Issue #44 September 2021

Wilhelm Reich on Pleasure and the Genesis of Anxiety

Alfred McAdams, "Tapping Blast Furnaces", 1969

Let’s start at the beginning:1placeholder

“On an elementary level, there is but one desire which issues from the biopsychic unity of the person, namely the desire to discharge inner tensions, whether they pertain to the sphere of hunger or of sexuality. This is impossible without contact with the outer world. Hence, the first impulse of every creature must be a desire to establish contact with the outer world.” (2712placeholder)

In a certain way, this description of a “discharge of inner tensions” is a mere rephrasing of the pleasure principle, as it is formulated by Freud, namely “that the mental apparatus endeavours to keep the quantity of excitation present in it as low as possible or at least to keep it constant” (Beyond the Pleasure Principle, p. 3716). And it is precisely here that Reich departs from Freud: in holding on to the pleasure principle and developing its full consequences, which Freud betrayed with the introduction of the death drive. But let us not get ahead of ourselves and try to understand the process Reich is describing in the quote above. It is the most basic way in which an organism, a “biopsychic unity,” as Reich phrases it, relates to the outer world. It is this antithesis between ego (Ich) and outer world (Außenwelt) that Reich poses as the most fundamental one and the one that we need to begin with. Which we do.

Concerning the question of the pleasure principle, of “inner tensions,” Reich distinguishes in the quote above the sphere of hunger and the sphere of sexuality. To understand this difference, he proposes in the following passages to schematize the living being as a blob, or, say, as a balloon. Let’s imagine a living balloon that, to survive, needs to remain inflated. It can encounter two problems: either, having lost some air, it is too deflated, and needs to ‘incorporate’ some air – reinflate itself – or, having too much air inside, it needs to release some of its air – deflate. It is important to note that both of them, inflation and deflation, are movements. At first, the difference between these two seems merely to lie in a difference of direction, a quantitative difference. To quench a hunger, we need to incorporate the nutrients that we lack; there is, in that sense, a central movement. Libidinal desire, on the other hand, is marked by a peripheral movement, a movement to the outside, a release. These two movements are obviously connected: when we get hungry, we need to start looking for food, which means that we need to get in contact with the world, as Reich says in the quote above. The libidinal (peripheral) movement therefore goes before the (central) movement of incorporation. At the same time, though, the libidinal movement and the movement of incorporation correspond to different problems: ‘underpressure’: lack of pressure that needs to be compensated, and ‘overpressure’: excess of pressure that needs to be released. There is, in that sense, also a qualitative difference between these two.

An ordinary balloon, when it deflates, shows no tendency to “reinflate itself,” it simply loses its inner pressure – its surface tension – as it’s not perfectly sealed off. But living beings, when they lose “inner pressure” – when they get hungry and thus feel unpleasure (Unlust) – start looking for food, so as to incorporate the nutrients they need, and to re-establish their “normal surface tension”: they “reinflate” themselves. When our living balloon therefore loses air – deflates – it has a mechanism that allows it to reinflate itself – breathe in, therefore becoming a nice, full balloon once again. One movement proper to the balloon is therefore that of “inflation,” or incorporation, as a reaction against “hunger” (inner underpressure), with which it ensures its survival: the compensation of a lack. But this accounts only for one possibility, one problem, namely that it loses surface tension. For if any deviation from the ‘normal’ tension is experienced as unpleasure, the second logical possibility would be overpressure. If our living balloon becomes too full, it is in danger of bursting which is, of course, vitally dangerous for it. There are, in that sense, two possibilities of how the balloon’s surface tension can be disturbed, which is precisely how the sphere of hunger and the sphere of sexuality are distinguished:

“The one form is characterized by a shrinking of the tissues as a result of the loss of tissue fluid; the other, by an expansion of the organ tissues as a result of the increase of the fluid content. In both cases, unpleasure is experienced. In the former, the decrease of the surface tension produces a low pressure and a corresponding feeling of unpleasure, which can be eliminated only by the absorption of new substances. In the latter, on the other hand, there is a direct correlation between actual tension and the sensation of unpleasure. Hence, the tension can be eliminated only by a release [Entspannung], i.e., by the elimination [Ausstoßung] of substances. Only the latter form is connected with specific pleasure; in the former, it is merely a matter of reducing the unpleasure” (272)

This passage is central for an understanding of Reich’s thought. We could see how this schematised description starts with merely two opposite movements: a central and a peripheral one. It assumes a certain materialism, a certain monism based on pure movement; the body as a perpetual exchange of movement, not a substance, but a vibration: systole and diastole. But we could also see that these two are not just quantitatively, but qualitatively different, and that they indeed belong to different “spheres,” are part of different models: the models of hunger and of sexuality. The model of hunger accounts merely for the compensation of a lack: the blob lacks fluids; the organism lacks nutrients that it now needs to incorporate. But the model of sexuality results from an excess: an overpressure that needs to be released. If we sketch out these two models, we can not only see that they form different processes, but also that the model of hunger is purely circular (compensation of a lack until the ‘normal’ surface tension is re-established), while the model of sexuality is inherently productive:

But the question remains: How does this overpressure of the second model come to be? We can intuitively understand the circular model of hunger, but how is the excess from the model of sexuality produced? As we observe, our living balloon, like all living beings, does not simply keep reinflating itself, it has an additional tendency, which is the tendency to grow:

“Growth, copulation, and cell division […] are entirely a part of the libidinal function, which is characterized by peripheral expansion followed by release [Entspannung], i.e., decrease in the surface tension.” (272)

The “model of hunger” can therefore not explain growth; growth, rather, stems from another problem: the excess of tension. But there is a limit to which our balloon can actually expand before it explodes. It therefore has two solutions to release its excessive tension: either by growing bigger (holding more tension), or by releasing, expulsing something. We do not need to ask ourselves at this point, where this tendency towards excess comes from; we merely observe it and need to account for this observation. Let us note, however, that Reich takes a purely energetic standpoint, where the inner productivity of living beings is not due to some mystical force, but a purely material process: the release of inner tension.

 “Just as food absorption is the basis of existence and of libidinal functions, so the latter are the basis of productive achievements, including the most primitive one, locomotion [Bewegung].” (272)

Even though the (central) movement of food absorption and the (peripheral) libidinal functions seem to mirror each other, being merely opposite movements that are both needed for the living organism to survive and grow, only one of them accounts for productivity, and the positivity of movement. Our body consists, of course, of a myriad of such exchanges (inflation/deflation), incorporations, expulsions, and cell divisions; it is constantly changing and moving – a ‘liquid’ concept of the body – a permanent disequilibrium, a complex exchange with the universe, whose unity stems from the coordination of these manifold movements; it is, in fact, the ability to coordinate these movements, which marks a healthy organism.3placeholder Not only is this not a metaphor for Reich, he also posits that this system of exchange based on the two models is dialectically continued on the ‘higher’ levels of living beings, namely on the mental level.

“In principle, we find the same chemical and physical laws in the organic that we find in the inorganic; and in the psychic component we find the same fundamental reactions of tension and relaxation, energy stasis [Stauung] and discharge, excitability, etc., that we find in the vegetative component.” (353)

These two different kinds of movement lead to two separate systems, through which we get rid of unpleasure; and one cannot be substituted for the other:

“it is not possible to sublimate hunger, whereas sexual energy is changeable and productive. This is based on the fact that, in the case of hunger, a negative condition is eliminated—no pleasure is produced. In the case of sexual need, on the other hand, there is a discharge, i.e., production in its simplest form. Over and above this, there is the pleasure afforded by release. This pleasure, according to a law which is in no way understood yet, impels a repetition of the action.” (273)

While the two models are separate, they are not contrary: both are needed for a healthy living organism. And it can remain healthy as long as the outer world allows it to find the necessary nutrients (otherwise it will starve) and to release its inner tension (otherwise it will burst). In short, their relation is unproblematic. But we need to separate them, because we can only satisfy a hunger with an incorporation, not with a release (you won’t get less hungry by doing sports, only by eating), and we can only release an inner tension with an expulsion (or growth), not with incorporation (you’d only increase the inner pressure). But, as Reich shows in the quote above, their difference goes deeper: not only are they unexchangeable, but only one of them does actually produce pleasure.

As quenching a hunger only compensates for a lack, it does not produce pleasure, it leads to satisfaction and satiety due to the ‘normal’ inner tension being reinstated, but there is nothing more. It is a purely negative movement. But the release of tension (expulsion, growth) is experienced as actual pleasure. In both models, the end result is satisfaction (‘normal’ inner tension); but while the one only compensates for a lack, for the other the act, the process of release is experienced as pleasure. This includes such basal forms of expulsion, like excretion and urination. Only the peripheral movement leads to actual pleasure; and it is for that reason that for Reich, sexuality, as one of the main forms in which our bodies release tension, becomes central. It unites growth, pleasure, and productivity in one movement that is understood merely energetically and materialistically.

We could see that the free alternation of peripheral and central movement is the sign of a healthy organism. This is important, because it affirms that there is no inner contradiction to life, and that as long as both these movements are allowed to flow, the organism remains healthy. It is in that sense that the opposition of libido and hunger does not interest Reich any further. But there is a central polemic meaning to this energetic model, namely Reich’s explicit refusal of Freud’s theory of the death drive (Todestrieb). In introducing the death drive, Reich says, Freud betrayed the pleasure principle and assumed an inner contradiction within any living organism, namely its tendency towards self-destruction (catabolism, Zerfall, as described in The Ego and the Id).

Reich contra the Death Drive

As Reich presents it, Freud’s theory of the death drive was an answer to a fundamental problem of psychoanalytic therapy: the seeming resistance of its patients against healing, the Ichabwehr. Somehow, the patients didn’t seem to want to get better, they seemed to gain pleasure from unpleasure.4placeholder This led Freud to reconsider the general validity of the pleasure principle (that we seek pleasure and avoid unpleasure), and to reinterpret the phenomenon of masochism. Instead of masochism being an outward aggression later turned against the subject itself (internalised), he now proposed a primary masochism. This masochism was, in that sense, the mental expression of an inner biological tendency towards self-destruction, i.e. the death drive, which, then, just like the libido, is in us. But how can such an idea that contradicts all biological principles – that living beings strive to survive – be explained? It was in The Ego and the Id that Freud sought out not only the biological, but the physical roots of this primary masochism: as a tendency of matter towards catabolism (Zerfall) – entropy.

This led Freud to change the foundation of his theory. If, at first, our mental troubles were caused by a contradiction between the individual (Ich) and the outer world (Außenwelt), for example through the prohibition of incest, this contradiction is now relocated within the individual, namely between the libido and the death drive. The consequences of this shift are far-reaching, primarily concerning the possibility of getting healthy. If mental troubles are caused by a contradictory relation to the outside world, it is possible to get healthy by clearing it up, either by changing the circumstances or by giving up on the forbidden desire and adapting to the reality principle (Triebverzicht, sublimation). Whatever the methods, it was possible to resolve the contradictions. With the interiorisation of the opposition, though, the contradiction becomes unresolvable. There is no possibility to ‘overcome’ the death drive, because it is an inner mechanism of all life (and matter). It is, in other words, impossible to really get healthy (resolve the contradiction); one must learn to live with it, as both, libido and the death drive, are inherent to us. This has further consequences to the relation of our psyche to the social sphere; as Freud argues in Civilisation and its Discontents, the antisocial and destructive elements of society can never be abolished, so there is never the possibility for a ‘healthy’ society, we can only try to control our destructive tendencies. It is this double consequence – the impossibility of true health and the inherent ‘sickness’ of society – that marks Reich’s departure from Freud.

From the original opposition between the ego drives (Ichtriebe) and the sexual drives (Sexualtriebe) – the ego drives as a tendency towards self-preservation, the sexual drives as a tendency towards procreation – Freud arrived at another fundamental opposition: the one between the libido and the death drives. As the latter marked a tendency towards self-destruction (primary masochism), the concept of libido was radically expanded and would now also include the tendency towards self-preservation, the original ego drives (narcissism). More than that, once the new opposition was established, Freud understood the libido as a general tendency to build higher unities (anabolism, growth), while the death drive included all tendencies to abolish unities (catabolism). This prepared for a materialist understanding of the two drives, but it opened up the question to the origin of the libido. If the death drive amounted to entropy, it was obviously primary to the libido, a purely physical law (the principle of constancy). While one could imagine anabolism being a tendency inherent to matter (the creation of higher elements, of planets and solar systems), the libido, for Freud, remained, at least in its systematic form,5placeholder a force of life, which was therefore secondary to the death drive; it therefore needed an additional explanation. If the libido was a force inherent to the living organism, how did it come to be? Freud’s answer is surprising: It came from the outside, it was forced upon the cell: “we might suppose that the life drives or sexual drives which are active in each cell take the other cells as their object, that they partly neutralize the death drives (that is, the processes set up by them) in those cells and thus preserve their life; while the other cells do the same for them” (Beyond the Pleasure Principle, 3751). The death drive is neutralised if the cell is integrated into a higher order, an organism.

Differently speaking: by itself, the cell would fall prey to the death drive and self-destruct immediately, but if it becomes the object for another cell, thereby becoming incorporated into a higher unity, this course undergoes a deviation. The cells keep each other alive, and it is from the outside that the survival of the single cell is first maintained, even if that force is at some point interiorised into the organism. I have written about Freud’s conception of the drives elsewhere; what is important for us here is that the organism, for Freud, is fundamentally defined by an inner contradiction. We can therefore see how Reich’s return to the pleasure principle and his refusal of primary masochism (the death drive) upholds the notion that we can get mentally healthy, and that we are able to create a ‘healthy’ society. In his notion, there is no contradiction within the organism – libido and hunger are oppositional, but not contradictory – but only a potential contradiction between the individual and the outer world:

“We see that originally it [the antithesis of the strivings] does not lie within the biopsychic unit, disregarding possible phylogenetic factors. One pole of the antithesis is represented by the outer world.” (273; translation adapted)

Indeed, as both hunger and the libido are movements of exchange with the outer world (peripheral or central movement), they both can run into trouble if the outer world somehow refuses satisfaction. For example, the organism might not find something to eat. The fundamental problem therefore becomes frustration (Versagung), defined as the inability to reconstitute the ‘normal’ surface tension, i.e. attain satisfaction, either in the sphere of hunger (underpressure) or sexuality (overpressure). Either way, the source of this frustration lies in the outside world. Coming back to the ‘macro level’ of society, the frustration of hunger is to be resolved on a purely socioeconomic level. It is the question of finding a humane way of production and distribution. Despite all complications, it is a technical question – but one that, somehow, is related to the sphere of sexuality. Here, things get messy. But even if we don’t consider the overlap of the two spheres on a societal level, the question of the frustration of the libido is much more complex and problematic than the frustration of hunger. It is at this moment that for Reich analysis and therapy come into play. Just like with hunger, sexuality needs to find an object that will satisfy its need. But how can we release an “overpressure”? And in what way can an external object frustrate this release? If an organism can’t satisfy its hunger, it will “shrivel” and die, but what does it mean to suffer from “overpressure,” and the feeling of “bursting”? What happens when an organism comes too close to “bursting”? And how can it resolve such a frustration?

These questions bring us directly to the workings of the psyche. The incest prohibition, for example, is the classic psychoanalytic example for an early frustration of libidinal desire. How the individual deals with this frustration, but also how this frustration is communicated to the individual, will greatly define its character. After all, how does this frustration become internalised into a prohibition? It is, Reich says, through the fear of punishment (in this example: castration anxiety). It is here that the new, and actually contradictory opposition comes to be: the one between libido and anxiety (Angst). We could say that structurally, even this is not necessarily problematic. The child wants to touch the plate, the plate is hot (frustration), the child ‘flees’ the plate, and now fears hot plates; it no longer desires to touch hot plates (it learns to check if a plate is hot or not). Again, frustration itself is not problematic; it is just part of the world, and it is here that the reality principle kicks in.6placeholder But the problem remains if we consider it on the energetic level: The organism has an “overpressure” and needs to find a release, but this release is frustrated, so that it is forced to “keep it in”. Either, then, it finds another way to release this energy, or it keeps building up pressure until it bursts. At the same time, libidinal energy keeps being produced within the organism, so that the pressure becomes more and more unbearable. It remains unproblematic, as long as alternative forms of release are possible (what, as we will see, is called dissociation), but what if libidinal satisfaction itself falls under a general prohibition, what if the outer world as such becomes a source of frustration? What if pleasure as such is prohibited? Here, the whole problem starts, and the contradiction between libido and anxiety kicks in: when (peripheral) movement gets blocked and creates a stasis (Stauung) until we feel unpleasure from the sensation of bursting (platzen) from “holding it in”:

“When libidinal tendencies flow toward the outer world—we keep intentionally to this image—and a prohibition from the outer world checks this flow, then, in certain situations, an equilibrium is established between the instinctual force on the one hand and the frustrating force on the other hand. It might be said that this equilibrium is a seemingly static condition in the person’s libidinal flow corresponding to an inhibition.” (312)

Because libidinal energy is now ‘held in’ and cannot be released; what would normally lead to an experience of pleasure – the release of energy – now accumulates until it becomes unpleasure. To escape from this paradox situation – no possibility to release, unpleasure from accumulation – the organism, according to Reich, finds a third solution: the creation of an armour (Panzer), which hardens the organism, thereby protecting it from overpressure and binding some of the libidinal energy it produces.7placeholder

Before we move on and describe this development in more detail, let’s have a closer look at the opposition libido-hunger. After all, if the model of sexuality collapses under the reign of prohibition, the only form of satisfaction left needs to be based on the model of hunger, which, again, does not produce pleasure but mere satiety. In reinstating the model of sexuality, Reich does more than just refuse the death drive and affirm the possibility of mental health. It contains a whole theory of production and of productivity. It defends the idea of the inherent productivity of life, of living beings. In that sense, it also opposes a purely mechanistic understanding of life, which reduces the latter to the “model of hunger”: life and its desire would be, then, only the compensation of a lack (= negative desire). What Reich puts forward is the primacy of desire, its positivity. If for Freud, the death drive came before the libido, for Reich, the first movement of life was the movement towards the world: a primary libidinal movement. The tendency of life towards excess, towards “overpressure” is not reducible to the model of hunger. It is an intensity that is not just biological, but cosmic.8placeholder It seems though, that our current hegemonic thought is based exclusively on the model of hunger and completely refuses the model of sexuality. Before we move on to the opposition of libido and anxiety, let us analyse the opposition of libido and hunger a bit closer.

Alfred McAdams, "B.O.F. - Blowing Oxygen", 1969

Giving and taking

We will leave here the schematic biological level and consider the oppositional movements of ‘hunger’ and ‘libido’ on the level of real-world action. Incorporation would amount to the gesture of “taking,” while the expulsion of energy would amount to “giving”. We might again intuitively perceive the difference between these two as purely quantitative, as opposite directions; let’s say an act of giving being a ‘+100’ while the act of taking is a ‘-100’. Building on Reich’s differentiation between the model of hunger and the model of sexuality, we can see, though, that they are also qualitatively different movements: taking is but the compensation of a lack (satisfying a need), while giving is the release of pressure, and therefore causes pleasure. The question of why we are often unable to distinguish the two and perceive the pleasure of giving is a central question for Reich. Let us therefore analyse giving and taking based on the energetic model.

Not being able to take what one needs leads directly to starvation and death, or, if the desired thing is not vital, to a sensation of inner emptiness; not being able to give leads to an “overpressure,” which feels unpleasant and leads to the anxious sensation of bursting. Taking compensates for a lack and can therefore not cause pleasure in the strict sense; it can only reduce our unpleasure (hunger), fill our ‘inner hole’. But, as with hunger, once the “necessary thing” has been incorporated, it is consumed and thus once again leads to hunger. Just as we need to keep eating to survive, we need to keep taking to fill our inner emptiness; it is a purely circular movement. This is a negative concept of desire, which dominates our consumer society (consuming = taking, incorporating). As the marketing strategies affirm, to create a demand, you need to create the feeling of a lack.  Taking never enriches us really, it only compensates for a lack, and in this process, our environment also has become poorer, because we have taken something away from it. The more we eat, the more we’re hungry, but we never get “more satisfied,” as satisfaction is merely the return to the normal tension. The feeling of a satisfied hunger is always the same. Taking never produces pleasure, only satiety, and it leads to an exploitative relation to the outer world.

Giving, on the other hand, based on the model of sexuality, is caused by an inner pressure, an inner desire to release: to act, to express, to create, to love, to learn.9placeholder As we release an inner pressure through giving, and releasing tension is inherently pleasurable, the act of giving does produce pleasure and it enriches the world: it’s inherently productive; it creates value and values. It is, in that sense, very close to Spinoza’s joy (laetitia). But in our common morality, we confuse the two (this confusion unites Reich and Spinoza as well): we think that the taker, in taking, becomes richer, while the giver, in giving, becomes poorer. Which is why it’s better to take than to give, because only taking creates value (I become richer). We can see that the opposite is the case: in taking, we do not become richer, because we have merely removed something from the exterior world and have incorporated it by compensating for a lack. But in giving, we do become richer, as what is released stems from an inner overabundance. This created thing is nothing but our expulsed energy. We constantly expulse energy: in sports, in sex, in singing, painting, dancing, in writing, in talking, in building, and inventing: all these are releases of inner pressure, expulsions of energy, and therefore inherently productive activities. In none of them are we becoming ‘poorer’ because we are not ‘emptying ourselves’ but merely releasing superfluous energy (creating surplus value). The giver has avoided a feeling of unpleasure that ‘keeping it for himself’ would have caused him. Not giving causes unpleasure; the act of giving causes pleasure. The experience of pleasure, which encompasses both the process and the result (the production and the product) is an enrichment, a goal in itself.10placeholder “Why did you do that?” – “Because it caused me joy” is the negation of morality and the constitution of an ethics of joy. Joy, of course, once again understood in a Spinozan way, as a productivity, a creation. Of course, once the giver has released the pleasure, he will, like the taker, feel satisfaction. The result is the same, but for the giver, the whole process caused him joy and has enriched him, while the taker never has experienced joy, as all he does is compensate for a lack.11placeholder Reich thus differentiates radically between satisfaction and pleasure. Satisfaction is the mere end result, the ‘normal surface pressure’, an equilibrium. But this equilibrium does not cause joy, it is mere satiety. We feel joy only when we release pressure, when we act and create.

This all might sound all too obvious, but why do we have so much trouble to differentiate between these two, giving and taking? Why do we feel in our common understanding, that taking gives us pleasure, while giving takes something away from us? The answer is straightforward: somehow, we are unable to experience pleasure, and we therefore confuse pleasure with mere satisfaction. Obviously, the two should feel very different, they are fundamentally different experiences. But somehow, we experience taking as happiness, and giving as pain. Something is inherently wrong with the way we experience ourselves, our actions. Somehow, we only act out our negative desire (model of hunger), and not our positive desire (model of sexuality). There is something that blocks our experience of pleasure, and Reich calls this pleasure anxiety (Lustangst). Somehow, pleasure feels unpleasant to us, it is accompanied by a feeling of guilt. We will look at the mechanism that causes this reversal further down. For now, let us stay once again with the opposition between libido and hunger, and see, how a conflation of pleasure and satisfaction affects us in our daily lives by using a specific example: labour.


Labour and the hunger model

With Reich’s separation of the model of hunger and the model of sexuality, we could differentiate two movements. The one, in which the ‘deflated’ organism needs to satisfy a hunger (negative movement, compensation), and the one in which the ‘overstretched’ organism releases tension (positive movement, pleasure). While they alternate in a healthy organism, their separation produces a very different dynamic; in the case of labour, this separation can be paralleled with Marx’s separation between necessary labour time – “the time (per day or per week) which workers must work (in the average conditions of the industry of their day), to produce the equivalent of their own livelihood”12placeholder – and surplus labour time – the excessive time that the worker essentially works for free. This parallel, considering that Reich started out within the Marxist milieu, is not coincidental. We don’t need to get too far into Marx’s theory of labour here; let us just note that the worker’s salary is measured by the minimum wage, i.e. the money the worker needs to survive, while the excessive labour is written down as profit and goes into the pockets of the owner. The process of labour thus consists of both movements: the movement of hunger (satisfaction of the worker’s needs), and the movement of sexuality (the production of surplus value). But this process is split in two:

Necessary work (I-II) follows the model of hunger, and the movement between the two suffices to satisfy the workers’ basic needs. But as they are forced to keep working, the whole movement I-IV being presented as the value of their labour, they overproduce. But as the movement III-IV is written down as the owner’s profit, and hence isn’t included in the salary, the workers are cut off from the productive part of their own labour, what they expulse as the product (IV). The surplus value (movement III-IV) is that part of labour that is productive, where the workers release energy, and thus should experience pleasure. But by creating a radical caesura between I-II and III-IV, capitalism at the same time separates the workers from their productivity (as production, a process) and from the fruits of their labour (as the product, result). How? By pretending that steps III and IV don’t exist and turning the world into a world of scarcity. For example, the workers need 4 hours to satisfy II (produce necessary labour, their means to survive) and they work 4 hours more (free labour), the product of which (IV) is the surplus; but the capitalist pretends (or even believes) that the workers actually need to work 8 hours to… reach II, while the profit (IV) results from a completely different process (magic managerial skills, for example). The two steps III and IV are separated from the workers, so that the originally continuous flow (I-IV) is globally divided into two circulations that we know from Marx: The ‘circular’ circulation of C-M-C (commodity-money-commodity), in which we easily recognise the model of hunger, and the ‘spiral’ circulation of M-C-M’ (money-commodity-(money+surplus)), which amounts to the model of sexuality. The wage earners, in their labour, produce commodities (C), they receive a salary (M), with which they buy the commodities that are necessary for their survival (C); the capitalists invest money (M) into the production of commodities (C), from which they reap profits that they can once again invest as capital (C’). Note, how both of these are circulations, i.e. movements, whose halt or even deceleration will lead to grave crises; in that sense, capitalism, in contrast to other economic and political systems, is indeed based on movement, in correspondence with the world-in-movement, but as this movement is separated in two, it also uses movement to produce new kinds of suppression and control.13placeholder The salary is, in that sense, the unproductive part of labour, it serves only satisfaction (the compensation of a lack), while the surplus value is precisely the productive part of labour which should cause pleasure. In other words, the advancement that fuels capitalism, its excess, is based on the model of sexuality, while labour itself is kept within the negative structure of hunger and a world of scarcity.

The division described above is expressed in the separation between the “work givers” (Arbeitsgeber in German, the employers) and the “work takers” (Arbeitsnehmer, the employees), with the claim that without the former, the latter wouldn’t work – or, rather, they might be able to survive, but they wouldn’t be able to produce the excess that fuels advancement. In other words, as an animal, the human being might be able to provide for its survival, but it needs to be forced from the outside to produce the libidinal excess that leads to improvement and advancement. And as the owners are then necessary to induce this excess, it is also their right to keep the profit. In Reich’s genetic perspective, we can see how wrong such claims are.

At the same time, even though the workers do produce excess (surplus value), the productive part of their labour does not cause them pleasure, it does not work as a release. There is a real exhaustion due to the real overspending of energy (necessary labour time + surplus labour time), but at the same time an equally real dissatisfaction and feeling of emptiness, because even the excessive labour is modelled after and experienced as a negative activity (compensation of a lack). As the workers only see the salary and not the end product of their labour, they have no feeling of having been productive; plus, of course, they are working for someone else, repeating tasks and movements that they probably have no interest in. Hence the desire to fill this emptiness through consumption; which once again reinforces the passivity of the workers, as the ‘takers’ of jobs, the ‘receivers’ of salary, and as ‘consumers’. As consumption, being a movement of incorporation, is once again based on the model of hunger, it can never lead to the desired pleasure or fill the inner emptiness, and will necessarily perpetuate itself in the need to buy more.

Such a view is, as we have seen, perpetuated in Freud’s concept of libido as cathexis. As Freud understands libido as a capture from the outside, the “surplus value” isn’t produced through an inner productivity, but through the integration into a higher order. In that sense, labour here is productive due to the “work givers’” capturing of the “work takers,” and their integration into the work process (economy). In that way, Freud legitimises a capitalist conception of labour. Just like the cell, left all alone, will succumb to the death drive, the workers, unable to sustain themselves without the “work givers,” will fall into self-destruction; or, at best, they will merely work to sustain themselves, to survive. Only the capitalists, inducing libido from the outside, can organise the workers such that their labour becomes productive. Only by their integration into a higher order do the workers produce surplus value, which must therefore be extracted: “Everyone is lazy, no one wants to work…” Meanwhile, Reich’s energetic model shows us just how this devious trick is performed: The ‘laziness’ of the worker originates precisely from them being separated from the productive aspect of their work and their reduction to the model of hunger. Reich therefore affirms the spontaneity of productive work, a natural excess that pertains to all living beings. Productive labour is therefore the prolongation of a fundamental productivity in us; the process of labour, if we own it, causes us pleasure (if we can go from I to IV), just as the products of our labour.

Yet, the question remains: how is it possible that we don’t perceive this trickery? How is it possible that we willingly reduce our labour to the movements from I to II and from II to I, giving up on our pleasure and productivity, to gain mere satisfaction? Why do we voluntarily give up our surplus value? Here, Reich says, the opposition of libido and hunger (giving and taking) can’t help us out anymore, because there is something beyond this opposition that hinders us from experiencing pleasure, from accessing the model of sexuality, and that leads us to accepting the model of hunger. It is the opposition between libido and anxiety.


Libido vs. Anxiety

As the opposition between libido and hunger doesn’t really lead to conflicts, Reich ultimately doesn’t care much about it; it objectively grounds the productivity of the libido (including love, work, and knowledge), but it does not lead to conflicts. From here on, therefore, Reich leaves out hunger, and works exclusively with the libido as a source of energy. In all that follows, it is always exclusively a question of libido, never of a “death drive” or any other source of energy. All libido, as the production of excess, is, as we have seen, accompanied by a peripheral movement: the individual seeks contact with the world, so as to release energy into it. Productivity as expulsion, is in need of a world, of objects that it can interact with, and that can act as objects of desire. This includes the simplest physiological functions (urination, defecation). The problem thus arises, when the movement of expulsion is blocked as such. This is obviously impossible with our physiological functions, but is very common with other libidinal desires. We have already seen, in what way frustration is a central concept for Reich; in the following, we will focus exclusively on libidinal frustration as the inability to give, to release energy, and therefore to feel pleasure.

When frustration arises, there are two possibilities. We have seen that according to the reality principle – and according to our own experience – we cannot always satisfy our desire, i.e. we are not always able to release energy. This concerns a wide range of phenomena, from the urge to pee to unrequited love. As the libido is an energy, an energy that can take multiple forms, it is not as such fixed to a specific object. What counts primarily is the act of release. There is, in that sense, a certain flexibility of the libido in relation to its object, but also to the nature of the act of release itself, a phenomenon called sublimation. The flipside of the libido’s flexibility – lack of fixation to a specific object – is that a requited libidinal relation can be much deeper and more intense than one based purely on mutual ‘need’. In other words, the libido can dissociate from the object, and, to a certain degree, from the nature of the release itself. Dissociation, therefore, is the first possible reaction to a frustration (see the schema below, I). It is, in general, the healthy thing to do; the libidinal movement is deviated, but continues to flow, like water from a river.14placeholder

The second possibility occurs when even such a deviation is denied, when even an alternative release remains impossible. It occurs when something blocks the movement and creates a stasis. The German word that Reich uses for “stasis” is Stauung, the more precise translation for which would be damming, congesting, jamming, and which expresses directly the blockage of a movement (not just an absence of movement, like ‘stasis’). If the movement is blocked, if the overpressure therefore cannot find a release, the organism (think of our balloon) is confronted with an actual problem, a contradiction. Let us say we’re rejected by the object of our sexual desire. Dissociation would mean that we let this object go and seek one that requites our desire. But how can it happen that the movement becomes blocked as such? In our example, it would mean not only that the object of our desire has rejected us, but also that somehow our libidinal movement itself was ‘rejected’, that there is something wrong about the very desire of the object. If we reject someone’s approach, we indeed reject them, but not the fact itself that they approached us (if they did it in a healthy and respectful way). It’s just a fact that we don’t like them back, but we don’t take it badly that they felt attracted to us (which in fact would rather flatter us). In this example, therefore, the movement is not blocked, but merely deviated (they can move on). In contrast, when an antithesis is created (II in the schema below), it isn’t merely the object that causes a frustration, but the desire itself is painted as something wrong, which is why it is forced to halt its movement. A fairly obvious example is that of homosexuality in a heteronormative society. It is not just that the object of desire rejects the homosexual approach (e.g. a man rejecting a man), but the desire itself of approaching an object of the same sex is condemned. The homosexual urges are forced to stop, they are blocked. What Reich uncovered, though, is that it is not only deviations from the norm that are ‘forced to a halt’, but that the patriarchal society itself is a sex-negative one, so that, primarily through morality and religion, the libidinal urges as such are condemned. This sexual prohibition affects other areas of life, so that the model of pleasure as such is rejected. In other words, the antithesis is the result of a prohibition, where the world itself becomes the source of frustration. Morality demands not only that our libidinal desires are dissociated, but that they halt.15placeholder

“The next question is where the prohibition of the outer world obtains its energy to carry out its function. Upon brief reflection, we see that only the content of the prohibition stems from the outer world; the energy or, as we usually call it, the cathexis with which the prohibition is carried out is drawn from the energy reservoir of the person himself. Under the influence of a pressure exerted by the outer world, an antithesis develops within the person; a dissociation or cleavage of a unitary striving causes one drive to turn against another drive or even one and the same drive to split up in two directions: one which continues to strive toward the world and another which turns against itself.“ (300)

The development from the primary conflict to the antithesis (diagram taken from p. 299)

If we remain within our energetic model, we can easily see why this is essentially problematic and untenable in the long term: as the organism is unable to release tension, it creates a dam, which keeps increasing, as libidinal energy keeps on being produced. As no movement offers release, our balloon will burst soon. The inner expansion must be countered by something, but as there is no possible release, this countering force needs to be found within the organism. But, as we have seen, there are essentially two forces within the organism: libido and hunger, and those don’t create an antithesis. Incorporation cannot be used to counter the libido. The solution is paradoxical: the libido itself must be used to counter the libidinal movement.16placeholder How is that possible, if the libido, a movement, is not allowed to move? The idea is this: We have seen that the antithesis is created by a prohibition, which does not merely refuse the object, but also condemns the desire itself. But how does the exterior prohibiting force make sure that the organism accepts the prohibition, instead of merely dissociating from the object? Through the (explicit or implicit) threat of punishment. We have seen this at work in the castration complex. But this can become only efficient if the individual internalises the prohibition, namely in the form of an anxiety (Angst). Through this, the affect of pleasure is replaced with another affect, which can be just as intense, but which does not result from a movement (a release); it is caused precisely by the blockage:

“Clinical observation teaches us that, initially, anxiety is nothing other than the sensation of constriction, a condition of stasis (anxiety = angustiae); fears (imagined dangers) become emotionally charged anxieties only when that specific stasis occurs. Should it eventually turn out that the socially imposed restrictions upon sexual gratification accelerate the sexual stasis that accompanies the structure-forming processes, thus also accelerating the process of dying, this would not be proof of the derivation of anxiety from these processes but only of the life-damaging effect of sex-negating morality.” (231)

The second sentence is the ‘explosive’ one, because it biologically grounds the critique of patriarchal morality; as an interiorisation of the forces of death into life (think here again of Spinoza). Up to a certain point, anxiety does offer us a feeling of release. If we want something, but we’re afraid of getting it, we don’t want it that much anymore; and the intensity, with which we feel the anxiety, uses up some of that initial energy. But because anxiety does not really release any energy, being a blockage, the overpressure remains, even if it is ‘bound’ in the affect of anxiety. It is in that sense that anxiety is still nothing but libidinal energy: anxiety is the affect of libidinal movement being blocked. At the same time, in contrast to dissociation, the object of desire is not given up; in the blockage, a fixation occurs, which inhibits the individual from moving on; and as many such fixations stem from one’s childhood, they lead to an infantile desire structure.17placeholder What we feel in anxiety is our libido, but as it is blocked, it causes unpleasure – a permanent feeling of unreleased pressure – but at the same time, this anxiety consists of nothing but our libido. Which is why, as Reich says, people who, for whatever reason, produce more libidinal energy than others, have a much harder time dealing with this overpressure; they just have more of it. Once, therefore, all pleasure falls prey to prohibition, the nature of our pleasure itself changes, more precisely, the way we experience it. This is what Reich calls pleasure anxiety and is the primary source of neurosis:

“anxiety intervenes between the instinct and its goal, causing the desired pleasure to be perceived as the anticipated danger. In short, instead of pleasure, unpleasure is the final result of the initial striving.” (262)

“The striving is cut short by frustration, fear of punishment, or anxiety, which completely conceal the goal or make it appear unpleasurable. Thus, we can conclude that a repetition compulsion beyond the pleasure principle does not exist; the corresponding phenomena can be explained within the framework of the pleasure principle and the fear of punishment.” (263)

“the conflict between sexual desire and fear of punishment is central in every neurosis. There is no neurotic process without this conflict.” (256)

What happens here is that the whole model of sexuality is negated, turned into anxiety, so that we are no longer able to fear pleasure as such. Because the release of energy now falls under the threat of punishment, we start avoiding pleasure, and try to reach (mere) satisfaction with help of the hunger model. In choosing satiety (safety) over pleasure (freedom, self-responsibility), we leap into a system of voluntary servitude with wide-reaching political and socioeconomic consequences.18placeholder This whole dynamic is, for Reich, the cause of masochism, which, once again, is not primary, but results from the blocking of libidinal movement. It is this mechanism that explains the patients’ reluctance against mental healing in therapy: not that they are masochistic by nature, but that they have internalised a mechanism that rejects pleasure, so that any release of libidinal energy, any pleasure, feels inherently wrong. Being mentally healthy would mean not feeling any anxiety, but we have so internalised morality, that such a condition feels wrong to us. It is ‘good’ to feel anxious, even though it does not feel good. The patients feel that it is their anxiety that keeps them together, that makes sure that they don’t fall prey to their ‘primitive urges’. They fear healing itself; here lies, for Reich, the biggest problem for analysis: to undo pleasure anxiety, and to allow the patients to feel true pleasure again.19placeholder

Alfred McAdams, "B.O.F. - View of Shed Floor - Loading Side", 1969

Let us come back to the contradictory situation that the anxious individual finds itself in. It feels an overpressure that it wants to release, but this release is prohibited and now causes anxiety; the anxiety is the feeling of the overpressure, but no longer as an urge to release, and rather as a neurotic stasis. The neurotic does not know that he wants to release energy, he feels anxious, but he experiences this anxiety as something normal. We have seen that this is an energetically unsustainable situation, as libidinal energy keeps being produced, increasing the pressure over and over. As anxiety is an unpleasure, it cannot be increased infinitely either.

What the organism therefore does, is reinforcing its periphery, building an armour (Panzer) that helps it block the movement and not constantly feel the overpressure. As the dam gets thicker, the stream gets thinner; the affects (pleasure and anxiety) get weaker, something that at its limits results in an affect block, where the armour becomes impenetrable; here, “excitation is not perceived at all: deadness; self-perception is full, but ‘unalive,’ ‘dead,’ or ‘empty’” (441). The movement is thereby successfully blocked, but with that, all feelings are essentially killed and result in an inner deadness. This feeling of emptiness, of a loss of a contact with the world – which, as we have seen, is energetically factual – is that which causes nihilism, the urge towards self-destruction, the feeling of meaninglessness:

“Conscious longing for death, peace, nothingness (‘the nirvana principle’), occurs only under the condition of hopelessness and the absence of sexual, in particular genital, gratification. It is, in short, the manifestation of complete resignation, a retreat from a reality which has become solely unpleasurable into nothingness.” (278)

But, as we have seen, this inertia, together with its accompanying feeling of deadness, is just seemingly one. In fact, even the most neurotic person keeps producing libido, which means that the inner armour needs to get thicker and thicker. But at some point, this feeling of inner deadness leads itself to unpleasure; the ‘empty’ individual is unable to feel any joy in life, and hence feels no urge to stay alive. To speak with Spinoza, the armour amounts to a reduced ability to be affected. If the armour gets too thick, it causes itself unpleasure; and if that unpleasure is not to lead to self-destruction (depression), the inner pressure needs nonetheless be released somehow. So as to at least feel something, the individual must force itself to release some energy after all, through the cracks in the shell. But as this energy has to fight itself through a very thick shell, and is also accompanied by anxiety, it does not produce pleasure either. The violence of this ‘piercing through’ expresses itself as destructive urges, as sadism.

“A second antithesis between libido (‘love’) and destruction (‘hate’) is now developed upon the first inner antithesis between libido and anxiety. Every frustration of an instinctual gratification can either give rise to anxiety (i.e., the first counterpart of the libido) or, to avoid anxiety it can produce a destructive impulse (i.e., the genetically younger counterpart).” (276-277)

But the external world also prohibits the expression of these destructive impulses:

“This frustration of destructive intentions is again carried out with threats of punishment which, by imbuing every destructive impulse with anxiety, strengthen the narcissistic mechanism of flight. Hence, a fourth20placeholder antithesis emerges, destructive impulse-anxiety.” (277)

The organism feels an overpressure, desires to release energy (opposition: libido-hunger); this release is prohibited; this prohibition is internalised as anxiety (first antithesis: libido-anxiety); as anxiety itself is an unpleasure, the organism wants to feel less of it and starts creating a thick armour that reduces its affects (both pleasure and anxiety); this armour reaches its limit with the feeling of deadness, which itself is an unpleasure; it therefore needs to let some energy through the armour, which, due to the violence of this process, itself turns into hate, destruction (second antithesis: libido-destruction); but as this destruction itself is put under the threat of punishment (third antithesis: destruction-prohibition), the urge to destroy also leads to a feeling of anxiety (fourth antithesis: destructive impulse-anxiety). Note, that the libido does not play a role in the last two antitheses, meaning that the model of sexuality has been completely eradicated; at the same time, we have seen that it is the libido that remains the only source of energy. From there on, the structure becomes circular: prohibition is internalised as anxiety, increased anxiety means increased unpleasure, so the individual needs to ‘kill’ its feelings, the resulting feeling of deadness becomes a source of unpleasure (urge to self-destruction), the individual needs to vent with destructive actions, which are put under a prohibition, which again is internalised as anxiety, which again means increased unpleasure, so that the individual needs to ‘kill’ its feelings again etc. etc. Anxiety leads to deadness, deadness to aggression, aggression to anxiety, anxiety to deadness. This is a vicious cycle of never-ending suffering; but is not a necessity, not as inescapable as it feels. It has a clear source: in the prohibition of pleasure, which has its source in the exterior, in the authoritarian society:

“Suffering issues from society. Hence, we are fully justified in asking why society produces suffering, who has an interest in it.” (280)

The desire of individuals to be productive, to be free and to be responsible for their lives, rejects all models of control, all hierarchy, all suppression. The individual that experiences pleasure, that is productive, is productive in all aspects of its life, it takes responsibility for its actions, and is therefore a very insubordinate subject. We have seen how our concept of labour is built on the model of hunger, and what consequences that has. The prohibition of pleasure has therefore but one function: to produce obedient subjects, which do not question the current order, and which do not desire to change the world. As the model of sexuality is rejected, the only accepted way towards satisfaction is based on the model of hunger: the constant need to fill the emptiness inside by succumbing to consumer society. It is for this reason that for Reich, the liberation of sexuality was of primary importance. It is true that people hunger and are suffering materially; but the reason for this does not originate from the sphere of hunger, it is not a physical necessity. Scarcity itself is artificially produced, an artificial hunger and emptiness that results from the blockage of the inherent productivity of life. And we accept this state of things because of our pleasure anxiety, because we are afraid of our own responsibility and freedom.

· · ·

From the dialectics described above, uncountable consequences arise. What has been important here is to show how Reich conceptualises the genesis and the function of anxiety, and of the neurotic character that it produces. We could see how the authoritarian society is interested in the production of certain types of individuals – what Reich calls character – which do not question the current order and feel no urge to be truly productive. The most important thing, though, was to see that this dialectic is not necessary, that it itself is created and perpetuated by exterior forces. There is no inner contradiction to the organism, as Freud suggested. As those are produced by society, the only solution to resolve this inner contradiction is to change society, a society based on pleasure and productivity: “Love, work and knowledge are the wellsprings of our life. They should also govern it,” as Reich’s motto goes. If all suffering stems from the exterior, it can be eradicated and a just and happy society is possible. Once libidinal, productive energy is allowed to flow, it reconstitutes our contact with the world, allows us to live a creative life, and unites us with the world. Pleasure is giving, a constant exchange with the world that enriches us, because the universe itself is giving and creative:

“Man’s vegetative life is only part of the universal process of nature. In his vegetative currents,21placeholder man also experiences a part of nature. Once we have fully comprehended natural functioning, there will be no room for life-destroying psychic structures that prevent the constructive unfolding of vegetative energy, thus causing both sickness and suffering.” (354)

In a Spinozan and Bergsonian twist, the universe itself can be seen as an immense “surface” – a plane of immanence – with a constant exchange of tension, the cosmic breathing of a singular substance: systole and diastole instead of anabolism and catabolism. Just like Spinoza’s sadness (tristitia) as an opposition to joy (laetitia) is ultimately not real, anxiety, for Reich, is not a part of a fundamental opposition between life and death, but a secondary formation, which stems from a misunderstanding of our own inner forces. The universe is creative, full of permanent transformation, and it is in that sense that life can form a “community” with it.

Timofei Gerber has an MA in philosophy from the University of Heidelberg, Germany, and an MA in film studies from the University of Zurich. He is currently writing his PhD at Paris 1 Sorbonne. He is also a co-founder and co-editor of this magazine.

Works Cited

Reich, Wilhelm. Character Analysis, Farrar Straus and Giroux, New York, 1984 (trans. by Vincent R. Carfagno).

Freud, Sigmund. Beyond the Pleasure Principle, using Ivan Smith’s digital edition of the Complete Works (2011) that can be easily found on the internet.


In this essay, we focus on Reich’s ‘metapsychology’ from Character Analysis, as it is presented in chapter XII of part two, “Some Observations on the Basic Conflict between Need and Outer World”. What interests us here, then, are the foundations of his thought, the consequences of which will hopefully be developed in a future essay.


All references without further indication are from Wilhelm Reich, Character Analysis, Farrar Straus and Giroux, New York, 1984 (trans. by Vincent R. Carfagno).


The factor which changes the human structure from ‘sick’ to ‘healthy’ is the emotional, bio-energetic coordination of the organism” (446).


“While it was possible to understand how ungratified or inhibited pleasure could be transformed into unpleasure, it was hard to understand how unpleasure could become pleasure.” (233)


Cf. Freud’s speculation that “for a long time, perhaps, living substance was thus being constantly created afresh and easily dying” (Beyond the Pleasure Principle, 3740). This creation implies a certain minimum of libido, which would thereby also be a physical force.


“The ‘reality principle’ was not antithetical to the pleasure principle; it merely implied that, in the course of development and because of the influence of the outer world, the psychic apparatus has to get used to postponing momentary gains of pleasure and to forgoing some entirely.” (233)


This binding of energy corresponds to Freud’s conception of the binding of energy through the compulsive symptom: “Anxiety is continually being bound in the processes which are at the bottom of the formation and preservation of this armor in the same way that, according to Freud’s description, anxiety is bound in the compulsive symptoms.” (48)


It is what Reich will call the orgone. In the last part of Character Analysis, Reich affirms that the schizophrenic experience gains access to this world of intensity, which the neurotic armour blocks off. We find the same idea in Anti-Oedipus.


Reich’s motto that he puts at the beginning of each book is: “Love, work and knowledge are the wellsprings of our life. They should also govern it.”


Even though it is, in that sense, inherently productive, Reich also detaches pleasure from the need to result in a ‘usable’ product. For example, when it comes to sexuality, he stresses that its reduction to fertility (with the child as the ‘product’) within the familial dogma is an important mechanism in the creation of a sex-negative society. The same way, for capitalist production, excess (surplus) is legitimate only in as far as it results in a profitable and exploitable product, which ‘legitimises’ productivity from the outside.


The ‘giver’ and the ‘taker’ are here understood as ideal types. Of course, our daily life consists of giving and taking.


It is this double aspect that Deleuze and Guattari will readopt in their analysis of capitalism in Anti-Oedipus.


It should be clear that not accepting the refusal and trying to violently ‘take’ the object of desire cannot work, even if we leave out ethical considerations and look at it purely on an energetic level: As we have seen, giving and taking are not substitutable. In love, we want to give ourselves, not take the other. Even the suggestion of this ‘solution’ points to the fact that we often confuse the two models, and that we try to use the other to fill our inner emptiness. The fatal consequences of this should be evident. What it also means, though, is that libidinal satisfaction is inherently mutual and reciprocal: To ‘accept’ our libidinal energy, the other must also find a release, in order to not feel unpleasure from the energy we give (overpressure). And this release, they find in us. In this perpetual libidinal movement back and forth, pleasure is experienced and a mutual growth produced. Falling out of love, then, amounts to losing the ability of giving (back), through which this mutual movement comes to a halt. As both keep producing libidinal energy, this means that pressure starts being accumulated; such a situation must therefore be overcome, or it will soon create mutual unpleasure. Reich talks at length about the consequences that being forced to stay together has on marriages.


It is true that in a patriarchal world like ours this might seem to concern more female sexuality than male (ideas of chastity, virginity, motherhood), as it seems not only to allow, but encourage male promiscuity. But it is not hard to see that this promiscuity has nothing to do with pleasure, and much more with control and power, and as such confirms Reich’s thesis: it is less a giving than a taking (conquering), a sadism instead of a joy. It is in that sense that we are still far from living in a sex-positive world. As Reich explains, it is precisely in a world that is sexually repressed, that everything becomes sexualised, pornographic. What unites both, male and female sexuality, for example, is the claim that sex and pleasure are dirty, with education, starting with early childhood, being based on cleanliness and a sterile orderliness.


“Thus, one and the same striving was split and served opposing functions, some times alternately and other times simultaneously: one time as the striving toward an object, another time as defensive ego drive. Minute investigation of this peculiar fact in other cases which were analyzed at this time and earlier demonstrated that this transformation, or, rather, change of function in one and the same instinctual demand, that this functioning simultaneously in the service of the id and in the service of the ego defense, is a general phenomenon.” (302)


The incestuous character of many of our desires stems for Reich from such fixation, and is not a biological given.


Reich develops these consequences in The Mass Psychology of Fascism, these, in turn, are taken up by Deleuze and Guattari in Anti-Oedipus.


Reich calls this orgasmic potency.


Reich does not offer us a third antithesis, but logically it would be destruction-prohibition. On the other hand, then, the first antithesis would need to be libido-prohibition, and not libido-anxiety. So maybe what Reich here calls the fourth opposition should actually be the third one.


Note here again the centrality of movement. We perceive movement as pleasure, because in movement we are part of the universe, which itself is moving and changing.


September 2021


Wilhelm Reich on Pleasure and the Genesis of Anxiety

by Timofei Gerber

How To Pull An Ought From An Is: Hegel’s Being to Ought

by Antonio Wolf

Fighting Bodies: A Genealogy of the Ring

by Giorgi Vachnadze

The Structure of Meaning in Experience: Rediscovering that which has been lost

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