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. An object-libidinal investment is made in the periphery of the organism, e.g. the toning of the skeletal muscles for the sake of moving toward the “desired” object. In this example, the muscles must build tension to cancel inhibitory, Newtonian forces native to the external world if the body is to accelerate in the direction of the object. This depends on an electric potential being created in the interior of the muscles, implying a quantity of potential energy. From this point of view, we may understand the process of cathexis to be one of concentration and increasing energy density. Consider also the electric potentials found on the surfaces of sexually aroused erogenous zones.

Union with these objects relieves the 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.” Catharsis then can be considered an energetic rarefaction which is at least partially facilitated by mechanical work. When the libido is withdrawn from the external interest or doesn’t come out in the first place, it is called narcissistic libido (1).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 that which signifies overpowering fear. In Character Analysis, Wilhelm Reich calls such danger-inspired withdrawals 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