Sedgwick, Eve, and Adam Frank. “Shame in the Cybernetic Fold: Reading Silvan Tomkins”

Sedgwick, Eve, and Adam Frank. “Shame in the Cybernetic Fold: Reading Silvan Tomkins.” Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity. Durham & London: Duke University Press, 2003. 93-122. Print.

To remember:

  • broad assumptions that shape heuristic habits and positing procedures of theory … after Foucault, after Greenblatt, after Freud and Lacan, after Lévi-Strauss, after Derrida, after feminism … : 1) The distance of any such account from a biological basis is assumed to correlate near precisely with its potential for doing justice to difference (individual, historical, and cross-cultural), to contingency, to performative force, and to the possibility of change. 2) Human language is assumed to offer the most productive, if not the only possible, model for understanding representation. 3) The bipolar, transitive relations of subject to object, self to other, and active to passive, and the physical sense (sight) understood to correspond most closely to these relations are dominant organizing tropes to the extent that their dismantling as such is framed as both an urgent and an interminable task. This preoccupation extends to such processes as subjectification, self-fashioning, objectification, and Othering; to the gaze; to the core of selfhood whether considered as a developmental telos or as a dangerous illusion requiring vigilant deconstruction. 4) Correspondingly, the structuralist reliance on symbolization through binary pairing of elements, defined in a diacritical relation to one another and no more than arbitrarily associated with the things symbolized, has not only survived the structuralist movement but, if anything, has been propagated ever more broadly through varied and unresting critique – critique that reproduces and popularizes the structure, even as it may complicate an understanding of the workings, of the binarisms mentioned above along with such others presence/absence, lack/plentitude, nature/culture, repression/liberation, and subversive/hegemonic (93-4).
  • Silvan Tomkins … seem[s] implicitly to challenge these habits and procedures … reading Tomkins’s work on affect has consistently involved us in a particular double-movement: to be responsive to the great interest of his writing seems also, continually, to make graphic the mechanism of of what would seem an irresistibly easy discreditation (94).
  • This could as well describe Tomkins’s writing style: a potentially terrifying and terrified idea or image is taken up and held for as many paragraphs as are necessary to “burn out the fear response,” then for as many more until that idea or image can recur without initially evoking terror (95).
  • [Tomkins] places shame … at one end of the affect polarity shame-interest: suggesting that the pulsations of cathexis around shame, of all things, are what 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 both. The innate activator of shame is the incomplete reduction of interest or joy. Hence any barrier to further exploration which partially reduces interest … will activate the lowering of the head and eyes in shame and reduce further exploration or self-exposure … because he is strange” (97).
  • By “cybernetic fold” 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 new computers isn’t available yet. The cybernetic fold then, is the moment of systems theory – and also, in a directly related but not identical development, the structuralist moment (105). 
  • “Like sexuality, affect should be understood as discursively constructed” (109).
  • If, as Tomkins describes it, the lowering of the eyelids, the lowering of the eyes, the hanging of the head is the attitude of shame, it may also be that of reading … We … Know the force-field creating power of this attitude, the kind of skin that sheer textual attention can weave around a reading body … And none of these is wholly compassed by a certain pernicious understanding of reading as escape (114).
  • Shame is one of those affects whose digitalizing mechanism works to “punctuat[e the system] as distinct” (116).
  • [Tomkins’s pleasure of lists] (96):



To consume:

  • Tomkins, Affect Imagery Consciousness
  • Stanley Schachter, on states of visceral arousal
  • Ann Cvetkovich, Mixed Feelings: Feminism, Mass Culture, and Victorian Sensationalism
  • Richard Gregory, The Oxford Companion to the Mind

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