While affect is clearly the most important term in Silvan Tomkins’s AIC, imagery is a not-too-distant second, serving to connect a cluster of concepts that we address here in part II. For Tomkins, imagery is the material of memory and perception, a kind of phenomenological mindstuff that, when amplified by affect and transformed by cognition, becomes organized into theories, scripts, and ideologies. Here we introduce Tomkins’s understanding of imagery by unfolding some aspects of his cybernetic model of neural communication. We then discuss Images, a notion related to but (somewhat confusingly, given their similar nomenclature) distinct from imagery. Images, for Tomkins, act as blueprints for the human feedback system: they give purpose to thought, feeling, and action. Finally, we explore a subclass of Images, what Tomkins calls the General Images, blueprints specific to the human affect system that generate some of our most powerful, contradictory experiences.
Tomkins introduces the notion of imagery in the first few pages of AIC1 in a discussion of “information duplicating mechanisms in human beings” (1:10). His cybernetic account begins from this premise: “We conceive of man . . . as an inter- and intra-communication system, utilizing feedback networks which transmit, match and transform, information in analogical form and in the form of messages in a language. By a communication system we mean a mechanism capable of regular and systematic duplication of something in space and time” (1:9). In humans and other organisms, sensory receptors duplicate “certain aspects of the world surrounding the receptors” (1:10), and this information, primarily analog in form, is then duplicated again and again via afferent nerves and transmitted further into the organism. In mobile and more complex organisms, there is a receiving station at which there occurs an additional kind of duplication, “an as yet unknown process we will call transmuting” (1:10), that turns the analog information into a conscious report. Consciousness, for Tomkins, “is a unique type of duplication by which some aspects of the world reveal themselves to another part of the same world. . . . The uniqueness of this transformation has been a source of discomfiture for the psychologist” (1:10). Note how, in this pleasingly understated version of the problem of consciousness, Tomkins avoids a transcendentalizing break or cut between consciousness and the world. He seeks, rather, to create a model that maintains continuity between consciousness and its objects.
At the same time, Tomkins does not reject what he calls the “Kantian strategy.” To account for perceptual learning—the fact that the organism learns to perceive and compose its world through trial and error—he introduces something that resembles Kantian discontinuity: “It is our belief that the afferent sensory information is not directly transformed into a conscious report. What is consciously perceived is imagery which is created by the organism itself. . . . The world we perceive is a dream we learn to have from a script we have not written” (1:13). This last sentence, which appears several times in Tomkins’s writings, offers a highly compressed summary of his understanding of imagery. A key component of this understanding is a mechanism that matches afferent (incoming) sensory, motor, or other information with efferent (outgoing) central feedback:
Before any sensory message becomes conscious it must be matched by a centrally innervated feedback mechanism. This is a central efferent process which attempts to duplicate the set of afferent messages at the central receiving station . . . matching the constantly changing sensory input is a skill that one learns as one learns any skill. It is this skill which eventually supports the dream and the hallucination, in which central sending produces the conscious image in the absence of afferent support. (1:13)
This challenging, underexplored aspect of Tomkins’s theory remains speculative in his writing (just as his neural model of affect remains speculative). But we consider it to be promising insofar as it offers a conceptual means to navigate between the Scylla of constructionism and the Charybdis of realism. Tomkins insists that what we perceive is a skilled construction based on sensory (and other) input: imagery is both centrally emitted and connected to the periphery (and other parts) of the organism via the information duplicating mechanisms that run between our sensory receptors and our central nervous system. “It [i.e., the world we perceive] is neither our capricious construction nor a gift we inherit without work” (1:13), or as he puts it later in a different context, “it is the external world that is the teacher of the language of the internal world” (4:334) (see chapter 12 for more on these aspects of Tomkins’s approach to consciousness).
While the idea of “centrally emitted imagery” appears several times in AIC1, Tomkins’s most extended discussion takes place in a chapter in AIC4 (“The Lower Senses”) on the body image and phantom limbs. Examples of phantom limb phenomena show up with some frequency in the history of modern philosophy, from Descartes’s Meditations to German phenomenological writings of the 1890s, often alongside discussions of hallucination and dreaming as somewhat marginal examples that pose problems for theories of sensation and perception. By contrast, Tomkins places phantom limbs at the center of his perceptual theory. After reviewing the twentieth-century psychological literature on the subject, he proposes that “the reality and stability of the phantom limb we regard as evidence that what is normally perceived is a centrally innervated image, guided by sensory input but also by memory” (4:250). Tomkins argues that “perceiving is not partly some mediate process but entirely so and . . . uses the feedback-matching principle” (4:251), and he powerfully suggests that “all conscious experience is some type of imagery but not necessarily the same type of imagery” (4:252). Often enough, we can distinguish imagery whose ultimate source lies outside our bodies, such as sensory (visual, auditory, olfactory) imagery, from imagery whose source is internal (memories, beliefs, desires). Sometimes (more or less often) “the individual can mistake primarily inner-guided imagery for the outer-guided imagery” (4:253), resulting in uncertainty or, in more extreme cases, hallucination. Consider the example of a smell that you have difficulty placing, that may in fact be a memory image rather than primarily a sensory one. Or consider the interesting example of judging whether a recent acquaintance is “your type,” which involves a complex movement between inner- and outer-guided imagery.
Phantom limb phenomena, according to Tomkins, emerge from a conflict between different kinds of imagery: inner-guided kinesthetic (and other) memory imagery of the limb overrides outer-guided visual imagery that offers evidence of its absence. Other explanations account for the phantom by way of an entirely afferent process, such as the irritation of severed nerve endings. But Tomkins suggests that phantoms exist primarily because “there has been voluminous, continuous stimulation from the inner receptors both preceding and following purposive action with the limbs” (4:257). That is, phantoms are a consequence of learning how to move and use our bodies (learning to stand, walk, run, catch, and so on), skills that result from central feedback matching. The important point, for Tomkins, is that phantom limbs make figural what is more usually experienced as ground: the body image that always accompanies us, a result of vestibular and kinesthetic stimulation, report, and matching. The figural experience of the body image in phantom limbs lets Tomkins move toward a general theory of perception as it comprises varieties of imagery.
If it is not always easy to follow Tomkins’s discussions of imagery, it may in part be due to his commitment to a technical cybernetic account. In a chapter on “The Feedback Mechanism: Consciousness, the Image, and the Motoric,” Tomkins offers a detailed examination of a neural communication process in the hypothetical case of someone throwing a dart at a target (one of his recurring examples). He sketches the complex feedback relations among and between sensory receptor cells, transmuted reports, centrally emitted transmissions that stimulate motor nerves, and the monitoring processes that identify outcomes and consequences (4:324–32). “The individual who learns how to achieve outer targets is also learning how to use his neurological networks” (4:330), asserts Tomkins, whose fundamental point appears to be the following: “Paradoxically, it is only by ‘outer’ exploration that the inner space is ultimately mapped” (4:330). Here Tomkins insists on one of the basic tenets of biological systems theory—that the distinction between organism and environment reappears and is made use of within the organism itself: “the external world must be reproduced within this [neural] circuitry if it is to be assimilable and useful to the individual so that ultimately the dichotomy between the inner and outer domain becomes a dichotomy within the inner world” (4:334). Again, we see Tomkins’s navigation of both the continuity and discontinuity between organism and environment: “we do not embrace solipsism . . . any more than does the biochemist who studies the transformations that are necessary before foodstuffs can be used by the body” (4:334). Internalizing the system–environment distinction is a condition for learning and makes it possible for an organism to meet its needs and attain its ends.
That humans (and other animals) have purposes, and that they do, sometimes, achieve these purposes: Tomkins accommodates this significant fact by introducing the idea of “a centrally emitted blueprint which we call the Image” (1:17). The Image may be built from sensory, memory, and other kinds of imagery, but it is nevertheless distinct from them:
In sensory and memory matching the model is given by the world as it exists now in the form of sensory information, and as it existed once before in the form of memory information. In the case of the Image the individual is projecting a possibility which he hopes to realize or duplicate and that must precede and govern his behavior if he is to achieve it. This Image of an end state to be achieved may be compounded of memory or perceptual images or any combination or transformation of these. It may be a state which is both conscious and unconscious, vague or clear, abstract or concrete, transitory or enduring, one or many, conjoint or alternative in structure. (1:17)
In Tomkins’s example, a dart thrower who aims to hit a target develops an Image that combines visual and kinesthetic imagery to guide her throw—a clear, concrete, transitory Image. Here’s a more complicated example: a pianist working on a piece of music (from a classical repertoire, say) develops an Image that combines auditory imagery (from recordings and performances she has heard), kinesthetic imagery (her piano technique), affective imagery (a specific arc of feeling, say), and her cognitive understanding of the piece. The abstract Image she develops may begin somewhat vaguely but becomes clearer as she refines her idea. Perhaps it eludes consciousness or is difficult to put into words. Eventually satisfied with her interpretation, she may try to achieve this Image in public performance. An attentive listener may hear the music in a new, perhaps enduring way. “An Image comes to control and monitor the feedback process” (1:20), proposes Tomkins, which permits us to try to achieve our aims, whatever these may be. Of course, there is never any guarantee of success.
At this point, a reader may be wondering how, in Tomkins’s understanding, Images developed to guide and give purpose to the organism interact with affects, which do not obey the means–end difference. As we hope to have made clear in part I, Tomkins is entirely committed to a noninstrumental account of affect. In AIC3, he insists on distinguishing his theory of motivation from any account that assumes that “motivation is best understood as involving means and ends and that ends are what means are ‘for’” (3:66). Affect, he asserts, is not “a carrot useful primarily in persuading us to perform instrumental acts. . . . Affect is an end in itself, with or without instrumental behavior” (3:66–67). Nonetheless, affects crucially motivate the construction of Images that give purpose to the human feedback system. We find Tomkins’s distinction between affect as motive and Image as purpose to be very helpful: “The Image is a blueprint for the feedback mechanism: as such it is purposive and directive. Affect we conceive of as a motive, by which we mean immediately rewarding or punishing experience” (1:122). This distinction emerges from his cybernetic account of information flows within the organism. Consider, while much sensory or motor information in the organism is “motivationally neutral” (1:20), signals from the drive and affect systems are not neutral: “they are immediately ‘acceptable’ or ‘unacceptable’ without prior learning” (1:20) and, in this way, “gradually become targets for the feedback control system” (1:21). (Tomkins emphasizes how gradual this process is.) Affects and drives color and amplify some imagery that is then compounded by the central feedback mechanism into Images or purposes. Structurally independent of one another, Images and affects are crucially related in the gradual development of an organism’s goals.
Consider a reflexive example that may help to convey both the distinction between and relation among affects and Images. One feeling that motivated the authors to plan and write the book you are currently reading was a dissatisfaction with the ways that Tomkins’s work was either misunderstood or underused by colleagues and students in the humanities and social sciences. We were perplexed by how few scholars took up Tomkins’s thinking in any detail as well as somewhat frustrated by how the term affect was most often used in a post-Deleuzian sense, for we thought (and continue to think) that Tomkins offers a generative vocabulary and set of tools for theoretically sophisticated, politically minded criticism. These specific feelings (of dissatisfaction, perplexity, and frustration, complex emotions rooted in the affects of distress, surprise, and anger) motivated our commitment to write a book that unfolded Tomkins’s ideas. Only then did we develop a specific Image or goal, that of a portable handbook that serves as a useable introduction to Tomkins’s ideas. Note, the Image that has guided our writing is independent of the feelings that motivated it (we might have developed a different goal for a book on Tomkins, a biography, for example). But we would never have developed any Image without such feelings.
Tomkins offers an extended treatment of the relation between Images and affects in discussions of what he calls the General Images (1:327–35, 2:261–300). Four Images, he proposes, provide general guidance to the affect system as a whole: “(1) Positive affect should be maximized; (2) Negative affect should be minimized; (3) Affect inhibition should be minimized; (4) Power to maximize positive affect, to minimize negative affect, and to minimize affect inhibition should be maximized” (1:328). Although Tomkins does not consider these to be innate, he suggests that, given the structure of the affect system in human beings, there is a very high probability that the General Images will develop. Once they do, they come into conflict with one another. For a simple example, the goal of maximizing the enjoyment of rich foods clashes with the goal of minimizing the distress associated with indigestion. Conflicts such as these generate much of the complexity of human experience and become the hidden ground for ethical, religious, and political debates about how life should be lived. (In the preceding sentence, substitute “commodity culture” and “exploitation of labor” for “rich foods” and “indigestion.”) Tomkins proposes that “such debates are ordinarily conducted as if they were entirely independent of the affective basis of human reward and punishment” (1:329), and it is in this context that he asserts, “It is our theory of value that for human subjects value is any object of human affect” (1:329). In our discussion of Spinoza and Tomkins, we pointed out how these two thinkers both relativize value to affect. As Tomkins puts it, “value hierarchies result from value conflicts wherein the same object is both loved and hated, both exciting and shaming, both distressing and enjoyable” (1:329). It is primarily the four General Images that create such rampant conflicts of affect, and therefore of value, within and among individuals, groups, cultures, and civilizations. (We will see in chapter 10 how ideology, as Tomkins develops that concept in AIC3, works to resolve these fundamental conflicts.)
As usual, we will have to be highly selective in our summary of Tomkins’s writing. We think there are both interesting parallels and differences between Tomkins’s discussion of the third General Image (“minimize affect inhibition”) and the psychoanalytic notion of repression. On one hand, it would seem that Tomkins supports Freud’s idea that the inhibition of affect produces symptomatic distortion: “The inhibition of the overt expression of any affect will ordinarily produce a residual form of the affect which is at once heightened, distorted, and chronic and which is severely punitive” (1:330). (In this context, Tomkins points to the role of alcohol as “self-administered therapy of affect inhibition” [1:331].) However, in a longer discussion in AIC2 of the conflicts between the third and first two General Images, Tomkins offers a more nuanced understanding in which “inhibited affects may sometimes be effectively suppressed without residual intensification” (2:267) or may coexist alongside a defensive, attenuating response. For example, “the cry of distress may be experienced in the distorted form of the stiff upper lip, which is calculated to interfere with the trembling crying mouth” (2:267). Here Tomkins translates psychoanalytic insights concerning repression of the drives into the terms of his theory: the affects themselves serve to inhibit and suppress, as well as to amplify and magnify, one another, creating self-division and conflict, an “alien force deep within every self” (2:269). Interestingly, for Tomkins, neither the expression of affect nor its inhibition can serve as a necessary index or guide to identifying repression: “There is no necessary relation between expression and intensity or duration of affects, or between suppression and intensity or duration of affects” (2:282). Rather, expression and suppression of affect will depend on which particular affect theories and scripts are developed, theories that may differ between individuals, groups, and cultures. We discuss Tomkins’s notions of theory and script (in chapters 8 and 9) as they offer complementary alternatives to developmental models in psychoanalysis.
Tomkins’s discussion of the fourth General Image, that of maximizing power, offers some useful, sweeping generalizations: “whenever human beings wish ends in themselves, they sooner or later recruit the auxiliary wishes to be able to command the means, whatever they may be, that are necessary to achieve those ends” (2:290). Indeed, for Tomkins, the idea of God derives from the power Image, as does “the idea of progress, with its derivatives—the conquest of nature and the rights of man” (2:292). Tomkins offers several political insights that, published in 1963, still seem to have resonance. For example, here is one description of a postcolonial affective condition: “in the present world-wide revolution, we may expect the emergence of counter-humiliation, counter-terror and counter-distress in repayment of the former colonial powers for past suffering, past terror and, above all, past humiliation” (2:299). Or consider what happens when the “power strategy” becomes “monopolistic”:
Nothing is more commonplace than the self-defeating investment in the means to any end. . . . The excitement of the quest for knowledge can be transformed into the drudgery of scholarship. . . . The enjoyment of intimacy between parents and children can be surrendered by the effort of the breadwinner to guarantee the economic future of that family. . . . In the investment of affect in the acquisition of money, the universal means to ends of many kinds, original affective investments in ends in themselves may become liquidated or attenuated so that the pursuit of the means becomes an end in itself. (2:292–93)
When the power Image outweighs the other General Images, Tomkins tells us, we see fantasies of escape, role reversal, and revenge as well as the conversion of affect into an end in itself. It is hard not to think of contemporary electoral campaigns in this context.
Given their relative importance in the first two volumes of AIC, it is curious to note that the General Images do not initially appear to have the same profile in Tomkins’s later writing. But it is possible to find references to them in his writing on ideology as well as on “the polarity scale,” his affective measure of the left–right spectrum in politics. In fact, Tomkins’s understanding of imagery and Images is in the background of much of his writing of the 1970s and 1980s. As he puts it in AIC4, “it is only when the pervasive role of imagery is appreciated, not only in the interpretation of sensory information in the construction of the perceptual world, but also in the control of the feedback mechanism via the image, that the problem of imagery assumes a central significance for psychological theory. It is through private images that the individual builds the public world that enables both social consensus and competence in dealing with the physical world” (4:284). And, we would add, such “private images” also create social dissensus and incompetence in dealing with the political world. It is a virtue of Tomkins’s theory of imagery that it permits an integrated approach to so many kinds and aspects of world construction.
Tomkins’s writing on imagery and the General Images is distributed throughout various volumes of AIC. In the first two volumes, we refer interested readers to “Introduction: Consciousness and Affect in Behaviorism and Psychoanalysis” (chapter 1), “Affect Dynamics” (chapter 9), and “The Impact of Humiliation: General Images and Strategies” (chapter 19). In the last volumes, we consulted “Affect and Cognition: ‘Reasons’ as Coincidental Causes of Affect Evocation” (chapter 2), “Perception: Defining Characteristics—Central Matching of Imagery” (chapter 10), “The Lower Senses” (chapter 11), “The Higher Senses” (chapter 12), and “The Feedback Mechanism: Consciousness, the Image, and the Motoric” (chapter 14).
For more on Tomkins’s approach to imagery and phantom limbs in specific relation to Freud’s writing on the uncanny, see Adam Frank’s “Phantoms Limn: Silvan Tomkins and Affective Prosthetics” (2007).
We note here that Ruth Leys’s reductive characterization of Tomkins’s theory as “anti-intentionalist” overlooks the fundamental role for imagery in his account of motivation. Imagery, as mental representation that can be either conscious or unconscious, is clearly intentional in the phenomenological sense.