Inside Out: Loss in Light of the Last Things


The sequel to the Pixar film Inside Out (2015) will be released later this year. I rewatched the original in anticipation of the new release. Almost a decade on, the movie holds up well. What I appreciated to a greater degree, however, was the way in which the movie dealt with the subject of loss, in this case, the loss by the main human protagonist, Riley, of her place of origin in Minnesota while she tries to adapt to life in San Francisco. Whereas once I thought the film’s resolution of the subject—the mutual admission of their loss between Riley and her parents—as trite and oozing with schlock, I have now realized that it was the inbreaking of an eschatological moment into another that might strike us as relatively mundane, a parent’s comforting of a child in the grips of the realization that something has been lost.

I would like to unpack how Riley’s loss is set against the backdrop of the last things. I propose that loss and the last things are more connected than we realize, and because of this connection, loss is more comedy than tragedy than we realize. Indeed, in light of the last things, our experiences of loss and its opposite, the restoration of what was lost, converge into one and the same thing.

Affect Theory: Judgment

More than anything else, Inside Out is as much a movie about Riley’s feelings as they are about Riley herself. More precisely, the film is an extended exploration on how subjective feelings work in the face of external empirical stimuli. The caveat to put here is that, in the world of Inside Out, there are two sets of “subjective” protagonists, namely Riley and Riley’s emotions, Joy, Sadness, Anger, Disgust, and Fear. Because of this, Inside Out is a prime candidate for reflection in terms set by Affect Theory in the tradition of Silvan Tomkins. Within this context, we can say that the film is a case study on the aesthetic dimension of Tomkins’ Affect Theory, which focuses on how feelings are experienced. As we shall see, this is not as straightforward as it sounds.

My reason for highlighting affect in the context of a reflection on eschatology is because, from the standpoint of Affect Theory, affect can be described, as Donovan Schaefer puts it, as an effect of power,[1] and I mean this in two senses. First, on a surface reading of the film, we can see how affects generate psychological power insofar as they are “primary motivators of human behavior,” providing more impetus for behavior than simple Freudian drives.[2] In the context of the film, we can see the way in which Riley’s actions are preceded by the dynamics initiated by her emotional states.

There is a second sense that is more interesting and more relevant for the purpose of this argument, and this relates to power that is as much exerted outside of actors as within them. More specifically, I am referring to what Schaefer calls the “felt and sensed dimensions of power,” and the sense in which affects are also “the substance of subjectivity” in a Foucauldian sense, distributed across architectures that in turn create situations that subjects are motivated to move within.[3] We are given a glimpse of this in Inside Out in the way that certain “core-memories,” experiences that form the core dimensions of her character, concretize themselves architecturally within Riley’s psyche in the form of theme park-like islands. More importantly for our purposes, the film also gives us a glimpse of the way in which external exertions of power interface with the interior movements of “intention, cognition, accident, awareness and what gets called "reason,”[4] manifested again in the way these “core-memory” islands, when met with certain events, either emerge in technicolor splendor or fall into the grey forgottenness of the Memory Dump, which is then reflected in Riley’s personality.

At the same time, Affect Theory highlights the way in which “feelings both are and not our own,” and that “we don’t know and don’t want to know what we are feeling.”[5] All this is indicated several times in Riley’s affective struggle, where the seeming confidence on her first day of school gives way (literally mid-sentence) to a melancholy surrounding leaving Minnesota, or where adolescent anger at her parents acts as a cover for her sadness from being detached from her childhood home.

Bringing up affect theory is not only an interesting way to analyze the intersection between Riley’s interior and exterior worlds. As Schaefer indicates, these affective architectures extend Foucault’s notion of rationality or governmentality.[6] Decisions are made or are being made as one moves within these affective networks and architectures. As such they also highlight an eschatological dimension. More specifically, they highlight the way in which one of the last things, judgment, can be interwoven within the sinews of everyday experience as well as the intimacy of our own interior life.

Romano Guardini: Death

Inside Out’s reflection of the experience of judgment on its own risks reducing divine judgment to merely the judgments of others coursing through those affective architectures. This makes it necessary to foreground our consideration of judgment by another experience of another last thing, the experience of loss as death. To this we must turn to Guardini’s treatment of death. In his The Last Things, Guardini’s definition of death encompasses far more subtypes than merely biological death. One subtype includes what Guardini describes as “biographical” death. Guardini defines it in this way:

Each man’s life is built around certain settled motives of action. These motives, for some reason, may cease to be, and no new ones come up to supply their place.

A woman, for instance, may be married, have children, manage a household. Then her children grow up, leave home and start families of their own . . . If she is not able to take up some other activity or fill her leisure from her own inner resources, her life, biographically speaking, is over.

Or take a man who has thrown himself into his work with everything there is in him. The day comes when he perceives that out of loyalty to the work itself he must resign … Unless he finds something to do that makes worth his while to begin afresh, or can put his leisure to intellectual or social use, his life, viewed as biography, is finished, however long it may linger on in fact.[7]

As the adjective “biographical” suggests, “motives of action” are underwritten by stories of lives we once had, think we had or wish we had, stories that include jobs, places, relationships, hopes, and dreams. These stories can be cut short by some traumatic event, and when this event happens, we experience a loss of the life we thought we would have. If Guardini is right, we have grounds for arguing that the experience of loss is, like judgment, a tactile experience of death.

Critical Theory: Messianic

While Guardini’s work gives us a broader net in which more experiences than simply biological death are pulled into the eschatological, his later chapters seem to overlook what becomes of these experiences. An unexpected way forward came when I took a deeper dive into Critical Theory’s treatment of the messianic.

There is a fascinating genealogy in which Jewish concepts of the coming of the messiah became secularised by Marxist thinking, the details of which we cannot get into here.[8] The upshot of this secularization is not the replacement of a religious messiah with a secular one, but the replacement of a messianic person with a messianic perspective on times and conditions, a perspective which Theodor Adorno’s Minima Moralia calls the “standpoint of redemption.” This standpoint, in Adorno’s words, is “the only philosophy which can be responsibly practiced in face of despair,” going as far to say that “knowledge has no light but that shed on the world by redemption.”[9]

The standpoint of redemption provides what Stephen Bronner calls a “messianic hermeneutic” which, in Bronner’s words, “renders whole or gives cohesion to what has become fragmentary and redeems the suffering of the past.”[10] The telos of this messianic perspective, Bronner argues, is the opening up of possibilities for human freedom when our material conditions, like a deterministic cage, shut us in and close off any such possibility.[11]

Like Adorno, Giorgio Agamben highlights the importance of the messianic in his In the Time that Remains. There, Agamben argues that the messianic gives cohesion to the fragments of history by bringing all polarities within history, in particular history’s beginning and end, into tension with each other in a single moment.[12] Agamben’s point is relevant for our consideration of loss, because in bringing together the opposites of beginning and end, the messianic causes us to contend not only with the fact of loss—the ending of our history with things—but also its opposite, namely the restoration of that which was lost, even a new beginning.

Promising as this messianic perspective might be, the trouble is that when the opposites end up merely in tension, it leaves open a metaphysical gap between these opposites. So long as this gap exists, there is a conditionality to this redemption of history and all its attendant sufferings. Interestingly, even proponents of the messianic within Critical Theory despair about the messianic’s feasibility. Adorno, for instance, after extolling the standpoint of redemption, in the same paragraph also rejects the possibility that such a standpoint can even exist. The reason, Adorno writes, is that the transcendence needed for such possibilities to be conceived renders those presuming to occupy the standpoint of redemption as indulging in an illusion, distorting and obscuring the same possibilities that standpoint was meant to illumine and open up.[13]

Bonaventure: Coincidence

While Critical Theory identifies a hopeful messianism by putting opposites together, it is stymied by its refusal to truly bring those opposites together in a single moment. We should not be surprised by this refusal, given the fully immanent metaphysics Critical Theory presumes and, as a result, seeing transcendence as a hindrance and not a help. It's a shame because the transcendence Critical Theory rejects is precisely what is needed to acquire what it hopes for in the messianic.

However, the Christian tradition has precisely the resources to complete what Critical Theory promises, not only closing the gap between opposites but also having those opposites converge. What underwrites the convergence is Christ the divine Word who, before all things were made, was and is the coincidence of opposites. This is where Bonaventure, whose thought was profoundly structured by the Word as the coincidence of opposites, comes in.

Bonaventure grounds the coincidence of opposites in the mystery of the Trinity, where two opposite poles (Father and Spirit) are united by a common center (the Son or the Word). The Son holds together the seemingly opposing poles because the center bears the characteristics of both. In his Journey of the Mind Towards God, Bonaventure writes that:

Christ, the Son of God, who is the image of the invisible God by nature [is] . . . the first and the last, the highest and lowest, the circumference and the centre, the Alpha and Omega, the caused and the cause, the Creator and creature.[14]

Within the Trinity, the Son has the same generative powers of the Father, since both Father and Son, as we profess in the Creeds, are the source of the Spirit’s procession. However, like the Spirit, the Son is generated by the Father, born of the Father before all ages. While the Trinity is conceived as the ground of relationality writ large, what holds that relation together is the Word.[15]

In addition, the relationality in the Trinity is also reflected in the relationality between all things in the cosmos that were made through the Word. In the words of Ilia Delio’s commentary on Bonaventure:

Everything in creation that is opposite to another is united to the other through the Word . . . because every person, plant, animal and star is created through the Word and bears a relationship to the Word, every person, plant, animal and star which, on the one hand is opposite to the other is, at the same time, related to the other precisely through the Word.

In the Word, the union in relation between things holds right up to the end of all things, for at the end of all things, things would not have ended, but instead have arrived at the Word who is the last thing par excellence, and in whom all things reach the pinnacle of their actuality precisely in their convergence with their opposites.

We can also argue that, in Christ, not only things in the cosmos but the things we experience while in the cosmos, are drawn into Christ as the unity between opposites. To make sense of this, consider what Bonaventure writes concerning the relevance of the coincidence of opposites to the redemption of sin. In his Breviloquium, Bonaventure notes that sin is not a thing per se, but an experience of an infected mind and flesh, a state of misery which the incarnate Word assumed into himself so that this miserable state might be restored to its former elevated state of union with God and former glory as God’s image.[16] To do this act of restoration, Bonaventure states, the Word who is most actual had to become one with “the one who suffered supremely and died.”[17] In other words, actuality becomes united with its loss in the passion and death of Jesus Christ. Conversely, in the resurrection, loss becomes united to its opposite, namely the restoration of what was lost. And this convergence arises because of the mercy of God.

The stage for a drama between opposites seems comically set from the beginning of Inside Out, which revolves around Joy and her seeming opposite, Sadness. In trying to help Riley settle into a new life in San Francisco, Joy appears determined to keep Riley happy, only to be thwarted by her seeming opposite Sadness’ almost uncontrollable urge to touch every yellow orb of happy memory and render it blue with melancholy. In the movie’s main plot twist towards the end, the former comes to an important realization about the latter. When examining what she thought was a happy childhood memory involving her being surrounded by cheering friends and family lauding her hockey playing, Joy finds out that this was only part of the story. The cheering was not a purely joyous memory of victory, but one tinged with the pathos of defeat. The cheering was a moment of comfort in the face of defeat in the field. The reality of Riley’s memory was one in which yellows of joy intermingled with the blue of sadness. By way of conclusion, let us circle back to Riley.

Riley: Restoration

There is a crucial crossroads in Riley’s biography in the movie in which she, stricken by nostalgia, comes to an apparent realization that happiness was lost the moment the family left Minnesota. This prompts an attempt to run away from her new home in San Francisco and return to the old, only to abandon the attempt at the last minute. This major crisis is a prelude to another subtler crossroads upon her return to her parents. Finally dropping the angry façade for what it is, a cover for an underlying sadness at the loss of her childhood, manifest in her final confession to her parents: “I miss Minnesota . . . I want to go home.” Rather than anger and retaliation, Riley’s confession prompts a moment of grace, manifested in her parents’ decision not to react in anger. Instead, we witness a reciprocal declaration by her parents, as they declare that they too miss the woods and backyard of her childhood home, and then embrace to comfort the eleven-year-old. This is a moment of judgment, one intertwined with Riley’s psyche when Joy and Sadness take joint control of her emotional console, creating a new multicolored core memory, which is registered on Riley’s face as a tear-tinged smile, and then architecturally manifested in a new memory island.

Beneath the veneer of emotional schlock, there is a profundity in this moment that cannot be overlooked. In the leadup to this moment, we witness the ways in which her decisions, and her emotional states in the course of making them, are in turn responses within an economy of judgments not of her own making. The decision to embrace Riley, as the emotional crescendo of the movie, is also a moment of judgment into which Riley’s own affective state undergoes a moment of transformation. The embrace is also the crescendo because it brings together, not only the opposites of Joy and Sadness, but also the opposites of loss and return, and it does so in two ways.

At one level, they manifest the messianic conjunction of beginning and end, as we see that Riley’s biographical beginnings die. No longer will they be recovered as the unadulteratedly joyous memories bathed in yellow light (visually portrayed by the memory being filtered in the blue of nostalgia). Conversely, as becomes clear following this scene, the ending of Riley’s childhood also marks a new beginning in her adolescence, as the recovery of her joy is found, not in a return to the old world of Minnesota, but a leaning into her core passions in her new world in California. This is encapsulated in the recovery of her passion for hockey but in a new Californian team. Affectively, she regains her islands of core memories, now an array impossible to count, all of which are underwritten by a kaleidoscope of memories, colored by differing and sometimes seemingly opposing emotions.

Herein lies the poignant twist when loss is taken up into the coincidence of opposites. In the restoration of things we have lost, that which we have lost may not be restored to the state we intend. They are, however, restored to us in their actuality in the Divine Word, with their ends oriented to the purposes intended not by us, but by the Divine Word. The vast ocean of grace is not a space of linear processes, of beginning and ending, of gaining and losing. In the case of Inside Out, the coincidence of opposites completes what the standpoint of redemption desires, a latter-day convergence between that which is lost, and that which is found in the beginning and the end, the Alpha and the Omega.

[1] Donovan O. Schaefer, The Evolution of Affect Theory: The Humanities, the Sciences and the Study of Power (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019), 1.

[2] Adam J. Frank and Elizabeth A. Wilson, A Silvan Tomkins Handbook: Foundations for Affect Theory (Minnealpolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2020), 15.

[3] Schaefer, Evolution of Affect Theory, 1.

[4] Schaefer, 3.

[5] Frank and Wilson, Affect Theory, 3.

[6] Schaefer, Evolution of Affect Theory, 3.

[7] Romano Guardini, The Last Things (Providence, RI: Cluny, 2019), 9.

[9] Theodor Adorno, Minima Moralia: Reflections from Damaged Life (London: New Left Books, 1974), 247.

[13] Adorno, Minima Moralia, 247.

Featured Image: Screencap of the Anger character from Inside Out (2015), Fair Use.


Matthew Tan

Matthew John Paul Tan is Dean of Studies at Vianney College, the seminary of the diocese of Wagga Wagga in Australia. He also serves as Adjunct Senior Lecturer in Theology at the University of Notre Dame Australia. He is the author of two books and blogs at Awkward Asian Theologian, which seeks to bring academic theology and personal experience together.

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