Silvan Tomkins: “Shame & Its Sisters


INTRODUCTION: Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick

“Tomkins considers shame, along with interest, surprise, joy, anger, fear, distress, disgust, and, in his later writings, contempt… to be the basic set of affects. He places shame, in fact, at one end of the affect polarity shame-interest, suggesting that the pulsations of cathexis around shame, of all things, are what either enable or disenable so basic a function as the ability to be interested in the world. ‘Like disgust, [shame] operates only after interest or enjoyment has been activated, and inhibits one or the other or both.’ … The emphasis in this account on the strange, rather than on the prohibited or disapproved, was congenial with our motivating intuition that the phenomenon of shame might offer new ways of short-circuiting the seemingly near-inescapable habits of thought that Foucault groups together under the name of the ‘repressive hypothesis'” 5.

“Tomkins’ resistance to heterosexist teleologies is founded in the most basic terms of his understanding of affect… ‘It is enjoyable to enjoy. It is exciting to be excited. It is terrorizing to be terrorized and angering to be angered. Affect is self-validating with or without any further referent'” 7. [resistance to teleologies of pyschology]

“By the cybernetic fold [1940s to 1960s] we mean the moment when scientists’ understanding of the brain and other life processes is marked by the concept, the possibility, the imminence, of powerful computers, but the actual computational muscle of the new computers isn’t available… part of our aim is to describe structuralism not as that mistaken thing that happened before poststructuralism but fortunately led directly to it, but rather as part of a rich moment… a gestalt (including systems theory) that allowed it to mean more different and more interesting things than have survived its sleek trajectory into poststructuralism… the early cybernetic notion of the brain as a homogenous, differentiable but not originally differentiated system is a characteristic and very fruitful emblem of many of the so far unrealized possibilities of this intellectual moment. The cybernetic fold might be described as a fold between postmodernist and modernist ways of hypothesizing about the brain and mind” 12. [the ‘evocative lists’ of Affect, Imagery, Consciousness]

Tomkins “locates in the body some important part of the difference among different emotions. ‘Undifferentiated visceral arousal’ is in no sense less biologically based than differentiated arousal… [but is less Darwinian and] more thoroughly imbued with a Cartesian mind/body dualism” 19.  Sedgwick suggests that reading maps the affect of shame: lowering of eyes and lids, hanging of the head, etc 20. Why shame?

“Shame and theory are partially analogous at a certain level of digitilization… shame involves a gestalt, the duck to interest’s (or enjoyment’s) rabbit. Without positive affect, there can be no shame: only a scene that offers you enjoyment or engages your interest can make you blush. Similarly, only something you thought might delight or satisfy can disgust. Both these affects produce bodily knowledges: disgust… recognizes the difference between inside and outside the body and what should and should not be let in; shame, as precarious hyperreflexivity of the surface of the body, can turn one inside out – or outside in… shame is characterized by its failure ever to renounce its object cathexis, its relation to the desire for pleasure as well as the need to avoid pain” 22-3. [surfaces – think of Ada!]


“Reason without affect would be impotent, affect without reason would be blind. The combination of affect and reason guarantees man’s high degree of freedom” 37.

“In the case of the sexual need, man enjoys a still greater time freedom compared with his need for air, food, and water… sexual deprivation is biologically tolerable… It is only when intercourse is not frequent or when abstinence is total that sexual excitement and fantasy can play a central role in personality. It is only when an absence of drive satisfaction can be biologically tolerated, as in this case, that a drive can assume critical importance in personality development” 47.

For Tomkins, Freud confuses drive and affect.

“Freedom of intensity of affect: Drives characteristically increase in intensity until they are satisfied, from which time they decline – gradually in eating, more rapidly in drinking, and most rapidly in the orgasm. In contrast, the intensity profiles of affect are capable of marked differentiation. Interest may begin in a low key, increase somewhat, then decline in intensity, then suddenly become very intense and remain so for some time… The rate at which affects develop intensity can vary as a function of the rate at whcih the perception of the object evoking affect increases. This latter rate may be learned or unlearned” 50-51. [think about Linda Williams’ observations about the disruption of this narrative of sexuality!]

“Freedom of density of affect: By affect density we mean the product of intensity times duration… an affect of high intensity but limited duration has equal density with an affect that is low in intensity but more enduring” 51. [think about this in terms of surface vs depth!]

“The recollection of past affect does not necessarily or even characteristically evoke the same affect. The affect which is evoked is either more intense, more enduring, more rapidly increasing in intensity, more dense, or less intense, less enduring, increasing in intensity more slowly, less dense. One of these sets of alternatives is affect sensitization, the other is affect desensitization or habituation… the affect evoked may have a longer duration but at a reduced intensity, or an increased intensity but for a briefer period of time. These are consequences when the affect evoked is the same affect that is remembered. The distinction between original affect, remembered affect, and the affect evoked by remembered affect is clearest when what is evoked is a different kind of affect than the remembered affect” 53.

“Affect-object reciprocity: The first freedom between affects and objects is their reciprocal interdependency. If an imputed characteristic of an object is capable of evoking a particular affect, the evocation of that affect is also capable of producing a subjective restructuring of the object so that it possesses the imputed characteristic which is capable of evoking that affect… It is this somewhat fluid relationship between affects and their objects which offends human beings… and which is at the base of the rationalist’s suspiciousness and derogation of the feeling life of man” 55.

“Freedom of substitutability of consummatory objects: Finally, the drive system has a limited degree of substitutability of consummatory objects. Quite apart from the restrictions of appetite of food, liquid, and sex objects, which are learned, hunger can be satisfied only by a restricted set of organic substances, thirst by a restricted set of liquids. Sexuality has a greater freedom of possible satisfiers since almost any object which is not too coarse in texture might be an adequate stimulus for stimulating the genitals, although the number of maximally satisfying possibilities is much more limited… the same affect may be enjoyed in innumerable ways… The prime example of substitutability of objects is found in art… To the extent to which human beings become addicted to specific satisfiers, either in the case of drives or affects, substitutability of objects declines… food… a lover may find there is no other love object than the beloved… there is no other city” 59.

“Freud’s concept of sublimation is quite innapropriate for drive satisfaction per se. One can eat only food, breathe only air, and drink only liquids. The concept was illuminating only with sexuality – the one drive which is the least imperious of all the drives, the drive in which the affective component plays the largest role, the drive in which activation of the drive even without consummation has a rewarding rather than a punishing quality… An erection in males or a tumescent state in females is more pleasant than painful” 60. [Freud’s idea of sublimation is that healthy transformation of a drive into something harmless, which is necessary for the functioning of society.]

Tomkins also notes that in order to control our affects, we often have to “imagine ourselves” back to a particular feeling to recreate it or to quell another 62.

“Affective responses have a low arousal inertia with respect to stimuli over which the individual usually has little control, high arousal inertia with respect to self-initiated stimuli which initiate affective responses, and high or low maintenance inertia depending on the specific affects over which the individual has little control. In other words affective responses seem to the individual to be aroused easily by factors over which he has little control, with difficulty by factors which he can control and to endure for periods of time which he controls only with great difficulty if at all… alien to the individual.. the primitive gods within the individual” 62.

“It is of fundamental importance to the understanding of the nature of a human being that we differentiate those aspects of his personality which vary because they depend upon the variable winds of doctrine and circumstance and those characteristics which are inherently human, whether learned or unlearned. We call these General Images… centrally generated blueprints which control the feedback mechanism… their generality among human beings… there is so high a probability that they will be generated that we may for the most part regard them as inevitable in the development of all human beings… 1) Positive affect should be maximized 2) Negative affect should be minimized 3) Affect inhibition should be minimized 4) Power to maximize positive affect, to minimize negative affect, to minimize affect inhibition, should be maximized” 67.  [this is tied to human capacity for memory and perception]

“We are suggesting essentially that the idea of God, omniscient and omnipotent, is a derivative construct. Man first conceives of the ideal of himself as all-powerful because he has wants which he cannot entirely fulfill. He wishes to live forever, but he cannot… He wishes to experience perpetual joy, but he cannot. Nor can he ever defend himself entirely from distress, from shame, from fear, from hostility… all secular revolutionary movements must destroy the image of God and restore omniscience and omnipotence to the state and to society” 72.

“If an individual is haunted with a chronic sense of shame for sexual exploration, then the idea of power becomes necessarily tied to the violation of the constraints which originated the taboo… sexual excitement [then] requires an exaggerated shamelessness or power to undo, reverse, and deny the power of the other to evoke shame for one’s sexuality… a reveling in shame” 72.

[non-sequitur: look up case of man who died on ‘balanced diet in Johns Hopkins hospital after subsisting on a self-selected diet beforehand.]

“We will use, wherever possible, a joint name which includes the most characteristic description of the affect as experienced at low and as experienced at high intensity, follwed by the component facial responses:


1. Interest-Excitement: eyebrows down, track, look, listen

2. Enjoyment-Joy: smile, lips widened up and out


3. Surprise-Startle: eyebrows up, eye blink


4. Distress-Anguish: cry, arched eyebrow, mouth down, tears, rhythmic sobbing

5. Fear-Terror: eyes frozen open, pale, cold, sweaty, facial trembling, hair erect

6. Shame-Humiliation: eyes down, head down

7: Contempt-Disgust: sneer, upper lip up

8. Anger-Rage: frown, clenched jaw, red face” 74.

If reading is shame-humiliation, viewing film is naturally fear-terror? Recall also Williams and others on how sexual pleasure would look more like 4 or 5 than 1 or 2 (horror film).


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