Overview & Origins

Ambivalence is the state of having simultaneous, conflicting feelings towards a person or a thing. When one experiences this uncertainty or indecisiveness concerning something, especially when a decision must be made, discomfort typically ensues, because the individual attempts to suspend both sentiments in the mind at same time. This psychologically unpleasant sensation can often lead to avoidance.

Freud describes ambivalence as the resulting affect when some one encounters a taboo; the desire to go against/violate social norms. The most common example lies, of course, in the myth of Oedipus, who both loves and hates his father, as a result of desiring his mother. In his study on neurosis, Freud discovered that character traits could be categorized into opposing tendencies; “there is no neurosis without conflict between contradictory and opposed wishes. One side of the personality stands for certain wishes, the other stands for opposed wishes.” (Freud, 68). Ambivalence also underlies his concept on the death instinct (the cornerstone of psychoanalytic theory), which steams from the tension between Eros (desire) and Thanatos (death wish).

Similarly, cognitive dissonance is a discomfort caused by holding conflicting ideas, rather than feelings, simultaneously.

Mapping of Taboo as Cultural and Disciplinary Boundary

At the outset of Chapter 7 of Location of Culture, “Articulating the Archaic: Cultural Difference and Cultural Nonsense,” Homi Bhabha pronounces that there is a “conspiracy of silence around the colonial truth, whatever that might be” (Bhabha, 123).
Silence, for Bhabha, signifies an “enunciatory disorder,” which “turns imperial triumphalism into the testimony of colonial confusion and those who hear its echo lose their historic memories” (Bhabha, 123).

Through a partial retelling of the fated journey to the Marabar Caves in E.M. Forster’s Passage to India, Bhabha examines how the echo--the ouboum, or what Conrad calls the owl’s deathcall, ya-acabo, in the Heart of Darkness--greatly unhinges Adela Quested, a young British schoolmistress, and her elderly companion, Mrs. Moore, who are invited on an outing to the rarely visited caves by Dr. Azziz, a young Indian Muslim physician.

In the first cave, Mrs. Moore immediately feels overwhelmed by claustrophobia, the number of people and the disturbing echo. When she exits panting and exhausted, she delivers the following lines, which indicate a lose of faith in humanity: “Godbole never mentioned the echo...I suppose, like many old people, I sometimes think, we are merely passing figures in a Godless universe.”

What happened in the caves? One will never know. The caves figuratively occupy that aporetic space of taboo, between the real and the imagined, and survives as an untranslatable cultural impasse, a kernal of nonsense, and/or an unspeakable horror evidenced in both Adela’s confused, admittedly ambivalent testimony of the supposed sexual assault and Azziz’s inconclusive lack of detail.

The scene allegorically illustrates what Bhabha identifies as the “inscriptions of an uncertain colonial silence that mocks the social performance of language with their non-sense; that baffles the communicable verities of culture with their refusal to translate” (Bhabha, 126).

The caves, and by extension their resonant ouboum, thus represent the enunciation of the “uncanny colonial present,” devoid of culturally assimilable words, and cultural pluralism. The ouboum articulates nonsense, creating “an anxious contradictory place between the human and the not-human, between sense and nonsense, between being and meaning, and subject and object”, (Bhabha, 128) and attempting to displace the normative dualities of nature/culture, order/chaos, and civilized/primitive.

The ambivalence the caves engender are resonant with Derrida’s concept of entre: “It is neither desire or pleasure, but between the two. Neither present nor future, but between the two...It is an operation that both sows confusion between opposites, and stands between opposites ‘at once.’” (Bhabha, 127).

Within this limnal, enunciatory space of intellectual uncertainty and anxiety, disavowel (the denial of knowledge), rather than repression (the repelling of desire or memory) associated with the uncanny, emerges, instigating psychic and discursive “splitting.” Splitting Bhabha contends is a strategy for articulating ambivalence, or more precisely cognitive dissonance. As he further explains:

Splitting constitutes an intricate strategy of defense and differentiation in the colonial discourse. Two contradictory and independent attitudes inhabit the same place (one takes into account reality, the other is under the influence of instincts which detach the ego from reality)...this results in the production of multiple and contradictory beliefs (Bhabha, 132).
The iconic Moses’/Winners’ bridge scandal invokes a parallel disavowel, which ultimately contributes to an uncertain intellectual discourse within the discipline of STS.

Like Bhabha’s conclusions regarding the colonial signifier as the “awkward, ambivalent unwelcome truth of the empire’s lie,” the outcome of Winners‘ claim in “Do Artifacts Have Politics?” that bridges built by Moses in Long Island are an example of a technology which possesses “political qualities” stands for a assemblage of knowledge in STS.

In both the article, and subsequent lectures in class where he mapped out the much revered case study, he suggests that Mose designed the bridges for consciously or unconsciously designed for a “particular social effect”:

Poor people and blacks, who normally used public transit, were kept off the roads because the twelve-foot tall buses could not get through the overpasses. One consequence was to limit access to Jones Beach, Mose’s widely acclaimed public park.
Thus, the exasperated remark by Jane, a resident of New York, who calls the material basis of Winners argument into question: “That’s a crock of shit...I ride the buses up and down the parkways all the time,” destabilizes the critical discourse of technological determinism upon which STS rests. In doing so, she also renders the false “horizon of holism towards which cultural authority (riddled with justification and explanation) aspires,” as Bhabha reminds, visible. In the same way that the ouboum in the Marabar caves shrouds veracity by turning the “dialectical ‘between’ of culture’s disciplinary structure into something closer to Derrida’s ‘entre,’ and thereby “sow[ing] confusion between opposites, and stands between opposites ‘at once,” the iterative interrogations by Joerges and others becomes an act of ambivalent signification.

Just as Azziz’s innocence is left ambiguous at the end of Passage to India, so, too, is Winners’ scholarship, and by extension the foundational premise of STS.

Purpose & Staying Power of Urban Legends

But why had no one in STS bothered to question this absurd assumption about the height of the bridges before? Was there a “conspiracy of silence” around the disciplinary truth, similar to the “horror” of colonial truth espoused by Bhabha? Or was the persistence of the myth necessary to reify the dominating belief systems that shaped the field of inquiry in STS?

In Woolgar and Coopers’ structuralist interrogation of Moses’/Winners’ bridges, “Do Artefacts Have Ambivalence?” the authors suggest that the case study functions as an urban legend whose definitive resolution (the supposedly crucial part of the story) “is always just tantalizingly out of reach” (Woolgar, 438).

For Woolgar and Coopers, the “story” of Moses’ bridges provides a “single iconic visual motif to stand for a whole thematic strand of issues within STS,” and therefore, holds not only considerable explanatory power, but also “performs a community of readers” (Woolgar, 439).

They suggest that the best way to comprehend the importance of the bridges, and its endurance despite counterfactual evidence, within the field is by looking at the iterable configurations of actions and interpretations performed by the text against the backdrop of the four part structure common to urban legends. The narrative arc consists of:

1. Specifying an occurrence of a boundary violation.
2. Revealing the contamination, pollution, illness, guilt or embarrassment which is contingent upon the boundary violation.
3. Articulating the role of delayed realization in causing contamination (guilt) when it is least expected. Typically, the horror of eventual realization is premised on erroneous optimism.
4. Making the point that self-replication (further spread/contamination) can occur before the condition is detected.

Like the contested site of the Marabar caves, the bridges become a metaphorical boundary that the author violates through the act of misrepresenting the material basis for the argument, thereby inducing a delayed ambivalence within the community of readers.

Winners’ bridges, as an urban legend, also operates on another level as a moral tale about the dire consequences of disciplinary transgression.

Rather than submit to a resolution of the matter, however, Woolgar and Coopers’ propose that “it is more productive to recognize that there are always further possible auxillary theories that, if given sufficient investment, can undermine the emerging consensus... [and] that the story is itself a dynamic, shifting and essentially inconcludeable narrative” (Woolgar, 437).

They conclude that objects possess ambivalent status due to the multiple “competing discourses in tension” (Woolgar, 443) that resist sedimentation, and that Woolgar and Coopers’ bridges will continue to isomorph and propagate an echoing ouboum.


Mrs. Moore scene Passage to India:

Related Terms

Cognitive Dissonance
Urban legend


Bhabha, Homi. Location of Culture. “Articulating the Archaic: Cultural difference and colonial nonsense.”
Forster, E.M. Passage to India.
Freud, Lucian. Totem and Taboo. “Taboo and the Ambivalence of Emotions.”
Webster’s New World Collegiate Dictionary, 3rd Edition.
Woolgar, Steve and Geoff Cooper. “Do Artefacts Have Ambivalence? Moses’ Bridges, Winner’s Bridges and other Urban Legends in S&TS.”