Core Concepts Series II: Introduction to Libidinal Economy

In the 1920s, when Wilhelm Reich began to study under Freud, three approaches to psychoanalysis were commonly employed: the topographical, dynamic and economic approaches. The topographical approach was concerned with the conscious and the unconscious: the heights and depths of psychic life. In therapy, it was handicapped in effectiveness for reasons we shall explore later. Often it could only impart to the patient an intellectual understanding of his or her neurosis, leaving the neurotic symptoms and character traits untouched. A Freudian axiom, something to the effect of “neuroses are resolved when the analysand becomes conscious of the unconscious” was later revised to state that neuroses may be resolved if that parameter is satisfied (1).

Those who practiced the dynamic approach realized that a cathexis is more completely dissolved when the affects, viz. the emotions, surrounding the cathexis are re-experienced (abreaction). It was found, however, that certain personality traits function to resist the surfacing of these affects, and that the key to the resolution of neurosis lies in the cessation of these traits. The dynamic approach – though its assumptions are correct – failed to address these “resistances,” character traits that compel a patient to resist analysis.

The economic approach was able to overcome these problems. As the field of economics is concerned with the distribution of scarce resources, so the economic approach to psychoanalysis was concerned with the distribution of libidinal energy amongst the various drives and mannerisms. Thus it deals with ordinal quantities of libido. We will refer to this approach as libidinal economy or sex-economy and its subject matter is the economic or quantitative problem of libido. How much drive energy is invested in which ideas, neurotic symptoms, performances &c.? How do these investments regulate expression, conceal desire and relieve the pressures which arise from psychic conflicts? What factors determine the magnitude of catharsis during the gratification of a drive? These are the questions that sex-economy seeks to answer. Considering the libido in this fashion requires us to affirm the premise of the dynamic approach and further affords us a way to dissolve the resistances that prevent affects from surfacing. Sex-economy also refers to an individual’s libidinal metabolism, the ways in which one’s drive energy is exerted or frustrated. The interplay of instinctual demands with external forces determines the characteristics of one’s sex-economy. It is molded by specific experiences and the socio-familial atmosphere at large.

Sex-economic equilibrium is the condition which occurs either prior to cathexis or following the gratification of a drive. It is subjectively experienced as peace or satisfaction. By as of yet unknown means, drive energy continually flows forth from the organism and compels it to strive towards objects. Tension is experienced prior to this movement and the movement alleviates the tension. Before resolution, sex-economy is said to be in a state of disequilibrium and there exists a stasis or cathexis of libido which demands resolution. Object-libidinal union and other cathartic expressions function to regulate sex-economy and promote the increased health and vitality of the organism, but when these are precluded by internal and external conditions, we are compelled to vent drive energy in an incomplete, pathological fashion, e.g. fetishism.

In fact, neurosis is characterized by the acute fear of catharsis and a neurotic’s instinctual drives have, in a sense, been transformed to favor the upholding of cathexes. From a neurotic frame of reference, equilibrium becomes synonymous with libido-metabolic constipation since there is no conception of the repressed drives. I call this pathological sex-economic equilibrium and it will be discussed more thoroughly in future installments.

Investigation into the economic problem of libido has explained the failures of the topographical and dynamic approaches. The dynamic abreaction is handicapped insofar as the energies of the affect in question are bound in a neurotic’s character structure. Wilhelm Reich’s inquiry into sex-economy has yielded a theory of character formation which posits that chronic attitudes consume the energy which would otherwise be liberated in abreaction. These attitudes are adopted to resolve various conflicts between instinctual and societal demands; their performance exhausts the libido, preventing expressions deemed inappropriate by a life-negating culture. Since a purely dynamic approach does not consider the economic function of character formation, it cannot free the libido employed in the chronic upholding of neurotic character traits. Moreover, the study of sex-economy has shed light on a number of social and biological mysteries that will later be covered in this series.

(1) Reich, Wilhelm – Character Analysis – Chapter II. The Economic Viewpoint in the Theory of Analytic Therapy pg. 11

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