Punchinello or ‘on ambiguity’.

Renzo Carli


The relationship with emotionally symbolized “objects” underlying our relation with reality has connotations of ambiguity: a difficult daily mixture of emotions that lead us to experience the other as friend and at the same time as foe; as strong and at the same time weak;  as belonging within us, and at the same time as extraneous, outside us. We could go on and on. 
Ambiguity, or rather what emotionally corresponds to what we call ambiguity, is the original mode in which the mind’s unconscious mode experiences the relationship. Friend and foe, outside and inside, powerful and weak, present and absent are, after all, descriptive categories that help us to talk, albeit in an approximate way, about emotional events that we are “forced” to communicate, even in this paper, through language. They are definitions, already organized and emotionally oriented, of what is experienced in the “logic of the emotions”, far removed from the logic that organizes language and gives it intention. The original ambiguity can induce anxiety; it justifies the propensity to “dissolve”, in one way or another, the ambiguous and therefore emotionally non-defined relationship with objects. Emotional acting out serves the purpose: when emotions are acted out, the object to which the acting out is addressed univocally becomes “friend” or “foe”, if the original ambivalence concerns this primitive symbolization pattern.  The dissolving of the ambiguity and the emotional acting out are temporally synchronic: there is no dissolution of ambiguity without emotional acting out; emotional acting out always entails a dissolution of ambiguity inherent to the symbolization of the object to which the acting out is addressed. If however the emotionally ambiguous symbolization is “thought”, then it is possible to elaborate an original ambiguity, and see its motivations, unravel its contradictions, construct a “dividing” idea which creates links between the various aspects of the originally ambiguous object.
Accordingly, it can be said that the mind’s unconscious mode is manifested through emotional ambiguity, in the sense of an indefinite, contradictory emotional configuration of the objects one relates to. It is acting out, on the one hand, and on the other the thought that organizes and preludes to action, which lead to the emotional definition of objects and therefore to an organized relationship with them. It should also be remembered that original ambiguity is a resource for our knowledge of the object reality,  for a non-stereotyped adaptation that can relate to the ambiguous, and thus extraneous, object. Dissolving the ambiguity means transforming the object into an emotionally defined interlocutor, but at the cost of losing the possibility of exchanging with the extraneous. Dissolving the ambiguity means transforming the extraneous into an object that can be possessed, so there is a shift from exchange to possession.
Tolerating the original ambiguity, associated with the objects of the relationship, is difficult. It entails the non-resolution of the object’s emotional indefiniteness, it therefore entails the capacity to establish relations with objects that have no definite configuration, from the emotional point of view, as “good” or “bad”, as “friend” or “foe”. The ritual components of cultures can be seen as ways of dissolving ambiguity in a reassuring style, channelled into common forms of relation, such as the ‘friend’ relationship. The difficulty of tolerating ambiguity is well-known in the psychoanalytically oriented psychotherapy relationship, where the analyst’s silence may be hard to accept for the patient who right from the outset of the relationship wants to place the psychotherapist in the friend-foe pattern. The eroticization of the relationship, for example, can be a way of emotionally dissolving the ambiguity of the object in psychotherapy.  In an interpretation using the categories under study, psychotherapy can be seen as the story of the different ways of dissolving ambiguity, acted out in the analytical relationship. But also the daily experience of each of us in relating socially can be read through the categorization of the various ways of dissolving ambiguity encountered in our usual relationships. The rules of the game in relationships, the social roles, the configurations of power in relationships, the categories of knowledge of the other, are all modes designed to dissolve emotional ambiguity in a reasonably stable way, inevitable in any experience of relating. If for instance, ambiguity is dissolved with a friend-foe type reading, then one can relate to the extraneous other, source of ambiguity, using modalities of attack-flight, of dependency or of coupling, to use the Bion’s basic assumptions model. If on the other hand one tolerates the original ambiguity of the other, one can go through an experience of exchange where the dissolution of ambiguity will gradually become the outcome elaborated in the exchange itself. Think for instance of the ambiguous relationship with food in a country extraneous to us, like India. There are people who dissolve the ambiguity towards unknown food with a simple, repetitive category: spicy means foe. Hence the search for food that is “not spicy” in the homeland of spices. Hence also the impossibility of knowing a complex and variegated culinary universe, with the sole objective of avoiding an aspect of estrangement  (the use of spices, the flavour of spices) symbolized as foe. These processes of drastic and pragmatically violent reduction of ambiguity, on the other hand, are present in the daily experience of social relations in all cultures; so much so, that it makes the acceptance of ambiguity, the tolerance of it in a relationship, seem utopian.

In this article I want to explore the figure of Punchinello drawn by Domenico Tiepolo, as the artistic expression of ambiguity which characterizes the mind’s unconscious mode of being. 
I think Domenico Tiepolo’s Punchinello figures are in fact emotionally undefined “objects”, capable of representing the ambiguity, the emotional indefiniteness typical of the unconscious. I also think that many works of art can be seen as attempts to give emotional ambiguity a clear and explicit emotional dissolution; many others, instead, can represent the expression of ambiguity which has the effect in the viewer of suspending the participation in the emotional dichotomies of friend-foe, in-out, above-below, front-back, i.e. in the emotional dichotomies behind the most primitive dissolutions of ambiguity. Examples of the first function attributed to art can be found in works of religious divulgation, such as the frescoes on the walls of the cathedral of San Geminiano conceived to spread the knowledge of the new and old testaments to the faithful. But also the “didactic” and predicatory works of a certain type of contemporary art: just to take one example, garbage put up as an object to contemplate and meditate on.  Examples of the second function are found in artworks that do not provide an explicit or implicit emotional resolution, such as abstract art at its best, as in a Kandinskij and a Mondrian, in Malevich’s suprematism, but also in Arman’s nouveau réalisme with his assemblages of broken violins, paintbrushes, clocks or tubes of paint. This is the Arman dear to Umberto Eco, who says that he “transforms the monody of the identical into the symphony of the heterogeneous”.

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Rivista di Psicologia Clinica. Teoria e metodi dell'intervento

Rivista Telematica a Carattere Scientifico Registrazione presso il Tribunale civile di Roma (n.149/2006 del 17/03/2006)

ISSN 1828-9363