Core Concepts Series: X. The Basic Libidinal Conflict: Instinct vs. Outer World – Part 1


Previously we stated that the pulsion or impulse is nothing more than the force exerted by the organism on the world or on itself in the conversion of biological energy into work. We also stated that the pulsion’s existence denotes a libidinal tension or pressure – a quantity of potential energy in terms of biophysics – that an expression can discharge. The forces preventing the potential energy from being discharged in expression we have termed narcissistic. It follows that the pulsion and expression are continuous without narcissistic inhibition, as is seen with infants. In other words, an action and the pulsion with which we associate it are artificially separated components of a single identity, initially. The presence of narcissistic inhibition determines if a pulsion is disconnected from the expression which would relieve its tension.

The most primordial drive, then, is the drive to divest from cathexes of libido, viz. the drive to relieve inner tension and feel pleasure. If our formulation equating libido with potential energy is correct, catharsis is impossible without transferring energy into the environment, usually through relating to objects. However, the environment does not always permit object-libidinal expression and there are a finite number of ways the organism can relate to the environment such that libido-economic equilibrium results.

Limitations imposed by the outer world regulate the organism’s power. In the example of the amoeba, we saw that the water it inhabits has the same function as the narcissistic current, offering resistance to the object-libidinal expression of reaching. Though higher organisms face similar challenges, their narcissistic inhibition often arises from intolerable bodily excitation.

Like the energy which inspires the organism to contact the outer world, such intolerable excitations constitute inner tensions. However, they inspire hostility, fear or anxiety. Their intolerable quality is probably related to a high frequency of signals in the nervous pathways involved in sensation and perception. These cathexes can be relieved by destroying, fleeing or withdrawing from the stimulus, actions which both expend energy and interrupt the organism’s continued perception thereof. Like the pulsion to relate to the outer world, the narcissistic retraction is also a pulsion whose tension is relieved by movement, though it be directed inwardly. We believe that all this is mediated by differences in the magnitudes of opposing forces, mechanical and electric, contending in the tissues of life.

“If we assume that Hartmann’s theory is correct (certain aspects of which were supplemented by the investigations of Kraus and Zondek), psychic energy must derive from simple physiological and mechanical surface tensions, grounded in the chemistry of cells … the disturbance of the physio-chemical equilibrium which is brought about by these tensions turns out to be the motor force of action – in the final analysis, most likely also the motor force of thinking (1).”

Wilhelm Reich, 1933

Based on the results of the therapy character analysis and critical inquiry into masochism and the quantitative problem of libido, Wilhelm Reich concluded that Freud was correct in his original conception of the basic libidinal conflict: “frustration issues from the outer world (2).” That is to say the organism endeavors to relate to objects in the most cathartic, pleasurable way by default. Renunciation of this drive arises from external limitations and frustrations, not, as Freud would later claim, a countervailing death drive equally innate to the organism. As we shall later see, the phenomena attributed thereto are conditional and dependent on the preservation of cathexes which can, in fact, be divested from. In the coming articles, we will describe how interactions with external frustrations divide the object-libidinal current against itself giving rise to secondary drives and describe a hierarchy of preferred emotional functions and transformations which is based on cathartic magnitude and whether frustrating conditions prevail.

(1) Reich, Wilhelm – Character Analysis – Chapter XII: Some Observations On the Basic Conflict Between Need and Outer World pg. 271-272

(2) Ibid pg. 280-281

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