "horrible exhibition" and "terrible spectacle" that closes the first chapter of Frederick Douglass's Narrative, in which he recalls hearing, as a child, the "heart-rending shrieks" of his Aunt Hester being whipped by the overseer Plummer. The first monographs by Saidiya Hartman, Fred Moten, and Christina Sharpe all begin with this scene and identify it, as Alex Weheliye summarizes it, "as the originating leap (Ur-Sprung) of the modern (black) subject."14 They differ in their interpretations of the subject formed by such a scene, whether the subject is one that "a history of terror had produced" (Hartman), "constituted from transatlantic slavery onward and connected, then as now, by the everyday mundane horrors that aren't acknowledged to be horrors" (Sharpe), or whether there might be a subject constituted holding out the possibility that something anything redeeming might be found amidst this pain, the possibility of Hester's shrieks turning also into "song" (Moten).15 For Moten, the shrieks show up not only in the grammar of institutionalized slavery, where they sound as terrorized pain, but also in the grammar of the African-American spiritual, where they sound as music and belong in a genealogy that culminates with the free jazz of the twentieth century. For Ashon Crawley, whose first book begins with the words "I Can't Breathe," we might hear the shrieks as Pentecostal, a collective practice of sharing breath.16  What Moten and Crawley bring out is the essentially aesthetic nature of this primal "spectacle" or "exhibition," a kind of performance art. As Anne Cheng suggests by way of a different aesthetic object mythic Daphne's becoming tree, echoed in the tree of scars that adorns not Aunt Hester's but Sethe's back in Toni Morrison's Beloved  the connection offered between aesthetics and pain in such an exhibition is the former "not [as] an escape from the latter but rather its product." Cheng would likely read Moten's formulation of "shriek turns speech turns song," a movement from fleshy production to sonic performance, as an instance in which the racialized subject reclaims a kind of subjective presence through aesthetic performance: "flesh that passes through objecthood needs ornament to get back to itself."17

What all critics of the Douglass scene share is a sense of the terrible object having gotten inside them, and then a question of what do with it: how to collapse, or not, the distance historically and aesthetically between the object and themselves; how to repeat, or not, its contradictory logics of terror and fugitivity. Each critic, in wrestling with the question of how to mediate the thing they have read much like Douglass himself, in how to mediate the horror he has seen, with which he both identifies (seeing himself as Hester) and does not (he is not, after all, Hester) flirts with the possibility of purifying the scene of ambivalent wrestling by naming one side of the ambivalence a victor, in order to hear shriek or song only, in order to practice paranoia or reparation only. Debate between scholars might also be a debate both within themselves individually (how do I want to feel about this?) as well as a structure of competing affects that organizes the field as a whole (this set of contradictory dispositions converge on this scene). But what they bring out, by being collectively in conversation together, is a way of sustaining the ambivalence. Scaling up, we can see that whatever ambivalence might live within individual positions, the field as a whole is ambivalent about the possibility of redeeming violence.

If, as it did in Teresa Brennan's reading of the mirror stage, disavowing ambivalence can create violence at a higher scale interpersonal conflict "solves" personal ambivalence by getting someone else to play one half of the parts an individual is already playing then so, too, can maintaining the ambivalence of a collective provide the individual critic a way of staying plugged in. Ambivalence means that we are loving and hating at the same time, but when the experience of one pole is heightened at the level of affect, we may let someone hold the other pole for us. One of the pleasures of working on this collaborative special issue has been to let others hold part of the ambivalence for us: to let someone else hold the love for a minute, while we hold the hate, and vice versa. And in co-writing this introduction, we have noticed a similar cycle within the two of us. Our objects magnetize both positive and negative affect, both optimism and cynicism, both longing and dread and these contain themselves and their opposites. What we need is a collective practice that makes room for all of this ambivalence.  

If we look to embodied practice as itself a place of theorizing, one example of collectivizing ambivalence might be found in a form of direct action Black Lives Matter has relied upon in managing the simultaneously psychic and political ambivalence of giving form to a structure of anti-black violence without replicating its patent spectacles of torn flesh, spectacles which already circulate virally in the digital sphere.18 We are thinking about BLM's resuscitation of the "die-in," used a generation earlier to great political effect by the activists of AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP) to protest governmental neglect of HIV/AIDS patients as well as collusion in their death through delayed drug development. ACT UP staged multiple mass performances of death especially in the late 1980s and early 1990s, during which protestors would fall down and play dead at the offices of drug companies or at the feet of the White House, to provide visual form for the deaths produced by pharmaceutical, governmental, and bureaucratic inattention. Nicholas Mirzoeff has said that "#BlackLivesMatter Is Breathing New Life Into the Die-In" in its multiple actions adapting the form of protest to expressing the terrors of police brutality, and he reads the die-in as a collective experience that de-personalizes trauma without denying its reality: "Performed death surrenders to the dominant viewpoint from above, making each person vulnerable, but creates a sense of freedom as you rest your body with others in spaces where you never normally are at rest. You experience solidarity as the collective body dying-in. You may close your eyes, listen to the silence, broken only by counting that does not enumerate value but re-performs the eleven statements: 'I Can't Breathe,' the last words of Eric Garner, the body of the commons dying and yet refusing to depart."19  

The die-in is thus simultaneously confrontational and self-caring: it re-claims public space in order to direct the public's attention to their complicity, because part of a social structure, in the production of black death, but it does not require protestors to directly identify with the death they perform. For even as the repetition of "I Can't Breathe" casts a protestor as Eric Garner, the protest's ritualized (because counted) and collectivized (because spoken communally like a slogan) nature provides relief from being traumatized as a condition of making others confront traumatic structure. And, like Moten's sense of shriek become song, this is an aestheticization of trauma, and therefore one that can also be manipulated to become survivable. One 2017 step-by-step document for planning a die-in provides these guidelines: "Make sure everyone agrees on how long you will stay on the ground. No one should be forced to stay longer than they are comfortable with, but everyone dispersing at random could compromise the effectiveness and appearance of the action." "When the die-in ends, everyone should clean up and leave quickly."20 The temporal anxieties here a delimited time period for the dying, and a quick return to life that seals off that space of the dead neatly both compact and quarantine horror. The die-in indexes violence without allowing it to become so diffuse and all-pervasive of a trauma that its very bearers become paralyzed by the burden of its memory.

Ambivalence's fractal logic of repetition and scalar upgrade characterizes the returns again and again to primal scenes of loss, at the same time that both critical and aesthetic forms find ways of not just repeating the trauma but building a world from the ambivalent tension of being near but not too near, of being both singular and generic. For in naming the ambivalence of approaching a horror that is already inside them, critics from Hartman to Moten and activists from ACT UP to BLM collectivize the labor of bearing it, inviting others into the cycle of ambivalence to expand the scene of injury to the normative, if finite, world of cohabitation. Ambivalence propels worldbuilding when its problem is critically thematized, not just inherited as anxiety.  

Ambivalence names the project of the critic who tries to explore new territory in order to find openings and emergences in the world, but risks subjecting those to the systematic determination of a total theory or to a self-congratulatory determination of theoretical vigilance before an inchoate world. This is one reason the debates over method continue and under so many different ways of naming a similar binary paranoid and reparative, surface and depth with the familiarly fractal, self-referential logic of ambivalence.

Ambivalent Essays: What Follows

In her recent critique of weak, surface, and postcritical reading practices, Anna Kornbluh has bemoaned the homology, perhaps collusion, between what Jeff Williams has classed under the "new modesty" in literary criticism and what she calls the "industrial diminishment" of criticism itself: "The retreat from analysis to phenemonological witnessing, affective response, and epistemic modesty enacts as methodology the privatizations that have eroded the university and enfeebled collective action, while the wholesale repudiation of the intellectual and political value of Marxist frameworks of causality and totality have clouded the situation, including the labor conditions, in which intellectuals find themselves."21 Persuaded by Kornbluh's view, we anticipate a critique that ambivalence is not just a symptom of the ambivalent position of the critic within this context of critical diminishment, but a means by which that diminishment is perpetuated. Moreover, when the problems we face are often actually quite simple resurgent nationalisms, privatizations, and phobias of feminization the ambivalent critic's fetish for complexity could be seen to camouflage the world instead of building a better world. The essays in this special issue nonetheless risk complexity. The mirroring between object and critic is taken as a resource, an acknowledgement that the problem we face has already become intimate to us at the level even of psychology, and that this provides a means of hacking the fractal logic of ambivalence to make its repetition one with a glitch.     

The essays in this special issue pursue what happens when critical constancy is not a goal, when the ambivalence that comes with inhabiting precarity in the world becomes the position from which we do criticism rather than a position from which we flee.    

Each of the essays in this special issue not only theorizes ambivalence but models a form of writing that holds onto an ambivalent attachment, from the recursive vignettes of Mark Seltzer to the anecdotal interludes punctuating theory in Summer Kim Lee. Re-reading Audre Lorde and Cherríe Moraga, Lee explores the iterative emotional labor of "showing up" as a woman of color in all-white feminist spaces to consider a middling position in which the labor of open dialogues is simultaneously necessary, exhausting, quiet, and non-heroic. Seltzer's essay warns against the optimism of repetition and circuits of recurring scenes by considering three scenes of closed, circular self-conditioning: cyclical workout routines, Rachel Cusk's Outline trilogy of novels, and revolving doors.

Others in this special issue take on further formal innovations to hold together an ambivalent, contradictory relation to the world. Writing about the central importance of the Kalamandalam institute in India for the budding field of performance studies in the United States, Ragini Tharoor Srinivasan explores our anxious relation to cultural appropriation as a founding moment in establishing open interdisciplines, whereas Amber Jamilla Musser's essay on the cross-cultural circuit that includes Trajal Harrell, Antonia Mercé, and Kazuo Ohno considers the ambivalent role of racialized feminization in making possible relations of cross-cultural encounter and appropriation. Finally, Christina León examines opacity in Shani Mootoo's Cereus Blooms at Night and finds a queer circuit in which openness to colonial power mutates into closure and closing off.

Each essay takes on a different position on an ambivalent spectrum in relation to particular sites of ambivalence iterative experience (Lee and Seltzer), appropriation (Musser and Srinivasan), and historical trauma (León). In our ambivalence, we may move at a given moment in our public presentation from the more depressive to the more paranoid, even if each position is part of a structure that always co-implicates the poles that would seem to be on either side. These essays work together to suggest a co-habitation of an ambivalence in relation to our present world. In the afterword to this special issue, we lay out additional sites of ambivalence and the critical questions that are implicated by them through a survey of "openness" as it animates cultural studies today, from open wounds to open secrets, open minds to open access.

Regardless of the individual dispositions the contributors express, we together practice yet another, third kind of managing ambivalence in critical form, one which is collective. By working as a field, a working-together that is miniaturized in this special issue, we can manage ambivalence, not by disavowing part of our ambivalence (saying we are all-love and no-hate), but by allowing others to hold that part for us. In this light, what makes a plurality of methods desirable, especially when we re-frame those methods as dispositions, is not that more-is-better or everything-goes, but that it better enables a field to sit with contradiction, to collectively hold those contradictions within a single space.

Coda: Ambivalence after Berlant

Two weeks before the contributors to this special issue met over Zoom to workshop final drafts of each other's essays, in the summer concluding an exhausting year physically, emotionally, politically, and intellectually, Lauren Berlant died. Lauren was our premier theorist of ambivalence. They had taught more than two generations of students and colleagues how to be critical of an object without just shitting on it, how to take seriously the simultaneous comedies and tragedies of everyday life, how to be skeptical of affect without simply taming it into epistemology. Aware that "without allowing for ambivalence, there is no flourishing,"22 they wrote works that are clearly influences on each of the essays that follows, an influence we think is best appreciated by writing in their wake instead of providing, in this introduction, an encyclopedia entry to summarize their work. But we feel compelled to remember how Berlant took ambivalence seriously enough to experiment, throughout their life, with forms of writing that were adequate to it. Lauren lived ambivalence with style and with others. 

With style Recall what has become their most cited passage, the opening paragraph of Cruel Optimism:

A relation of cruel optimism exists when something you desire is actually an obstacle to your flourishing. It might involve food, or a kind of love; it might be a fantasy of the good life, or a political project. It might rest on something simpler, too, like a new habit that promises to induce in you an improved way of being. These kinds of optimistic relation are not inherently cruel. They become cruel only when the object that draws your attachment actively impedes the aim that brought you to it initially.23

The paragraph begins in the idiom of a formula, an existential proposition, and in such a mathematical spirit, the grammatical subject of the first sentence is noticeably the "relation" rather than human subjects or objects involved in it. The first personal pronouns, you and yours, take on an almost aggressive spirit, attributing to us readers a desire; this is particularly noticeable because the first object of desire offered as an example in the next sentence food is one we know, from the later chapter on "Two Girls, Fat and Thin," that is of particularly personal importance and struggle for the author. In that chapter, Berlant's premier statement on ambivalence in their own ambivalent comparison of themselves to the late Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, they cast Sedgwick as the fat one and themselves as the thin. A few pages later, Berlant will explain they want to "track the becoming general of singular things," and there is a sense of the "you" and the subjectless "relation" as generalizations of the singular "I." The paragraph ends with qualifications limiting the scope of their formulation's range of applicability, since not all optimisms are cruel although the next paragraph seems to rebound by insisting on a universalism of its own: "All attachment is optimistic, if . . . " The whiplashes in this paragraph's sentences between the personal and the impersonal, the personal and the universal, are one way that Berlant holds onto an ambivalence of their own, or recognizes how "you" can become a screen for either the projection of their ambivalence or a repository for part of the ambivalence split off from itself. 

With others In other words, one way of becoming conscious of ambivalence is to get a "you" in the room with the object with us, and this is one reason Berlant was such a promiscuous and prolific coupler. We remember many of the bylines: Berlant and Edelman; Berlant and Freeman; Berlant and Ngai; Berlant and Stewart; Berlant and Warner. Collaboration for Berlant rarely seemed the rosy utopia that some fantasies of, for instance, "community" often promote, as if the answer to the ills of the world's toxic structures is us all getting along. All relations are ambivalent; there is aggression within Berlant's partnerships, and sometimes aggression is the point. In the collaborations published as interviews or dialogues, there is often a cycle between being top and bottom, needing to be in control of a conversation and enjoying being out of control, letting someone else take the lead. Their first answer to the first question in one interview published the same year as Cruel Optimism was to take on the role of the interviewer themselves: "Is this the beginning of our interview? We need some context, I think."24 But this was a way of getting a clearer, fuller view of an object or concept whether nationalism, with Freeman; the public, with Warner; sex, with Edelman; comedy, with Ngai; the ordinary, with Stewart to have that other object of ambivalence, a fellow critic, alongside them; to let ambivalence, including aggression, become an interpersonal project and not just a relation between a person and an object. This is not a romanticization of collaboration, but an attention to its great difficulties in addition to its great affordances. In this introduction and the essays to follow, we remember Berlant as a model of ambivalent thinking, and as an object of ambivalence themselves. 

Tina Post is an Assistant Professor of English and Theater and Performance at the University of Chicago, where she is also affiliated with the Center for the Study of Race, Politics, and Culture. Her first book project, Deadpan: The Aesthetics of Black Inexpression, is forthcoming from NYU Press in the Minoritarian Aesthetics Series edited by Uri McMillan, Sandra Ruiz, and Shane Vogel. Her scholarly work has appeared in Modern DramaTDR: The Drama ReviewInternational Review of African American Art (IRAAA), and the edited collection Race and Performance after Repetition (Duke University Press, 2020). Her creative work can be found in Imagined TheatersStone Canoe, and The Appendix.

Michael Dango is Assistant Professor of English and Media Studies at Beloit College, where he is also affiliated with Critical Identity Studies. He is the author of Crisis Style: The Aesthetics of Repair, part of the Post*45 series at Stanford University Press, and is under contract to write a book on Madonna's Erotica for Bloomsbury's 33 1/3 series. His current research project is tentatively titled, What Does Rape Look Like?Sexual Violence and Aesthetic Education, parts of which have recently appeared in Signs and differences


  1. Freud, the theorist of drives, wrote about how love/hate and life/death, which are internal to the subject and its object relations, also map onto the larger contradiction between the particular ego and the universal world; ambivalence names our simultaneous dependence on the world and its objects and the violent fantasy that repudiates dependency to establish a mythology of autonomy. Klein, the theorist of positions, wrote about how we ingest, fragment, and psychically re-distribute the objects of the world in a way that makes a cycle through aggression and nurture inescapable; reparative talk of internalizing the other, which always requires splitting it into parts to become more easily metabolized, sounds a lot like the destructive tendencies that love is supposed to be countering. []
  2. Tse-Tung Mao, "On Contradiction," in Selected Works, vol. 1 (Peking: Foreign Language Press, 1967), 311-47; Louis Althusser, "Contradiction and Overdetermination," in For Marx, trans. Ben Brewster (New York: Verso, 2006), 89-127; Sigmund Freud, Beyond the Pleasure Principle, trans. James Strachey (New York: Norton, 1975); Jacques Lacan, The Seminar of Jacques Lacan: On Feminine Sexuality, the Limits of Love and Knowledge (Encore), ed. Jacques-Alain Miller and Bruce Fink, trans. Bruce Fink (New York: Norton, 1999); Michel Foucault, The Archaeology of Knowledge: And the Discourse on Language (New York: Vintage, 1982), 152-53; Michel Foucault, "The Birth of Biopolitics": Lectures at the Collège de France, 1978-79, ed. Michel Senellart, trans. Graham Burchell (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008), 42; Homi Bhabha, "Of Mimicry and Man: The Ambivalence of Colonial Discourse," October 28 (1984): 125-33. []
  3. Teresa Brennan, History After Lacan (New York: Routledge, 1993), 54. []
  4. []
  5. Mari Ruti, The Ethics of Opting Out: Queer Theory's Defiant Subjects (New York: Columbia University Press, 2017), 131. []
  6. Critics like Deleuze and Guattari rightly fault Freud for raising as a universal a historically contingent situation, if, for instance, his production of the unconscious through a triangulation of mother, father, and child naturalizes the bourgeois family order and installs pre-ontologically the dominant ideologies of his time. See Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, trans. Robert Hurley, Mark Seem, and Helen R. Lane (New York: Penguin, 2009). But we are more interested in tracking how a form of attachment called ambivalence takes on new contents in the sequence of its historical manifestations, its movement through different "contexts." []
  7. Lionel Trilling, Matthew Arnold (New York: Norton, 1939), 123-124. []
  8. Louis Althusser, "Spinoza," in The New Spinoza, ed. Warren Montag and Ted Stolze, trans. Ted Stolze (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1998), 12. []
  9. As a courtesy to the reader perhaps already exhausted by the discourse of the method wars, we won't labor to reproduce paraphrases of the competing sides here; by now, we know the many ways to name these sides. If you're Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, it's the paranoids versus the repairers; for Heather Love, Stephen Best, and Sharon Marcus, the bad guys are the deep readers or the symptomatic readers, those who want to unveil or diagnose something underneath the surface; for Elizabeth Anker and Rita Felski, there is a conflict between critique and whatever comes next, what they call, more openly, postcritique. The foundational citations in this debate remain: Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, "Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading, or, You're So Paranoid, You Probably Think This Essay Is About You," in Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity (Durham: Duke University Press, 2003), 123-52; Heather Love, "Close but Not Deep: Literary Ethics and the Descriptive Turn," New Literary History 41, no. 2 (2010): 371-91; Stephen Best and Sharon Marcus, "Surface Reading: An Introduction," Representations 108, no. 1 (2009): 1-21; Rita Felski, The Limits of Critique (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015); Elizabeth S. Anker and Rita Felski, eds., Critique and Postcritique (Durham: Duke University Press, 2017). []
  10. In her latest, Rita Felski makes a similar point: "The phrase 'doing a reading' has a faux-amateurish cast that glosses over its status as a tightly scripted form of academic writing that has very little to do with reading a book on the subway." Rita Felski, Hooked: Art and Attachment (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2020), 122. []
  11. David Kurnick, "A Few Lies: Queer Theory and Our Method Melodramas," ELH 87, no. 2 (2020): 351. []
  12. Tavia Nyong'o and Kyla Wazana Tomkins, "Eleven Theses on Civility," Social Text (blog), July 11, 2018. []
  13. Jackie Stacey, "Wishing Away Ambivalence," Feminist Theory 15, no. 1 (2014): 39-49. []
  14. Alexander G. Weheliye, Habeas Viscus: Racializing Assemblages, Biopolitics, and Black Feminist Theories of the Human (Durham: Duke University Press, 2014), 92. []
  15. Saidiya V. Hartman, Lose Your Mother: A Journey along the Atlantic Slave Route (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007), 40; Christina Sharpe, Monstrous Intimacies: Making Post-Slavery Subjects (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010), 3; Fred Moten, In The Break: The Aesthetics Of The Black Radical Tradition (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003), 22. Although we quote from Lose Your Mother, Hartman's analysis of the scene opens her Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth-Century America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997). []
  16. Ashon T. Crawley, Blackpentecostal Breath: The Aesthetics of Possibility (New York: Fordham University Press, 2016). []
  17. Anne Anlin Cheng, Ornamentalism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2019), 156. []
  18. On "viral black death," see Alexandra Juhasz, "How Do I (Not) Look? Live Feed Video and Viral Black Death," JSTOR Daily (blog), July 20, 2016. In the summer of 2020, in the wake of the police mob murder of George Floyd, Elizabeth Alexander returned to a question she had first asked in 1994, amidst the televising of the Rodney King video: "Can you be black and look at this?" Then, she was worried about how the "American national spectacle" of black bodies in pain had, for a black audience, "forg[ed] a traumatized collective historical memory which is reinvoked at contemporary sites of conflict."Elizabeth Alexander, "'Can You Be Black and Look at This?': Reading the Rodney King Video(s)," Public Culture 7, no. 1 (January 1, 1994): 77-94. Today, she is worried about the ease with which young people in particular both capture and consume black death on handheld devices, so that the "spectre of race-based violence and death . . . hangs over these young people . . . compounded with the constant display of inequity." For Alexander, the black child witnessing viral black death is conditioned into a position in which they learn they, too, could be capriciously subjected to trauma. The nonblack spectator, in contrast, is positioned to consume black pain in a way increasingly numbing, unempathetic; perhaps, Alexander muses, when Mamie Till-Mobley insisted the body of her lynched son Emmett be shown in 1955 an image that was not supposed to be publicly displayed it had a different effect on the public, but today, when the images are already shared publicly and perhaps too readily, the presentation of a horrible image meant to be the ground of social change often descends into mere spectacle. Elizabeth Alexander, "The Trayvon Generation," The New Yorker, June 22, 2020, accessed November 12, 2020. []
  19. Nicholas D. Mirzoeff, "#BlackLivesMatter Is Breathing New Life Into the Die-In," The New Republic, August 10, 2015; Nicholas D. Mirzoeff, The Appearance of Black Lives Matter (Miami: Name Publications, 2017), 106-107. []
  20. "Save the ACA: Die-In Planning Guide," Indivisible (blog), May 4, 2017. []
  21. Anna Kornbluh, "Extinct Critique," South Atlantic Quarterly 119, no. 4 (October 1, 2020): 771. []
  22. Lauren Berlant and Lee Edelman, Sex, or the Unbearable (Durham: Duke University Press, 2013), 12. []
  23. Lauren Berlant, Cruel Optimism (Durham: Duke University Press, 2011), 1. []
  24. Earl McCabe, "Depressive Realism: An Interview with Lauren Berlant," Hypocrite Reader, no. 5 (2011). []