On Ambivalence

On Ambivalence: The Problems and Pleasures of Having it Both Ways

Kenneth Weisbrode
Copyright Date: 2012
Published by: MIT Press
Pages: 88
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  • Book Info
    On Ambivalence
    Book Description:

    Why is it so hard to make up our minds? Adam and Eve set the template: Do we or don't we eat the apple? They chose, half-heartedly, and nothing was ever the same again. With this book, Kenneth Weisbrode offers a crisp, literate, and provocative introduction to the age-old struggle with ambivalence. Ambivalence results from a basic desire to have it both ways. This is only natural--although insisting upon it against all reason often results not in "both" but in the disappointing "neither." Ambivalence has insinuated itself into our culture as a kind of obligatory reflex, or default position, before practically every choice we make. It affects not only individuals; organizations, societies, and cultures can also be ambivalent. How often have we asked the scornful question, "Are we the Hamlet of nations"? How often have we demanded that our leaders appear decisive, judicious, and stalwart? And how eager have we been to censure them when they hesitate or waver?Weisbrode traces the concept of ambivalence, from the Garden of Eden to Freud and beyond. The Obama era, he says, may be America's own era of ambivalence: neither red nor blue but a multicolored kaleidoscope. Ambivalence, he argues, need not be destructive. We must learn to distinguish it from its symptoms--selfishness, ambiguity, and indecision--and accept that frustration, guilt, and paralysis felt by individuals need not lead automatically to a collective pathology. Drawing upon examples from philosophy, history, literature, and the social sciences, On Ambivalence is a pocket-sized portrait of a complex human condition. It should be read by anyone who has ever grappled with making the right choice.

    eISBN: 978-0-262-30182-4
    Subjects: Philosophy

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. [i]-[iv])
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. [v]-[vi])
  3. [Illustration]
    (pp. [vii]-[viii])
  4. On Ambivalence
    (pp. 1-2)

    It began with Adam and Eve. Do we or don’t we eat the apple? “Why not?” says Eve. “Why?” wonders Adam. They chose, half-heartedly, and nothing was ever the same again.

    This is a guide to thinking about the condition of ambivalence in the present moment. It is a condition worse than most because it can lead to catastrophe. It is so ubiquitous that many people accept it as normal, and blur the difference between “yes” and “no.” Making a choice gives one a fifty percent chance of being right. Ambivalence would seem to give one a one hundred percent...

  5. I
    (pp. 3-22)

    One of the first manifestations of ambivalent behavior for many of us is with appetite. Do I really want that extra piece of pie? Do I need that diamond ring? Of course we want these things. At the same time we do not, or some part of our selves we call our conscience gives us second thoughts, which appear in the form of a contradiction: No, I don’t really want or need that. So the most basic type of ambivalence originates with desire, namely in the contradiction between the heart and the head. At some point, the question of Do...

  6. II
    (pp. 23-46)

    Back to typologies. In contemplating the lonely individual struggling over what to do and who to be, we turn again to language, which, according to the literary critic William Empson, is frequently, almost universally, ambiguous. He identified seven types of ambiguity. Most touch upon ambivalence. The first, for example, is the “intention to mean several things [and] a probability that one or other or both of two things has been meant,” while the third, in similar fashion, is “when two ideas, which are connected only by being both relevant in the context, can be given in one word simultaneously” so...

  7. III
    (pp. 47-68)

    What is to be done about ambivalence? A better question is, what can be done with it? Nobody likes to suffer paralysis, torment, or squandered opportunity. We usually just opt for delay. Conquering ambivalence otherwise requires a choice—and, paradoxically, a renunciation of ambivalence on the macro level by an acceptance of it on the micro level. This cannot be easy.

    Having it all also means more shades of gray, and feeding those Bauman called the “inner demons of assimilation.” Rather than choosing outright, we hope to find just one more workable alternative, a happy middle ground, a third way—...

  8. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 69-72)
  9. References
    (pp. 73-78)
  10. Back Matter
    (pp. 79-81)