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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Core Concepts Series I: Libido

All organisms can be observed coupling with objects that exist outside the boundaries of their bodies. This reaching out into the world is inherently a process of motion, implying a reliance on energy. Consider for instance the amoeba’s expansive movements towards its sustenance. Here we have an object which seems to inspire in the organism an energized movement eventually resulting in the union of the organism with the object. Sigmund Freud called the energy exerted by the organism in this scenario libido, which means ‘desire’ in Latin. It will also be referred to in this series as ‘drive energy’ and later, ‘orgone.’

Psychoanalysis and everyday life have shown that tension is subjectively experienced prior to this object union and is dissipated thereupon. It is commonly said that in such cases, one desires, lacks or wants the object and that the idea of coupling therewith has become psychically charged, as it were, with libidinal energy. In theory, this energy is released and the drive is gratified when the organism unites with such objects. The charging is called cathexis or libidinal investment while the release is called catharsis or libidinal divestment.

Object-libido is essential to the organism’s survival and health because it is, by default, directed towards necessities. For instance, analysis has shown that the infant’s breast-feeding is a cathartic, libidinal process; this is evidenced by the fact that, for those in whom this drive was not adequately gratified, the tension persists into adult life. The libidinal drives are concerned with those things that facilitate the organism’s power and thriving. Only when they are inordinately frustrated do they assume the monstrous characteristics that Freud erroneously ascribed to their nature (1).

Even though Freud predicted in the 1920s that psychoanalysis would be shortly supplanted by a somatic “organotherapy” (2), the libido is considered to be a purely psychic energy by psychoanalysts today. As I will show in future installments, the libido is a physical energy that does work on physical systems. For now, I leave psychoanalysts with this question: how, if the libido is purely psychic, does it compel the physical body towards objects and why can it be exhausted in movement?

When, for whatever reason, a society adopts mores which are inimical to the organism’s objective, biological needs, children must censor expressions of object-libidinal striving, leading to a build-up of drive energy. However, these stases of energy still demand discharge and the organism devises various maneuvers in an attempt to vent them. Usually they are inadequately cathartic when compared with the attainment of the original goal. When a person’s drives are continually frustrated, the stasis of libido continually grows, outpacing the rate at which these maneuvers can dispose of the energy. At this point, the various symptoms of neurosis appear; they are a continuation of the body’s attempt to dispense with intolerable drive energy.

(1) Reich, Wilhelm – The Function of the Orgasm – Chapter IV. The Development of the Character-analytic Technique, Part 4. Destruction, Aggression and Sadism pg. 154-159

(2) Reich – The Function of the Orgasm – Chapter V. The Development of the Orgasm Theory, Part 4. Sexual Stasis – The Energy Source of the Neurosis pg. 114

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