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Below is an essay that is decidedly an essay—that is, an attempt. This is more tentative that I’m usually wont to share. But some of the ideas herein are, I think, resistant to fixedness. And I want to use this space to try things out, to let things unfold piece by piece. As always, thanks for reading.
The subtitle to Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed is An Ambiguous Utopia. The book won both the Hugo and Nebula awards when it was published, but was also widely criticized for being too didactic or too political or both. I’ve often heard people decry that the politics get in the way of the novel, which is a bit like criticizing the leaves of a tree for being in the way of its branches. In a collection of essays about the book, Le Guin responds to some of that criticism:
I read everything as novels, including history, memoir, and the newspaper—I think J. L. Borges is quite correct, all prose is fiction. So when I came to write a utopia, of course I wrote a novel.
I wasn’t surprised when it was treated as a treatise, but I wondered if the people who read it as a treatise ever wondered why I had written it as a novel. Were they as indifferent as they seemed to be to what made it a novel—the inherent contradictions of novelistic narrative that prevent simplistic, single-theme interpretation, the novelistic “thickness of description” (Geertz’s term) that resists reduction to abstracts and binaries, the embodiment of ethical dilemma in a drama of character that evades allegorical interpretation, the presence of symbolic elements that are not fully accessible to rational thought?
To Le Guin’s habit of reading everything as novels, I would add most of the plans and documents and roadmaps written in the workplace. (Seriously, try it: go read whichever work document is most close at hand as a drama of character and see what it tells you.) I’ve often talked about my own work as one in which I optimize for clarity, which means prioritizing communication that is coherent and comprehensible, or—as in Le Guin’s rendition of Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching—a message that “reflects without blurring.” But clarity and ambiguity are not precise opposites: something can be clear and ambiguous (as in a clear day when a dark storm hovers in the distance) or opaque but unambiguous (as in a ship run aground in a fog).
Ambiguity is often used to mean uncertainty or confusion, but I think of those more as accoutrements to ambiguity, which likes to adorn itself with lots of other untidy challenges. Ambiguity itself is the state of being open to multiple interpretations. Its Latin root, ambi-, means “both ways.” It arises often when a choice has been prevented or deferred, and two paths open up before you, each of them legitimate, each of them branching off in dozens of other ways. In this manner, ambiguity can create uncertainty, but the uncertainty is a response, a reaction. A reply.
In the opening paragraphs of The Dispossessed, Le Guin describes the wall that surrounds the port of Anarres:
There was a wall. It did not look important. It was built of uncut rocks roughly mortared. An adult could look right over it, and even a child could climb it. Where it crossed the roadway, instead of having a gate it degenerated into mere geometry, a line, an idea of a boundary. But the idea was real. It was important. For seven generations there had been nothing more important than that wall.
Like all walls, it was ambiguous, two-faced. What was inside it and what was outside it depended upon which side of it you were on.
Notice the layers of ambiguity she threads in even this short passage: the wall doesn’t look important, but there’s nothing more important than the wall. The wall exists, even in places where there is no wall to see.
“Leading through ambiguity” has been a hot topic in management circles for ages, but it’s been hotter in the last two years, in which uncertainty and doubt seem to have maneuvered themselves into all kinds of cracks and crevices where we thought they couldn’t fit. But like many hot management topics, it expends a lot of energy burning up instead of seeding the ground. Most of the advice for how to deal with ambiguity is fine enough: stay calm, communicate clearly and transparently, plan out multiple scenarios. Looked at from one angle, these are good, useful tactics. Looked at from another, and they are imbued with presumptions of meritocracy and individualism that I worry cut short our potential for learning from each other.
The burden of managing ambiguity is heavier for some people than for others, and not because they lack experience. The ability to lead through ambiguity is as much an attribute as it is a skill, a reflection of how much privilege someone carries with them to the workplace. It’s a lot easier to make a decision with imperfect information if you have your class, race, or gender to buffer you from the worst outcomes of that decision turning out to be wrong. In this way, the question “How can this person lead through ambiguity?” is a less interesting or instructive one than, “What does this person need to be safe from harm?”
The second perspective that is often lost in the fog is that ambiguity typically arises from the intersections between people—it is rarely a solitary condition. I see the wall my way. You see it yours. The ambiguity arises when we try to resolve or align those different perspectives. But much of the conventional advice about managing ambiguity focuses on what one person can do alone—not on how people can come together to explore or investigate their different perspectives. Naked individualism—that is, the ideology that places the individual always and forever above their community rather than within it—invites us to challenge ambiguity by declaiming our own perspective, instead of listening closely to others. This turns a state of ambiguity into conflict, likely to be resolved along the existing lines of power. But in that way, the ambiguity isn’t addressed so much as it is masked or obfuscated. The ambiguity—like the wall—is still there, even after everyone looks away.
I suspect some of the ire that comes in for Le Guin’s subtitle is a result of the fact that it’s a tautology: every utopia is ambiguous, just as every dystopia is. Ambiguity is the ordinary course of affairs. If you find yourself at a juncture where once you felt circumstances were unambiguous and now they are no longer, likely what’s changed is you, not the circumstances. This is why Shevek, the protagonist in The Dispossessed, crosses the wall: he needs to complicate the views of people on both sides, to make the ambiguity present and real. His transgression serves as the physical embodiment of that ambiguity: the relationships he builds, the interactions he has, are designed to make it impossible to ignore.
Le Guin had a lifelong relationship with the Tao Te Ching, in which ambiguity at times emerges as yin and yang—as a dynamic, and inescapable, kind of counterpoint. In this way, ambiguity isn’t so much a problem to be solved as it is a state of being, a fact of the universe. Chapter 2 of Le Guin’s rendition of the Tao reads, in part:
For being and nonbeing
hard and easy
complete each other;
long and short
shape each other;
high and low
depend on each other;
note and voice
make the music together;
before and after
follow each other.
That’s why the wise soul
does without doing,
teaches without talking.
The things of this world
exist, they are;
you can’t refuse them.
To bear and not to own;
to act and not lay claim;
to do the work and let it go;
for just letting it go
is what makes it stay.
In her notes, Le Guin remarks:
One of the things I read in this chapter is that values and beliefs are not only culturally constructed but also part of the interplay of yin and yang, the great reversals that maintain the living balance of the world. To believe that our beliefs are permanent truths which encompass reality is a sad arrogance. To let go of that belief is to find safety.
I want to consider that we borrow some lessons from Le Guin and Shevek and look at ambiguity not merely as something to manage or navigate through, but as something to hold. Something to make space for. I think the usual advice for leading through ambiguity is well and fine, but often it feels insufficient. It’s grand to solve the problem of ambiguity by stating plainly which perspective on hand is the one we’re going with, to provide clear direction even when we don’t all see the territory the same way. But sometimes, I think, that quick decision—that easy dismissal—cuts us off from learning things about each other, and the work, that would benefit both.
What would it mean to spend time describing the various perspectives that give rise to ambiguity, and not with the goal of choosing one or eliminating another, but simply to learn? What would it mean to resist the urge to close ambiguity off, to see it not as an inefficiency or a problem to be solved, but as something generative, a door that could be opened, a wall that could be crossed? What would it look like to react to ambiguity not with fear or frustration but enthusiasm or eagerness?
I don’t know. Here I think also of adrienne maree brown’s principles of emergent strategy, which in addition to embracing change (“change is constant”) also counsel us to “move at the speed of trust.” From this I take that if you want to work with someone—if you want to make something with them, or solve problems together, or design a process in which you both contribute—you have to prioritize the trust between the two of you over and beyond the strategies or tactics for the work. With trust, the tactics can change and adapt as needed; without it, nothing you try is likely to work for long.
This is where, if I had a conclusion, I would share it. But I have only suggestions, intimations, wonders. We keep trying to manage ambiguity, and it keeps proving itself unmanageable, ungovernable. I’m coming around to thinking that ambiguity, like change, is a constant companion. And maybe instead of manipulating or avoiding it, we need to listen to what it has to say.
Samuel Delaney’s Babel-17 concerns a language that, when learned, fully changes the speaker’s perspective. (I suppose that’s a metaphor for ambiguity, too.) It took me two reads through to sort out what Delaney was doing, and I suspect I still haven’t grasped it all, but I goddamned loved it.
Laziness Does Not Exist by Devon Price is breezy polemic about productivity culture that brings together a lot of threads—that your worth is not tied to your productivity, that your body knows how much work you are capable of, and that however much you are doing, it is enough.
David Graeber and David Wengrow’s The Dawn of Everything is huge and daring in its scope, but the writing is accessible and their conclusions are mind-bending and—unexpectedly—hopeful. I suspect Le Guin would have found a lot to like here. Highly recommended.
I’ve been reading more poetry lately (which, now I think of it, is one way to hold space for ambiguity), and I loved Tishani Doshi’s Girls Are Coming Out of the Woods, Jake Skeets’s Eyes Bottle Dark with a Mouthful of Flowers, and Elise Paschen’s The Nightlife.
Louse Erdrich’s The Sentence is a love story, a ghost story, and the tale of a city through a pandemic and an uprising. I suspect it will prove to be a better history of 2020 than most history books.
Postscript: About The Dispossessed, Le Guin also wrote that she conceived it
not as an exposition of ideas but as an embodiment of idea—a revolutionary artifact, a work containing a potential permanent source of renewal of thought and perception….
(Emphasis mine.) The most revolutionary ideas resist explanation—they have to be lived to be understood.