The negative affects take up a lot of space in Tomkins’s affect theory. The second volume of AIC opens with the cry of distress-anguish and is then occupied for more than four hundred pages with the vicissitudes of shame-humiliation and contempt-disgust. The third volume, published almost thirty years later, follows the fortunes of anger-rage and fear-terror. In all, twenty-five chapters across two volumes describe the sources, scripting, and socialization of these primary negative affects.
Why do the negative affects occupy so much of Tomkins’s attention? This question has a number of answers, but they all begin with Tomkins’s disarmingly concise characterization of the negative affects as inherently unacceptable. That is, the affects of shame, anger, fear, contempt, distress, disgust, and dissmell are experienced as punitive (“All the negative affects trouble human beings deeply. Indeed, they have evolved just to amplify and deepen suffering and to add insult to the injuries of the human condition” [3:111]), and the noxiousness of these affective states is direct and immediate (“One does not learn to be afraid, or to cry, or to startle any more than one learns to feel pain or to gasp for air” [1:244]). How to deal with the toxicity of these affects is a significant problem for the individual and for the environments in which those individuals dwell (the home, the office, the hospital, the schoolyard, the street, or the factory, to name some of the settings that Tomkins argues can become saturated in negative affect). The negative affects are an inescapable problem that requires considerable psychological and social engagement. In principle, all of the negative affects can be down-regulated; in practice, how successful each one of us—or a group of us together—can be in effectively managing negative affect remains an open question. My anger may be quiescent today, but next week it may be amplified to levels of fury that I can no longer adequately manage; you may join me in this righteous anger, helping me down-regulate the toxicity of my rage, and we may form a lifelong alliance against the object that has provoked us, or my anger may now be so bitter as to make any bond between us impossible.
As we have noted in previous chapters, Tomkins’s claim that the affects are activated by innate physiological mechanisms can cause some discomfort in critical environments that are accustomed to giving causal priority to social or significatory or discursive forces. His claim that the primary affects are activated by “density of neural firing” might also be met with disbelief, disdain, or just plain exhaustion by those critics increasingly uncomfortable with the slick ways in which neurological data are mobilized inside the humanities or social sciences as palliatives to interpretation, ambivalence, or uncertainty. To these discomforts, we add two more: the negative affects cannot be repurposed as good feeling, nor are they reliable agents for political transformation. While the negative affects may be down-regulated, or suppressed, or put into reciprocal relations with the positive affects, or modulated through socialization (more of which below), at no point do they lose their noxious character, and they remain a source of significant trouble psychologically, interpersonally, and socially. On this point Tomkins is clear: “negative affect should be minimized” (1:328). Human beings are strongly motivated to avoid or minimize negative affects, and the extent to which affective negativity can be harnessed to affirmative ends like social justice, world building, or conceptual clarity will always be limited. For example, anger (an affect central to struggles for political transformation) seems to be a particularly unruly kind of negativity:
Terror speaks to the threat of death to life. Distress is the affect of suffering, making of the world a vale of tears. Shame is the affect of indignity, of defeat, of transgression, and of alienation, striking deep into the heart of the human being and felt as an inner torment, a sickness of the soul. But anger is problematic above all other negative affects for its social consequences. My terror, my distress, and my shame are first of all my problems. They need never become your problems, though they may. But my anger, and especially my rage, threatens violence for you, your family, your friends, and above all for our society. Of all the negative affects it is the least likely to remain under the skin of the one who feels it, and so it is just that affect all societies try hardest to contain within that envelope under the skin or to deflect toward deviants within the society and toward barbarians without. (3:111)
The enduring social and political problem is not simply that deviants and barbarians may be subjected to the punitive effects of displaced anger but that anger will produce social effects that confound all parties, including those that take an ethical, angry stand against social discrimination. That is, there is no firm distinction between anger that emancipates and anger that is deflected into social control, violation, or harm. You, me, them, and our social worlds will all be shaken by an angry negativity that has breached the surface of the skin. Anger “makes bad matters worse” (2:115), and that is the power and the threat of its political purchase. As we describe the ways in which negative affects combine with other affects and how they come to be socialized and minimized, we would like the reader to remember that these are not accounts of abstinence from negativity or accounts of negativity bending to the good but rather descriptions of how negative affects come to be more or less tolerable.
There are six primary negative affects in Tomkins’s theory. Here we summarize their distinguishing characteristics.
Distress-anguish. Imagine a desolate, crying baby. Her mouth is open, yet the corners of her lips are pulled down, her eyebrows are arched, and the muscles around her eyes are contracted. For Tomkins, these facial states don’t express negative feeling that has originated elsewhere in the body; rather, the awareness of the feedback from these physiological events is the feeling of distress. These facial responses and the distressing feeling they engender are caused by a high level of unrelenting stimulation: the baby is pained, cold, overheated, hungry, alarmed by intense noise or light. While distress is innately activated by such circumstances, the phenomenological experience of distress varies widely as the feedback assembles with different cognitive information and with other affects. Consequently, we may learn, through socialization, to become distressed about a large number of objects: “the possible objects of distress are limited only by the imagination of the parent who cares enough to make the child distressed about whatever it is which he wishes to discourage in the child. Clearly this usually encompasses the control of behavior and belief as well as the control of affects. Historically, at some time or place, every variety of behavior has been made the object of suffering. Parents have made it distressing to be overly active or passive, to be bold or cautious, or to be overly friendly or too reserved” (2:52). While an adult may be readily distressed by certain memories, persons, or objects, it is rare to see the full cry of distress in an adult: “It is a brief cry, or a muted cry, or a part of a cry or a miniature cry, or a substitute cry, or an active defense against the cry, that we see in place of the infant’s cry for help” (2:56). Finally, we note that there is a particularly close relation between distress-anguish and the positive affect interest-excitement: “distress is suffered daily by all human beings, as they become tired, as they encounter difficulties in solving problems, as they interact with other human beings in ways which are less than ideal. Distress is as general a negative affect as excitement is a positive one. Between them they account for a major part of the posture of human beings towards themselves, towards each other, towards the world they live in” (2:48).
Fear-terror. Fear is a negative affect of greater toxicity than distress. Fear is activated by rapidly increasing neural firing that lies somewhere between the extremely quick response of surprise-startle and the more leisurely acceleration of interest-excitement. At very high levels of intensity (terror), this affect is acutely toxic. The feeling of fear arises from awareness of innate responses like bodily trembling, eyes that are open wide, a mouth that is agape, eyebrows that are raised, hair that stands on end, and a pallor that has drained the face of blood. The constancy of these responses (documented particularly well by Charles Darwin and widely agreed in the contemporary neurological literatures to be found in one form or another in most mammals) does not mean that fear is a unitary feeling. On the contrary, the phenomenology of fear is highly variegated: “one individual may characteristically feel fear in his face and stomach, another in an apparent tightening of his throat, another in an apparent band around his head, another in dizziness in his head, another in a weakness in his knees, another in a feeling of fear in his genitals, another in a feeling of fear in his anus, another in an accelerated heart rate, another in trembling of his face and limbs, another in a stiffening of all his muscles, another in sweating” (3:502). Similarly, fear varies considerably in relation to intensity, duration, and frequency: “One individual is vulnerable to constant low-grade fear. Another is frequently bombarded with slightly more intense fear but enjoys much positive affect in his fear-free intervals. Another is intensely afraid but with only moderate frequency. Yet another is entirely engulfed by terror” (3:521). Fear is subject to a wide variety of ideo-affective socializations, and theories (chapter 8) and scripts (chapter 9) emerge for individuals who attempt to control how much fear becomes magnified (i.e., how much it increases in duration and frequency). For example, a parent may think that a child, when afraid, should “tough it out.” In such cases, the child may indeed learn to minimize fear, but only through the activation of shame or self-contempt at being a coward. Fear has been controlled, but perhaps at considerable cost.
Anger-rage. Anger is incited by incessant levels of stimulation, but at a higher intensity than in the case of distress. The faciality of anger is flushed and hot (in contrast to the pallor of fear), breathing is deep and rapid, vocalization is loud and sustained, the mouth is open, the jaw is clenched, and the eyes are narrowed: “it is the most urgent of all affects” (2:115). Importantly, there is no necessary relation between anger and aggression: “The infant may thrash about with flailing arms and limbs, as he may also do so, with less intensity, in distress. But there is no evidence of any innate coordinated action intended to aggress upon the source of the anger” (2:115). Nonetheless, anger, like fear, will become the target of extensive socialization, especially as its toxicity envelops not just the self but also the social world. Part of the difficulty we have in the management of anger is that it is both abstract (we may not know why we are angry or what has activated this particular scene of irritation) and general (it has a high degree of freedom in terms of its objects, duration, and intensity): “One can be angry for a moment, an hour, or a lifetime. One can be an angry child but a happy adult or a happy child but an angry adult. . . . I may wake mildly irritable in the morning and remain so for the rest of the day. Or one day I may not be at all angry until suddenly something makes me explode in rage” (3:116–17). While all affects can coassemble with each other, the abstractness and generality of anger are such that it is able to coassemble even with positive affects. In a 2011 interview with two of the creators of the then new Broadway musical The Book of Mormon (Trey Parker and Matt Stone, best known at that time for their work on the affectively promiscuous South Park), Jon Stewart says of the production that it is “so good it makes me fucking angry.” Stewart’s endorsement, which subsequently featured prominently in publicity for the show in the United States and the United Kingdom, is compelling not just because of the amplificatory pleasures of profanity but also because it is able to perform (as does the show itself) a persuasive composite of negative and positive feeling.
Shame-humiliation. The shame response is deeply mortifying: my eyes are averted, my head is turned down, I am blushing. I have reduced facial communication, and I am acutely self-conscious: “shame is the affect of indignity, of defeat, of transgression and of alienation” (2:118). While we might differentiate, colloquially, between shyness, shame, and guilt (and there has also been intense academic debate about the difference between shame and guilt, in particular), for Tomkins, these are all variations on the primary affect of shame-humiliation. Tomkins calls shame an affect auxiliary. What he means by this is that shame requires the prior activation of another, positive affect. Specifically, shame is triggered by the incomplete reduction of a positive affect like interest or enjoyment, leaving the self suspended between longing and despair: “I want, but—” (2:185). Because there are so many different ways in which interest or enjoyment might be inhibited, there are innumerable learned and unlearned sources of shame: “The experience of shame is inevitable for any human being insofar as desire outruns fulfillment sufficiently to attenuate interest without destroying it” (2:185). Indeed, the shame response seems to be an inevitable effect of intersubjective relations: “As soon as the infant learns to differentiate the face of the mother from the face of a stranger . . . , he is vulnerable to the shame response. . . . Under any schedule of socialization which is conceivable, the infant will sooner or later respond with shame rather than with excitement or enjoyment” (2:141–42). Paradoxically, while shame is a negative affect (it feels bad), it is a key affect in the maintenance of sociality: “shared shame [is] a prime instrument for strengthening the sense of mutuality and community whether it be between parent and child, friend and friend, or citizen and citizen. When one is ashamed of the other, that other is not only forced into shame but he is also reminded that the other is sufficiently concerned positively as well as negatively to feel ashamed of and for the other” (2:216). Tomkins’s claim here is not that shame might be utilized, knowingly and affirmatively, in projects of social transformation or critique (as, for example, in the petitions for queer shame as an antidote to the conventionality of queer pride) but rather that sociality—the bonds that hold us together—is always brokered through shared and inevitable bad feeling.
Contempt. If shame is the affect of sociality, contempt is the affect of hierarchization: “contempt strengthens the boundaries and barriers between individuals and groups and is the instrument par excellence for the preservation of hierarchical, caste and class relationships” (2:216). Where shame is the experience of being suspended between what I want and what I can have, contempt is the definitive, sneering act of a self that has cut its ties to excitement and enjoyment. In shame, there is always a way back to the object or to positive affect; in contempt, the reduction of positive affect is complete: “I don’t want” (2:232). Contempt is the least self-conscious of the negative affects, as it is primarily concerned, not with the mortifications of the self, but with the loathsome object (even when that object is the self, as in self-contempt). In the first two volumes of AIC, contempt was conjoined with disgust as different intensities of one affect: contempt-disgust. In volume 3, Tomkins explains the difficulties he encountered with such a formulation (e.g., contempt and disgust appear not to be weaker and stronger versions of the one affect in the way that fear-terror and anger-rage are), and he revises his idea that contempt is primary. He replaces contempt-disgust with the drive auxiliary responses disgust and dissmell. In this new formulation, contempt is a mixture of dissmell and anger.
Disgust and dissmell. Once Tomkins differentiates disgust and dissmell from contempt, he is able to reclassify them as responses that are auxiliary to the hunger, thirst, and oxygen drives: “Their function is clear. If the food about to be ingested activates dissmell, the upper lip and nose is [sic] raised and the head is drawn away from the apparent source of the offending odor. If the food has been taken into the mouth, it may, if disgusting, be spit out. If it has been swallowed and is toxic, it will produce nausea and be vomited out through either the mouth or nostrils. The early warning response via the nose is dissmell; the mouth or stomach response is disgust” (3:22). What makes disgust and dissmell affects rather than simply mechanisms auxiliary to the drives is that they signal strongly motivating feelings of rejection to both others and the self (self-disgust and self-dissmell). Moreover, both disgust and dissmell can be activated in response to nondigestive events: one can experience disgust or dissmell in response to dirty thoughts, for example.
One of the great advantages of Tomkins’s model of the negative affects is that he is able to differentiate bad feeling in ways that have been lost in both the Freudian model of anxiety and aggression and the Deleuzian model of affects as prepersonal intensity. Both the Freudian and the Deleuzian models have plenty to contribute to thinking affectivity (and bad affect in particular), but what Tomkins’s theory generates, perhaps uniquely in the contemporary scene, is a thick description of the life of affects as very specifically physiological, facial, individual, social, ideological, and parental. What is compelling for us is not that his descriptions of primary positive and negative affects can be verified empirically—they may or they may not; as we noted in the chapter on positive affects (chapter 5), we remain agnostic on this point. We take the categorical differences between good and bad affects to be the beginning, not the end, of an engaging analysis of affective life. Instead, what we find captivating in Tomkins’s account of the primary affects is the way in which it is highly specific (shame is the incomplete reduction of interest or enjoyment, for example) yet also able to enumerate how the affects move, bind, borrow, compete, and combine with alacrity (shame, self-shame, disgust, self-disgust, dissmell, self-dissmell, contempt, and self-contempt).
The negative affects are most thoroughly examined in volume 2 (distress-anguish; shame-humiliation; contempt-disgust) and volume 3 (anger-rage; fear-terror) of AIC. There is a gap of twenty-seven years between these two volumes. In the preface to volume 3, Tomkins explains that the intensive focus on anger in that volume is due to the development of script theory (see chapter 9) in the intervening years. Much of this volume is concerned with how anger-laden scenes become magnified into scripts, for example, anger-management scripts, anger-control scripts, anger in depressive scripts, anger in disgust-decontamination scripts, antitoxic anger-avoidance scripts. In addition, Tomkins notes that since the publication of volume 2 in 1963, “the problems of ideology and violence have grown increasingly strident and urgent at the international level, prompting me to increase the depth and scope of my inquiry. The consequence is that most of Volume 3 concerns anger and violence” (3:xiv).
We also recommend Sedgwick and Frank’s essay “Shame in the Cybernetic Fold,” which has been very influential on how shame has been understood in queer studies and in the critical humanities and social sciences more broadly. Further work by Sedgwick on shame can be found in Touching Feeling.