No small part of the pleasure of reading AIC comes from Tomkins’s use of scenes, vignettes, and dialogue to illustrate his theoretical arguments. These theatrical forms, scattered especially over the second volume of AIC, are a significant aspect of his writing style (as are his lists). Consider, for example, the section titled “Production of a Total Affect-Shame Bind by Apparently Innocuous and Well-Intentioned Parental Action” (2:228), which begins, “Our hero is a child who is destined to have every affect totally bound by shame.” Over two pages, Tomkins sketches an excruciating set of hypothetical scenes that take place around a 1950s American dinner table in which a child is shamed by his parents for expressing each of the primary affects: “Don’t ever make that face again at the table—it’s disgusting” (2:229), “Oh Robert, you’d think you hadn’t eaten in a week, really!” (2:229), “Robert, where are your manners? Sit up” (2:229–30), “Robert, you could be a little more attentive, you don’t have to sit there like a bump on a log. Say something” (2:230). Descriptions of childhood scenes animate Tomkins’s writing (“On the playground, insult and counter-insult between peers is a commonplace: ‘Oh yeah!’ ‘Yeah!’ can be repeated endlessly, with the hostile sneer thrown back and forth as though it were a ball” [2:250]), while bits of invented dialogue demonstrate how affect theories are not only expressed and communicated but also taught and learned. In one instance, Tomkins offers a long, Tennessee Williams–style monologue to illustrate how a monopolistic humiliation theory can be created in a child through “verbal amplification.” “You will be the death of me. You’re no good—just like all children,” it begins, and ends, a dozen or more lines later, with “God knows I try—but what good does it do? It’s the same thing over and over again with you. You’re hopeless” (2:399).
Clearly Tomkins’s commitment to theatrical form was strong. He graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 1930 with a concentration in playwriting and wrote the following in a letter to his colleague Irving Alexander almost forty years later: “For years, I have tried to express myself in playwriting and what I now realize is that any incapacity arises from over abstractness—I wish to prove a hypothesis—and in a sense am unwilling to immerse myself in the concrete details and lives of others sufficiently to give the play body” (“Silvan S. Tomkins,” 251). According to Alexander, “psychology would provide that union of specificity and generality” (252) that Tomkins was searching for, but we would observe that only a highly dramaturgic model of psychology would satisfy: in script theory, Tomkins’s general theory of personality that emerged late in his career, drama serves as a vital conceptual framework. Not long after retiring, Tomkins published “Script Theory: Differential Magnification of Affects” (1979). He would revise this, as well as a handful of related essays of the 1980s, for inclusion in AIC3. Script theory amends and elaborates the ideas of affect theory and development he explored thirty years earlier in AIC2 (see chapter 8) and offers a late integration of many aspects of Tomkins’s thinking.
Script theory distinguishes the scene, “a happening with a perceived beginning and end,” from the script, “the individual’s rules for predicting, interpreting, responding to, and controlling a magnified set of scenes” (3:83). The scene as a basic unit of experience “includes at least one affect and at least one object of that affect” (3:74) and thus always features affective amplification. Scripts, by contrast, are characterized by what Tomkins calls psychological magnification, “the phenomenon of connecting one affect-laden scene with another affect-laden scene. Psychological magnification necessarily presupposes affective amplification of sets of connected scenes, but the affective amplification of a single scene does not necessarily lead to the psychological magnification of interconnected scenes” (3:75). Recall that affective amplification makes an experience urgent: an infant’s hunger, amplified by distress, urges a caregiver to feed her. Psychological magnification, a more sophisticated cognitive process, requires memory and the capacity to perceive similarity. Psychological magnification lets the child begin to order, interpret, or produce affective experiences. Scripts that organize scenes comprise aspects of the child’s emerging personality. For example, the child who learns that his mother will appear when he cries from hunger has begun the process of script formation. That same child may learn to cry when he seeks attention or comfort from his mother for other reasons.
Not all scenes are magnified and embedded in scripts. What Tomkins calls transient scenes “may be highly amplified by affect but . . . remain isolated in the experience of the individual” (3:75). Being startled by a car horn, accidentally cutting oneself shaving, laughing at a joke—these experiences may be relatively isolated: “Lives are made up of large numbers of transient scenes. All experience is not necessarily interconnected with all other experience” (3:75). Tomkins also contrasts magnified scenes with habitual scenes, such as tying your shoelaces, crossing the street, or having breakfast with your spouse or partner. Habitual scenes, guided by what Tomkins, thirty years earlier, had called weak affect theories (see chapter 8), “do not become magnified, just because they are effective in achieving precisely what the individual intends they should achieve” (3:76). Note, the child learning to tie her shoes or cross the street, or the couple who have recently moved in together may initially experience considerable affect in these scenes (frustration, fear, joy). When they become habitual, the affect in these scenes fade. As Tomkins puts it, “the price of skill is the loss of the experience of value” (3:76), an alternative description of what is more usually understood in terms of desire fueled by lack (“A husband and wife who become too skilled in knowing each other can enter the same valley of perceptual skill and become hardly aware of each other” [3:76]). Habitual scenes, however, can be magnified if circumstances change. An unexpected challenge to a marriage can return a couple to a renewed appreciation of and enjoyment in each other, just as a busy, confusing intersection can make us fearfully aware of the danger of street crossing.
Perhaps what is most useful about Tomkins’s approach to scenes and scripts is its treatment of the multiple temporalities and spatialities of experience and its sophisticated understanding of how meaning itself emerges from the Proustian composition of memory, feeling, time, and place. Initially, for the very young infant who cannot associate scenes separated by intervals of time, almost all scenes are transient. Eventually, with sufficient cognitive and emotional development, “scenes experienced before can be coassembled with scenes presently experienced, together with scenes which are anticipated in the future. The present moment is embedded in the intersect between the past and the future in a central assembly via a constructive process we have called coassembly” (3:80). The concept of coassembly indexes Tomkins’s basic structuralist commitment to combinatorial possibilities. He immediately offers a linguistic analogy: just as “the meaning of any one word is enriched and magnified by sequentially coassembling it with words which precede it and which follow it. So, too, is the meaning and impact of one affect-laden scene enriched and magnified by coassembling and relating it to another affect-laden scene” (3:80). But to this spatialized, structuralist understanding (for which scenes are like words, scripts like sentences that order, select, and organize words into greater units of meaning), Tomkins brings a Jamesian emphasis on the dynamics of temporal perception in the specious present. He puts it this way in a chapter on anger: “The present scene as experienced is never a razor’s edge. It has extension in time through recruited memory of the immediate as well as remote past, through anticipation into the immediate and remote future, and through perception into the continuing, expanding present, which includes one’s own as well as the other’s responses, affective and motor, to the angering stimulus” (3:161).
We can gain some understanding of how scripts determine meaning by considering the psychological magnification of a transient scene. Suppose that a person who cuts himself shaving responds not only with distress but also with self-contempt: “What an idiot I am!” Suppose further that contempt already features in a group of scenes characterized by a perceived failure of attention in himself or others. What might be a transient scene is instead recruited to support a magnified grouping of scenes organized as a punitive contempt script: cutting oneself shaving becomes a failure of vigilance with damaging consequences that could or should have been avoided with proper, virtuous care. Another example: a momentary attraction to a passing stranger may be transient, an awareness of a pull of desire that emerges briefly into, then fades out of, consciousness. Or, such a scene can be magnified by and embedded in any number of different scripts: flirtation, seduction, aggression, inhibition, regret, and so on. An individual may have several scripts available to organize, interpret, or navigate such scenes of attraction, scripts that select for different contexts (a flirtation script in a coffee shop, a seduction script at a nightclub, an inhibition script at the workplace) or that are conjured up based on characteristics of the attractive person (hair color or texture, gait or manner of speaking).
For Tomkins, script theory offers a way to think about the complexity of experience insofar as it is at once determined and indeterminate. “The effect of any set of scenes is indeterminate until the future either magnifies or attenuates such experience” (3:87), he asserts, evoking something similar to what Freud called Nachträglichkeit (and what Laplanche has translated as afterwardness), the fundamental openness of the past to reinterpretation and redescription. Tomkins uses a different term in emphasizing the openness and multiplicity of the present: “the consequence of any experience is not singular but plural. There is no single effect, but rather there are many effects, which change in time—what I have called the principle of plurideterminacy” (3:87). Tomkins’s definition of this principle is indebted to the mathematical analysis of circular causal systems in cybernetics:
I have conceptualized differential magnification as a special case of plurideterminacy, which is the continuing change in causal status of any “cause” by the variation of conditions (including its “effects”) which succeed it and embed it in the nexus of a connected system, not excluding anticipations of possibilities in the future which can and do either further magnify and/or attenuate different features of the origins of any scripted set of scenes. (3:83)
When his language reaches the limits of intelligibility, as it does here, Tomkins turns to mathematics. His formula for magnification advantage expresses in quantified terms what he had previously described in the qualitative terms of weak and strong affect theories. (In his reformulation, high magnification advantage is like strong theory, low magnification advantage like weak theory.) We encourage mathematically minded readers to pursue the details of Tomkins’s discussions (3:80–83, 89–95), with this proviso: reading his computational approach to the perception of scenes and the ordering of scenes into scripts, it can seem as if Tomkins is waiting for his computer programmer to show up. Meanwhile, he is using his own amateur coding skills to sketch out the complex flows that he would like to formalize.
Tomkins’s list of the general features of scripts (3:84–86) calls to mind his early thought experiment about what would be required to create an authentically humanlike artificial intelligence (see chapter 4). Such features of scripts, Tomkins implies, should guide engineers who are interested in creating machines with genuine personalities. We offer a brief summary of his list:
- Scripts are sets of ordering rules for the interpretation, evaluation, prediction, production, or control of scenes.
- Scripts are selective, incomplete, and varyingly accurate and inaccurate.
- Scripts are continually reordered and changed.
- Interscripts navigate between competing scripts.
- Scripts are more self-validating than self-fulfilling.
- Because they are incomplete, scripts require auxiliary augmentation from media mechanisms (the senses, language), theories, plots, maps, and other scripts.
- Scripts are modular (combinable and decomposable) and can be partitioned or split.
Tomkins’s efforts to render experience in computational terms should not dissuade scholars in the humanities or social sciences from using the rich descriptive resources of script theory to differentiate affective practices across personalities, cultures, or peoples. When teaching Tomkins’s script theory in Canada, for example, one of us (A.F.) uses the everyday example of a politeness script. It is typical for Canadian pedestrians to apologize not only when they bump into another pedestrian but when someone bumps into them. The automatic, rapidly uttered “sorry” can be considered a skilled, habitual (i.e., low magnification advantage) anger management script that serves to deflect conflict. (Driving, such politeness scripts go out the window.) Tomkins wanted script theory to serve as a bridge between individual psychology and “more general social science” (3:84): “what sociologists have called the definition of the situation and what I am defining as the script is to some extent the same phenomenon viewed from two different but related theoretical perspectives” (3:84). Indeed, Tomkins’s theory lets us think about how individuals inherit and transform scripts from their families, educational and media institutions, regions, nations, religions, and so on, and how, at the same time, a given social group can pick up and transform effective or compelling scripts that are created by individuals in that group. Script theory appears to us to be a useful hinge concept for moving between psychological and sociological perspectives.
The bulk of Tomkins’s writing in AIC3 focuses on the affects of anger and fear, describing in more or less detail a variety of scripts including what he calls ideologies, anger-management and anger-control scripts, damage-repair, limitation-remediation, decontamination, antitoxic, avoidance, change-review, power-recasting, affluence scripts, and others. It is, as usual, not possible to summarize Tomkins’s discussions here. To give a reader a quick sense of the resources of this writing, consider Tomkins’s description of affect control scripts, which govern the consciousness of affect; or the density, display, expression, and communication of affect; or the consequences, conditionality, and specificity of affect (3:262–65). We see, once again, the role of bits of actual dialogue in script theory: “‘Enough is enough’; ‘Simmer down’; ‘You always cry at the least little thing’; ‘You’re too emotional’ are protoypic affect-density-control scripts” (3:263), asserts Tomkins, who also offers examples of script rules for affect display and expression (“Wipe that smile off your face,” “I don’t want to hear any more whining,” etc.). Any parent who, when reprimanding her child, has been surprised to hear her own parents’ words come out of her mouth should have a fairly immediate and intuitive grasp of this aspect of script theory. Or consider Tomkins’s chapter on “anger-driven power and recasting scripts” (3:458–70), in which a scene is recast with the positions of power reversed, for example, a child who frowns, says “no,” and slaps a parent’s hand reaching for a cookie. Here Tomkins seeks to rethink the psychoanalytic “theory of interiorization of good and bad objects” (3:458): “It is not necessarily a superego, ego ideal, or bad or good object which is interiorized but rather a specific simulation of how the other responded to the self—in this case via face, voice and hands—which is transformed in the recasting scene” (3:462). In such scenes, “the other is as salient as the self” (3:459), and it is the unity of the experienced scene that permits roles to be recast.
Another example of such reinterpretation of psychoanalytic dynamics or ideas is Tomkins’s notion of nuclear scripts, “the scripts which must continue to grow in intensity of affect, of duration of affect, and in the interconnectedness of scenes via the conjoint promise of endless, infinite, unconditional ends” (3:95). These scripts organize “the good scenes we can never totally or permanently achieve or possess” (3:95) as well as the bad scenes we cannot avoid or master; that is, they organize scenes of oedipal desire and our encounters with death. “The male child who loves his mother excessively,” asserts Tomkins, “can neither totally possess her (given an unwanted rival) nor totally renounce her. He is often destined, however, to keep trying and, characteristically, to keep failing” (3:96). Given his commitment to the principle of plurideterminacy, it may surprise some readers to encounter the language of “destiny” here. It does appear that his conception of nuclear scripts undermines his urge, so often expressed elsewhere in his writing, to find alternatives to Freud’s developmental framework, as he puts it in AIC4: “In contrast to Freud’s vision of civilization and its inherently tragic discontents, [script theory] is a vision of the equally inherent but less essentially tragic consequences of the differential magnification of a very rich set of potentialities for human civilizations” (4:26). There is no doubt that Tomkins’s theory is open to an enriched and more varied set of possible developmental outcomes than is classical psychoanalytic theory. Nevertheless, it still raises the question of the inevitability of some forms of human experience. By no means does it resolve this question.
Our discussion is largely a summary of “Affect and Cognition: Cognition as Central and Causal in Psychological Magnification,” chapter 3 of AIC3. Note that we have set aside Tomkins’s definition of “plot” (“the whole connected set of scenes lived in sequence is called the plot of a life” [3:83]), which neglects the usual association of plot with narrative cause and effect. As far as we can tell, the notion of plot does not play a significant role in Tomkins’s script theory. Elsewhere in AIC3, Tomkins explores many classes of scripts. Readers interested in reading more about nuclear scripts in particular will wish to examine the case studies of Sculptor in which Tomkins engages in self-analysis.
We also consulted, in AIC4, “Cognition: What Is It and Where Is It?” (chapter 2) as well as Exploring Affect, part IV, especially the section titled “Revisions in Script Theory—1990,” in which Tomkins maps a set of salient scripts back onto his theory of primary affects. For more on script theory, see Tomkins’s “Script Theory: Differential Magnification of Affects” (1979), “Script Theory” (1987), and “Scripting the Macho Man” (1988). See also Virginia Demos’s detailed clinical notes on Tomkins’s script theory in The Affect Theory of Silvan Tomkins for Psychoanalysis and Psychotherapy (chapters 6 and 8).