In 2009, Fox television aired the pilot episode of Lie to Me, a crime procedural drama whose hero, played by a perpetually undershaven Tim Roth, is an expert in emotional expression. Dr. Cal Lightman’s uncanny ability to determine whether a person is lying is based on his knowledge of “microexpressions,” fast, easy-to-miss movements of facial (and other) muscles that, he claims, indicate what a person is really feeling. The show makes its underlying premise clear with great economy in an early scene that has Lightman lecturing in front of an initially skeptical, then quickly appreciative audience of U.S. defense and security workers. In answer to the question “don’t these microexpressions vary depending on the person?” he shows a set of slides displaying people of different ages, genders, and races, in a variety of situations, but with similar expressions of scorn, shame, sadness, joy, and so on. “These expressions are universal,” he intones as the slides (and music) slam home his point. “Emotion looks the same whether you’re a suburban housewife or a suicide bomber. The truth is written on all our faces” (“Pilot”).
These premises—that emotions may be revealed visually via facial microexpressions, and that at least some emotional expressions are universal—are based on the research program of Paul Ekman, a psychologist at the University of San Francisco who has been studying emotion and facial behavior since the 1960s and who has become both prominent and controversial in the field. Part of the controversy surrounding Ekman comes from his techniques of self-promotion: he has made his research available outside the academy through the Paul Ekman Group, which advertises the Micro Expressions Training Tool on its website and offers a sequence of deception training courses (used by the U.S. Transportation Security Administration and other law enforcement). Samuel Baum, the playwright who created Lie to Me, spent a year going through Ekman’s deception training program and hired the psychologist as a consultant on the show. Ekman’s courses and training tools are based on the Facial Action Coding System (FACS), first published in 1978 (since updated and reissued in digital format). FACS is a rigorous, complex, and exhaustive taxonomical analysis of the movements of facial musculature and the expressive capacities of the human face that Ekman developed with William Friesen.
In 1971 Ekman, Friesen, and Tomkins coauthored “Facial Affect Scoring Technique: A First Validity Study,” an early precursor to FACS (the acronym was FAST). Ekman has long acknowledged the relationship between his work and Tomkins’s. The two first met in the mid-1960s after Ekman read Tomkins’s article (coauthored with Robert McCarter) “What and Where Are the Primary Affects? Some Evidence for a Theory” (1964). Impressed with this study’s results and the evidence it offered for a handful of innate, biologically based affects expressed primarily as facial behavior, Ekman began a series of cross-cultural studies that aimed to demonstrate the universality of what he would later call the basic emotions. Ekman’s interest in Tomkins’s work was highly selective: he left aside much of the older psychologist’s theory of affect, motivation, and personality to concentrate instead on the visibility and universality of expressive behavior. In fact, in moving from FAST to FACS, Ekman and Friesen left out affect altogether, replacing facial affect with facial action. While Tomkins’s work has at times been assimilated with Ekman’s, we would emphasize the significant differences between their methods, ideas, and scientific sensibilities. By contrast with Ekman’s avoidance of theory and wholehearted commitment to strong empiricism, Tomkins’s systematic, wide-ranging, at once speculative and empirical approach was not well received in the narrow, studies-oriented ethos that came to orient the discipline of academic psychology (we have more to say about Ekman in chapter 3).
In the context of these differences, consider that Tomkins consistently emphasized both the visibility of facial affect and its strange in-visibility. The chapter in AIC1 titled “Visibility and Invisibility of the Affect System” begins with the “paradox” that despite their “primary motivational significance” (1:171), the affects are not nearly as well known as the drives. Tomkins begins to account for this relative invisibility by describing the generality of affect with respect to time, place, response, and object (see chapter 1). For example, in a discussion of the generality of place, he points out that, while “the site of the drive signal is also the site of the consummatory response” (1:174) (we experience hunger in the mouth and stomach, which we then fill by eating, say), affects are “capable of being combined with numerous alternative sub-assemblies, so that phenomenologically the affect may be fused with any type of experience” (1:175). Tomkins uses two metaphors to describe the “great combinatorial capacity of the affective system, its ability to ‘fuse’ with other components” (1:175) and go unnoticed. The first is linguistic: “Just as a letter loses some of its visibility as it enters into different words, or a word into different sentences, so the affects lose some of their uniqueness and visibility by virtue of their flexibility of assembly” (1:175). Literary critics and other humanists may recognize this metaphor in the thematics of the purloined letter made famous through readings of Poe’s tale of that name by Lacan, Derrida, and others. Tomkins’s implication is that affects hide in plain sight but may become objects of analysis if an observer sees them as part of a spectrum of elements that combine to create larger wholes.
Like other mid-century structuralist thinkers, Tomkins invokes language as a figure for ordered complexity and generative systems (see chapter 12). But he proposes another metaphor, a mixed chemical–anatomical metaphor, to describe the peculiar invisibility of affect: “Because affects are phenomenologically so soluble in every kind of psychic solution we must expect that the distillation of purified components will be rarely achieved by the individual who experiences the totality and pose formidable problems for the psychological anatomist who would dissect and separate the components” (1:175). A chemical solution must be acted upon with effort to effect a separation or purification of its component parts. Tomkins implies that such a “distillation” or analysis of affect is possible, but may do violence to its object. He makes use of this chemical metaphor several times in his writing, returning to it in his last public lecture in a call for more dynamic or integrative experimental protocols: “We have a great craft union tendency to polarize and to debate things which nature has put together, and to pull them asunder for analytic experimental purposes. . . . We can tease them apart, we can factor them, we can centrifuge them, but they [i.e., feelings] remain a unitary phenomenon, which exhibits many diverse characteristics at once. Now that is not fashionable in science. It is called contamination. Unfortunately, we are deeply contaminated creatures” (“Inverse Archaeology,” 285).
For Tomkins, the empirical study of affect requires experimental techniques that can accommodate rather than rule out complexity and contamination of both object and analyst. The generality of affect, the learned “transformations” (habituation, miniaturization, accretion, delay, avoidance), the taboos on looking at the face, and the problem of naming the emotions all make it difficult to perceive affects and tease them apart from other psychic phenomena. Equally important is the idea that affective response does not necessarily accompany affect awareness: “With affects it is not at all exceptional that one may respond and be unaware that one is angry, afraid, ashamed, excited, happy, or distressed. Unconscious feeling means no more or less than unconscious hearing” (1:186). This gap between response and awareness may distinguish Tomkins’s theory of affect from the James–Lange theory, which defines emotion as the secondary awareness of physiological response, or as James famously put it in his essay “What Is an Emotion?,” “our feeling of the same [bodily] changes as they occur IS the emotion” (189–90). By contrast, Tomkins suggests, “there are conscious reports of affect which do not necessarily emanate from peripheral facial or autonomic responses. Just as one may dream visual images without sensory stimulation, so one may emit central images of affective responses with or without facial or gross autonomic consequences” (1:187). We will return to these ideas in our discussion of Tomkins’s notion of imagery (in chapter 7). For now, we would simply point to the important gap between affective experience (the feeling of anger, say) and response (such as a raised voice), a gap that makes it difficult to identify affect based on either self-report or other-directed observation.
Despite the many obstacles to identifying and analyzing affect, Tomkins begins the next chapter, “The Primary Site of the Affects: The Face,” with this claim: “the primary affects, before the transformations due to learning, seem to be innately related in a one-to-one fashion with an organ system which is extraordinarily visible” (1:204). Hedging his bet (“seem to be”), Tomkins nonetheless proposes an indexical relation between the affects and the “organ system” of the face. Think of it this way: as the lungs are the primary organ of respiration and the heart the primary organ of the circulation of the blood, so is the face the primary organ of affective motivation. This focus on the face distinguishes Tomkins’s theory from the James–Lange account, which emphasizes visceral or internal bodily response:
We regard the relationship between the face and the viscera as analogous to that between the fingers, forearm, upper arm, shoulders, and body. The finger does not “express” what is in the forearm, or shoulder or trunk. It rather leads than follows the movements in these organs to which it is an extension. Just as the fingers respond both more rapidly with more precision and complexity than the grosser and slower moving arm to which they are attached, so the face expresses affect, both to others, and to the self, via feedback, which is more rapid and more complex than any stimulation of which the slower moving visceral organs are capable. (1:205)
Primarily behavior of the skin and muscles of the face and only secondarily visceral behavior, affect is communicated both outwardly (to others) and inwardly (to the self). “When we become aware of these facial and/or visceral responses we are aware of our affects. We may respond with these affects however without becoming aware of the feedback from them. Finally, we learn to generate, from memory, images of these same responses which we can become aware of with or without repetition of facial, skeletal or visceral responses” (1:206).
Note the complexity of Tomkins’s account, which does not preclude the gut (or any other bodily location) as a site of affective response. This approach to the face and facial feedback respatializes the bodily network in a manner distinct from Freud’s approach to the drives and their consummatory sites, although not necessarily in contradiction to it. Tomkins’s respatialization begins with the face as most prominent in the body image, an idea he discusses in the context of a gruesome thought experiment: “If it were possible to amputate the face and for the subject to continue to live, we would predict a phantom face of much greater longevity and resistance to deformation and extinction than in the case of phantom limbs following amputation” (1:208). After observing that “the hand acts as if the face were the site of feeling” (1:210), Tomkins considers several examples of manual facial nurture and support (eye rubbing in fatigue, screening the face in shame), emphasizes the role of the hand in distress (finger sucking, cigarette smoking), and concludes that “much of the ‘oral’ complex is facial rather than strictly oral, just as some of the facial complex is bodily rather than strictly facial” (1:211). Consider how his discussion of “the face of the other as a goal” offers a revised idea of the psychoanalytic superego or ego-ideal: “The voice of conscience I am suggesting is the voice of a particular face who, in addition to speaking, is angry or shocked or disgusted or disappointed” (1:220). Rather than the consequence of an inward turn, a repression or internalization that creates the subject tout court, conscience is recast as a set of images or goals (conscious or not), phantom faces and voices that create a network of affectively structured, relational subjectivities. Phantom imagery (again, see chapter 7) recasts the psychoanalytic unconscious in cybernetic terms, rerouting the individuated subject through facial feedback aimed both inward and outward, motivating selves and others at once.
We will return to Tomkins’s negotiations between the insights of psychoanalysis and the research methods of American academic psychology in a later chapter (chapter 11). Here we note how his commitment to complexity does not itself mitigate against an empirical research program like Ekman’s. For example, in a discussion of the complexity of facial information, Tomkins returns to the linguistic metaphor and the need for the child to learn “the language of the face” (1:216). This metaphor underlies Ekman’s attempt to codify a universal facial language, even while troubling it in insisting on the necessarily “somewhat culture-bound” nature of these perceptual skills: “The individual who moves from one class to another or one society to another is faced with the challenge of learning new ‘dialects’ of facial language to supplement his knowledge of the more universal grammar of emotion” (1:216). But Tomkins subtly changes his metaphor, turning to reading and writing as they figure the perceptual skills of translation, not between different “dialects” of facial language, but between different sensory modalities that contribute to affect awareness:
This skill in interpreting the facial expression of others is aided or hindered by an isomorphism between the visual face of the other and the interoceptive face of the self. Although the feedback from our own face is in non-visual modalities, we learn the rules of translation between what the face looks like to what it feels like and from both of these to the motor language, so that eventually we are capable of imitating either what a face looks like or what it feels like. In this way we become capable of putting on masks. . . . These rules of translation between the motor, visual and kinesthetic languages are analogous to the way in which we learn to write as we listen to a lecture or read a book, or as a mute person learns to speak with his fingers. (1:216–17)
The mute person speaking with his fingers is a figure for speech as writing. To make the deconstructive point explicit, the metaphor of writing foregrounds a dynamic temporal horizon that interferes with any empiricist effort to create a static, purely spatial taxonomy. At the same time that Tomkins proposes a universal grammar of emotion, he insists that the ability to use this grammar is necessarily conditioned by an observer’s idiosyncratic history of affect, analogized to her history of learning to read and write, that is, to translate between the face of others and that of the self. Tomkins offers a host of examples of how the isomorphism between the face of the self and the face of the other can inflect the perception of affect or contaminate the study of affect because of the observer’s own affective history.
Tomkins discusses such idiosyncratic histories by way of what he calls facial styles. He begins by suggesting that speech can directly compete with affect awareness: “Language interaction is usually so demanding and obtrusive that few individuals may penetrate the linguistic envelope to isolate the idiosyncratic style of the face of the other during conversation. For the student of affect, however, if he will turn off the flow of information from linguistic interaction and attend simply to the face of the other, there is immediately revealed an astonishingly personal and simple style of affective facial behavior” (1:223). Tomkins suggests tuning out speech to attend to facial style, or what in an earlier historical moment would have been called character. These “simple” facial styles are consequences of interactions between multiple, irreducibly temporal affective and cognitive components and thus index a fundamental complexity:
Facial style may represent fragments of facial goals, reactions to past success or failure in achieving these goals, and reactions to the expected outcome of instrumental behavior in pursuit of future facial goals. These distinguishable components may in combination produce a resultant facial expression which is difficult to identify since it represents part goal, part expectation of outcome of instrumental activity, part reaction to the past, part reaction to the present and part expectation of the future. It is not infrequent that a face is half sad from past distress and half excited at future prospects. (1:222–23)
One implication of Tomkins’s emphasis on facial styles and the accompanying temporality and complexity of affect is that the pure or simple expression of individual affect is rare (except, perhaps, in infants and children). This offers another pointed contrast to Ekman’s emphasis on emotion’s visibility.
Tomkins’s chapter on the face ends with a long summary of anatomical and physiological work, emphasizing the nineteenth-century neurologist G. B. Duchenne’s Mécanisme de la physionomie humaine, ou analyse electro-physiologique de l’expression des passions (1862). Tomkins’s review of hundred-year-old findings seems to have inspired Ekman, whose FACS updates Duchenne’s work using different techniques to isolate facial muscles and nerves (Duchenne used electrical stimulation on a man who suffered from facial anesthesia). Famously, Darwin used several photographs from Duchenne’s work to illustrate The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (1872), edited by Ekman for Oxford University Press in 1998. Tomkins clearly differentiates his work from Ekman’s in the third, much later volume of AIC (1991). There he describes the modifications he has made to his theory, including his reassessment of the skin of the face rather than its musculature as “of the greatest importance in producing the feel of affect” (3:10). He references his own work with McCarter as both “gratifying” and “somewhat misleading in overemphasizing the role of innately patterned facial muscular responses in the production of affect” (3:10), distancing his current thinking from Ekman’s FACS approach. He also expresses skepticism concerning Ekman’s argument that the primary evolutionary function of the face is to communicate affect: “My intuition was, and still is, that the communication of affect is a secondary spin-off function rather than the primary function” as a source of motivating feedback (3:11).
By the 1980s, Tomkins was dissatisfied with the uses made of his theory: “The radical increase in numbers of grant applications, papers, and book manuscripts in affect theory and research I have recently refereed testifies that the next decade or so belongs to affect. Having waited twenty years for this development, I am less than euphoric at what I see. It had been my hope that such a development might transform American psychology. Instead, the field of affect is, in part, being co-opted by the very fields it should have illuminated” (3:39). His own methodological commitments to complexity, synthesis, and discovery left him impatient with experimentalists who would test simplified versions of his theory. He continued to insist on a complex and contaminated cybernetic understanding of the motivating role of facial feedback for any adequate theory of affect.
Our discussion is largely based on two chapters from AIC1, “Visibility and Invisibility of the Affect System” (chapter 6) and “The Primary Site of the Affects: The Face” (chapter 7), as well as Tomkins’s essays collected in Exploring Affect (“Part III: The Face of Affect”) and introduced by Paul Ekman: “What and Where Are the Primary Affects? Some Evidence for a Theory” (with Robert McCarter), “The Phantasy behind the Face,” and “Inverse Archaeology: Facial Affect and the Interfaces of Scripts within and between Persons” (plenary address given by Tomkins at the annual meeting of the International Society for Research on the Emotions in 1990).
We consulted several edited and coedited volumes by Ekman, including Emotion in the Human Face (1982), Approaches to Emotion (1984), The Nature of Emotion (1994), and What the Face Reveals (1997). Malcolm Gladwell’s New Yorker article “The Naked Face” quotes Ekman’s oft-repeated, heroizing anecdote about Tomkins’s remarkable skills at reading facial affect from the films Ekman had taken of two distinct groups of indigenous peoples in New Guinea. We note that this anecdote seriously underestimates what Tomkins considers the invisibility of affect due to its complexity, transformations, and temporal dynamics.
For more on William James’s theory of emotion, see “What Is an Emotion?” and the revised chapter in Principles of Psychology. It can be difficult to determine the precise relationship between James’s account of emotion and Tomkins’s in part because James’s writing on this subject is not highly elaborated. By comparison with later cognitivist accounts, we would situate Tomkins’s theory of affect in the Jamesian tradition, although we suspect that it is more specifically compatible with the Cannon–Bard model.
Finally, for a discussion of the thematics of the purloined letter, please see Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Purloined Letter” and the essays collected in The Purloined Poe.