“Drive Theory Is Dead.” This is the provocative title that Silvan Tomkins gave to the first presentation of his nascent affect theory. The talk was delivered sometime in the early 1950s to “the stronghold of Freudian and Hullian drive theory” at Yale University (4:xiv). Tomkins reports that (surprisingly) the paper was well received and that he presented it again at the International Congress of Psychology in Montreal in 1954. Looking for a publisher for this paper, he was rejected by every journal of psychology in the United States. Eventually, with the help of the psychoanalyst Daniel Lagache, the paper was published, in French, in a 1956 anthology edited by Jacques Lacan. Other contributors to this volume (La Psychoanalyse) are Emile Benveniste, Martin Heidegger, Jean Hyppolite, Daniel Lagache, Eliane Amado Lévy-Valensi, Clémence Ramnoux, and Lacan himself. This story may seem peculiar to the contemporary reader—it may seem odd that the same paper could find an amicable reception from both behaviorists and psychoanalysts; it may be surprising that a mid-century American psychologist could place his work in a volume alongside Continental philosophers, analysts, and semioticians. Nonetheless, this story is a useful way to approach Tomkins’s work. We will argue that his affect theory is notable for how it engages tenets of behaviorism, psychoanalysis, and (eventually) cognitivism to build a different (indeed, provocative) kind of psychological theory. By being interested in each of these schools, yet affixed to none, Tomkins was able to generate a brilliant, idiosyncratic, and complex understanding of the affect system informed as much by cybernetics and systems theory as by psychoanalysis, neuropsychology, learning theory, ethology, and studies of perception and cognition.
When Tomkins first began thinking and writing about affect, psychological theory in the United States was dominated by two schools: behaviorism and psychoanalysis. While these schools are usually positioned antagonistically in relation to key clinical and conceptual tenets (the status of unconscious mental processes being perhaps the most infamous), Tomkins argued for their convergence. He suggested that there is one important way in which behaviorism and psychoanalysis were compatible: both schools take drives to be the motivating forces of human psychology. For the behaviorist, a person is motivated to act (or not) in relation to the conditioning of drive states (hunger being paradigmatic). For the psychoanalyst, a person is motivated, unconsciously, by the vicissitudes of sexual drives (the perversion of hunger into orality being paradigmatic). Even though J. B. Watson’s (1920) earliest experiments with conditioning were structured by the manipulation of fear, and even though Freud’s (1895) first cases of hysteria were notable for their descriptions of emotional lability, each tradition eventually placed more explanatory weight on drive gratification than affective experience. Tomkins argued that one of the effects of this dominance of drive theory is that neither behaviorism nor psychoanalysis is able fully to attend to how affects work as motivators. This has further consolidated the subordinate status of the affects in psychological theory: “Historically, many have regarded the affects not only as secondary to the drives but even as the prime disorganizers . . . something of a bull in a china shop of man’s organized repertoire of responses” (1:40).
One of Tomkins’s first gestures as he begins AIC is to reorganize this logic. Putting aside the instinctual inclinations of both behaviorism and psychoanalysis, he argues that affects are the primary motivators of human behavior: we act (learn, think, remember, crave, attach) in relation to fear or surprise, enjoyment or shame. While it appears that humans are motivated by drive states (breathing, thirst, defecation, hunger, sex, pain), much of this motivational power has been “borrowed” (1:22) from the affect system. Tomkins argued that drives, on their own, are surprisingly weak motivators of action; they provide information about motivation but very little impetus to actually move. The drives have psychological power only to the extent that they are amplified by the affects: “The affect system is therefore the primary motivational system because without its amplification, nothing else matters—and with its amplification, anything else can matter” (3:6).
What, then, is the nature of this amplificatory relation between affects and drives? In the first instance, an affect has the effect of making a drive state urgent. In the neonate, for example, the affect of distress makes “hunger appear more urgent and harder to tolerate. The total distress is certainly greater than if there were hunger alone” (1:49). Hunger is motivating for a human—urging her or him to action—only when amplified by affects like distress, anger, excitement, or fear. For Tomkins, hunger urges, presses, or drives—in ways that matter—only when coassembled with an affect. Similarly for the sex drive, it too requires the amplification of an affect to be reconstituted as what we call sexuality: “Ordinarily the urgency of this drive is amplified by the affective response of interest or excitement. The sexual organ is the site of sexual pleasure, but the thrill of sexuality is more affect than specific sexual pleasure” (1:55). The affective thrill of sexuality need not always be tied to the positivity of excitement; it may also come from the amplifying effects of negative affects like fear or anger. Or, more interesting still, fear and excitement may jointly modulate the sex drive:
Fear, united with sexual drive pleasure, is also capable of increasing the urgency and intensity of the sex drive. This is the lure of the tabooed and the forbidden, a complex combination of primary drive pleasure and positive and negative affect amplification. Negative affect amplification is here accompanied by the positive affective response of excitement which along with sexual pleasure gives the entire complex a predominantly positive tone. (1:57)
In these examples, we see the affective intensification of a drive: hunger becomes pressing, sex becomes fervent. And we should note that amplification, in Tomkins’s theory, can be a complex combinatorial event—multiple affects can be activated in relation to one drive, and positive and negative affects may cohabit experientially. Moreover, affects can downwardly modulate a drive—masking, reducing, or inhibiting it. Disgust, fear, and distress can all attenuate the hunger drive; in the case of anorexia, this attenuation can be chronic and life threatening. Likewise, the sex drive can be significantly diminished by shame or fear or anger, making sex for Tomkins “the most finicky of drives” (4:xiii).
So the drives and the affects are different systems for Tomkins: they are differently configured biologically, and they have different psychological effects. One of the key ways in which affects and drives differ is that drives are biologically specific, whereas affects are general. That is, drives provide precise information about where to act (in the case of the hunger drive, here, in the mouth), when to act (sometime in the next few hours), what to do (eat), and the things to which we should be responsive (carbohydrates, fats, proteins). That is, the drive tells quite a specific story about how, when, and where it is to be consummated. In the case of hunger, the drive is a biological mechanism particular to the mouth and stomach, and it can best be satisfied by food. Orality, leaning on this hunger mechanism, is similarly specific in Freudian psychoanalysis—it cleaves to the mouth and is satisfied by oral stimulation. Tomkins would argue that while the varieties of food and methods of oral stimulation may be extensive, elaborate, and perverse, the biological specificity of the hunger drive remains the focal point of such theories. In both cases, the hunger drive demands attention to (and gratification from) a specific bodily site. As a way of demonstrating that specificity of the drive, Tomkins proposes a thought experiment:
Let us suppose that the hunger drive were “rewired” to be localized in the urethra and the sex drive localized in the palm of the hand. For sexual satisfaction the individual would first open and close his hand and then reach for a wide variety of “objects” as possible satisfiers, cupping and rubbing his hands until orgasm. When he became hungry, he might first release the urethra and urinate to relieve his hunger. If this did not relieve it, he might use his hands to find objects which might be put inside the urethra, depending on just how we rewired the apparatus. Such an organism would be neither viable nor reproductive. Such specificity of time and place of the drive system, critical though it is for the viability, is, nevertheless, a limitation on its general significance for the human being. (“Affect Theory,” 356–57)
Drives have a clarity to them: we tend to know where we are hungry or thirsty or in pain, and we tend to be able to distinguish fairly reliably between drive states (between, say, being hungry and being sexually aroused, between the need to breathe and the need to defecate). This particularity of the drives, Tomkins argues, is what limits their significance for psychological action.
There is usually much less clarity about affects—about what they are, how many there are, or where they are. It is commonplace that I might not know whether I am afraid or excited or angry, I might not know when my excitement has become anger, and I am unlikely to be able to say where these experiences are happening or how they might be reliably up- or down-regulated. This is what Tomkins calls the generality of the affects. This generality comes in a variety of forms:
- Affects are general in relation to time. Where the temporality of hunger is somewhat contained (eat now!) and becomes increasingly urgent within a fairly short period of time, the affects have highly variable temporalities: “one can be anxious for just a moment or for half an hour, or for a day, or for a month, or for a year, a decade or a lifetime, or never or only occasionally now though much more frequently than some time ago” (1:172).
- Affects are general in relation to bodily location: excitement, for example, has no necessary affiliation to a body part in the way that hunger does to the stomach, or defecation to the bowel.
- Affects are general in relation to the responses they demand: there is often no easily identifiable way to reduce my fear in the way that eating fairly reliably reduces hunger. I may develop strategies for reducing fear, but likely I also know, through bitter experience, that such strategies are liable to break down and I will need to keep reinventing new tactics to keep my fear at bay.
- Crucially, affects are general in relation to objects: “any affect may have any ‘object’” (1:347). The drive–object relations that Freud (1915) elaborated in terms of the vicissitudes of the instincts Tomkins reorganizes as affect–object freedom: “there is literally no kind of object that has not been linked to one or another of the affects” (“Affect Theory,” 358).
The early chapters of AIC elucidate this important distinction between drives and affects. However, as soon as this distinction is in place, Tomkins begins to rework it. Pain, for example, seems to be midway between an affect and a drive; it has a generality of time, for example, but not of bodily location. Moreover, some affects are intimately aligned with one particular drive, undermining a crisp distinction between affect and drive. The affect of disgust, for example, is auxiliary to the hunger drive. The turning of the head that is indicative of a disgusted response to bad food is also the affective response of disgust that signals rejection to the other and to the self.
This making and unmaking of a primary distinction between affects and drives, we argue, is one of the gestures that gives Tomkins’s theory its uniquely compelling character. It allows him to build a psychological theory that values systematicity—the combinatorial dependencies, interdependencies, and independencies of various elements of mind. This relationality is one of the threads in Tomkins’s thinking that we will make legible throughout this book. Here we simply note that, for Tomkins, an affect is not a singular, hardwired event. It is a systemic occurrence composed of neural firing, facial musculature, glandular messages, motor responses, memory, images, sensory and perceptual feedback, and affect “accretions” (1:244). As we remember that an affect is coassembled with drives (amplifying drives, but also possibly being activated by them), with cognitions, with other affects, and with other neurological systems (what Tomkins called auxiliary amplifying systems), we can see both the scope of Tomkins’s theory and the difficulty that any reader might have in trying to comprehend it:
We began our examination of the drive system with the assumption that what had passed for drive for centuries was in fact a drive–affect assembly. We shall end this examination of both systems with a glimpse of an ever-changing multi-component set of drives, affects, general and specific amplifiers and attenuators. These, along with the transmuting mechanism which transforms messages into conscious form, and the perceptual and memory systems enter into the ever-changing central assemblies, to be described later, which govern the human organism. (1:88)
The identity of affects and drives, and the distinctiveness of their allegedly essential characteristics, begins to look more contingent as AIC unfolds. Because affects on their own can motivate behavior, and because drives require the amplifying influence of affects to impel action, one might be led to think that affects themselves are the primary source of motivation. Against this idea of affective sovereignty or autonomy, Tomkins argues that it is the combinatorial assemblages of affects and drives that have psychological efficacy: “the primary motivational units are the drive–affect combinations” (1:65). That is, Tomkins flips the conventional status of affects and drives, not to banish drives or to unequivocally favor affects, but to join them to each other more potently.
The second chapter of AIC1 (“Drive–Affect Interactions: Motivational Information of Time and Place of Response—When, Where, What, to What”) has a detailed account of the relation between drives and affects. We also relied on some later chapters in AIC1 for further elaboration of the relation between affects and drives: see chapter 6 (“Visibility and Invisibility of the Affect System,” especially pages 171–86) and chapter 8 (“The Innate Determinants of Affect,” especially pages 249–58).
The relation between Tomkins and psychoanalysis will be a continuing concern for us in this book. We refer readers interested in how Freud elaborates the relations of objects to drives to his canonical paper “Instincts and Their Vicissitudes.” For Freud on the perversion of the drives, we recommend his earlier work on infantile sexuality and polymorphous perversity (“Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality”).
The relation between Tomkins’s work and the psychoanalytic scene in Paris in the 1950s has not yet been explored. Daniel Lagache attended the 1954 International Congress of Psychology and was, at the same time, a close colleague of Lacan. According to Tomkins, it was Lagache who initiated the publication of Tomkins’s paper in French. Lagache, who would oversee the writing of the canonical Language of Psychoanalysis by Jean Laplanche and Jean-Bertrand Pontalis, was always interested in the integration of psychoanalysis and psychology—a task that Elisabeth Roudinesco in her partisan account of Lagache, Lacan, and the Société française de psychanalyse calls “impossible” (215). The 1956 volume La Psychoanalyse. 1. Travaux des Années 1953–1955 is a publication of the Société française de psychanalyse. When presented to the International Congress of Psychology, Tomkins’s paper was titled “Consciousness and the Unconscious in a Model of the Human Being”; in the 1956 volume, the title is “La conscience et l’inconscient répresentes dans une modéle de l’être humain.”