Editorial: Ambiguity

Conditions, Potentials, Limits

Although the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic can be described, inspired by Pauline Boss, as trigger for an “ambiguous loss,” [1] a collectively experienced loss that remains unclear and undefined and thus lingers indefinitely, especially in times of crisis simple answers to complex questions seem to be growing in popularity. Instead, in this issue we as the editorial team plead for a “near-sighted, case-study oriented analysis with ambiguity-pragmatic intention,” [2] thereby focusing on the following questions: Are there different stages, degrees, levels [3] or variations of ambiguity, and can they be differentiated terminologically and analytically? Is there a connection between ambiguity and (socio-)political engagement? [4] How can we include ambiguity’s historicity in our conceptual reflections and theoretical discussions? To what extent are the production, perception, transformation, and functions [5] of ambiguity shaped by the occidental Western tradition of thought, and what are the challenging phenomena?

Victim or Perpetrator?

Uncovering the Nuances of Perpetrators in Graphic Narratives


Graphic narratives about genocide allow for different and unique ways of visualizing and imagining trauma and trauma-induced subjective experiences. In their attempt to initiate active reader participation in filling in the gutters with reader-induced closure, graphic narratives are unique as they work with emotion to mobilize their readers to act. This form of narrative also allows creators to expose the liminality of subject positions more easily.

Through an analysis of Deogratias: A Tale of Rwanda and Waltz with Bashir: A Lebanon War Story, this paper demonstrates that the dimensions of perpetratorhood are far from well-defined and that the perpetrator often resides in the ambiguity of what Primo Levi calls the ‘gray zone.’ [6] This zone describes a middle ground between good and evil which draws attention to complications in how perpetrators are judged as well as how victims are represented. Comics scholar Hillary Chute explains that the power of graphic narratives comes from their ability to “intervene against a culture of invisibility” [7] through the ethical portrayal of trauma. [8] This risk is displayed in the graphic novels Deogratias and Waltz with Bashir as they both centralize characters that expose the hidden nuances of perpetratorhood.

How to Get Over “Ambiguity-Intolerant” Approaches to Social Theory?

A Feminist Critique of Adorno’s Theory of Knowledge as Social Theory


This article analyzes Theodor Adorno’s empirical research on the authoritarian personality and its underlying theory of reification, in order to interrogate how Adorno produces a theory of society which can overcome “ambiguity-intolerant” approaches to social theory. It is based on three hypotheses. The first concerns the relationship between method and social diagnosis elaborated in The Authoritarian Personality; here, I focus on Adorno’s search for a method to examine the reification of the individual in late capitalist society without externalizing this reification. Adorno’s specific way of overcoming a positivistic approach towards society brings me to my second hypothesis, wherein I try to understand positivistic approaches to society as “ambiguity-intolerant” ways to understand society. I consider these “ambiguity intolerant” because their two main criteria, namely “axiological neutrality” and “objectivity” do not allow a dialectical and therefore ambiguity-tolerant understanding of society. My third hypothesis is based on the idea that Adorno is not alone in his project of a critique of positivistic approaches: since the 1970s, at least, feminist epistemologies have also sought to critique the positivistic idea of an axiological neutral and objective knowledge of society. I then show how a feminist critique of Adorno can criticize his theory of the knowing subject as not sufficiently precise. Using Sandra Harding’s idea of “new subjects of knowledge,” I demonstrate that a feminist critique of the knowing subject can produce an empirically more vivid knowledge about the reification and corporality of the knowing subject in late capitalism.

“Polimorfi e poligami e un po’ anche polipi.”

Representations of Ambiguous Masculinity in Late 1970s Bologna


Cultural studies are underlining ambiguity and fluidity concepts to grasp how gender narratives have been changing since the upheaval of 1968. Scholars have acknowledged that traditional masculinity has been challenged and remolded as a result of second-wave feminism. However, representations of masculinity have yet to be examined in one of the key moments of postwar Italian culture: the sociopolitical turmoil of the late 1970s. Bologna was the center of the Italian Movement of 1977. Its subcultural scene flourished thanks to the confluence of young creatives at the DAMS University of Bologna, where Umberto Eco taught. The symbolic productions of this scene provide brilliant portrayals of the reshaping of gender becoming ambiguous and fluid. This article examines the literary representations of masculinity in exemplary works by the three most notable authors tied to subcultural Bologna: Andrea Pazienza, Enrico Palandri, and Pier Vittorio Tondelli. My argument is that their narrative constructions of masculinity reveal three remarkably different reactions to second-wave feminism and to the challenging and remolding of gender in the late 1970s. These reactions are a tendency towards resentful and sarcastic rejection of pro-feminist discomfort, an aestheticizing acceptance of melancholic and ambiguous masculinities, and a postmodern turn towards the conception of gender fluidity. Furthermore, displacement, ambiguity and fluidity can be observed in the mixed language and experimental syntax. In doing so, this paper sheds new light on the transition toward postmodern and backlash gender narratives in the subsequent decade.

(Repatriat)Able Bones

Tales of Ambiguity in the Repatriation Nexus


European museums (of ethnography) and the material culture under their custody — a large portion of which was collected by the soldiers, explorers, and professional looters of the colonial era — are increasingly confronted by formerly colonized countries and Indigenous communities demanding the repatriation of their cultural patrimony. In this context, more and more ancestral human remains become the protagonists of their descendants’ concerted efforts to bring them back home and offer them a reburial. Recognized as having been brought to Europe and its museums primarily as specimens for the racial theories that scientifically abetted the colonial agendas of power and control, these bones now find themselves at the center of the contemporary scenario of Europe’s — delayed — reckoning with its colonial past. From an anthropological point of view, the current potential for repatriation to their native lands (and their capacity to acquire a ‘repatriatable’ status) should not be pinned down to singular meanings. Indeed, from their long museum sojourns and their unfolding repatriation adventures to their troubling stories of colonial acquisition, the reclaimed remains seem to condense diverse temporalities. Analytically speaking, this paper suggests that the bones’ ‘repatriatable status’ does not entail their entrapment within a discursive system of binary oppositions, but their emergence as social persons that could be paralleled to other classical person-like ‘things’ in anthropology: the art objects of Alfred Gell, or the Maussian gift. Through such a theorization, the repatriatable remains are empowered to teach us that the social dramas around their potential return are not necessarily about the infliction of closure, but the activation of incessant cycles of reciprocity. Repatriation then, can be narrated otherwise: not as a story of resolution, but as one of irreducible ambiguity.

A_Sociality as a Model Figure of Ambiguity


Ambiguity has been the guiding motive of my queer theoretical considerations from the very beginning. Early on I propose to characterize queer politics through strategies of undisambiguation or equivocation (VerUneindeutigung) rather than diversification or abolishment of heteronormative sexual difference (Engel 2002). In the essay I will reconstruct the different epistemological steps from undisambiguation through queer politics of paradox to what I call today ‘queerness as lived ambiguity’. I will explicate how the notion of ambiguity fulfills a double function in queer theory, namely underlining ambiguity’s livability (multidimensional identities are neither stable nor coherent) and explaining its political potential (overcoming clear-cut borders and simplified antagonisms). In the main part of the essay I will focus on a_sociality as figure of ambiguity, arguing that queerness as lived ambiguity goes along with an understanding of relationality and kinship defined by a continuum or simultaneity of sociality, anti-sociality, and asociality, named a_sociality. My thesis is that in avowing the ambiguity of a_sociality it becomes possible to move towards forms of cohabitation under conditions of social and global heterogeneity. However, a_sociality is defined not only by ambiguity but also by ambivalence. It is from this proximate though distinct relation that politics evolve. What Judith Butler (2020) discusses as an ethical attitude of ‘aggressive nonviolence’ turns out to be an ambiguous term that fosters decisions that simultaneously acknowledge and overcome ambivalence.


The Divine as Non-Binary

The Ambiguous Transpoetics of Three Trans, Genderfluid and Genderqueer Figures from Hindu Mythology


This trilogy of poems presents a trans-positive perspective on the characters of Shiva, Vishnu and Shikhandi, all figures of import in Hinduism. The first poem focuses on the half-male, half-female form of Shiva, Ardhanarishwara; the second focuses on Vishnu’s female incarnation, Mohini; and the third focuses on Shikhandi, the warrior princess-turned-prince who was a key figure in the defeat of the Kauravas in the Mahabharata. Accompanying these poems is an exegetical essay offering an analysis of the divine as non-binary in Hinduism in general, as well as providing a critical framework for the poems themselves. In summation, this _Perspective combines queer theory with applied transpoetics and Hindu mythology to offer a unique glimpse into gender alterity in Hinduism through a combination of critical and creative practice.

(Re-)Negotiating Ambiguity’s (Added) Value(lessness)


What would an issue on ambiguity be without countering the affirmative calls for a concept that established itself as an aesthetic paradigm and thus as a norm in art discourse as early as around 1800? To answer this, this multi-voiced _Perspective is dedicated not only to the potentials (added value) but also to the limits (valuelessness) of ambiguity as an analytical tool. David J. Getsy, who works at the intersection of art history, queer studies, and transgender studies, initially delivered his* reservations about ambiguity at the Symposium Ambiguity Forum, held at the Renaissance Society, University of Chicago, on 14 January 2017. In the sense of a deconstructive (re-)reading practice, 12 contributors from various disciplinary backgrounds accepted the invitation to respond to Getsy’s critique of the concept of ambiguity with a short comment. In the current _Perspective, Getsy has the last word by responding to the forum with a closing comment at the end. What emerges through this experimental-discursive format is, on the one hand, a structurally ambiguous discussion room in which the reader is invited to search for possible contradictions and ambiguous relations of tension between the individual comments and to evaluate them as a contribution to the issues topic. On the other hand, this contribution is above all an invitation to add more views to this open discussion, for example by writing a _Perspective in reaction to one of the comments.