The human mind works through a series of mechanisms that operate on a feedback loop or circuit that labors to bring images into consciousness. An example of such a feedback loop is that of the drives to eat or sleep, which motivate an individual to act in ways that contribute to its survival. The drive to eat works by emitting an image of food to the individual’s consciousness, causing the person to acquire food in order to satisfy this image. This process is classified as a “loop” or a “feedback system” because it acts in two parts: the image emitted and the human action this image propels — a process that is visually similar to a closed loop or circuit. Similarly, this system will increase in intensity — meaning, the image emitted will become stronger and stronger as it goes unsatisfied — until it successfully influences an individual’s behavior. That said, the drive system’s loop is sometimes classified as “determined” or one-directional, as it influences human behavior in a predictable, almost robotic, way.
Because the drive system operates predictably, Silvan Tompkins contends that it contains only a small amount of freedom. He suggests that because this model leaves little room for the human organism to deviate from the fulfillment of basic images (all of which contribute to physical survival), it does not grant the human organism complexity of motivation beyond the fulfillment of basic survival functions.
Like the drive system, the affect system operates on a feedback loop by emitting images that animate the human organism. Yet despite this similarity, the affect loop differs from the drive system in three ways: (a) it does not motivate an individual to behave in only one-direction to fulfill survival functions, but instead to increase positive affects while decreasing negative affects; (b) the image generated by the affective loop does not increase in intensity until fulfilled, but instead fluctuates unpredictably; and lastly, (c), it operates independently of the drives — meaning that the increase of positive affects is not tied to the fulfillment of any particular drive — but is instead transferable to any of the drive loops. This means that although fulfillment of positive affect can attach itself the fulfillment of any of the basic drives, the fulfillment of positive affect does not diminish with the fulfillment of that drive. These three differences establish the affect loop as a system that pushes individual to behave in ways that deviate from basic drives, as it can motivate an individual to seek positive interest through means that run contradictory to the drive systems, or it can infuse a simple drive with unnecessary intensity. Tomkins argues that the unpredictability of the affective loop gives humans freedom, for if we were only motivated by drive loops that worked in one direction, our behavior would always be the same.
Though all feedback loops operate pre-cognitively, affect theorists are quick to call attention to the autonomy of affect, to the affective loop’s ability to operate apart from direct consciousness. This affective loop working to increase positive affects operates alongside more vaunted modes of personal agency like reason. The feedback system illustrates how affect can influence our behavior in ways contradictory to dominant Western discourses, which generally praise “rationality” as that which defines humanity. The affective loop, by contrast, suggests that humans are at least partly extra-rational. The affective loop also problematizes the idea of a fully self-governing individual, as it posits the individual as not fully conscious of what is influencing its actions and thoughts.
Tompkins has proposed that the mind’s feedback systems (both drive and affect) lead to a series of images common to the human organism: these are not “inherent,” but are very likely to arise from the interactions between the different feedback systems. Tomkins suggest that four images influence humans beyond the fulfillment of drives geared toward survival. The general images are as follows: (a) the increase of positive affect; (b) the decrease of negative affects; (c) the inhibition of affect will be minimized; (d) the increase of power to ensure the future attainment of these general images. These four images, Tomkins argues, motivate individual behaviors, thoughts, and actions beyond that of the fulfillment of simple drives, and hence act as a motivating system to the human organism that operates with more freedom than the drive functions.
This affective loop is further significant to affect studies because it showcases how the desire to attain positive affects is not bound by any ethical system, but arises purely from the individual, as positive affect can attach itself to any one of the mind’s images. As such, there is no hierarchy of objectives, as the individual (through the affect system) creates its own hierarchy based on its own attainment of positive affects.
Ian M. Thomas
Massumi, Brian. “The Autonomy of Affect.” Cultural Critique 31.2 (1995): 83-109.
Tomkins, Silvan. Shame and Its Sisters: A Silvan Tomkins Reader. Ed. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick and Adam Frank. Durham: Duke UP, 1995.