Core Concepts Series: XII. The Change of Function of the Impulse

Note: Impulse is synonymous with pulsion, striving and drive.

The change of function of the impulse may be the most important concept in orgonomy. The term refers to an organism’s modification of its own expression under the influence of an external stimulus through the reallocation of some fraction of the inspiring energy cathexis. The division of this object-libidinal cathexis is called the dissociation of the unitary striving and the investment of a fraction of its energy in a narcissistic countercathexis is called reaction formation. The phrase ‘reaction formation’ can refer to both the narcissistic countercathexis itself and the process of its formation. The dissociation of the unitary striving can never occur independently of reaction formation and vice versa.

The unitary striving is a hypothetical drive which, like all drives, arises from a certain libido-economic disequilibrium. It is inspired by some cathexis of libido, a quantity of energy that can be exhausted by a certain expression such that a subjective feeling of satisfaction results. By default, the organism acts in the most cathartic way, preferring to discharge the entire cathexis by making the expression which releases the greatest quantity of libidinal energy – whatever that means. In the unitary striving, all the organism’s energetic resources, directly or indirectly, are employed in making the most cathartic expression, to wit, the original goal of the drive. That particular expression can only manifest if the entire cathexis is discharged in its actualization because a different expression would result if less energy was employed. Furthermore, the unitary striving corresponds to a unique, time-varied physiological state characterized by certain movements, a specific time-varied muscular tonus and body fluid distribution, a specific pattern of nervous excitation, a certain subjective experience, &c. If the expression that would discharge the entire cathexis is made, libidinal economy will exist at equilibrium, meaning the object-libidinal and narcissistic psychic currents will be of equal magnitude such that no drive demands subsequent expression.

The dissociation of the unitary striving occurs when some fraction of the inspiring cathexis is prevented from being discharged in the aforementioned most cathartic expression. Before the unitary striving is dissociated, the cathexis animates the organism as it is seamlessly discharged in the optimal expression. In other words, both the unitary striving and the associated energy cathexis are extinguished by expression in the absence of dissociation. Under the influence of an external, unpleasurable stimulus, however, the unitary striving is dissociated. A stimulus’s unpleasurable quality may even stem from the fact that it inspires the organism’s interruption of its own unitary striving. Regardless, if during the unitary striving the organism encounters such a stimulus, the original cathexis (or whatever remains of it) is divided and the organism instantaneously and unconsciously invests a portion of its energy in a narcissistic countercathexis (א). This quantity of energy in turn animates the organism in a narcissistic withdrawal. Since the entirety of the initial cathexis no longer animates the expression that gratifies the unitary striving, the organism is no longer capable of making that same expression. This is the mechanism of all repression.

The narcissistic countercathexis formed during the dissociation is called a reaction formation and the process whereby it is formed is also called reaction formation. Reaction formation can never take place independently of the unitary striving’s dissociation because, if the initial cathexis of object-libido is not divided, an expression which employs the entire cathexis must be made and there can be no energy left to invest in a countercathexis. Just as the initial cathexis of object-libido is seamlessly discharged in the unitary striving when dissociation doesn’t occur, the new countercathexis or reaction formation is seamlessly discharged in the narcissistic withdrawal. A reaction formation should only exist for an infinitesimal duration (ב) because, as a cathexis, it is spontaneously discharged or divested from, specifically in the withdrawal gesture. Furthermore, the reaction formation inspires a behavior which distances the organism from the unpleasurable stimulus, thereby making itself unnecessary. The original function of the impulse – or more correctly, the expression – was to discharge the entire cathexis of object-libido. After the unitary striving is dissociated, the function is to discharge the narcissistic countercathexis in withdrawal. That’s why it’s called the change of function of the impulse.

Before the pulsion to withdraw can be expressed in the act of withdrawing, the organism’s libidinal economy is disequilibrated, just as it was before the organism began its initial object-libidinal endeavor. When the organism has withdrawn and discharged the countercathexis, libidinal economy seems to attain an equilibrium. However, since a narcissistic retraction can never, it seems, be as cathartic as the original goal of the drive, a fraction of the original cathexis of object-libido remains. In the words of Wilhelm Reich, “the original object of the drive is not relinquished but merely repressed” (1). This energetic remnant seems to be involved in the organism’s further association of the unitary striving with harm so long as it is never discharged, but it also may play a role in learning and memory. A libido-economic equilibrium can only be said to result insofar as the remnant is repressed or excluded from subjectivity. The organism can choose to experience cheap simulacra of the benefits afforded by true libido-economic equilibrium (satisfaction, peace, genital function &c.) by renouncing the original goal of the drive. This is pathological, does nothing to relieve the cathexis and incurs many consequences which will be discussed in future installments.

A peculiar recursive recapitulation often arises when the function of the impulse is changed. If during the narcissistic withdrawal another unpleasurable stimulus is encountered, the narcissistic pulsion can be dissociated in the same way the unitary striving was. If this happens, a fraction of the countercathexis must be invested in an even more narcissistic countercathexis which inspires a retraction within a retraction, ad infinitum. Any one of these narcissistic retractions can be conceptualized as a kind of unitary striving with respect to the subsequent retraction since a pathological equilibrium was attained through repression. However, the total quantity of libido at the organism’s disposal becomes smaller and smaller as does the amount bound in the subsequent cathexes which proliferate in number. In historic civilization, all children undergo a process of successive, recursive dissociations: the formation of the layers of character or the ego.

(א) If the analyst continually brings the patient’s attention back to his own retracted condition and elucidates its function of warding off a deeper, repressed expression or disposition, and does so without reference to the nature thereof, that expression or disposition will break through and the retracted condition will eventually be surrendered. For this reason, it is thought that the narcissistic libido invested in the more superficial, retracted condition was originally object-libido proper to a deeper, repressed pulsion.

(ב) This may seem to contradict Reich’s claim that “the reaction formation is not a process that takes place once, but is a continuous one and, as well shall presently see, one which spreads (2).” There is no contradiction here because Reich is describing chronic reaction formations that have become crystallized into the structure of personality due to subsequent dissociations of the narcissistic pulsions. In such cases, the countercathexes are preserved because the withdrawal maneuver is not allowed to take place fully. Such cases belong to the larger category of reaction formations, and it can be said that the central endeavor of Reichian therapy is to restore the instantaneous quality to such chronic reaction formations such that the energies they bind can be liberated and reunited in the aforementioned original cathexis of object-libido. However, in its purest form, I maintain that the reaction formation, like all cathexes, is spontaneously divested from, specifically in the expression of narcissistic retraction.

(1) Reich, Wilhelm – Character Analysis – Chapter VIII. The Genital Character and the Neurotic Character – 3. Sublimation, Reaction Formation, and Neurotic Reaction Basis pg. 189

(2) Ibid pg. 189

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