If you’re reading this Introduction, there’s a good chance that you would like to make sense of the work of the American psychologist Silvan Tomkins (1911–91). Perhaps you are a researcher seeking a handle on a complicated body of theory, a student who has encountered references to Tomkins in the classroom, or a clinician looking for a conceptual frame for the affects you encounter in the session. Maybe you are simply curious about the technical term affect as it has entered scholarly discourse in the humanities and social sciences and wonder what, exactly, this term means. We hope this handbook will serve as a resource that enables you to work with Tomkins’s ideas in your own domain of interest. We have tried to provide a clear outline of his affect theory, otherwise difficult to extract in concise form from the four volumes of his lifework Affect Imagery Consciousness (AIC) (Springer, 1962–63 and 1991–92) and fifty years of journal publications. We have divided our book into three parts corresponding to the categories: “Affect,” “Imagery,” “Consciousness.” Each is further divided into interlocking sections or modules that provide definitions of key terms, explain theoretical innovations, and sketch historical and conceptual contexts. The book is designed so that these sections may be read either sequentially or (if the reader prefers) out of sequence as a reference book. Our main goal has been to make Tomkins’s work accessible, portable, and useful.
It should go without saying but we’ll say it anyway: this handbook does not offer a substitute for the experience of reading Tomkins’s work, which is far too rich and problematic for any adequate summation. We have pointed to places where the reader may wish to turn to the primary texts under discussion and have offered suggestions for further reading at the end of each section (including this Introduction). In other words, readers are encouraged to immerse themselves or dive in. We think of our book as a makeshift handrail that guides a reader gently into these strange waters, more hidden grotto than cement pool, with surprising drops and shallows, hot and cold spots, and strong currents that can bring a swimmer, quite unexpectedly, into the open sea. We have learned first to wade and then to swim in these invigorating waters over twenty-five years of looking for handholds on slimy rocks and exploring nooks, crannies, and tide pools. We hope readers profit from our cartographic findings and that others can redraw these maps as they explore Tomkins’s work in their own way.
But why, we hear some readers ask, spend so much time with a thinker whose work is so challenging or difficult? (We have especially heard the latter term used, calling to mind the phrase a difficult child.) The question could be asked of any number of speculative thinkers or theorists—everyone has his or her favorite punching bag. For many scholars in the critical humanities, Tomkins’s particular difficulty has been its provenance in twentieth-century Anglo-American philosophy and psychology, which presents a rather different challenge than the figurative and grammatical densities associated with Continental philosophy. Tomkins’s work offers an unpredictable, at times exhilarating mix of empirical and speculative accounts of psychological phenomena. Not unlike Freud, who drew on neuroanatomical and physiological studies to construct a wide-ranging phenomenological analysis of human psychology, Tomkins combines experimental protocols (clinical trials, large-scale surveys, projective tests) and high-level cross-disciplinary conceptualization, with all the risks this entails for reception, peer recognition, and intellectual uptake.
A more fundamental difficulty belongs to the main topic of his writing: affect itself. If Freud brought sexuality into the conceptual and clinical limelight, Tomkins wanted to refocus that light on affect (although, as we will see, by no means did he wish to exclude or sideline sexuality). And he chose to work, not within the cloisters of psychoanalysis, but from the perspective of an empirically oriented academic psychology. Although affect was not a taboo subject for mid-century psychology, it nonetheless posed a peculiar set of problems, primary among these being, how do you study it? What measurable physiological phenomena are reliably associated with affective experience? What role should introspective reports play in the study of affect? In addition to these questions of method, however, there is the prior, ideological question of whether affect should be studied. On one hand, many researchers in academic psychology have considered affect to be a hopelessly subjective set of phenomena properly suited to other, more speculative domains of study. Some years ago, one of us (E.W.) presented a brief appraisal of Tomkins’s affect theory to a department of psychology. A colleague, seemingly both intrigued and aggravated by Tomkins’s quasi-algorithmic formulation of shame as the incomplete reduction of the positive affects of interest or enjoyment, expostulated, “Yes. But you can’t study shame in a rat!” On the other hand, for those who view affective experience in essentialist terms, either primarily as self-expression or private contact with a personal truth, to theorize affect is to risk blanching it, taking it away from experience via linguistic abstraction—feelings become disenchanted, hung out to dry. To put feelings into words, according to this perspective, is to contaminate both feelings and words, to betray them and oneself.
But if Freud has taught us anything, it is that self-betrayal is inevitable and that, in acts of self-betrayal, it becomes possible to attend to what he called “psychic reality,” a reality that is neither easy to know nor entirely inaccessible. Tomkins’s investigations of affect, like Freud’s (and Spinoza’s, as we suggest in the first interlude), posit the psyche (or mind) as a dynamic domain of the not-yet-known. Their therapeutics seek, not to restore an essential pregiven “self” to itself, but to develop a vocabulary that lets us name and begin to think about the multiple roles of affective experience in our lives. Consider the interesting fact that, like words, feelings both are and are not our own. For example, my joy at reuniting with a beloved is at once highly personal and idiosyncratic to me, and it also resembles the joy you would experience in a similar situation. And this is true even though our two experiences are, in other ways, quite unlike: my joy tends to be accompanied by a feeling of anger (at my beloved for leaving in the first place) and heart-dropping dread (that I will be left again), while yours is accompanied by an exciting mix of lust and jealousy. To put this another way, much of the time, we don’t know, and don’t want to know, what we are feeling. The assumption that feelings are vague, inarticulable, or ineffable can begin to sound more like a defense against acknowledging unwanted feelings than a persuasive account of experience. Or, to use Tomkins’s own formulation, it is a decontamination script that maintains a strict boundary between word and feeling.
Tomkins’s work navigates the complexities of these subjective and empirical demands by presenting affect as an umbrella category that can be characterized in the following terms:
- neurological: Affects are defined, in his innate activator model, by a certain profile of neural firing.
- physiological: Affects are delineated by sets of muscular, glandular, and skin responses.
- aesthetic: The affects are experienced consciously as different feelings.
Though none of these has priority over the others, Tomkins’s consistent phenomenology of the affects has brought our attention to the aesthetic, that is, what affects feel like in experience. He is careful to observe that affect is rarely experienced in its “pure” state. As amplifier of the drives and, more generally, part of a system of motivation that fuses with thoughts, perceptions, motor actions, drive states, and other affects, affective experience is almost always a blend. Consider, for example, how Tomkins understands emotions: these consist of one or more affects in combination with cognitive or drive states in a manner that colors, flavors, or inflects the affects. While anger-rage is one of Tomkins’s primary affects, indignation is an emotion, as is fury, hatred, and scorn, each a somewhat distinct inflection of the affect anger-rage. Similarly, lust and curiosity both involve the affect interest-excitement, while the primary affect of shame-humiliation is at the core of the quite different emotions of shyness, embarrassment, and guilt. And so on. What Tomkins offers, then, is a periodic table of affective elements that combine to become any number of emotional molecular structures or substances. With this framework, we may begin to analyze affective experience into constituents as part of a dynamic inquiry into what’s going on.
We note here that Tomkins’s formulation of nine primary affects is not an argument for nine sovereign affects and that his claim that the affects are innate does not mean that they are predetermined or that they are separate from systems of meaning, purpose, signification, or sociality. We find ourselves disagreeing, therefore, strongly, with Ruth Leys’s assessment that affects and cognitions are “two entirely separate systems” in Tomkins’s work (Ascent of Affect, 19). While Leys is right to note that Tomkins distinguishes between affects and cognition (and drives), she overreads the autonomy of these systems in his work and dismisses the dependencies and interdependencies that structure his cybernetically inflected account of human beings. According to Leys, Tomkins initiated a scholarly lineage (what she calls the anti-intentionalist stance of contemporary research on emotion) that splits affect from reason and that conceptualizes emotions as discrete, innate, automatically triggered events that operate independently of consciousness or meaning. This argument misses Tomkins’s insistence on the intimate relation between affect and purpose, meaning, and value as such. We read Tomkins for his commitment to complexity, feedback, systematicity, contingency, and plurideterminacy: how affects and drives together form the basis of motivation (chapter 1); how cognitions become heated when coassembled with affects and, contrariwise, how affects become informed and smarter when coassembled with cognition (chapter 4); how affective scenes are magnified into scripts (chapter 9); how affects have evolved as mechanisms that are loosely matched to each other and to cognitive, perceptual, and motor mechanisms (chapter 12); and how affects are just one component of a “minding system” that is indissolubly cognitive and motivational (chapter 14).
One of our hopes for this handbook is that it will encourage researchers to read more deeply into Tomkins and perhaps find themselves differently oriented to the formulations of affect, biology, and sociality that have become conventional in the so-called affective turn. In particular, we are thinking of the work in affect studies that aligns itself primarily with Brian Massumi’s influential interpretation of affect as (1) an impersonal intensity that operates independently of systems of signification or language and (2) an event that is configured differently from the sociolinguistic conventions of emotion: “emotion and affect . . . follow different logics and pertain to different orders” (88). Many scholars of affect after Massumi have preferred to read for the asignifying intensity of affect over the narrativized and individualized character of emotion. There can be considerable conceptual and political loss in this now-routinized critical stance. In trying to reformulate the kind of work that “affect” can do, affect studies often neglects subjective and intersubjective experience, for example. The pursuit of affectivity in the domain of the posthuman can sometimes leave the affective life of human worlds significantly undertheorized. As we have noted, Tomkins’s affect theory also distinguishes between affect and emotion, but it does so without the ontological certainty of “different orders.” Instead, it provides a conceptual framework for thinking about the nature of different affective states and their relation to other psychic, social, and biological events. It is, we believe, a cogent, complex, and generative theory of affect.
Tomkins’s work is slowly moving into wider scholarly circulation, and there is increasing recognition that what is elaborated in his theory of affect remains important for critical thinking across a wide range of disciplines and interdisciplines. Certainly things have changed since Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick invited one of us (A.F.) to participate in a reading and writing project that issued in Shame and Its Sisters: A Silvan Tomkins Reader in 1995. It is gratifying to observe that what “theory knows today” (Sedgwick and Frank, 1) is not the same as what theory knew twenty-five years ago. In the rest of our Introduction, we would like to mark what has changed and how Tomkins’s work is still valuable in a contemporary context.
First, the antibiologism that Sedgwick and Frank note had become an important point of departure for so many routines of theory in the humanities and social sciences is no longer so habitually deployed. This antibiologism once all but constituted the critical theories that were committed to antiessentialism and, what usually accompanied them, efforts to debunk or demystify the putatively natural. There has been ongoing and intensifying argument since 1995 that research in the humanities and social sciences might benefit from the integration of (or at least familiarity with) neurological or cognitive or genetic data. Not all these projects have been successful—some use scientific data too credulously—but theory no longer suspects that distance from biology is necessary for, or a guarantor of, critical or political engagement.
Second, language is no longer “assumed to offer the most productive, if not the only possible, models for understanding representation” (Sedgwick and Frank, Shame and Its Sisters, 1). Consider a particularly salient example: Michel Foucault’s notion of discourse (by which he meant a collection of rules determining what can and cannot be said at a specific historical juncture) has been displaced by notions of media and mediation, that is, the technological substrata that determine what can and cannot be perceived or thought at a given juncture. One thinks of media theory as it emerges in the work of Friedrich Kittler and his interpreters. From a different angle, one may observe both a proliferation of nonlinguistic models of representation (picture theory, for example) and attempts to sideline representation as such (actor-network theory, thing theory). More generally, ontology now authorizes theory in a way that more epistemically focused approaches to language once did.
This leads directly to the third and fourth points that Sedgwick and Frank make: the seemingly urgent and interminable identification and dismantling of binarized structures as the core concern for an engaged critical practice. Today’s critical projects (especially those that operate under the rubric of affect studies) are less attentive to the operations of binarized thinking. These theorists engage in ontological speculations that recast aesthetic, ethical, social, and material dynamics in the hope of offering (in some sense) better descriptions that create (in some sense) better performative consequences. The motives are often explicitly reparative, the methods speculative. There has been, if not a broadening, then certainly a reorientation of the methodological field, and there remains considerable ambiguity around the question of what criticism does and is for.
There is much in Tomkins’s work that can contribute to these reconfigurations. We would remind readers that his work offers, not only a theory of affect, but theories of imagery and consciousness as well. Affect, imagery, and consciousness are inextricably entwined, for example, in his notion of theory, which weaves together epistemic and ontological concerns with questions of motivation. Recent criticism has been particularly drawn to his distinction between weak and strong theories (chapter 8). A strong theory is one that is able to account for large swaths of data and many eventualities. Psychoanalysis, especially in its classical Freudian forms, often makes use of strong theories (e.g., castration): it is able to engage, explain, and offer a conceptual infrastructure for a large archive of human behaviors, pleasures, fantasies, pathologies, and cultural productions. A weak theory, by contrast, has a much smaller compass. Its explanatory power is closely calibrated to the events at hand: a weak theory reads closely. Or, in the language of the clinic, it deals (effectively) with experience near data. Tomkins does not advocate for weak theories over strong ones, but he does draw our attention to the cost of strong theories: what is lost as well as gained in the strengthening of a given theory. As Deleuzian theories of affect become strong, for example, we find Tomkins’s account of weak theory a helpful reminder of the importance of a methodological ecology that can support many, differently powerful ways of thinking about affect: not just Deleuzian or Tomkinsian but also psychoanalytic, phenomenological, Aristotelian, empirical, biochemical, and, of course, the myriad traditions of thinking about emotion beyond the West (in India, China, and North American indigenous cultures, for example).
We see as yet untapped critical utility in the theory of scenes (the contingent but possibly enduring attachment of an affect to an object) and scripts (the magnification of scenes into rules for the management of everyday feeling; chapter 9) and in his account of ideology as an organized set of ideas about which we are most passionate but also least certain (chapter 10). We find it significant that, in Tomkins’s account, affect precedes value. Our ethical and political beliefs are rooted in scripts whose primary function is to guide and organize our affective scenes. These scripts, at once individual and social, emerge from a combination of disparate temporalities and spatialities (individual development, sociopolitical conflict, evolutionary inheritance). Consider how script theory offers resources for understanding the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign: as an exercise in summoning and manipulating varieties of (anti-)toxic resentment scripts pertaining to class, gender, and race. While some of these scripts are highly specific to local economic conditions, others are more loosely connected to the history of white supremacy in the United States, still others to misogynist demonology. Resentment, a complex emotion based on the affects of anger-rage and (what Tomkins calls) dissmell, may have many objects. Clearly Donald Trump’s remarkably disinhibited expression of resentment and the enjoyment he and others take in these expressions served as a lightning rod for a great variety of resentments and the scripts that organize them. And, of course, resentment breeds resentment (similar dynamics appear to be governing the transnational resurgence of authoritarian “populisms,” so called).
In addition to engaging with the particular innovations of Tomkins’s theory, we are hoping that readers of this handbook will be able to rearrange the overly simplistic intellectual affiliations that have come to shape the field of affect studies. Many readers will have already noted that there is now a tendency to bifurcate affect studies into two traditions (the Darwinian and the Deleuzian, say) and then position these “traditions” agonistically, as if a critical choice is to be made. It seems to us that this structuring of the critical scholarship often duplicates a conventional division between mind and body (between signification and material, between discourse and affect), and so it has unwittingly intensified rather than alleviated the so-called two cultures problem. We have presented Tomkins’s work here in a way that begins to complicate such easy intellectual divisions—there are important strands of influence in his work (see our interludes on Spinoza and Darwin) that do not conform to the taxonomies of what affect theory knows and feels today.
Tomkins’s work remains compelling into the current century in part because we are in desperate need of a conceptualization of subjective experience that is, at the same time, open both to biological and sociopolitical domains. His deft use of cybernetics to think of humans as loosely fitted coassemblies of interrelated systems offers the beginning of one answer to this need (see chapter 12). Our contemporary moment is constrained by a set of knots or double-binds, perhaps the most powerful of which pertain to the strange status of subjectivity. We appear to be committed to epistemic perspectivalism (all knowledge is situated) at the same time that we reject subjectivity’s role in constructing knowledge, as if the latter automatically entails irredeemable forms of solipsism or humanism. Faced with such oppositions and the near-intolerable anxieties they breed, the middle grounds of feeling and thinking that comprise everyday knowledge and experience tend to go missing. Tomkins’s work lets us begin to find and make space for these middle grounds.
We recommend a handful of essays that will help orient readers to the so-called affective turn. Melissa Gregg and Gregory Seigworth’s introduction to The Affect Theory Reader gives an overview of the field, although Tomkins is mentioned only in passing and is not much taken up by other contributors to the anthology. Russ Leo (“An Archive for Affect Theory”) has reviewed the volume in ways we have found very helpful. Constantina Papoulias and Felicity Callard (“Biology’s Gift: Interrogating the Turn to Affect”) and Clare Hemmings (“Invoking Affect: Cultural Theory and the Ontological Turn”) have been strongly critical of affect theory. They discuss Tomkins more than most overviews of the field, but these discussions still rely more on secondary sources than they do on a direct engagement with Tomkins’s texts. The special issue of Body and Society edited by Lisa Blackman and Couze Venn (16, no. 1 ) and Patricia Tincento Clough’s anthology The Affective Turn investigate how the study of affect reorganizes scholarship on embodiment.
Since Sedgwick and Frank’s critique of a routinized antibiologism in 1995 (“Shame in the Cybernetic Fold: Reading Silvan Tomkins”), numerous influential texts, especially in feminist theory, have developed ways to think with the data from the biological and natural sciences (e.g., Barad’s Meeting the Universe Halfway, Bennett’s Vibrant Matter, Malabou’s What Should We Do with Our Brain?). For an excellent accounting of how neuroscientific data have been used with varying degrees of success in the social sciences, see Des Fitzgerald and Felicity Callard (“Social Science and Neuroscience beyond Interdisciplinarity: Experimental Entanglements”).
We have already put down our thoughts, in more detail, about the ways in which Leys misreads Tomkins’s affect theory. We refer readers interested in that debate to the 2011 and 2012 issues of Critical Inquiry that contain Leys’s original article, our response, and her rejoinder (37, no. 3; 38, no. 4). We refer readers not yet acquainted with Brian Massumi’s influential account of affect to Parables for the Virtual: Movement, Affect, Sensation (and especially “The Autonomy of Affect”) in the first instance.