What is an affect theory? What does it do?
In their introduction to The Affect Theory Reader, Gregory Seigworth and Melissa Gregg survey the many different ways that affect can be theorized: these theories might be phenomenological, cybernetic, Spinozist, psychoanalytic, cognitive, Darwinian, literary, neurological, or some combination thereof. By this reckoning, an affect theory is a conceptual schema that explains to its readers how affects work, how we might best study and apprehend them, and how we might anticipate their transmission in the future. We can claim, unproblematically, that Spinoza has a theory of affect and that Darwin has a differently oriented theory of the emotions, and (if we dig around a little) we might also find a theory of affect in the writings of Freud (“the vicissitude of the quota of affect . . . is far more important than the vicissitude of the idea” [“Repression,” 153]). Similarly, we can find any number of scientific theories that gather data and test hypotheses about the affects. A neurologist, for example, might elaborate a theory about how emotion is regulated by various subcortical parts of the brain and the prefrontal cortex. Additionally, a political theory of affect might allow us to track how emotion operates in electoral systems; a psychologist might turn to theories of affect to map out new genealogies of embodiment; a literary critic might develop theories of minor and ugly feelings to think about class, race, and gender in late modernity.
For Tomkins, one important kind of affect theory is missing from this inventory: the personal ideo-affective organizations that are established through socialization and that give shape and dynamism to an individual’s everyday life. Tomkins calls these perceptual–ideo-affective–motor organizations affect theories, and he sees these ways of organizing the experience of one’s own affects in daily life as broadly homologous to the affect theories that a neurologist or geographer or literary critic might employ. The similarity between a scientific theory and an individual affect theory is particularly compelling for Tomkins—like scientists, individuals use available data to form hypotheses, forecast possible outcomes, and develop strategies for coping with affective events:
we have used the word theory to stress the high-order inferential processes which are inevitably involved when a human being is engaged by affect. The co-ordinations of percepts, ideas and actions which are prompted by even the most transitory affects are of the same general order as those involved in science in the co-ordination of empirical evidence and theory. The individual whose affect is engaged is inevitably thereby confronted with such questions as: “What is happening?” “What is going to happen?” “How sure am I of what seems to be happening and what will happen?” “What should I do?” These are theoretical questions in that they involve the interpretation of empirical evidence, the extrapolation into the future, the evaluation of both interpretation and extrapolation and the application of knowledge to strategy. (2:369)
There are two different ways, then, that we could talk about Darwin’s affect theories. There is the account given in The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals in which Darwin offers an evolutionary explanation of the manifestation of emotion in humans—an account built on data delivered to him by a global network of correspondents. And then there are the affect theories that subtend his (Charles’s) everyday life—theories given form (as they are for the rest of us) by the vicissitudes of socialization as well as familial, historical, and geographical milieux. It is because these two kinds of affect theories are not wholly independent of each other that Tomkins is often interested in the biographies of figures like Darwin or Freud or Chekhov or Marx or Wittgenstein or Hemingway (see chapter 13). Tacking back and forth between Darwin’s scientific theory of affect and his personal affect theory, Tomkins notes,
The affect of interest or excitement is, paradoxically, absent from Darwin’s catalogue of emotions. Although Darwin dealt with surprise and meditation the more sustained affect of interest per se was somehow overlooked. Darwin’s own primary affective investments in perceiving and in thinking may well have attenuated his awareness of his own sustained excitement in exploration, so that he misidentified the affect with the function of thinking. (1:337–38)
Tomkins’s interest in conjugating formal affect theories and individual affect theories is not psychobiographical in any conventional or reductive sense (see chapter 13); rather, his use of the term theory to describe the way people cope with the affective flux of their own experience and life draws directly from the rich personological work that he undertook at the Harvard Psychological Clinic with Henry Murray (see chapter 11).
An affect theory, in this Tomkinsian sense of an individual’s ideo-affective organization, has two components: first, the “cognitive antenna” (2:319) that examines incoming information and assesses the relevance of that information for a particular affect, and second, a set of strategies for coping with (although not necessarily avoiding) affective experience, especially negative affective experience. That is, affect theories are responses to the world as we encounter and imagine it. They are the means by which we negotiate the affective traffic of everyday life and the defenses that we use to survive turbulence or sudden and distressing changes of circumstances. These affect theories emerge from patterns of rewarding or punitive socialization of a particular affect. Take shame as an example—as a child, I may have been made to feel ashamed of my shame; or my shame may have been frequently amplified into humiliation by those closest to me; or my shame may have been abruptly curtailed by another’s anger (“Hold your head up!,” “Don’t be a cry-baby!”). In all these cases, the socialization of shame has been punishing and I have likely developed a strong shame theory: I will experience shame and humiliation in relation to a large number of situations and stimuli; I will come to anticipate shame and humiliation around every corner; I will become preoccupied with managing humiliation across most parts of my life. Or, perhaps I have been fortunate as a child: my shame has been recognized, attenuated and tolerated. In this latter case, Tomkins argues, I am likely to develop a weak shame theory:
In general the rewarding socialization of shame and contempt has the consequence of producing a weak shame theory. . . . It accounts for little more than itself. It is developed to account for and organize very specific experiences which are neither intense enough nor recurrent enough to prompt the generation of more than a crude general description of the phenomena themselves. (2:312)
A weak theory is sufficiently well targeted at potentially aversive events that the duration and intensity of those events is minimized. In the light of a weak shame theory I will tend not to dwell on feelings of indignity; I am less likely to magnify, cognitively elaborate, or embellish shame into mortification or humiliation. To call a shame theory weak, then, is not to say that it is ineffective. On the contrary, in order to stay weak these kinds of ideo-affective organizations must be effective in their management of negative affects. To call an affect theory weak is to say that it remains close to the events at hand, it generates an account of my experience that is good enough for current needs. In this way, a weak theory operates silently to guide action in a way that minimizes one’s exposure to toxic, negative feeling.
One of Tomkins’s favorite examples of the efficacy of a weak affect theory is a weak fear theory. Imagine that you are standing at the curb of a busy street, waiting to cross. As you pause to assess the traffic, you are unbothered by fear. Your weak fear theory enables you to act as if you were afraid (you hesitate) but without the conscious experience of noxious feeling:
The affect theory (a fear theory) here operates so silently and effectively that it would surprise everyman if the question of fear about crossing the street were even to be raised. He would say, quite self-persuasively, that he uses his common sense so that he doesn’t need to be afraid. This is one of the major functions of any negative affect theory—to guide action so that negative affect is not experienced. It is affect acting at a distance. Just as human beings can learn to avoid danger, to shun the flame before one is burnt, so also can they learn to avoid shame or fear before they are seared by the experience of such negative affect. (2:320)
A strong affect theory, on the other hand, emerges when a weak theory breaks down and is no longer effective. When a weak theory fails, it may become strong through what Tomkins calls psychological magnification (see chapter 9). A strong fear theory bodes ill for the everyday management of feeling, and it may indicate serious psychopathology in which fear has become a ubiquitous feature of an individual’s encounters with others and with the world:
a negative affect theory gains in strength, paradoxically, by virtue of the continuing failures of its strategies to afford protection through successful avoidance of the experience of negative affect . . . it is the repeated and apparently uncontrollable spread of the experience of negative affect which prompts the increasing strength of the ideo-affective organization which we have called a strong affect theory. Despite the fact that a strong affect theory may eventually succeed in preventing the experience of negative affect, it is usually only through the repeated failure to achieve this end that the ideo-affective organization grows stronger. (2:323–24)
Like a scientific theory, our affect theories undergo constant revision—new data are added, new experiences are calibrated against existing models, different affect theories (fear, shame, excitement) are tested against each other. Most often, Tomkins argues, affect theories coexist, or compete with each other, or find some kind of mutual accommodation. Sometimes, however, these affective strategies break down. Tomkins calls a particularly strong affect theory monopolistic. In these circumstances, one affect (e.g., shame) has come to dominate the life of an individual, ensnaring him or her in a monochromatic world of humiliation (“In a monopolistic humiliation theory all roads lead from perception, cognition and action to humiliation, and all roads lead back from humiliation to all the other sub-systems. It is an organization in which wherever one looks, whatever one thinks, whatever one does, humiliation may be aroused” [2:424]). While these monopolistic theories are strong, they are not uniform:
We might say that humiliation theory is monopolistic when any one or any combination of sub-systems is entirely and continuously captured by this affect. We might say humiliation becomes monopolistic when the individual never experiences humiliation because he is forever vigilant and so always successfully avoids the feeling of shame. We might consider humiliation monopolistic whenever the individual is perpetually humiliated, as we define an anxiety neurosis by the presence of chronic anxiety. We might define it by the exclusive interpretation of stimuli in terms of their relevance for humiliation, independent of whether this leads to humiliation or to successful avoidance of the affective experience. Any one of these, or any combination, might be an appropriate way to define monopolistic humiliation theory. (2:379)
Monopolistic affect theories are central to Tomkins’s understanding of severe psychological dysfunctions like schizophrenia or paranoia. In these conditions, the individual has been captured by strong, monopolistic shame and fear theories that color every part of his or her life. The consequent humiliation and terror produce excessive levels of vigilance and usually futile attempts at defense: “the individual has no holidays from the unfinished and unfinishable business of coping with humiliation” (2:425). In these cases, there is an overorganization between the subsystems of personality (cognition, perception, action, thinking, memory are all coordinated in their efforts to ward off this particularly toxic feeling), and there is an overinterpretation of the available experiential data (everything now feels humiliating or terrorizing): all parts of the personality are now on permanent alert, and the human being is seriously constricted in terms of his or her affective and cognitive function.
Because the pervasiveness of an affect here and now is relatively independent of what can happen to that affect over time, Tomkins also thinks of affect theories developmentally (how they may change from childhood to adulthood). An affect theory that continues to get stronger over time is said to snowball; here early experiences become more potent, and they come to govern personality and its subsystems more and more. By describing the developmental or chronological trajectories of an affect theory, Tomkins is able to introduce a significant amount of variegation into his account: early monopolistic theories may attenuate rather than snowball, for example, or a weakly organized affect theory may intensify into monopolism late in life. Additionally, there may be times when an affect theory that is a relatively minor part of personality encroaches into the individual’s everyday life, displacing other prevailing affects. Tomkins calls this an intrusion model of affect. For example, a usually sanguine individual may become contemptuous or angry when drunk, or a mostly fearless person may become terrified at the dentist. This vulnerability to specific affects in certain circumstances may be a constant part of an individual’s personality, or it may be that in an otherwise emotionally steady life, extraordinary circumstances (a death, or loss, or illness) provoke the abrupt intrusion from the past of affective experiences that are distressing or overwhelming and that feel completely alien (as in an acute psychotic episode). Tomkins calls this later event an example of an iceberg model of affect, and he notes that because psychoanalytic theories tend to think primarily in terms of development, they have overemphasized snowball and iceberg models of affect, at the expense of the other kinds of affective models that structure our lives.
Tomkins presents this typology of basic affect theories as a specific critique of the Freudian emphasis on development. To return to the example of a weak fear theory (you are standing at the curb, waiting to cross the street), the ideo-affective organization that Tomkins would call a weak fear theory enables you to act as if you are afraid, and so you are saved from exposure to high levels of fear. This is psychic defense, but not in the Freudian manner that requires significant expenditure of psychic energy (e.g., repression). Instead, this weak theory can anticipate fear and can develop strategies for dealing with fear at a distance, so that in everyday life, the affect itself is rarely activated or experienced. If the individual encounters a situation that disrupts the quotidian functioning of a weak fear theory (a car going too fast, careening from one side of the street to the other), he may experience fear or perhaps panic. But Tomkins does not see this intense affect as “breaking through” unconscious defenses. Rather, this “fear which now overwhelms is . . . peculiar to this situation in which new threats have appeared” (2:321).
While Tomkins distinguishes between a finite number of affect models (monopolistic, intrusive, competitive, integrative) and four kinds of developmental analogs for those models (snowball, iceberg, coexistence, late bloomer), the taxonomic structures he describes are labile. Indeed, Tomkins is most interested in the ways our affect theories are dynamic and changeable: “every theory, weak or strong, is in a relatively unstable equilibrium, which is constantly shifting” (2:421). A strong theory, for example, is built through endless processes of construction, destruction, and reconstruction:
The key to monopolism, as we define it, is not the existence of an organization which has attained an absolute level of strength. . . . It is our assumption that personality structure is continually changing. The monopolistic organization is also changing, but is one in which the change is in the same direction, continually reinterpreting in terms of the past what might have been seen as novelty, continually improving strategies which have broken down, so that they become more and more effective but which break down again and are again improved. (2:422)
The individual burdened by a monopolistic affect theory is caught in a distressing scramble to mobilize psychic strategies in the face of overwhelming affective traffic but then finds that those defenses disintegrate, and she is exposed, despite her best efforts, to toxic levels of negative affect.
Perhaps what is most interesting in Tomkins’s account of affect theories, then, is not the capacity for integration or mutual accommodation (which he passes over fairly quickly) but how affect theories are built on discontinuity. Even in relatively benign circumstances, Tomkins argues, “discontinuities between perception, cognition, affect and action are the rule and not the exception” (2:372). It is this oscillation between the importance of skilled defenses against negative affects, on one hand, and the breakdown of those defenses, on the other, that is at the heart of Tomkins’s account of an affect theory. Here, we think, lies one of the most intriguing challenges that Tomkins’s work presents to the kinds of affect theorizing that tend to unilaterally favor flux over stasis or process over organization. Rather than arguing for static personality structures (as many of his psychological contemporaries did under the names trait or temperament) or for infinitely multiplying iterations of affective events, Tomkins gives us a model of theory building as construction, breakdown, renewal, and reassembly within a known number of parameters. It is this more algorithmic approach to both higher-order and individual theories that, we feel, amplifies the important and undertheorized middle ranges of affective agency. We pick up this notion again in the next two chapters (chapter 9, on scenes and scripts, and chapter 10, on ideology).
Tomkins’s most extensive account of weak and strong (monopolistic) affect theories can be found in the final four chapters of AIC2: chapter 20, “Continuities and Discontinuities in the Impact of Humiliation: The Intrusion and Iceberg Models”; chapter 21, “Continuities and Discontinuities in the Impact of Humiliation: The Monopolistic and Snow Ball Models”; chapter 22, “The Structure of Monopolistic Humiliation Theory, Including the Paranoid Posture and Paranoid Schizophrenia”; and chapter 23, “Continuities and Discontinuities in the Impact of Humiliation: Some Specific Examples of the Paranoid Posture.”
At the end of our opening paragraph, we are thinking of the work of Drew Westen (The Political Brain), Lisa Blackman (Immaterial Bodies), and Sianne Ngai (Ugly Feelings).
For lively, recent engagements with Tomkins’s notion of weak theory in modernist studies, see the special issue of Modernism/Modernity (September 2018) edited by Paul Saint-Amour and the many responses on that journal’s Print Plus platform.
Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick has provided some preliminary clues about how to use the rubrics of weak and strong theory in the critical humanities in “Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading; or, You’re So Paranoid, You Probably Think This Introduction Is about You,” and she makes a case for the non-oedipal, middle ranges of agency (“the notion that you can be relatively empowered or disempowered without annihilating someone else or being annihilated, or even castrating or being castrated” ) in “Melanie Klein and the Difference Affect Makes.” On this latter argument about the middle ranges of affect, see Adam Frank, “Some Avenues for Feeling” and “Some Affective Bases for Guilt.”