So far we have been exploring those aspects of Tomkins’s writing that address the affect system in general (in relation to the drives, to the face, to evolution, and to freedom). In this chapter and the next, we turn to his exploration of the individual affects. Much of the interest and enjoyment we take in reading AIC comes from Tomkins’s persuasive descriptions of specific feelings and our at times startling encounters with ourselves and others in these psychodynamic accounts. The rapid movement in his writing between fine-grained phenomenology (a kind of close reading) and bold theoretical generalization leads to the unusual sense of a loosely integrated, systemic understanding of subjectivity: dynamic, complex, open, but nevertheless coherent.
This is not to say that Tomkins is always convincing. In these chapters, we leave aside contentious questions concerning the existence, specification, and proper naming of the affects, debates ongoing today as they were in the early 1960s. We also leave aside substantive discussion of Tomkins’s model of innate activation, which proposes that the affects are activated by different gradients of the “density of neural firing” over time (1:251). This model has not, to our knowledge, been empirically tested. Indeed, given Tomkins’s refusal to speculate about brain localization (where would such neural firing take place, exactly?), it is not clear how such a test could be devised. But whatever its empirical status, this model is good to think with. “The general advantage of affective arousal to such a broad spectrum of levels and changes of level of neural firing is to make the individual care about quite different states of affairs in different ways” (1:252): because an affect can be activated by any “state of affairs” that matches its activation profile (for example, startle by any sufficiently steep positive gradient, internal or external, whether a gunshot, a tap on the shoulder, or a new idea), affective qualities play constitutive roles in an enormous variety of psychic experience. We consider some such model, at once specific and general, particularizing and abstracting, to be necessary for developing an adequate understanding of affect.
The first affect to which Tomkins turns, and the one he considers to be the “most seriously neglected” (1:337), is interest-excitement. Interest does not appear in most catalogs of emotion. It is absent, for example, from Darwin’s study, a fact that Tomkins explains this way: Darwin “misidentified the affect [of interest-excitement] with the function of thinking” (1:337–38). Because of the phenomenon of psychic fusion (see chapter 2), it can be difficult to distinguish interest from the experiences that it often accompanies and amplifies, including perception and thinking, but also sexual arousal, surprise, and the orientation reflexes. Locating interest-excitement in, but also distinguishing it from, these other experiences lets Tomkins focus on its specifically positive quality, that is, its capacity to motivate. It is because interest-excitement is so rewarding that it can play many roles for the human being: as “a support of the necessary and the possible” (1:342), as “a necessary condition for the formation of the perceptual world” (1:347) and in creative experiences of all kinds, and as a crucial element in what Tomkins will call commitment scripts. We will briefly discuss each of these roles for interest.
First, it may be helpful to consider how Tomkins distinguishes interest-excitement (and its characteristic facial expression: eyebrows down, track, look, listen) from surprise-startle (eyebrows up, mouth open, eye blink). He calls surprise “the resetting affect” and describes it as neutral or somewhat negative in quality, depending on its intensity. For Tomkins, “the salient characteristic of the startle mechanism—its capacity for interruption of any ongoing activity” (1:499), gives it the role of “a circuit breaker”: “This mechanism is similar in design and function to that in a radio or television network which enables special announcements to interrupt any ongoing program” (1:498). Surprise-startle has the function of clearing the central assembly to prepare for a subsequent central assembly that takes into account the information that activated the surprise response in the first place (for more on the central assembly, see chapter 12). By contrast, the function of interest-excitement, which is activated by “optimal rates of increase of stimulation density” (1:341) (a positive gradient that is not as steep as either surprise or fear), is “to ‘interest’ the human being in what is necessary and what is possible for him to be interested in” (1:342). While surprise breaks existing circuits, interest extends them, creates new connections, and expands our experiential networks.
To clarify this point, Tomkins considers the consequences of the utter absence of interest in, say, a depressive who is unable to motivate himself or herself to get out of bed or a domesticated cat who, “once it has thoroughly explored its environment . . . loses its characteristic curiosity and spends much of its adult life sleeping” (1:343). Interest motivates wakefulness, perception, and cognition to the point that “absence of the affective support of interest would jeopardize intellectual development no less than destruction of brain tissue” (1:343). Because of its crucial role in a variety of “sub-systems—the drives, perceptual, cognitive, and motoric apparatuses, as well as their organization into central assemblies, and governing Images” (1:344), interest-excitement supports both what is necessary for existence (the development of motor skills necessary for eating, say) and what is possible (learning to ride a bicycle or create new forms of warfare). And just as intense excitement can produce insomnia, so can this rewarding affect have destructive consequences: “The realm of the possible is equally the realm of the wonderful, the trivial, the distressing and the terrifying. Excitement enables an enrichment of life in ways which may or may not enhance what is necessary for existence. In the extremity, the quest for excitement may destroy the individual” (1:345).
Because excitement is the only positive affective response to novelty (surprise and fear, also responses to novelty, are not positive), it plays a key role in perception and creativity. “All animals are much more creative than they are credited” (1:353), suggests Tomkins, whose broad understanding of “creative perception, thought, and action” (1:353) includes sexual exploration, intellectual activity, and learning ability. Early in human development, interest-excitement plays a key role in motivating the many forms of acquaintance (perceptual, conceptual, motor, and memory) necessary for the infant to achieve basic competence with whole objects (1:348–49). Acknowledging that not everyone pursues sustained creative activities after childhood, Tomkins discusses the affective conditions both for “the deceleration of creativity as the adult develops” (1:353–54) and for the development of what he calls “an addiction to thinking” (1:357) and “an inner life” (1:358). This latter topic was of special interest to Tomkins, who consistently illustrates his theoretical writing with case studies of exemplary thinkers, writers, artists, performers, and activists. For example, his paper “The Psychology of Commitment” examines four nineteenth-century abolitionist reformers and their dedication to the antislavery movement in the United States to argue both for the predominant role of interest-excitement in what he terms commitment scripts and for the crucial role of alternating positive and negative affects and the place of violence and suffering in reforming democratic societies. In his chapter on excitement in AIC, his primary example of a commitment script is Freud. Here, once again, Tomkins emphasizes the role of both negative and positive affects in the development of “radical intellectual creativity,” listing various “ingredients” in what amounts to an unfollowable recipe for the making of a personality such as Freud’s.
“I am, above all, what excites me” (1:347): according to Tomkins, excitement is the affect most implicated in the many different kinds of personalities and senses of self. Enjoyment-joy, on the other hand, contributes most fundamentally to recognition of others and the social bond. While distinct, these positive affects necessarily enter into complex reciprocal relation. Consider, for example, that at the same time that interest-excitement, as a response to novelty, motivates the infant’s exploration of objects in its world, enjoyment-joy helps the infant experience these objects as familiar by “providing some containment” (1:488) for perception. “A familiar object is not only recognized but it is kept in awareness longer” (1:489): enjoyment motivates the return to an object that is now both exciting and enjoyable. At later stages of development, such reciprocal interaction between the positive affects can create what Tomkins calls addictions (1:493–97). His writings on addiction and commitment, in the first volume of AIC and elsewhere, are precursors to the more general idea of script theory that Tomkins develops in the 1970s (see chapter 9).
While much psychological literature argues that the smile response is innately released by the sight of the human face, Tomkins argues that the smile (the characteristic facial expression of enjoyment-joy) is “innately activated by any relatively steep reduction of the density of stimulation of neural firing” (1:371). The smile of enjoyment, or its more intense form, the laugh, may be activated by a variety of steep reductions, for example, of other affects: a sudden reduction of distress or fear may produce the smile of relief, a sudden reduction of anger may produce the laugh of triumph, a sudden reduction of excitement the smile of recognition. (Characteristically, for Tomkins, relief, triumph, and recognition are distinct emotions that share the affect of enjoyment-joy at their core.) As we have shown (see chapter 3), Tomkins does not reject an evolutionary perspective but offers a larger, more systemic, and less strictly adaptationist framework in which to account for the smile’s significance: “Man is one of those animals whose individual survival and group reproduction rests heavily on social responsiveness and the mutual enjoyment of each other’s presence is one of the most important ways in which social interaction is rewarded and perpetuated” (1:399). In his analysis, the rewards of enjoyment-joy are mutual and resemble those of sexual intercourse; unlike sex, however, enjoyment “operates at a distance rather than requiring body contact” (1:397). Falling in love, as Tomkins points out, is often accompanied by powerfully mutual experiences of staring and smiling, a felicité a deux that evokes the mother–infant dyad.
This dyad serves as a template for later social communion. Building on Harry Harlow’s famous rhesus monkey experiments (in which baby monkeys prefer to cling to a surrogate mother covered with terry cloth, even when they had the option of a wire and wood surrogate that provided food), Tomkins suggests that, for humans, smiling replaces clinging as the primary bond between infant and mother. While he does not underestimate the role of bodily contact in infancy (“The body of the mother, of course, becomes the focus of a complex affect and drive matrix” [1:406]), he proposes that it is the distance permitted by the smile response that radically expands the capacities for human communion. Here Tomkins demonstrates both his indebtedness to classical psychoanalytic thinking and a strong need to find less reductive ways to express its major insights. “The equation of oral interests with every type of human dependence and interdependence has masked the critical role both of the face and of the distance receptors in human communion” (1:407), suggests Tomkins, who offers distinctly non-Freudian understandings of development. For example, rather than the drama of sexual development and progression through (oral, anal, and genital) stages, Tomkins proposes that “if early modes of communion are enjoyed side by side with later modes, we regard this as the true normal development. We do not regard these early modes either as exclusively infantile nor perverse” (1:418). Here is one of Tomkins’s more explicit critiques of Freudianism: “Implicit in his theory is a hidden value judgment that early communion is helpless, dependent, greedy and blind to the separateness of the love object, and as such to be transcended in development and to be perverse if it is not” (1:421).
What emerges most clearly in these pages on enjoyment-joy is Tomkins’s refusal to pathologize communion and dependency. He offers a broad appreciation of communion at a historical moment in postwar America when this idea was most often perceived as a threat to individual autonomy in terms of a dangerous absorption into ideological, familial, or maternal groups (Communism, McCarthyism, groupthink, the organization man, momism, and so on). His formal technique for depathologizing the enjoyment of communion is the written list. Hosts of examples are adduced under headings like “Types of Mutual Shared Enjoyments,” “Types of Complementary Enjoyments,” “Types of Mismatches of Identical Social Needs,” “Types of Mismatches of Social Needs Based on the Inability to Initiate Communion,” and “Conflicts Produced by the Diversity of Social Needs.” Some of these ways of enjoying and failing to enjoy one another include “If you enjoy being hugged and I enjoy hugging you, it can be mutually enjoyable. If you enjoy being dominated and I enjoy controlling you, we may enjoy each other” (1:412); “If you would like to share your ideas with me and I would like to share my ideas with you but neither of us can communicate in such a way until the other has initiated it, we may never come to understand each other” (1:413); “You wish to reveal yourself through your view of the nature of man, but I can externalize myself only through communicating my passion for the steel and tape of a computer that almost thinks like a man” (1:414). The cumulative effect of these lists (and lists of lists) is to transform moral hierarchies into affective matches and mismatches, leveling the playing field of value.
Instead of hierarchy, we get a grand survey of modes of communion, beginning with those preverbal modes based on early scenes of infant feeding that “exert a powerful hold on the minds and bodies of all human beings” (1:419). Not only does Tomkins discuss thumb sucking, smoking, and eating and drinking as cognates of the early scene of the baby at the breast, he also discusses claustral experiences more generally. Underwater skin diving, immersive music, interocular intimacy, “the cloistered halls of the university” (1:419), “the enjoyment of silent, smooth-riding automobiles” (1:423), these and many others are occasions for “a continuing enjoyment of the earliest modes of communion affect, unverbalized and unrecognized as such” (1:426). In the context of modernist critical traditions that valorize the shattering effects of jouissance and the pleasures of transgression, it can be a relief simply to be reminded of a set of quieter enjoyments that may exist alongside “the breaking through of enforced restraint” (1:422) associated with excitement and novelty. A valuable aspect of Tomkins’s theory, we think, is that neither excitement nor enjoyment (nor any of the affects) has any exclusive political or ideological valence as such. Political valences quickly emerge, however, with the inevitable embedding of affects in scenes and scripts that connect them to specific objects, situations, ideas, and behaviors. The affects themselves can become objects and agents of ideology, for example, in scripts that gender them or cluster them in historical relations between oppressors and oppressed (we will return to the subject of ideology in chapters 10 and 13).
Tomkins also addresses speech as a mode of communion. Here he offers a distinctly non-Lacanian account of language acquisition, not in terms of the violent and irrevocable loss of the maternal object as the condition of entrance into the Symbolic, but almost the opposite: “The major motive to speech is, paradoxically, the intensely rewarding claustral and pre-verbal social affect” (1:428). The ideas in these pages may strike some readers in the theoretical humanities as naive or sentimental: “Earliest speech is an attempt to commune, to deepen experienced communion rather than an attempt to communicate, in the sense of expressing a personal message to the other. . . . Its aim is essentially no different than a tightening and clinging to the mother, by an infant who is already clinging” (1:429). But the umbrella idea of speech as communion permits Tomkins to embrace a large variety of functions for speech, both cognitive (the communication of information) and affective (“as an instrument for the evocation or reduction of every kind of affect, in the self or in others” [1:430]). If speech, for adults, serves as “a major vehicle of the expression of his affects” (1:442), this vehicle will sometimes attenuate those affects that would otherwise be inhibited and amplify those that would otherwise subside. And what psychologists call “expression” is by no means the whole story: in “art and ideology . . . affects can be extraordinarily modulated and amplified, enriched and deepened. Imagination, aided by words, has created worlds which have completely captured the minds of men, evoking and creating rather than expressing affects, and binding the evoked affects to possibilities which are eventually actualized just because men were inspired to dream and then to act” (1:443). Tomkins begins to sketch a complex performative account of poesis (“creating rather than expressing,” as he puts it) in which speech and writing evoke affect that can motivate both further representation (dream) and action.
We have no room here to go into any detail, even the most summary, concerning Tomkins’s discussions of identification as a source of communion, the interesting emergence in these pages of what he calls the depressive posture, or the ways that enjoyment competes with other positive affect (the excitement of novelty) or with negative affect (“The general role of enjoyment is critical in promoting courage to cope with fear and pain, and in promoting frustration tolerance” [1:478]). It may be appropriate simply to leave the reader with a list of section titles under the main title “Adult Modes of Communion,” a list that we hope will evoke the characteristic range and texture of Tomkins’s ideas: “Doing for Others as a Mode of Communion,” “Doing Things Together as a Mode of Communion,” “Controlling Others as a Mode of Communion,” “Doing Things before Others as a Mode of Communion,” “Drive Satisfaction as a Mode of Communion,” “The Enjoyment of the Expression of Negative Affects as a Mode of Communion,” and finally, “The Attenuation of Communion as a Mode of Communion.”
Our discussion is largely based on several chapters from AIC1: “Interest-Excitement” (chapter 10), “Enjoyment-Joy and the Smiling Response: Developmental, Physiological, and Comparative Aspects” (chapter 11), “The Dynamics of Enjoyment-Joy: The Social Bond” (chapter 12), and “Surprise-Startle: The Resetting Affect” (chapter 13). We also consulted his essays on commitment scripts and addiction: “The Psychology of Commitment. Part 1: The Constructive Role of Violence and Suffering for the Individual and for His Society” (1965), “Psychological Model of Smoking Behavior” (1966), “A Modified Model of Smoking Behavior” (1968), “Some Varieties of Psychological Organization” (1968), and, with Frederick Ikard, “The Experience of Affect as a Determinant of Smoking Behavior” (1973).
On the topic of affect nomenclature, Tomkins writes, “Although consensus on the number and nature of the primary affects has not yet been attained and although there is also considerable variation concerning the proper names for each affect, we will nonetheless attempt . . . tentatively to standardize the terminology of affect in the hope that this may lead to more research, subsequent consensus and an eventual more valid description and nomenclature” (1:336). His nomenclature did effectively lead to more research (by Ekman and many others), and there is some consensus today among those who support the existence of four or five so-called basic emotions. Lisa Feldman Barrett offers a significant dissenting voice on this issue in the psychology of emotion. We also note that Daniel Stern takes up and modifies Tomkins’s model in a discussion of the “vitality affects” in The Interpersonal World of the Infant (1985).