(There’s a brief programming note below today’s list, just so you know!)
I have been thinking a lot lately about ambivalence.
I think it began circulating in my brain a few months ago, when a friend gently challenged my adoration of a certain critic — always too effusive for my friend’s taste, she said. It’s not that my friend necessarily wanted to read pans; she just wanted something a bit less unambiguously sunny, less predictable. “Ambivalent” was the word she used.
I was surprised. I suppose I was holding onto an unchecked assumption that good criticism (and maybe good writing overall? and who knows what else) knew where it stood, and it stood in one place, and it wanted you to stand there, too. But really — how hegemonic is that?! How masculinist! How invested in entrenched systems of power! Etc.
(Actually, I guess I’ve been unraveling this for a little longer, because last October I said I loved The Art Of Cruelty for its ambivalence, especially the way it grants us the freedom to walk away from a piece of art unsure, exactly, of where we come down. Though it’s not uncertainty I’m after, necessarily; it’s the space it grants.)
This weekend I heard a podcast episode about the critic and artist John Berger, perhaps most famous for his essay/miniseries about art criticism called Ways of Seeing. The Berger expert on the podcast said one of his largest takeaways from Berger’s work was the imperative to challenge our own way of seeing: to look beyond a "taxonomic sorting of which cultural objects are good and bad" — an anti-ambivalent way of looking at art if there ever was one; an exercise Twitter loves — and instead to “think deeper and harder and more dialectically about the things that we encounter.” In other words, as he explains earlier in the episode, we might ask: What are the qualities of a piece of art? What’s the significance of it? What does this thing mean?
When you slice something a lot of different ways, it seems rare to come away too clean. That’s kind of ambivalence I’m after. It’s capacious. And generous. And engaged. It gives you something to dig into! It’s fun to disagree with! Being really ambivalent, I’m convinced, can be as much fun as being a fan. As much fun as being a hater. I’m interested in continually moving away from the taxonomy and towards a whole list of other questions, hoping to land in a place that’s more informed but less codified.
Of course, even as I write this, I’m waffling on ambivalence. Of course I still admire clarity and definitiveness. There is a ton of wishy-washy both-sides-y blandness that makes me want to tear my hair out when I read it.
But when it comes to my way of seeing, maybe I’m just burnt out on my own defensiveness, on hierarchies, on all the willful misreadings I encounter, on perfectionism. Those things don’t help me when I spend time with books or albums or ideas or with my friends. Lately I’ve been getting thrilled when I read things like, “I’m not sure I actually agree with this take but found it fascinating and thought-provoking nonetheless.”
And outside of art, I’m thinking about ambivalence, too, because my long-term partner and I recently got engaged, despite a deep feeling of ambivalence about the institution of marriage. I don’t feel ambivalent about the relationship, for what it’s worth, or about whether this type of commitment is right for me or for us — just about participating in this particular social ritual. I looked for easy answers or a way to feel definitive about it all but I couldn’t find it. So here I am — jumping in with my ambivalence intact.
The aforementioned programming note: It has been my great joy and delight to send this weekly newsletter for the past year and change. But now this is going to be a monthly newsletter!
Going forward, you can expect constellations in your inbox on the 24th of every month (probably? We’ll see how it feels). If you’re wondering why the 24th? it’s because my birthday falls on a 24th so I consider it a Very Good Day for me in general.
That’s all. Thanks for reading! I value our time together tremendously.
To gracious ambivalence, this week & in the month ahead.