Affect at the Interface: Silvan Tomkins

Affect from conference websiteI just slept in a bit, recovering from a long weekend at a conference, Affect at the Interface, at the University of New South Wales. Although I sometimes felt out of my element (pretty typical for conferences), it was a great discussion, even if over-stimulating at times. Thanks to Prof. Anna Gibbs and Dr. Jennifer Biddle for all the hard work organizing it — and also to the staff and other folks who put together a great, stimulating weekend (including the brilliant caterer!).

A host of folks presented diverse papers. I’m reluctant to list any because I’ll inevitably end up slighting someone I don’t intend to, but in addition to Prof. Gibbs and Dr. Biddle, a number of folks were very active guests over the two days: Robyn Ferrell, Anand Pandian, Melissa Hardie, Jim Wilce, and Adam Frank (sorry — couldn’t find a good link quickly to info about him) stand out, not just because of their presentations, but because of their comments on other people’s work. However, I have to admit, pretty much every reference to Gilles Deleuze went over my head (alright, I suffered so much with trying to get into Anti-Oedipus that I never attempted A Thousand Plateaus).

I presented second-to-last and made the mistake of entirely rewriting my paper the night before because in an ill-advised attempt to engage with what had happened on the first day. I’m going to post something like the presentation I aspired to give but failed to because of overly-quick turn-around, lack of sleep, and generally not being clever enough on my feet.

The discussion of affect revived my long dormant interest in the work of Silvan Tomkins, the psychologist and cybernetic theorist. Although I had consulted his work briefly when I was writing my dissertation and first book, especially because of his discussion of shame and my interest in the bodily-nervous effects of inhibition in dance, I hadn’t really taken him seriously enough. Although there weren’t a lot of biologically-inclined individuals at the conference (probably Jennifer Biddle and I were among the most enthusiastic about this line of thinking), it was great to reconsider his work with Prof. Adam Frank there, as he, together with Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, were instrumental in encouraging a revival of interest in Tomkins’ work, outside the narrower group familiar with Tomkins in psychology (like the Silvan S. Tomkins Institute).

Silvan Tomkins’ cybernetic theory and neuroanthropology

Tomkins was an American psychologist who developed a rich alternative understanding of affect, one that broke significantly from the Freudian psychoanalytic models that were dominant among his contemporaries (or the cognitivist disinterest in emotion in general). Tomkins argued that there were nine basic affects (two positive, one neutral, and six negative), labeling each with a dyad of terms to indicate how they differed depending upon their intensity: interest-excitement, enjoyment-joy, surprise-startle, distress-anguish, fear-terror, anger-rage, shame-humiliation, disgust, and ‘dis-smell.’ He distinguished these affects both from emotions and from Freudian ‘drives,’ adding several layers (well, more than several) to the complexity of the internal topography proposed by Freud.

In a way that I find particularly interesting as a neuroanthropologist, Tomkins picked up on observations of emotions made by Charles Darwin, especially emotions that Darwin considered to be present cross-species. Just as Darwin focused on facial expressions, Tomkins carefully considered the facial expressions that were typical of each basic affect and argued that the face was the principal organ of affect (rather than even the brain).

Tomkins could be really powerful for anthropology because one of the crucial things that needs to be added to ‘cognitive anthro’ to develop a more robust neuroanthropology is human affect; ironically, just because of the freight attached to the term, ‘cognitive,’ it can sometimes create a tendency toward an overly-conscious, overly-rational, overly-semiotic portrait of the human subject, one that is not consistent with the rest of anthropology (which one could argue tries to respect culturally based ‘rationalities’ in its portrait of humans). Most anthropologists who do psychological anthropology are well aware of this, but the existing discussions of emotion in psychology often strike us as being too ethnocentric. Tomkins offers a more interesting alternative.

Although there are various statements that I found in summaries of his work that I would want to argue against (such as the notion of ‘innate’ affects — more on that in another post, but Sedgwick and Frank already have discussed this issue), I feel that there is too much interesting in the original work to focus on these quibbles. Unfortunately, the four volumes of Affect, Imagery, Consciousness mean that I’m still likely to only get into the abridged version offered by Sedgwick and Frank in Shame and Her Sisters (or find an excerpt including the masterful introduction at Google books).

For example, Tomkins work demonstrates a host of intriguing and prescient quirks: the grounding in cybernetics means Tomkins’ theories are conducive to developmental dynamics accounts of affect, his approach to evolution and biology are pretty sophisticated, his attention to the widespread embodiment of affect are in keeping with third wave cognitive science, the phenomenological dimensions of his work is startlingly good, and a number of other factors. Obviously, he didn’t have some of the brain sciences material that we have now when he was writing, but his thinking seems to be an extraordinarily productive model to work from now that we do.

Ironically, in so much of the current discussion of neurosciences, it’s hard to get a vision of the forest from all the trees; or worse, I’m not even sure that all the trees are in the same forest. Most of the over-arching interpretations we get from philosophy of mind seem to operate at a level of generalization that isn’t supported by the data. For example, some theorists of mind work from research on language or memory to make generalizations that likely don’t apply to perceptions, motor control, affect, or other issues. Theories such as ‘massive modularity,’ for instance, seem to take one principle or one brain function and overly extrapolate until we’re presented with a kind of neural stereotype, a thin, one-sided account of the rich ecology of the brain.

Tomkins willingness to work with very complex but still ambitiously general system models seems to me to be a great inspiration for the kind of bold but non-simplistic theorization that we need. That is, we’re going to have to be attempt to talk about the brain in ambitious general terms while still allowing for a multiplicity of logics and heterogeneity of systems that is seldom found in contemporary social theory.

In the conference, I paraphrased Niels Bohr’s famous rejoinder to Wolfgang Pauli to talk about Tomkins’ theory: ‘We are all agreed that your theory is crazy. The question that divides us is whether it is crazy enough to have a chance of being correct’ (there are many variants; see Wikiquote). Reading Tomkins theory is exhilarating, in part because of its cybernetic complexity and phenomenological richness, but we may need a far more baroque vision still to have a hope of reflecting the rich diversity of neural dynamics (or perhaps Gothic or Byzantine visions).

For example, one of the things that came up for me, thanks to Profs. Frank and Ferrell, was that a cybernetic approach to affect, although not as organic as a dynamic systems approach, did offer a powerful way to think about how inhibitory processes work in the brain, and how they might be trained into distinct configurations. As Frank and Ferrell discussed, Freud’s model of repression assumed a single mental force (like the super-ego) whereas Tomkins’ discussion saw affects as sometimes pitted against each other, in context-dependent relations. Inhibitory processes seem to be something that the human brain is really good at (like recursive and self-referential processes), something that distinguishes our brains from those of other animals, and there are likely multiple neural ways for us to inhibit reactions.

One of the conference participants (I think it was Robyn Ferrell, but I wasn’t taking careful enough notes) pointed out that model-making itself comes out of a particular set of assumptions about what we are trying to do in studying affect (or the brain). One reason it’s hard to bridge the gulf between science and humanities that Daniel discussed is actually the fact that the two sides of the divide don’t both think ‘making models’ is such a grand idea.

At the moment, I’m comfortable with them; the theoretical terrain in anthropology seems sufficiently denuded of any competing ‘models’ of how the brain, body, and enculturation can be talked about . I hope someone is willing to stick his or her neck out and start proposing some new ones. Maybe the effect will be like that of Silvan Tomkins’ writing: the neuroanthropological models may appear slightly daft, but hopefully a fraction as exciting and thought-provoking. But more on that once I get to read some more…

Ironically, Tomkins was the mentor to Paul Ekman, whose research on ‘universal’ facial expressions I was critiquing in my presentation (h/t to Wikipedia for point that out to me!). In addition, I have no opinion about Tomkins’ theory of ‘scripts,’ which he articulates in volumes 3 and 4 of Affect, Imagery, Consciousness as I have virtually no familiarity with it other than some brief second-hand summaries.

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Trained as a cultural anthropologist at the University of Chicago, I have gone on to do fieldwork in Brazil and the United States. I have written one book, Learning Capoeira: Lessons in Cunning from an Afro-Brazilian Art (Oxford, 2005). I have also co-authored and co-edited several, including, with Dr. Daniel Lende, The Encultured Brain: An Introduction to Neuroanthropology (MIT, 2012), and with Dr. Melissa Fisher, Frontiers of Capital: Ethnographic Reflections on the New Economy (Duke, 2006). My research interests include neuroanthropology, psychological anthropology, sport, dance, human rights, neuroscience, phenomenology, economic anthropology, and just about anything else that catches my attention.

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