Anger is an emotive response within the affect system, a manifestation or expression of “negative” emotive states (e.g. rage, extreme displeasure or unease). Anger and other named emotions comprise what the New Critics theorized as an emotive language that functions independently of a cognitive meaning that those named emotions aim to express. Put otherwise, anger (as a named emotive response) mediates and expresses what is felt (i.e. the affect itself). The experience or expression of anger can vary widely — almost infinitely — in terms of duration and intensity. As Eve Sedgwick argues, “Anger can evaporate in seconds but can also motivate a decades-long career of revenge” (Tomkins 19).

Most affect theorists regard anger as a divisive emotion. Because it occasions animosity within the feeling subject and projects outward onto other subjects or objects, anger often puts subjects at odds with each other even as it transmits among them. Adam Smith describes anger as an aversive emotion that isolates the subject who feels it. Smith characterizes anger as “boisterous and offensive” (44), remote from “passions which are agreeable,” and which possesses “immediate effects [that] are mischief to the person against whom they are directed.” Anger thus proves disruptive even to the person who experiences (rather than receives or observes) this passion insofar as it inhibits the peace of mind necessary for happiness and sociability. Anger, in Smith’s model, overwhelms the  experience of other, more “positive” emotive states. Smith subsequently reasons that the natural drive toward self-preservation teaches human beings to be skeptical about individual anger until the cause of that emotive state can be identified. In short, anger and similarly communication-rending passions that serve to disrupt, rather than to foster, relationships among subjects appear naturally abhorrent.

Sylvan Tomkins’s assessment of anger centers on the physical manifestations of that response. While Tomkins attempts to account for the neurological activation of anger, he also discusses the corresponding physiological responses (e.g. flushed skin, clenched jaw) used to distinguish the affect. The physical expressions of anger become an indicator of its affective resonance: the way in which anger (like its fellow affects) can communicate and stimulate further affective responses in the feeling subject and others.

Rebecca McCann

Works cited:

Beardsley, M.C. and W.K. Wimsatt. “The Affective Fallacy.” The Sewanee Review 57.1
(Winter, 1949): 31-55.

Smith, Adam. The Theory of Moral Sentiments. Ed. Ryan Patrick Hanley. New York: Penguin, 2009.

Tomkins, Sylvan. Shame and Its Sisters: A Silvan Tomkins Reader. Ed. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick and Adam Frank. Durham: Duke UP, 1995.