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.

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 V: The Orgastic Function – Part 1

The Biomechanics and Electrophysiology Thereof

When Wilhelm Reich referred to “the function of the orgasm,” he was not talking about the purpose or meaning of the orgasm but simply about what happens in it. As we saw in the fourth installment, the orgasm reflex is chiefly characterized by the complete discharge of accumulated sexual tension. In other words, there is no libido-quantitative difference between cathexis and catharsis that can be allocated to the production of neurotic symptoms such as perversion. This cyclic investment and divestment is referred to in Reich’s oeuvre as the orgastic function, the orgasm formula or the tension-charge formula. Reich described the orgastic function as having four distinct phases: mechanical tension, electric charge, electric discharge and mechanical relaxation. However, it is illuminating to consider the two halves of the cycle as individual phases: one characterized by mechanical tension and electric charge, and the other by electric discharge and mechanical relaxation.

In the sexual response, the genital blood vessels dilate and the male and female erectile tissues become filled with fluid. Fluid exerts a mechanical pressure in the corpora cavernosa clitoridis, the bulbo vestibuli and the corpora cavernosa of the penis during the tumescence of these tissues. Moreover, genital muscles such as the ischocavernosus and bulbocavernosus are excited by parasympathetic nerves, whereupon muscle tone is increased (1). All this mechanical tension has a reciprocal relationship with bioelectricity. The sexually aroused, tumescent erogenous zone can be shown by an electrogram to exhibit a high electric potential with respect to the unaroused erogenous zone or other parts of the skin (2). This implies some polarization in the body fluid’s electrolytic charge distribution. Supporting this is the fact that “pressure of any kind reduces the charge of the [skin’s] surface. If the pressure is removed, the [potential] returns exactly to its original level (3).” Moreover, the tonus of the genital muscles coincides with the release of ionic calcium in the sarcoplasmic reticulum. Since ions are the charge carriers in bioelectric systems (4), this must necessarily mean that static electricity has transformed into electric current, the same electricity that all our machines run on.

The orgasm reflex itself is an electrophysiological discharge, according to Reich (5). He asserted that the surfaces of male and female genitals act as electrodes (6), but this cannot be correct because both are of more or less the same voltage (in orgastically potent characters, that is). If the space around a charge distribution has a high potential, this must mean that cations predominate in solution and each penetration must rather produce repulsive forces which, I hypothesize, excite the nerves.

Observing that the vaginal mucous membrane secretes an acidic, electrolytic colloid (7), and that the contacting surface area is greatest during complete penetration, Reich surmised that during these instances, “the difference in potential between [the] two charged surfaces in contact with each other will equal itself out” (8) and that the subjective perception of pleasure originates from this resolution of electrical tension. However, this claim cannot be correct because the skin of the penis does not seem to permit the passage of ions so, theoretically, no significant electric current can go between the genitals. The satisfaction of complete penetration must then depend on electrostatic phenomena, on maximal coulombic repulsion.

Therefore, so my theory goes, in each penetration, cations are pushed away from the contacting surfaces into the interior of the genitals and towards the electronegative nerve cell bodies (-60 to -100 milivolts) (9) which are so by virtue of a predominance of anions in solution. If the nerve cell’s ion channels are open, cations will be pushed and pulled into the cell, resulting in that nerve’s depolarization and the transmission of an action potential. Many nerves will have this reaction and some will produce twitches in the motor units of the genital musculature. Orgastically potent characters report that this twitching occurs with each penetration (10) and that it feels good.

By as of yet unknown means, excitation escalates in the “phase of involuntary muscle contraction.” This is characterized by involuntary contractions of the pelvic and genital musculature which are rhythmically related to the union and separation of the genitals (11). Eventually, the entire muscular system convulses in the orgasm reflex (12). We are of the opinion that electric potential energy is transformed into mechanical energy and transferred out of the body by the orgasm reflex: work done by the system on the environment. This is corroborated by several facts. First of all, the potential difference on the recently satisfied person’s genital is insignificant. Second, in orgastic impotence, wherein this reflex is absent or reduced, catharsis is diminished. Third, in vitro, the mechanism by which the “contractile protein system” (the sliding filaments) relaxes “was established to be the removal of calcium,” (13) to wit, the removal of electric charge (calcium cations). Thus we have the phase of electric discharge and mechanical relaxation.

This infant field which may be called electrosexology was only studied for a brief span of about four years. As Europe was electrified by Hitler, Reich was repelled from Germany to Sweden, Denmark, Norway and finally America where, by 1940, he for some reason became convinced that all the bioelectric processes he observed were really epiphenomena of a mysterious, more fundamental energy: the orgone. As for the orgastic function, we will see that it is recapitulated in all expression and that when it is precluded, it can adopt a number of perverse forms.

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(1) Reich, Wilhelm – The Bioelectric Investigation of Sexuality and Anxiety – 1. The Orgasm as an Electrophysiological Discharge pg. 9-10

(2) Reich – The Function of the Orgasm – Chapter IX – From Psychoanalysis to Biogenesis, Part 1. The Bioelectric Function of Pleasure and Anxiety pg.370

(3) Ibid. pg. 373

(4) Plonsey, Robert & Barr, Roger C. – Bioelectricity, a Quantitative Approach Second Edition – Chapter 3. Bioelectric Potentials and Currents pg. 40

(5) Reich – The Bioelectric Investigation of Sexuality and Anxiety – 1. The Orgasm as an Electrophysiological Discharge pg. 13

(6) Ibid. pg. 13

(7) Ibid. pg. 14

(8) Ibid. pg. 14

(9) Plonsey, Robert & Barr, Roger C. – Bioelectricity, a Quantitative Approach Second Edition – Chapter 5. Action Potentials pg. 98

(10) Reich – The Bioelectric Investigation of Sexuality and Anxiety – 1. The Orgasm as an Electrophysiological Discharge pg. 11

(11) Reich – The Function of the Orgasm – Chapter IV – Development of the Orgasm Theory, Part 3. Orgastic Potency pg.106

(12) Ibid. 107

(13) Endo, Makoto Physiological Reviews Vol. 57 No. 1, January 1977 – Calcium Release from the Sarcoplasmic Reticulum from the Department of Pharmacology, Tohoku University School of Medicine, Sendai, Japan pg. 72

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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