Massumi vs Tompkins in the Ring: A Heartfelt and Esoteric Match


Now, help me make sense of a comparison between the two theories you provided in another chat: Both the Affect Theory of Brian Massumi and the work of Silvan Tomkins are significant in the realm of affect studies, but they approach the subject from somewhat different perspectives. Let’s compare and contrast them:

Matt’s Chat: 

Foundational Ideas:

Silvan Tomkins: Tomkins’ work is grounded in his affect theory, which he developed in the mid-20th century. Central to his theory are the concepts of affect, which he defined as the raw, biological components of emotions and scripts, which are culturally and individually determined patterns of emotional responses.

Brian Massumi: Massumi builds upon the work of Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, particularly their concept of affect as intensity. He extends this idea into what he terms “affective economies,” where affect operates as a force that shapes social relations and structures.


Tomkins: Tomkins’ work focuses on the physiological and psychological aspects of affect, aiming to categorize and understand different affective experiences and their underlying mechanisms.

Massumi: Massumi’s approach emphasizes the relational and emergent aspects of affect. He is more concerned with how affect operates within and between bodies, shaping subjective experience and social dynamics.

Language and Expression:

Tomkins: Tomkins was interested in facial expressions as a primary means of studying affect. He developed the idea of “affect scripts,” which are patterns of facial expressions and bodily responses associated with specific emotions.

Massumi: Massumi’s work is more concerned with the pre-verbal and non-representational aspects of affect. He explores how affect operates prior to conscious awareness or linguistic expression, focusing on bodily sensations and intensities.


Tomkins: Tomkins’ work is deeply rooted in psychology and psychoanalysis. He was concerned with understanding the development of affective responses and their role in personality formation.

Massumi: Massumi’s work has broader interdisciplinary implications, drawing on philosophy, cultural studies, and political theory. He is interested in how affect operates in various contexts, including art, media, and activism.

Political Implications:

Tomkins: While Tomkins’ work has been influential in psychology, it is less explicitly concerned with political or social implications.

Massumi: Massumi’s work often engages with political theory, exploring how affect shapes power dynamics and social movements. He emphasizes the potential of affective interventions to disrupt existing social structures and create new possibilities for collective action.

The comparison you’ve highlighted between Silvan Tomkins’ and Brian Massumi’s affect theories illuminates the multifaceted nature of affect studies, showing how these theories diverge in their foundational ideas, emphases, approaches to language and expression, contexts, and political implications. Here’s a breakdown to help make sense of these differences and what they signify in the broader field of affect studies:

Foundational Ideas

  • Silvan Tomkins: Grounded in emotion’s psychological and biological aspects, Tomkins defines affect as the raw, biological components of emotions. He introduces “affect scripts” to describe how individual experiences and cultural influences shape these raw affects into complex emotional patterns.
  • Brian Massumi: Drawing from Deleuze and Guattari, Massumi conceptualizes affect as intensity, a force that exceeds individual subjectivity and operates within social relations and structures. This “affective economies” notion suggests that affect is a fundamental driver of social interaction and formation.


  • Tomkins: Focuses on categorizing affective experiences and understanding their physiological and psychological underpinnings. His approach is more individual-centric, aiming to map out the landscape of human emotional response.
  • Massumi: Concerned with the dynamics of affect as it moves between bodies, Massumi emphasizes the transformative potential of affect in shaping experiences and relations. His view is more relational and systemic, looking at how affect circulates and affects change at broader societal levels.

Language and Expression

  • Tompkins: Tompkins emphasizes facial expressions as windows into affective states, proposing that these expressions are essential to decoding emotional scripts.
  • Massumi: Massumi moves beyond the representational to explore affect’s pre-verbal and non-representational dimensions. Massumi is interested in how affects manifest as bodily sensations and intensities before they are articulated through language.


  • Tomkins: His analysis is rooted in psychology and psychoanalysis, strongly focusing on the individual’s development and internal world.
  • Massumi engages with a wide array of fields, including philosophy, cultural studies, and political theory. He applies his concept of affect to understand phenomena in art, media, and collective social movements.

Political Implications

  • Tomkins: While influential in psychological circles, Tomkins’ work does not explicitly address the political or social ramifications of affect in the same way contemporary theories might.
  • Massumi: Directly engages with political theory, considering how affect influences power dynamics, social movements, and the potential for societal change. His work suggests that understanding and leveraging affect can lead to significant shifts in social structures and collective actions.

The comparison between Tomkins and Massumi in affect theory showcases a transition from a more traditional, individual-focused, and biologically oriented approach to a dynamic, relational, and politically engaged perspective. Tomkins provides the groundwork for understanding the biological and psychological aspects of affect, while Massumi expands upon this to explore affect’s role in social relations, cultural phenomena, and political activism. This shift reflects broader movements within the humanities and social sciences towards recognizing the interconnectedness of individual experiences and societal structures and the potential for affect to serve as a catalyst for understanding and enacting change.


But how does Massumi define affect? What is it? Where is it located? Is it a biological response, a cognitive response, or something completely different?


Brian Massumi’s definition of affect draws upon philosophical concepts, particularly those influenced by Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari. It diverges significantly from more traditional, biologically or cognitively centered theories of emotion and affect. His conceptualization is nuanced, focusing on the qualities of affect that make it distinct from, yet foundational to, both emotions and cognition. Let’s break down his definition and understanding of affect:

What is Affect According to Massumi?

  • Intensity: Massumi defines affect as intensity, a pre-personal and non-conscious experience that precedes and underpins conscious emotions and thoughts. In his view, affect is about the potential to affect and be affected, a capacity for change in the body and in interactions between bodies and their environments.
  • Pre-personal: Affect is considered pre-personal because it does not yet belong to a subject like emotions do. It’s a state or experience of intensity that is not yet defined, categorized, or named as specific emotions are.
  • Bodily Sensation: While affect is fundamentally linked to the body, its relationship to bodily sensations is complex. It is about the body’s capacity to respond to stimuli and the transitions or shifts in power and potential that these responses entail, rather than being a direct biological or physiological response.

Where is it Located?

Massumi does not confine affect to any location within the body or the brain. Instead, affect is conceptualized as residing in the potential spaces between states of being, in the transitions from one moment to the next, and in the interactions between bodies and their environments. Thus, Affect is everywhere and nowhere specific, permeating how bodies interact with the world and each other.

Biological, Cognitive, or Something Completely Different?

  • Beyond Biological or Cognitive: While acknowledging that affect involves the body and can influence thoughts and emotions, Massumi’s concept of affect transcends the divisions between biological and cognitive responses. In his framework, affect is about the capacities for experience and action that still need to be structured by conscious thought or social language.
  • A Force of Encounter: Affect is akin to a force of encounter between bodies (which can include physical bodies and bodies of work, such as art) and the world. The immediate experience of potentiality precedes and exceeds the formulation of emotions and thoughts.

Implications of Massumi’s Definition

By defining affect in this way, Massumi opens up a rich inquiry into how feelings, sensations, and intensity movements circulate within and between individuals and collectives. This perspective explores how affective intensities contribute to forming social bonds, cultural movements, and political actions, emphasizing the non-linear, non-representational, and dynamic aspects of experience and social interaction.

Massumi’s affect is neither a biological response nor a cognitive process but a complex interplay of potentialities that precede and exceed these categories. It’s about the vibrancy and dynamism of life itself, the unseen forces that drive us before we even have words to describe what we’re feeling or thinking. This conceptualization challenges us to think about emotions, consciousness, and social interaction in profoundly different ways, highlighting the fluidity and openness of human experience.


Where are the potentialities coming from? Without an operational definition, his theory sounds like an intellectual gobblygook.


Brian Massumi’s theory of affect, with its focus on potentialities and intensities, indeed operates at a level of abstraction that can be challenging to pin down, especially when compared to more traditionally empirical approaches in psychology or neuroscience. The notion of potentialities, central to his framework, can appear esoteric without understanding the philosophical underpinnings that inform it. Here’s an attempt to clarify the concept and its origins:

Potentialities: Origins and Implications

  • Philosophical Roots: Massumi’s ideas are heavily influenced by the work of Spinoza, Bergson, and Deleuze, philosophers who each, in their way, emphasized becoming, change, and the capacity for entities to affect and be affected. In this context, potentiality refers to the inherent capacities for change, action, or experience that exist within beings and between beings and their environments.
  • From Spinoza: Spinoza’s concept of ‘conatus’, the inherent drive of a being to persist and enhance its power of acting, underlies the idea of potentialities. This drive represents a pre-conscious, vital impetus that exists in all things.
  • Through Bergson and Deleuze: Bergson’s emphasis on duration and Deleuze’s focus on becoming further elaborates the notion that life is characterized by a continuous process of change and differentiation, not fully capturable by static definitions or categories. This is where the idea of potentiality gains dynamism, reflecting the constant flux and capacity for novel forms of existence and experience.

Operational Definition Challenges

  • Abstract Nature: One of the challenges in operationalizing Massumi’s theory is its foundational premise that affect precedes and exceeds the categories through which we typically understand the world, including language, thought, and even individual consciousness. This makes it inherently resistant to precise, static definitions since its essence lies in its capacity to be more than any moment of actualization.
  • Application in Cultural and Social Analysis: Massumi finds the utility of affect in its ability to explain the forces that move us beyond our conscious awareness and control. This is particularly relevant in cultural studies, art, and political theory, where affect drives collective movements, aesthetic experiences, and non-rational aspects of political engagement.

Making Sense of Potentialities

  • A Force of Life: Massumi’s potentialities can be understood as the life force itself—the energies and capacities that animate beings and systems and allow for growth, change, and interaction. These are not static or measurable in the conventional sense but instead about the possibilities for how things can unfold.
  • Real-world Examples: In practical terms, affect theory can help explain why certain artworks move us deeply without an apparent reason, how social movements gain momentum, or why certain environments can dramatically alter our mood or behavior. These are all instances where the potentialities of affect manifest in tangible outcomes.

While Massumi’s theory might initially come across as “intellectual gobbledygook,” especially when viewed through empirical sciences, it offers a rich framework for understanding the complexities of human experience and social interaction that elude easy categorization. Its strength lies in its ability to account for life’s dynamic, ever-changing nature and our engagement with the world, emphasizing the unseen, pre-conscious forces that shape our existence.


It sounds to me like he is talking about vitality affects. Use this as a reference: The Music and Movement of the Self: Understanding Our Affective/Emotional WorldChatGPT


The exploration of vitality affects, as elucidated through the lens of affect theory and attachment styles, offers a rich framework for understanding our affective-emotional world’s nuanced and dynamic underpinnings. Let’s delve into how these elements—vitality affects, attachment styles, and interoception—intertwine to shape our experiences and interactions.

Vitality Affects and Their Interplay with Attachment Styles

Vitality affects, a concept brought to the fore by Daniel Stern, refer to the dynamic qualities of our emotional expressions—how emotions are experienced and communicated beyond their mere categorical identification. These affects are characterized by intensity, timing, rhythm, and force, reflecting the ‘how’ of emotional states rather than the ‘what.’ Vitality affects are foundational in the early non-verbal communication between infants and caregivers, crucial in developing attachment styles.

  • Secure Attachment: In securely attached relationships, vitality affects are consistently positive and responsive, fostering an environment where emotional expressiveness is met with warmth and understanding. This secure base encourages the development of a robust emotional lexicon and a confident approach to emotional communication and intimacy.
  • Anxious-Ambivalent Attachment: Here, vitality affects may be inconsistently administered or interpreted, leading to heightened sensitivity to emotional cues and an overarching desire for validation and closeness, often marked by anxiety and uncertainty in how one’s emotional states will be received.
  • Avoidant Attachment: Individuals with an avoidant attachment style may have experienced a minimization or rejection of their vitality affects, leading them to adopt a self-contained approach to emotional expression. They often guard against the vulnerability associated with emotional expressiveness.
  • Disorganized Attachment: This style may arise from chaotic or frightening vitality affects, leading to confusion and an inability to form a coherent strategy for emotional communication. The erratic expression of vitality affects reflects an inner turmoil and a struggle with trust and intimacy.

The Role of Interoception

Interoception, sensing internal bodily states, is intricately linked to how we experience and interpret our emotional and affective states. This internal monitoring system informs us about our physiological needs and emotional reactions, pivotal in our overall emotional awareness and regulation.

  • Interoception and Emotional Awareness: A keen interoceptive awareness allows individuals to discern their emotional states more accurately, contributing to more nuanced emotional expressions and interactions. It serves as an internal guide to understanding and managing our emotional responses.
  • Connection with Vitality Affects: The interplay between interoception and vitality affects underscores the bidirectional flow of emotional experience. While interoception informs us about our inner emotional states, vitality affects express these states outwardly, influencing how we connect with others emotionally.

Integrating Affect Theory, Attachment, Vitality Affects, and Interoception

The integration of these elements offers a comprehensive view of our emotional and affective experiences. Affect theory provides a broader context, suggesting that our innate affects and developed emotions are shaped significantly by early interactions and the vitality affects present within these dynamics. These early experiences, mediated through our attachment relationships, lay the groundwork for our emotional communication and intimacy approach.

  • Influence on Personal and Interpersonal Dynamics: How we express and perceive vitality can deeply impact our personal sense of self and our relationships. Those attuned to the subtle nuances of vitality affects are better positioned to engage in meaningful, empathetic connections, navigating the complexities of intimacy with greater ease.
  • Therapeutic Implications: Understanding the interplay between these elements has significant therapeutic value, particularly in addressing emotional dysregulation, attachment-related issues, and interpersonal difficulties. By fostering a deeper awareness of one’s vitality affects and interoceptive signals, individuals can work towards healthier emotional expressions and more secure attachment patterns.

In conclusion, the intricate dance of affect theory, attachment styles, vitality affects, and interoception shapes our affective-emotional landscape. Recognizing and nurturing this interplay can enhance our understanding of ourselves and others, enriching our emotional experiences and relationships. This holistic view encourages us to appreciate the complexity and dynamism of our emotional lives, offering pathways to greater emotional intelligence and interpersonal connectivity.


In what ways do vitality affects explain or have similarities to Massumi’s theories on affect?


Vitality affects, as conceptualized by Daniel Stern and Brian Massumi’s theories on affect share a foundational interest in the dynamic, pre-linguistic, and bodily aspects of emotional experience. While they emerge from different disciplinary backgrounds and have their unique emphases, several key similarities connect Stern’s notion of vitality affects to Massumi’s perspectives on affect. Exploring these similarities can illuminate how both concepts contribute to a deeper understanding of the fluid and embodied nature of affective experiences.

Pre-linguistic and Bodily Nature

  • Stern’s Vitality Affects: Stern emphasizes the dynamic qualities of emotional expression and experience, such as rhythm, tempo, and intensity, present from the earliest stages of life. These vitality affects are pre-linguistic, operating before the child develops the capacity for language, and are deeply rooted in bodily sensations and movements.
  • Massumi’s Affect: Similarly, Massumi focuses on the bodily sensations and intensities that precede the formation of articulated emotions or linguistic expressions. He highlights affect as a pre-conscious experience that cannot be fully captured in language but is felt in the body as intensity and movement.

Dynamic, Fluid, and Processual Nature

  • Stern’s Vitality Affects: The concept of vitality affects captures the fluid and changing nature of emotional experiences, how they ebb and flow in intensity, and shift in quality. This focus on the dynamic aspects of emotion challenges static or categorical understandings of emotional states.
  • Massumi’s Affect: Massumi also emphasizes the fluid and processual nature of affect, considering it as a continuous flow of potentialities that are always becoming, never fully fixed. This aligns with Stern’s view of emotions as processes rather than fixed entities.

Influence on Relationships and Social Interactions

  • Stern’s Vitality Affects: Stern suggests that vitality affects are fundamental to developing attachment and interpersonal relationships. They enable non-verbal communication between caregivers and infants, forming the basis for emotional understanding and social bonding.
  • Massumi’s Affect: While Massumi does not focus explicitly on infancy or attachment, he discusses how affects circulate between bodies and are transmitted through social spaces, influencing collective moods and movements. This transmission of affect underscores the social dimension of affective experiences, resonating with Stern’s emphasis on the relational aspect of vitality affects.

Capacity to Affect and Be Affected

  • Stern and Massumi: Both theorists are concerned with the capacity of affective experiences to influence and be influenced by external stimuli. Stern’s vitality affects show how emotions are expressed and perceived in a relational context. In contrast, Massumi’s affect theory explores the potential of bodies to affect and be affected in a broad range of social, cultural, and political environments.

Contribution to a Non-reductionist Understanding of Emotion

  • Stern and Massumi: Both approaches contribute to a more nuanced and complex understanding of emotional life that transcends reductionist or purely cognitive models of emotion. By highlighting the pre-linguistic, bodily, and dynamic aspects of affect, Stern and Massumi challenge simplistic narratives about how emotions work, promoting a view that recognizes the depth and richness of affective experiences.

In summary, while Stern’s vitality affects and Massumi’s theory of affect emerge from different theoretical landscapes and serve different scholarly purposes, they are committed to understanding the embodied, dynamic, and relational aspects of affective life. Both concepts invite us to consider how emotions move, transform, and connect us before and beyond our capacity to name them.