21INSIDEOUT1-master495  Pixar Studio’s new release, Inside Out decisively confirms our cultural turn to affect. Here is a movie that does not simply take the protagonists’ affects seriously, but personifies them as five edgy blocs of being inside the head of an eleven-year-old girl, Riley [1]. Color-coded Joy, Sadness, Anger, Fear, and Disgust [2] all work alongside each other in Headquarters, a large traffic control tower for emotional experiences, presumably situated in the center of Riley’s brain, set up to use screen technology to ‘peer out’ onto the world as Riley sees it, and arranged in work stations so that the five emotions can plot and steer Riley’s daily emotions. To me, the five emotional blocs of being are the discursive and interactive analogs to the personality “Islands” that surround Headquarters. These “Islands”—Family, Goofball, Honesty, Friendship, and Hockey—are fueled by core memories and long-term memories, but both Islands and memories can be tuned and retuned by the Emotions.

41oQ5YJtb8L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_  It is useful to consider this film alongside Silvan Tomkins’ theories of affect. For instance, we might think of the Islands of Personality as what Tomkins terms Ideas, that is, densely structured interweavings of affective encounters and cognitive processing and reflection. Tomkins describes Ideas as “centrally emitted blueprints for activating, guiding, and finally stopping the feedback mechanism” [3]. Feedback systems—e.g., if I am hungry I cry; if I am hurt, I scream—are initially disconnected from affect systems according to Tomkins, but they imbricate in early childhood, so that the constellation of affect, cognition, and feedback generates “central assemblies” that are themselves arranged into Ideas [4]. Similar to the depiction of the film’s Personality Islands, these “Ideas” in Tomkins are not airy forms but clunky, moving, material machines that generate rules for dealing with affective and cognitive experience.

Later in his career, Tomkins writes not of Ideas but of “scripts”, borrowing from AI researchers Roger Schank and Robert Adelson. These latter define scripts as “structures that describe appropriate sequences of events in particular contexts” [5]. Tomkins himself states that a script deals with “the individual’s rules for predicting, interpreting, responding to, and controlling a magnified set of scenes” [6], where a scene is, as he puts it so poetically, “the basic element in life as it is lived” [7].

The Goofball Island, for instance, can be understood as a complex Idea or script for receiving, processing, and acting on certain specific experiential ‘scenes’, cues, or assemblies. And the emotional blocs of being represented by Joy, Sadness, Fear, Anger, and Disgust are the vessels, the vehicles of mediation and remediation for generating scenes and assemblies that then are directed into Ideas or scripts.

Tomkins even has a developmental model that might explain why Riley so completely decompensates in the face of her family’s move to San Francisco (though her miraculous change of heart remains fit only for the movie screen). Tomkins calls it the “iceberg model of affective development,” and, yes, it’s Joy’s fault. After a young childhood of mostly positive affects and loving response from his parents, this individual, Tomkins says, experiences “a continuous history of successful achievements through childhood and adolescence.” Any distress-shame experiences “serve only to strengthen his counteractive efforts to maximize his positive experiences” [8] When, however a distress comes along that he cannot counteract, he dissolves into shame and humiliation. Tomkins writes, “In such a case, the iceberg of childhood learning may suddenly intrude itself as an utterly alien experience, so disturbing as to produce further negative affect and depression or withdrawal.” [9]

What Tomkins describes in this model of affective development is a particular social type, that of a privileged child raised by loving and well-to-do parents, a child certain of her ability to overcome whatever obstacles life tosses in her path. When this child of privilege cannot control the world around her, however, it is as if her personality Ideas or scripts slam into an iceberg, break up, and sink. This is, in fact, almost precisely the way Inside Out depicts Riley’s distress, anguish, and shame.

Frustratingly for this affect theorist, the film retains a Cartesian split between body and brain, in that Riley’s emotions, personality planks, and even sedimented memory all located inside her brain. This Headquarters is indeed literally in the head. Also, I wonder how it would change the film to include the two affects Tomkins considered most important, interest and shame. In the film, Joy seems to colonize interest, and Sadness, shame.


[1] voice by Kaitlyn Dias

[2] voices by Amy Poehler, Phyllis Smith, Lewis Black, Bill Hader, and Mindy Kalin, respectively.

[3] Tomkins, Shame and its Sisters, Duke UP 1995, 68.

[4] Tomkins, Shame and its Sisters, 44-73.

[5] Schank and Adelson, Scripts, Plans, Goals and Understanding: An Inquiry into Human Knowledge Structures, 1977, 41.

[6] Tomkins, 180.

[7] Tomkins, 179.

[8]Tomkins, 124.

[9] Tomkins, 125.