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

Overview

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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Core Concepts Series: VI. The Orgastic Function – Part 2

Recapitulation of the Orgastic Function in Other Expressions

Although the orgastic function was discovered through studying the orgasm, it is thought to be recapitulated in all expressions. In other words, all our expressions embody the tension and resolution proper to the orgastic cycle, providing they are not obstructed by some pathology. Of necessity, this means that they begin with a cathexis, an investment of libido, and culminate in catharsis, a divestment of libido. Let us explore some expressions that would generally be considered non-sexual and follow the path of the drive energy with an emphasis on biomechanics.

In the first half of the expression of rage, for instance, we are seized by a certain tonus of the striated muscles, those organs whereby we influence the external world. Subjectively, its virtue is discernible from other physiological states and we know it as anger. Here we observe a mechanical tension and, necessarily, some change in the electric properties of the muscles. A cathexis of the same kind with which Freudian psychoanalysis is concerned has been formed and sex-economy has been disequilibrated. If we wish to artificially delineate between psyche and soma, we may say that psychically, the pulsion has been charged with drive energy. Somatically, the organism has begun to consume its reserves of energy by upholding this tonus. It is preparing to destroy whatever agent precludes its pleasure (1). In muscle contraction, the muscles develop force or tension (2) as microscopic fibers pull on one another. The rapid extension of the muscles in combat seems to relieve this tension because, when the situation is resolved, the body ideally resumes a state of relative relaxation and the nerves cease to inspire such an intense tonus in the skeletal muscles. Thus we roughly have the tension, charge, discharge and relaxation of the orgastic function. It is interesting to note that when the orgastic function is precluded in its sexual form, it is recapitulated in this defensive form such that the conditions under which the orgasm reflex can occur are reinstated!

In the expression of fear, we have a very similar response. Again, the tonus of the skeletal muscles is augmented as the organism prepares to escape, a maneuver requiring tremendous quantities of energy. The movement entailed is inherently cathartic and if the organism can escape the threat, a sex-economic equilibrium is achieved and the libido is available again to be invested in other ways.

Although anxiety cannot properly be called an expression, it nonetheless embodies those attributes which characterize the orgastic function (if it ever is divested from). It is a general contraction of the organism universally exhibited across all phyla. That is to say it is exhibited even by organisms without muscular or nervous tissue. The anxiety affect will arise in different situations depending on the creature’s morphology (3). Whereas a unicellular organism will instantly exhibit this response in a dangerous situation, an animal, having a muscular system, will first attempt to destroy or flee the threat, oftentimes fighting to the death. Therefore it is actually very unusual for an animal to exhibit such a response while the microbe, on the other hand, can often be found playing dead, implying to the predator it isn’t worth the energy.

That all being said, in human anxiety the muscular system is chronically contracted. However, we suspect that the final tension developed by the muscles in anxiety is very insignificant and similar to that of relaxed musculature. According to Plonsey and Barr, a muscle in absolute contraction develops a force similar to that of a relaxed muscle. That is to say a muscle’s tension is greatest when it is only partially contracted (4). Entering the anxiety state then can be considered a pseudocatharsis in which tension is taken out of the muscles not through expression, but through repression.

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Here we see tension as a function of striation spacing. After a certain point, the muscle filaments slide past each other to such an extent that they begin to shield each other from the motor-chemical reactions involved in their mutual pulling. (5)

Of greatest significance is the fact that, for the anxiety tonus to be achieved, viz. for the muscles to reach their greatest degree of contraction, the tension force proper to the rage tonus must have been developed at some instant during the contraction. Of equally great significance is that, for the anxiety tonus to be divested from, viz. for the muscles to relax and regain their original length, the muscles must again develop the intermediate force, that tension which foretells the expression of rage or fear. Wilhelm Reich’s discovery that destructive rage impulses break through upon the analytic dissolution of anxiety (6) corroborates our theory. However, all this requires further investigation.

Another expression that mirrors the orgastic function is labor. All organisms devote a portion of their lives to the procurement, transformation, construction and exchange of various things. Even when we think we are resting, our bodies perform very many operations and labors. However, if we only concern ourselves with things we can directly experience, we can see that there is a portion of the day in which we perform labors vastly different from our rest and recreation. Again, these demand a mechanical tension and an electric charge and when we have finished the job, we ideally divest from this cathexis of libido and relax, having maintained the unnatural structures that can allow the most natural thing about us to emerge from its sanctum.

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(1) Reich, Wilhelm – The Bioelectric Investigation of Sexuality and Anxiety – 2. Sexuality and Anxiety: The Basic Antithesis of Vegetative Life – pg. 37

(2) Plonsey, Robert & Barr, Roger C. – Bioelectricity, a Quantitative Approach Second Edition – Chapter 11. Skeletal Muscle pg. 330

(3) Reich – The Bioelectric Investigation of Sexuality and Anxiety – 2. Sexuality and Anxiety: The Basic Antithesis of Vegetative Life – pg. 37-38

(3) Plonsey, Robert & Barr, Roger C. – Bioelectricity, a Quantitative Approach Second Edition – Chapter 11. Skeletal Muscle – Sliding Filament Theory pg. 339

(4) Ibid. pg 339-340

(5) Reich – The Function of the Orgasm – Chapter V – The Development of the Character-analytic Technique – Part 3. Character Armor and the Dynamic Stratification of the Defense Mechanisms pg.147