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In Defense of Ambivalence: Neoliberalism & Politics in the Age of Ethical Enjoyment


The Student Innovation Center appears exactly as one would imagine it. The building’s slick, rectilinear design outfitted with translucent glass panels smacks of the sleek corporatized aesthetic of financial consultancy firms or transnational marketing agencies. It’s the last place one would expect to attend a class called Citizen Artistry.

It’s the final semester of my master’s program in Creative Writing and Environment at Iowa State University. A “re-envisioning LAS” (Liberal Arts and Sciences) initiative has unleashed a torrent of new meridians between the university system and the market, and, more worrisomely, between the arts and neoliberal hegemony.

            The university’s Innovation and Entrepreneurship interdisciplinarity enshrines a benchmark, at once institutionalized and market-based, socially engaged and privately vested, for departments to “re-envision” their desperate claw out of the pit of obsolescence fighting over budgetary scraps. One of the main “pillars” of the Entrepreneurship major, usually coupled to the corporate-friendly Leadership minor, bears the load of “managing non-profit ventures to initiate and support positive social and environmental change.” Such rhetoric attempts to allay the omnicide of the 21st century with recourse to market-based solutions masquerading as social justice while perpetuating the logic that has driven us to the edge of planetary cataclysm: the capitalist imperative to innovate into infinite growth.

Which is to say, there’s an unshakably bizarre incongruity between the curriculum of the class—socially engaged art praxis—and the corporate chic of the Innovation Center. As the semester grinds on, however, these incongruous aspects will appear less incommensurable and more as a befitting allegory; perfect business partners.

This merger struck me as paramount to understanding the failure of so-called radical art and politics to foment change today. Socially engaged art, it seemed to me, had fallen under the spell of an ethical demand, ceding ground to the moralization of neoliberal subjectivity, an art-critical practice that shores up, instead of tearing down, austerity politics. In Claire Bishop’s Artificial Hells: Participatory Art and the Politics of Spectatorship, Bishop outlines how, through a regime of flexibility and contractual labor, a precarious class of creative professionals represent “a mobile sector” in service to minimizing “reliance on the welfare state.” If neoliberalism inaugurates awkward couplings between entrepreneurialism, social justice, and art in post-ideological and -political discourses, then the power of this chimera lies in its ability to rebrand precarity, poverty, and self-sacrifice as flexibility, adaptability, and morality—as what Bishop calls a demand to “conform to a self-suppressing sense of social obligation.” Far from being disciplinary, neoliberalism transmutes work ethic into a moral injunction.

Ethical injunctions and moral imperatives fuel a neoliberal political culture configured towards hyper-individuated responses to 21st century crises. Whether those responses take the form of fair-trade coffee, identity politics, cancel culture, or far-right lone wolf mass shooters, in a time when austerity has eroded social programs and public collectivity such responses intensify with renewed vigor and vehemence. Obligation and guilt operate at the core of a cultural discourse that demands not just purity, but condemns ambiguity and ambivalence.

Take, as a recent example, the political controversy that befell Guernica, the prestigious, radical literary magazine that bills itself as a “non-profit magazine focused on the intersection of arts and politics.” On March 4th, 2024, the magazine, as part of a series on the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict, published an essay by Joanna Chen entitled “From the Edges of a Broken World.” Chen, who refused service in the Israeli Defense Force and whose career spans decades of translating Arabic and Hebrew poetry into English, writes about her experience as an inveterate volunteer for Road to Recovery, an Israeli charity organization that transports Palestinians in need of medical care to hospitals. In the essay, Chen navigates the difficulty of empathy after the Hamas attack on October 7th. “My own heart was in turmoil,” Chen writes, “It is not easy to tread the line of empathy, to feel passion for both sides.” The Hamas attack killed seven volunteers with Road to Recovery, and seven more were taken hostage. The subsequent reprisals by the Israeli military have, at the time of writing, claimed over 30,000 Palestinian lives in Gaza.

In protest to Chen’s essay, which was quickly de-published, over a dozen volunteer editorial staff at Guernica promptly resigned. Guernica regrets to have published this piece,” all that the publication offered by way of explanation. Taking to Twitter/X, staff members explained their resignations as objections to what the former poetry and nonfiction editors described, respectively, as “a horrific settler normalization essay” and “a hand-wringing apologia for Zionism.” Former fiction editor Ishita Marwah called the magazine “a pillar of eugenicist white colonialism masquerading as goodness.” The consensus was that Chen’s essay violated an ethical duty to how an artist should navigate the nexus of art and politics.

The dust-up at Guernica illustrates the current deadlock of socially engaged art, and leftist politics in general, as they have become beholden to the ethical enjoyment proffered by a neoliberal political culture centered around guilt, purity, and social obligation. Most telling was the Tweet by Aril Zhu, former senior editor of interviews for the magazine, whose criticism of Chen’s essay found fault in Chen’s starting “from the outside, from a place that ostensibly acknowledges the ‘shared humanity’ of Palestinians and Israelis, yet fails or refuses to trace the shape of power.” Reflecting on her three years at the magazine, Zhu, by contrast, extols “that we, our writers, and our readers could take for granted that certain principles—on freedom, dignity, and justice—were a starting point, was what let the work sing. We begin from this one place together and only then, from this shared place of interiority, can nuance begin.” Though Zhu valorizes the ethical interiority of these principles, Zhu fails to see how Chen’s essay spars with the most interior of struggles: ambivalence.

Chen’s essay struggles with how such principles like freedom, dignity, and justice become so many justifications for the perpetuation of violence, emanating as they are from the social demand—represented in the Zionists who, like the editorial staff, also condemned Chen’s ambivalence. Reflecting on a time in 2014 when she donated blood to Palestinians, Chen recalls an Israeli friend shaking her head disapprovingly and upbraiding her: “You should be giving blood to the Israeli soldiers, not the Palestinians.” When, after Oct. 7th during Israel’s indiscriminate bombardment of Gaza, Chen sees an older Israeli woman consoling her grandson who had become unsettled by the sound of rockets, the woman tells her, “these are the good bombs.” Far be it from apologia, Chen’s is an interiority of a citizen divided between two worlds riven by apartheid violence.

The potency of aesthetic mediation lies in its ability to rupture unquestioned and inherited frameworks of understanding. Art risks becoming little else except an affirmative bromide, or propagandistic platitude, when it privileges internal consensus of a priori principles. By excising ambivalence out of art, we lose not just complexity, but the radical foundation of human subjectivity itself, all the while capitulating ground to the moral imprimatur of neoliberalism.

What does our current cultural logic revolving around personality and guilt—cancelling, political polarization, fundamentalism and extremism—index about the status of ambivalence in the culture of late capitalism?

To trace the prevailing politics of the puritanical, our Marxist analyses of the productive regime of neoliberalism are aided by psychoanalysis. For Freud, ambivalence constitutes not just what he calls “emotional life,” but also social structures. “The simultaneous existence of love and hate towards the same object,” writes Freud in Totem and Taboo, “lies at the root of many important cultural institutions.” When it comes to guilt, Freud minces no words in Civilization and its Discontents: guilt remains “the most important problem in the development of civilization.” Freud’s hypothesis on guilt as social formation stems from his formulation of the primal father—the ur-sovereign whose excessive enjoyment caused his murder by the band of brothers. “Guilt,” Freud writes, “is an expression of the conflict due to ambivalence” connected to the primal father. Here, the superego marks an attempt to obviate this ambivalence by, ironically, identifying with the tyrannical father via inversing the father’s domineering excess into a domineering renunciation.

According to Freud, this superego takes “the form of ‘conscience’” which subjects us relentlessly to a “sense of guilt” under which “nothing can be hidden.” Freud views the superegoic injunction taking cultural form within the field of ethics, or what he describes as “the ethical demands of the cultural superego.” An “impossible to fulfill” demand underlies the cultural superego tricking us into thinking that “the harder it is to obey the precept the more meritorious it is to do so.” Or, as Žižek puts it in Tarrying with the Negative, “the more we obey its command, the more we feel guilty.” Here, Lacan contends in Seminar XX that “nothing forces anyone to enjoy (jouir) except the superego. The superego is the imperative of jouissance—Enjoy!.” Enjoyment (or, in the Lacanian parlance, jouissance—loosely conceived of as a libidinal intensity availing itself of both pain and pleasure) teems in the basic conflict between the superegoic prohibition of the parental authority and the child’s identification therewith. In Jouissance: Sexuality, Suffering and Satisfaction, Darian Leader concisely summarizes this conflict: “do as the father does and do not do as he does.” The superego enacts a Catch-22. The “double impossibility” of this imperative does not “bring fulfillment but suffering. […] the more that we in turn renounce regarding drive satisfaction, the stronger and more powerful the superego itself becomes.” The identitarian post-political discourse circulating online today presents unceasing opportunities for enjoyment via guilt, for the subject can never be pure enough. For the superego, ambivalence registers only as so much guilt, absolved via the ethical demand.

Morality and ethics have supplanted class analysis in left and right political discourse. Wendy Brown explains that, with the advent of neoliberalism, markets and morals “twisted as they were submitted to the grammar and spirit of one another—that is, as morality was marketized and markets were moralized.” Furthermore, as neoliberalism eroded the post-war welfare states, the rapacious pillaging of public institutions by market forces heralded an “activation of traditional morality in place of legislated social justice.” In other words, to amend Brown vis-à-vis Lacan, neoliberalism’s depredations of the public and symbolic law leaves the superegoic ethical demand as the express way in which social subjects morally orient themselves to crises and social antagonisms. Or, as Leader explains, “the superego is the schism at the heart of the symbolic system, the failure or inability of the law to negotiate its own origins.”

Writing in The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable on the waning of political collectivity and the entrenchment of moral individualism, Amitav Ghosh concurs that “this secular baring-of-the-soul is exactly what is demanded by the world as church” (emphasis mine). Far from structurally challenging systems of exploitation, the ethical turn of secular morality—endorsed in the atavistic rhetoric of far-right resurgences, leftist identitarian politics, and a pervasive social justice humanism—offloads responsibilities once under the purview of the state onto individuals subsumed into atomistic discourses and lifestyle brands of self-optimization and grind. This reconfiguration has entirely altered not just the criteria by which we judge art, but the very terms for perceiving and conceiving it.

The holier-than-thou spectacle generated by Guernica’s kerfuffle, for example, attracted many commentators to the moral arena of Twitter/X to perform their contrition. Without question, it’s clear why such performances that involve exiling those who don’t belong play out in online platforms. In her latest book, Immediacy, Or the Style of Too-Late Capitalism, Anna Kornbluh theorizes that the logic of de-mediation, the style of immediacy, circulates most insidiously within Lacan’s psychic register of the imaginary with its technological corollary being the platform capitalism of social media companies and their attendant echo chambers. For Kornbluh, it is the mediative power of the symbolic that keeps at bay the imminent threat of immediacy. Through the absence that underwrites the signifier, the symbolic disturbs the overabundant hyperpresence of these proliferating, imaginary specular egos. How, then, might we square the superegoic injunction, and its concomitant ethical enjoyment, within the mise en abyme of the runaway imaginary? We have only to look to Lacan’s enigmatic definition of the superego: the superego is both the law and the destruction of the law.

The superego figures as a psychic feedback mechanism exponentially intensifying the more we perform absolution. The metastatic growth of (auto)biography, oversharing, overpresence, confessionalism, and personal brand identity and online parasocial relationships, renders the superegoic imperative all the more alluring in a time when the imaginary has overtaken the symbolic. Trump, for instance, marshals jouissance as both a figure who incarnates the logics of neoliberalism and who is simultaneously conjured as a reaction against neoliberalism’s symbolic dissolutions. As Lacan formulates it in the Écrits, “the true signification of the superego” represents an “obscene, ferocious figure” raised from “the imaginary” in “the broken link of the symbolic chain.” And for Leader, these broken links in the symbolic assume “superegoic status” when contradictions upend “the symbolic pact and exchange: an opaque pronouncement, a disregard of a kindship relation, an infringement or torsion of the law, or any sudden erosion of an ideal image.” Furthermore, the superego leverages these contradictions as sources of enjoyment when the demand to “’Jouis!” becomes, as Leader tells us, an “exhortation to carry out and enslave oneself to the inconsistent elements in the chain, precisely due to their discordance.” This begins to trace the contours of a cultural zeitgeist hyperfixated upon calling out hypocrisy, denigrating ambivalence, and obviating any refusals to toe the line—instead of tarrying with a dialectics of society and psyche.

In this way, the superegoic injunction remains amenable to online discourse, what Kornbluh identifies as the malaise of a society now centered around “the technology of the mirror” that flattens “the other as mirror.” As it manifests online, in socially engaged art, and neoliberal sincerity politics, the superegoic injunction is both an effect, and affect, of widespread narcissism and online anomie. After all, being indicted as egotistical remains one of the biggest blows for the ego. The superego thus emerges as a performative quick fix to short-circuit both the techno-surge of the imaginary and the attenuation of the symbolic.

Kornbluh argues that the aversion towards mediation is the lynchpin connecting the cultural forms that we often misrecognize as emancipatory. “In the current climate,” writes Kornbluh, “art renounces its own project of mediation. Like ‘socially engaged’ art, such bids for unboundedness pit themselves against the artifices of mediation.” Kornbluh claims that the imaginary-fueled sanctimony of call-out cultures, “propagating guilt,” merely “[pose] as liberatory—authentic, righteous, spontaneous, unrepressed.” What the neoliberalization of socially engaged art and identity politics promises, then, is immediate absolution of guilt via the social obligation and the eradication of gnawing ambivalence as performative non-politics.

In one of the great anti-war paintings of the early 20th century, Picasso’s “Guernica” stages a disorienting aesthetic encounter with the German and Italian bombing of Guernica in 1937. Taking “Guernica” as an exemplar of anti-war art, the art historian David McCarthy writes that “paradoxically, antiwar art’s lack of actual power is its power.” In this way, by doing ‘nothing,’ art gives aesthetic form to the inaugural loss we undergo when we enter the symbolic, social field. Art’s necessary mediation stages, at the level of the aesthetic, our ambivalence—arising from the contradiction of being a desiring subject despite, and because of, being subjected to the alienation inherent to the symbolic—always mediated by the other. Eradicating this mediation in favor of immediacy forecloses the inherent radicality of subjectivity and ambivalence while playing directly into the hands of neoliberal logics whereby a private ethical relation to guilt, through the social obligation of some big Other, reigns as the political program par excellence.

Taken together, such developments coordinate neoliberalism’s subsumption of socially engaged art under the social demand of post-political secular morality. Only when we “stop obeying a superegoic injunction to make ameliorative art,” entreats Bishop, and begin to lean into our desire “without the incapacitating restrictions of guilt,” can the aesthetic encounter reclaim its inherent radicality.

We can ask the question this way: is their space for ambivalence in the praxis of resistance? Unfortunately, it would seem that the once vaunted rallying cry of feminism that the personal is political has today become the mantra of a neoliberal cultural styling in which the political is only personal. Take, for instance, Michael Archer’s, founder of Guernica, April 12th statement following the retraction of Chen’s essay. Archer states that Chen’s narrative failed to “mine the personal to expose the political.” Concluding Archer’s statement, he assuages Guernica’s readership that with the stepping down of Jina Moore, the lead editor who published Chen’s essay, Magogodi oaMphela Makhene, a “writer and social entrepreneur,” would be stepping in as publisher. Makhene’s own brand of activist-as-entrepreneur markets a six-week anti-racism course called Work.Kin.Cure advertised as an “immersive, transformative experience to get clear on your anti-racist purpose” and which bills itself as a “badass cohort of creatives, leaders, & executives.”

It perhaps seems counterintuitive to extol the virtues of ambivalence in a time of acute geopolitical crises and intensifying existential threats to democracy. But, a critical ambivalence may be the way out of the political morass of purity politics and a superegoic superstructure. The social terrain from which these ethical demands contend for our absolution has become the proving ground upon which neoliberal subjectivity legitimizes itself. Ethical enjoyment abounds. We have never been more guilty than we are today.

In the political maelstrom swirling around us—a fractious time of emboldened authoritarianism, political correctness and cancel culture, and the normalization of insurmountable polarization—a radical politics shouldn’t dispense with ambivalence in an attempt to more perfectly belong, or to make everyone else belong. Instead, a radical alternative should seek to grapple with the particularity of ambivalence as the universal position of non-belonging.