Core Concepts Series VII: Object Libido and Narcissistic Libido

Libido is invested in two opposing directions: toward the world and away from the world. The energy that inspires an impulse concerned with contacting the external world is called object libido. Before gratification, such impulses coincide with a subjective feeling of tension. Union with the “desired” object relieves tension, as plainly evidenced by the relaxation which occurs when striving is ceased. In psychoanalysis, this is called catharsis and is said to coincide with a return of the libido to the “narcissistic reservoir.” When the libido is withdrawn from the external interest or doesn’t come out in the first place, it is called narcissistic libido (1). Note that this concept describes a phenomenon much more general and fundamental than the tangentially related phenomenon called narcissism by modern psychology. A narcissistic retraction is not always cathartic or satisfying. Often they result from frustration and do nothing to relieve the tension arising from the inability to reach the drive’s original goal. The only tension relieved by this retraction is usually that which signifies overpowering fear. In Character Analysis, Wilhelm Reich calls narcissistic withdrawals of libido flights of the “energy cathexis” toward the center (interior) of the organism (2).

An antithesis is formed by these two functions: towards (object libido) and away from (narcissistic libido) the world. Hunger and sexuality are object-libidinal, to wit, orientated toward the world. Both of these relieve inner tension. When the organism reaches out into the world to make contact with an object, and this endeavor is successful, unsuccessful or results in injury or a perception of danger, the energy is narcissistically withdrawn. To use a classical example, the genital attraction of a boy in the oedipal situation to his mother is an object-libidinal pulsion consisting of a quantity of moving energy and a corresponding expression: that energy’s animation of the body. If the consequence of this expression is the mother becoming enraged, the libido is narcissistically withdrawn for the purpose of self-preservation. This is evidenced by the fact that here, the body (whose movement requires energy) is not animated in outward expression. We will talk about how this is accomplished biophysically and what must be done with this energy in future installments. Similarly, when a squirrel endeavors to cross a street but sees an oncoming car, he must prevent his body from accomplishing the drive’s original goal through narcissistic retraction.

Although these two functions are in one sense antithetical, it is important to remember that they stem from a common substance, general biological energy. They only differ in flow direction and direction of investment. In orgonomy, such a relationship is called an antithetical functional identity; two seemingly opposing functions share a common identity. Investigation from the sex-economic standpoint reveals that we are dealing with definite, conserved quantities of energy. Further these can be divided and set against each other in order to create evermore complicated inhibitions. In such cases, object-oriented and narcissistic energies exert libidinal pressures on each other, leading to ambivalence and many other strange behavioral phenomena (3).

Finally, the oscillation of libidinal investment between these poles is identical to the orgastic function. The first half of the function, characterized by tension and charge, is in its purest form an object-libidinal endeavor. The end phase, characterized by discharge and relaxation, is a narcissistic retraction. In the coming articles, we will use this formulation to show that object libido and narcissistic libido compel the organism to make objective physical movements. We will also describe the relationship these energies have to sexuality, anxiety and the function of the autonomic nervous system.

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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. 36

(2) Reich – Character Analysis – Chapter XII – Some Observations on the Basic Conflict Between Need and Outer World pg. 276

(3) Reich – Character Analysis – Chapter XIII – Psychic Contact and Vegetative Current – The Change Of Function of the Impulse pg. 296-308

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.

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.

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

Core Concepts Series IV: The Orgasm Theory – Part 2

The Orgasm Reflex

Part one dealt with the development of the orgasm theory, gave a brief description thereof and gave an account of its reception. This part will describe the orgasm reflex and the sexual intercourse between orgastically potent men and women.

Sex between orgastically potent lovers takes on a certain form not because it is a practice or a performance, but because it is governed by uninhibited biological instincts. It does not take place because one wants to prove his “potency” or her “sexual liberation,” to invoke jealousy, anesthetize oneself, act out oedipal wishes, fulfil a tradition or receive some kind of compensation. To the orgastically potent man or woman, this conjugation is part of a primordial life process and functions to guarantee psychic and somatic vigor, equilibrate libidinal economy and afford some of the highest pleasures in life. All the perversions described herein diminish the magnitude of catharsis in the orgasm. From an economic standpoint, this is ultimately perversion’s raison d’être; it consumes libidinal energy, precluding the extreme accumulation of excitation and rapid, complete discharge that characterize the orgasm reflex.

If the orgasm reflex is to occur, several conditions must be satisfied and all precluding factors must be absent. “Anxiety, unpleasure, and fantasies” (1) must be entirely absent from the experience. Wilhelm Reich explicitly delineates from “onanistic coitus,” the fantasy-ridden, masturbatory sex which Lacan assumed to be the only kind of sex possible. There can be no uncertainty or contradictory impulses. The lovers must be genuinely well-disposed towards each other, meaning they are neither lying to themselves nor lying to themselves about lying to themselves and so on. As we will later explore, such dishonesty has a major physiological component: the chronic rigidification of the muscular system. For now, understand that it is this rigidity which prevents the body from involuntarily convulsing in the orgasm reflex.

Reich describes the reflex in great, clinical detail in chapter four of The Function of the Orgasm (pg. 85-116), but I will reproduce what I think are the most important takeaways. Of great significance is the wave propagated along the body’s longitudinal axis. The pelvis rotates inwardly toward the head and independently of the lower back. As the pelvis reaches the fullest extent of its rotation, the upper body begins to curl forward while the relaxed head and neck fall backwards with gravity. Reich remarks that it is as if the organism attempts to bring together “the two ends of the trunk (2).” Meanwhile, the pelvis has begun to fall, and, by the time the upper body has reached its most inwardly curled position, the pelvis has more or less straightened out whereupon it begins to rotate inwardly again while the upper body falls. This whole cycle repeats several times and is entirely involuntary.

“Orgastic potency is the capacity to surrender to the flow of biological energy, free of any inhibitions; the capacity to discharge completely the dammed-up sexual excitations through involuntary, pleasurable convulsions of the body.”

Wilhelm Reich – The Function of the Orgasm pg. 102

It is also noteworthy that, leading up to the reflex, excitation is evermore concentrated in the genitals and that the orgastic convulsions coincide with the rapid flow of excitation from the genitals into the rest of the body. This is experienced as the resolution of tension. The steeper the descent from excitation, the more satisfying the orgasm. Moreover, whereas the pleasure at the beginning of such intercourse is of a voluntary, sensory virtue, it assumes an involuntary, primarily motor virtue by the time of the climax. Psychoanalytically speaking, this coincides with the momentary dissolution of the ego and the total surrender to the instinctual.

Above all, what distinguishes orgastic potency from orgastic impotence is the complete discharge of sexual excitation in the orgasm reflex. Below are two graphics from The Function of the Orgasm (pg 111):

In neurosis, extreme excitation and deep relaxation are impossible. The organism cannot tolerate a high degree of excitation or relaxation because of an inability to surrender to involuntary somatic processes.
Orgastic potency is characterized by the capacity to tolerate, accumulate and completely discharge extreme excitation.

The fact that excitation is completely discharged in the reflex is of greatest importance. Reich writes: “the energy source of neurosis is created by the difference between the accumulation and discharge of sexual energy (3).” As I said in Part 1, the neurotic symptoms serve to metabolize the libidinal energy that is not exhausted in expressions such as the orgasm reflex. Among these symptoms is the aforementioned somatic rigidity which prevents the convulsions. Thus orgastic potency is established when this pathological rigidity is eliminated and vice versa. It is the motor convulsions which equilibrate sex-economy, possibly through the transfer of mechanical energy from the body into the environment.

The concept of orgastic potency is an indispensable component of clinical orgonomy. Without this goal, therapy is pointless because the patient will not establish a self-regulating sex economy. It will remain in a state of congestion and, since the stases of libido are preserved, the neurotic will always struggle uphill against his or her symptoms. Thus neurosis is identical to orgastic impotence; “not a single neurotic is orgastically potent (4).”

(1) Reich, Wilhelm – The Function of the Orgasm – Chapter IV. The Development of the Orgasm Theory, Part 3. Orgastic Potency pg. 102

(2) Reich – Character Analysis – Chapter XIV. The Expressive Language of the Living, Part 2. Plasmatic Expressive Movement and Emotional Expression pg. 367

(3) Reich – The Function of the Orgasm – Chapter IV.The Development of the Orgasm Theory, Part 4. Sexual Stasis – The Energy Source of the Neurosis pg. 111

(4) Reich – The Function of the Orgasm – Chapter IV. The Development of the Orgasm Theory, Part 3. Orgastic Potency pg. 102

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Core Concepts Series III: The Orgasm Theory – Part 1

Development and Overview

Wilhelm Reich’s orgasm theory shields the Queen of the Sciences from the vulgar, repulsing the vain fact collectors, the theoretical dabblers and those who would appropriate her principles for their own wicked ends. It is subject to ridicule at first and later the most vehement hostility. Nonetheless, it has furnished a physiological metric, orgastic potency, by which we can determine if a neurosis has been resolved, independently of culturally constructed ideas of health which rest on no biological basis.

During the 1920s, psychoanalysts classified as actual neuroses those monosymptomatic diseases relegated by orthodox medicine to the “psychosomatic” realm. Freud surmised that these were caused by the incomplete metabolism of sex-hormones and, in accordance with his libido-economic theory, sex and masturbation were prescribed. Psychoneuroses such as hysteria, perversion and masochism, on the other hand, required analysis. Despite this distinction, Reich recalls that Freud “was of the opinion that every psychoneurosis centered around ‘an actual-neurotic core’ (1).” In other words, a stasis of libido lies at the root of every neurosis.

Clinical experience led Reich to hypothesize that both actual neuroses and psychoneuroses were caused not merely by a libidinal stasis, but by a total disturbance of genital function. While none of his female patients were able to have orgasms, about thirty percent of his male patients were able to have erections and ejaculate. However, their sexuality, like that of his female patients, was characterized by symbolic fantasy and the absence of motor, involuntary, pleasure-oriented behavior. The economic function of such fantasizing can be nothing other than to withhold a quantity of libido and prevent its discharge in the sexual act. It is the ego’s defense against momentary dissolution.

Because their sexual characteristics handicap catharsis, it became necessary to classify the genital function of these neurotic males as pathological, despite their ability to impregnate. Meanwhile, it was observed that when a neurosis is completely resolved, to wit, when a patient’s sex-economy gains the capacity to regulate itself, a specific, involuntary reflex thenceforth appears at the height of sexual excitation. This orgasm reflex, a total convulsion of the body and temporary loss of consciousness at the climax of genital embrace (2), eventually became a metric signifying the resolution of neurotic illness. Why? because, it was found, that the orgastic convulsions discharge the libidinal stases that otherwise nourish a neurosis. When orgastic discharge is precluded, neurotic symptoms appear in order vent the stasis of libido and establish a sex-economic equilibrium, albeit a pathological one. At the same time, when the libido is invested in the production of neurotic symptoms, it cannot be exhausted in the orgastic discharge. The role of sexuality goes far beyond reproduction; it maintains the energetic hygiene of the organism. The capacity to allow the orgasm reflex to take place is called orgastic potency.

The orgasm theory, presented in 1926, was rejected by the psychoanalytic community. It implied that the analysts themselves were neurotic and sexually dysfunctional. The Freudians are still of the opinion that sexual repression is necessary if something bad is to be avoided. Sound familiar? Several testified that they encountered any number of female neurotics with intact genital function, but, as we shall explore in future installments, the essence of a neurotic’s disease is that he cannot tell he’s a neurotic, let alone anyone else. He interprets his symptoms to be parts of his identity and, if they are prevalent among the public, he will consider them to be normal. While operating the first public psychoanalytic clinic, Reich surmised that over eighty percent of people in interbellum Central Europe were orgastically impotent. After that sham of a sexual revolution in the 1960s and 70s, I estimate it is even higher today.

(1) Reich, Wilhelm – The Function of the Orgasm – Chapter IV. The Development of the Orgasm Theory, Part 2. Supplementation of Freud’s Conception of the Anxiety Neurosis pg. 90

(2) Reich, Wilhelm – The Function of the Orgasm – Chapter IV. The Development of the Orgasm Theory, Part 3. Orgastic Potency pg. 95-115

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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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